Saturday, 18 February 2012

Introduction to Jataka Tales

Assalaamu'alaikum wa rahmatullah

Shwedagon Pagoda's Jataka tales in Myanmar: Pic by Mvanparys

In this post, I would like to introduce about what I had previously learned regarding Buddhism philosophies. These stories actually are those that had given me great influences in the way I behave with people around. Somehow, I feel very weird to see that South Asians were quite violent and insolent among each others, committing bribery and etc but these philosophies and pearl of wisdom came from their sub-continent. Bribery is not unique in South Asia but it is a global problem anyway. I am just wondering that Asia (including Middle East) and Africa could also be civilized nations if we could stick to noble morality and teachings.

Jataka is known as Phra Chadoq in Thai and it is originated from sub-Indian continent. Why I don't mention India as in modern India? Because India today is the result of British Raj which is another story of the sub-continent. Greater India actually consists of Western and Eastern Greater India. Western Greater India is now in the part of countries in South Asia such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, and Nepal while Greater Eastern India is in the area of today's South East Asian countries such as Cambodia, Myanmar, Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Singapore. For Nepal perhaps it is not fully Indian since it is the area of the clash between Sino-Hindu civilization happens however those kind of human-being in Nepal could also be founded in Nepal and other countries in South Asia and South East Asia.

Jataka actually refers to the previous birth of Buddha before his final birth. It also includes the story when lord Buddha was born in animal form. According to Brahmanism understanding of spiritual and physical bodies, body is just a vessel which could be destroyed but the soul is still the same soul. It could be transferred to other bodies after the current body is expired and it could be placed in certain bodies according to the deeds of the soul while in the current body. Everything that happens in the future is actually the result of the past deeds of the particular soul. This is the theory of Brahmans or Brahmins regarding soul and non-material worlds. Future Buddha or the enlightened person will appear to people for example as a king, a lower caste or an outcast, a tewoda, animal or any form. Tewoda in Buddhism beliefs actually refers to angelic beings but they are invincible from mortal eyes.

In every Buddhist nations like Myanmar, Thailand, Japan, and etc; Jataka tales are the source to develop people characters to the better one. It is used by phrasongs (monks) and upasakas (laymen) to preach and deliver sermon to people. Some of these stories were used by lord Buddha himself to preach to his disciples and later they spread it widely into the society. The same type of stories like this also appears in Vedic literature. 

Greek myths for example Aesop Fables inherited the philosophies from Buddhism and Vedic literature. How come is this happen? I think I had read about the invasion of Alexander of Macedonia in his quest to establish Hellenistic empire. They had already reached Indian sub-continent. Some of those Greeks had also established Indo-Greek kingdoms such as Bactrian kingdom and some Greeks had also embraced Brahmanism and Buddhism. I guess Bactria is known in Middle Eastern name as Balkh and located near northern of Afghanistan today. Later, these Greeks were absorbed into Hindu or Indian society. One of the greatest Greco-Buddhist king is King Milinda. His Greek name is Menander I and he posed questions to a disciple of lord Buddha known as Nagasena regarding Buddha's teaching. This happens long before the rise of prophet Jesus a.s. Other than that, this stories were translated by Persian empire's court. They were also adapted into Chaucer's in England and Boccacio in Italy. Buddhist also have their own version of Ramayana which is the incarnation of Buddha in the form of Sri Ram and Phra Vishnu Narayann according to Brahmins' belief in what they call it as one of the Dasavatar of the 10 Incarnations.  

So, this question comes to my mind. What is so great about European and Western civilization when Greeks also embraced an oriental religion like Buddhism? What I had learned in European studies is that, they had to establish their Union because of the wars and the cause of the wars to happened in which it also involves the whole world because they had colonized lands in other parts of the world is none other than their own aggressiveness toward material. What about Enlightenment period after Medieval Europe? Nothing interesting at all for me. Lord Buddha had long reached Enlightenment before those in European caves came out and telling the whole world how civilized they are. And people from Africa, Asia, and other parts of the world trying to appease them to get some good life or wanted to be seen as modern because they have some kind of inferiority complex over themselves? The term modern itself needs to be redefined again. It is the matter of mentality and psychology. When we think that Europe or Western civilization is the greatest then it will be imprinted in our mind. It is later become like when some human-being offer sacrifices to 'genies' and 'genies' think that they're gods while in contrary they are just the same creature like human-being who worship them but people admire the 'genies' because of their different natures invisible to human eyes, hehehe.

Long time ago, people listen to these kind of stories to get moral lessons as well as to enjoy. These stories help people to develop humanity values, patience, loving kindness, sympathetic and joy, and compassion. Previously, these stories were played in wayang kulit or shadow play like in Northern Malaysian Peninsula and Southern Thailand. The prominent shadow play player in Kedah was the father of Pak Majid and today it is Pak Majid himself. Nowadays, many of wayang practitioners have to abandon the play because there are rituals which is not in accordance to Islamic faith such as the pujas to the tewodas to protect the stage. Pak Majid still plays his wayang but without any puja no more. He just plays the wayang to entertain people and it has no religious element like what elders had done. We could also listen to his voice in Kedah FM playing Ae Thong with his trademark laugh. In Kelantan state, I guess they have non-Muslim wayang players whom are of Chinese ethnicity. Other than Jataka tales, there are also Kathasaritsagara compiled by a Saivaite Brahman known as Somadeva.    

This post slightly reminds me to Abdullah Munshi who translated the Tamil version of Panchatandiram or Panchatantra into Malay. He also translated the Gospel of Saint Matthew into Classical Malay, hehehe. Panchatantra was translated into Persian and Arabic as Kalilah wa Dimnah by Abdullah bin al-Muqaffa'.

Just sharing a quote from Gautama Buddha's teaching about listening to old stories as a historical figure. He said that: "When we listen to what a monk says and wonders on its truth... Then, we should test its meaning, weigh or consider it, and it depends on our internal to know if it is the truth. Only after we are satisfied that we follow and later practicing with it." The God has given us mind to think and consider. He also sends us guidance and mercy in term of Revelation as the guidance together with mind. So, it is up to us to recite the Quran, to learn the meaning, and to practice with its morality teachings.  

Sealed with prayers for mercy, peace, and love, amin!

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