KUM KUM ROY*
Justice in the Jatakas1
The Jatakas occupy a somewhat unique place amongst what are conventionally identified as the sources of early Indian history. This stems primarily from the perception of these stories as being derived from folktales2 and as such they have often been regarded as the closest approximation to the "popular" which we can hope to recover from the relatively remote past. While the stories themselves were written down in the form we know them today around the fifth century A.D., the fact that the Jatakas are mentioned by name and represented through sculpture as early as the third century B.C. (from Bharhut, Central India), would suggest that their compilation and dissemination was a long-drawn process.
The^Jatakas derive their name from their content—they are stories about the previous births of the Buddha. Ideally, each of the approximately 540 Jatakas contains four elements, the paccupannavatthu or the story of the present, describing an occasion in the current life of the Buddha, the atitavatthu or the story of the past, where he narrates an incident from an earlier existence, either to explain the present or influence the future, the gatha or verse, the only portion of the text recognised as canonical, and the samodhana or conclusion, where the Buddha integrates the stories and equates the situation and the protagonists of the past and present.
I would like to underscore the element of storytelling—each Jataka tells one if not two stories, and, as has been widely recognised, story telling is an extremely popular and persuasive means of communication.3 Also, the Jatakas were meant to be disseminated— they were not regarded as the exclusive preserve of specialists, although there are references to specialized narrators of the Jatakas, the Jatakabhanakas as, for instance in Sri Lanka.4 In other worlds, the Jatakas were probably regarded as sacred but not sacrosanct.
Traditionally, the Jatakas have been classified according to the number of verses or gflf/t0s they contain. Thus, all Jatakas containing
* Department of History, Satyavati College, Delhi University.
Social Scientist, Vol. 24, Nos. 4-6, April-June 1996