Morality “Tales” East and West: European Fables and Buddhist Jataka Tales

Fables, such as those attributed to Aesop, are short narratives populated by animals who behave like humans, and which convey lessons to the listener. In the past these narrative lessons were passed down orally as a way of commenting on human behavior, and to convey folk wisdom to listeners. Often the lessons contain the seed of morality, reminding listeners both what kind of behavior is encouraged, and what kind of behavior to watch out for. Fables have been around for centuries, and their roots can be traced at least as far back as ancient Greece, and may be linked to similar tales in ancient India. The tales have been retold, collected, written and published as books over and over again in Europe and America.

Jataka Tales are often short narratives which tell the stories of the lives of the Buddha before he reached Enlightenment, when, in the process of meditating beneath the Bodhi Tree, the cure for life's suffering was revealed to him. Before reaching his last life as the Prince Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha lived through 550 successive lives in which he behaved justly and generously, accumulating merit during each life, until finally reaching Enlightenment. In some of his lives he is born as a human, while in others he is an animal, such as a deer or an elephant. The story of each of these earlier lives, like a fable, is meant to convey the lessons of moral behavior.

In this lesson students will be introduced to the Buddhist Jataka Tales, and will compare and contrast them with European fables. They will learn to search for the lesson that is embedded within both fables and the Jataka Tales. This lesson can also be used as a springboard for introducing world cultures and literatures through the use of morality tales.

Guiding Questions

What are the lessons of fables and Jataka Tales, and how to do the stories teach those lessons?

Learning Objectives

Define what fables and Jataka tales are, and identify important elements of each.

Recognize Aesop's fables and Jataka Tales.

Identify themes and patterns of both types of narrative.

Identify the moral lessons of fables and Jataka tales.

Compare and contrast the lessons of fables and the Jataka tales.