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The Jathaka Book and the Buddhist society

by Sajendra Kumara, Daily News (Sri Lanka), Tuesday, November 10, 2009

From time immemorial the Jathaka Story Book (JSB) or as fondly called the Jathakapotha has been part and parcel of the Sri Lankan Buddhist culture. The typical villager speaks with awe when he calls it the Jatakapothwahanse. The word wahanse is a term usually used to address a revered person. So the personification of the Jathkapotha as a revered person is an indication of the awe inspiring respect the Buddhist has for this classic book. Hence the JSB is not a mere a compilation of a story book but one which transcends beyond what it literally means. The JSB is entwined with the Buddhist society, culture and its thinking.

A rather comprehensive analysis of the JSB on its influence on our society, then and now, is the theme of this essay which I presume will be an eye-opener for those who love this beautiful work of art which has served the Sri Lankan Buddhist society for thousands of years.

The JSB has played a unique role in inculcating Buddhist moral values with a psychological and spiritual approach. The bond between the JSB and the traditional Buddhist society remained strong beyond imagination. The creation of a true Buddhist is the ultimate objective of the JSB.

However, the rapid modernization of the Sri Lankan Buddhist society - it is sad to note - has distanced these stories from the heart and mind of our people.

The seeds for this gradual distancing of the JSB were actually sown with the European invasions of the island; whose motive among many was the dissemination of their religion.

The beautiful stories of the JSB, woven around the Bodhisattva, often emerged in the common parlance of the Buddhist. It was inevitable for the typical Buddhist to quote from the JSB in explaining matters of life; to be more precise, social problems. By doing so the learned Buddhist could enlighten the ordinary layman and provide him a life long lesson.

On the other hand a fair knowledge on the JSB was a sign of versatility. This paved the way for the eloquent speaker to cut a figure in the society. Hence it was the common practice to decorate one’s speech with stories from the JSB. Also it added beauty to the speech.

The elders of the good old days had been well trained by the Buddhist culture to relate the stories of the JSB in an attractive manner. The stories of the JSB were the popular bedtime stories of the yore. The audience, often the little ones at home, listened to them with gaped mouth; with humour followed by an out burst of laughter and tragedy followed by a long audible sigh.

Stories related to horrific demons, ogres and other blood thirsty predators of the Himalayan fame escaped between the betel tainted lips in an equal chilling tone which often caused the young listener to shudder in fear with hair bristled up: the story of prince Panchayuda is one such story.

Stories of love, affection and great sacrifices spontaneously brought tears into the young eye. Meanwhile one or two weaker hearts would wipe off on the sly a tear that trickled down the cheeks.

The wisdom an the presence of mind of the Bodhisattva broadened the horizons of our young children: the Bilala Jathaka Story and the Wanarinda Story are just two to mention. There was an air of happiness when their heroic Bodhisattva emerged victorious defeating the evil.

The tongue often seasoned with the constant chewing of betel; a typical habit of the rural Sri Lanka, gave interesting twists to the Jathaka story. The gifted aged story teller related them with unique eloquence. The hard terminology of the original JSB split and cracked into simpler terms at the hands of the story teller like the arecanut caught between the jaws of the nut cracker. The ease with which they were related was unimaginable.

It was really a dramatic presentation performed often slumped into an easy chair. Appropriate hand to mouth combination brought the characters alive often enchanting the young listener.

There was an ideal setting at home for the drama to roll out: dim kerosene - lit surrounding devoid of the hustle and bustle of the modern suburb with the orchestra of cicadas being played in the background. An occasional hooting of an owl, a caterwauling at a distance, a squeaking of a hungry flying fox fighting for a mellow jack fruit or the howling of a pack of jackals in the hedge bordering the paddy field provided a more live environment.

The JSB was the bridge between the aged and the young generation at home. It contributed on its own way to narrow the generation gap. The JSB built a sound relationship between the two generations. It never allowed the aged to suffer loneliness. The aged smoothly and gradually transmitted their experience to the young through the JSB. The young, in turn, gathered moral values which helped them grow up to be a well cultured Buddhist. Creative stories like the Thiththira Jathakaya taught them how elders should be treated with due respect.

source: http://www.dailynews.lk/2009/11/10/fea18.asp

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Namo Tassa Bhagavato Arahato Sammāsambuddhassa.
Buddha sāsana.m cira.m ti.t.thatu.