The Jātaka tales are a voluminous body of literature native to India concerning the previous births of Gautama Buddha in both human and animal form. The future Buddha may appear as a king, an outcast, a god, an elephant—but, in whatever form, he exhibits some virtue that the tale thereby inculcates. Often, Jātaka tales include an extensive cast of characters who interact and get into various kinds of trouble - whereupon the Buddha character intervenes to resolve all the problems and bring about a happy ending.
In Theravada Buddhism, the Jātakas are a textual division of the Pāli Canon, included in the Khuddaka Nikaya of the Sutta Pitaka. The term Jātaka may also refer to a traditional commentary on this book.
The Jātakas are amongst the earliest Buddhist literature, with metrical analysis methods dating their average contents to around the 4th century BCE. The Mahāsāṃghika Caitika sects from the Āndhra region took the Jātakas as canonical literature and are known to have rejected some of the Theravāda Jātakas which dated past the time of King Ashoka . The Caitikas claimed that their own Jātakas represented the original collection before the Buddhist tradition split into various lineages.
According to A. K. Warder, the Jātakas are the precursors to the various legendary biographies of the Buddha, which were composed at later dates. Although many Jātakas were written from an early period, which describe previous lives of the Buddha, very little biographical material about Gautama's own life has been recorded.
The Jātaka-Mālā of Arya Śura in Sanskrit gives 34 Jātaka stories. At the Ajanta Caves, Jātaka scenes are inscribed with quotes from Arya Shura, with script datable to the sixth century. It had already been translated into Chinese in 434 CE. Borobudur contains depictions of all 34 Jatakas from Jataka Mala.
The Theravāda Jātakas comprise 547 poems, arranged roughly by an increasing number of verses. According to Professor von Hinüber, only the last 50 were intended to be intelligible by themselves, without commentary. The commentary gives stories in prose that it claims provide the context for the verses, and it is these stories that are of interest to folklorists. Alternative versions of some of the stories can be found in another book of the Pali Canon, the Cariyapitaka, and a number of individual stories can be found scattered around other books of the Canon. Many of the stories and motifs found in the Jātaka such as the Rabbit in the Moon of the Śaśajātaka (Jataka Tales: no.316), are found in numerous other languages and media. For example, The Monkey and the Crocodile, The Turtle Who Couldn't Stop Talking and The Crab and the Crane that are listed below also famously featured in the Hindu Panchatantra, the Sanskrit niti-shastra that ubiquitously influenced world literature. Many of the stories and motifs are translations from the Pali but others are instead derived from vernacular oral traditions prior to the Pali compositions.
Sanskrit (see for example the Jātakamālā) and Tibetan Jātaka stories tend to maintain the Buddhist morality of their Pali equivalents, but re-tellings of the stories in Persian and other languages sometimes contain significant amendments to suit their respective cultures. At the Mahathupa in Sri Lanka all 550 Jataka tales were represented inside of the reliquary chamber. Reliquaries often depict the Jataka tales.
Many stupas in northern India are said to mark locations from the Jātaka tales; the Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang reported several of these. A stupa in Pushkalavati, in northwestern Pakistan, marks where Syama fulfilled his filial duty to his blind parents. The Mankiala stupa near Gujar Khan commemorates the spot where Prince Sattva sacrificed himself to feed baby tigers. Nearby the ascetic Ekasrnga was seduced by a beautiful woman. In Mangalura, Ksantivadin submitted to mutilation by a king. At Hadda Mountain a young Brahmin sacrificed himself to learn a half verse of the dharma. At Sarvadattaan an incarnation sold himself for ransom to make offerings to a Brahmin.
Faxian describes the four great stupas as being adorned with precious substances. At one site king Sibi sacrifices his flesh to ransom a dove from a hawk. Another incarnation gave up his eyes when asked; a third incarnation sacrificed his body to feed a hungry tigress. As King Candraprabha he cut off his head as a gift to a Brahmin. Some would sever their body parts in front of stupas that contained relics; or even end their own lives.
Within the Pali tradition, there are also many apocryphal Jātakas of later composition (some dated even to the 19th century) but these are treated as a separate category of literature from the "Official" Jātaka stories that have been more or less formally canonized from at least the 5th century — as attested to in ample epigraphic and archaeological evidence, such as extant illustrations in bas relief from ancient temple walls.
Apocryphal Jātakas of the Pali Buddhist canon, such as those belonging to the Paññāsa Jātaka collection, have been adapted to fit local culture in certain South East Asian countries and have been retold with amendments to the plots to better reflect Buddhist morals.
In Theravada countries several of the longer tales such as "The Twelve Sisters" and the Vessantara Jataka are still performed in dance, theatre, and formal (quasi-ritual) recitation. Such celebrations are associated with particular holidays on the lunar calendar used by Thailand, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Laos.
The standard Pali collection of jātakas, with canonical text embedded, has been translated by E. B. Cowell and others, originally published in six volumes by Cambridge University Press, 1895-1907; reprinted in three volumes, Pali Text Society, Bristol. There are also numerous translations of selections and individual stories from various languages.
The Jātaka-Mālā of Arya Śura was critically edited in the original Sanskrit [Nâgarî letters] by Hendrik Kern of the University of Leiden in Netherlands, which was published as volume 1 of the Harvard Oriental Series in 1891. A second issue came in 1914.