The Buddhas, like all beings of great holiness, have this ability to recall all of their past lives and Shakyamuni Buddha did not fail to call on it to support, if necessary, certain points of his teaching. The Pali canon thus contains, in the last section of the sermons, 547 jâtakas – “births” – which narrate in detail the previous lives of the Buddha. It is a heterogeneous set in which we find short fables, undoubtedly very old and adapted to the needs of Buddhism, as well as infinitely longer and more complex stories. During his multiple existences, the future Buddha experienced the animal condition repeatedly, often finding himself confronted, in the most diverse forms, with the stupidity and cruelty of his fellow men and of the human race.
The Monkey Sacrifice
He also often demonstrates, in a spectacular way, his wisdom and his sense of sacrifice. This is the case in the Mahâkapi Jâtaka, of which Indian art offers numerous illustrations. The Bodhisattva and the troop of monkeys of which he is the leader then live not far from Varanasi, in a magnificent mango tree with fruits of incomparable flavor. Fruit fit for a king. The future Buddha is well aware of this and fears that, by an unfortunate gesture, one of his subjects will cause a mango to fall into the river which, flowing below, could carry the fruit to the royal palace. It would then be the end of their peace of mind. He therefore puts his whole troop on guard, recommending the greatest caution. But one of the monkeys – deliberately tells us one version of the story – commits the dreaded act and a mango thus reaches the sovereign who, after having tasted it with delight, sends some men in search of the tree. from which it comes. What is his irritation when he learns that monkeys delight with impunity in the fruits that he considers should be reserved for him.
Simple, direct narrative combined with the appeal of animal heroes is often more effective than complex theoretical discourse.
Accompanied by his guard, the sovereign goes up the course of the river and, having reached the foot of the mango tree, gives the order to his archers to take up position and exterminate the presumptuous primates. The Bodhisattva, who is desperately trying to find a way out, suddenly notices a tree on the other side that could offer refuge to his troop. Having wrapped its tail around one of the branches of the mango tree, it leaps over the waters and grabs a branch of the opposite tree, thus making its body a gateway to salvation. One after another, the monkeys cross this improvised bridge, trying to make themselves as light as possible. The King of Varanasi does not believe his eyes and in his amazement forgets to give his men the order to fire. Almost all the monkeys are now safe on the other side. Only one remains to pass. But this one lingers and, with an evil look, stops on the back of its heavy leader, jumping again and again on the spot until the poor animal, with its back broken, lets go and falls to the ground. Infinitely touched by the edifying sacrifice of the monkey, the monarch sends a few men to collect him with the greatest care in an attempt to rescue him. But it's too late. The noble animal expires in the arms of the sovereign who gives him a royal funeral. As for the traitor, who shamefully abused the situation to eliminate his king, thus hoping to seize power, the texts tell us that he is none other than the future Devadatta, the Machiavellian cousin who was to repeatedly attack to the life of Shakyamuni Buddha before causing a schism in the community.
The jâtakas of this category are told in a realistic and often naively simple style. They are full of information about life at the time they were written, but their primary interest for devotees obviously remains their moral and edifying content. Ideal and affordable basis for the religious education of children in the first place, but also of adults, even today, because the simple and direct narrative combined with the attraction of animal heroes is often more effective than a complex theoretical discourse. La Fontaine had understood this well, he whose many fables are largely inspired by the jâtakas