The Jatakas are a vast collection of Buddhist stories dealing with ethics and human behaviour. Revolving around the former lives of the Buddha, they are simple, yet beautifully crafted tales. Each one takes up an episode from the lives of a particular Bodhisattva (one of the many forms assumed by the Buddha during his previous births – supernatural being, nobleman, outcaste or even animal). Apart from their fascinating insights into human psychology and morality, the Jatakas are a treasure trove of information with regard to the history, society and economy of ancient South Asia (going back to the 4th century BCE or even earlier).

Preserved as folklore and frozen in art, they can also help us figure out the way South Asian communities related to the environment around them. Unlike the concrete jungles of contemporary India, ancient cities did not stand apart from the rural hinterland and great forests of the subcontinent. Buddhism was very much an urban phenomenon but monks and laity regularly encountered wild beasts, forest brigands and impenetrable woods on their sojourns from one town to another. No wonder then that the Jatakas have such a panoply of animal characters – fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals.

Though the emphasis is on ethics, the narration reveals a great deal of familiarity with nature and animal behaviour. One such tale is that of the ‘The Jackal and the Otters’ in the Dabbhapuppha Jataka. While focusing on the harm that befalls those who quarrel among themselves, it contains interesting observations about three different species – the supportive role of the male in mating pairs formed by Golden Jackals (Canis aureus), the collaborative mode of hunting practiced by Smooth Coated Otters (Lutrogale perspicillata), and the gigantic dimensions attained by the Rohu Carp (Labeo rohita). This particular Jataka tale seems to be have been very popular, preserved as it was in the form of a carving on the Bharhut Stupa of Central India.

The Jackal and the Otters

Once upon a time when Brahmadatta was reigning in Benares, the Bodhisatta was a tree-spirit by a riverbank. A jackal, named Mayavi, had taken a wife and lived in a place by that riverbank. One day his mate said to him, “Husband, a longing has come upon me: I desire to eat a fresh Rohita fish.” He said, “Be easy, I will bring it for you,” and going by the river he wrapt his feet in creepers, and went along the bank.

At the moment, two otters, Gambhiracari and Anutiracari, were standing on the bank looking for fish. Gambhiracari saw a great Rohita fish, and entering the water with a bound he took it by the tail. The fish was strong and went away dragging him. He called to the other, “Friend Anutiracari, rush to my aid, I pray: I’ve caught a great fish: but by force he’s carrying me away.”

Hearing him, the other spoke, “Gambhiracari, luck to you! Your grip be firm and stout, and as a roc would lift a snake, I’ll lift the fellow out.” Then the two together took out the Rohita fish, laid him on the ground and killed him: but saying each to the other, “You divide him,” they quarreled and could not divide him: and so sat down, leaving him.

At the moment the jackal came to the spot. Seeing him, they both saluted him and said, “Lord of the Grey Grass Colour, this fish was taken by both of us together: a dispute arose because we could not divide him: do you make an equal division and part it. Let our contention, Honoured Sir, be settled fair by you.” The jackal hearing them, said, declaring his own strength, “I’ve arbitrated many a case and done it peacefully: Let your contention, Honoured Sirs, be settled fair by me.”

Having spoken, and making the division, he said, “Tail, Anutiracari; Gambhiracari, head: The middle to the arbiter will properly be paid.” So having divided the fish, he said, ” You eat head and tail without quarreling,” and seizing the middle portion in his mouth he ran away before their eyes. They sat downcast, as if they had lost a thousand pieces, and spoke, “But for our strife, it would have long- sufficed us without fail: But now the jackal takes the fish, and leaves us head and tail.”

The jackal was pleased and thinking ” Now I will give my wife Rohita fish to eat,” he went to her. She saw him coming and saluting him, spoke, “Even as a king is glad to join a kingdom to his rule, So I am glad to see my lord today with his mouth full.”

Image Attribution: The image above is taken from Wikimedia Commons and based on the photograph of a carving on the Bharhut Stupa (Satna District, Madhya Pradesh) in Central India. Dated back to the the 2nd century BCE or earlier, the carving is one example of the great popularity of the Buddhist Jataka collection among both royalty and commoners. The Stupa or relic mound represents the beginning of narrative traditions of Buddhist art. Its railings and gateways, the only fragments to survive the vagaries of man and nature, have been preserved in the Indian Museum in Kolkata (Bengal, Eastern India)