The Four Friends And Other Tales

by Michelle

An Elephant On A Walk, by Tegan


Tegan designed and coloured-in this picture for me, the day I came home from India. It was lovely to watch her concentration. She says it was inspired by an elephant mousepad I brought back for her, but it reminds me of one of the Jataka stories, The Four Friends, retold by Gonsar Rinpoche. Tegan and I used to read this story before her bedtime. It tells of the mutual friendship and cooperation of an elephant, a bird, a monkey and a hare, who live in the forest. The bird, being a carrier of fruits and seeds is a reincarnation of the Buddha, the wisest and the oldest of the friends; the elephant being the youngest and the largest, carries the others on his back.  The Jataka tales are stories from the former lives of the Buddha, in which, while being a bodhisattva, he took the form of animals. His disciples and close friends existed also as animals.  

Jataka tales are folklore written in Sanskrit, but they are found, apparently, in various languages such as Malay, Burmese, Lao, Khmer, Bhutanese and Tibetan. They are derived from the Pali canon, the Sutta Pitaka, which includes a collection of more than 500 poems, some of which narrate details of the jāti, or previous births of the Buddha. Many are translations of the Pali, while some are hybridised with vernacular cultural traditions that predate the sacred texts. There’s epigraphic and archeological evidence to confirm that the official Jataka tales date from around thte 5th century, but many apocryphal versions exist.

Some apocryphal versions show direct appropriation from Hindu sources. The ancient Indians were ardent students of zoology, as evidenced by the Upanishads and in particular the Garudapuranas, which contain the life histories of fishes and turtles. It’s interesting to note that these ancient scriptures anticipate scientifically modern concepts of organic evolution, environmental science and heredity. In one of the Upanishads, Virdjan tired of his solitude replicates by binary divison, as did the first amoeba. He becomes two beings, two individuals behaving and appearing heterogeneously as different sexes. In time, these individuals were able to metamorphose into animals becoming pigs, cattle, ants. The incarnations of Vishnu himself, as fish and turtle suggest the aquatic origins of animals, which Darwinian evolutionary science has since established.

This mythic encounter with biological diversity differs from one found in Plato’s Symposium. In speaking of Love, Aristophanes describes how the god Zeus weakened the original human race by eliminating the versatile and potentially chaotic third species of androgynous humans and reducing ‘man’ to two halves of the same.

From what I can ascertain, out of respect for animals, ancient Sanskrit scholars did not practise vivisection, their knowledge being acquired from empirical sources. One collection of aural storytelling, the third century Panchatantra, or five principles, are a sequence of animal fables, with moral and sociopolitical themes that resonate in teaching about human conduct. Similar versions of this seminal work have been found in Syrian, Arabic, Persian, Syriac and English. The Panchatantra may be described as an early multicultural discourse; its origins are complex and contentious, the original Sanskrit text, attributed to the legendary Vishnu Sarma, being lost. Some historians suggest similarities and correspondences to Aesops fables. 

At Borobudur in Central Java, a temple which dates from the eighth century, the bas reliefs depict scenes from both the Jataka tales and from the Panchatantra. We visited this astonishingly beautiful and serene monument last year. Among the 2670 panels of volcanic stone, our ever-charismatic guide Toni Tack from Perumahan University, chanced upon this infamous depiction of erotic simpatico between a cow and a monkey:)

I think the monkey is smiling.