Psychological aspects of the Jathaka Stories
Posted on June 10th, 2010

By Dr. Ruwan M. Jayatunge

Stories are part of a human environment. Human beings have probably been telling stories since the very early days of our civilisation.

Buddhist Jathaka stories are unique. The Jataka stories are a voluminous body of folklore concerned with previous births of the Buddha, which is based as a collection of five hundred and fifty stories.

According to archaeological and literary evidence the Jataka stories were compiled in the period, the 3rd Century B.C. to the 5th Century A.D. The Khuddaka Nikaya contains 550 stories the Buddha told of his previous lifetimes as an aspiring Bodhisatta.

Literally, the “ƒ”¹…”Buddha’ means “one who has attained Enlightenment.” As the Jatakas describe a kaleidoscopic view of the journey of the Bodhisatta undergoing several stages of birth or junctions to become a Buddha the Enlightened one. The central character of every Jataka story is the Bodhisatta. A Bodhisatta is one who seeks to attain the Enlightenment.

Bodhisatta seeks to develop the unique qualifications of the Buddhahood and strives for ten perfections namely charity, right-conduct, dispassionateness, wisdom, steadfastness, forbearance, truthfulness, pledge, loving compassion and non-attachability. The struggle for the ten perfections in various births of Bodhisatta is rather the main theme of the Jataka stories.

The Jataka stories deeply analyse the human mind. It contains a profound psychological content. The renowned Sri Lankan writer Martin Wickramasinghe once said Psychoanalysis was not initiated by Freud but by the Jataka storyteller.

Because the Jataka storyteller revealed and analysed the noble to ignoble characteristics of the human psyche. The Jataka storyteller knew the complexity of the human mind. He described the human behaviour in vivid situations. The Jataka stories represent a broad structure of mental phenomena.

According to Professor Rhys Davids Jataka stories are one of the oldest fables. Consultant Psychiatrist Dr. D.V.J. Harishchandra, in his famous book Psychiatric Aspects of Jataka Stories, points out that the Western psychologists should study the essence of mind analysis in Jataka Stories. Because it gives a wider understanding especially existential and moralistic dimensions of human nature, which is not broadly discussed in the Western Psychology.

Sigmund Freud explained the common features of neurosis. Mental and emotional disorder that affects only part of the personality is accompanied by a less distorted perception of reality than in a psychosis, and is characterised by various physiological and mental disturbances.

The neuroses include anxiety attacks, certain forms of depression hypochondriasis hysterical reactions, obsessive-compulsive disorders,phobias various sexual dysfunctions and some tics.

They have traditionally been thought to be based on emotional conflict in which a blocked impulse seeks expression in a disguised response or symptom. The suffering, which is carried by the neurotic, is mainly based on his thinking pattern. Neurotic behaviour is due to overwhelming stress and anxiety. This can lead to hysteria type of reactions.

In the Jataka stories there are numerous characters who had gone in to hysteria type of reactions. For instance in the Maranabheruka Jathaka one monk shows a post-traumatic reaction. This monk was troubled by extreme fear, hyper-arousal, avoidance, frightful mental pictures

(flashbacks?) and emotional anesthesis. The clinical picture given in the Maranabheruka Jathaka is much similar to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

PTSD is an anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to a terrifying event or ordeal in which grave physical harm occurred or was threatened. People with PTSD have persistent frightening thoughts and memories of their ordeal and feel emotionally numb. They may experience sleep problems, feel detached or numb, or be easily startled.

Pathological jealousy had been described in the Jathaka stories.

Jealousy is a universal feeling. The feeling is normal until it is acted upon and the behaviour or actions become irrational. Jealousy does not have boundaries. It penetrates all social positions, intellectual levels, ages, races and economic strata.

Chulla Darmapala Jathaka reveals the sexual jealousy. In this story King Prathapa became extreme angry when his queen cuddled the infant son without taking any notice of him. The angry King Prathapa orders to kill the infant.

Jealousy is a complex human emotion that is provoked by a perceived threat to an exclusive dyadic relationship (Daly & Wilson, 1983).

Although the emotional experience of jealousy may involve varying degrees of sadness, anger, and anxiety, many psychologists have defined it globally as the sense of “distress” or “discomfort”

experienced over a partner’s real or imagined involvement with another (Clanton & Smith, 1977;).

Jealousy can occur in any type of relationship, but it is most commonly associated with romantic relationships. Here the King Prathapa’s emotion was anger and as a result of rage he killed his own son.

According to the Asanaga Jathaka Prince Asanaga dislikes and fear of women. Prince Asanaga’s character could be described as a person with Gynocophobia. A phobia is an irrational, persistent fear of certain situations, objects, activities, or persons. The main symptom is excessive, unreasonable desire to avoid the feared subject. The Prince Asanaga had marked an persistent fear that was excessive and unreasonable, cued by the presence or anticipation of women.

Exposure to company of women invariably provoked an immediate anxiety response. The avoidance, anxious anticipation, and distress in the feared situations interfered significantly with his normal routine,social activities and relationships.

The eminent Sri Lankan writer Martin Wickramasinghe sees the similarity between Asthramanthra Jathaka and Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov, which is a tale of bitter family rivalries.

The Brothers Karamazov was written on two levels: on the surface, it is the story of a parricide in which all of a murdered man’s sons share varying degrees of complicity, but on a deeper level, it is a spiritual drama of the moral struggles between faith, doubt, reason,and free will.

In this novel Dostoevsky, specifically questions whether good and evil can exist in a world in which there is no God. The old landowner in The Brothers Karamazov and the old woman in Asthramantha Jathaka have similar characteristics with regard to immoral behaviour.

In Maha Palohana Jathaka the Prince Annithagantha suffers from hypoactive sexual desire disorder. Prince Annithagantha had absence of sexual fantasies and desire for sexual activity. He was given a treatment which was some what similar to modern day sex therapy by Masters and Johnson. Masters and Johnson pioneering research team in the field of human sexuality. They emphasized social and cognitive causes of sexual dysfunction.

The Thakari Jathaka tells about a young man named Thundila who shows positive psychological features of pathological gambling. Forms of gambling are recorded through the ages and across cultures. Pathologic gambling” and “gambling addiction” are terms used to describe gambling related behaviours. Suicide attempts, felony convictions, spouse and child abuse, and unemployment are common in pathologic gamblers.

Evidence points to the common existence of narcissistic personality characteristics and impulse control problems in pathologic gamblers.Thundila the gambler shows most of the above mentioned features.

In Khanthivadi Jathaka , the King Kalabu, a sadist, derives satisfaction touring a hermit. The essential feature of sadism is a feeling of excitement resulting from administering pain, suffering, or humiliation to another person.

The pain, suffering, or humiliation inflicted on the other is real; it is not imagined and may be either physical or psychological in nature.

Khanthivadi hermit bears the torture without losing his temper.

Although his limbs were cut still the Khanthivadi hermit harbours no anger with the King Kalabu.

The type of reaction displayed by Khanthivadi hermit is less described in the Western Psychology may be due to the Semitic influence. In addition, Hammurabi’s code of law promotes an eye for an eye. Even Sigmund Freud could have found it difficult to understand the hermit’s reaction of non-violence.

This is what Gandhi says about non violence. “The religion of non violence is not meant merely for the rishis and saints. It is meant for the common people as well. Non violence is the law of our species as violence is the law of the brute.

The spirit lies dormant in the brute and he knows no law but that of physical might. The dignity of man requires obedience to a higher law-to the strength of the spirit. Non violence is the law of the human race and is infinitely greater than and superior to brute force”.

Freud described that savage part of the human nature. Similarly, in the Jathaka stories the dark side of the human mind is revealed. In Suthasoma Jathaka Porisada, the cannibal shows series of antisocial personality traits. Antisocial personality disorder is a psychiatric condition characterized by chronic behaviour that manipulates, exploits, or violates the rights of others. This behaviour is often criminal. In this story Porisada was reformed by Bodhisatta.

In the Ummagga Jathaka the storyteller shows the power of wisdom. The King Vedeha’s young advisor Mahaushada Pandit launched a series of psychological operations (Psychological Operations are techniques used by military to influence a target audience’s emotional motive objective reasoning, and behaviour. This concept has been used by military institutions throughout history) in the battle which led to a giant victory.

Assaka Jathaka describes about a King who suffered from pathological grief after his queen’s death. Pathological grief is an abnormal response to loss events. Many varieties of pathological grief have been noted in Jathaka stories.

Persons with a preloss combination of both contradictions in relational schemas about the deceased and tendencies toward excessive control to stifle unwanted affect will tend to have unsuccessful processes of mourning.

Other forms of “pathological grief” occur when the original grief is not felt; when it is suppressed or delayed. In this story the King’s emotions associated with the loss find expression through inappropriate channels and it has been vividly described the Jathaka storyteller.

Death is a universal phenomenon. Sujatha Jhathaka discusses the meaning of death in existential view. Death is the irredeemable loss of consciousness. The existential level is organised around life on earth itself and social, cultural and spiritual ramifications of it,that is, the “human condition”.

People’s existential issues are related to their mortality and impermanence, their experience of freedom of choice their sense of worthiness, and their sense of separation/connection with others. Work at this level is to loosen the rigidity of the self image, to expand the relationship to the sacred, and to integrate one’s relationship with death.

The Dadara Jathaka reveals a monk with an Intermittent Explosive Disorder. Intermittent Explosive Disorder falls in the category of Impulse-Control Disorders. The condition is characterised by failure to resist aggressive impulses, resulting in serious assaults or property destruction. In Dadara Jathaka this monk is easily provoked and goes into violent impulsive tantrums. Later this monk was healed by the Bodhisatta.

Jean Baptiste Poquelin Moliere

The con man by the name of Tartuffe pretends piousness and deceives a well-to-do gentleman named Orgon. Tartuffe tries to seduce Orgon’s wife, Elmire, and gets Orgon to sign over to him all of his property.Moliere was influenced by a specific story from the Jathaka stories.

This story is called Somanassa Jathaka. In Somanassa Jathaka hypocrite hermit has double standards. He is deceptive and pretends that he has morals and acts like Moliere’s Tartuffe.

Martin Wicramasinghe says there is much similarity between Voltaire’s Candide and Dhitthi Mangalika from the Jathaka stories.

Dhitthi Mangalika was a beautiful girl from a high cast.When she meets Marthanga Pandit of a lower cast at the street she turns back thinking that he was a bad omen. Then the servants of Dhitthi Mangalika assault Marthanga Pandit. With pain and humiliation Marthanga Pandit launches a hunger strike until he was given Dhitthi Mangalika as his wife.

Eventually her parents agreed to give Dhitthi Mangalika the beautiful high cast girl to Marthanga Pandit to resolve the crisis.

Voltaire wrote “Candide against the tenets of the then-eminent German philosopher Leibniz, who claimed that mankind lives in the best of possible worlds.

Voltaire tried to dismantle this notion, and thus created Candide. The Bantam Classic edition offers a highly informative forward by Andre Maurois, with caustic wit and hyperbole. The Tale of Candide begins in Westphalia, from which young, naive and gullible Candid is forced to flee. A disciple of his tutor, Pangloss, Candide explains his misfortunes and those of others, determined to find links between cause-and-effect.

Thus the Jhathaka stories discuss the wide rang of human psychological problems. Most of the DSM (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders which is a guide to the diagnosis of mental disorders in the United States) illnesses are described in here. Also it gives a profound philosophy which is everlasting. The Western world should carefully study this priceless piece of work.



“”…” French actor and playwright;considered the greatest writer of comedy wrote the famous story Tartuffe, a religious hypocrite, tries to get title to his friend’s estate by sending him to jail. So effective was Moliere’s satire, that the word Tartuffe has become part of the English language.

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