The Buddhist Jātaka stories and the Conflict between Good and Evil
Posted on October 30th, 2016

Dr Ruwan M Jayatunge M.D.

Jātaka stories symbolize the eternal conflict between good and evil. The good part is represented by the Bodhisattva and the evil part is mostly represented by Devadatta. Devadatta appears prominently in the Nikāya texts as the Buddha’s cousin and archrival who consistently competes with the Blessed One and tries to overthrow him. As depicted in his legends, Devadatta is in fact an inveterate evildoer who is driven by ambitious and hateful intentions and performs a variety of pernicious deeds (Ray, 1994).

In the Jātaka stories Devadatta is relentless in his ambitions. He wants to displace the Buddha as leader of the monastic order, and a number of the stories recount events from past lives in which he tried to injure or kill the Bodhisattva. The Serivāṇija-jātaka states that his career of animosity began in a past life when he was a tinker who repaired pots. He tried to cheat a woman with a golden pot that had become encrusted with grime by telling her that it was worthless, hoping to trick her into letting him buy it for next to nothing. The Bodhisattva was an honest tinker who told her what it was really worth and offered a fair price. When the dishonest tinker returned to make an offer and found that it had been sold to a rival, he became enraged. Because the Bodhisattva was blameless and his own conduct was motivated by greed and wickedness, his heart became hot, blood gushed from his lips, his heart cracked like dried mud, and he expired on the spot. This set the pattern for his future encounters with the Bodhisattva ( Fausboll ,1963)

Good and evil in Buddhism are seen not as absolute but relative or “relational.” The good or evil of an act is understood in terms of its actual impact on our own lives and the lives of others, not on abstract rules of conduct (SGI).

The conflict between good and evil is one of the precepts of the Zoroastrian faith, first enshrined by Zarathustra over 3000 years ago. It is also one of the most common conventional themes in literature, and is sometimes considered to be a universal part of the human condition (Griffith, 2011). The Buddhist understanding is that good and evil are innate, inseparable aspects of life. This view makes it impossible to label a particular individual or group as “good” or “evil.” Every single human being is capable of acts of the most noble good or the basest evil (SGI). This idea was expressively written by the renowned Social Psychologist Philip Zimbardo.

Professor Philip Zimbardo’s 2007 book ‘The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil’ argues that people are not born good or born evil. He gives numerous case examples how the situational forces and group dynamics affect people to commit atrocities. Philip Zimbado once expressed :”It does tell us that human nature is not totally under the control of what we like to think of as free will, but that the majority of us can be seduced into behaving in ways totally atypical of what we believe we are”

Jātaka stories describe how human emotions change due to situational factors. These tales also discuss good and evil in a same person in different circumstance. The Psychologist Albert Bandura stated:  “Our ability to selectively engage and disengage our moral standards helps explain how people can be barbarically cruel in one moment and compassionate the next.” Jātaka stories present the character profile of the King Pasenadi Kosol who was exactly cruel in one moment and compassionate the next.

The King Kosol was a pious person who used to visit the Buddha three times a day. He was generous and kind to his subjects. He was a dedicated devotee. Yet there was a dark side of King Pasenadi Kosol. He was an egocentric man and had a scheming mind. He was a debauchee and a gormandizer. The King Kosol once plotted to kill an innocent man in order to steal his wife. He was highly suspicious and also paranoid. He was hungry for power and would do anything to keep this throne. He plotted and killed his best General -Bandula and his sixteen sons in cold blood. He became a repenting old man in his final years.  The King Kosol was overthrown by his son and died starving and destitute.

According to Appleton (2012) Buddhist Jātakas are not exclusively about the Buddha’s good actions in past lives. Some Jātaka stories highlight the Buddha’s bad actions in the past and the negative karmic effects he experienced in his final life. In one of the stories in the Jartika tales concerns the Bodhisattva the future Buddha, who kills a bandit in order to save 500 merchants (Hinnells & King, 2007).

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