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An exciting academic issue of recent scholarship

Greek Story Motifs in the Jatakas

Author: Merlin Peris

Godage International Publishers,

Colombo, 2004 - pp.382

JATAKA STORIES: Merlin Peris is Emeritus Professor of Classics, University of Peradeniya, a most homely, charming man whose company is enjoyed. This book - and his writings in the Classics, especially those which have influence on and relationship with our land, is packed with a kind of free-flowing academic excitement and passion that is near legendary.

In this book, he examines the phenomenon of motif similarity between certain Greek fables and other tales and the Buddhist Jatakas. The parallels are so obvious that one becomes aware of a blinding sense of closeness.

As Peris says in his introduction, "excitement was first evinced when it was first discovered that there occurred in the Sinhala "Pansiya Panas Jataka Pota" fables familiar to the West through Aesop." It seemed as if there was a sort of cultural globalization to which scholars searched for clues.

Did the large body of life tales follows a west-east route - from Babylon to Greece to India, and the ingredients refashioned while keeping the folk story mode? The Greeks had their pantheon of gods; so did the Scandinavians, Romans, the people of the West Asian lands and the Indian continent.

In his studies, Peris found not only the fables of Aesop but also a number of other myths and historical anecdotes that had influenced the Jatakas. He now lays it open to his readers.

Are all these stories originally Buddhist versions from which Greek versions were adapted? He refers to studies made by Rhys-Davids in this context and gives us nine Jatakas with their corresponding Greek parallels:
Munika Jataka - The Ox and the Calf
Makasa Jataka - The Bald Man and the
Rohini Jataka - The Bald Man and the
Virocana Jataka - The Fox and the Lion
Kaka Jataka - The Hungry Dogs
Javasakuna Jataka - The Wolf and the
Culladhanuggaha Jataka - The Lion and t
he Hare
Kakkuta Jataka - The Dog and the Cock
Dipe Jataka - The Wolf and the Lamb

Of course, the Greek fables could have been purely of Greek origin. Arguments that the lion was not found in Greece and thus the Greek fabulists could not write tales about such a creature, hold little water.

The ancient Greeks knew about the beasts and birds of prey and could relate to great mythical creatures as well. As E. J. Thomas said: "A path of transmission from India to Greece was open long before communications were established by Alexander" (Jataka Tales" - H. T. Francis & E.J Thomas, Cambridge, 1916).

Even the Trojan Horse seems to be replicated in the story of the capture of Prince Udena by the ruse of a wooden elephant filled with soldiers, but, as M. Muller opined: "(There is no) common Aryan origin for these two stories.. while the Trojan Horse forms an essential part of a mythological cycle, there is nothing truly mythological or legendary in the Indian story."

What do we then have? Paired ideas or shared ideas? Peris is convinced that the Ujjain Elephant was derived from the Trojan Horse. Is this whole body of folk tale to be considered as pieces of folk lore which, as E. B. Cowell said, "floated about the world for ages.... and are liable everywhere to be appropriated by any casual claimant."

Peris says that some story motifs could have come to India from Persia. He mentions the Ucchanga Jataka and suspects that this made its way to India via a Greek source - the "Histories" of Herodotus. In the Maha Immagga Jataka, the motif could be traded back to Jewish and Biblical origin.

As he points out, Greek elements are found in the Vijaya legend, in the story of Pandukabhaya and Viharamahadevi's voyage to Ruhuna. As he says: "myth motifs, largely associated with the Perseus saga... were built into the mythistorical narration of the early history of Sri Lanka in the Mahavamsa - the stories of Vijaya, Ummadacitta and Viharamahadevi were made up of a knowledge in excess of what Indian literature can vouchsafe."

In like manner, there is a motif common to The Crow and the Fox tale and the Jambukhadaka and Anta Jatakas: the Tortoise and the Eagle and the Kacchapa Jataka, and the Aesopic The Snake and the Crab fable and the Baka Jataka.

Peris says: "Several Jataka parallels have gone unreckoned, either because their Aesopic correspondents were unknown or because they could not be seen through their disguise... sometimes, it is only a detail which is imported into the plot of a Jataka, and often enough, this too in disguise."

He goes on the content and character of the Buddhist Jatakas, the genre and antiquity of the Aesopic fables together with their argumentative animals and exotic creatures, and then considers comparable motifs and the cultural borrowing that arose with the Greeks passage to India.

Does it really matter whether fable first evolved with the Indians or the Greeks? As Peris says: "Evidence of the fable which share motifs with the Greek are not to be found in India earlier that in the Jataka Book (where) several of which reflect their Greek counterparts so strikingly in motif participants, moral and even detail...."

The author puts forward a wealth of sound arguments:

Greek rule persisted in the regions of India for a near 25 years, Thereafter, Seleucus I penetrated as far as the River Jumma, The Greeks made an impressive social and cultural impact on the Indians, Megasthenes was accepted as a resident in Chandragupta's court in Patna, King Asoka sent embassies to the Hellenistic kings, The Greeks continued to be an influential community under the Mauryans, It was in this period that several Birth Stories of the Buddha and other tales were composed, and when the doctrine of the Buddha had begun to flourish, It is not unlikely that several Greeks also donned robes - monks who were familiar with the myth and fables of their native literature.

Monks such as these, if responsible for the authorship of some of the Jatakas, would have naturally drawn from the large number of Aesopic fables popular in the Greek world they had left behind, Some of these monks appear to have made their way to Sri Lanka where, the Mahavamsa tells us, King Pandukabhaya set aside a city quarter for their residence. The reverse influence of Indian art, literature and thought upon Greece comes very much later.

What we have is the influence of the Greek myths of Hercules and Cacus; of the Oedipus myth; of Odysseus' encounter with Circe; of Megacles and Agariste; of Antigone's defiance of the law against burying her brother; of Ocnus and his rope-eating donkey; of Amphitryon and Alemena; of Hercules' votary to the gods; myths of the Trojan cycle; of Odysseus and the Sirens; of Circean magic; of the cannibalism of the Cyclops; of Pegasus, the winged horse; of Jason and Hisiyle; of Cleobis and Biton; of the poet Arion and the tyrant Polycrates of Samos; of Icarus and Daedalus; of the birth of Perseus and Danae in her bronze tower; of Phaedra and Hippolytes, Apollo and Zeus; the riddle of the Sphinx and hundreds of Aesopic fables. It all then becomes a process of recalling and recycling, where Greek motifs were garbed in Indian dress.Read the book.

It is a work of scholarship, both assiduous and exciting - enthralling, actually. Perhaps Peris walks a lonely road but, eureka! He's getting somewhere, going where few scholars have gone before!


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