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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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!