Tales from India

Week 7: India and Japan - Assignments - Reading - Resources - Images

Background Reading

There are many ancient storytelling traditions from India, and it seems quite likely that the ancient stories of India traveled as far west as Greece and throughout the Mediterranean, since there are some similarities between the Greek and Indian stories that do not seem likely to be mere chance or the product of independent invention. At the same time, however, stories shift and change as they move into new cultural contexts: the Indian stories are Indian, and the Greek stories are Greek stories -- the characters and the way they speak and even the plot of the story might change, adapting to new places and times.

Jataka Tales

One major factor in a story's "natural habitat" so to speak is the factor of religion. One set of stories we are reading this week is firmly rooted in the religion (or philosophy, if you prefer) of Buddhism. These are the jataka tales, or birth stories, which were teaching stories used by the Buddha to help to enlighten the monks of his monastery and other people with whom he came into contact.

The jataka tales are a fascinating construction. They begin with what is called a "frametale", an external narrative that sets the scene for the act of storytelling. Say there is a problem in the monastery. The Buddha then tells a story which is meant to teach the people in the frametale a lesson. And yes, this is very similar to the way that parables are used in the Bible -- like the story that Nathan tells to David, for example, in order to teach him a lesson, or the many parables that Jesus told to his followers and disciples.

Yet there is something special about the way the Buddha used these stories. Not only did each story contain a lesson, they also contained the Buddha himself; for each of the jataka tales the Buddha explains which character in the story he was, during a previous lifetime. The belief in reincarnation allows the Buddha to "be" a character in the story that he is narrating: sometimes the Buddha was incarnate as a person in the story, but sometimes the Buddha was an animal, or even a plant. This is why they are called jatakas, or "birth" stories: because they narrate the adventures of the Buddha when he was born in previous lives.

The jatakas are very old stories, that were collected together with the earlier Buddhist literature sometime in the 3rd century B.C.E. The jatakas contain a bit of poetry, and the collection of jatakas (there are hundreds of them!) are organized in order based on how many lines of poetry there are in the story: all the stories with a single couplet are put together, then all the stories with two couplets, and then all the stories with three couplets, and so on. The little verses are in some ways similar to the morals appended to the fables of Aesop that you may have looked at last week.

Animal Stories

In addition to the Buddhist tales, another Indian fable collection was created at about the same time: this is the so-called Panchatantra, a collection of stories that are also organized with a frametale structure. The Panchatantra consists of five books, and each of those five books has a frametale based on the adventures of some animals; the first book, for example, is based on the intrigues of the animals in the court of the lion-king. As the animals plot and scheme against one another, they tell each other stories to persuade the other animals to do what they think is best. Many of the stories that they tell are stories about other animals, but sometimes the animals tell stories about people too.

The Panchatantra was later translated into Arabic and from Arabic it entered into medieval European culture, so this is another way in which Indian stories entered into the European tradition. Meanwhile, the stories were enormously popular throughout the Islamic world, and you may have chosen to read the work of a Sufi ecstatic poet, Rumi, who retells many animal stories from the Panchatantra.

Fairy Tales

You will also be reading two "fairy tales" which you will probably find to be amazingly similar to the classic European fairy tales, like Cinderella, Rapunzel, and so on. Just as some scholars have argued that many Aesop's fables were originally Indian stories which then traveled west to Greece, it has also been argued that many European fairy tales are based on Indian originals, which entered Europe via Arabic sources in the Middle Ages. The stories you will be reading this week were collected by Joseph Jacobs, who was a proponent of the so-called "Indian origin" hypothesis. Here is what Jacobs said about the possibility that many famous European fairy tales originated in ancient Indian storytelling traditions:

Some--as Benfey in Germany, M. Cosquin in France, and Mr. Clouston in England--have declared that India is the Home of the Fairy Tale, and that all European fairy tales have been brought from thence by Crusaders, by Mongol missionaries, by Gipsies, by Jews, by traders, by travellers. The question is still before the courts, and one can only deal with it as an advocate. So far as my instructions go, I should be prepared, within certain limits, to hold a brief for India. [...] Certainly there is abundant evidence of the early transmission by literary means of a considerable number of drolls and folk-tales from India about the time of the Crusaders. The collections known in Europe by the titles of The Fables of Bidpai, The Seven Wise Masters, Gesta Romanorum, and Barlaam and Josaphat, were extremely popular during the Middle Ages, and their contents passed on the one hand into the Exempla of the monkish preachers, and on the other into the Novelle of Italy, thence, after many days, to contribute their quota to the Elizabethan Drama. Perhaps nearly one tenth of the main incidents of European folk-tales can be traced to this source.

This is an extremely difficult historical question, but the similarities between Indian fairy tales and the European tales is undeniable. One of the books that Jacobs refers to here, Barlaam and Josaphat, is a Christianized version of the life of the Buddha which circulated widely in many European languages during the Middle Ages.

Local Color...

Although Jacobs has retold all these stories in nineteenth-century "Victorian" English, he includes many Indian terms and references as "local color" in these stories, reminding the reader where the stories come from. Many of these terms were in common use in English at the time, since India was then a part of the British Empire. The East India Company had been formed in the year 1600, and by the nineteenth century, India was the famous "jewel in the crown" of Victoria's rule. The first Indian war of independence against British rule took place in 1857 and the Indian National Congress was formed in 1885, but India did not win independence from British rule until 1947. (See this timeline of Indian history to learn more.)

Here are some of the unusual words you will encounter in these stories:

Joseph Jacobs

Joseph Jacobs (Indian Tales, English Tales) was a slightly younger contemporary of Andrew Lang (Arabian Nights, Japanese Tales, African Tales, Danish Tales, Estonian Tales), and like Lang he was a prolific collector and publisher of folktales from around the world. Jacobs was born in 1854 in Australia but he grew up in England, where he was a scholar and folklorist. One of his most significant roles was serving as the editor of the journal Folklore, which was the main periodical dedicated to the publication of original folklore materials and sources.

Jacobs then left England and moved to America where he was an editor of the Jewish Encyclopedia. He also taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Jacobs died in 1916. Much of Jacobs' research and publications centered on Jewish contributions to world culture; he was one of the first scholars to call attention to the importance of Jewish transmission of Aesopic fables in the ancient world and in the European Middle Ages.

Like Lang, Jacobs retold the folktales and stories he collected in a style that he thought would be suitable for Victorian children. Unlike Lang, however, Jacobs published detailed notes to accompany his collections of fairy tales, exploring the comparative and historical aspects of the stories and providing information about the sources of the stories.

Modern Languages / Anthropology 3043: Folklore & Mythology. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 9, 2004 12:52 PM