Oh dear, I don’t mean to sound like ‘Matru ki Bijlee ka Mandola’ but I’m on a jataka roll and I just re-read two that involve a human being offering himself to animals and birds as lunch or possibly dinner. These are terribly famous jatakas in which the Bodhisattva is born as a warrior-prince. He is not born as a fraidy-cat woman or, to lapse into jatakese, ‘a woman called Not-the-Bravest’. So mercifully I don’t feel pressured to walk into the Bay with a placard saying, ‘Verily, here comes fishfood’ or whatever fish can read.
In the jataka of Prince Sattva, the Bodhisattva leaps off a cliff to feed a starving tigress below who’s about to eat her cubs in mad hunger. I can never read it without a shudder and neither I guess can anybody else for this jataka is highly revered as illustrating ultimate compassion.
The other story, also found in the two epics, tells of King Sibi or Shibi, who is called ‘Sembiyan’ or ‘Sippi Raja’ in South India. As everyone knows, this ruler was a byword for generosity and Indra and Agni came to test him disguised as a hawk chasing a dove. The dove sought shelter with Shibi who refused to betray the rules of sanctuary and therefore had to carve a chunk of his own flesh equal to the dove’s weight to feed the hawk. And he did not flinch but carried on chopping himself up as the dove weighed heavier and heavier on the scale, while his people cheered and the kinnaras, gandharvas and apsaras rained flowers on him and Indra and Agni, crafty celestials always testing human worth, resumed their forms and praised Shibi.
According to the jatakas, though, the Bodhisattva reflects that his body is “just a sack of s— t”. By giving it up as Sattva and Shibi, he comes closer to being a Buddha, to attaining the required compassion, generosity, courage and poise of Buddhahood.
Though they uphold extremely high standards of exemplary conduct, it is clear that the jatakas, like the epics, are around because people still relate to them and love them. Perhaps it’s time someone made a juicy, multi-layered film on the jatakas as an adventure-love story on the soul and its always-calling higher self. Why ever not, with the historic film link already in place that Himanshu Rai who participated in the first kiss in Indian cinema (1933) made the first-ever film on the Buddha (1926).
— Renuka Narayanan writes on religion and firstname.lastname@example.org