Aesop's Fables, Jataka Tales -- Truths Older than Time

By Eloise Hart

Fables are more than amusing tales; they encapsulate ideas that are are timely and appealing. Some address current issues, assuring us that we can change the world if first we change ourselves. To do this we need to discover who and what we are; with satire, exaggeration, and pathos, fables hold up a mirror before us. In this way they instruct and uplift -- and do it quite effectively.

Looking particularly into the often quoted fables of Aesop and the Jataka tales of Buddhist tradition, we discover more than meets the eye for, as the French collector and translator of Aesop's fables, Jean de la Fontaine, observed: "We yawn at sermons, but we gladly turn / To moral tales, and so amused we learn."

To this end, fables have been repeated and adapted for each generation and life situation. Many, stemming from truths older than time, have passed orally from age to age and country to country. This accounts for their startling similarities and variations, and for the confusion surrounding their origins. Some scholars, for instance, believe that Aesop's fables were drawn from the wisdom of Egypt; others, that they were carried to Greece by way of the ancient Indo-European country of Phrygia, where Aesop was born and probably heard these stories as a child. Archaeologists have unearthed in ancient Mesopotamia three to four thousand-year-old cuneiform tablets with proverbs that feature animal characters. They suggest that the fables were brought from Sumeria to Assyria and from there by Hittites to Phrygia.

Animals play important parts in fables like The Goose that Laid the Golden Eggs, The Boy Who Cried Wolf, The Fox and the Grapes, The Race between the Tortoise and the Hare, The Wolf in Sheep's Clothing, and many more. These stories -- whose characters also include humans and gods -- captivated the Greek fancy.

Little is known of Aesop's life other than from references to him in philosophical historical writings of his contemporaries. Plato, for one, mentions that Socrates, when in prison awaiting death, translated from memory Aesop's fables into verse. Others speak of Aesop as wise and eloquent, which belies his biographer's claim that the slave Aesop was grotesque in appearance, dwarfish, pot bellied, dark complexioned -- and mute, until the goddess Isis, grateful for his kindnesses to her priestess, restored his voice and the nine Muses each endowed him with her special gift. Thereafter Aesop rose to fame and fortune. Eventually he was granted freedom by Xanthus, the philosopher, whom he had served with distinction, having often solved problems that baffled his master and with homely aphorisms outwitted Xanthus' intellectual students.

Once free, Aesop made his home in Samos and traveled widely, visiting Corinth, Athens, and elsewhere. At Babylon he was appointed minister to the king, and in Lydia became a favorite of the wealthy King Croesus. It was there in the court of Croesus that he became acquainted with Solon the great lawgiver, and with many of the famous men of that time. Sent to Delphi on a commission of the King, Aesop found the Delphians unworthy of their reputation; and they, fearing exposure, planned to destroy him. Concealing a golden bowl from the temple of Apollo in his baggage, they accused him of theft and sacrilege, and condemned him without a fair trial to be hurled to his death from the Phaedrian cliffs. This, they implied, was the vengeance of Apollo, whose wrath he had apparently incurred years earlier when he had erected at Samos a shrine to honor the Muses rather than the God. His cruel death shamed and saddened the ancient world. Two hundred years later, in Athens, a statue of Aesop was placed in front of those of the Seven Sages of Greece.

During the past 2500 years or so Aesop's fables have been translated and enjoyed the world over. Generations have been instructed to emulate their clarity of style and satire. Typical examples of his compassion and skill are found in the well-known stories of The Lion and the Mouse, and The North Wind and The Sun [retold from Aesop without Morals, Lloyd W Daly]. In the first, we read of a lion, who awoke to discover a mouse running over his back. He seized him and was about to eat him when the mouse said, "If you will let me go, I will repay you." The lion, amused, released him. Later the lion was caught by hunters and tied up. Hearing his groans the mouse came to his rescue; gnawing through the rope he set the lion free.

In the contest between the North Wind and the Sun each wagered that he was the stronger and would prove it by forcing a man to take off his coat. The Wind blew and blew, but the more he blustered, the tighter the man wrapped his coat about him. The sun just beamed, and the man, warmed and relaxed, took off his coat!

The five hundred or more Jataka tales are as familiar in India as Aesop's are in the West, and enjoyed for the common sense and consideration for others they illustrate. Jataka means "birth story." These are stories which chronicle the former incarnations of the hero, a Bodhisattva or Buddha-to-be, from the time he resolved to "live to benefit the world" until he became enlightened. Since he had made his vow of compassion ninety-one aeons ago, these tales describe incidents in both animal and human incarnations. Some relate the mistakes he made and point out the lessons learned; others dwell on acts of kindness and wisdom which, while furthering his attainment of the Virtues (Paramitas), helped and ennobled all those about him [cf. "The Paramitas and the Exalted Eightfold Path," Fountain-Source of Occultism by G. de Purucker, pp. 43-53].

Paramita means "to go beyond," and implies that through spiritual effort one is able to leave this world's suffering and illusion and to cross over to the "other shore" of spiritual awareness. The Paramitas are one of the world's noblest codes of conduct, practical guidelines for everyone who would improve his life, be he householder or monk.

One story tells of the Bodhisattva being born as a Banyan deer in the forest of Kosala, whose king hunted deer every day with his friends in the forest, often riding through carefully planted fields in the chase. The farmers in exasperation enclosed an area where the king could hunt without destroying their crops. Inside this area the deer agreed that, rather than having many injured and many more frightened each day, one deer would be selected by lot for the royal hunt. This worked well until the lot fell to a mother with a newborn fawn. Distressed, she asked if some other deer would take her place so that the life of her fawn might be spared. No one volunteered until the Banyan, king of the deer, came forward and himself took her place.

When the king arrived and saw the noble beast standing before him, he drew his bow with delight. The deer, unflinching, showed no fear, its eyes steady and full of love. The king's arm trembled. For the first time in his life he felt for a deer, recognizing its feelings and its courage. Lowering his bow he said, "Forgive me, Noble Beast, I grant you your life."

The Banyan deer replied, "Your Majesty, though you grant immunity to me, what is to happen to my herd?"

The king was moved. "I grant them their lives. From now throughout my kingdom there shall be no more killing of any beast of the forest, bird of the air, or fish of the water!"

So it was that the Buddha-to-be, when incarnated as a deer, established the king and his kingdom of Kosala in the practice of virtue.

Another story is that of The Demon with Matted Hair. Once upon a time, when Brahmadatta was King of Benares, the Bodhisattva was born as the son of the king's first wife. People rejoiced and prophets announced that the child would become famous throughout India for his skill with the "five weapons" -- bow, spear, sword, club, and shield. Hearing this, the king named his son Prince of the Five Weapons and, when the child had attained sixteen years, sent him to a far-famed teacher to learn their use. This he did, becoming so proficient that he was given the five weapons as a reward. Armed and confident he set out to return to Benares. He came to a thick forest where travelers warned him against a demon with matted hair that kills everyone he sees. But the Buddha-to-be was fearless and continued on into the heart of the forest. Sure enough, there stood the terrible demon who "made himself tall as a palm tree; his head was the size of a pagoda, his eyes as big as saucers," with two great tusks protruding from his hawk-like face.

"Stop!" shouted the demon. "I want you for breakfast." The prince did stop -- to fit his bow, and he shot an arrow straight at the demon's heart. The arrow, alas, stuck in his matted hair. Not deterred, he shot again, and yet again. Fifty times he shot and fifty arrows stuck in the demon's matted hair. He drew his sword, it stuck too. He attacked with his spear. He swung his club. Then he addressed the demon, "I am Prince of the Five Weapons. Today I am going to pound you and grind you to powder!" and with a mighty shout he leapt at the monster; hit him with his right fist, then with his left. He kicked him with one foot, then with the other, and finally with all his might he butted him with his head -- all successively stuck in the demon's matted hair!

Thus the young prince was "five times snared, caught fast in five places; hanging suspended; yet he felt no fear -- was not even nervous." "Strange," thought the demon, "here is a noble man! More than man is he! Never such a one have I seen!" And he asked aloud: "Why are you not frightened to death?"

"Why should I fear?" answered the prince. "In one life a man can die but once. Besides in my belly is a thunderbolt; if you eat me, it will tear you to pieces." (To Buddhists, a thunderbolt signifies spiritual knowledge.)

Hearing this, the demon was frightened to death himself, and let the prince go, saying: "Young Sir, you are a lion of a man. I set you free."

And so the prince departed -- after he had explained to the demon what would be the result if he persisted in evil, and the benefits of the five virtues. When he reached Benares he was royally welcomed, and later became king, ruling with righteousness, giving alms and doing good deeds.

This story of the Demon with Matted Hair is so unusual, yet so reminiscent of an episode in the Uncle Remus tale of Brer Rabbit that one commentator believes it was carried by Buddhists from India to South Africa and transported via slave ships to the New World. Told to children on the plantations, it was written down by J. C. Harris. The episode tells how Brer Fox, annoyed with Brer Rabbit, "fit up a contrapshun, what he calls Tar Baby." Brer Rabbit passed the time of day with Tar Baby but, annoyed at its obstinate silence, hit it with his right fist, then his left, kicked it with both his feet and butted it with his head, each of which successively stuck in the "contrapshun."

This five-point attack on Tar Baby and the Demon with Matted Hair is obviously symbolic. In India rabbits have their likeness seen on the face of the moon, and it is generally believed that an eclipse of the moon occurs when it is "almost swallowed up" by a demon with matted hair!

In our Jataka tale the Prince of the Five Weapons is an incarnation of the Buddha-to-be, yet in an earlier incarnation this same Bodhisattva as a misguided, naked, "matted hair ascetic" learned firsthand the worthlessness and peril of the "solitary" path -- that asceticism which seeks spiritual advancement by concentrating on self and undergoing exaggerated austerities.

Philosophically, the matted hair demon characterizes the passivity, inertia, and ignorance in nature and in ourselves which must be "conquered and transmuted"; symbolizes also the precosmic Darkness, the Chaos before "creation," before the kingdoms of lives were arranged into the orderly and harmoniously functioning Cosmos.

Fables have lasting appeal because of their many levels of meaning and because in their heroes we see ourselves. By their ingenious examples we learn how to disentangle ourselves from materialistic involvement, and how to develop the use of the five weapons of spiritual attainment so that, when in the end we triumph, we will have helped not only ourselves, but others on the journey towards perfection.

(From Sunrise magazine, June/July 1987; copyright © 1987 Theosophical University Press)

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