On the authenticity of the Jatakas

Hi Bhante,

On the topic of the validity/relevance of Jatakas birth stories, do you see the whole of it as likely being non-authentic or at least some seem to have com from the Buddha himself?

The reason I ask it is that I remember finding in suttas here and there the Buddha making use of reference to situations and events ocurring in his past lives to present the audience a lesson.

And I always took these as legitimate, especially when one considers that one of the definitions of right view in the suttas is among other things the acknowledgment of rebirth (and of course the understanding and letting go of it).

When I put myself in the position of his audience, I totally see how I would actually expect, be interested and likely inspired by a Master who would on his occasional dhamma talks would pick a random event of his past lives to teach a lesson on at least the first morality / virtue steps of the path…


The Jatakas are best regarded as folk tales and legends, and are unlikely to have anything to do with the Buddha’s past lives. While the Buddha regularly spoke of past lives in a general sense, it seems that he didn’t tell stories from them. Or at least, not that were passed down.

There are a very few occasions in the EBTs where the Buddha tells some details of one of his past lives. But while these stories are clearly earlier than the genre of texts we call “Jatakas”, even these almost always have signs of lateness. Still, it’s possible that there might be some genuine past life details in one or two of these. The most convincing examples would probably be the Ghatikara Sutta (MN 81) and the Pacetana Sutta (AN 3.15), on which I have written previously.

In fact, the EBTS have very little real narrative content, and it is an interesting question why the Buddha seemingly avoided narratives in his teaching. Obviously such stories are of interest, and the community ended up creating one of the worlds greatest collections of narrative literature, probably the greatest of the ancient world. Is there some deeper reason why the Buddha avoided narrative? Or is this merely an artifact of the oral transmission, and narratives were dropped as inessential?


I think there are several possible explanations.

  • The Buddha didn’t have any knowledge of his past lives.

This is the version popular with secular Buddhists. I think it cannot be discarded out of hand and should be taken in consideration by every intellectually honest person. On the other hand, if we are intellectually honest to the very end we should admit that neither this view nor its opposite are objectively empirically proveable. The idea that the Buddha did have knowledge of his past lives, if it is correct, can be proved subjectively, by you getting a direct knowledge of your past yourself, but that is not what would convince its opponents. As such it is a matter of faith, and if a person takes this position, it would be fair to respect their view but there can hardly be any further discussion on the matter.

  • The concept of parami is a later invention, so the past lives narrative was not that edifying

I don’t really think that if a great politician, scientist or writer were asked about the reasons for their success, they would sincerely talk about brushing their teeth or washing floors in an army cantine, unless these events had some special significance for them. So, it may be just that: the Buddha didn’t talk about his past lives because it would be boring and beside the point.

  • Oral transmission through the monastic community

It is reasonable to assume as one of the working hypotheses that the early Buddhist Sangha was a pretty contemplative crowd interested primarily in the deep Dhamma. Here, on this very forum, we talk much more time about the contents of the Teaching rather than our personal circumstances, and if asked later what we were actually talking about, hardly anyone would say ‘oh, you know, Vstakan is a Russian-born student living in Germany’ or ‘Ajahn Sujato used to play in a music band’. Multiply it by a couple dozens of generations, and here we are with so little narrative parts in the oldest strata of the Canon. It may well have been true that in his talks to the lay audience the Buddha mentioned more about his past lives to make things a little bit more personal, it was just not transmitted by the contemplative monks.

  • It s not how the Canon developed

Imagine the Indian society back in the Buddha’s days. Hardly any writing (possibly no writing at all), very poorly developed infrastructure, population extremely scarce by the modern standards. I think we can all agree that at least later in the Buddha’s life the Sangha was established in several cities or regions and the Buddha was most certainly not present personally in the most monastic communities. How do you tell your fellow monastics about the new Dhamma talks, centered mostly around practical advice of the teacher? How do you make new disciplinary regulations known? How do you train new members of the community? Historically, the most successful strategy was always the Power Point method, i.e. compressing the important message to a few pithy statemens that could easily fit into a Power Point slide. Not much place for narrative at all.


Neh, Jataka stories cannot be real because:

  1. It doesn’t feel fitting with suttas
  2. The stories got simple and repeated plots
  3. It doesn’t sound intelligent now and I don’t think it did two thousand years ago

For the sake of Dhamma and the benefit of many, I think it’s better to treat Jataka as late invention.

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Although some modern people may dismiss Jātakas as mere legends and stories, we should not forget that throughout much of the history of Buddhism in India and beyond, they were regarded as canonical and sacred.

Jātaka is one of the nine aṅgas, and so it figured in with other early collections. The first three aṅgas, for example, are those of the SA / SN. From this matter alone, Jātaka should probably be considered as among the oldest major genres of Buddhist literature.

There is also the question of which collection we mean when we say Jātaka. Are we speaking of the huge collection of tales from Theravāda tradition, or the much smaller set from Indian tradition?


Interestingly enough, one of the points of heresy that the ancient Sthaviras accused the Mahasanghikas of was that the Mahasanghikas rejected ekacce jātake “some of the Jātakas”. It seems that in this point, and perhaps others, they remained more conservative. No doubt Jātakas have been part of the Buddhist tradition since very early times, but weeding out early ones is no easy matter.

It would be fascinating to do a detailed study of the Pali collection, it’s parallels, relation to other literature, and so on. But in this, as so many things, scholarship is sorely lacking.

Up to date and accurate translations would help, too!


That would be interesting. I was just checking a Sanskrit edition of the Jātakamālā, and that collection has only 34 jātakas. The Cariyāpiṭaka has 35 jātakas. A third-century Chinese translation called Jātaka Sūtra (T 154) has 55 jātakas. Then the Pāli Jātaka collection weighs in at around 550 jātakas…

If the Jātakas were a point of controversy between the Theravāda and Mahāsāṃghika, then that would also demonstrate that the genre was at least considered important and canonical around the time of the controversy.

This seems strange that the Theravādins would call the Mahāsāṃghikas heretical for rejecting some of the Theravāda jātakas. This would demonstrate that at least some Theravādins considered their highly developed collection authoritative and ancient, even though so much had obviously been added to it.

Did they really think their jātakas were original? Did they really think their abhidharma was spoken by the Buddha? These matters tell us something about the limits of memory within the tradition. Yet in this same era in northern India, Yogācārins were writing about the original structure and compilation of very old collections like the Saṃyukta Āgama with some unnerving familiarity.

Then of course there are all sorts of related issues. How much did Buddhist monks in India know about the origins of the Mahāyāna sūtras? Going back further, did they know where the Jātakas came from? Did they know how the other EBT’s were compiled? Or if the average monk did not, were there some who did?

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I haven’t looked at it for a while, so I quickly did a rough translation of the relevant passages on textual issues at the 1st and 2nd councils from the Dipavamsa.

19 Sattapaṇṇiguhe ramme therā pañcasatā gaṇi,
In the delightful sattapanni cave the 500 senior monks
Nisinnā pavibhajjiṃsu navaṅgaṃ sathusāsanaṃ.
sat and laid out the ninefold teaching of the Buddha.

20 Sutta geyyaṃ veyyākaraṇaṃ gāthū’dānī’tivuttakaṃ,
Discourses, songs, Q&A, verse, inspired sayings, legends,
Jātaka’bbhutavedallaṃ navaṅgaṃ sathusāsanaṃ.
Birth stories, marvellous tales, and analyses make up the ninefold teaching of the Buddha.

21 Pavibhattā imaṃ therā saddhammaṃ avināsasaṃ,
The senior monks laid it this true teaching without omission
Vaggapaṇṇāsakaṃ nāma saṃyuttaṃ ca nipātakaṃ,
Chapters, “fifties”, that called the “connected” and the [numbered] groups.
Āgama piṭakaṃ nāma akaṃsu suttasammataṃ
The scripture called the canon they made, known as the discourses.

22 Pariyāyadesitañcāpi atho nippariyāya desitaṃ,
That requiring interpretation and the explicit teaching,
Nītathaññeva neyyathaṃ dīpiṃsu suttakovidā.
That with meaning explained and that requiring explanation: the experts in discourses made clear.

71 Mahāsaṅgītikā bhikkhu vilomaṃ akaṃsu sāsanaṃ,
The mendicants of the “Great Recital” created what goes against the teaching
Bhidivā mūlasaṅgahaṃ aññaṃ akaṃsu saṅgahaṃ.
After destroying the original collection they composed another collection.

72 Aññatha saṅgahitaṃ suttaṃ aññatha akariṃsu te,
They composed a different collection of discourses,
Athaṃ dhammañca bhidiṃsu vinaye nikāyesu pañcasu.
And destroyed the teaching and explanation of the discipline and the five nikayas.

73 Pariyāya desitaṃ cāpi atho nippariyāya desitaṃ,
That requiring interpretation and the explicit teaching,
Nītathaṃ ce’va neyyathaṃ ajānivāna bhikkhavo.
That with meaning explained and that requiring explanation: those mendicants did not understand.

74 Aññaṃ sadhāya bhaṇitaṃ aññathaṃ ṭhapayiṃsu te,
What was spoken in one context they placed in another,
Byañjanacchāyāya te bhikkhū bahuṃ athaṃ vināsayuṃ.
Confusing the grammar, those mendicant lost much meaning.

75 Chaḍḍevāna ekadesaṃ suttaṃ vinaya gambhīraṃ,
They misplaced a part of the discourses and the deep discipline,
Patirūpaṃ suttavinayaṃ tañca aññaṃ kariṃsu te.
And composed another counterfeit discourse and discipline.

76 Parivāraṃ athuddhāraṃ abhidhammaṃ chappakaraṇaṃ,
The Parivarą the extract of the meaning, and the six books of the Abhidhamma
Paṭisambhidañca niddesaṃ ekadesañca jātakaṃ,
And the Patisambhida, Niddesa, and a part of the Jātakas
Ettakaṃ vissajjevāna aññāni akariṃsu te.
Having got rid of these they composed others.

77 Nāmaṃ liṅgaṃ parikkhāraṃ ākappakaraṇīyāni ca,
The nouns, genders, [details], and appropriate formalities
Pakatibhāvaṃ jahevā tañca aññaṃ akaṃsu te
in their proper state were abandoned and they composed others.

Clearly. But this was not uncontroversial. The authenticity of the Abhidhamma required a spirited defense in the commentary, so obviously not everyone agreed. The above account of the Mahasanghikas, as I argued in Sects & Sectarianism, is better understood as applying to the Mahasanghika branch in Andhra, and not being a genuine recollection of the Second council at all. If it is accurate, the Mahasanghikas were actually pretty good at text criticism, since the texts they rejected were, in fact, all late.

I think it would have been widely understood that they were unhistorical, until with the passing of time their origins were lost. Surely people knew that the Vimalakirti Sutra was satire.

I don’t even think they were trying to be historical. It’s easy to fake suttas, if that’s what you want to do. Just as a simple example, think of the Heart Sutra. The main body of teaching is pretty similar to the EBTs. If they were really trying to pass it off as an authentic text, why not just have the Buddha speak it at Savatthi and be done with it? But they added an intro and ending that are completely unlike anything in the EBTs, which can only be to emphasize its difference.

Originally they must have. But stories get absorbed in a community; they would have been told as stories long before they were formally cast as Jatakas. But the doctrine came to be accepted that the hero of all tales was, in fact, the Bodhisattva, so anything could be included.

Hard to say, but I’m guessing yes. The Buddhist community was far from unified, and it was also far from being uncritical. I’m guessing the more intelligent monks, then as now, pretty much ignored the Jatakas and focused on the doctrines.


An important point here is that only the verses of the Jatakas are considered canonical to this day. The rest is commentary. So the vast amount of narrative material that constitutes the bulk of the Jatakas has never really been considered as the word of the Buddha.


Maybe one of the issues here is how the canon is organized. The nine aṅga division is probably older than the Tripiṭaka, but after the Buddhist teachings were considered mainly in terms of a Tripiṭaka, the focus was placed on those divisions. If we were to consider the nine aṅgas instead, then the Buddhist canon and its literary forms might seem considerably more diverse.

There is not a big difference in style between the MA / MN and the DA / DN, for example, but those collections build on the foundation provided by the SA / SN. If we instead look at some other old collections like the Jātakas, Sutta Nipāta, etc., there is naturally more variety.

One interesting project would be to map out the themes and concepts of the texts for each aṅga.

Another is to attempt to derive the MN & DN from the SN & AN.

For example, MN 2 describes a set of things as wrong attention (“did I exist in the past?” etc.), where SN 12.20 has

When, bhikkhus, a noble disciple has clearly seen with correct wisdom as it really is this dependent origination and these dependently arisen phenomena, it is impossible that he will run back into the past, thinking: ‘Did I exist in the past?..

What in the SN is a description of a Noble’s inability becomes in the MN a description of wrong attention - i.e. a description of a noble disciple becomes a practice guideline (which I think is a wee bit odd, this sort of mimicry-practice).

Then of course, there are some interesting passages that only show up once in the DN or MN, which I consider quite noteworthy. All sorts of room for careful & not-so-careful speculations, here…

…but, it seems, a noble disciple will not run to the past, so they will not fiddle around with e.g. past life recall or jatakas, perhaps…

i think that’s about detachment from and non-clinging to the past|present|future, but it doesn’t imply oblivion of them or denial

That would be interesting. For example, I’ve noticed that MN 118 could be mostly derived from some texts in the SA. In particular, the beginning is very similar to SA 815. Then the first set of detailed instructions is similar to SA 803. The second set is similar to SA 810, which goes on to describe how it fulfills the Four Bases of Mindfulness and Seven Bodhi Factors, just as we see in MN 118. It’s basically just some texts from the SA combined together.

It makes sense that MN 118 would be like that, because there is no exact equivalent to MN 118 in the āgamas, and the MA has no texts that give special attention to ānāpāna.

Ah, but one aspect of cultivating the six types of superknowledge is gaining knowledge of one’s past lives. The āgamas and nikāyas say that a monk first gains knowledge of one or two lives, and then eventually innumerable myriads of past lives, even where he lived, what he ate, that he was born here, died over there, etc.

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…but of these six, how many are necessary for final liberation? How many must a noble disciple attain?

How many can a puthujjana attain?

There’s a Sutta I can’t seem to locate just now; it teaches that, for any past life recall, it is only the aggregates which are recalled. This seems to be the suitable approach: aggregates, their arising & ceasing, etc. Another Sutta has a monk, playing around with past-life recall, being chastised by the Buddha because it’s basically just entertainment.

It’s all quite off-target, this past-life business, it seems to me.

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If he wants, he recollects his manifold past lives (lit: previous homes), i.e., one birth, two births, three births, four, five, ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, one hundred, one thousand, one hundred thousand, many aeons of cosmic contraction, many aeons of cosmic expansion, many aeons of cosmic contraction and expansion, [recollecting], ‘There I had such a name, belonged to such a clan, had such an appearance. Such was my food, such my experience of pleasure and pain, such the end of my life. Passing away from that state, I re-arose there. There too I had such a name, belonged to such a clan, had such an appearance. Such was my food, such my experience of pleasure and pain, such the end of my life. Passing away from that state, I re-arose here.’ Thus he remembers his manifold past lives in their modes and details.

AN 3.102

it vaguely seems to me that recollection of past lives as just aggregates was attributed to paribbajakas

A post was split to a new topic: Is recollection of past lives necessary?

I think this is missing the point. The running back into the past which is inappropriate is always about concern for what one was, that is, it is based on the illusion of a self. This tends to reinforce the sense of self. The recollection of past lives, on the other hand, when done appropriately, has to do with understanding the nature of saṃsāra. This normally leads to the giving up of the sense of self.