Reiko Ohnuma - When Animals Speak: Speaking Animals in the Pāli Jātakas

Professor Reiko Ohnuma gives a lively talk at Stanford University regarding the use of talking animals in the Jātakas. She says that the Jātakas stories depict animals in a positive light, as compared to their negative depiction in the Suttas. The ability to talk in the Jātakas gives animals the means to communicate with humans, and their message is that human cruelty towards them makes them suffer. This makes the people in those stories become kinder to the animals.

I really enjoyed this video!


Thanks, that’s a lovely talk, and it’s nice to see the Jatakas getting some love for a change.

Just one comment I’d make; though on the whole, it is true, animals are depicted in a negative light in the suttas, and animal rebirth is regarded as suffering, there are a number of contexts that show a more nuanced point of view.

The simile of the bull elephant at AN 10.99, for example, shows a rabbit or cat engaging in reflection in a way not dissimilar to the Jatakas. This context is quite interesting, because, while it is obviously anthropomorphizing a thought process as a story telling technique and shouldn’t be treated literally, the thoughts aren’t all that unrealistic. The animal is depicted as observing another animal’s behavior and emulating it, something that happens all the time.

The idea that humans are more cunning and deceitful than animals is not limited to Jatakas, but is memorably stated by Pessa the elephant trainer at MN 51, and endorsed by the Buddha.

Some animals, such as the lion or the elephant, are typically depicted in respectful and dignified terms. In other cases, such as the frequent similes of tamable and untamable horses, animals are shown as being diverse, with the capacity for learning, responsiveness, and bravery.

And of course, it cannot be forgotten that, whatever humans think the quality of animal life is like, this never provides any justification for mistreating them. Protecting all life, including animals, is the very first precept of all Buddhists.


That’s why I am staying a vegetarian, even though I’m not losing the weight I expected. :sunglasses:

When it comes to bedbugs, ticks, etc., though, I say kill them all. Sometimes, we must take the life of pests to protect human life.

1 Like

We mustn’t forget humans share many characteristics with animals and are made up of pretty much the same flesh/bone and skin. The distinction can be blurred. We share our love and cruelty equally towards humans and animals. Loving-kindnesses doesn’t discriminate against the plane of existence …or the pain of existence :grin:.

Another thought: western traditional children’s stories also have talking animals. I think there is something there about communicating to an audience with that degree of literacy perhaps. In any case the underlying moral message is more important. @sujato - I’m curious; are Jatakas myths or are they something else?

With metta


Maybe the Jātakas can be more or less compared to Aesop’s Fables?

It depends what you mean by myths.

If you mean, are they true? Then some things may be—there probably was a king in Mithila called Janaka—while others obviously are not—animals don’t talk.

If you mean “sacred stories” then they are stories passed down as sacred scripture, so that makes them myths.

However, in what I consider to be the “true” sense of myth only a few Jatakas would qualify. Most Jatakas are simple moral fables, more comparable to Aesop or fairy tales than to deep myth.

My own view—which is admittedly a highly personal one—is that true myth hails from before the axial age, and is concerned with the shift in consciousness of that time, depicted primarily as the creation of the world, or to put it another way, the death of god and the arising of humanity. Such myths include Gilgamesh, the Bible, or the Ramayana.

This cycle of deep myth has a number of highly characteristic features, including such motifs as the sacrifice of the sacred king. There are a fair number of such stories in the Jatakas, and I analysed several of them in White Bones Red Rot Black Snakes.

One example of this story type, relevant to the animal theme, is the set of stories dealing with the golden beast—a deer or peacock, who is depicted not just as a talking animal, but as a divine being, playing a crucial role in the destiny of not only his people, but the world at large. Here we could also include the Chaddanta Jataka, the magnificent tragedy of the white six-tusked elephant. In such stories, the divine animal, through their wisdom and sacrifice, creates a covenant of peace and harmony that reconciles the forces of nature and leads to bounty and prosperity. But this can only happen through sacrifice. The age of the divine protector whose personal glory can safeguard his people is over, and what is needed is a legal contract that defines relationships and establishes boundaries of mutual respect.

See above: in some cases, yes. But the Jatakas are far more extensive, varied, and in many cases, older.


No they are not and don’t need to be. I am reminded the names of the future Buddha Metteyya’s parents names are the same repeated names of kings found in the jatakas, it almost become shorthand for ‘father of a bodhisttva’.

yes, mainly considered sacred- sometimes hotly debated :slight_smile:

Yes, that’s the best fitting concept. As an aside, I suppose it is possible to have amoral (and morally dubious) fables as well. :laughing:

Yes interestingly death of god, but spirituality or religion(?) retained i.e. it is not entirely secular, though humanistic.

Do you think the Aganna (creation myth) sutta have similarities/dissimilarities with the above?

Talking of contracts the Buddha’s vinaya was a sort of contract with the layity, wasn’t it, if you were to look at it in another way? ‘My monks would behave the way you deem acceptable, in return…’ etc. Even the Buddha took on a ‘teacher’, which could be seen as a guarantee that he would be in accordance to that dhamma- a sort of self-regulation often seen in esteemed professional circles, where external management would be counter productive as the subordinate would otherwise know more than the manager. We find this even with consultants in the NHS, and it works well in most situations- even without extra training in morality- just with the threat of deregistration from the GMC! Having said the all consultants sign contracts, which is progressive because as times have moved on, having checks and balances self imposed or otherwise, is always a sign of good conduct and provides some legal counterbalance and actually just security, if things go pear shaped! Also that which is mythical needs concrete grounding in reality- otherwise it just wont take place.

with metta

1 Like

Oh, definitely. The Aggañña is in many ways a classic creation myth, although of course with a Buddhist spin.

Again, very much so.

The form of classic myths, as we have them, is often that of a magnificent cosmic transformation that is narratively placed so as to lead in to a rather prosaic set of rules.

Think the Bible; it begins with “Let there be light!” and few chapters later it’s all “don’t collect firewood on the sabbath”. In the same way, the Khandhakas begin with the Buddha’s awakening—or just after—and not much later we’ve got rules about how to fold robes and when to bow. In this way the ecstatic and profound vision of a religious awakening establishes the authority for the management and guidance of a community.


Initially there were no rules, and I think 80 ( number?- really need to brush up my Buddhism) arahanths did not have any or many rules- then later, possibly after that monk had to be asked to leave the boundary for not confessing, it may have gone downhill. I suppose that is where we are at now. The sangha cannot impose any new rules, as that would be going above the authority of the Buddha who no longer exists! To bring in another authority is a secular initiative -ie rules of the monastery/state or country. I wondered if the sangha placed authority on one person and brought in new rules whether it would be schismatic, as it would be displacing the authority of the Gotama Buddha and taking on a new leader (this could be a definition o schism perhaps). All this is theoretical, it is interesting to think about what would happen if the future Buddha appeared when the previous dispensation is in decline. Would he be rejected -accused of schism perhaps? I suppose it would be safe to say such problems, by their very -mythical- nature, will arrive with their own solutions.

with metta