The Jataka Tales through the Lens of Existential and Buddhist Ethics

Anindita Sinh
Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts


This paper aims to analyse and interpret some selected stories from the Jataka Tales, which are stories about the previous births of the Buddha, in both human and animal forms, using two culturally divergent philosophical perspectives: existentialism and the doctrine of dependent origination (pratītyasamutpāda) of Buddhism. It undertakes the analysis of four Jataka stories and along with a detailed theoretical background of the two different approaches, aims to find similarities in interpretation. Since the Jatakas concern themselves primarily with morality, the analysis is also concerned with the question of ethics. A number of similarities can be found, ranging from the approach to character development and the ability to exercise control over action and volition, to the ultimate reality of the interdependence of all life and the law of Dharma that governs all, according to Buddhist thought. Under existentialism, Jean-Paul Sartre’s understanding of the idea of free will and conscious choice-making and thus acting from a place of either ‘authenticity’ or ‘bad faith’, have been employed to analyse the stories. Gabriel Marcel’s take on intersubjectivity has also been used to interpret the stories. Additionally, perspectives of other thinkers like Emmanuel Levinas and Simon de Beauvoir have also been used in this analysis.

Keywords: Jataka Tales, dependent origination, morality, intersubjectivity, free-will, existentialism