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.


This research aims to analyse the Jataka Tales or Jatakas, which are stories dealing with the previous births of the Buddha (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2018). The stories are written in simple and articulate language, and help propagate complex Buddhist ideas, teachings, and culture to all those who interact with them. These stories dwell into Buddhist ethics and are concerned with proliferating morality and knowledge (Piyatissa & Anderson, 1995); yet, at the same time, they are enjoyable to read. In countries where people follow Buddhism as a primary religion, the Jatakas have been used as a medium to develop character and impart teachings of good conduct. The aim of these stories is to help the reader, both adults and children alike, develop qualities such as patience, kindness, compassion and tolerance, and have the knowledge and ability to deal with the hardships of modern life by extrapolating the lessons learnt (Piyatissa & Anderson, 1995).

This study hopes to analyse four Jataka stories, namely (1) King Banyan Deer, (2) The Monkey King and The Water Demon, (3) The Quail King and The Hunter, and (4) The Silent Buddha, by employing textual analysis and identifying concepts of ‘dependent origination’ as well as ‘interbeing’. These stories have been selected because they have the maximum renditions, appeared in a number of popular children’s books, and were also widely available in animated form.

Since the body of knowledge relating to both Buddhist philosophy and existentialism is vast, two frameworks have been employed to undertake the exercise of interpreting the Jataka stories, that of the Buddhist teachings of morality and ethics along with dependent origination, and understandings of Western existentialist thought borrowed from various philosophers. Buddhist discourse is a much larger body of thought. It can be traced back to antiquity, and over time there have been multiple deductive interpretations of these teachings. This has led to different schools of Buddhism, and even though these schools have their own interpretations of the Buddhist doctrine, the core values and beliefs remain the same. Therefore, this paper does not intend to adhere to a particular school of thought. While emphasis is placed on the Mahayana branch/school 1, the paper aims to interpret the selected stories by assessing their relevance to the core teachings in Buddhism. Another closely related concept that helps provide a strong framework for analysis is the order of ‘interbeing’. Propagated by Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, the order of ‘interbeing’ talks about dependent origination in the Mahayana way.  He has also been the propagator of the idea of ‘Engaged Buddhism’ which is concerned with larger issues of social life such as environment, poverty and social justice (Keown, 2005). 

A lot of work on existentialism is grounded in the works of Sartre, and thus his concepts of the ‘human condition’, ‘bad faith,’ and ‘authenticity’ have also been used in this analysis. The existentialist body of work of the theistic philosopher Gabriel Marcel seems to be the most appropriate for the ability to draw parallels between the idea of dependent origination and intersubjectivity seem substantial. Emmanuel Levinas’ understanding of the “face of the Other” (1984) also helps in enunciating a better understanding of the Buddhist ideas of ethics and morality. One of the major purposes of these stories is to develop moral and ethical values. Buddhism perceives these as essential elements for an individual to experience peace and happiness in their hearts and minds (Piyatissa & Anderson, 1995), a step towards nirvana (enlightenment). These values teach the readers to extend loving-kindness to all sentient beings, apply mindful attention while also developing present moment awareness, and practising generosity, in contrast to those prevalent in the modern, ego-centric society. This aspect of the Jataka tales can be drawn as a parallel to Gabriel Marcel’s understanding of the “broken world.” The “I-Thou” relationship can help bring about an intersubjective understanding of relationships that has the ability to save humans from the hardships of alienation, uneasiness, anxiety, and anguish (Baiju, 2006). The reason these two schools of thought, one that has been followed as a religion with a deeply philosophical foundation and another which is primarily philosophical, have been employed to critically analyse the body of text is because they provide two opposing/contrasting perspectives in terms of their Western and Eastern origins respectively, and it would be interesting to see their insights into humanistic concerns and morality. 

Theoretical Framework

One of the primary beliefs and the foundation of Buddhist ethics is Dharma (Keown, 2005). Dharma can be understood as a universal natural law that, “governs both the physical and moral order of the universe” (Keown, 2005, p.3). In terms of morality, Dharma is understood as karma, the law of ethics which is considered to have consequences for moral action of an individual in the past, present and future lives (Keown, 2005). According to Buddhist belief, “living in accordance with Dharma and implementing its requirements is thought to lead to happiness, fulfilment and salvation; neglecting or transgressing it is said to lead to endless suffering in the cycle of rebirth” (Keown, 2005, p.4). A significant portion of Buddhist teaching concerns itself with morality, and having good intention followed by good action is believed to release a human being from the cycle of rebirth, bringing them closer to nirvana.   

Understanding Dependent Origination and the Twelve Links of Suffering

It is important to understand the doctrine of dependent origination or interdependent arising. Dependent origination is a principle that asserts that nothing exists in isolation or by itself; everything in existence is dependent on multiple factors and is a result of a number causes and conditions (Dorje, 2005). What it also means is that, “all existence is selfless, that nothing exists separately, by itself”; that whatever arises does so in “dependent upon conditions” (Koller & Koller, 2018, p. 151) and hence it becomes essential to understand these conditions in order to eliminate dukkha 2. This idea of dependent origination is related to the cyclic existence which propels all beings. It is understood as a “continuous cycle of suffering” (Dorje, 2005, p. 459). This is the “wheel of becoming” in Buddhism, also referred to as the “twelvefold set of conditions” (Koller & Koller, 2018, p. 152), which are also considered to be the twelve links of dependent origination that explain the rise of dukkha. This wheel of becoming, according to Buddhist thought, is a result of the ignorance of the truth of the nature of reality. It shows how ignorance conditions volition; which in turn conditions consciousness. Consciousness conditions the mind-body; which further conditions the six senses. Contact is conditioned by the six senses, and it goes on to condition feelings. Feelings then lead to the arising of cravings, and are followed by grasping. Grasping is said to condition becoming which is what then leads to birth, aging and ultimately death (Koller & Koller, 2018). The only way to eliminate suffering and ignorance is to practise mindfulness in every aspect of the being, from feelings to the body and the mind. The practise of mindfulness is another core teaching of Buddhist thought and is considered to be, “the faculty which enables the mind to maintain its attention on a reference object, thus allowing for the development of familiarity with the object” (Dorje, 2005, p. 490) while also allowing for the ability for future recollection. Mindfulness along with awareness are seen as medicine to deliver the being from suffering and to break out of its cycle (Payutto, 1994). 

Peter Santina’s commentary in his book Causality and Emptiness: The Wisdom of Nagarjuna (2002) helps to understand what Nagarjuna (a proponent of the Mahayana school of thought) said about the doctrine of dependent origination. Nagarjuna equates dependent origination with emptiness (sunyata; as it has been referred to in Mulamadhyakikakarika by Nagarjuna) and thus it becomes the foundation of his concept of the ultimate truth (Santina, 2002). The twelve constituents of suffering that have been chronologically systematised by the Buddhist Realists3 were reorganised by Nagarjuna. He categorises them into affliction, action and suffering, and in doing so, “removes them from a serial progression and detemporalizes them altogether” (Santina, 2002, p.51). Nagarjuna explains that, “the first, eighth and ninth are afflictions, the second and tenth are actions, and the remaining seven are suffering” (Santina, 2002, p.6)). He further explains how the three afflictions (ignorance, craving and clinging) lead to two actions (volition and becoming), which then causes the seven sufferings (consciousness, name and form, the six sense spheres, contact, feeling, birth, old age and death) and then the seven sufferings lead back to the three afflictions, and thus the wheel of becoming or existence is complete, and continues to revolve. This work of Nagarjuna explains how the entire world is cause and effect. Thus, because dependent origination is empty of any intrinsic essence, from what is empty, only empty factors originate (Santina, 2002).

The twelve links are more clearly explained by Nagarjuna in the Mulamadhyamikakarika, while discussing the emptiness and the idea of how all things that exist have no intrinsic origination. The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way (Garfield, 1995) is a commentary on the same and helps provide a clearer understanding of his teachings4.  It is because there is nothing that is not dependently originated, there is nothing that is not empty. This explanation of the phenomenon of dependent origination, has been simplified by the Dalai Lama, who further explains what Nagarjuna wanted to illuminate. It is only by the elimination of karma, i.e. action driven by intention for a future consequence and delusion that there is liberation. Both karma and delusion arise from conceptual construction which is recognised to be, “rooted in the belief that things have independent existence” (Lama, 2019). 

The Idea of Interbeing

Another contemporary strain of thought applicable to this study and closely related to dependent origination, is the order of interbeing promulgated by Thich Nhat Hanh. Interbeing is the English translation for the Vietnamese term tiep hien and first appeared in his book Interbeing: Fourteen Guidelines for Engaged Buddhism (O’Brien, 2017). It is a way of thinking and living that lets one take into consideration, and forces one to realise, that things and beings do not exist in isolation but are a sum of all that exists and has existed. Hanh uses a vivid example of a sheet of paper, with a cloud floating on it. He explains further that if there was no cloud, there would be no rain and in turn trees would not grow, without which one could not make paper. Hence, “the cloud is essential for the paper to exist” (Hanh, 2008). This is one of the links that has been explored in the text. For the sheet of paper to exist, several other actions must have taken place. The primary objective of the order of ‘interbeing’ is to help individuals understand that each and everything that exists does so because of interconnectedness. 

Understanding ‘Bad Faith’ and ‘Authenticity’

Existentialism emphasises the ability to make choice and act as subjective agents within the constraints of the environment (Jennings, 2018). These choices give human beings agency and the ability to be in control of their lives and the direction they will take. This is also a reflection of what Sartre calls the “human condition” (as cited in Bakewell, 2016); the fact that human life is not limited by the conditions placed on human beings by their circumstances, but that every individual has the ability and freedom to make their own choices and has responsibility over the outcome of these choices. Simone de Beauvoir has also described the agency individuals have in choice-making. She says that every conscious action that occurs is a result of the, “apriori facticity that was created by all past human actions” (Morgan, 2008, p.78). Yet at the same time, the individual’s actions become the facticity on which they and others in the future can also base their actions. Thus, as Morgan (2008) states, “As consciousness, I am free to choose the basis of what will become, in the future, my own action; as a factical being I am constrained by the choices others have made and are making, as well as my own past and present choices” (p.78). This argument is in tandem with the Buddhist notion of interdependence and interbeing that all living beings are ultimately related to each other. Our realities are thus as much a result of our own conscious choice-making, as they are of other sentient beings’. There is a difference in making choices too, as understood by Sartre: one can either act from a place of ‘authenticity’ or ‘bad faith.’ According to him, human beings are a result of the choices we make, and we are, at every moment free to decide what we want from life, and if we consider ourselves to be the victims of our circumstances, then we are not acting ‘authentically’ and are thus acting in ‘bad faith’ (Bakewell, 2016). Bad faith is defined by Sartre as making choices in a manner that denies the fundamental human freedom. Sartre believed that “bad faith” is when, “a person refuses to accept the fact that they are morally responsible for their mistakes, and instead chooses to believe in a higher power or deterministic universe that relives them of their moral responsibility” (Jennings, 2018, p.5).

Authenticity, on the other hand, is making conscious and intentional choices. This might appear to be in slight contrast with what de Beauvoir thought; yet we can come to understand that because of the agency that individuals have, we also have the ability to make authentic choices as long as we are willing to do so. This can be associated with the Buddhist practice of mindfulness and awareness, as authenticity requires one to “deliberately choose one’s moral commitments and actions in order to transform oneself into a coherent moral subject” (Jennings, 2018), and this allows one to be free from the shackles of fundamental ignorance. Buddhism also believes that all humans have free will and hence the ability to self-determine. We can thus create ourselves (our character and our futures) through our moral choices (Keown, 2005).   

Existentialist Intersubjectivity  

The lens of Marcel’s intersubjectivity plays a key role in the attempt to draw parallels between dependent origination and existential thought. According to him, with modernity and the advent of technology, human beings have lost their connection and relationships with each other; he called this condition of humanity as the “broken world” (Baiju, 2006, p. 7). It is due to this breakdown of relationships that people feel an extending and intensive alienation, not only from the community but also from themselves, and it is these feelings and solitary life that lead to suicide. Marcel also extends this breakdown of relationships to be the cause of uneasiness, anxiety and anguish, and these very broken relationships, according to him, would lead man to live an unethical life. For him, the way to bring about positive change in the world and to heal it is to create authentic and meaningful relationships. He, being a theistic existentialist, places spirituality and the need to recognise the complete being, as essential aspects to find meaning in life. He places a lot of emphasis on what is called the “I-Thou relationship” (Baiju, 2006, p. 15). The “I-Thou relationship” is when one is able to see the other person not as a mere individual but as a fellow being comprised of their own subjective experiences, the same as one is. Once a person is able to relate to other individuals in this way, they are able to live a more authentic and meaningful life. It is a “subject to subject relation, which is opposed to ego-centricity, but founded on love and harmony with other” (Baiju, 2006, p. 16). The concept of intersubjectivity emphasises the fact that human existence does not take place in isolation, and that beings exist only in relation to others. It is because humans exist in relation to other beings that we are able to experience solitude, as has been explained by Heidegger (1927, as cited in Bakewell, 2016). Even Sartre speaks of intersubjectivity, and suggests that “the other is essential to my existence, as well as to the knowledge I have of myself” (Jennings, 2018, p. 5), because everyone’s identity is based on social relationships with others. 

This idea of intersubjectivity also finds resonance in various Buddhist teachings, such as those of ahimsa, which although usually translated as non-violence, also means to have respect for life (Keown, 2005) and compassion. Compassion, as service to others, is considered to be paramount specifically in the Mahayana school of thought. Thus, it can be understood that true feelings of compassion and ahimsa as a way of life can only be embodied when there is an understanding of the other and of all living beings as subjective persons who are the same as oneself.


The research method applied in this study is textual analysis. Textual analysis is a means of research that allows for individuals to interpret texts in order to obtain certain meanings about the context and the culture in which the text is produced. It provides for a number of possible interpretations of the text and thus explores the variety of ways in which one can interpret reality. As discussed above, two large frameworks of thought have been employed in the interpretation of these stories with the aim of finding similarities. Textual analysis allows for the exploration of unintended connections that might be found between texts. This method is particularly useful for this study as it seeks to find parallels between two temporally and culturally distinct strains of philosophical thought. 

King Banyan Deer

This story brings out the importance of understanding the value of all existing life and acting from a place of compassion at all times. It uncovers the intrinsic concept of inter-dependence of all living beings, and the complex connectivity of our world. King Banyan Deer is a Jataka tale that traces the story of two magnificent golden deer living in the kingdom of Banaras with their large herds, the disposition of the king towards the animals, and the story of the villagers living in the kingdom. It starts with describing the king’s love for hunting and eating venison, which leads him to villages, disrupting the lives of the villagers in the process. Tired of constantly being at the beck and call of the king, the villagers decide to build a deer park for him, so that he can continue hunting without constantly troubling the villagers. The herds of deer that are put in the park are those of the two golden deer, King Banyan Deer and Branch Deer. 

When the king is out observing his deer park, he notices the two glorious deer and grants immunity to them alone, while decreeing that one deer from the two herds will be brought to the chopping block every day. In order to maintain a semblance of peace, the two herds come to an understanding that alternately one deer from each herd would sacrifice itself daily as food for the king. This arrangement is seen as viable for both the king and the herds of deer. 

The story gains momentum when the turn of sacrifice falls on a pregnant doe from the Branch Deer’s herd. She goes to him to plead for help but receives none, she then goes to King Banyan Deer in hope of the same. Hearing her story, King Banyan Deer grants her the wish to live and instead chooses to sacrifice himself. Finding the golden deer on the chopping block, the cook hesitates and calls for the king. 

While in conversation with the King of Banaras, Banyan Deer brings forward the value of life and the importance of empathising with the suffering of others, while attempting to do everything in one’s power to help those in pain. Hearing this, the king of Banaras is moved and transformed, and agrees to spare the life of not only the deer, but of all living beings, and vows to make sure that no animal, bird, or fish will be killed. Yet, the story doesn’t end here; it discusses how the boon for the deer becomes the plight of the villagers because they are no longer allowed to hunt the deer who feed on their crops. When King Banyan Deer hears of this, he requests his fellow deer not to feed on the crops of the villagers and sends a message to the villagers to tie up leaves in the place of fences so that the deer can eat these instead of the crops. While emphasising the importance of compassion, this story also teaches the reader to learn to live symbiotically.

The Monkey King and the Water Demon

The famous story of The Monkey King and the Water Demon is one about attentiveness and the clarity of mind that comes with being aware and present in every moment. It revolves around the Monkey King who is introduced as an Enlightened Being, or a Bodhisattva (an individual who has the ability to achieve enlightenment but delays doing so out of compassion for other beings entrenched in dukkha). 

The Monkey King advises his disciples and followers not to drink water from unknown ponds or eat unknown fruits since they might be poisonous. The monkeys come upon a new pond and even though they are extremely thirsty, they do not drink from it but instead ask their king for permission. When the king looks at the pond, he notices that there are footsteps of animals going into the water body but none coming back and realises that the pond is inhabited by a water demon. When the water demon realises that none of the monkeys are drinking from his pond, he emerges from within and threatens the Monkey King. Facing a conundrum, the king draws on from the practice of mindfulness and thinks of a way to help his fellow mates quench their thirst without being killed. He instructs them to use a bamboo stick as a straw to sip water from the pond. However, the bamboo stick had knots, which made it difficult to be used as a straw. By virtue of his wisdom, power and the gifts of his calm mind the Monkey King is able to turn the bamboo into a new variety, one without knots, which enables all the monkeys to drink from the pond while keeping them safe from the water demon.

The Quail King and the Hunter

The Quail King and the Hunter is a story that teaches the reader the value of unity and of looking out for one another, while trying to overcome differences. 

It traces the story of a smart quail hunter who imitates the call of the quail in order to lure them into his trap. When the king of the quails realises this, and notices the dwindling numbers of his brethren, he calls for a meeting of his flock and of other fellow quails in an effort to come up with a strategy to help everyone. He suggests that all quails must work together to survive. The next day when they get caught in the hunter’s net, they work together to fly away and escape his trap; they drop the net onto a thorn bush, thus making it difficult for the hunter to untangle it and work his net again. The quails survive and the hunter comes home to an annoyed wife who is disgruntled with the fact that her husband came home empty-handed. The hunter realises that just as his loving wife quarrelled with him, the quails too will quarrel amongst themselves in time and that would give him an opportunity to catch them. 

Just as the hunter had anticipated, the next day, quails from different flocks get into an argument and refuse to work together to foil the trap laid by the hunter. Even though the Quail King tries to convince them to put aside their differences and work together, he is unsuccessful, and only manages to escape with his flock just in the nick of time. The hunter is able to capture a large number of quails and return home to a very satisfied wife. 

This story highlights the importance of putting aside our differences and working together to survive, and coming to terms with our intrinsic similarities, despite outwardly and social differences.

The Silent Buddha

The principal moral that comes across in this story is that the result of the acts committed intentionally should not be feared. It is a story that brings forward the importance of generosity. This Jataka story revolves around a generous, rich man from the city of Banaras and Silent Buddha, an individual who had attained enlightenment, yet is not able to extend his wisdom to others because no one, at the time, is able to grasp the reality of life. The latter therefore chooses to be silent and is referred to as the Silent Buddha. He is in a state of deep mediation and practices begging for alms after awakening. The rich man hears of the Silent Buddha and is driven to provide him with alms, but Mara, the God of Death wants to showcase his power over the Silent Buddha by killing him. Therefore, he makes it difficult for the Silent Buddha to receive food. The rich man orders his servants to ensure that the Silent Buddha receives food, yet the two servants that the man sent are unable to fulfil the task because Mara puts up an obstacle in their way. The rich man takes it upon himself to deliver food to the Silent Buddha but encounters the same obstacle, the pit of hellfire, on his way. He realises that the God of Death wants to overpower the enlightened being which increases his desire to help the Silent Buddha; he walks into the pit of fire without hesitation. As soon as the man steps in, the pit of fire turns into a beautiful lotus blossom that lifts him into the air, and its pollens cover him in a golden light. From atop this lotus, he is able to give food to the Silent Buddha and thus defeats Mara. The Silent Buddha blesses the man and leaves Banaras for the Himalayas. From atop the lotus, the rich man espouses the teaching of good intention and good action. 

Interpreting the Tales

Most Jataka Tales have animals as primary characters and the story plays out from their perspective, but they have been attributed the qualities commonly associated with humans. This is done in a deliberate attempt to help spread the idea of the interconnectedness of all living beings, and thus hoping to promote the ideals of compassion and ahimsa towards all, including those who are non-human (Macy, 1979). Characters such as demons are portrayed as beings who have not yet achieved enlightenment, and are thus used as the symbols of wrongdoing, or bad karma and action. They are seen as the representations of actions and volitions which are considered wrongful and will lead to the continuous perpetuation of the wheel of becoming. It is action that is undertaken from a place of ‘bad faith’ that perpetuates anguish, anxiety, and a sense of finitude. The Jatakas have also been considered to promote the idea of the “dependent co-arising of person and society” (Macy, 1979, p. 47) because a person exists in relation to all worldly beings and their existence “cannot be abstracted from its social context” (Macy, 1979, p. 47). This also leads to the foundational principle of what Thich Nhat Hanh called the idea of “Engaged Buddhism” because social context and reality have a lot to do with the development of an individual. It is also because the principle of interdependence takes on a collectivistic approach to the experience of suffering in the world, addressing dukkha in a collective way with the aim of cessation of dukkha for all those effected (Queen, 2005). It focuses on the teaching of interbeing, that not only is everything interconnected but that “we are ourselves, but at the same time we are all each other” (O’Brien, 2017).  

One can engage with Buddhist ethics and explore the concerns of intersubjectivity while analysing these stories. The Jataka Tales are stories which are primarily concerned with disseminating the ideas of morality that form a centrepiece in the teachings of Buddhism. Therefore, the most common interpretations and teachings that one can deduce after reading the story include morals such as the importance of generosity, compassion and mindfulness. These stories are meant to instil a moral compass in its readers in a way that aligns with the teachings of the noble Eightfold Path, a way that leads to the cessation of dukkha, as prescribed by the Buddha. According to Buddhist teachings, the Eightfold Path usually has three divisions, the first is insight (right view and right resolve), second is morality (right speech, action, and livelihood) and the third is meditation (right effort, mindfulness, and meditation) (Keown, 2005). Each of these as ideals are brought forward through stories, attempting to make it easier for the readers to follow the teachings and find their way out of dukkha. These are the teachings that can be understood without deep analysis and the stories highlighting these morals are written in a manner to reach a wide audience. For example, in the story of King Banyan Deer, when he agrees to sacrifice himself to protect the pregnant doe, the ideals of insight and morality are highlighted. In the Mahayana tradition, compassion is given placed on the highest pedestal and in stories (such as The Hungry Tigress, another popular Jataka) the Bodhisattvas agree to give up even parts of their bodies in order to help others (Keown, 2005) and here, King Banyan Deer does the same. Acts of service for others, according to Buddhist belief, brings good karma, to not only the person undertaking the act, but also to others. This is the reason Buddhist ethics are classified as being both altruistic and egotistic and ultimately naturalistic because it follows the law of Dharma (Keown, 2005). The practice of meditation, mindfulness, and awareness as the paths out of dukkha are also given importance in the stories of The Monkey King and the Water Demon, and The Silent Buddha. These stories underscore the idea that with mental awareness and mindfulness one can achieve meditative stability (Dorje, 2005). 

The story of the quails and the hunter highlights the importance of working together and finding common ground based on our intrinsic similarities. This story brings forward the idea of interbeing and intersubjectivity as working together is what is important. It emphasises that if we are not able to place ourselves within the web of commonality that connects us all, we are bound to end up lost, and will continue to perpetuate the wheel of cyclic existence. Similarly, the story of King Banyan Deer highlights the interconnectedness of all things, by showcasing how the King’s decree had an impact not only on the deer, but also on the villagers, underlining that all that exists is dependent on everything else. The conclusion that the hunter draws from quails fighting amongst themselves can be regarded as a way of understanding the notion of having “regard for other forms of life” (Macy, 1979, p. 46), as he is aware enough that conflict can arise between all sentient beings. This is also more clearly brought forward in the story of King Banyan Deer where he asks to spare the life of not only his herd of deer, but of all other living creatures as well. This intersubjectivity that comes across in these stories, of the characters addressing other living beings as not only objective subjects, but as subjective sentient beings go along with what Marcel refers to as “Presence”, which allows for a “subject to subject relationship, which is opposed to ego-centricity, but founded on love and harmony with other” (Baiju, 2006, p. 16). 

Through all these stories, another critical aspect common to both existential and Buddhist thought is brought to the forefront, that of free will and decision making. Free will refers to the freedom that all the characters have to make choices for themselves and in doing so mould their own characters and futures. As Sartre put it, “I create myself constantly through action” (Bakewell, 2016, p. 19) and it is in “starting from where you are now, you choose. And in choosing, you also choose who you will be” (as cited in Bakewell, 2016, p. 25). In the story of King Banyan Deer, his choice to give up his life in order to save that of the pregnant doe, is illustrative. By choosing to do so, King Banyan Deer acts not only with compassion, but also from a place of authenticity. This act ultimately saved both herds of deer and placed King Banyan Deer in higher regard as compared to the Branch Deer. In The Quail King and the Hunter, different choices made by different flocks of quails resulted in a large number of them being hunted, while one flock, led by the Quail King, who was mindful and aware, managed to escape. The same aspect – of awareness and presence of an individual – is highlighted in the Jataka tale of the Monkey King and Water Demon. The Monkey King’s choice to not let any of his brethren drink water without his permission, and their choice to follow that rule, led to all of them being saved from the water demon. In the story of The Silent Buddha, the freedom to exercise choice and create their own reality is underlined when the rich man decides to fulfil the task of providing the Silent Buddha with food regardless of the obstacles in his path. In doing so, he is able to achieve his goal and develop a stronger moral character, and was able to spread this teaching to others.      

All the four stories studied have the theme of interconnectedness woven through them. The doctrine of dependent origination posits that all that is in existence is a result of a multitude of factors and conditions. Hence, attaching a superficial meaning to the events unfolding in these stories might mean the dilution of the doctrine. Yet, this does not mean that this central teaching of Buddhism does not find reference in the Jataka stories. It manifests in every story in different ways. In the case of King Banyan Deer, the euphoria over the deer and other animals not being hunted becomes a predicament for the villagers who are troubled that their crops were being eaten. Action in one aspect of life will bring in different causal consequences for another. Even the fact that King Branch Deer was not willing to help the pregnant doe had future consequences – with King Banyan Deer being considered the better of the two, even though physically both had been the same. The intentions and actions helped perpetuate the cyclic existence of suffering in the case of the Branch Deer, and to the cessation of it for the Banyan Deer. In the case of the Silent Buddha, the fact that he had achieved enlightenment was what led to a conditioned arising, that of him being revered and of Mara wanted to cause him suffering. This is not to say that he undertook the endeavour of achieving enlightenment from a place of fundamental ignorance. Through the story, one can understand that the Silent Buddha’s enlightenment had caused Mara to act from a place of ignorance5. This ultimately led to the ability of the rich man to overcome his limiting beliefs and choose to act from a place of mindfulness, leading to him achieving a more elevated (literally as well because he taught from atop a lotus) state of being. In The Monkey King and the Water Demon, the idea of goodness comes from following the Noble Eightfold Path and choosing to act authentically, i.e., “deliberately choosing one’s moral commitments and actions in order to transform oneself into a coherent moral subject” (Jennings, 2018) thus developing a good character. Levinas’ (1984) idea of ‘the face of the other’ can also be considered in analysing this story because it is only when faced by the presence of another that we are able to understand ourselves as well. Even though the Monkey King was a Bodhisattva, it was only in coming face to face with the Water Demon that he was able to realise the subjectivity of the Water Demon’s being and his own. Thus, he was able to use his powers of mindfulness and alertness to help his brethren. The connotation attached to the powers of the two enlightened beings, the Silent Buddha and the Monkey King aims to help the readers understand the usefulness and clarity that comes with adhering to practice as well as the fact that one can achieve enlightenment or a higher level of awareness through practice and perseverance.


As discussed at the beginning of this paper, this article attempts to compare two culturally divergent philosophical ideas and the multifaceted meaning-making that they help generate. As argued earlier, the means to understand an individual’s relationship with others, or the idea of having a subject to subject relationship, is common in both Buddhism and existential philosophy. The more developed Buddhist doctrine is exceptionally in-depth and concerned with the naturalistic laws of reality, whereas Existentialism concerns itself with questions of human existence and how to embrace the same. Thus, both prove to be suitable frameworks to investigate the Jataka Tales. Analogous understanding of the idea of free will and conscious choice-making are also common factors found across these two different perspectives. The two philosophies are similar in the way they approach intention-driven action for the purpose of individual moral development. Both believe that authentic action or action with good intention and awareness is a step closer to individual human happiness, as it enables people to embrace the uncertainty of existence and brings one closer to the true nature of reality. It should be kept in mind that this research is a relatively novel endeavour in the field and though some of the parallels made here might be interpreted as downplaying the assertions made by either of the two schools of thought, the similarities found in this article could provide the impetus for further research in the same field. This paper can help propel possible research in the field of comparative ethics and existentialism. It also provides a different and renewed perspective from which to view and engage with the Jataka Tales.   

This research has contemporary relevance because it focuses on intention-driven action, overcoming social differences to find the threads of commonality that connect us all, and choosing to act from a place of mindfulness. As a society, we are facing a number of challenges, most of them based on socially constructed divisions. This paper makes space for finding common ground regardless of the existing differences and emphasising the need to inculcate the ideas of not only Buddhist morality but also those promoted by existentialism. It provides avenues for people to choose between two different philosophies, which have similar core conceptions as explained earlier, depending on their appeal. It is also important to note that, in the contemporary world, Buddhist thought is gaining global prominence (Gethin, 1998; Pew Research Center, 2015). This research provides insight into interrelating ideas and approaches to the questions of existence found in these two schools of thought. The Jataka Tales are stories developed as means to impart teachings of morality, ethical practice, and good conduct. When analysed through these two lenses, they give a clearer guidance to help navigate the uncertainty of human existence. This article is able to broaden the scope of both branches of thought and bring forward similarities in guidance regarding engaging in authentic and mindful conduct while being aware of the complex interconnectedness of all beings and phenomena. It is noteworthy that these two philosophical approaches, which concern themselves with unveiling the truth of existence though belonging to vastly different periods of time and cultural contexts, are able to reach similar conclusions and find some common ground. The common understandings help in creating a larger audience for the stories and gives them a fresh perspective while still being in line with their original premise.


[1] The Mahayana school is considered to be more popular and has a larger following. It is also an overarching term for a number of other strains of Buddhism that have developed out of the Mahayana thought such as Yogacara, Dzogchen, Vajrayana, Zen Buddhism and others (Gethin, 1998; O’Brien, 2019).
[2] Dukkha is often translated and interpreted as ‘suffering’, though the essence of the word is lost in this
translation. According to Buddhism, there are three different forms of dukkha. The first, which one experiences in daily life as pain, loss, and suffering, is classified as dukkha-dukkha. The second is called viparinama dukkha, which is the underlying threat of change one feels. It is one of the corner stones of Buddhist philosophy and is understood as ‘impermanence’. The third form is sankara dukkha, which implies the constructed nature of reality and ourselves which causes us suffering. It is a crucial aspect of Buddhist philosophy and a number of other important notions are connected with it.
[3] Scholars who claimed that entities had intrinsic beings to the extent that water is wet, fire is hot, and so on;
they claimed independent existence of entities not dependent on anything outside of themselves
[4] To gain a better understanding of these concepts and of his explanation of dependence origination the
following chapters should be read and studied in the following order. Chapter one, Examination of Conditions, gives the logical reasoning behind the notion that things do not have an intrinsic origination. Chapters twenty-six and twelve, Examination of the Twelve Links and Examination of Suffering, talk about the links of dependent origination, Chapter eighteen, Examination of Self and Entities, logically brings us back to the nature of objects and things not having intrinsic originations. Chapter twenty-four, Examination of the Four Noble Truths, ties together all of these arguments and brings the reader to the understanding that even though things do not have an intrinsic origination, there is still dependent origination, that is, there is still emptiness.
[5] With reference to the twelve links of dependent origination mentioned earlier in the article. Though ignorance is seen as the cause of conditioned arising, the process is not a linear one. The understanding of the idea of the “wheel” in the Wheel of Becoming, thus comes from this very notion, that conditioned arising can occur from any of the twelve links. Everything is dependent on all other things; hence every action has a consequence. Thus, the Silent Buddha having achieved enlightenment too had consequences.


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