Thursday, May 13, 2004

Aesop and Jatarka Tales

In the preface to Indian Fairytales, Joseph Jacobs surmises that approximately one-third of European fairytales derive from Indian sources, transferred into the west through the Gipsies, Jews, Crusades and travellers that criss-crossed the trade-routes.

Many taken from the Tales of the Bidpai and Barlaam and Josaphat were very liely added into the anthologies of Aesop's fables duting the Middle Ages because they were conducive to strong moralism and lent well to sermonizing.
Similarities between the tales within Jacob's collection and Aesop are strong with some fables easily comparable. In the Jataka collection there is the story of The Lion and the Crane and in Aesop, The Wolf and the Crane. The theme is nearly identical, but the characters are not. In the Lion and the Crane, the crane acts in a purely idealistic manner, expecting no reward. However, he is no stupid bird and props the lion's maul open wiht a stick before retrieving the bone. He is circumspect and maintains a proper respect for life. In the Aesop version, Wolf and Crane, the crane is rpesented as foolhardy, sticking its head down the lion's maul without any forethought. The dialogue between characters within the Indian version is extended, showing the characters to be sophisticated; but in the Aesop, the characters are scarcely sketched as the importance of theme overrides characterization. In the Aesop, the crane aids the wolf out of purely self-seeking motives of gaining a reward and thus risks his life. In the original Aesop, the fables had no morals attached—the morals were added on later for dogmatic reasons. In the Jataka, the morals are written into the stories as the overall theme of the collection is spiritual development, but often enlightenment is present in comical ways.
Another significant difference between the two collections is that the Indian fables have a mixed cast of humans and animals with about equal participation. Moreover, there are transformation myths included in the collection as people change into animal forms or animals change into human form. The dialogue is also extended, often witty as the animals try to outwit one another through trickery and deceit. In Aesop, the animals are stereotyped. The frog, an object of ridicule in ancient Greece, is ridiculous. The turtle or tortoise, being slow of movement, is slow of mind as it demands of the eagle to give him subsonic free-fall lessons. However, in the Indian fables, this is not so. The crane appears as circumspect and saintly in its benevolence toward the lion, appears later as cruel and grasping in trickery regarding the fish. The crab outwits the wily, using not only its brain, but its redoubtable might.
In Aesop, there are no real transformation, but revelations or snapshots of characters. The wolf dons sheep's clothing, but his nature remains the same. In The Fox and the Mask, the superficiality of appearance is tersely depicted, but there is no internal change. It is a statement on social presentation and values. In the Indian fables, the major theme is that of spiritual transformation, attaining a higher plane of existence. In the story, Loving Laila, Laila must not only travel across space, but time in order to win the love of her beloved. Moreover, she must demean herself and be transformed into lower forms before she attract the affection and attention of her beloved who does not recognize her, but is terrified of her for being an evil demon.
In the Indian fables, man is never superior to the animals, but often relatively inferior as he cannot understand his own limitations and his beastiality to beasts. The tales are often comical, evoking a snicker of amusement from the dialogue which would not lend so well to medieval sermonizing on the evils of this world.
Indian Fairy Tales ed Joseph Jacobs
History of the Jataka Tales
a brief history of the development and spread of the Jataka Tales

Eloise Hart: Aesop's Fables, Jataka Tales -- Truths Older than Time
an essay on Aesop and the spread of Aesop's fables
Aesop's Fables Bibliography
annotated bibliography

13th Apr 04 Aesop and Indian Influences