From a discussion about the Canonicity of the Jatakas on DhammaStudyGroup a couple of years ago -referring back to a discussion with Prof. Richard Hayes on Buddha-L in 1999:
“Here’s the discussion that took place on Buddha-L, Feb. 2-4, 1999. I have strung together 7 messages and deleted repetitions […] of earlier messages. The subject line is: Canonicity of Jaataka.
Feb. 2, 1999
1. Richard P. Hayes writes:
A while back I invited people to look at a web-based teaching tool I was using for my course in Theravaada literature. In one of the pages I referred to the Jaataka stories as part of the Pali canon. One of scholars who checked into the site sent me an e-mail saying that the Jaataka verses are in the canon, but the stories that go with the verses are not part of the canon itself but are considered to be post-canonical commentarial literature. I have learned to trust the scholar in question, but I would also like to seek the opinions of other Pali scholars and Theravaadins on this matter. (It has been my experience in the past that experts occasionally disagree.)
2. Joel Tatelman replies:
Regarding your query about the canonicity of the Jaataka, all I’ve ever heard or read is just as your friend put it: the verses are accepted as buddhavacana; the prose portions are regarded as a.t.thakathaa. This is analogous to, say, the Dhammapada and its commentary.
It’s also true that Theravaadin traditions differ in their asription of canonicity to certain books of the Kuddakanikaaya. I just can’t remember which. Doubtless some more learned scholar such as Lance Cousins can clarify this matter.
Feb. 3, 1999
3. Lance Cousins replies to Richard:
A query from the Bovine chewing his cud in Montreal:
That is also my understanding. There are a few pieces of canonical prose in fact, but the vast bulk was collected later, traditionally by Buddhaghosa, but almost certainly somewhat later.
4. John Strong replies:
Richard and Joel: This is also what I’ve always heard, but, now that I think about it, it seems to me that the picture changes a bit when one considers the perspective of the Pali ninefold or the generally Sanskrit twelvefold classifications of the Buddhavacana, both of which include jaataka. In those listings, “jaataka” seems to mean more than just the verses… doesn’t it?
5. Jim Anderson replies to Richard:
I have taken it for granted that the Jataka stories are not included in the Tipitaka ever since I acquired my Nalanda edition which has only the gaatha-s. But while I was browsing through some books trying to find out what other scholars had to say on the matter and getting somewhat confused, I wondered if other Pali commentaries might define just what the term “Jaataka” is referring to. In what seems to be an older scheme, there is a ninefold (nava’nga) arrangement of the canonical works, one of the nine being the Jaataka.
In Dhammapaala’s sub-commentary (.tiika) on the Suma’ngalavilaasinii, there is what appears to be a definition that suggests that the past stories along with their gaatha-s is what a Jaataka refers to.
“tathaa sati pi gaathabandhabhaave bhagavato atiitesu jaatiisu cariyaanubhaavappakaasakesu jaatakasa~n~naa.”
(DA.T Vol. I, p.41 PTS ed.)
I have just come across this line and thought it might be relevant. I find it a little hard to translate but it does seem to suggest a connection between a gaatha and the story and maybe the two do go together to form a Jaataka after all. I have yet to figure what the passage is really saying however and I could be a way off in my guess.
Feb. 4, 1999
6. Lance Cousins replies to John Strong’s comments:
It is debated whether the ninefold or twelvefold classification is a memory of an earlier way of ordering of canonical materials or simply describes the different genres within the texts. Certainly, there are jaatakas within the first four nikaayas in this sense.
The antiquity of some at least of the specific stories within the Jaataka collection is not in debate because of the artistic representations at Bharhut and Sanchi. However, there are apparently
some cases where the verses do not justify the prose story and/or where we find different versions in Sanskrit, etc. Dieter Schlingloff in particular has argued that the early artistic representations
sometimes match the canonical verses but not the prose account.
7. Lance Cousins resplies to Jim:
Jim Anderson writes:
This is part of a discussion arising from the fact that if you define gaathaa as a sutta with verse, veyyaakara.na as a sutta without verse, that would leave no room for the other seven Angas.
Off the cuff, I translate:
Even although there is composition in verse, the name ‘Jaataka’ is established for specific suttas which make known the Lord’s glorious behaviour in his past births.
(supply pa.ti.t.thitaa and sutta-visesesu from earlier in the passage)
Maurice Walsh was cited:
“Modern scholars consider that it was not originally a Buddhist tale at all” with regard to the Vessantara Sutta. Also the following extract from the Kanala Jataka story was posted with a comment indicating the poster thought it showed some inaccuracy with the Commentary.
“Poor fickle creatures women are, ungrateful, treacherous they, No man if not possessed would deign to credit aught they say.
Little reck they of duty’s call or plea of gratitude, Insensible to parents’ love and ties of brotherhood, Transgressing every law of right, they play a shameless part, In all their acts obedient to the wish of their own heart.
However long they dwell with him, though kind and loving he, Tender of heart and dear to them as life itself may be,
In times of trouble and distress, leave him they will and must, I for my part in womenfolk can never put my trust.
How often is a woman’s mind like shifty monkey’s found, Or like the shade cast by a tree on height or depth around,
How changeful too the purpose lodged within a woman’s breast, Like tire of wheel revolving swift without a pause or rest.
Whene’er with due reflection they look round and see their way To captivate some man of wealth and make of him their prey,
Such simpletons with words so soft and smooth they captive lead, E’en as Kambojjan groom with herbs will catch the fiercest steed.”
However, similar sentiments are expressed also in the suttas e.g.:
“I do not know of any other form so enticing, desirable, intoxicating, binding and causing infatuation and so dangerous for the noble ending of unpleasantness as the form of the woman. Bhikkhus, sentient beings, attached, swooned, bound, infatuated and clinging to the form of the woman come to grief for a long time become subjective Bhikkhus, I do not know of any other form so enticing, desirable, intoxicating, binding and causing infatuation and so dangerous for the noble ending of unpleasantness as the form of the woman. Bhikkhus, sentient beings, attached, swooned, bound, infatuated and clinging to the form of the woman come to grief for a long time having become subjective.
“The woman talks to one with sword in hand and even to a sprite,
Gets mixed up even with snake poison, which if stings would die.
A woman does not speak with only one,
Gets hold of the confused with a glance and smile,
Or showing the body or with charming words
Even the very pure are struck and fall
The five strands of sense pleasures are seen in the woman,
As forms, sounds, tastes, smells and touches….”
…and from the milinda panha
42. ‘Venerable Nâgasena, it has been said by the Blessed One:
With opportunity, and secrecy,
And the right woo’r, all women will go wrong–
Aye, failing others, with a cripple even 1.”