The word Jataka means history of birth. The Jataka tales refers to the stories of Lord Buddha’s previous birth in human and animal form. The tales depict some virtue the future Buddha is believed to possess. Lord Buddha has undergone many births before he was born as Siddhartha Gautama who became Buddha,the enlightened one, whose teachings formed the basis of the religion Buddhism.
The Jataka tales form a part of the Pali canon in Theravada Buddhism.The Jatakamala in Sanskrit by Aryasura has 34 Jatakas which are depicted in Borubodur,Indonesia. The Jataka tales are roughly dated to 4th century B.C. The Theravada Jataka comprises of 547 poems.
The Jataka tales include :The ass in the lion’s skin, The banyan deer, The cock and the cat, The crab and the crane, The twelve sisters, The Vessantaka jataka,The swan with golden feathers,Prince Sattva,King Sibi,The King’s white elephant,The lion and the woodpecker,The ox who envied the pig, The measure of rice among many others. Many versions of the stories exist in different cultures. Some are similar to tales in the Hindu Panchatantra.
In some countries like Cambodia,Myanmar,Thailand, Sri Lanka the tales are enacted in dance and theatre; mostly the longer tales like Vessantara jataka.
The last ten Jataka tales, the Mahanipata jatakas are to do with the human incarnations of the Buddha in his previous lives,his last ten births before Siddhartha Gautama. Mahajanaka jataka is one of these. The others include the the stories of him as Prince Temiya, Suvanna sama, Nimi,Mahosadha,Bhuridatta, Canda Kumara,Brahma Narada,Vidhura Pandita, and Prince Vessantara. The last ten Jataka tales represent the ten virtues of renunciation,vigour,benevolence, absolute determination,insight,morality,patience,equanimity,reality and generosity.
Jakata depiction,tale of jackal and otters,2nd century,Bharhut,Madhya Pradesh.
See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, http://www.archive.org/details/jatakatalesfranc00fran
Mahajanaka jataka,Ajanta Caves,7th century,Maharashtra.
By Meister des Mahâjanaka Jâtaka [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Jataka depiction,9th century,Candi Mendut,Central Java,Indonesia.
By Photo Dharma from Penang, Malaysia (033 Jataka Tale) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Tiger Jataka, 4th to 9th century,Dunhuang,China.
By Anonymous artists of the Northern Wei period; I created the file (Wall Paintings at Dunhuang) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Jataka depiction,terracotta tile,Myanmar,13th century,Museum of Asian art,Berlin-Dahlem.
By Bin im Garten – Own work (own picture), CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14739741
Buddha with the One Hundred Jataka Tales,Thangka painting 13th-14th century,Tibet.
By Anonymous (Christie’s Images) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Jataka Tales,Thangka painting, 18th-19th century, Bhutan.
See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Vessantara Jataka,depiction of Vessantara giving away the chariot,late 19th century,Thailand.
Jataka tale,drawing,Y.Coudert,21st century,France.