A Buddhistic Perspective on Moral Leadership and the Human Condition by Rafael Arri Morales

For some, traditional literature can be a more delightful read than contemporary literature. This is because contemporary literature is highly laden with different social and political underpinnings and agenda. Contemporary literature, more often than not, can also take on the roles of commentary and propaganda. On the other hand, traditional literature looks at different elements and beliefs that build and represent a culture. By reading classical works, readers are exposed to a culture’s belief systems, cultural niches, religious viewpoints, etc. This enriches their overall understanding of a certain culture or society.

Traditional literature, therefore, presents an insight in learning about a culture’s rich bank of heritage and customs. This is different from contemporary literature for it highlights a society’s current political and social situations.

With that being said, studying India’s traditional literature will allow its readers to understand the different cultures that have permeated and combined within the classical Indian ethos. However, the only condition in studying India’s traditional literature is that there is too much to study. This should excite those who are avid readers and interested humanists. This comes from the fact that India is a complex boiling pot and amalgamation of different cultural beliefs and value systems.

For those of you whose interests have been piqued by this article, there are many works that have already been translated in English. Moreover, some of these resources are already available online. Some of these works include long verses of poetry written by different monks. An example of this is the Hymns of the Tawil Sava Saints. One can also delve into two Hindu epics: Mahabharata and Ramayana. One can also read up on The Four Vedas, an important source for Hindu scripture. There is so much to read about in terms of traditional Indian literature.


This is one commercially available version of the Jataka tales. It has been translated and republished for public consumption.

However, for this specific article, there will be a discussion on one selected story from the Jataka tales. The Jataka tales is a body of literature that narrates the different births and lives of the Buddha. In its different stories, the Buddha can appear in either human or animal form. The work shares some stories with another anthology entitled the Panchatantra, a collection of fables that advocates Hindu social values. The Jataka tales is considered one of the earliest writings on Buddhist beliefs and values. Scholars believe that different Buddhist monks collaborated with one another during the 4th century BCE to come up with this voluminous body of traditional Indian literature (“Jataka,” Encyclopædia Britannica).


This is an illustration of the monkey king’s leadership throughout the story.

An example of this story is The Monkey’s Heroic Self-Sacrifice. The short story follows these different plot points:

  1. The Buddha is reborn into strong and vigorous monkey king who lived in the Himalaya with over eighty thousand monkey followers.
  2. The monkey king instructs his followers to make sure no mango fruit falls into the Ganges river because this will surely sow problems for them.
  3. One mango fruit falls down and reaches the human king. The human king loves the taste of ripe mango and instructs his henchmen to find the tree where it came from.
  4. The human king sets himself below the mango tree in order to eat the fruit at his own will. He is surrounded by his human guards.
  5. The monkey king arrives and instructs his followers to eat all of the fruit.
  6. The human king instructs his archers to shoot down the monkeys.
  7. The monkey king, upon hearing this, makes a bridge using his own body so that his retinue can escape to another tree.
  8. A monkey by the name of Devadatta, Buddha’s evil cousin, breaks the monkey king’s back because he jumps onto it. This leaves the monkey king alone and in pain.
  9. The human king finds the monkey king to be an honourable creature and takes care of him by providing him with material comfort.
  10. The human king and the monkey king converse with one another. The monkey king instructs the human king on leadership through the use of poetic verse.
  11. The monkey king dies.
  12. The human king gives the monkey king an honourable burial and rules his kingdom righteously because of the wisdom that was imparted to him.

This work can rightly be considered a work of Asian literature because of three reasons. These reasons are namely: (1) its Indian cultural face, (2) its reflection on Buddhist values, and (3) its didactic and explorative nature.

Firstly, The Monkey’s Heroic Self-Sacrifice follows from an Indian cultural face. This is because it is laden with symbols, images, and settings that evidently refer back to India. For the setting, there is a mention of the Ganges river, a trans-boundary river that runs through India and Bangladesh. The river is also revered and worshiped as the Goddess of Ganga, the most sacred river (“Ganges River,” Encyclopædia Britannica)

Other symbols include the mango and the monkey. The mango serves as the national fruit of India and it is associated with different gods and deities hailing from Sikhism, Jainism, and Hinduism. The mango represents fertility, attainment, and perfection (“Mango,” Encyclopædia Britannica). On the other hand, the monkey points to the Hindu god Hanuman, the monkey warrior in the Ramayana. Local Indian villages also treat the monkey as a source of wisdom and power (“Hanuman,” Encyclopædia Britannica).

From these cultural symbols, one can learn that India’s lifestyle is a combination and amalgamation of different belief systems. Not only is this story Buddhist in orientation, it is also a testament to the various cultures of India.

Secondly, The Monkey’s Heroic Self-Sacrifice reflects Buddhist values. Not only does it feature the Buddha or Bodhisatta as its main actor, it also reflects Buddhist value systems. These values hail from the Eightfold Path, a principle Buddhist practice that leads to enlightenment or Nirvana (“Eightfold Path,” Encyclopædia Britannica). These values have been manifested by the monkey king during his last instruction and conversation with the human king in the story. This instruction was carried out in verse form:

Victorious king, I guard the herd, I am their lord and chief,

When they were filled with fear of thee and stricken sore with grief.

I leapt a hundred times the length of bow outstretched that lies,

When I had bound a bamboo-shoot firmly around my thighs:

I reached the tree like thunder-cloud sped by the tempest’s blast;

I lost my strength, but reached a bough: with hands I held it fast.

And as I hung extended there held fast by shoot and bough,

My monkeys passed across my back and are in safety now.

Therefore I fear no pain of death, bonds do not give me pain,

The happiness of those was won o’er whom I used to reign.

A parable for thee, O king, if thou the truth would’st read:

The happiness of kingdom and of army and of steed

And city must be dear to thee, if thou would’st rule indeed.

These lines reflect certain themes of leadership, self-sacrifice, self-giving, and protection of others. All of these values can be found in the Eightfold Path.


This is an illustration of “The Noble Eightfold Path.”

This just goes to show that this story properly reflects Buddhist values. There is a mentality that in order to become truly happy (or enlightened) one has to forego one’s happiness in order to focus on the betterment of others. The Buddha, in the form of the monkey king, manifests these principles rightly in the aforementioned lines. The sacrifice is a telling act of Buddhism. This is because Buddhism advocates a life of detachment – which the Buddha practiced by detaching himself from his own life.

Thirdly, The Monkey’s Self-Sacrifice follows from a didactic and explorative nature. This is because the Jataka tales are included in the Pali canon, the body of literature that deals with Buddhist scripture (“Jataka,” Encyclopædia Britannica). It is didactic because of the different values that are inscribed in each of its different tales – mostly embodied by the Buddha. It is also explorative in the sense that it surveys different cases of the human condition through the use of certain settings and certain symbolic characters. This explorative and didactic nature stems from the different religious systems that Asia developed during the early periods of history. India, in fact, is the birthplace of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism. These religions properly explore the different facets of human experience in order to correct and direct them for the betterment of one’s personhood. This is manifested in the monkey king’s corrective and formative attitude towards his understanding of leadership and positions. The different Jataka tales and different classical Indian works follow from these didactic and explorative notions as well.

This singular piece is representative of the rich discourse on traditional Indian literature. This is because it uses different images and symbols that are held dear by the Indian ethos. Moreover, it advocates the plurality and multiplicity of Indian culture through its use of different religious beliefs and value systems. The Monkey’s Heroic Self-Sacrifice rightly tackles the notion of moral leadership and the human condition from the Buddhist perspective. From these various features and characteristics, it can be concluded that this piece (along with the collection that it belongs to) rightly belongs to the rich field of Asian literature.

Works Cited

“Eightfold Path”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2016. Web. 20 Mar. 2016

“Ganges River”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2016. Web. 20 Mar. 2016

“Hanuman”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2016. Web. 20 Mar. 2016

“Jataka”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2016. Web. 20 Mar. 2016

“Mango”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2016. Web. 20 Mar. 2016

“The Monkey’s Heroic Self-Sacrifice.” The Norton Anthology of World Literature. Ed. Sarah N. Lawall and Maynard Mack. Trans. Edward Cowell. New York: Norton, 2001. 1008-010. Print.


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