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The Pali Jātaka collection contains many stories that might be described as “animal fables,” featuring highly anthropomorphized animal characters who think, speak, plan, and reason, much in the manner of human beings. Their use of human language and the fact that they speak, not only to each other but also (in many cases) to the human beings they encounter, sharply distinguishes them not only from the more naturalistic animals depicted elsewhere in Buddhist literature, but also from the Buddhist doctrinal view of animals as a lowly realm of rebirth, devoid of wisdom, rationality, and moral agency. How, then, should we interpret the animal fables of the Pali jātakas and their depiction of animals who speak? Are these animals just allegorical human beings, or does their animality continue to matter? Why do they speak, what do they choose to speak about, and what can they tell us about the difficulties of communicating across the human/animal divide?
Reiko Ohnuma is Professor of Religion, Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Dartmouth College. She is the author of Head, Eyes, Flesh, and Blood: Giving Away the Body in Indian Buddhist Literature (Columbia, 2007); Ties That Bind: Maternal Imagery and Discourse in Indian Buddhism (Oxford, 2012), and Unfortunate Destiny: Animals in the Indian Buddhist Imagination (Oxford, 2017).