Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
Power, Domination and Resistance: A Subaltern Reading of the PāliJātaka Stories
by Neekee Chaturvedi
The Jātakas are a valuable resource for reconstructing various aspects of everyday lives of ordinary people. They also touch upon aspects of their relations with the elite, the repression that they had to suffer and the strategies they devised to cope with a society marked by deep differences based on caste, class and gender. The various forms of subordination, aggravated by oppressive factors of political power, patriarchal mindset and vulnerability of groups like the aged, form the focus of this study. The Jātaka tales have descriptions of everyday lives from different angles and they non-deliberately bring out various forms of repression that plagued the Indian society. Very rarely do we see the marginalized groups breaking out into an open, unified, organized struggle. Their efforts do not reflect class consciousness nor are they aimed at subverting the mechanism of exploitation. They have modest intentions of « working the system… to their minimum disadvantage ». Bringing disrepute to the king, malicious gossips about the powerful, resorting to concealing lower status, garnering public support, fleeing the villages to evade exorbitant taxes are some of the subtle strategies that emerged as « the truly durable weapons ».
In its origination, Buddhism embraced the ideas of resistance, reaction, and protest. It emanated « as a wider response to a particular doctrine and as a reaction to the changing milieu with which it was associated »1. The social and political changes2 occurring at that time were not completely divorced from the growth of religious consciousness. In historical context, Buddhism was providing an intellectual ground for protesters. Therefore, Buddhist literature contains accounts of slippages from mainstream social structures and strictures. This article tries to delineate the lives of the marginalized groups or the subalterns through a study of the Pāli birth-stories of the Buddha called Jātaka.