In India recollection of previous lives is a common feature in the histories of the saints and heroes of sacred tradition. The doctrine of transmigration, since the later Vedic period, has played such an important part in the history of the national character and religious ideas that even Buddhist literature has included the ages of the past as an authentic background to the founder's historical life as Gautama. Jataka stories or birth legends were widely known in the third century B.C. The Pali work, entitled "The Jataka" contains 537 Birth-stories of the Buddha's former births.
Each story, narrated by the Buddha, opens with a preface relating the particular circumstances in the Buddha's life, revealing some events in the long series of his previous existences as a bodhisattva. At the end the Buddha identifies the different actors in the story in their present births.
These stories magnify the glory of the Buddha and illustrate Buddhist doctrines and precepts by appropriate example. The foremost interest of these legends lies in their relation to folklore giving a vivid picture of the social life and customs of ancient India. The famous translations of the Jataka Stories from Pali edited by Prof. E.B. Cowell are now once again being made available to the general public in three volumes.