Communal harmony and respect for seniority are the main moral of the story. Such respect stands in contrast with a pecking-order according to strength, size and power: it is the partridge which is most respected, not the elephant. Although the Buddha did sometimes downplay the value respecting older people merely for their age, in this story he illustrates that a senior person should nonetheless be respected for their experience, because, as Tachibana points out, “the maturity of age is generally the sign of much experience”. However, the story led to the establishment of several rules of conduct with regard to respect for seniority in the context of the monastic life, in which the number of years ordained as a monk is measured, rather than age. Buddhist monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu explains the relation between respect for seniority and harmony, drawing from the story: “A hierarchy based on seniority, however, is both objective and, in the long run, less oppressive: one’s place in the hierarchy is not a measure of one’s worth. Such a hierarchy also discourages the pride and competition that would come if bhikkhus could fight their way up the hierarchy by outdoing the measurable merit of others.”
The four animals represent the different habitats of the animal world—the sky, the trees, the ground, and underground. The partridge assumes the role of the most senior animal: in pre-modern India, the partridge was highly regarded for its intelligence and understanding of language. The excreting of the seed of the tree is relevant, because some Indian trees are believed to only sprout when the seed is excreted by a bird, thus further amplifying the concept of cooperation and mutual dependence. The image of the animals standing on each other’s shoulders, on the back of a patient elephant, also portrays social and environmental harmony: the bird finds a seed and plants it, then the rabbit waters it, and the monkey fertilizes it. Once the seed sprouts and begins to grow, the elephant protects it. After some time, the small plant grows into a big, beautiful tree full of healthy fruit. By working together and using their individual talents, the four friends are able to reach and enjoy the fruit.
The primary source for the Buddhist legend of the four harmonious brothers is the Vinayavastu, which forms the first section of the Kangyur, the canon of Tibetan Buddhism. In canons of other Buddhist traditions, such as in the Pāli Canon of Theravāda Buddhism, and in the texts of the Mahāsāṃghika, Mūla-Sarvāstivāda and Sarvāstivāda orders, almost the same Jātaka tale is found in the Vinaya and Jātaka collections. The Dharmaguptaka and Mahīśāsaka orders did not consider the story part of the Jātaka, however, and only included it in their Vinayas. Bhikkhu Analayo believes that the story originally was not considered a previous life of the Buddha, but a didactic parable taught by the Buddha.
It is a color drawing/painting on a wooden plank which I found at a Tibetan market in Shigatse. It reminded me of the beforementioned Town musicians of Bremen, which is a bedtime story (fairy tale by the Grimm Brothers). The image intrigued The Wandelgek, because it implied that there had been cultural exchange between maybe the Tibetans and Europeans. It is very likely or at least probable that this story was exchanged by travellers and merchants on the Silkroad.