The Bodhisatta was once a king. Before this lifetime began, an elephant living free in the forest got a large splinter in his foot. The wound got infected and caused him great pain, so he limped into a logging camp inhabited by a group of carpenters who cut and shaped the wood that they would later use for building houses. The injured elephant lay down and the men saw the swollen foot, pulled out the splinter, and cleaned the wound. Soon after, the elephant was healed. The elephant was so grateful to them for saving his life that he stayed at the camp to work for the carpenters: pulling trees, rolling logs, and fetching tools. In return, the carpenters treated the elephant well, sharing their food with him at mealtime.
When this elephant reached old age, he brought his son, a magnificent white elephant, to the camp to replace him so he himself could retire. The son got along with the carpenters and their families just as well as his father. Being a noble creature, this young elephant never defecated in the river. But, after a flood, some of his dried dung washed into the water and floated down to the capital city where it got stuck in a bush. The king’s mahouts had brought five hundred elephants down to the river to bathe, but before they even got in the water they smelled the noble dung and ran off. The mahouts figured there must be something in the river causing this behavior, and after searching, they found the dung. They mixed it with water in a jar and sprinkled some on each of their elephants, who after getting a splash immediately went down and got in the river as usual.
The mahouts reported this to the king and advised him to go upriver and get this noble elephant. He took their advice, and the carpenters agreed to give the white elephant to the king, but he wouldn’t budge until the carpenters were fairly compensated. The king gave them six hundred thousand coins, but the elephant insisted they deserved more, so the king added a set of clothes for each man, woman, and child there. Finally satisfied, he said goodbye to his friends and left.
The king led his new state elephant on a solemn procession around the city, then took him to his fully decked-out stable. The king treated the elephant like a friend and an equal, and soon, blessed by his arrival, the king became ruler over the whole of India.
It was at this glorious time that the Bodhisatta was conceived. Shortly before the queen gave birth, the king died. Not wanting the elephant to be upset, nobody told him. Soon after, a neighboring king took advantage of the disarray and besieged the city. A message was sent telling the invading king that if their own queen’s baby was a girl, they would surrender, and if it was a boy, they would fight. The king agreed to their request to wait a week before attacking. Seven days later, the Bodhisatta was born and the battle began. The city’s defenders fought hard, but without a leader they did not fare well. The royal advisors told the queen that defeat seemed inevitable and suggested they tell the elephant about the current situation.
The queen agreed, and she took the baby Bodhisatta along with her when she and the men of the royal court went to the elephant’s stable. There she laid the Bodhisatta at his feet and told him about the king’s death, his son’s birth, and the kingdom’s looming defeat, ending with, “Either kill the boy yourself, or win the kingdom back for him!” The elephant, moaning with grief, picked up the Bodhisatta with his trunk, raised him over his head, laid him in the queen’s arms, and vowed victory.
The elephant was fitted with armor and led out the city gate where he trumpeted majestically, scaring the invading army into retreat and saving the kingdom. He chased after the rival king and carried him by his topknot back to the palace, dropping him in front of the Bodhisatta.
Some men moved in to kill this king, but the elephant stopped them, saying he was going to grant a pardon. But before he let the king walk away, the elephant warned him that though their prince was young, the kingdom was strong, and underestimating them again would be a grave mistake. The Bodhisatta was crowned king at age seven, and not a single foe could defeat him during his entire reign.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
One of the Buddha’s disciples spent a rainy season in the forest. He built a leaf hut and eagerly began to meditate. But after three months he had no success reaching insight, so he quit trying and returned to the monastery, content to progress no further than the moderate level of understanding he had already achieved. The white elephant was an earlier birth of this quitter disciple, and when the Buddha learned that he had given up on the quest for salvation, he told him this story of his successful past life to motivate him to not quit in this one.
The queen and the white elephant’s father were earlier births of the Buddha’s birth mother and Sariputta, one of the Buddha’s top disciples.