Asanka Jataka (#380)

temple painting of Asanka Jataka

The Bodhisatta was once an ascetic who lived alone in the Himalayas. A god of perfect merit fell from heaven and was born inside a lotus. When the other lotuses withered, hers remained flawless. When the Bodhisatta noticed this, he walked out to inspect it, found the baby girl, and decided to raise her as his daughter. He gave her the name Asanka, meaning doubt.

When Asanka was sixteen years old, Indra, king of the gods, visited the Bodhisatta and gave her luxurious clothes and jewelry and a crystal palace that floated in the air while she was inside. Soon after, a forester saw her and told the king about her divine beauty. He immediately went to the forest, accompanied by his advisors and a large army, and asked the Bodhisatta to let him have her for marriage. The Bodhisatta agreed, but the king could not take her until he knew her name. He discussed it with his advisors and guessed many names, all wrong.

A year passed as they gathered more guesses, and he and his men suffered great hardship living in the forest; some died from snakes, flies, and cold; others were attacked by lions and such beasts. The king decided to give up and go home. As he left, Asanka stood at a window of her palace and called out to the king, telling him he would never find a wife as good as her and he should be more patient. In heaven, she said, the gods wait one thousand years to drink the juice from a special vine that makes them intoxicated for four months. So the king, swayed by both her words and her beauty, guessed names for another year.

Once more failing to find her name, the king decided to leave. And again Asanka appeared at her crystal window and told him one time a crane flew to the top of a hill and wanted to stay there for a full day. Indra divined the bird’s wish and diverted a stream to the hilltop so the crane could feed. “The crane’s hope was fulfilled,” she told the king, “and yours could be too.” So the king remained for a third year and presented more names, all wrong, to the Bodhisatta.

Once again frustrated, the king set off for home. When he saw Asanka at her window he told her it had all been too much and while her words were sweet, she had not helped him. “You promised I would succeed, but it was all talk with no performance. My men and I have suffered greatly and I doubt my life will be terrible without you as my wife.” Hearing his words, Asanka told the king he had just said her name in his farewell; surely he could figure it out now. And he did. So the king took his new bride and returned home, and they lived happily ever after.

In the Lifetime of the Buddha

The king and Asanka were earlier births of one of the Buddha’s junior disciples and his former wife. Because he was new, his food was poor (lumpy gruel with stale or rotting ingredients and dried or burnt sprouts) and he did not get enough to stay healthy. So he started to return each morning to the wife he left behind and she gave him delicious rice with sauce and curry. This made him miss his former life, and with her encouragement he decided to leave the monkhood.

The Buddha told the disciple this story so he knew that in the past his wife’s behavior had caused him three years of misery and made many men suffer and die. After talking to the Buddha this disciple gained new understanding and chose to stay.

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