This Jataka tale illustrates the perfection of character of virtue (sila).
The Bodhisatta was once a naga king. The King of Varanasi’s son (who was the Bodhisatta’s human grandfather) served as viceroy, and as time went on, everyone saw what a great man he was. This made the King of Varanasi paranoid and he worried that his son would seize the throne, so the king banished him, saying he could only return and rule after his natural death. The son was righteous and had no such intent, but he left without complaining and went to live as an ascetic in a leaf hut, eating roots and fruits.
A naga who had lost her husband took a human form and visited the realm of men. She came upon the prince’s hut while he was away gathering food and figured she’d test whether he was a genuine ascetic or not; if he wasn’t, she would try to marry him. She decorated his bed with flowers and perfumes and went back to the naga realm. The prince returned home, and because he was not a true ascetic at heart, the decorated bed filled him with joy. He lay down on it and fell fast asleep.
The next morning, the prince did not sweep his hut before going off to collect fruits, and when the naga woman returned and saw the wilted flowers, she knew this was a man who loved pleasure and she would be able to seduce him. This time she decorated his whole hut with flowers.
After sleeping amidst the flowers again, the prince wanted to know who was doing this, and instead of going for food that morning, he hid nearby. When he saw the naga woman coming down the path with more flowers and perfumes, he fell in love instantly. He asked who she was and why she was there, and she explained she was a naga widow seeking a new husband. He told her he was a prince and explained why he had been forced to live an ascetic life and said he would gladly quit the holy life and be her husband. She magically summoned a grand home, and they were able to dine on divine meat and drink. Soon they had a son named Sagara-Brahmadatta and a daughter named Samuddaja.
One day a forester passed by the prince’s home and recognized him. He stayed there as his guest for a few days. It was at this time the king died. After the burial rites were performed, the royal advisors, not knowing where the prince dwelled or whether he was even still alive, decided to seek a new king. But while they were meeting, the forester returned to the city and told the advisors he had just met the prince. He led them to the prince’s home and they enthroned him king then and there.
When the newly-crowned king told his wife the news and said she would be the chief among his sixteen thousand queens, she told him she could not go because nagas possess deadly poison: if they get upset, it scatters around the room like a handful of chaff. Being a co-wife would undoubtedly cause her displeasure, so, for the safety of others, she must leave him. He begged her to reconsider, but she would not, and she returned to the naga world alone.
Since their father was human, so were the children. But they inherited a delicate, watery nature from their mother, so the king had his advisors hollow out a tree, put it on a cart, and fill it with water for them to travel back to Varanasi in. People adorned the city for their new king’s arrival and welcomed him with a weeklong drinking festival.
The children spent most of their time playing in a lake specially prepared for their enjoyment. One day they saw a turtle floating in the water and were terrified. They ran to their father and told him they saw a goblin, so the king sent some men to capture it. They showed the king that it was only a turtle, but because he loved his children so much, he ordered his advisors to punish it. They discussed what to do. One suggested pounding the turtle to powder with a mortar and pestle. Others wanted to eat it. One person, who was afraid of water, called for throwing it into a giant whirlpool in the river. Upon hearing this suggestion, the turtle cried out that he could bear the other punishments but begged them not to make him suffer the latter, which was the cruelest. Hearing this feigned plea, the king ordered the turtle thrown into the whirlpool.
Once in the water, the turtle found a passage to the naga realm and escaped there. But as soon as he arrived, two sons of the naga king Dhatarattha seized him. Thinking quickly, the turtle claimed to be a messenger from the King of Varanasi, one specially chosen for doing business in water, and demanded they treat him with respect and take him to see their king. They believed him and promptly did as he demanded.
The turtle told the naga king that the King of Varanasi proposed a union between their lands and offered his daughter’s hand in marriage. The naga king was thrilled and sent four nagas in the form of young men to Varanasi to make arrangements. On the way there, the turtle stopped at a lotus pond and told the nagas he needed to collect some flowers for the king and queen and he would meet them at the palace. And here he escaped.
The king welcomed the four nagas with honor and listened to them explain their mission. The king answered that, though he respected King Dhatarattha, it would be inappropriate for a human king to give a princess to a naga king. Not realizing they had been conned by the turtle, the young nagas were furious about this disrespect, but resisted their urge to kill the king with a blast of their poisonous breath. They rushed back to their home and told King Dhatarattha, and he promptly sent a naga army to siege the city. Filled with terror, the citizens begged their king to accept King Dhatarattha’s demand and hand over his daughter, Samuddaja. Pitying his people and fearing for his own life, he relented. But soon after, out of sorrow for the loss of his daughter, he abdicated and went to live as an ascetic in the forest and gave the throne to his son, Sagara-Brahmadatta.
The nagas built a glorious city nearby to receive their king’s new bride, and she assumed she would be living there. But when Samuddaja fell asleep, the nagas transported her to their realm, and everyone there was ordered to appear in human form before her at all times to make her feel comfortable. And so she served as chief queen completely unaware she lived in the naga realm married to a naga. Even after raising four sons—Sudassana, Bhuridatta (the Bodhisatta), Subhaga, and Kanarittha—Samuddaja still did not know. Likewise, the sons grew up not knowing their mother was human, though eventually someone told them. Kanarittha, the youngest, decided to test her, and while feeding at her breast he took his serpent form. Screaming, she threw him to the ground and struck his eye with her fingernail. The naga king ordered his son put to death for breaking the rule, but Samuddaja told her husband to forgive him.
When the four sons reached adulthood, King Dhatarattha gave them each their own kingdom and they lived in glory with sixteen thousand maidens in attendance. The Bodhisatta and his father regularly discussed matters of importance with the gods, and Indra, king of the gods, was very impressed by the Bodhisatta and gave him great honor. These meetings made the Bodhisatta long for the splendor of Indra’s heaven, and he began to faithfully follow all the holy-day vows to ensure rebirth there. Initially he did this in an empty palace in the naga realm, but he kept getting interrupted. Then he started fasting in the human realm because nobody would bother him there, even though this was dangerous for nagas. He folded up his body and sat atop an anthill through the night. In the morning, ten beautiful, music-playing maidens came to bedeck him with perfumes and flowers and accompany him back to the naga realm.
One day a man who made his living hunting wild animals and selling the meat was out in the forest with his son. Evening was coming soon and they had still found no animals, not even a lizard. Finally, he saw a deer drinking at the river and shot it, but the deer was only wounded and ran off. The hunter gave chase and eventually the deer fell. They cut up its flesh and headed home, but the sun set before they could get there and they had to spend the night in a banyan tree, which happened to be next to the Bodhisatta’s anthill.
At dawn, the hunter saw the maidens coming to get the Bodhisatta. When they saw the hunter they fled, but the Bodhisatta stayed. The Bodhisatta talked a while with the hunter, who he feared would betray him to a snake charmer, so he invited the hunter and his son to come live a life of luxury in the naga realm. They accepted the offer and the Bodhisatta was able to continue his holy-day routine with no fear.
The Bodhisatta visited the hunter and his son every two weeks and gave them everything they wanted, but after a year, the hunter missed his family and wanted to go back home. His son was not discontent but agreed to return with his father. Not wanting to upset the Bodhisatta, the hunter could not tell him he wanted to leave because he no longer enjoyed the naga realm. Instead, he said he wanted to become an ascetic. The Bodhisatta offered him a magic jewel that granted wishes, but needing to go all in on his lie, the hunter refused it since an ascetic should have no desires.
Back in the realm of men, the special robes and jewelry disappeared, and the hunter and his son were once again wrapped in their yellow peasant clothes, holding their bows and spears. The son was upset, but the hunter promised he would catch enough deer to care for the family. The hunter’s wife was angry at him for leaving her to care for their children all alone, and even angrier when he told her about the magic jewel. The next day, the hunter and son resumed their former lives in the forest looking for game.
Not long after the hunter returned, a garuda snatched a naga out of the great southern ocean with its talons and carried it back to its home. The naga, trying to escape, coiled its tail around a giant banyan tree under which an ascetic had built his leaf hut, and the tree was ripped from the ground. The garuda got back to its perch and ate the naga. Feeling bad about destroying the tree, the garuda went to talk to the ascetic, who explained that neither the garuda nor the naga had sinned by ruining the tree because neither intended any harm. Relieved at this news, the garuda thanked the ascetic for this lesson by teaching him a special spell to weaken nagas. Soon after this happened, a brahmin snake charmer and snakebite doctor who could not pay off his debts gave up hope and went off to die in the forest. When he came upon the ascetic’s hut, he changed his mind and became the ascetic’s servant. In appreciation of his diligent service, the ascetic taught him the spell.
No longer needing to worry about money, the snake charmer headed back home, repeating the spell as he walked so he wouldn’t forget it. A group of young nagas who served the Bodhisatta and were entrusted to guard his magic jewel were swimming in the river. They heard the snake charmer speaking and, recognizing the words, assumed a garuda was coming. Seized with terror, they immediately dove into the earth and left the magic jewel behind. The snake charmer saw the jewel and took it, thinking the spell had brought it to him. Just then, the hunter and his son walked past the river and saw the snake charmer with the jewel, which they recognized immediately. Wanting the jewel for himself, the hunter tried unsuccessfully to convince the snake charmer it was dangerous. Then he asked what price he would accept. Not knowing the jewel had magic powers, the snake charmer said he would give it to anyone who could help him capture a naga. The excited hunter knew he could do this, but his son was disgusted that he would betray the Bodhisatta, who had been so kind to them. Unable to change his father’s mind, the son rebuked his father, loudly declared him a sinner, and marched off into the forest to become an ascetic.
On the next holy day, the hunter took the snake charmer to the Bodhisatta’s anthill. When he saw them approaching, the Bodhisatta knew he was in danger. But not wanting to obstruct his road to heaven, he refused to get angry or flee to safety.
The snake charmer was ecstatic to find a naga and threw the jewel to the hunter, but it slipped through his hands and disappeared into the ground down to the naga world. The hunter went home in sorrow because, through his own greed, he had lost three precious things: his son, the magic jewel, and his friendship with the Bodhisatta. Meanwhile, the snake charmer recited the serpent spell and seized the weakened Bodhisatta by the tail, spat a drug into his mouth, stretched him out full length on the ground, and crushed his bones into pieces to rob him of his powers. But though he suffered great pain, the Bodhisatta felt no anger.
The snake charmer stuffed the Bodhisatta into a basket and headed to a village to do a show. With a crowd gathered around, he ordered the Bodhisatta to change his size, shape, and color; make himself invisible; spit out smoke and water; and dance. Hoping he would eventually be released if the snake charmer made a lot of money, the Bodhisatta did everything he was asked. The crowd went wild, giving gold, garments, and more totaling one hundred thousand coins. The snake charmer originally planned to set the Bodhisatta free when he earned just one thousand coins, but after this performance he got greedy and knew he could make a fortune in a big city. So he did shows in every town he passed until he reached Varanasi, where he was invited to perform for King Sagara-Brahmadatta.
On the day the Bodhisatta was seized, his mother dreamed that a man cut off her arm and carried it away with blood streaming out. She knew the dream foretold misfortune in her family, and when the Bodhisatta was late to visit, she was sure some evil had befallen him. As weeks went on, she grew increasingly despondent. When her other three sons came to visit, they heard the sound of sorrow from her and the Bodhisatta’s wives throughout the palace. The brothers promised they would go out and bring the Bodhisatta back. Kanarittha went to search the heavens, Subhaga went to the Himmapan forest, and Sudassana, the eldest, went to the realm of men.
To make sure people would help him, Sudassana dressed as an ascetic. He was joined by Accimukhi, one of their half-sisters (born to another mother), who took the form of a frog and rode in his matted hair. He began his search at the place where the Bodhisatta went for the holy days. Seeing the blood-stained ground, he felt sure the Bodhisatta had been seized by a snake charmer, and people in the village confirmed it. Following the route of towns where the snake charmer had performed, he arrived at Varanasi right as the show in the palace courtyard began.
When the Bodhisatta poked his head out of the basket and saw his brother in the crowd, he crawled up and rested his head on his foot. The two brothers cried while the fearful crowd retreated. The Bodhisatta went back to his basket, and the snake charmer, thinking he’d just bitten the man, assured Sudassana there was no venom in the bite. Instead of revealing his identity, Sudassana declared that there was no snake charmer greater than he himself and no serpent could harm him. Angry about the insult, the snake charmer challenged him to a contest and Sudassana agreed, choosing to use a frog rather than a snake.
Sudassana went first and he called Accimukhi out of his hair. She sat on his shoulder and spat three drops of poison on his hand as he yelled out, “This poison will destroy the kingdom.” If he put it on the ground, Sudassana said, all plants would die. If he threw it into the sky, no rain or snow would fall for seven years; and if he dropped it in water, all the fish, turtles, and other aquatic creatures would die. The king asked what he could do to save the land. Sudassana told the king to have someone dig three holes, and he did. Sudassana filled one hole with drugs, another with cow dung, and the last with divine medicines, then he dropped the poison into the hole with the drugs. A fire erupted and all three holes were set ablaze. The flames turned the snake charmer into a pale white leper, and in terror he cried, “I will set the naga king free.”
The Bodhisatta heard the cry and came out of his basket, taking a radiant form with grandeur equal to Indra, and stood with his siblings. Sudassana then revealed to the king that he was their uncle and told the whole story of what had occurred. Wanting to hurry home to end his mother’s worry, Sudassana briefly instructed the king in the ways of royal righteousness and then left with a promise to bring his mother for a family reunion.
When the hunter who had betrayed the Bodhisatta saw the snake charmer become a leper, he knew something terrible was in the wind for him too, so he went to a sacred bathing spot to wash away his sin of treachery. Subhaga, returning from the Himmapan forest, saw the hunter in the river and dragged him underwater repeatedly as torture before he was going to kill him. The hunter tried to talk his way out of the execution by reminding Subhaga that all brahmins are sacred and must not be harmed, so Subhaga took the hunter to the naga realm to ask his brothers if this was true. Kanarittha, who was guarding the Bodhisatta while he rested and recovered in his palace, saw Subhaga roughly dragging the hunter and told him to stop, confirming what the hunter had claimed about brahmins’ sacred status.
Having been a brahmin who performed sacrifices in his previous life, Kanarittha explained to those around him about brahmins and the great rewards reaped from making sacrifices and from worshipping fire. Many nagas were impressed by his words, but when the Bodhisatta heard what his brother had preached, he rebuked him for spreading false doctrine and told all the nagas gathered there that these things do not lead to heaven and should be avoided. He also set the hunter free with no further punishment.
Later, the now-healthy Bodhisatta and his brothers took their mother to the forest hut of her father, the former king, who still lived as an ascetic. Her brother, King Sagara-Brahmadatta, was also there to see his sister and nephews. They gave him great honor before returning to the naga world. And having faithfully kept the precepts his whole life, when the Bodhisatta died he earned the place in heaven he had worked so hard for.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
One holy day, the Buddha saw some lay followers in the audience for his religious discourse and asked if they had kept the holy-day vows. They answered that they had. This was a good thing, he told them, but it was no surprise because they had a Buddha as a teacher. In the past, he added, he had observed the holy days without a teacher encouraging him and made great sacrifices to do so. Then he told them this story.
The wicked hunter was an earlier birth of Devadatta, a disciple of the Buddha who became his nemesis and tried to kill him three times, while the hunter’s son was an earlier birth of Ananda, one of the Buddha’s top disciples. The Bodhisatta’s brothers, Sudassana and Subhaga, and half-sister Accimukhi were earlier births of Sariputta, Moggallana, and Uppalavanna, three of the Buddha’s other top disciples. His other brother, Kanarittha, was an earlier birth of Sunakkhatta, a former top disciple who later left the sangha. The Bodhisatta’s great-grandparents (the parents of the prince who married the naga woman) were earlier births of the Buddha’s father and birth mother.