The Bodhisatta was once Indra, king of the gods. In his earthly life before this he was a wealthy merchant. One day he pondered his life and decided to build an alms hall and give all his money to the poor. Before he died and became Indra, he instructed his son to continue being charitable every day, and he did. And so did another three generations. And for their virtue, when born in heaven these four men became Chandra, the moon god; Surya, the sun god; Matali, Indra’s charioteer; and Pancasikha, one of heaven’s top musicians. But the next in line, Bilarikosiya, was greedy: he destroyed the alms hall and beat the beggars away, keeping all the money for himself.
Eventually the Bodhisatta wondered if his family had carried on his almsgiving. When he saw that the tradition had been broken he assembled his four heaven-dwelling descendants and they went down to Earth to teach the wicked Bilarikosiya the value of charity. Taking the forms of brahmins, they approached Bilarikosiya one by one asking for something to eat. At first he refused, claiming to have no food. But after they each recited a poem about the vileness of greed and the virtue of generosity he relented and begrudgingly invited the five men into his house.
Bilarikosiya told his servant to give each of them some unhusked rice and send them out to cook it elsewhere, but they refused it. Then he sent them husked rice, but they said they wouldn’t anything uncooked. So Bilarikosiya had them served a pot of cow food. They each ate a mouthful and let it stick in their throats and pretended to die. Bilarikosiya was struck with fear, knowing that other people would blame him for their deaths. So Bilarikosiya ordered his servant to replace the food in their bowls with the finest food available and then he invited people into his house to see that he was guiltless. Bilarikosiya lied and told the assembled crowd the brahmins were greedy and tried to eat so fast they choked and died. But at that moment the five men rose and the Bodhisatta declared that Bilarikosiya was a liar and explained what had really happened, spitting up the cow food as proof.
The crowd rebuked Bilarikosiya for his greed, both for this incident and for all the time since his father had died, asking if he would take all his wealth with him when he died. Then the Bodhisatta revealed their identities and they rose up into the air in a blaze of light and told what great rewards they had received in heaven for their generosity and encouraged others to be like them.
Hearing that these five gods had come to Earth to save him from hell, Bilarikosiya vowed to change, distributing alms and sharing his food, water, and even tooth-cleaner with others. And he did so until his final days and then joined his ancestors in heaven.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
Bilarikosiya was an earlier birth of one of the Buddha’s disciples who was fully devoted to giving. He wouldn’t even drink water unless he could share some of it.
When the Buddha was told about this disciple’s immense generosity, he told him this story so he and everyone else knew that in the past this disciple had been a wicked man, not even giving anyone so much as a drop of oil from the tip of a blade of grass, and the Buddha had humbled and converted him back then.
The descendants of the Bodhisatta who came before Bilarikosiya were earlier births of Sariputta, Moggallana, Maha Kassapa, and Ananda, four of the Buddha’s top disciples.