The Bodhisatta was once Indra, king of the gods. A young brahmin had been sent to Taxila to study archery, and he became a master, equaling the skill of his teacher. The teacher was so impressed, he gave the young archer his daughter to marry. As the archer traveled back home with his new wife, they came to a forest where a wild elephant was rampaging, and local people told him the forest was too dangerous to pass through. But the archer knew his skill would protect him and ignored them. And when the elephant charged, he shot an arrow straight through its head, killing it.
The archer continued on and came to a spot where fifty thieves were working the road, and local people warned him not to go there. Again the archer ignored the advice, and he encountered the thieves. Their leader was a good judge of character and could tell that the archer was noble and heroic, so he told his men not to risk an attack. Feeling safe, the archer sent his wife to ask the thieves for some of the venison they were eating, but they ignored their leader’s demand to treat them well and gave her raw meat instead of roasted. The archer responded to the insult by shooting forty-nine of the thieves, but he ran out of arrows before he could shoot their leader because he had used one arrow on the elephant. Instead, he knocked the leader down and sat on his chest. He asked his wife to get his sword, but she had fallen in love at first sight with the chief thief and gave it to him instead. He cut off the archer’s head, then he and the woman took off together.
As they traveled, the thief realized that someone of her ilk would do the same thing to him someday, so he decided to get rid of her. When they came upon a flooded stream where a crocodile lived, the thief needed to help the woman across. She told him to put all her jewelry in a bag and take it across first, then come back for her. But after he got to the other side, he ran away and she slumped down on the ground screaming in anguish.
The Bodhisatta looked down on the world and saw the woman weeping. Thinking she deserved to be mocked and rebuked, he took the form of a jackal and had Matali, his charioteer, and Pancasikha, one of heaven’s top musicians, change into a fish and a bird respectively. The Bodhisatta stood with a piece of meat in his mouth where the woman could see him. Then to illustrate the woman’s stupidity, the fish jumped out of the stream, the Bodhisatta dropped his meat to pick up the fish, but the fish jumped back into the stream, and the bird flew off with the meat. The woman laughed at what she had just seen and called the Bodhisatta a fool. He answered that it’s easy to see another person’s faults, but hard to see one’s own: “What is the cost of losing both a husband and a lover?” Understanding his point, the woman vowed to find another husband and remain faithful to him. The Bodhisatta was doubtful, saying if she betrayed a husband once, she would do it again.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
The archer and his wife were earlier births of one of the Buddha’s disciples and his former wife. This disciple began to miss his former life, and with his wife’s encouragement was considering leaving the sangha. The Buddha told the disciple this story so he knew that in the past his wife had caused him to be beheaded. After talking to the Buddha, this disciple gained new understanding and chose to stay.