The Bodhisatta was once a crown prince. After his mother gave birth to a second son, Prince Canda, she died. The king took another queen and had a third son, Prince Suriya. The king was so overjoyed by the birth of this boy that he granted the queen any wish she desired. Later, when the three princes had grown up, she called in her wish and asked that her son be the one to take the throne. The king refused, but she persisted so zealously that he feared she would unleash some evil plot to get her way. The king explained the situation to his two eldest sons and with great sadness sent them out to reside in the forest until he died, at which time they could return to rule. Prince Suriya saw them as they departed, and when they told him the reason why, he decided to join them.
One day as they traveled, Prince Suriya when down to a pond to bathe and drink. In it lived a demon who devoured anyone who entered the water that could not answer the question, “What is truly devadhamma (“god-like”)?” When Prince Suriya stepped into the pond the demon seized him and asked his question. The prince answered confidently “The sun and the moon,” but this was wrong. The demon dragged him down to the depths of the water and kept him in a cell. When Prince Suriya did not return promptly, Prince Canda went down to find him. As he stepped into the water he was also seized and quizzed. “The four quarters of heaven” was his answer, but it was also wrong and he was imprisoned with his half-brother.
When Prince Canda did not return, the Bodhisatta knew something had gone wrong and figured there was a demon in the pond. So he went to the shore and waited. When the demon saw the Bodhisatta was not going to enter the pond, he took the shape of a forester and encouraged him to refresh himself in the water. Not fooled, the Bodhisatta knew this was the demon and asked why he took his brothers. The demon explained that he was allowed to eat all who entered the water and could not pass his test. The Bodhisatta said he knew the answer, but was too weary from his travels to tell him. This persuaded the demon to bathe the Bodhisatta; bring food, drink, and perfumes; and construct a gorgeous pavilion for him to rest in. Refreshed, he had the demon sit at his feet and told him that devadhamma is avoiding sin.
Pleased with this wise answer, the demon agreed to release one of the brothers. The Bodhisatta asked for his half-brother, Suriya. The demon criticized this choice, accusing the Bodhisatta of understanding devadhamma but not practicing it because Canda, being older, should be granted the esteem that comes with seniority. The Bodhisatta countered that his choice really was the most god-like. Nobody would believe him, he explained, if he returned to the kingdom claiming Suriya was devoured by a demon; he would be presumed a murderer in pursuit of the throne and would be reviled. Impressed by this wisdom, the demon set both brothers free.
The Bodhisatta explained karma to the demon, telling him that he was born into his odious life because of the evil deeds he had done in the past and the only way to break this cycle was to avoid doing evil in this life. The demon accepted this truth and stopped eating people. The three brothers chose to reside at the pond with the demon until one day the Bodhisatta read in the stars that his father had died. He returned to the kingdom and took the throne with Prince Canda serving as viceroy and Prince Suriya as commander-in-chief. The demon also went there and lived a comfortable life with a home, food, and flowers provided by the king.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
The demon was an earlier birth of a wealthy landowner who became a disciple, but did not completely give up luxuries. He owned many robes, maintained a storeroom of food, and had his servants come cook for him.
When this prohibited behavior was uncovered by other disciples, they took him to talk with the Buddha. The wealthy disciple got angry and threw off his robes, standing in the assembly wearing only his loincloth. But after some reassuring words from the Buddha he put his clothes back on and listened to the Buddha tell him this story so he knew he had overcome bad behavior in the past by following the Buddha’s advice. And thus the Buddha convinced him to change his ways.
Prince Canda and Prince Suriya were earlier births of Sariputta and Ananda, two of the Buddha’s top disciples.