The Bodhisatta was once an elephant. He was white all over and perfect in every way, so the king made him his state elephant. As the king rode around the city on the elephant’s back during a festival, the gathered masses exclaimed the elephant’s perfect beauty, stride, proportions, grace, and so on. Hearing his subjects singing the elephant’s praises instead of his own filled the king with jealousy and he decided to kill the Bodhisatta.
He told the mahout to take the elephant to the top of a mountain and there had the elephant do tricks on the edge of a tall cliff, hoping he would tumble over. The mahout figured out the king’s intent and so whispered in the Bodhisatta’s ear that they should fly away. The Bodhisatta rose up in the air and the mahout, sitting on his back, told the king that such a wonderful elephant was too good for a worthless fool like him.
They flew off to another kingdom and hovered over the royal courtyard where the righteous king, after hearing the mahout’s story, invited them to stay. The king was so happy they came that he divided his kingdom into three parts, keeping one and giving the mahout and the Bodhisatta one each. And with the Bodhisatta’s help, this righteous king soon ruled over the whole of India.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
The jealous king was an earlier birth of Devadatta, a disciple of the Buddha who became his nemesis. One day the Buddha heard some of his disciples discussing the intense jealousy that arose in Devadatta’s heart whenever he heard people praise the Buddha, and he told them this story so they knew that Devadatta suffered the same sort of jealousy in the past.
The righteous king and the mahout were earlier births of Sariputta and Ananda, two of the Buddha’s top disciples.