The Bodhisatta was once co-king, along with eight of his brothers, of all of India. On the day his mother, a princess, was born, brahmins foretold that a son of hers would someday destroy the kingdom and the entire royal lineage. But the king loved his daughter and did not have her killed, instead leaving any decision about her fate to his two sons when they were older. After the king died and the sons became king and viceroy, they decided that instead of killing their sister they would imprison her in a tower and not let her marry. A husband-and-wife team of servants were put in charge of caring for and guarding her.
At this time the brother of a king from a nearby realm was caught making use of the royal harem and fled to the kingdom where the Bodhisatta’s mother lived, and he was welcomed with great honor. When he heard the story of the princess banished to the tower, he fell in love immediately, sight unseen. And when the princess saw him walking outside, she fell in love at first sight. This man bribed the princess’s lady-in-waiting to arrange a meeting and the two became lovers. When the princess became pregnant, her two brothers questioned the lady-in-waiting and she told them the truth. Still unwilling to execute their sister, they let the pair marry and live together in a village: any girls born to them would be spared, while boys would be killed. In the end, a daughter was born and everyone was happy.
Soon the princess was pregnant again, and this time so was her lady-in-waiting. The princess bore a son, and on the same day her lady-in-waiting had a daughter; so they swapped children. And over the years the princess bore nine more sons, and each time swapped them with a daughter born at the same time to her lady-in-waiting—and the two couples never told another soul about their arrangement. The second to last son was the Bodhisatta.
The ten boys grew big and strong and became wicked, notorious thieves. Several times the king rebuked the servant he thought was the boys’ father. Fearful that the king might kill him, the servant eventually confessed that they were the princess’s sons, not his. Struck with fear, the king asked his advisors how to execute the brothers and it was decided to host a wrestling match in one week’s time and seize them when they came to compete.
The brothers arrived wearing bright robes, earrings, floral wreathes, and perfume; all of which they stole from shops while they walked to the match. The second oldest of the brothers stepped into the ring and threw a thick strap around the other wrestler, lifted him up and smashed him dead on the ground. Another wrestler jumped into the ring and had his eyes gouged out before being smashed to death. Before this second man died, he prayed to be reborn as a goblin in order to one day get revenge, and his wish was granted.
When the king called out to his men to seize the brothers, the eldest, Vasudeva, threw a disk and cut off the king and his brother’s heads. They took over their kingdom and promptly set out with great success to conquer the whole of India, killing sixty-three thousand kings. But they were unable to vanquish one final city. It was along the sea, and each time they approached it magically rose into the air and landed on an island, returning to the shore after the foes were gone. Not knowing what to do, they asked a wise ascetic who told them the city was inhabited by goblins and one, in the form of a donkey, was always on watch. When invaders came, he brayed a warning and the city would move. To conquer the city, they must plead with the donkey to help them.
The brothers returned to the city and fell at the donkey’s feet, begging it not to bray when they came to invade. He answered that he couldn’t stop himself from braying, but advised them to insert great iron posts and plows into the ground and when the city begins to rise, throw an iron chain fastened to the plows over the posts: the city would be unable to move. The donkey stayed quiet until the brothers had finished working and only then brayed. The city remained in place and the brothers stormed in, killed the king, and finally ruled all of India.
They divided India into ten shares before they remembered their sister. But instead of re-dividing their domain into eleven shares, the youngest brother said he preferred being a businessman to being a king and they could give his share to her as long as they sent him his tax profits every year. They all agreed.
The nine kings ruled together for ages (at that time humans lived for twenty thousand years) and had many children. When a beloved son of King Vasudeva died, he was overcome with grief and lay half-dead from neglect on his bed. The Bodhisatta realized only he could restore his brother’s health, so he roamed the city gazing up at the sky crying out, “Give me a hare! Give me a hare!” People noticed that one of their kings had gone crazy, and when King Vasudeva was told about it by one of his courtiers, he got up quickly and confronted the Bodhisatta, asking what he was doing and who had taken his hare. But the Bodhisatta did not reply, just kept repeating his cries into the night. King Vasudeva promised to get his brother any sort of hare he desired: gold, jewel, brass, silver, shell, stone, or coral. Then the Bodhisatta answered that he wanted the hare that lived on the moon and called out to the gods to grant his wish. King Vasudeva now believed his brother really was crazy and told him he would die if he asked the gods for such a thing.
Hearing this advice, the Bodhisatta stopped his act and said, “My brother, if I will die by asking for something impossible, then why do you mourn for your dead son?” Since nothing—no mystical charms, no magical roots, and no amount of money—could bring him back to life, mourning was pointless. The king, accepting this wisdom, thanked the Bodhisatta for quenching his grief.
Sometime later, the sons of the ten brothers decided to go test the wise ascetic who had advised their fathers about the floating city. They dressed a young boy up with a pillow around his stomach to make him appear pregnant and asked the ascetic when this woman would give birth. At that moment the ascetic divined that the ten brothers would all die soon and that he himself would die that very day. He told the sons that in seven days the “pregnant” boy would expel a knot of acacia wood; and even though it would be burnt to ash and tossed into the river, that knot would destroy the royal lineage. Deciding this answer proved the ascetic was a fraud, the boys killed him.
When the kings heard what their sons had done, they were frightened. They had guards keep watch over the boy and, as predicted, he voided a knot of acacia wood out of his belly. They burnt it and threw it in the river, and as the ashes floated downstream they stuck to the shore near the palace’s rear gate. A cattail plant grew from the clump.
Soon after, the brothers went out through the palace’s back gate to swim and relax by the river. They started to wrestle and things escalated. One of the brothers picked a leaf off the cattail and it magically transformed into a club made of acacia wood, and he started to hit people with it. The other brothers did the same thing and they began to beat each other to death. The eldest two brothers, their sister, and the royal chaplain fled in a chariot and were the only ones to survive.
These four came to the forest where the murdered wrestler had been reborn as a goblin; and he, knowing that his killer was approaching, created a village. When they arrived, the goblin took the form of a wrestler and jumped around asking who wanted to fight. The second oldest brother ignored his elder’s advice and took the challenge. But as soon as he stepped into the ring, the goblin seized him in his hand and gobbled him up like a radish bulb.
The brother, sister, and chaplain fled the forest, riding all night and reaching a frontier village at sunrise. King Vasudeva lay down under a bush outside the village and sent his sister and the chaplain to get food. A hunter saw the bush shaking and, assuming there was a wild boar in it, threw his spear, piercing the king’s foot and putting him in great pain. When he heard the king’s cries, the hunter took off in fear. But the king told him to come back and not be afraid. He asked the hunter, who was named Jara (which means “Old Age”), to bandage his wound, and then let him go. Knowing the old adage that anyone wounded by old age is sure to die, King Vasudeva gave his sister some advice for living out the rest of her life and sent her away. He died immediately after: the prophecy from his grandfather’s time had come true.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
When a landowner’s son died, he was so depressed that he stopped eating, bathing, and visiting the Buddha. One day the Buddha divined that this man was ready for a spiritual breakthrough. So the next morning, after completing his alms round, he went to the man’s house and told him this story so he understood that nothing can bring back what is lost, and thus grieving is pointless. Understanding the message, the father did have a breakthrough and overcame his sorrow.
King Vasudeva and the courtier who told him about his brother acting crazy were earlier births of Sariputta and Ananda, two of the Buddha’s top disciples.