The Bodhisatta was once Indra, king of the gods. After a man’s father died, he dedicated himself fully to caring for his mother, from serving her food to cleaning her teeth. His mother told him to find a wife who could attend to her so he could work and make money. But he took great pleasure in caring for her and had no interest in anything else – he planned to care for her until she died and then go off and become an ascetic. But his mother insisted, and when she could not convince her son to do it she chose a wife for him. And because he would not oppose his mother, the man married her.
Wanting to please her husband, the woman cared for her mother-in-law with as much attention as he had. Pleased by this, the man gave his wife all the best foods, but she misinterpreted this to mean he wanted to get rid of his mother and she set out to make it happen. She complained to her husband that his mother scolded her when he was gone, but he did not care. So she made the mother look like an intolerable, implacable complainer. She started serving the mother’s rice either too hot or too cold, or too salty or without salt. When the mother complained, she changed the rice to the opposite extreme and the mother would complain again. She did the same with her bath water, hot and then cold. And when the mother asked for the fleas to be shaken out of her bed, the wife added more. But hearing his mother’s constant complaining was still not enough to upset the man. Finally, the wife scattered phlegm, mucus, and grey hairs around the house and blamed the mess on the mother. She said this was the final straw – either the old witch had to leave or she would. Believing his mother had been the one causing strife, he finally told her to leave. With tears, she went to live with a friend and took a job to support herself.
Soon after, the wife got pregnant. She told her husband and all their neighbors this blessing would not have happened if her wicked mother-in-law had not left. This upset the mother greatly and she decided that if those terrible people can have a good life after what they did to her then righteousness must have died. So she went to a charnel ground and burned some sesame and rice in an oven made of three human skulls as a death offering for righteousness.
The Bodhisatta saw her distress and came down to Earth to help her. He explained that righteousness can never die, and said he would restore her family’s happiness and harmony. He magically made the couple think of the mother and all the good she had in her heart, so they went out to find her. The couple threw themselves at the mother’s feet and got her forgiveness. Reconciled, they all went home in delight.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
The man who loyally supported his mother and his wife were earlier births of a man and wife who did the same in the present. But this time when the wife gave her ultimatum, the man chose his mother and told his wife to go back to her family because she was still young and could care for herself; his mother could not. The wife was shocked and afraid, knowing life away from her husband would be miserable. So she reconciled with her mother-in-law and began to properly care for her, as she had done in the past.
Later the man visited the Buddha, who asked about his mother. He related the story of how his wife had behaved and the Buddha told him this story so he knew something similar had happened to them in the past.