The Bodhisatta was once a god in heaven. The king hosted a great festival and many nagas, garudas, and other terrestrial deities came to watch. The Bodhisatta along with three divine friends also came to see it and they wore wreathes made of heavenly kakkaru flowers, which filled the city with their scent. People wondered where the wonderful aroma came from, so the gods exposed themselves for all to see. The king asked them what flowers they wore and if he and others could have some. Kakkaru flowers were only for those possessing exceptional virtue, including being honest, humble, persistent, and having a good reputation, the Bodhisatta said. Most humans were far too foolish and full of sin to wear them.
The king’s chaplain knew he did not possess these virtues, but figured if he lied to get some of the flowers, everybody would believe he did. So the Bodhisatta and the other three gods each gave him a wreathe and then returned to heaven. The moment they left, the chaplain was seized with intense pain in his head. He rolled on the ground screaming in agony and confessed to lying about his virtues. People tried to remove the wreaths from his head, but they would not budge.
His suffering lasted for seven days and it appeared he would die. So the king and his advisors discussed how they could save him and it was decided to host another festival and hope the gods returned to the city. The plan worked and the chaplain begged their forgiveness. After rebuking the chaplain for lying and living a wicked life, and warning other people to not follow his example, the Bodhisatta removed the wreathes and returned home.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
The chaplain was an earlier birth of Devadatta, a disciple of the Buddha who became his nemesis. He left the Buddha’s brotherhood with many disciples to set up his own order and declared that he too was a Buddha, but soon after most of them returned to the Buddha’s fold.
When the Buddha heard some disciples discussing how Devadatta had spit up blood and became very ill after losing his followers, he told them this story to let them know that Devadatta had also suffered because of his lies in the past.
The other three gods at the festival were earlier births of Maha Kassapa, Moggallana, and Sariputta, three of the Buddha’s top disciples.