Kanavera Jataka (#318)

temple painting of Kanavera Jataka

The Bodhisatta was once a thief. He was so bold and strong that he became known across the world. After he broke into a wealthy merchant’s house, people pleaded with the king to catch him, so detachments of men were posted around the city, and the Bodhisatta was arrested with stolen treasure on him. The king had him bound and whipped and ordered his head cut off.

While the Bodhisatta was being led to the place of execution, Sama, a high-class prostitute, saw him and fell in love at first sight. She offered a thousand-coin bribe for his release, but the Bodhisatta was too notorious to just be set free. The governor said if she could find a man as a substitute, he would do it. So when one of her daily customers, a wealthy young merchant, arrived at sunset, she lied that the Bodhisatta was her brother and said she wanted to save him. The merchant agreed to deliver a thousand-coin bribe for his release, but when he handed it over, he was seized and hidden away and the Bodhisatta was secretly sent to Sama’s home in a covered carriage. The execution was delayed until very late that night so nobody would see it was another man beheaded in place of the Bodhisatta. Then the merchant’s headless body was impaled and the matter was over; the Bodhisatta was free.

Sama stopped her liaisons, and she and the Bodhisatta lived together happily. But the Bodhisatta realized if she ever fell in love with someone else, he would be killed. So he decided to escape. He suggested they have a picnic in a garden and she agreed, putting on her finest jewelry for the occasion. While there, the Bodhisatta took Sama into a thicket and hugged her so tight that she passed out. He grabbed all her jewelry, hopped over the garden wall, and ran off. Not suspecting what the Bodhisatta had really tried to do, Sama mistook his attack for excessive passion and assumed he had fled out of fear that he had accidentally killed her.

Sama returned home deeply depressed and vowed to find her love. She hired a troupe of minstrels to sing a song about her—”‘Twas the joyous time of spring; Bright with flowers on each tree; From her swoon awakening; Sama lives, and lives for thee.”—and sent them to perform in every town and village in the kingdom until they found her husband. Sama was sure that when he heard the song, he would speak to her minstrels, and they should tell him she loved only him and was waiting for him to come back.

Eventually, out in a remote border village, the Bodhisatta heard the minstrels’ song and did approach them. He told them her love was fickle and he feared eventual betrayal, so he would never return. The minstrels returned to the city and gave Sama the Bodhisatta’s message. Full of regret, she began plying her trade again, just as before.

In the Lifetime of the Buddha

The merchant executed in place of the Bodhisatta was an earlier birth of one of the Buddha’s junior disciples. Because he was new, his food was poor (lumpy gruel with stale or rotting ingredients and dried or burnt sprouts) and he did not get enough to stay healthy. He started to return each morning to the wife he left behind (she was the prostitute in an earlier birth), and she gave him delicious rice with sauce and curry. This made him miss his former life, and with her encouragement he decided to leave the sangha.

The Buddha told the disciple this story so he knew that in the past his wife had caused him to be beheaded. After talking to the Buddha, this disciple gained new understanding and chose to stay.

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