The Bodhisatta was once Indra, king of the gods. When a naga king had left his realm and went to earth looking for food, some boys thought he was a snake and started throwing things at him. The human king saw the children and ordered them to stop, saving the naga king’s life. The naga king thanked him with a reward of jewels and a naga maiden who would always stay by his side for pleasure and protection. If the king ever lost sight of her, he could recite a spell to find her instantly.
One day, while the king was relaxing in the royal park, the naga maiden saw a water snake, and she shed her human form and had sex with it. The king, noticing she was gone, spoke the spell, and when he saw what she was doing, he beat her with a bamboo pole. She returned to the naga world in anger and showed the mark on her back from the beating, but lied about the reason, claiming it was because she did not do the king’s bidding. Furious, the naga king sent four nagas to kill the human king. They entered the king’s bedchamber right at his bedtime and heard him tell his queen about the incident with the naga maiden and the water snake and ask if she had seen her. “I fear that she has gone and lied to the naga king,” he said. The assassins returned home and told the naga king about it.
With regret, the naga king went to the king’s bedchamber and apologized by giving the king a spell that allowed him to understand animal conversation—but if he taught it to anyone else, he would die a fiery death. Soon after, while eating with his queen, drops of honey and molasses and a bit of cake fell on the ground. An ant found them and called out to the others to come eat, which caused the king to laugh out loud. Then a fly asked his wife to have sex, but she said to wait until the king was anointed with perfumes; then they could do it on his back while smelling very fragrant. Again the king laughed. And at dinner, a lump of rice fell on the ground, and the excited ants yelled out with joy. Once again, the king laughed.
The queen worried that the king was laughing because he found fault with her, and that night she asked him about it. While at first he refused to answer, she nagged him until he told her about the animal spell. She wanted to learn it and told the king point blank that she didn’t care if he died; she must know it. Swayed by her womanly charm, the king agreed to teach her the spell and die by fire.
As the king and queen went to the park, the Bodhisatta saw what the foolish king was doing and went to earth with another god to save him. They took the form of goats and started to have sex in the road in front of the king’s chariot, but they only let the king and the donkeys pulling the chariot see them. One donkey told the goats that this sort of shameless act, which should only be done in private, was one of the reasons everyone knew goats were stupid. The Bodhisatta replied that he wasn’t the one tied up with ropes and who chose not to flee to freedom when he had the chance. And the king was even stupider than the donkey, the Bodhisatta added, because he was throwing away his life for his wife.
Hearing everything spoken by these animals, the king sent his chariot away and asked the Bodhisatta what he should do. Revealing himself as Indra, the Bodhisatta told the king he was there to rescue him. He told the king to lie to his wife, telling her that to learn the spell she needed to take a beating. He predicted that when she heard this, she would change her mind, and he would be able to keep both his promise and his life.
The Bodhisatta returned to heaven, and the king continued on to his park. Once there, he told the queen the first step in learning the spell was to receive one hundred lashes to the back, during which she could not make a single sound. So greedy was the queen that she agreed to do it. The king’s slaves began whipping her, and after just three hits she cried out for them to stop. But the king, angry that she was willing to kill him to get the spell, ordered his slaves to continue until the skin fell off her back.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
The king and queen were earlier births of one of the Buddha’s disciples and his former wife. When the disciple began to long for her, the Buddha told him this story so he knew that in the past his wife had once been so selfish that she had tried to lead him to death.
The donkey who spoke to the Bodhisatta was an earlier birth of Sariputta, one of the Buddha’s top disciples.