The Bodhisatta was once a young brahmin in a small village. He spent his life doing good deeds and always kept the five precepts. The other men of the village used to get drunk and commit murder and other crimes. But inspired by the Bodhisatta’s example, they gave up their evil ways and joined him in doing community projects like maintaining roads and building water tanks. The village headman had once earned a lot of money collecting fines from these men and selling them alcohol. When these profits disappeared, he sought revenge by reporting them as a band of thieves to the king. The king took the village headman’s word and, without even hearing their defense, sentenced the Bodhisatta and his companions to be trampled to death by an elephant.
The men were brought to the palace courtyard and ordered to lie down, but when the elephant came it would not approach them. Other elephants were brought in with the same result. The king assumed they must be using some potion or uttering a spell, so he had them brought before him and this time the Bodhisatta was allowed to explain their situation. When he heard the truth, the repentant king gave the men all their accuser’s wealth, made him their slave, and gave them command over their village.
When the men returned home they continued their charitable life, though they refused to allow any women to join them. When they began building a rest house for travelers out at the junction of the four highways, one of the Bodhisatta’s wives, Sudhamma, conspired with the carpenter to become a part of the project. She paid him to build her a pinnacle for the roof, but not tell the men about it. When the rest house was nearly finished, the carpenter suggested it should have a pinnacle, and the men agreed. When they asked the carpenter to build one, he explained that pinnacles must be made with dried wood, not fresh-cut wood, so they would need to wait a long time for him to build one—or they could buy one pre-built.
Choosing the latter, the men asked around, and to their surprise Sudhamma told them she would give them one for free if they allowed her to share in the merit. Since she was a woman, the men rejected her offer. But the carpenter reminded them that the realm of Brahma is the only place where women are excluded, and the men changed their minds. Now that they were able, two more of the Bodhisatta’s wives got involved. Citta planted a garden around the rest house, and Nanda dug a lotus pond. His fourth wife, Sujata, did nothing.
When the Bodhisatta died, he was reborn as Indra, king of the gods, and his companions also went to Indra’s heaven after they passed away. There were demons living there at this time, and the Bodhisatta did not want to share his heaven with them. So he got the demons drunk, grabbed them by their feet, and tossed them down to their own realm on the lower slopes of Mount Meru. When they sobered up and realized what had happened, they decided to seize Indra’s heaven by force. As the demons climbed back up the mountain, the Bodhisatta rode his grand chariot down to fight them. But he was not strong enough and had to flee the battle.
The Bodhisatta retreated so fast that he knocked down the trees of a forest where garuda lived, and they shrieked in fear as they rushed to safety. Regretting the accidental destruction he had caused, the Bodhisatta turned back to sacrifice his life to the demons so no others would suffer or die. The demons, not knowing what had happened, saw the Bodhisatta turn around and assumed he was returning with reinforcements. They called off their assault and retreated. The Bodhisatta returned home victorious, and a thousand-league-tall Palace of Victory rose out of the earth. He set up five guard stations to ensure that the demons would never return.
After this great victory, the Bodhisatta’s wife from his previous life, Sudhamma, died and was reborn as one of his handmaidens. Because of the merit she had accrued helping build the rest house, she got a five-hundred-league-tall palace studded with jewels. Soon after, Citta and Nanda were also reborn as handmaidens of the Bodhisatta and were given a magnificent garden and lake respectively for their part in making the rest house. Sujata, however, who had not taken the opportunity to make merit, was reborn as a crane in a forest on earth.
When the Bodhisatta divined where Sujata was, he brought her to see the pleasures of heaven and told her to live a noble life now so that someday she could join him there. She promised that she would. Later, the Bodhisatta tested her by changing into the form of a fish and lying down on the ground where she could see him. Thinking the fish was dead, Sujata picked it up in her beak to eat. But when the Bodhisatta wagged his tail and she saw that the fish was actually alive, she let it go. The Bodhisatta revealed himself and praised her for following the precepts.
After Sujata the crane died, she was reborn as a potter. When the Bodhisatta divined this, he went to her city disguised as an old man with a cart full of solid gold cucumbers, calling out that he was there to give them free to anyone who kept the five precepts. Some people tried to buy them, but nobody would take them for free until Sujata heard his hawking and went to get some, again passing the Bodhisatta’s test.
Sujata’s next rebirth was as the gorgeous daughter of a demon king. When she reached the right age, her father gathered the young male demons together to let her pick a husband. The Bodhisatta had divined this event and came down to her realm in the form of a demon. She did not recognize him, but attracted by their past love she chose him over all the others. The Bodhisatta carried her off to his heaven and made her the chief of twenty-five million dancing girls.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
Two brothers who became disciples of the Buddha traveled together to see him. During the long journey they had a falling out, so one of them would not share his water strainer with the other. (Disciples strained all water they used so they would not accidentally kill any tiny creatures living in it). The disciple without a strainer had to drink regular water for the rest of the trip.
When the Buddha heard how this disciple had drunk unfiltered water, he rebuked him and told him this story to remind him that killing is a serious sin and that in the past he himself had once risked his own life to save other lives.
Indra’s chariot driver, Matali, was an earlier birth of Ananda, one of the Buddha’s top disciples.