The Bodhisatta was once a young brahmin in a small village. He spent his life doing good deeds and always kept the five commandments. The twenty-nine 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 civic 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 all thirty men to be trampled to death by an elephant.
The men lay down in the palace courtyard, but when the elephant was brought in it would not approach them. Other elephants were brought in with the same result. The king assumed they must be using some drug 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 king gave the men all of 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 in their public works. When they decided to build a rest-house for traveling caravans, 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. When the building was finished, the carpenter suggested to the men that it should have a pinnacle and they agreed. When the men 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 inquired 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 the realm of Brahma was the only place where women were excluded, so they changed their minds. And now that they were able, two more of the Bodhisatta’s wives got involved. Citta commissioned a garden around the rest-house and Nanda a small lotus pond. His fourth wife, Sujata, did nothing.
When the Bodhisatta died, he was reborn as Indra, king of the gods, and his twenty-nine companions also went to Indra’s heaven when their time came. At this time there were demons living there 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 at the bottom 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 garudas resided and they shrieked in fear as they rushed to safety. With regret over the accidental destruction he had caused, the Bodhisatta decided to go back and sacrifice his life to the demons so that no others would need to die. The demons, not knowing what had happened, saw the Bodhisatta turn around and assumed he was returning with reinforcements, so they called off their assault on heaven and retreated to their own realm. The Bodhisatta returned home victorious and a thousand-league-tall Palace of Victory rose out of the earth. He set up guards 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 she had made merit helping build the rest-house she got a five hundred-league tall mansion studded with jewels. Soon after, Citta and Nanda were also reborn as handmaidens to Indra, and for their merit accrued in building the rest-house they were given a magnificent garden and lake respectively. Sujata, however, who had not taken the opportunity to make merit, was reborn a crane in a forest on Earth.
When the Bodhisatta divined where Sujata had been reborn, 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, she picked it up in her beak to eat, but then the Bodhisatta wagged his tail so she knew that the fish was actually alive, and she let it go. The Bodhisatta praised her for following the commandments.
After the crane died, Sujata was reborn as a potter. When the Bodhisatta divined this, he disguised himself as an old man and went to her city with a cart full of solid gold cucumbers, calling out that he was there to give them free to anyone who kept the five commandments. 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.
Her next rebirth was as the gorgeous daughter of the 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 in the form of a demon. She did not recognize him, but attracted by their past love 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 traveled together to see the Buddha. During the long journey they had a falling out, so the one would not share his water strainer. (Monks 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 drank unfiltered water, he rebuked him and told him this story to let him know that killing is a serious sin and that in the past he 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.