Kumbha Jataka (#512)

temple painting of Kumbha Jataka

The Bodhisatta was once Indra, king of the gods. Alcohol was discovered during his reign. A tree in the Himalayas had a hole in its crook between three branches, and it filled with water after rain. Alongside this tree grew two different species of myrobalan tree and a pepper shrub, and fruits from these would fall into the hole. Nearby was a wild rice paddy, and parrots would pluck the heads off rice plants and eat them while perched on the tree, dropping some husked rice into the hole. This blood-red mixture fermented in the sun’s heat and became wine.

Birds, monkeys, wild dogs, and other forest animals would drink this liquid and fall down unconscious around the tree; soon after, they’d get up and fly or walk away as good as new. Seeing this, a forester realized the liquid wasn’t poison, so he drank some. Intoxicated, he got the desire to eat meat, so he lit a fire and grabbed some passed-out birds from the base of the tree, eating their grilled flesh while gesticulating wildly with his free hand. The next day, he took some of this wild wine and meat to an ascetic who lived nearby, and they sat together, eating and drinking.

They filled some reed pipes with their wine, hung them on a carrying pole, and went to give the king some. The king got drunk and asked for more, so the men returned to the tree and brought back more wine. After a few more long trips to the mountains, they took note of everything in the tree’s hole and started to make wine in the city. It became so popular that all the men drank it and became idle wretches, making the city seem deserted. So the winemakers moved to another city, and it also perished in the same way, and then a third.

At their fourth city, they began brewing a batch of five hundred jars. To protect them, they tied a cat to each jar. As the wine fermented, some leaked out of the jars, and when the cats lapped it up, they passed out. Rats came and bit off the drunk cats’ ears, noses, teeth, and tails. The king’s advisors told him the cats had died from drinking the wine, so he assumed the two men were making poison and had them beheaded without delay.

When the king sent men to break the jars, the cats were up and were playing normally, so the king decided to drink the wine instead of destroying it. He set up a pavilion in the palace courtyard, and he and his courtiers began to drink. At that time, the Bodhisatta looked down on the world to see who was being righteous and saw that the king was about to get drunk. The Bodhisatta knew that if he did, all of India would be destroyed. So the Bodhisatta took the form of a brahmin and went to earth to stop him.

The Bodhisatta appeared in mid-air and spoke at length about the evils of alcohol. The jars, he said, contained countless vices, and anyone drinking from them sinks headfirst into a loathsome pool: their minds wander, they speak obscenely, act foolishly, become forgetful, babble stupidly, and sit naked around other people. They may even lose all their money, commit adultery, or kill a priest.

The king, now knowing the misery wrought by alcohol, had the jars smashed. He offered the Bodhisatta five villages, ten horses and chariots, one hundred handmaidens, and seven hundred cows as thanks, but the Bodhisatta revealed himself as Indra and refused any gift. Though alcohol gradually spread across India, the king never drank any, and for his righteousness, he went to heaven.

In the Lifetime of the Buddha

Five hundred friends of Visakha, the Buddha’s top female lay supporter, wanted to attend a drinking festival in their city, and they invited her to join them. Visakha declined because she never drank alcohol, so they asked her to come with them to give an offering to the Buddha. Some of the women started drinking before they even got to the monastery, and they sang, danced, quarreled, and made improper movements with their hands and feet in front of the Buddha. To frighten the misbehaving women, the Buddha shot light out of an eyebrow and then made it completely dark; this caused the effect of the alcohol to vanish. He then stood atop Mount Meru and emitted a ray of light from the hairs between his eyebrows with the power of a thousand moons and rebuked their behavior. They all repented. Then Visakha asked how alcohol came about, and the Buddha answered by telling this story.

The king who did not drink the wine was an earlier birth of Ananda, one of the Buddha’s top disciples.

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