The Bodhisatta was once an ascetic who lived in the Himalayas. One night the king heard the cries of four beings who dwelled in hell—the sounds “Du,” “Sa,” “Na,” and “Su;” one from each of the four—and was terrified. His brahmins told him this was an ominous warning of impending danger and said performing the fourfold sacrifice (killing four of each kind of living creature; from humans, bulls, horses, and elephants down to small birds) was the only way to stop it. The king ordered his chaplain to dig a sacrificial pit and gather animals.
The chaplain’s top student reminded his master that the Vedas say there is no happiness for those who kill. He replied that they would be paid very well for arranging this, so the student should keep quiet and bring more animals. But the righteous student refused to take part. The Bodhisatta had divined the tragedy that was about to take place and flew through the air to the royal park to stop it. There he met the student chaplain. The student explained that the king was a righteous ruler, but was being misled by his wicked chaplain into committing a grave sin and asked the Bodhisatta to stop him. The Bodhisatta agreed and the student brought the king to the park to talk.
The king saluted the Bodhisatta and then listened as he explained that the sounds had risen out of hell and foretold nothing bad. Before their deaths, four princes had committed adultery with their neighbors’ wives and were condemned to thirty thousand years of boiling liquid torture in iron cauldrons. They had risen like foam to the edge of the cauldron and tried to yell out words of warning, but were only able to speak the first syllable before sinking back down. The first, who uttered “Du,” was trying to say, “Due to living an evil life, we are suffering.” The others wanted to say, “Sad fates we are suffering ceaselessly;” “Nay, we are doomed by fate for the bad things we did on earth;” and “Soon we will be reborn and live virtuously.” Upon hearing this, the king felt the joy of relief and set all the sacrificial victims free.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
One night King Pasenadi, a righteous ruler and devoted supporter of the Buddha, heard the cries of four beings who dwelled in hell—the sounds “Du,” “Sa,” “Na,” and “Su;” one from each of the four—and was terrified. His brahmins told him this was an ominous warning of impending danger to either his kingdom, property, or life and said performing the fourfold sacrifice was the only way to stop it. The king told them to arrange it right away. Excited that they would be paid very well for the ceremony, they dug a sacrificial pit and began gathering victims.
King Pasenadi’s exceptionally wise chief queen, Mallika, noticed the brahmins were very happy, and when the king told her what had happened, she suggested he consult the Buddha. So the king went to the monastery and told the Buddha what he had heard and what his brahmins were going to do about it. The Buddha explained the real nature of these cries from hell—princes who had committed adultery with their neighbors’ wives and were now suffering sixty thousand years of iron cauldron torture because of it wanted to send warnings to people on earth, but they only had time to speak one syllable—and that the sounds did not foretell danger, so the sacrifice was unnecessary. Hearing this, King Pasenadi canceled it. Then the Buddha told this story to explain the meaning of the sounds.
The student chaplain was an earlier birth of Sariputta, one of the Buddha’s top disciples.