Maha-Sutasoma Jataka (#537)

temple painting of Maha-Sutasoma Jataka

The Bodhisatta was once a king. The King of Varanasi, the Bodhisatta’s close friend from his years studying in Taxila (the Bodhisatta was the top student in their class and tutored him), never ate a meal without meat. One day, some dogs got into the kitchen before dinner time and ate all the meat. Unable to replace it because it was a holy day (when killing is not allowed), the cook was afraid he would be executed for his carelessness, so he snuck into the cemetery and cut off flesh from a fresh corpse’s thigh. He roasted it and served it with rice, and the moment it touched the king’s tongue it sent a thrill through his whole body—because in his previous birth, the king had been a goblin and frequently ate human flesh.

The king sent all his servants away and asked the cook what meat it was. He claimed it was just regular meat, the same as he always cooked, and the only difference was that he roasted it better than normal. The king knew this was a lie and told the cook to tell the truth or die. The cook prayed for safety and admitted what he had done. The king ordered him to never mention it to anyone else, and from then on, always serve him human flesh, killing prisoners to source it.

This went on until the prison was empty. Then the cannibal king told his cook to drop a bag with one thousand coins in the street and arrest anyone who picked it up. But soon, people learned it was a trap and stopped looking in bags they saw, so he told his cook to hide along a road and murder people at random, carrying off a big portion of flesh for each meal. The cook did as he was told, and the city fell into a panic.

A crowd went to the palace courtyard and begged their king to find the man-eating murderer. When he refused to do anything, they went to the commander-in-chief. He ordered soldiers to hide throughout the city, and they quickly captured the cook. He was given a thrashing and confessed. The next morning, the cook was taken before the king, who admitted that everything the cook had done was at his command. And he said he would not give up eating human flesh no matter what.

The commander-in-chief hoped that hearing the tale of a giant cannibal fish who also became a slave to his appetite might sway the cannibal king to change.

  • A fish was five hundred leagues long, and all the other fish loved him so much they made him their leader. One day, while feeding on aquatic plants, he accidentally ingested a fish and found it so delicious he did not want to eat anything else ever again. From then on, every morning and evening when other fish came to pay their respects, he ate the last couple of fish to leave.

    As the population shrank, one wise fish suspected their king was the killer, so he sat in hiding and saw him devour the stragglers. He warned all the other fish, and they were panic-stricken, so they no longer went near their king. Getting hungry, the king guessed the others were hiding at a mountainous island, so he encircled it. As he looped around, he caught sight of his tail and thought it was another giant fish, so in a rage, he chomped it. The other fish smelled blood and attacked, eating up his body bit by bit from the tail to his head and leaving behind a heap of bones so large that mystical ascetics flying over the lake could see it.

The cannibal king, however, was not moved by the story and countered with one of his own, claiming that he would die if he stopped eating people.

  • Five hundred ascetics came down to the city from the Himalayas to get salt and vinegar, and a wealthy man set out food for them every morning. One day the ascetics went on an alms round in the countryside and did not return to the man’s home for several days, so he went to the royal park to see them. They were eating rose apples they had brought back, and the head of the group gave a piece to the man’s young son. It was so delicious the boy asked for another, and then did so again several more times. Not wanting his son to bother the holy men anymore, the father said that was enough and lied that he could have more when they got back home.

    At home, the boy kept asking for another piece of the special rose apple, and finally his father was so frustrated he went back to the park to get some more. The ascetics had since departed, though they’d left the boy an assortment of fruits mixed with powdered sugar. But the boy would eat nothing other than those rose apples, and after a week of starvation, he died.

The commander-in-chief told the cannibal king he would be renounced by his family and banished from the kingdom if he didn’t stop eating people, just like what happened to one young man who would not give up alcohol.

  • The only son of a wealthy brahmin family was thoroughly virtuous. But one day, his friends tricked him into drinking alcohol for the first time by hiding some fiery liquor in cups made of lotus leaves and telling the man it was lotus nectar. He drank it down and got drunk—and liked it very much. So he and his friends drank throughout the day, and when they ran out of liquor, the man traded away his signet ring to buy more. He went home trembling and babbling, and then passed out. His father told him to never drink again; they were a respected family and if their reputation got destroyed, then so would their business. However, the son said he would not stop drinking, so the father kicked him out of the house and the family. The young man became a pitiful wretch and died a beggar in the streets.

Still gripped by desire, the cannibal king again predicted his own demise if he could not have what he craved so dearly. He continued his previous story to reveal the fate of the rose apple-loving boy’s father.

  • After listening to the band of ascetics preach one time, the father slept in the park. That night the camp lit up with a blazing light because Indra, king of the gods, came to pay his respects to the ascetics. Indra came with heavenly nymphs so beautiful the man wanted to marry one. To please him, his wife dressed up like one of the nymphs. But he demanded a real nymph; and when he couldn’t have one, he sank into a depression, stopped eating, and died.

Still hoping to convince the cannibal king, the commander-in-chief told a cautionary tale about a flock of golden geese.

  • A flock of golden geese lived high in the Himalayas and had to fly down the mountain to find food. But they could not fly that far during the rainy season, so every year they gathered a supply of rice and stayed inside their cave for four months. Each month, a giant spider as big as a chariot wheel would spin a thick, strong web over the cave entrance. And each year when the sky cleared and it was time for them to leave, they gave a young goose a double serving of food and he would crawl through and cut all four webs to free the flock.

    But one year the rainy season lasted five months, and the geese ran out of rice. They started to eat eggs. When these were gone, they ate goslings and then their elderly. The geese had grown feeble during this time, and when the rains stopped, the young goose could only cut through four webs before he lost his strength. When the spider returned, it cut off all their heads and drank their blood.

Making a final attempt to change the cannibal king’s mind, the commander-in-chief brought out the royal family and harem and said he had to choose to stay with them or leave; and the king said he loved human flesh more than all of them. So he was sent out to a forest with only his sword and his cook. He made a home at the base of a banyan tree and went to the road to kill men, bringing their bodies back to his tree. He was so obsessed that, one day when he couldn’t get a victim, he killed and ate his cook.

A wealthy brahmin, knowing the danger of the cannibal king, hired guards from the village at the forest’s edge to get his five-hundred-wagon trade caravan through it safely. But the cannibal king still attacked and seized the brahmin, running off with him into the forest. The hired guards gave chase, and during the pursuit a piece of wood pierced through the cannibal king’s foot, leaving him in agony. He dropped the brahmin and got away. Severely injured, he prayed to the fairy of his banyan tree to heal him; if she did, he would kill one hundred one kings from across India, bathing the tree in their blood and hanging their bodies in its branches. After a week, the wound was healed and, assuming the tree fairy had done it (she hadn’t), the cannibal king set out to keep his promise.

Using a magic spell for super speed and strength, the cannibal king captured one hundred kings and hung them in the banyan tree with rope strung through the palms of their hands. Because the Bodhisatta was his friend, the cannibal king chose not to capture him and to make the sacrifice with one hundred kings instead. Sparing no time, he lit a fire and sat down to sharpen a stake.

Disgusted by the cannibal king’s evil, the tree fairy asked Indra how to stop the impending slaughter. Indra said the Bodhisatta was the only one who could humble the cannibal king and cure him of his addiction, so she should tell him that he must bring the Bodhisatta to the tree before making his sacrifice.

Taking Indra’s advice, the tree fairy took the form of an ascetic and appeared before the cannibal king. Figuring holy men were on par with kings, the cannibal king decided to make the ascetic victim one hundred one and ran in pursuit. But even with his supernatural speed, fast enough to catch a horse at full gallop, he couldn’t reach the ascetic, who walked at a normal pace. Her powers proven, the tree fairy revealed her glorious true self and told the cannibal king he would reach heaven if he brought the Bodhisatta here for the sacrifice. The cannibal king resolved to capture him. Early the next morning, he hid under a lotus leaf in a pond in the Bodhisatta’s royal park, knowing he would go there to take a ceremonial bath because there was a special alignment of the stars the next day.

At sunrise, as the Bodhisatta traveled to his park, a wise brahmin stopped him and wanted to recite four ancient verses given by Kassapa Buddha (the Buddha from before the era of Gautama, the present Buddha). The Bodhisatta was very eager to hear them, but he could not be late to bathe, so he promised to return later.

As the Bodhisatta finished his bath, the cannibal king jumped out of the water with a fearsome yell and ran off with him on his shoulder, leaping over the eight-meter-tall wall to escape. After three leagues, when they were beyond the chance of rescue, the cannibal king slowed to a walk. He felt tears falling on him and asked the Bodhisatta if he wept for fear of death or for the fate of his family. Neither, he answered: he cried because he didn’t want to die with a promise (returning to meet the brahmin with the verses) unfulfilled.

The Bodhisatta asked for his release and vowed to come to the forest on his own the next morning. The cannibal king was skeptical, but the Bodhisatta explained that death was preferable to living with the sin of a broken promise; and because they had been friends in the past, he should know that the Bodhisatta was impeccably honest. So the Bodhisatta was set free, and he rushed back to the city where people rejoiced when they saw he was safe. He went straight to the palace and summoned the brahmin with the verses, seating him on a valuable throne and giving him scented garlands. After eating, the brahmin took out a beautiful book and read four verses about virtue and impermanence. The Bodhisatta was delighted to hear these words of wisdom, and while the brahmin requested just one hundred coins per verse, the Bodhisatta declared them worth a thousand each. Then the Bodhisatta gave the throne back to his father, and with the whole city stirred by sadness, he walked to the forest.

A fire was roaring when the Bodhisatta arrived at the cannibal king’s home. The Bodhisatta rebuked his wickedness and spoke fearlessly to him about the blessings of righteousness. Impressed by his manner and his words, the cannibal king worried that his head would explode into seven pieces if he ate his old friend, so he decided not to do it. Then by request, the Bodhisatta recited the four special verses he had just heard, and gods shouted applause from heaven and the cannibal king was filled with joy, granting the Bodhisatta four wishes as a reward.

Knowing this was his opportunity to cleverly convert the cannibal king back to righteousness, for his first wish, the Bodhisatta prayed for the cannibal king to live safe and sound for another hundred years; and this act of generosity made the cannibal king glad at heart. For his second wish, he asked for the one hundred captive kings to be set free and never eaten, and the cannibal king agreed. Worried that the cannibal king might still kill or enslave them, for his third wish, the Bodhisatta wanted the kings safely returned to their kingdoms, and again the cannibal king agreed.

For his final wish, the Bodhisatta asked the cannibal king to stop eating people. He laughed and refused, saying this was impossible, and told the Bodhisatta to choose something else. But the Bodhisatta wouldn’t relent, and he managed to fill the cannibal king with a fear of hell and a desire for heaven. Finally, the king broke into tears and promised to stop. The gods of heaven roared applause and the one hundred kings hanging in the tree gave thanks. At the urging of the Bodhisatta, all one hundred kings promised not to seek vengeance against their tormentor, and were then untied and laid on the ground, too weak to stand. For the next three days, the two nursed the near-death kings back to health; feeding them rice, washing off the blood, and magically healing their wounded hands.

When it was time to go, the cannibal king said he would stay behind in the forest and starve to death, believing he could never return home where he had killed so many people. But the Bodhisatta promised he would urge the people of Varanasi to forgive him and return the crown—if he could tame a cruel wretched cannibal, he could convince the good people of the city to do this. And if he failed, he would hand over half of his own kingdom.

When the cannibal king’s son, who had ascended the throne after his father was banished, and the commander-in-chief heard they were coming, they closed the city gates and mustered their troops. Only the Bodhisatta was let in, and he assured all the city’s leaders that their former king was rehabilitated and fully established in righteousness; the people were in no danger. People trusted the Bodhisatta, and they forgave the cannibal king. He was given a bath, a barber, and new clothes, and then led into the city to a great welcome and reestablished on the throne.

The Bodhisatta stayed in Varanasi for a month, preaching about virtue and urging generosity before returning to a magnificent welcome in his own realm. Soon after, he founded a city in the forest to ensure that the tree fairy would get abundant offerings. And by following the Bodhisatta’s advice, the cannibal king and the hundred others all did good deeds for the rest of their days and reached heaven upon their death.

In the Lifetime of the Buddha

The cannibal king was an earlier birth of Angulimala, a dreaded bandit who cut off a finger of each person he murdered and wore them around his neck, and who later became an enlightened disciple of the Buddha.

One time the Buddha heard some of his disciples discussing how great he was for being able to convert such an evil person. But the Buddha said it was no great task for one who is enlightened; it was much more impressive that he converted Angulimala in a past life when he had less refined knowledge. He told them this story to explain.

The commander-in-chief, the brahmin who recited the verses, the tree fairy, and Indra were earlier births of Sariputta, Ananda, Maha Kassapa, and Anuruddha, four of the Buddha’s top disciples. The Bodhisatta’s father and mother were earlier births of the Buddha’s father and birth mother, and the kings for the sacrifice were earlier births of followers of the Buddha.

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