Maha-Ummagga Jataka (#546)

This Jataka tale illustrates the perfection of character of wisdom (panna).

painting of Maha Ummagga Jataka

The Bodhisatta was once a king’s advisor. On the day the Bodhisatta was conceived in his mother’s womb (he was sent by Indra, king of the gods), King Vedeha dreamt of four columns of fire as tall as the city wall in the four corners of the royal court, and in the middle of them was a fifth flame the size of a firefly that suddenly blazed up into heaven and illuminated the whole world. It did not harm anybody and people worshipped it. The dream terrified the king and at dawn he summoned his four advisors. They explained that it meant prosperity for the king because a fifth advisor, wiser than all other men and gods, would soon be born and eventually come serve him.

Indra wanted the gods to know that a future perfect Buddha had been sent to Earth, so on the day the Bodhisatta was born he placed a medicinal herb in his hand while he was still in the womb. The Bodhisatta’s delivery caused his mother no pain, he came out as easily as water from a sacred pot, and he told her to give the medicine to anyone afflicted with sickness of any kind. She ground it into a powder and just a dash applied to the forehead cured his father’s headache, which had persisted for seven years. Word spread and all who were sick came to the Bodhisatta’s house for some medicine, and their diseases were cured.

the Bodhisatta holding his sword

Indra had sent one thousand other boys along with the Bodhisatta to become his servants. The Bodhisatta’s father, a wealthy merchant, knew that such a special child must have been sent by the gods and would not have come alone, so he sent nurses and clothing to all other children born on the same day and they all grew up playing together.

When he was seven years old, his mouth still smelling of milk, as the saying goes, the Bodhisatta was as beautiful as a golden statue and strong as an elephant, and there was nobody wiser in the whole kingdom. His playtime was often disturbed by rain, heat, and animals, and after a storm blew in unexpectedly, causing his young companions to fall over each other and hurt themselves while running into the house, the Bodhisatta decided to build himself a play hall. He told each of the one thousand boys to give him a coin and he hired a master builder. But this man could not grasp the Bodhisatta’s innovative ideas, so the Bodhisatta drew out the plans himself and helped the builder follow them. Together they created a hall that rivaled Indra’s heavenly palace and garden. Besides a place for sports, there was a court of justice, a hall for religious gatherings, lodging for priests and the destitute, a place for foreign merchants to store their goods, and an alms hall open to anyone in need. Crowds gathered there to hear the Bodhisatta discuss morality and judge disputes, all with the wisdom and demeanor of a Buddha.

It was at this time that King Vedeha decided to seek the sage foretold in his dream and he put his four advisors on the task. One of the advisors went out the east gate and saw the Bodhisatta’s magnificent building and knew that an ordinary person could not have made it. He asked people living there about the young Bodhisatta and found that everything fit with the dream’s prediction, so he sent a message to the king asking whether he should send the seven-year-old boy to the palace.

King Vedeha was overjoyed and asked his top advisor, Senaka, whether or not he should summon the Bodhisatta. Senaka, not wanting to lose his status, told the king that architectural skill is no way to judge a person’s wisdom. The king suspected Senaka’s motive, but agreed to investigate further and told the advisor to stay there and watch him. Over the next few days, the advisor reported the Bodhisatta’s many remarkable deeds. Each time King Vedeha heard about them he asked Senaka whether it was time to summon him, and in each case Senaka said it was only a small matter and they should wait.

  • A hawk snatched a slab of meat from a slaughterhouse and flew off. Wanting it for themselves, some of the Bodhisatta’s playmates futilely threw stones at the hawk. The Bodhisatta said he would make the hawk drop the meat and he gave chase. He stepped on the hawk’s shadow and shouted loudly, and by his energy the shout pierced the bird’s belly, scaring it into dropping the meat. By watching its shadow, the Bodhisatta caught the meat before it hit the ground.
  • A man bought some cattle from another village and took them out to graze. When the man fell asleep a thief took the cattle. The man woke up just in time to see the thief running off and confronted him: they argued, both claiming to own the cattle. After the two men pleaded their cases, the Bodhisatta asked each man what they fed the cows. The first man answered rice gruel, sesame flour, and kidney beans, while the second said he couldn’t afford to buy food for his cows, which is why he took them to eat grass in the field. The Bodhisatta fed the cows panic seeds and they all vomited up grass, so the thief was caught by his own lie. The Bodhisatta told the thief he was going to suffer for his sins in both this life and in hell after it, and his assistants cut off the thief’s hands and feet.
  • A poor, elderly woman made a necklace by tying together threads of various colors. When she went to bathe, she laid it atop her clothes and a young woman admired it and asked to try it on so she could check the size for making one of her own. The old woman said yes, and the young woman put it on and ran off. The old woman quickly got dressed and chased the thief down. The Bodhisatta asked each woman what fragrance they used for the necklace. The young woman said it was a fancy blended perfume while the elderly lady answered that she could only afford panic seed flowers. The Bodhisatta put the necklace in a bowl of water and asked a perfume seller to come smell it. He identified it as panic seed flower and the exposed thief confessed.
  • A woman taking care of cotton fields spun some fine thread and rolled it into a ball. She placed the ball atop her dress while bathing and another woman picked it up and told the maker it was beautiful, then causally walked off with it. The woman got dressed and chased after the thief. The Bodhisatta asked the women what they put inside the ball to roll the thread around. The thief said it was a cotton seed and the other woman said it was a timbaru seed. The Bodhisatta untwisted the thread and found a timbaru seed, so the thief had to confess her guilt.
  • A hungry goblin saw a mother with her baby. The goblin told the mother how adorable her boy was and asked to breast feed him; the mother agreed. So the goblin sat with the boy a little bit and then ran off with him. The mother gave chase and caught the goblin and they both claimed the child was theirs. The Bodhisatta saw the goblin’s red, unblinking eyes and lack of shadow and knew immediately she was not the mother, but he did not let on and they both agreed to accept his verdict.

    The Bodhisatta drew a line on the ground and laid the child on it, telling each woman to grab an end and pull: whichever woman got the baby over the line could keep the child. They began pulling, but when the child uttered a loud cry of pain the mother let go and began weeping. Telling the crowd that being tender to children is in a mother’s heart, he revealed that the other woman was a goblin intent on eating the baby. The goblin confessed her identity and intent and the Bodhisatta rebuked her, saying she was born as a goblin for sins of a past life and now she would not escape the path of the unrighteous because she sinned again. He taught her the five precepts and sent her away.
  • A man named Black Ball due to his dark skin and dwarfish size worked for a family for seven years and they gave him a daughter as a wife. One day he suggested they go visit her parents with some food and a gift. They set out walking and came to a stream, and both being afraid of water were hesitant to cross it. They asked a poor local man the stream’s condition and, seeing an opportunity for himself, lied that it was deep and full of crocodiles and vicious fish. But he’d befriended these animals, so he could cross safely and he would take them over in exchange of some meat and drink.

    After eating, the man put the wife on his shoulders and walked into the stream, crouching down low to make it appear very deep. When he reached the middle of the stream he told the woman she should leave her husband and go off with him; he wasn’t deformed and would take good care of her. She was immediately infatuated and agreed, so once they got to the other bank they left the stunned Black Ball behind. Enraged by their betrayal, he made a desperate leap and discovered how shallow the stream was. He chased after the other man and they started to fight about whose wife she really was. The Bodhisatta got each of them alone and asked all three to tell him the others’ names. The local man and the woman did not know each other’s names, and by this method the Bodhisatta knew who the woman belonged to. The local man confessed.
  • Indra wanted to spread the fame of the Bodhisatta’s wisdom and power, so he came down to Earth in the form of a man and got onto the back of a chariot, telling the owner he wanted to serve him. The owner agreed. Later when the man stopped for a call of nature, Indra jumped into the driver’s seat and took off toward the Bodhisatta’s play hall with the owner running after him. There, they both claimed ownership.

    The Bodhisatta recognized Indra right away by his fearlessness and unblinking eyes, but he went through with the trial anyway. He got a driver for the chariot and told the two claimants to grab the back and run with the chariot for as long as they could. The owner could only keep up for a short time before letting go, but Indra ran with the chariot the whole way out and back. The Bodhisatta pointed out to the audience that he didn’t sweat or pant while running, so it was Indra, not a human, and the other man was the real owner. Indra confessed and explained his goal. The Bodhisatta told him not to do this kind of thing again.

Amazed at seeing a child rebuke Indra, the advisor went to the palace unsummoned and asked why King Vedeha and Senaka did not recognize the boy’s obvious superiority. Senaka still insisted it was not enough and devised some tests for the Bodhisatta. And each time the Bodhisatta passed one of their tests the king was pleased while Senaka urged caution and devised another.

  • A short piece of wood was cut out of an acacia tree, carved perfectly round, and sent to the Bodhisatta with the demand to identify which was the root end. Knowing a tree’s roots are heavier than its top, he floated it in water and the end that sank first was the root end.
  • Two skulls, one male and one female, were sent to be distinguished. The Bodhisatta knew that the sutures in a man’s head are straight, and in a woman’s head they’re crooked.
  • Two snakes, one male and one female, were sent to distinguished. The Bodhisatta could tell because male tails are thicker than female tails, male eyes are bigger than female eyes, and male heads are thick and round while female heads are long and short.
  • A request was made for a “white bull with horns on his legs and a hump on his head that utters his voice three times without fail.” The Bodhisatta realized they wanted a rooster and sent one.
  • An octagonal lucky gem had a broken thread running through it, which nobody could figure out how to replace. The Bodhisatta smeared the two holes with honey and pushed a wool thread in as far as he could. Ants who were living in the hole ate away at the old thread to get all the honey, and while doing so bit down on the new thread and pulled it through to the other end.
  • The royal bull was fattened up for months so he appeared pregnant and then sent over to the Bodhisatta with the order to deliver a calf. In reply, the Bodhisatta sent a man to the palace with orders to weep loudly at the palace gate and demand to talk to King Vedeha. When the king asked why he was sad, he answered, following the Bodhisatta’s instruction, that his son had been in labor for seven days and the baby wouldn’t come out; he needed the king’s help. When the king answered he could not help because it is impossible for men to bear children, the man asked, “Then why do you expect a calf from a bull?”
  • A request was made for rice cooked under seven specific conditions: without rice, without water, without a pot, without an oven, without fire, without firewood, and without being sent along a road either by woman or man. The Bodhisatta had people use broken rice, snow, an earthen bowl, chopped-up wood blocks, a kindle fire started by rubbing, leaves, and delivered with a eunuch walking on footpaths.
  • A request was sent for rope made of sand to replace a broken rope from King Vedeha’s swing. The Bodhisatta sent some men to the palace to ask for a sample of the old sand rope so they knew what thickness to make the new one. When the king was unable to supply it, the men told the king that if he can’t make a sand rope, nobody else can either.
  • King Vedeha said he wanted to swim in a new pond covered with lilies and ordered that one be sent to him at the palace. The Bodhisatta had some men play in water until their eyes turned red and then go to the palace door soaking wet and tell the king they had brought him a wonderful pond from the forest, but when their pond saw the city’s fortifications it got scared, broke the ropes, and ran back to the forest. They asked for the old one so they could tie them both together and let the old one lead the new one into the city. When the king said he never had a water tank brought in from the forest before, they answered that if this was true, then the Bodhisatta can’t send him one.
  • King Vedeha said he was tired of his old royal park and asked to be sent a new one. The Bodhisatta replied with the same ruse he used for the pond test.

Senaka still would not admit that the Bodhisatta was the predicted sage, but King Vedeha had had enough of Senaka’s stalling and rode off on his horse with a great entourage to bring the boy back to the palace. On the way, his horse stepped in a hole and broke a leg, so the king returned to the palace where Senaka greeted him with an I-told-you-so. But, unable to delay any longer, Senaka suggested a final test. The king sent a message to the Bodhisatta saying his horse broke a leg; “send us a better horse and a more excellent horse.” The Bodhisatta understood this meant the king wanted to meet both he and his father. He sent his father ahead in the company of one thousand merchants and they were invited in by the king.

As the Bodhisatta, attended by the one thousand youths, traveled in a magnificent chariot to the city, he saw a donkey along the road and had a strong man tie its mouth shut to prevent it making noise, put it in a bag, and carry it to the palace over his shoulder. The Bodhisatta entered the city to great applause and was warmly welcomed by King Vedeha who told him to take a seat where ever he pleased. The Bodhisatta looked at his father who, as he’d been instructed, stood up and said, “Wise son, take my seat.” He did so and the four chief advisors laughed loudly and cried out, “This is the boy renown as wise? Only a blind fool would disrespect his father like this.”

King Vedeha was visibly upset by the Bodhisatta’s behavior. “My lord,” he replied, “Do you think the father is always better than the sons?” And the king answered yes. So the Bodhisatta released the donkey and asked the king its worth: “At most eight coins,” he answered. Then the Bodhisatta asked the price of a mule born to this donkey and a thoroughbred horse. “It would be priceless.” Thus the Bodhisatta disproved the king’s assertion that the father is always better than the offspring, and this made the king happy again. Then, to hammer home the point, he mocked, “If you still believe the father is always better than the son, hire my father as your advisor instead of me.”

The room erupted in praise and applause – there was snapping of fingers and waving of a thousand scarves – except from the four advisors who were upset at having been so thoroughly outdone. King Vedeha not only made the Bodhisatta his fifth advisor, he adopted him as his own son, giving the Bodhisatta’s parents command over their village and many ornaments in exchange. The Bodhisatta and his one thousand friends took up residence in a suitable house, and from then on he faithfully served the king.

When a precious jewel was seen in a lake, people alerted King Vedeha who sent Senaka to get it for him. Senaka got a group of men to drain the lake and dig up the mud at the bottom, but they could not find the jewel. When the lake was full again, the jewel could still be seen, so Senaka futilely drained it a second time. After two failures the king took the Bodhisatta to the lake and he realized the jewel was in a crow’s nest and people were only seeing its reflection in the lake. To prove it, he showed people the jewel in a pail of water. The king sent a man up the tree and he brought the jewel to the king. The king rewarded the Bodhisatta and the thousand youths with strings of pearls.

One day while King Vedeha and the Bodhisatta were walking in the royal park, a chameleon came and lay down in front of the king. The king asked the Bodhisatta why it did this and he answered that it was paying respect. Pleased by this, the king ordered one of his men to deliver meat to the chameleon every day, and he did. One holy day (when no killing is allowed) the man was unable to buy any meat, so he drilled a hole in a half-anna coin and hung it around the chameleon’s neck. This made the creature feel so proud and rich he did not come and bow the next time he saw the king. Again the king asked the Bodhisatta what was in the chameleon’s mind, and he explained it. Then the king sent for the man who delivered the meat and he confirmed that the Bodhisatta was right. Impressed, he gave the Bodhisatta the tax revenue earned at the four city gates. Angry at the chameleon, the king wanted to stop sending meat, but the Bodhisatta told him it was unfitting of a king to break a promise.

A boy cursed with bad luck had gone off to study with a famous teacher in Taxila. The teacher had a daughter as beautiful as a nymph come of age right at the time the student completed his studies and was ready to return home, so the teacher gave her to him. He didn’t want to marry her, but did so out of respect for his teacher. Right after their marriage, he avoided her as much as possible, sleeping on the floor at night since good luck cannot mate with bad luck. Then when they traveled back to his city, the student climbed a tree to eat some ripe figs. His wife asked for some and he told her to climb up and pick her own. Once she went up the tree he climbed down and piled thorns around it so she could not get down and he ran off, leaving her alone.

In the afternoon, King Vedeha rode his elephant past the fig tree and saw the woman. He fell in love at first sight, and since she had been abandoned the king claimed her as his own, consecrating her as Queen Udumbara (“Fig”), his chief consort, the moment they reached the palace. The next day the king and queen went to the royal park and the man who had deserted her was among the people cleaning the road ahead of them. When the queen saw him, she could not restrain feeling triumphant at her good fortune and smiled in happiness. The king did not believe that the man she smiled at was her former husband and drew his sword to kill her for flirting. She begged him to consult his advisors first and Senaka said he did not believe any man would leave such a beautiful woman. But the king decided to ask the Bodhisatta’s opinion too, and he explained that good luck and bad can never be together. The king was relieved and thanked the Bodhisatta for saving his precious queen from the foolish advice of Senaka. The king gave him one thousand coins as a reward and the queen became the Bodhisatta’s loyal supporter.

Another day, King Vedeha went for a morning walk and saw a goat and a dog, natural enemies, being friends. The goat fed on the grass thrown to the elephants at their stable, running in to eat before the elephants arrived. But one day the mahouts saw the goat and beat it away. The dog lived on the bones, skin, and other scraps from the royal kitchen, but that same day it lost patience and snuck into the kitchen to eat cooked meat. The cook saw the dog and beat it with sticks and stones. The two suffering animals met and shared their tales of woe, both depressed because they would never be able to return to their feeding spots for risk of death. The goat came up with the plan that he would go to the kitchen and bring back meat while the dog would go to the elephant stables for a bundle of grass. Nobody would pay them any attention because their species don’t eat those foods and they would bring it to the palace wall and eat together there.

The king was astonished by their friendship and wondered if his advisors could figure out how it happened. When they were all together the king asked them, “Two natural enemies have become inseparable friends: what is the reason?” and said he would banish any of them who couldn’t figure it out because he didn’t want stupid men around him. Knowing the king wasn’t smart enough to create a riddle, the Bodhisatta realized he must have seen something. He went to ask Queen Udumbara where King Vedeha had been for most of the day before, and she mentioned he had done a lot of walking alongside the palace wall and staring out his window. The Bodhisatta went along the palace wall and found the dog and goat, and he watched them to figure out their story. The other four advisors came to the Bodhisatta, knowing he would find the answer, and asked for help. He agreed, but instead of telling them the answer, he taught them each a stanza in a language they didn’t know, but the king did. And the next day, when they were asked to give answers, they recited the stanzas and the king believed they knew. After the Bodhisatta gave a longer, more detailed answer, the king showed his pleasure by giving each of the men a chariot, a mule, and a wealthy village.

Queen Udumbara told the king how the Bodhisatta had shared his answer to help the others, and the king respected him for doing this. The queen felt it was unfair he got the same reward, so the king said he would make it right by asking the Question of the Poor and Rich, certain the Bodhisatta would be the winner. The next time they were together, the king asked Senaka and the Bodhisatta, “Which is better, a wealthy fool or a poor wise man?”

Senaka answered that wealth was the only thing that really mattered. People flock to rich men the way birds flock to a tree full of fruit, he said. The mighty Ganges River is nothing compared to the sea and the words of rich men, no matter their truth, carry more weight than what a wise man says – just look at how the five advisors bow to the king. The Bodhisatta, on the other hand, chose wisdom, reasoning that fools who get wealth are struck by bad luck and they commit sins, suffering in both this life and the next. Fools suffer shame and misery – a king would lose his throne without the help of wise advisors.

The Bodhisatta’s answer left Senaka speechless, like one who had used up all the corn in his granary, while the king was so pleased he gave him a bull, an elephant, ten chariots pulled by thoroughbred horses, sixteen excellent villages, and a thousand cows.

When the Bodhisatta turned sixteen, he went out to find a wife, knowing he would not be happy if King Vedeha and Queen Udumbara chose one for him. He put on the outfit of a tailor and walked out of the city. He saw a beautiful woman with all the marks of good luck walking down the road carrying rice gruel, and when they saw each other they both fell instantly in love. From afar, the Bodhisatta clenched his fists to ask if she was married, and she spread her hands out flat to answer no. So the Bodhisatta walked up to her and she answered all his questions with riddles, which he easily solved.

  • “My name is that which neither is, nor was, nor ever shall be,” she said. – Knowing that nothing in the world is immortal, the Bodhisatta guessed correctly that her name was the word Amara (“Immortal”).
  • “Who are you taking this gruel to?” – “It’s for the god of old time.” The Bodhisatta knew she meant her father.
  • “What does your father do?” – “He makes two out of one.” This meant plowing a farm field.
  • “And where is your father plowing?” – “Where those who go come not again.” Near a cemetery.
  • “Will you come again today?” – “If it comes, then I will not; if it does not come, then I will.” The Bodhisatta figured her father was plowing next to a riverside and she was talking about a flood.
  • “Why is there so little rice in your pot? – “We got no water.” She meant water for the field to grow rice, not water for cooking rice.

Pleased that she was as smart as she was beautiful, the Bodhisatta said he wanted to visit her family’s home, and she told him where it was: “By way of cakes and gruel, and the double-leaf tree in flower, by the eating hand, not the not-eating hand, this is the secret path to my home.” The Bodhisatta walked past a cake shop, a rice gruel shop, and a blooming Mountain Ebony tree and then turned right and found her house.

Her mother guessed he was in love with her daughter and welcomed him. When he saw the family’s poverty (and also that they had previously been wealthy merchants), he offered to mend their clothes for free and then had her tell neighbors to bring any clothes that needed repair. At the end of the day, he’d earned one thousand coins for the family by his tailoring.

Amara returned that evening and was exceptionally polite, entering the house through the back door, washing her parent’s and the Bodhisatta’s feet, and serving everyone else before she ate. He stayed at their house to further investigate her for proper behavior.

One day the Bodhisatta tested Amara’s pride. He told her to cook him rice gruel, a rice cake, and boiled rice. The rice gruel thrilled him with its flavor, but he spat it on the ground and insulted her. Without anger, she gave him the rice cake, and then the boiled rice, and the Bodhisatta spat out both. Feigning anger, he mixed the three together and smeared them on her head and body and told her to sit at the door. Pleased with her meek behavior, the Bodhisatta changed his tone and told her to put on a beautiful dress and he brought the family to the city.

On arrival, he tested her again, making her sit in the gatekeeper’s house while he went home. He sent some of his men to the city gate with one thousand coins to tempt her, but she told them they were “not worth the dust on my master’s feet.” They tried again, unsuccessfully, twice more, and then on the fourth time, at the Bodhisatta’s command, they dragged her away. It was during this abduction that she saw the Bodhisatta without his humble disguise for the first time, and not knowing he was her fiancée, she smiled and cried simultaneously, explaining that she smiled at his magnificence and cried because as a sinner he would go to hell. After this test of her chastity, the Bodhisatta introduced her to the king and queen and they were married that day. Amara sent half of each gift back to the giver, thus winning the people’s hearts.

Over time the other four advisors grew increasingly jealous and resentful of the Bodhisatta, and finally Senaka schemed to get rid of him. They each stole something from the king (a jewel from the royal crest, a golden necklace, a woolen robe, and a golden slipper) and sent them over to the Bodhisatta’s house hidden within gifts. Senaka sent the jewel in a pot of dates. When the girl who delivered it wasn’t looking, Amara put her hand in the pot and confirmed her suspicions about the delivery. She asked whose slave she was and noted all the details of the delivery. After this, the necklace came in a box of jasmine flowers, the robe in a basket of vegetables, and the slipper in a bundle of straw; and Amara wrote down everything.

After they sent the stolen goods to the Bodhisatta’s house, they told the king he was a thief. Not given a chance to clear his name, the Bodhisatta quickly fled in disguise and worked as a potter in another town. Amara seized the four wicked advisors, shaved their heads, and had them beaten, then told King Vedeha what really happened. The king didn’t know what to think about the conflicting stories, but since the Bodhisatta was not there, he sent his four advisors home without punishment.

The goddess that lived in the royal parasol missed hearing the Bodhisatta preach and wanted him back. So one night she asked King Vedeha four riddles about who is dearer than a husband, and he took them to his four advisors. They had no idea. The next night the goddess returned and the king said he couldn’t solve the riddles. She rebuked the king’s foolishness for relying on Senaka and the others and said only the Bodhisatta was smart enough to figure them out. “When you want fire, you don’t blow on a firefly. Putting fireflies under grass and cow dung will not make them burn,” the goddess said. “And when you want milk, squeeze a cow’s utter, not its horn. To know something’s weigh, use a balance, not your hand. Senaka is a firefly; the Bodhisatta is a great fire blazing with wisdom. If you do not bring him back to the palace to answer these questions, you are a dead man.”

The terrified king sent men out to find the Bodhisatta, and when one of them did, he was covered in clay from having just finished working at a potter’s wheel. The man, being of Senaka’s faction, insulted the Bodhisatta for having sunk so low despite supposedly possessing such wisdom, and the Bodhisatta shot back that he would restore his prosperity when the time was right. And the fact that he was needed to answer the goddess’s riddles proved that wisdom is superior to riches.

The Bodhisatta gave his master potter the one thousand coins the king had sent and rushed back to the palace without cleaning himself up. Seeing that the Bodhisatta arrived dirty with neither pomp nor entourage, the king knew he was not a thief or an enemy. To show respect and forgiveness, the king gave him a splendid welcome. Then the king asked why he showed no anger and the Bodhisatta answered this is what wise men do; it would be foolish to cut off a tree branch that shades a man, and the king had been very good to not only him, but also his parents. But, after promising his loyalty, he rebuked the king’s actions and implored him to think carefully before acting in the future.

Their friendship restored, King Vedeha had the Bodhisatta sit on his throne under the royal parasol and listen to the four riddles. The Bodhisatta easily answered them all.

  • “He strikes with hands and feet, beats the face; and he is dearer than a husband.” – A happy child sitting on its mother’s lap playfully beats his mother with hands and feet, pulls her hair, and hits her face with his fist. And the loving mother, unable to restrain her affection, hugs and kisses him.
  • “She abuses him roundly, yet she wishes him to be near; and he is dearer than a husband.” – A young child of seven years, old enough to help with household chores, will ask for a tasty treat when told to go to the field or market, but after getting it refuses to go. The mother yells and threatens to hit him with a stick, so he runs off to play at some relative’s home. Her heart pained and her eyes red from tears, she searches around for her son and squeezes him tight when she finds him.
  • “She reviles him without cause, and criticizes without reason; yet he is dearer than a husband.” – Without reason, a woman will accuse her secret lover of not really caring for her and criticize him over nothing, yet their love grows ever stronger.
  • “One takes food, drink, clothes, and lodging, and good men carry them off; yet they are dearer than a husband.” – Devout people delight in giving alms to religious brahmins who give nothing in return.

Both the goddess and the king rewarded the Bodhisatta with perfumes, flowers, gold, gems, and the like for answering the riddles, and the king elevated him to commander-in-chief.

Thwarted in his first attempt, Senaka hatched a new plot against the Bodhisatta. He asked him whether it was ever okay to share a secret, and the Bodhisatta answered no. Knowing King Vedeha would disagree with this, Senaka told the king the Bodhisatta was a traitor and to prove it he should ask the Bodhisatta who secrets should be shared with. The next time the five advisors came together, the king asked each of them this question.

Answering his own question, the king said that if they are virtuous, faithful, affectionate, and subservient to their husbands, secrets should be told to wives. Senaka and the others each gave friends, brothers, sons, and mothers as examples of who to trust. When the Bodhisatta answered that wise men always keep secrets to themselves, he saw the displeasure on the king’s face and realized he was being tested. Not trusting the foolish king, the Bodhisatta promptly left the palace, and after he did, the king gave Senaka his own precious sword and ordered him to chop off the Bodhisatta’s head when he returned the next morning.

The Bodhisatta surmised that his four rivals had shared a sinister secret with the people they mentioned as trustworthy. Knowing that after their meetings with the king the four advisors always sat on an overturned water trough next to the palace door and chatted, the Bodhisatta climbed underneath it to spy on them. When they sat down, the men asked Senaka if he’d ever shared a secret with a friend and he admitted he had, but it was too important to tell – if the king ever found out, he’d be executed for it. And what if the Bodhisatta was lying under the trough listening? The men mocked his worry and promised they could be trusted. So Senaka mentioned a well-known woman who had gone missing and admitted to having sex with her in a grove of trees and then killing her to steal her jewelry, and only his friend knew.

Then the others revealed their darkest secrets, which they had only ever shared with the one other person. One had a spot of leprosy on his thigh that his brother washed and bandaged each morning, and when the king got sad he would cry and unknowingly lay his head atop it. Another got possessed by a goblin every evening on the holy days and barked like a mad dog, so his son needed to tie him up indoors and host a party to hide the noise. The last had stolen the king’s lucky octagonal gem for his mother, and he always took it to the palace with him, which is why the king spoke to him first and gave him so much money.

That evening, King Vedeha thought about all the good things the Bodhisatta had done for him over the years and regretted ordering him executed. Queen Udumbara noticed his grief and he told her the Bodhisatta would die the next morning. She was aghast, but hid her feelings from the king. After the king fell asleep, she sent a message warning the Bodhisatta what was planned for him at the palace the next morning.

Arriving early, the four advisors stood at the palace gate, but the Bodhisatta stayed away until after they went inside. Then, in the company of guards and a great crowd of people, he safely approached the palace and saluted the king, who, playing dumb, invited him in. The Bodhisatta told the king he knew his secret, that he’d ordered a beheading. (But to protect the queen he did not admit she told him.) Then he revealed the other four advisor’s secrets, offering this as proof that he was right and secrets should be kept to one’s self. The furious king ordered the four men executed, but after they’d been given one hundred blows at every street corner, the Bodhisatta suggested they be pardoned and the king consented.

With things back to normal again, the Bodhisatta put the well-being of the kingdom in his own hands because King Vedeha was such an utter fool. He built a great rampart around the city with watchtowers at all the gates and surrounded it with three moats: a water moat, a mud moat, and a dry moat. Old buildings were restored, new reservoirs were dug, and all the storehouses were filled with corn. When merchants arrived from other realms, they were asked what things their kings liked. Later soldiers were sent to spy on all the kings of India. Bearing suitable gifts and lying about where they came from, the soldier spies were able to get work in the palaces and report back to the Bodhisatta.

The Bodhisatta also sent a spy parrot out to gather news from the kings. One day while checking out King Culani, the parrot heard he and his chaplain, Kevatta, secretly planning to conquer all of India. They would lead their army to besiege cities one by one, and at each, Kevatta would give the king the choice to submit to their rule or be utterly conquered. The kings would likely choose to join them rather than fight and die; but either way, King Culani would absorb that king’s army and march to the next city and repeat. The conquest complete, the one hundred one subordinate kings would be invited to a gathering at King Culani’s palace and be killed with poisoned liquor. Then they’d be replaced with loyalists of King Culani, fully cementing his dominion of India.

The parrot, who heard everything, dropped a lump of dung on Kevatta’s head and then another in his mouth while mocking him for failing to keep their plan confidential. He flew back to the Bodhisatta with the important news and the Bodhisatta began readying the city’s defense. He sent all the poor people outside the city walls and moved the wealthy in, and also stocked up on food.

King Culani and Kevatta’s plan worked, and after seven years, seven months, and seven days, every kingdom except King Vedeha’s was under their control. Kevatta knew the Bodhisatta’s great power and convinced King Culani they could not defeat him, so they left his small kingdom alone. Back home, King Culani prepared a lavish feast for the second part of his plan. The Bodhisatta was determined to save the other kings’ lives and he sent his birthmates to join the party and trash all the food and drink so nobody would be poisoned. They did, and left King Culani and everyone in his circle so angry they marched off with one hundred eighty million soldiers to attack King Vedeha.

King Culani laid siege to the city and struck fear into the people with a thunderous display of soldiers, elephants, and horses. The Bodhisatta assured the worried King Vedeha of victory and organized a seven-day festival with free food and drink to take people’s minds off the threat outside the city walls. King Culani heard their merriment and in anger at the disrespect he ordered his soldiers to charge, but they were easily beaten back.

Since they could not take the city, King Culani discussed various ways to force King Vedeha into surrender, but all failed due to the Bodhisatta’s wisdom and the assistance of the spies, who sent messages detailing King Culani’s plans into the city by arrow. When Kevatta advised cutting off their access to the water outside the city walls the Bodhisatta threw giant water lilies over the walls to show there was plenty of water inside. When Kevatta proposed cutting off the food supply, the Bodhisatta planted rice on the rampart (and due to his powers, it grew overnight) and a spy explained that the Bodhisatta had so much rice in storage the excess had been thrown on the rampart where it was growing like a weed. When Kevatta suggested cutting off the supply of wood, the Bodhisatta built a heap of firewood so tall it could be seen by everyone outside so they knew there was plenty on hand.

King Culani decided to give up and go home, but Kevatta convinced him to try one more thing – a Battle of the Law. Instead of armies fighting, just he and the Bodhisatta would go head-to-head, the loser being the one who first bowed down to the other – but they would not tell the Bodhisatta what a Battle of the Law meant, and since Kevatta was older than the Bodhisatta, he was sure to win. The Bodhisatta accepted the challenge, only it was no mystery since one of his spies explained it, and the next day he took King Vedeha’s lucky octagonal gem with him to the western gate. He stood before Kevatta and dropped the gem at his feet, and in his greed Kevatta stooped down to get it. The Bodhisatta held down Kevatta’s back, pushing his face into the ground until it was bloody, all while yelling, “Rise teacher. I am young enough to be your grandson, you should not bow down before me,” loud enough for everyone around to hear.

Thinking they had been defeated, King Culani and his multitude fled. They had traveled many leagues before Kevatta was able to reach the king and explain he’d been tricked and had not actually bowed down. The king turned back to renew the siege, this time intending on being patient until the people grew so frustrated they’d open the gate and let them in.

Not wanting his people to endure any more distress, the Bodhisatta summoned a clever brahmin and shared his plan to get rid of the invaders promptly. It was a dangerous mission, but the brahmin accepted. As instructed, he went atop the rampart and gave food to some enemy soldiers. When they saw him, King Vedeha’s soldiers, who were in on the plan, captured and beat the brahmin (some of it fake, but some of it real for the sake of selling the story) and then lowered him by rope over the wall.

He was brought before King Culani and explained that he turned traitor because the Bodhisatta had ruined his life and he wanted to see him shorter by a head. Through this story and various sweet talk, he won the king’s confidence. And when he said he knew where the defenses had weak points he was put in charge of the army. But he led to the soldiers to a spot full of snakes and crocodiles and they turned back. The brahmin blamed their retreat not on the danger, but on them being bribed by the Bodhisatta. To prove it he told the king to check the subordinate kings’ clothes, swords, and ornaments and he found the Bodhisatta’s name inscribed on them all – because they had been given by the spies. He also accused Kevatta of corruption, saying the gem he had taken in the Battle of the Law had been a bribe.

Finally accepting that he could not outwit or outfight the Bodhisatta, King Culani left that night in his chariot. The brahmin yelled to the troops to retreat and, assuming King Vedeha’s soldiers had launched a surprise attack, they did so in haste, leaving everything behind. It took months for King Vedeha’s people to gather all the gold, jewels, swords, shields, and other things from around the city.

After a year passed, one day Kevatta saw the scar on his forehead from the time the Bodhisatta shoved his face into the ground, and an angry desire for revenge arose. He met King Culani in his bedchamber where nobody could hear them speak and proposed to lure the Bodhisatta to them by offering the king’s daughter, Princess Pancalacandi, who was as beautiful as a nymph, as a wife for King Vedeha. Then they could easily kill both the king and the Bodhisatta.

The king, still wanting to rule all of India, agreed to the plan. They started by hiring poets to write songs about the gorgeous princess, one of which declared that only King Vedeha was worthy of such beauty, and musicians were sent abroad to sing them. When the time was right, Kevatta set out to see King Vedeha. Word spread that Kevatta was traveling to their city to propose the marriage, and everyone wondered about it, including the Bodhisatta, who assumed there was nefarious intent. He contacted his spies, but they only knew that the king and Kevatta had recently held a secret meeting, and only the king’s myna bird heard what they talked about.

At his meeting with King Vedeha, Kevatta spoke of friendship between the two kingdoms and formally offered Princess Pancalacandi for marriage. King Vedeha welcomed the idea, but wanted Kevatta to reconcile with the Bodhisatta first, so he went to meet him. But the Bodhisatta did not want to talk: he feigned illness, removed all the furniture from his room except his own couch, smeared cow dung on his floor, and had his servants beat Kevatta to make him leave.

The Bodhisatta told King Vedeha the proposal was probably a dangerous ruse, but the other four advisors, knowing they would receive clothes and jewelry as part of the wedding ceremonies, told him to not waste a chance for good luck. Even though the king, ever greedy and foolish, knew that the Bodhisatta was probably right, he was so angered by the lack of support he sent the Bodhisatta away with a volley of insults.

The Bodhisatta knew he could not change the mind of a man in love; he had to find another way to protect the king. So he sent his parrot to get information from King Culani’s myna bird. The parrot flew to the king’s bedchamber and befriended her with a made-up story about his former wife being a myna who was killed by a hawk, and his owner, a king, telling him of King Culani’s virtuous pet myna who lived alone and would make a good mate. She was excited by the prospect, but decided to feign resistance, saying parrots should be with parrots and mynas with mynas. The parrot knew she was just playing hard to get, so he made her trust him by saying differences don’t matter in love and told her of a king who made an untouchable his chief queen and an ascetic who married a half-human, half-bird kinnara. She finally revealed her love for him and they took their pleasure together that evening.

When the time was right, the parrot asked the myna what she thought about the upcoming royal marriage. She said it was an unlucky thing to talk about and didn’t want to discuss it. But the parrot said he would leave her if she kept secrets from him, so she relented and said the marriage was just a scheme to kill the Bodhisatta and King Vedeha. The next morning the parrot left with the excuse of going back to tell his king he found a new wife and promised to return in a week. He rushed home and told the Bodhisatta of Kevatta’s real plan.

The Bodhisatta knew that King Vedeha wouldn’t believe this story, so he needed to save him. He told the king he was ready to help with the marriage, and with an army and a large company of masons, blacksmiths, and other craftsmen he set out for King Culani’s realm to build a palace for King Vedeha to live in during the marriage celebration. Every league along the way the Bodhisatta founded a village and left a man in charge with the duty of keeping elephants, horses, and chariots ready at all times, and at the Ganges River he ordered men to build three hundred boats and keep them hidden away. He chose an ideal spot on the riverbank to build the palace and measured the distances for a pair of tunnels. Then he went to the city and announced his arrival.

King Culani welcomed the Bodhisatta with great honor, gave him a house to stay at within the palace grounds, and agreed to let him build a palace in the city, which is where he told the king he wanted to build it. Not wanting to disappoint the Bodhisatta, so he wouldn’t say anything bad to King Vedeha that might keep him away, King Culani told him he could build anywhere he wanted, no matter who complained. He and his men first went to the house of the queen mother and acted as though they were going to demolish her house. She was furious, but the king would not see her so she paid him a bribe of one hundred thousand coins to build elsewhere. Then they did the same to Kevatta and to many other rich people around the city. In this way the Bodhisatta scammed people for ninety million coins.

The Bodhisatta then told King Culani that whenever they chose a spot to build, the people were stricken with grief over losing their home, so it would be better to build down along the river – which is what he really wanted all along. The king was pleased with this because it would be easier for him to attack outside the city than within. Before he departed, the Bodhisatta asked for, and received permission to let their elephants play in the river, even though this would muddy the water and upset people downstream.

Over the next four months, the Bodhisatta oversaw construction of a large palace, a village for the workers and livestock, and two secret tunnels. The main tunnel, big enough to ride an elephant through, stretched half a league between the city and the river. Sixty thousand men dug it, dumping the excavated dirt in the river, but no suspicions were raised because the Bodhisatta had lied about his elephants fouling the water. There were no roots and stones hindering them; these all magically disappeared to fulfill the Bodhisatta’s will. Inside the tunnel, hundreds of doors were fit with a contraption that could open and close them all with the pull of a single lever and hundreds of lanterns could be covered and opened simultaneously. One hundred one furnished chambers were built for one hundred one warriors. The walls and ceiling were covered with brick, stucco, and wood and painted with beautiful scenes of heaven. The other tunnel, half as long, started at the main tunnel and came out under some stairs in the Bodhisatta’s house, giving access to King Culani’s palace.

Four months later, when construction was complete, the Bodhisatta summoned King Vedeha and he eagerly made the long journey. Suspecting nothing, he sent a message asking for his bride without delay and King Culani promised to send her first thing in the morning. But in reality, he mustered his vast army that night and surrounded King Vedeha, waiting for sunrise to attack.

When he saw the troops approaching, the Bodhisatta sent three hundred of his men through the tunnels to kidnap Princess Pancalacandi and also King Culani’s chief queen, son, and mother, and hide them away in the tunnel. By the element of surprise, the men were able to bound and gag all the guards, hunchbacks, dwarfs, and everyone else there and hide them away. Then they told the family they had been sent by King Culani to bring them to the victory celebration. Though they were surprised about the tunnel, they believed the men when they said it was used only for very special occasions and went along without hesitation. Some men stayed behind to plunder the palace’s treasure.

Realizing he was surrounded and seemingly doomed, King Vedeha fell into whimpering misery. He knew nothing of the Bodhisatta’s strategy, and the Bodhisatta decided to keep his plan to himself until he’d gotten a little revenge for King Vedeha’s past behavior. He rebuked the king mercilessly as greedy, careless, and stupid for ignoring his advice not to marry the princess and for insulting him as a clodhopper who grew up a farmer’s son. And when both the king and Senaka begged him to save them, the Bodhisatta said it was too late to act now; there was nothing he could do. Only after King Vedeha and the other four advisors decided to commit suicide so as to avoid a lingering death at the hands of King Culani did the Bodhisatta finally reveal he would save them and opened the door to his secret tunnel.

The Bodhisatta took King Vedeha and Senaka to the princess and her family, who all shrieked with fear when they realized they’d been tricked. The Bodhisatta placed Princess Pancalacandi on a pile of treasure and married her to King Vedeha. He then led them all to the river where everyone except he boarded a ship for the first leg of the long journey home. The Bodhisatta, vowing to bring everyone back safely, stayed behind to take care of the soldiers and craftsmen. The Bodhisatta buried a sword in the sand at the tunnel gate and went back through it to his house in the city. By changing horses and elephants at each of the villages built along their route, King Vedeha and the others arrived safely the next morning.

At sunrise, King Culani rallied his troops. But before they attacked, the Bodhisatta stepped out onto his terrace so the king could see him. The king charged up riding his elephant to kill the Bodhisatta, but he fearlessly mocked the king: “You think you have found what you want,” he said, “but you might as well just throw down your bow and arrow. King Vedeha has already gone home.” King Culani was furious that his rival had escaped, but killing the Bodhisatta would still be satisfying and he ordered his troops to cut off his hands, feet, ears, and nose; cook his flesh on skewers; and string up his skin like cowhide being tanned.

The Bodhisatta smiled at this threat and gave the king the rest of the bad news, that his family had been kidnapped. “Whatever you do to me, King Vedeha will do to your family, which we snuck away through a tunnel. This is my shield against your arrows.” The king did not believe him, but the Bodhisatta spoke with such confidence he sent a man to check just in case, and he confirmed they were not in the palace and the guards were all tied up. Worried the king might act rashly out of warrior pride, the Bodhisatta praised Queen Nanda’s beauty and grace to calm him down. And the Bodhisatta promised that his queen, mother, and son would come back safely if he was allowed to return safely to his home.

King Culani, feeling relieved, asked to see the tunnel and the Bodhisatta walked him and the subordinate kings and many soldiers and courtiers through it. King Culani was astounded. When they reached the end, the Bodhisatta pulled the lever, locking everyone else in the pitch dark. The Bodhisatta grabbed his buried sword and leapt toward the defenseless king grabbing his arm and asking, “Who rules all the kingdoms of India?” The terrified king yelled back, “It’s yours, spare me!” The Bodhisatta lowered his sword and said he wasn’t going to hurt him and he did not want to rule any kingdom, he just did this to demonstrate his wisdom. Then he handed the king his sword and said if he wanted to kill him, now was the time to do it. The king said he also would not do any harm. Then the two sat and talked and struck up a genuine friendship.

The people locked in the tunnel did not know what was going on and feared death, so when the Bodhisatta finally released them the subordinate kings thanked him for saving their lives. The Bodhisatta told them this was actually the second time he had done so and revealed King Culani and Kevatta’s plan to poison them. King Culani blamed everything on Kevatta and the other kings forgave him.

King Culani hosted a seven-day feast in the city and gifted the Bodhisatta eighty villages, one hundred wives, four hundred female slaves, and one thousand gold coins; and the other kings gave him many more riches. The Bodhisatta promised to come serve King Culani after King Vedeha died. He departed with a large entourage and on the way sent men to collect the taxes from his new villages.

Back at home, King Vedeha ordered a seven-day festival for the Bodhisatta’s return and then sent King Culani’s queen, son, and mother home where the latter said they had been treated as if gods. The kings lived in friendship forever after.

King Vedeha loved Queen Pancalacandi very much and they had a son. When King Vedeha died eight years later, the Bodhisatta consecrated the boy prince as king and, despite people begging him to stay, kept his promise and moved to King Culani’s kingdom where his arrival was greeted with excitement. He served his new king as faithfully as his old.

Despite his loyalty to her husband, Queen Nanda had never forgiven the Bodhisatta for kidnapping her and wanted to create conflict between him and the king, so she enlisted five of her friends to secretly keep tabs on the Bodhisatta, hoping to catch him doing something improper. A wise, virtuous ascetic named Bheri took her meals in the palace and when she and the Bodhisatta first met, Bheri chose to test how smart he really was by asking a question with a hand gesture. She wanted to know if the king was taking good care of him, so she opened her hand. He understood and clenched his fist to answer that the king gave him nothing. Wondering why he didn’t become an ascetic like her, she rubbed her head; and to say it was because many people relied on him, he rubbed his belly.

The queen’s spies saw this silent exchange from a window and went to tell King Culani the Bodhisatta was plotting with Bheri to overthrow him and should be put to death. They explained the hand gestures they’d seen as follows: the open hand signified crushing the king and seizing the throne, the closed fist was holding a sword, rubbing her head signaled cutting off the king’s head, and rubbing his belly meant he would cut the king in half.

King Culani was skeptical, but the next day he asked Bheri if she’d had a conversation with the Bodhisatta and she explained how it went with their hand signals. Then he asked the Bodhisatta, who answered the same. So the king knew that the queen’s friends were wrong; and being pleased about it, he appointed the Bodhisatta as commander-in-chief. But the Bodhisatta now had his doubts about the king, wondering if this new job was just a distraction while the king prepared to kill him. With a gift of flowers and perfumes, he asked Bheri to find out if the king was being sincere or devious, and she said she would.

To get her answer, Bheri took King Culani aside and asked him the Water Demon Question, “If there were seven of you voyaging on the ocean and a demon demanded a human sacrifice, in which order would you give people up?” The king answered, “First I would give my mother, next my wife, next my brother, fourth my friend, fifth my brahmin, sixth myself, but I would not give up the Bodhisatta under any circumstance.”

Pleased that the king genuinely cherished the Bodhisatta, Bheri gathered a large company of people from the inner palace to ask him the question again so others would understand the Bodhisatta’s exceptional merit as clearly as they saw the moon shining in the sky. This time, after King Culani answered for all to hear, Bheri asked for an explanation. First to die in this hypothetical situation was the queen mother who, Bheri said, was smart and useful, unlike most mothers, and also when the king was a child she saved his life by faking his death, letting him escape from an evil step-father. She had her virtues, the king replied, but she had even more faults including wearing inappropriate jewelry and being rude to the people who worked for her. Next on the list was Queen Nanda, who Bheri said was prudent, polite, wise, devoted, and calm. King Culani said her faults were greed and leading him into temptation by her sensuality. His younger brother, Bheri said, brought Culani back to be king after killing their step-father instead of seizing the throne himself. The king said his brother was arrogant. Bheri said the king’s friend was his closest companion since childhood and they’d shared everything through their lives. The king said his friend didn’t respect personal boundaries. The chaplain, according to Bheri, possessed great merit and used his mastery of omens and dreams to frequently help the king. The king said the chaplain stared at him with open eyes and puckered brows. Then Bheri asked King Culani to explain why he would give his own life to protect the Bodhisatta. He said in all the years he knew him, the Bodhisatta had never done even the most trifling thing wrong and he knew everything from the past and the future: He would not give a man without sin to the water demon.

Wanting even more people to hear of the Bodhisatta’s greatness, Bheri arranged to have the king answer the Water Demon Question one more time, in the palace courtyard where everybody could come listen. And by hearing the king’s praise, they were drawn toward good in this world and happiness in the next.

In the lifetime of the Buddha

One day some of the Buddha’s disciples were discussing his supreme wisdom. In particular, how he had humbled and converted a vast multitude of brahmins, ascetics, thieves, goblins, gods, and more. When the Buddha heard them talking about it, he told them this story so they knew he’d had perfect knowledge in the past too.

King Vedeha was an earlier birth of Laludayi, an elder disciple of the Buddha who was so shy that he could not speak when around more than a single other person, and he often said one thing when he meant another; Senaka was an earlier birth of Saccaka, a Jain who converted to be a disciple of the Buddha, and the other three advisors were Potthapada, Ambattha, and Pilotika, three ascetics who respected the Buddha. King Culani was an earlier birth of Sariputta, one of the Buddha’s top disciples, while Kevatta was Devadatta, a disciple of the Buddha who became his nemesis and tried to kill him three times. Princess Pancalacandi was Sundari, a female ascetic who sought to destroy the Buddha’s reputation so her partners would receive more praise and alms, and the ascetic Bheri was Uppalavanna, one of the Buddha’s top female disciples. The Bodhisatta’s wife Amara and his father and mother were the Buddha’s wife, father, and birth mother. The parrot and myna were Ananda and Kundali, two of the Buddha’s top disciples.

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