Mahahamsa Jataka (#534)

temple painting of Mahahamsa Jataka

The Bodhisatta was once a golden goose, king of a flock of ninety thousand others living in the Himalayas. One night the chief queen dreamt that golden-colored geese sat on the royal throne and preached religion to her. When she awoke, she wanted this for real. Knowing if she just told the king about her dream he would not help her, she pretended to be pregnant and claimed that a pregnancy craving was making her ill – if she did not get to hear a sermon from a golden goose she would die. The king promised to try and make it happen.

Following the advice of some wise brahmins, the king ordered a lake dug north of the city and filled it with a variety of grains and lotuses to attract birds. He declared it a sanctuary and warned that anyone going there would have their hands and feet mutilated and their possessions seized. A hunter was hired to guard it and tell him if he saw golden geese.

Word of this superb, completely safe feeding ground spread among birds far and wide and all manner came here to eat, and when some of the Bodhisatta’s flock heard about the lake they asked permission to go there. Knowing humans are cruel, clever, and deceptive, he assumed the lake was built for catching birds and did not allow it. But later, when his flock begged him, he relented and led them there.

The hunter reported the golden geese’s arrival to the delighted king, who ordered the hunter to catch one or two of them, promising great honor if he succeeded. The hunter observed the golden geese from a blind for six days. He saw the Bodhisatta’s great beauty and lack of greed and knew he was their king. And he saw that the Bodhisatta landed at the exact same spot every day, so the hunter set a snare and the next morning the Bodhisatta stepped in it.

He tried to break free, but stopped when the line cut down to his bone. He was in terrible pain, but did not yell the cry of capture until after the other geese had finished eating so they would have enough energy to reach their Himalayan home. As the flock flew back, the Bodhisatta’s commander-in-chief didn’t see him. He went back to the lake and found the Bodhisatta stained with blood lying in mud. He promised to release the Bodhisatta, even at the cost of his own life, and refused the Bodhisatta’s plea to fly away and save himself.

When the hunter approached the birds the commander-in-chief stood up and explained that this was no ordinary goose he’d caught. He was a king of extraordinary wisdom and virtue and killing him would guarantee suffering in hell. The commander-in-chief implored the hunter to take him in the Bodhisatta’s place. The hunter, impressed by this devotion and fearing hell more than his angry king, proclaimed the commander-in-chief’s greatness and set the Bodhisatta free, his affection magically healing the Bodhisatta’s wound.

The commander-in-chief knew the hunter lost money by setting them free and asked what his plan had been. Hearing the story of the king and queen, the Bodhisatta and commander-in-chief agreed to thank the hunter by going with him to the palace. The hunter warned them not to go because kings are erratic and they might end up as pets or dinner. But they insisted; the commander-in-chief saying that if he could sway a hunter who has blood on his hands then surely he could make a king understand. So the hunter prepared cages made of willow and shaded with lotuses and carried the geese on a pole into the city.

The king was overjoyed to see the two geese and he gave the hunter twelve hamlets worth a hundred thousand coins annual profit, a vast store of gold, a chariot yoked with thoroughbreds, and a large house. The hunter told the king the story of the capture and release, explaining how special these geese were and that they came to the palace of their own free will.

The king sat the geese in golden thrones, washed their feet, anointed them with oil, and fed them parched corn, honey, and sugar water. After eating, the Bodhisatta preached to the king, queen, and a large crowd of others. The king was so pleased that he tried to hand over his kingdom, along with gold, pearls, copper, ivory, deer skins, or any other treasure the Bodhisatta desired, but he didn’t take them, asking only that the king follow the ten virtues.

Back at their Himalayan home, the geese rejoiced at the return of their king. And when they heard exactly how he had escaped death, they all sang the praises of the commander-in-chief, the hunter, and the king, wishing them eternal happiness.

In the Lifetime of the Buddha

The Bodhisatta’s commander-in-chief was an earlier birth of Ananda, one of the Buddha’s top disciples. When Devadatta, a disciple of the Buddha who became his nemesis, planned his third attempt to kill the Buddha, by releasing a drunk, fierce elephant into the street while the Buddha went for morning alms, people told the Buddha not to go to the city. But he still went as usual.

When they saw the elephant demolishing houses and crushing wagons, all eighty of the chief elders wanted to face the elephant themselves to protect the Buddha, but he forbid them from doing so. Ananda, however, had such strong affection for the Buddha that he didn’t listen and stood in front of the Buddha ready to sacrifice his life. After Ananda ignored two orders from the Buddha to leave, the Buddha used his supernatural powers to send Ananda behind him. As the elephant charged, he saw the Buddha’s glorious form and fell down in worship at his feet, never again harming a person.

Later, when the Buddha heard some of his disciples discussing Ananda’s willingness to sacrifice his life for him, he told them this story so they knew that even when Ananda was born in animal form, he was willing to do the same.

The king and queen were earlier births of Sariputta and Khema, two of the Buddha’s top disciples, and the hunter was an earlier birth of Channa, Prince Siddhartha’s charioteer who later became a disciple. The king’s retinue were earlier births of supporters of the Buddha.

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