Mahajanaka Jataka (#539)

This Jataka tale illustrates the perfection of character of endurance (viriya).

painting of Mahajanaka Jataka

The Bodhisatta was once a widowed queen’s son. Various people told King Aritthajanaka that his younger brother, Polajanaka, planned to kill him, so he had him imprisoned. But Polajanaka was pure of heart and had no ill intent toward his brother, so he pleaded to the heavens: “If I’m innocent, let my chains break and the door open.” His wish came true and he fled to a remote border town where he became the local leader and earned everyone’s respect. Though he didn’t before his arrest, Polajanaka now considered his brother an enemy, and he soon returned to the city with an army and told his brother to surrender or face destruction. Aritthajanaka chose to fight, but most of his subjects joined the battle on Polajanaka’s side, so Aritthajanaka was defeated and died.

After the battle, Aritthajanaka’s pregnant queen snuck out of the city disguised as a peasant, with her gold and jewels hidden in a basket of rice. Indra, king of the gods, saw her sitting along the road hoping for someone to take her to the distant city of Kalacampa. He knew that her unborn son was the Bodhisatta, so he came to earth as an old man driving a carriage and offered her a ride, magically making the sixty-league trip in a single night.

Mahajanaka being rescued from the sinking ship

In Kalacampa, the queen met a renowned teacher who, entranced by the power of the Bodhisatta in her womb, took her in and cared for her. To protect her secret, he told everyone she was his long-lost sister. Her son, who she named Mahajanaka, was born soon after. Other children teased him by calling him “the widow’s son,” and one day while he was breastfeeding, he bit his mother and demanded to know who his father was. “If you do not tell me,” he said, “I will cut off your breast.” Once he learned the truth of his royal blood, he no longer had any shame about growing up fatherless and the other children’s teasing no longer upset him.

By the time the Bodhisatta turned sixteen years old he was wise and handsome, and he felt ready to go to his father’s home and seize the kingdom. His mother offered her treasure to fund his quest, but he only took half because he wanted to make money in trade as he traveled there. On the same day that he boarded a ship sailing to Suvarnabhumi, the golden land of the east, where he could sell his cargo and raise money, his uncle, the king, fell ill.

After seven days at sea, the ship sank. As it broke apart, the Bodhisatta kept calm. While the other passengers prayed to their various gods, he ate a big meal, covered his body with sugar and ghee, put on two sets of clothes smeared with oil, and climbed to the top of the mast. The water around the ship turned red as fish and turtles devoured the submerged passengers, but using his superior strength, the Bodhisatta jumped sixty-five meters from the ship and avoided a similar fate. On this day, the king died.

The Bodhisatta floated in the ocean far from land for a week, never giving up hope. The goddess of the ocean responsible for rescuing virtuous people in distress had been distracted and forgot to do her job. When she finally scanned the seas, she saw the Bodhisatta and went to talk with him. Once she was certain he was not an ordinary mortal, she lifted him out of the water and held him tenderly like a child. The Bodhisatta slept in her arms for seven days to recover. Then she flew him to his family’s kingdom and laid him on a ceremonial stone in a mango grove where the goddesses of the garden could look after him.

The king had no sons or living brothers. On his deathbed, he had instructed that his successor must be a man who could do one of the following: meet the approval of his daughter, the beautiful and wise Princess Sivali; string the king’s powerful bow, which required the strength of a thousand men; know which side is the head of a square bed; or decipher a riddle (“The treasures of the rising sun, and at his setting. The treasures outside, within, and neither. At the mounting and dismounting. Sal wood-pillars four, a chariot yoke around. The end of the teeth and the end of the tail. Water and the ends of the trees.”) to find sixteen hidden treasures. The advisors started their search for a new king by sending the general to see the princess. He rushed up the stairs after she summoned him. When she told him to run around, he did. Then she told him to rub her feet, and as he did, she kicked him in the chest and knocked him down on the ground, telling her servants to throw him out and give him a beating: he was not wise enough to rule the kingdom. The treasurer, sword-bearer, and other respected men met the princess and were similarly rejected.

The advisors moved on to the other tests, but nobody could pass them. They grew concerned, but the royal chaplain told them to let the royal chariot lead them to a worthy successor—a foolproof method to find someone with sufficient merit to be a great king. They hitched it up to four lotus-colored horses, and a large crowd followed the empty vehicle out of the city where it circled the stone on which the Bodhisatta lay sleeping and then stopped.

The chaplain ordered the musicians to play as loud as possible, and when this woke the Bodhisatta, he remained completely calm, never saying who he was or why he came. The chaplain examined his feet and saw the marks of royalty, proof he was destined not only to be a king but to reign over all four continents. The Bodhisatta accepted the chaplain’s offer to rule and was anointed King Mahajanaka right there. He was taken to the palace and he got to work immediately, rearranging the duties of his generals and other officers. The princess summoned the Bodhisatta to come meet her three times, but he ignored her. Finally, she went down to find him, and when she saw what a majestic person he was, she was delighted.

Sitting under the white umbrella, the Bodhisatta asked his advisors if the previous king had left any instructions with them, and they explained the tests for finding a new king. The Bodhisatta, though already wearing the crown, agreed to take them and passed all four, greatly impressing everyone. He put the treasure revealed by the riddle into five alms halls around the city and let the poor have it all.

The Bodhisatta ruled wisely and benevolently, and he was beloved by all. He made Princess Sivali his queen, and they had a wonderful son with all the auspicious marks, and his mother and the teacher who had supported them in the faraway land came to live in luxury at the palace. His life was filled with endless joy.

Seven thousand years later (at that time, humans lived for ten thousand years) the Bodhisatta encountered two mango trees in his park, one full of fruit and the other without. He ate a mango and continued on his way. It was so delicious that on his return he stopped to eat another and saw that the tree was destroyed. When people had seen the Bodhisatta eat a mango they all wanted one; and after they were all picked, people tore off the branches looking for more. But they left the barren tree undamaged. Understanding this incident as a metaphor for life—having possessions leads to misery—the Bodhisatta realized it was best to be like the barren tree, and he decided to leave his glory behind and live as an ascetic. He put his commander-in-chief and some judges in charge of running the kingdom and lived alone at the top of the palace, seeing nobody except the servants who brought his food and water.

After four months of living like an ascetic in the palace, the Bodhisatta fully renounced the world and struck out for the Himalayas. He walked out at sunrise and his seven hundred queens ran after him, pleading with him to stay. Hearing the harem’s loud wails, the city’s entire population, weeping openly, joined the chase. Queen Sivali ordered the commander-in-chief to set a mass of grass and leaves on fire and lied that the treasure houses were burning, hoping it would make the Bodhisatta turn back to save them. But he said he no longer had any treasure—he no longer had anything—and he left through the northern gate. He walked a bit further and then drew a line on the road with his walking staff and ordered that nobody cross it. But Queen Sivali was so out of control with grief that she ignored his demand and followed him anyway; and the line having been violated, everybody else followed her. Still hoping he would change his mind, the great crowd walked behind the Bodhisatta for sixty leagues.

Two ascetics from the Himmapan forest, well-practiced in supernatural powers, divined that the Bodhisatta could not leave his followers behind and appeared before him, floating in the air, to give encouragement. The next morning, a dog stole a man’s grilled meat and ran out of the city. When the dog saw the Bodhisatta, it got scared and dropped its meal on the ground. The Bodhisatta, having left his royal tradition behind, picked it up, wiped it off, and ate it. The queen was appalled, but did not give up.

At a city gate, a girl sifting sand wore two bracelets on one wrist and only one on the other. The Bodhisatta, hoping to get his queen to understand, explained that while the pair together made an annoying noise, the single bracelet was peaceful, and peacefulness was genuine happiness. Inside the city, the Bodhisatta went on an alms round and came to the house of an arrow maker. He saw that this man closed one of his eyes to stare down the shaft and make the arrow straight. He told the queen that the wide view from two eyes was distracting, but the narrow focus of a single eye gave fixed aim and true vision. The queen said she understood these two lessons, but would still not leave his side, and the mass of people also remained on his tail.

Back outside the city, the Bodhisatta plucked a single stalk of grass and told the queen that they were like it: they had been split and could never be joined again. Then he begged her to go away. The queen had another fit of grief, this one so strong that she passed out and fell down on the road. The Bodhisatta immediately rushed into the forest and was finally able to slip away, never to return to his kingdom. After a week, he reached mystical insight.

Back home, the queen oversaw the coronation of their son in the mango grove. After the ceremony ended, she remained there for the rest of her life, choosing to follow the example of the Bodhisatta and live as an ascetic.

In the Lifetime of the Buddha

One time the Buddha heard some of his disciples discussing the magnificence of his Great Renunciation, which was the beginning of his path to enlightenment. He said he had also renounced the world in the past and told them this story as an example.

The goddess of the ocean, the two mystical ascetics, the girl sifting sand, and the arrow maker were earlier births of Uppalavanna, Sariputta and Moggallana, Khema, and Ananda, five of the Buddha’s top disciples. The Bodhisatta’s parents, Queen Sivali, and his son were earlier births of the Buddha’s father, birth mother, wife, and son.

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