Mahanaradakassapa Jataka (#544)

This Jataka tale illustrates the perfection of character of equanimity (upekkha).

painting of Mahanaradakassapa Jataka

The Bodhisatta was once a god in heaven. One holy day, a wealthy, powerful king who ruled with absolute righteousness asked his three advisors what they should do to entertain themselves. One wanted to gather the army and conquer new lands, another proposed letting loose with music and dance, and the third suggested discussing religion with a holy man. The king chose the latter and they rode the royal chariot, made of ivory and decorated with silver and pulled by four white thoroughbred horses, out to meet a famous naked ascetic who was staying in the royal park at that time.

The naked ascetic welcomed them warmly, and after some small talk the king asked what people should do to attain heaven. The naked ascetic, having never studied with a wise teacher or read the Vedas, was as blind as a child and had created his own false doctrine embracing greed. There is no heaven or hell, he claimed; everyone becomes pure after passing through eighty-four eons. Because everything is predestined, there is no sin—even cutting off a person’s head has no karmic consequences—so those who help others are feeble fools. And since everyone is equal, nobody deserves honor.

the Bodhisatta down from heaven talking to the king

One of the king’s advisors expressed his agreement with the naked ascetic. He was a hunter in his previous life, he said, and yet was born to a wealthy general in this life without going to hell in between. A slave clothed in rags who had been listening to the naked ascetic’s discourse broke into tears at these words. He said he’d lived happy and generous in his previous life, free from all sin, but in this life he was born to a prostitute and had nothing but misery, despite being just as righteous now as he was then, even still giving away half his food as alms.

After listening to all this, the king was completely convinced there was indeed no heaven to strive for and people could not affect their destiny. He thought about how he had been devoted to supporting brahmins and administering the law, but had taken no time to enjoy his life. The king declared that, from then on, he would follow these teachings and, appropriately, he departed without leaving an offering of thanks.

The next morning, the king assembled his advisors and put them in charge of the kingdom; they were to never discuss matters of state with him ever again. From this point on, he told them, he would let nothing distract him from the pursuit of pleasure.

Two weeks later, when the next holy day was forthcoming, the princess, his only child (all but one of his sixteen thousand wives being barren), put on her best clothes and jewelry and went to see her father. She was thoroughly righteous and gracious, blessed with beauty and wisdom, and full of great merit; and the king loved her dearly. Every holy day he presented her one thousand coins to give away as alms, and she had come to collect. But to her horror, this time he refused. He would deny her no luxury, he said, even if what she desired was as hard to acquire as the moon, but he would no longer support her wasting money and time by fasting and following the holy-day vows because there was no merit to gain and no heaven or hell to consider: all her worry about virtue was pointless.

The princess rebuked her father, wondering why he had abandoned his wisdom and begun following fools. She logically pointed out that if the naked ascetic was correct about there being no merit, he was an idiot for living his austere, arduous life because it would bring him no reward. Furthermore, she explained why the advisor and the slave were born as they were in this lifetime: like a ship carrying too much cargo does not sink immediately into the sea but goes down slowly, a man accumulating sin little by little eventually becomes overladen and sinks into hell. The advisor had once been righteous and his recent sins had not yet wiped out all his earlier merit, while the slave’s past offenses still outweighed the virtue of his two most recent lives, but for both men, their tipping points would come soon and they would reap the consequences of their actions.

To further explain the price of sin, the princess related that six earthly lives ago, she was born a blacksmith and routinely pursued and corrupted other men’s wives. Those actions remained dormant, like a fire covered with ashes, and she was later born the only son of a wealthy merchant and lived a life devoted to good deeds and sacred studies, always observing the holy days. But after dying again, the previous life’s adultery sent her to a long wretched stretch in hell, followed by further misery back on earth as a castrated goat ridden by the sons of the wealthy. After this, she was born as a monkey whose father, the king of the troop, bit down and ripped both testicles off with his teeth. Then came life as an ox (a castrated bull) that pulled a wagon, and next as a hermaphrodite among people known for being happy and prosperous. Finally, the good deeds done five lives earlier as the merchant came around and she spent time as a nymph, dancing and singing in heaven before her present birth as the princess. She also knew about her next seven births, all among humans and gods. She would still be punished for her adultery by remaining a woman for the first six. Only in the seventh would the bad karma be used up, allowing her to return to manhood. At that time, she would become a deity in heaven.

All night the princess spoke to her father, but the vast wisdom she shared was not enough to bring him back to the path of righteousness. So she bowed to all ten directions (the eight cardinal points plus up and down) and called out for some deity to come save him. The Bodhisatta heard her prayers and knew he was the only one who could sway the king away from his false doctrine. He took the form of an ascetic and went to the palace, magically making everyone across the whole kingdom able to hear his conversation with the king. The arrogant king asked the Bodhisatta whether he believed there was reward for good actions and if there were other worlds. The Bodhisatta assured him there were, but the king laughed and mocked him by asking for a loan of five hundred coins, promising to repay him a thousand after he died. The Bodhisatta drew shouts of delight when he replied that he could not collect a debt in hell, where the king was going. And to drive home his point, the Bodhisatta frightened the king with his vivid description of the torments he’d be facing in hell if he did not accept the truth: having his body torn apart by flocks of ravens, being eaten by dogs with iron teeth, having to pull a chariot across burning ground, climbing a mountain studded with razors, climbing trees with swords for leaves, and standing in a rain of spears, arrows, rocks, and burning coal.

Fearing his future, the king was finally willing to listen and asked the Bodhisatta to teach him the path of purity. Be kind and generous, the Bodhisatta said, and think of the body as a chariot. The mind is the charioteer, the feet are the wheels, humble speech is the whip, lack of desire is the cushion, generosity is the roof, and it’s held together by the absence of slander and greed. Using wisdom when you drive keeps you free of dust and maintaining self-control keeps the horses working together.

Having converted the king, the Bodhisatta told him to avoid bad friends and focus on living a good life. Then, before returning home to heaven, he praised the princess’s virtue and encouraged the king’s wives and the royal court to follow her example.

In the Lifetime of the Buddha

The king was an earlier birth of the renowned fire-worshipping ascetic, Uruvela-Kassapa, who was converted by the Buddha not long after his enlightenment. As the Buddha’s fame had not yet spread, some people weren’t sure whether Uruvela-Kassapa had submitted to the spiritual guidance of the Buddha or whether it was the other way around. To answer the question beyond any doubt, Uruvela-Kassapa proclaimed the Buddha was his teacher, and he had abandoned his fire sacrifices because they were just a form of pleasure. He laid his head on the Buddha’s feet, and then rose into the air seven times.

The people in attendance were impressed by the Buddha’s power of persuasion, but he told them that since he was now enlightened, this was not as great a feat as the time in the past when he humbled a king, and he told this story.

The princess and the slave were earlier births of Ananda and Moggallana, two of the Buddha’s top disciples. The naked ascetic was an earlier birth of Sunakkhatta, a former top disciple who later left the sangha, and the advisor who had been a hunter was an earlier birth of Devadatta, a disciple of the Buddha who became his nemesis. The other two advisors were earlier births of Sariputta and Bhaddiya, two more top disciples.

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