The Bodhisatta was once a king’s advisor. The king’s state elephant was good-natured and never hurt anybody. One night a murderous band of thieves sat down outside the elephant’s stall to discuss their plans. They returned nightly to plan their crimes, and soon the elephant, being quite dimwitted, concluded that they had been coming to teach him and he should change his ways. So when his mahout next came, the elephant picked him up with his trunk and smashed him to death on the ground. Several more people approached and the elephant did the same to them.
When the king heard that his elephant had gone mad, he sent the Bodhisatta to find out what had happened. He examined the elephant and saw that he wasn’t sick or injured. Pondering the problem further, he guessed the elephant had been perverted by overhearing wicked talk. He asked the elephant keepers about any visitors, and they told him about the thieves meeting in their building, confirming his assumption. So the Bodhisatta sent sages and brahmin priests to sit by the elephant’s stall and talk of virtue. Hearing new “lessons,” the elephant resolved to be good again.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
The elephant was an earlier birth of one of the Buddha’s disciples who had been persuaded by a friend to skip his morning alms rounds and eat fancy meals at the monastery of Devadatta, a disciple of the Buddha who became his nemesis.
The Buddha told this story to the traitorous disciple and those who had reported his misbehavior so they knew that it was this disciple’s nature to be easily led astray.
The king was an earlier birth of Ananda, one of the Buddha’s top disciples.