Matanga Jataka (#497)

temple painting of Matanga Jataka

The Bodhisatta was once an untouchable. One day the daughter of a merchant was on her way to the royal park when she saw the Bodhisatta at the city gate. He stood to the side to let her entourage pass, but she thought encountering an untouchable brought bad luck, so she washed her eyes with scented water and returned home. The people with her, enraged at being deprived of a day of free food and liquor in the park, beat the Bodhisatta unconscious.

When he came to, the Bodhisatta resolved to get this woman as his wife. He lay down at the door to her father’s home, telling the family that he would not leave without her. They were so disgusted at having an untouchable around that after seven days the father gave the Bodhisatta his daughter just to get rid of him. Still weak from the beating, he made her carry him on her back to his house in the untouchable village.

The Bodhisatta thought his wife deserved abundant honor, and the only way for someone like him to give it to her was to renounce the world and become an ascetic. So he left her and went to the forest, embracing the religious life with such diligence that he gained the eight attainments and five supernatural faculties in just seven days.

The Bodhisatta returned home and told his wife his plan to make her even more glorious than she had been before they were married. He would go away again and hide out deep in the Himalayas. During this time, she needed to tell everyone that her husband was really the great god Brahma, not an untouchable, and he was currently visiting heaven, but would return by breaking through the upcoming full moon.

Seven days later, when the full moon was at its peak rise, the Bodhisatta took the form of Brahma and returned to his village in a blaze that lit up the night sky across the kingdom. He flew down and circled the city three times before landing to receive garlands and praise from the crowd that had gathered to greet him. He then went to his house, which people had covered with white cloth and filled with flowers. He touched his thumb to his wife’s navel, making her conceive a son, and told her that, from then on, she would be worshipped as a goddess. Then, with a warning to be vigilant, the Bodhisatta flew back through the moon and returned to live alone in his Himalayan home.

Everything the Bodhisatta predicted for his wife came true. The people built her a magnificent seven-story palace in the city, she acquired a vast fortune, and the water used to wash her feet was reused for ceremonial sprinkling by kings throughout India. As their son grew up, he studied with the best teachers, and when he reached adulthood, he provided alms to feed sixteen thousand brahmins daily.

During a festival, the son adorned himself with jewels and golden slippers and walked around directing his servants. On that same day, the Bodhisatta wondered what had become of his son. He divined what he’d been up to and saw that he was giving alms in the wrong way, so he went down to the city to teach him proper behavior.

The son did not know his father, and when he saw an ascetic in filthy, ragged clothes in his room, he insulted him and ordered him to leave. The Bodhisatta did not reveal himself, but rebuked his son’s arrogance and tried to explain that alms should be given to the poor and the worthy, not given to greedy, wicked brahmins as he was doing. The son respected the highborn and rejected this advice, and he ordered his servants to rough up the Bodhisatta and toss him out. But before they could knock him down, the Bodhisatta flew away, landing on a street where he knew his footprints could be followed. He collected alms, then sat down to eat.

Meanwhile, a band of goblins who respected the Bodhisatta was angry about the son’s behavior. They seized him by the neck and twisted it half around so his head faced his back. Then they dumped him on the ground with his eyes turned up white in their sockets and body so rigid he appeared dead. They did the same to the sixteen thousand corrupt brahmins.

When witnesses told the Bodhisatta’s wife about the attack on her son, she knew that the ascetic must be her husband. She went off with her ladies-in-waiting and followed the footprints to the spot where he was eating and apologized for not raising their son into a virtuous man. When the Bodhisatta heard what the goblins had done, he gave her a magical elixir mixed with some of his rice gruel and told her to feed it to their son and the brahmins. Then he flew back home.

When her son was revived, the Bodhisatta’s wife called him a fool for not knowing how to give alms properly, and he felt remorse. He swore to his mother that from then on he would only give to righteous ascetics, arahants, private Buddhas (those who reach enlightenment on their own and do not teach the path to others), and others who deserved it. Together they diluted the magic rice gruel with water and poured it into the mouths of the wounded brahmins, and they were healed. But because they ate the leftovers of an untouchable, all sixteen thousand were expelled from their caste, and in shame they went to live in another kingdom.

Later, the Bodhisatta heard about an ascetic plagued by the pride of his noble birth, and he came down to humble him. He built a riverside hut upstream from the arrogant ascetic, and after cleaning his teeth with a stick, he let it float down the river, where it got caught in the ascetic’s hair. Angry about this, the arrogant ascetic walked until he found the Bodhisatta; and when he realized he was an untouchable, ordered him to leave. The Bodhisatta built a new hut downstream, but his tooth sticks floated against the current and still found the ascetic’s hair. The arrogant ascetic cursed the Bodhisatta: “If you don’t leave in one week, your head will explode!” On the seventh day, the Bodhisatta stopped the sunrise and said he would only release the sun if the ascetic bowed down at his feet and asked for mercy. The people living there demanded the ascetic do it, so he agreed. But first, the Bodhisatta stuck a clump of mud on the ascetic’s head and told him to get into the river. When the sun rose, the mud exploded instead of the Bodhisatta’s head.

With this ascetic properly humbled, the Bodhisatta went to deal with the sixteen thousand wicked brahmins. He flew to their new city and walked the streets with his alms bowl. When some of these shamed brahmins saw him, they reported him as a juggler and a swindler to the king, who ordered him arrested. The king’s messengers found the Bodhisatta eating, and one of them struck him with his sword and killed him. Infuriated, the gods poured down a torrent of hot ashes and wiped the entire kingdom off the map.

In the Lifetime of the Buddha

The Bodhisatta’s son was an earlier birth of a wicked king. Pindola Bharadvaja, one of the Buddha’s top disciples, spent many a day sitting peacefully in the royal park. One day the king, thoroughly drunk, came into his park with a group of women. When he fell asleep, the women put down their musical instruments and walked about the park picking fruits and flowers. They met Pindola Bharadvaja and sat down to hear him preach. When the king awoke, he was angry that the women were gone and threw a basketful of red ants over Pindola Bharadvaja. He rose into the air and rebuked the king, then flew back to the Buddha’s monastery.

When the Buddha heard what had just happened, he told this story so Pindola Bharadvaja knew that the king had also abused a religious man in the past.

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