The Bodhisatta was once a deer. He was golden in hue and perfect in form and was the leader of a large herd living in the forest. He was friends with another deer, Sakha, who had the same golden color and also led a large herd. The king enjoyed hunting, and each day he took all his subjects to the forest to assist him. They hated this disruption to their lives and businesses, so they encircled a vast stretch of forest and drove the Bodhisatta and Sakha’s herds into the king’s gated park. They told the king what they had done and asked him to eat these deer instead of taking them out to the forest. He agreed. And having seen the two beautiful golden deer, he gave them immunity.
Some days the king shot the deer himself, but usually he sent his cook to do it. When the hunter came, the deer ran away and trembled in fear. It usually took two or three arrows in their bodies before they would grow weary enough that they would finally die. Though he could not stop the hunts, the Bodhisatta decided to stop the suffering. He suggested that each day one deer be chosen at random, alternating between the two herds, to go sacrifice itself by laying its neck on the chopping block. Sakha agreed to the plan.
One day the lot fell to a pregnant doe in Sakha’s herd. She begged him to let her wait until after her fawn was born. When he rejected her request, she went to the Bodhisatta who agreed that she should skip her turn. When the time came, he went and lay his own head on the chopping block. The cook, knowing this deer had immunity from death, informed the king who rushed to his park.
The Bodhisatta explained the situation and the compassionate king, impressed by this display of love and charity, agreed to also spare the doe’s life. The Bodhisatta asked why only their lives, and soon he had convinced the king to forbid the killing of all animals great and small. The Bodhisatta preached to the king about righteousness and justice for a few days and then led his herd back to the forest, instructing them to never eat men’s crops. The doe gave birth to a fawn as beautiful as a lotus bud and ordered him to only associate with the Bodhisatta’s herd.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
The daughter of a wealthy merchant believed from an early age that she was in her final existence before entering nirvana, so she wanted to become a disciple of the Buddha. But her parents forbid it because she was their only daughter. After she married, her husband encouraged her to ordain since she respected dharma so much.
She took up residence under the tutelage of Devadatta, a disciple of the Buddha who later became his nemesis. Soon after, she discovered she was pregnant and Devadatta, who lacked love and charity, ordered her expelled without even having an enquiry as to whether the pregnancy happened before or after she had become a disciple. But because she had made her vow to the Buddha, not Devadatta, she insisted on letting him hear her case. He had another female disciple examine her, and when it was announced that she had conceived her child before joining the sangha, she returned to her nunnery. Her son was adopted by King Pasenadi, a righteous ruler and devoted supporter of the Buddha, and later became a disciple of the Buddha. Both he and his mother became arahants.
The doe and her fawn were earlier births of this disciple and her son, and the Buddha told this story to let his other disciples know he had saved this mother and son once before. Sakha and his followers were earlier births of Devadatta and his followers, and the king was Ananda, one of the Buddha’s top disciples.