The Bodhisatta was once a deer, golden in color and perfect in every way. A wealthy merchant spoiled his son and never taught him anything useful, so all he knew in life was singing, dancing, and feasting. When his parents died, he spent his days with drunks, gamblers, and other reckless good-for-nothings and lost all his money. He got so deep in debt he decided to end his life.
The merchant’s son invited his many creditors to come with him out to a spot on the bank of the Ganges River where he said the family treasure was buried. While supposedly looking for the hiding place he threw himself into the river, yelling out as the torrent dragged him away. The Bodhisatta heard his cries and swam out to the man, got him on his back, and rescued him. The man stayed with the Bodhisatta, resting and recuperating for a few days, before returning to the city. As they parted ways, the Bodhisatta asked the man to never tell another soul about him, and he agreed to keep the secret.
On the night before the man returned to the city, the queen consort had a dream about a golden deer preaching to her. She went to the king and insisted she must have the opportunity to listen to the sermons of a golden deer or there was no point in her living anymore. The king discussed the matter with his chaplains, who assured him that such creatures existed. So he had a proclamation engraved on a gold tablet and read across the city saying anyone who could lead him to a golden deer would get one thousand coins, a gold casket, an elephant, beautiful women, and a village of his choice.
The merchant’s son heard the proclamation as he entered the city, and he told the courtier he knew where to find a golden deer. He was taken to the palace and the king was pleased by the news, so they traveled together with the army to find the golden deer.
When the Bodhisatta heard the noise of the soldiers forming a ring around his patch of forest, he picked out the king and ran straight toward him. The king drew his bow, but before he could fire, the Bodhisatta called out, “Stand still, please do not hurt me.” Enchanted by his voice, the king and the soldiers let their weapons fall. The Bodhisatta came up to the king and the two talked pleasantly.
The Bodhisatta asked the king who told him where he lived, and the king pointed to the merchant’s son. The Bodhisatta rebuked his treacherous friend and said it would have been better to rescue a log than this man. The king took the Bodhisatta’s side and prepared to shoot the merchant’s son, but the Bodhisatta, ever virtuous, asked that he not be killed. Respecting the Bodhisatta, the king fulfilled his promised reward to the man, then told him to go away.
The Bodhisatta went to the palace and preached to the queen and the entire court, specifically urging the king to follow the ten royal virtues. In gratitude, the king granted the Bodhisatta a wish, and he asked that people stop killing all living creatures—the king agreed and ordered his subjects to protect all animals. From that time on, nobody dared harm any beast or bird. Deer, no longer afraid of men, began to eat people’s crops and nobody could drive them away. They complained to the king, but he refused to back out of his promise to the Bodhisatta, even if it meant being dethroned.
Eventually the Bodhisatta heard about the people’s problem. He ordered all deer to stop eating crops and told the people to put up signs on their land so the deer knew where not to go. And ever since then, deer do not eat people’s crops.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
The merchant’s son was an earlier birth of Devadatta, a disciple of the Buddha who became his nemesis. Some of the Buddha’s loyal disciples told Devadatta he ought to be grateful to the Buddha for all he had learned from him. But Devadatta answered that he’d learned everything on his own and hadn’t got even one blade of grass worth of knowledge from the Buddha.
When the Buddha later overheard some disciples discussing this, he told them this story so they knew that Devadatta had also been ungrateful in the past, even after he’d saved his life.
The king was an earlier birth of Ananda, one of the Buddha’s top disciples.