Setaketu Jataka (#377)

temple painting of Setaketu Jataka

The Bodhisatta was once a teacher, famed across the land. His top student, Setaketu, was from a brahmin family, and he was full of pride on account of his caste. One day he walked near an untouchable and did not want any wind that had passed over the untouchable’s body to touch his own. Setaketu ordered the untouchable to pass him on the downwind side, but he refused. Setaketu shouted insults, but the untouchable would not give in. Instead, he challenged Setaketu to answer one question—if answered correctly, the untouchable would step aside; if answered incorrectly, Setaketu had to crawl between his legs. The question was, “What are the quarters?” and Setaketu answered confidently, “North, south, east, and west.” As these were not the quarters the untouchable was thinking of, he grabbed Setaketu by his shoulders and pushed him down through his legs.

Later, the Bodhisatta talked to Setaketu about what had happened, telling him to get over his anger and explaining that the four quarters were parents; teachers; heads of households who provide food, drink, and clothing; and a place where misery becomes bliss. (It was a clever pun on these four words.) But his shame over the encounter would not go away and Setaketu left the Bodhisatta to go study elsewhere. Eventually he joined a group of ascetics and traveled with them.

While the ascetics were temporarily residing in the royal park, the king announced that he would come to pay respect. Setaketu told the other ascetics that, to impress the king, they should perform austerities such as lying on a bed of spikes and worshipping fire. The king arrived, accompanied by his chaplain. Seeing the ascetics’ rigorous activities and the fancy seat used by Setaketu, the king said these must be supremely learned and advanced men. But the chaplain told the king he was being deceived by sham tricks and a facade of grandeur. After listening to the chaplain discuss the true religion, the ascetics renounced their ways and worked as servants for the king.

In the Lifetime of the Buddha

Setaketu was an earlier birth of one of the Buddha’s disciples who claimed to dedicate himself to seeking salvation, but was known by other disciples to be dishonest. When the Buddha heard some of them discussing the dishonest disciple, he told them this story so they knew that this disciple had also been a rascal in the past.

The untouchable was an earlier birth of Sariputta, one of the Buddha’s top disciples.

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