The Bodhisatta was once a king’s chaplain. He was thoroughly righteous and received more honor than anyone else in the king’s inner circle. The Bodhisatta wanted to know if this was because of his virtue or if it was only due to coming from a respected family. To test this, he stole some coins in full view of the king’s treasurer.
While the Bodhisatta was being taken to the king to receive his punishment, he saw some snake charmers and urged them to stop their dangerous activity. But they answered that, unlike him, these cobras were good and did not bite. This statement made the Bodhisatta realize that virtue is the best thing in the world because it can save one from death.
After the king ordered the Bodhisatta executed, he said he was not a thief and explained why he had pocketed the coins. And being given this punishment showed that the honor from the king really was earned from his virtue, not his lineage. Forgiven for his crime, the Bodhisatta left the palace and lived out the rest of his life as an ascetic in the Himalayas.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
One of the Buddha’s disciples had been a king’s chaplain before joining the sangha. He received more honor than anyone else in the king’s inner circle and wondered if it was because of his virtue or his lineage, so he did the exact same test of his privilege. After being forgiven by the king, the man joined the sangha and eventually reached arahantship.
When the Buddha heard some other disciples discussing this, the Buddha told them this story so they knew that he himself had once done the same test in the past.
The king’s followers were earlier births of the Buddha’s disciples.