Somanassa Jataka (#505)

temple painting of Somanassa Jataka

The Bodhisatta was once a prince. Before he was born, a band of five hundred ascetics living in the Himalayas went down to the city to get salt and seasoning, and they slept in the royal park. The king invited them to the palace for a meal and asked them to stay as his guests through the rainy season. The king showed them great honor and provided everything they needed.

On the day the ascetics left to return home, they stopped for a noontime rest, and some of the disciples discussed their pity for the king not having any sons. Hearing this, their leader looked into the future and divined that the chief queen would conceive that night. One of the ascetics heard the prediction and knew he could benefit from it, so he feigned illness and stayed behind when the others left. He ran back to the city as fast as he could and told the king he’d seen in a divine vision that the chief queen would soon give birth to a son. The joyous king asked the ascetic to remain and gave him a home in the park.

The Bodhisatta was born and raised with every comfort. When the Bodhisatta was seven years old, the king needed to go put down a rebellion on the frontier, and he told his son to take care of the ascetic. One day the Bodhisatta walked out to meet the ascetic in the park and saw that he was working in the garden: he’d become quite wealthy growing vegetables, fruits, and herbs and selling them to market vendors. The Bodhisatta called him worldly and left without showing any honor.

To protect his privilege, the ascetic knew he had to ruin the Bodhisatta. After the king returned to the city, the ascetic knocked over his bench, smashed his waterpot, scattered grass in his hut, smeared his body with oil, and lay down feigning pain. The king found the ascetic this way when he dropped by for a visit. He told the king that the Bodhisatta had attacked him unprovoked, and without hesitation the king sent the executioners to behead his son.

When captured, the Bodhisatta asked to be taken to see his father before being killed, and the servants agreed. When the Bodhisatta heard the charge against him, he denied attacking the ascetic and insisted the man was actually a false ascetic. At the Bodhisatta’s urging, the king talked to people in the market and learned the truth. And when the ascetic’s hut was searched, a stash of money was found. The crowd turned on the ascetic and beat him to death.

Disgusted by his father’s foolish, rash behavior, the Bodhisatta publicly rebuked him and declared that he was leaving home to become an ascetic. The king asked for, but did not get, forgiveness, so he told his wife to try and change the Bodhisatta’s mind. But she defied her husband and urged her son to go. He walked into the Himalayas and took up abode in a hut built by Vissakamma, heaven’s chief builder, and was cared for by various gods until he became an adult.

In the Lifetime of the Buddha

The false ascetic was an earlier birth of Devadatta, a disciple of the Buddha who became his nemesis and tried to kill him three times. The Buddha told his disciples this story so they knew that Devadatta had also tried unsuccessfully to kill him in the past.

The Bodhisatta’s mother and the leader of the band of ascetics were earlier births of the Buddha’s birth mother and Sariputta, one of the Buddha’s top disciples.

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