Vessantara Jataka (#547)

Prince Vessantara on his elephant

This Jataka tale illustrates the perfection of character of generosity (dana).

The Bodhisatta was once a prince. His father, King Sanjaya, was wealthy beyond measure and honored by all the other kings of India for his virtue, and his mother, Queen Phusati, previously the chief queen of Indra, king of the gods, (Before her rebirth on Earth, Indra had granted her ten wishes, one of which was to have a son who would be a righteous, respected, and powerful king.) was the most beautiful and generous woman in the realm. The Bodhisatta, named Prince Vessantara, was later chosen by Indra to fulfill Queen Phusati’s wish and was born free from impurity. Immediately after leaving the womb asked his mother for something he could give away as a gift: she gave him one thousand coins. On the same day the Bodhisatta was born, so were sixty thousand other men that Indra had sent down from heaven.

As he grew up, the Bodhisatta was as generous as anyone could be and often gave out gifts to help people. He was cared for by two hundred forty nurses, all free of faults, 1 and full of sweet milk. His father had given him a prince’s necklace worth one hundred thousand coins and at age four he gave it to them in thanks for their work. His father replaced the necklace nine times and the Bodhisatta gave each of these to his nurses. At age eight he felt unsatisfied by his charity because everything he gave away came from others. He wanted to give something of his very own. He pondered the matter, vowing that if someone asked for his heart, eyes, or flesh, he would cut them out with his own hands and give them. Indra, Brahma, and other heavenly gods were so pleased by his dedication that the earth shook, lightning flashed, and the ocean stirred. By age sixteen, the Bodhisatta had mastered all his studies and so his parents married him to his cousin Maddi and abdicated so he could take the throne. They soon had a son, Jali, and a daughter, Kanhajina.

As king, the Bodhisatta continued his incredible generosity, giving six hundred thousand coins-worth of alms every day. His subjects were happy and prosperous. The nearby kingdom of Kalinga, on the other hand, was suffering drought and famine and many people had turned to robbery. The King of Kalinga tried to make rain by observing the holy-day vows for a whole week, but no rain came. Then his advisors suggested he could bring rain to the kingdom with the Bodhisatta’s auspicious white elephant: wherever it went, rain fell. So the King of Kalinga sent eight brahmins to ask, and without hesitation the Bodhisatta not only gave them his elephant, but also all of its priceless gold and jeweled ornamentation and the five hundred attendants who cared for it. And again the earth shook over his generosity.

The Bodhisatta’s subjects were horrified at what he had done. Declaring that ruin would surely befall the kingdom without their sacred elephant talisman, the people went to Sanjaya and demanded the Bodhisatta be banished to Vamka mountain deep in the Himalayas. Sanjaya had no choice but to accept their demand and take charge again. He gave his son one final day in the city before having to leave.

The Bodhisatta rejected the idea that his action was wrong, but chose not to resist the will of the people. With his final day he decided to give the Gift of the Seven Hundreds (giving away seven hundred of many kinds of things) and ordered his servants to immediately begin gathering elephants, horses, chariots, women, cows, slaves, etc., and also to prepare every kind of food and drink imaginable, including hard alcohol. Giving alcohol would earn him no merit, but he did not want anybody to go away without getting exactly what they wanted. With the preparations for the next day under way, he told his wife to carefully store all their treasure so she could support herself and their children without him, and that she should remarry. But she insisted she would rather die than leave him behind. She and the children were going to live in the forest with him; and she predicted life there would be so wonderful he would forget he had ever been king.

From early the next morning until after night fell, the Bodhisatta gave away things to everyone who came, from brahmins to untouchables. The next day he bid farewell to his parents and rode off in a gorgeous carriage pulled by four thoroughbred horses, giving out ornaments adorned with the seven precious jewels to beggars they met along the road. Four brahmins who had arrived too late to get anything during the Gift of the Seven Hundreds chased them down and asked the Bodhisatta for his horses, which, of course, he gave. Four gods, taking the form of red deer, arrived to pull the carriage, but a short time later another brahmin came and took that. So they walked, carrying the tired children on their hips. It was a long, long journey and everyone they met along the way pitied them, including the trees, which bowed their branches so they could easily pick fruits.

It was thirty leagues to his uncle’s city, Ceta, but the gods shortened the journey so the Bodhisatta arrived before nightfall that same day. The royal family came to greet him, suspecting he had fled from defeat in a battle since he had no army, carriage, or horses. He told them his true tale of woe and they asked him to stay and be their new king, but he refused. The Bodhisatta wouldn’t even enter the city proper, only resting in a room at the city gate, so as not to create any conflict between the two kingdoms.

After a day of rest, they set out again toward the Himalayas. Sixty thousand nobles accompanied the Bodhisatta to the edge of the forest to see them off. The Bodhisatta arrived at Vamka in just two days, rather than weeks, due to more divine assistance. Just before they arrived, Indra noticed what had happened, so he sent Vissakamma, heaven’s chief architect, to build the family a home with covered walkways and a lush garden, and he also drove away all animals that make harsh sounds.

All four put on ascetic’s clothes and began their new lives, the Bodhisatta living in one room and his wife and children in another. The Bodhisatta made his wife promise not to approach him at night (as ascetics, they must stay chaste) and she made him promise to let her be the one to go out into the forest to gather fruits and roots. She was in no danger because the Bodhisatta’s compassion was so strong that all animals living within three leagues of them fell under his influence and ceased killing.

In another kingdom lived Jujaka, a decrepit old brahmin with a very young wife, Amittatapana, who was given to him in lieu of a debt her parents could not repay. Amittatapana cared for him devotedly and some men criticized their own wives for not meeting her high wifely standard. This angered the other women of the village and they cruelly mocked her, hoping she would leave Jujaka and go back to her family. One day Amittatapana took her water pot down to the river and heard their nasty words and returned home in tears. Jujaka felt bad for her and offered to get water himself from then on, but she though it improper for a man to do this work and said they should have a slave or a maid to help them – and if he did not find one, she was going to leave him. He didn’t have enough money for this, so she suggested he go to Vamka and ask the Bodhisatta to give him a slave. Being old, he did not want to make the long, rough trip, but he also did not want to lose his wife, so he agreed to go.

Jujaka first went to the Bodhisatta’s city to ask how to find him, but people there said greedy men like him were the cause of the Bodhisatta’s downfall, and they beat him with fists, feet, and sticks. But the gods, wanting to support the Bodhisatta’s generosity, guided Jujaka onto the correct road. After he reached the forest, he was chased by a pack of dogs and climbed up a tree to safety. A wise and skilled forester who had been told by the King of Ceta to keep watch for anyone trying to reach the Bodhisatta heard Jujaka’s cries for help. Certain he had no good intent, the forester drew his bow and yelled out he was going to kill Jujaka to protect the Bodhisatta and his family from good-for-nothing fools like him. Jujaka thought quickly and claimed he was an ambassador from the king (meaning he could not be killed) and had come to tell the Bodhisatta he had been forgiven and could return home. The forester was thrilled by the good news; he called off his dogs and told Jujaka to come down. He then pointed out the way to Vamka mountain and gave Jujaka roast deer and honey for the journey.

As suggested by the forester, Jujaka stopped to see the ascetic Accuta to get directions for the final part of the path. Accuta also initially doubted Jujaka’s intentions, but believed Jujaka’s story that he was only going to pay respects. So Accuta hosted Jujaka for one night and then pointed him in the right way. Jujaka reached their home in the early evening, but slept on a hill nearby so he could approach the Bodhisatta when his wife was not there to object.

At dawn the next morning, Maddi had a nightmare of a man in yellow robes with red flowers in his ears dragging her out of her hut by her hair, tearing out her eyes, cutting off her arms, ripping open her chest, and seizing her heart. Terrified, she went to ask the Bodhisatta its meaning. He knew the dream foretold someone coming and asking for his children today, but he did not want to upset her so he lied and told her it must have just been a result of uneasy sleep or indigestion: “Fear nothing,” he said. And so Maddi did her chores at home and then walked out into the forest as usual.

The Bodhisatta took a seat and stared down the path to their home with excitement, like a drunkard craving a drink, waiting for the suitor to arrive. For seven months he had not been able to practice charity and was overjoyed that someone had sought him out. When Jujaka appeared in the distance, Jali went to help carry his bags, but Jujaka snapped his fingers and yelled “Go away!” Jujaka, however, greeted the Bodhisatta warmly, and he did likewise in return, offering fruits to eat and cool water to drink. Then without delay Jujaka asked to have his children and without hesitation the Bodhisatta said yes, delighted that his interpretation of the dream had been correct.

The Bodhisatta asked Jujaka to stay one day so the children and their mother could say good bye, but Jujaka refused any delay because, he said, women by nature are cunning and not generous and she would try to stop him from taking them. The Bodhisatta also suggested he take the children to their grandfather and collect a large reward rather than working them as slaves, but Jujaka rejected this too, saying he needed slaves to please his wife. Hearing this terrible conversation, the children ran away and hid in a lake under lily pads. The Bodhisatta followed their footprints to the lake and told them to stop hiding. Feeling guilty, they came out of the water, threw themselves at their father’s feet, and cried. He too broke out in tears, but explained that he must give them away as part of his quest for perfection. He then told Jali that from now on he had a price of one thousand gold coins; this is what must be paid for him to become free again. Kanhajina, being so very beautiful, could only be bought by a king, he said, and her price was one hundred each of elephants, horses, bulls, gold pieces, and male and female slaves.

The Bodhisatta brought his children back and poured water over Jujaka’s hands as a blessing to complete the transfer. And when he did, the earth shook at such a precious gift. Jujaka tied the children’s wrists to each other with a jungle vine and beat them bloody to force them down the path like cattle. At first the Bodhisatta felt joy as he watched his children marched off to be slaves, knowing he was one step closer to perfection. but this changed to sadness and regret and he broke into tears because he knew what a shameless, wicked man Jujaka was. He even briefly pondered going out and killing Jujaka to bring his children back. But charity was part of righteousness and he realized his real problem was his affection for his children. So through his superior mental ability he focused on nonattachment and erased his feelings for them, finally feeling good again.

The gods knew that when Maddi came back and found her children gone she would run after them, and this would get her into trouble. So three of them took the forms of a lion, tiger, and leopard and lied down blocking her path home until after it was dark. When she got back home and her children did not run out to meet her as they normally did, she assumed they were dead. She asked the Bodhisatta what had happened, but instead of answering, he criticized her for returning so late. Maddi explained the beasts blocking her path and implored him to answer her, but he stayed silent for the rest of the night. So she ran around their forest patch in the light of the full moon, searching in vain for her children in the trees, hills, lakes, and caves where they loved to play.

At dawn she fainted in front of the Bodhisatta. Ignoring his ascetic vows, he held her and splashed her face with water until she came to. Immediately she asked the Bodhisatta where her children were, and this time he told her and assured her they would see their children again someday. Maddi understood his desire to give away all that he owned and knew there is no more noble a gift than one’s children, so her sorrow turned to joy for the sake of the Bodhisatta’s future bliss. And together they rejoiced.

With the children gone, Indra realized the Bodhisatta would be left alone and helpless if some other horrible person came and asked for Maddi. So that morning he went to let him achieve supreme perfection of generosity in a way that wouldn’t cause he or Maddi any further hardship. Indra took human form and approached the Bodhisatta, asking to have his wife. After the heartbreak of turning his children into slaves, the Bodhisatta hesitated before saying yes, but only for a moment, and once again the earth shook. Maddi smiled at her husband’s achievement, and he praised her back. Indra promptly revealed himself and returned Maddi. He rose into the air, shining like the morning sun, and granted the Bodhisatta eight wishes. He requested to be recalled home by his father soon; to never condemn anyone to death; to help everyone, young and old alike; to never commit adultery; that his son would live a long, righteous life; to get to eat celestial food every day; to always have things to give to others; and to be reborn in heaven after he dies – and Indra made it all so.

While Jujaka walked home, deities looked after the children. Each night for fifteen days Jujaka tied them up on the ground while he slept safely up in trees, away from wild beasts. When he fell asleep, two gods taking the form of the Bodhisatta and Maddi untied the children, massaged their hands and feet, fed them, and let them sleep on a celestial couch. During the day, other gods guided Jujaka along the wrong route and he ended up at the Bodhisatta’s home instead of his own.

Jujaka and the children were taken to the palace and the king rejoiced at seeing his grandchildren. Jujaka told the king the Bodhisatta had given them as slaves and many courtiers rebuked the Bodhisatta for giving away his children. Jali heard them and defended his father while Kanhajina explained how cruel Jujaka was. So the king bought his grandchildren and threw in a seven-story palace as a special gift. Jujaka lied down on the couch of his new home and ate so many fine meats he couldn’t digest them and died. A funeral was held, but no relatives came, so all that Jujaka had was returned to the king.

Jali told the king and queen about their difficult life in the mountains. Their mother worked so hard each day, he said, that she had grown thin with yellow skin, matted hair, and clumps of dirt in her armpits. King Sanjaya was filled with remorse and decided to bring his son back right away. He ordered his commander-in-chief to prepare the Bodhisatta’s sixty thousands birthmates, fourteen thousand elephants, and fourteen thousand horse-drawn chariots for the long journey. And a week later, the road lined with food, flowers, and musicians, they set out for Vamka with Jali showing the way and the Bodhisatta’s auspicious white elephant part of the convoy, since it had been returned by the King of Kalinga.

After a long march, they set up camp at a lake near the Bodhisatta’s home. When the six family members were reunited, the earth shook once again and everyone fainted from the excitement. To revive them, Indra sent a magical rain that only fell on those who wanted to get wet. The Bodhisatta forgave his father, and by popular demand was crowned king again, which had been his dream ever since being banished. The Bodhisatta performed a ceremony of thanks to his hut and then he and his wife cleaned themselves up and changed into regal clothes. The Bodhisatta mounted the sacred elephant and radiated with the glory of a god.

They all stayed at the mountain camp, enjoying forest sports and leisure for a month, before departing. And then a year after he had been banished, the Bodhisatta returned home to a hero’s welcome. He immediately set all the city’s captives free, even cats, but then worried what he would give the next morning when people came to beg from him. At the thought, Indra’s throne grew warm, and when he knew the reason he sent a rain of the seven precious jewels that filled the entire city knee-deep and the palace grounds waist high. He collected it all and the royal treasuries were filled for a lifetime of charity.

In the Lifetime of the Buddha

Not long after reaching enlightenment, the Buddha returned to his hometown to see his family. The men of his Sakya clan were arrogant and when they went to the beautiful banyan grove where the Buddha stayed with his twenty-thousand disciples, they would not bow down before him because he was younger. Not accepting their slight, the Buddha rose into the air and performed the Twin Miracle: where fire, water, and a six-colored light emanated from his body.

His father the king was so awed he bowed down at the Buddha’s feet (The third time he had done so; the other two were when the Buddha was still a child.) and so did everyone else. Then the Buddha floated back to his seat and caused magical rain to fall only on those who wanted to be wet. This second miracle amazed the people and the Buddha told this story so they knew a similar rain had once before fallen on his kinsfolk.

Jujaka and his wife were earlier births of Devadatta, a disciple of the Buddha who became his nemesis, and Cinca-Manavika, a woman who had falsely claimed the Buddha impregnated her. Indra and the ascetic Accuta were Anuruddha and Sariputta, two of the Buddha’s top disciples, and the forester was Channa, Prince Siddhartha’s charioteer who later became a disciple. The Bodhisatta’s father, mother, wife, and son were earlier births of the Buddha’s father, birth mother, wife, and son, and his daughter was Uppalavanna, one of the Buddha’s top female disciples. All the rest of the people in the story were earlier births of followers of the Buddha.

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