Vessantara Jataka (#547)

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

painting of Vessantara Jataka

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, was the most beautiful and generous woman in the realm. Phusati was previously the chief queen of Indra, king of the gods, and before her rebirth on earth, he had granted her ten wishes, the final of which was to have a son who would be a righteous, respected, and powerful king. Indra chose the Bodhisatta to fulfill this wish, and he was born free from impurity. Immediately after leaving the womb, the Bodhisatta, named Prince Vessantara, asked his mother for something he could give away as a gift: she gave him one thousand coins. Indra had also sent sixty thousand boys to be his companions, and they were born to courtier families on the same day.

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 full of sweet milk and free of faults.1As explained in the Muga-Pakkha Jataka (#538), sitting on the hip of a nurse who is too tall will make a child’s neck become too long, and if the nurse is too short, one of the child’s shoulder bones will be compressed. If the nurse is too thin, the child’s thighs will ache; too stout and the child will become bow-legged. If the nurse’s skin is very dark, her body is too cold; if she is very white, her body is too hot. If a nurse’s breasts hang low, the child’s nose will be flattened. His father had given him a necklace worth one hundred thousand coins, and at age four he gave it to his nurses in thanks for their work. His father replaced the necklace nine times and the Bodhisatta gave each of them to his nurses. At age eight he felt unsatisfied with 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, 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.

Prince Vessantara on his elephant

As king, the Bodhisatta continued his extraordinary 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. The King of Kalinga sent eight brahmins to request it, and without hesitation the Bodhisatta gave them not only his elephant but also all its priceless gold and jeweled ornamentation and the five hundred servants who cared for it. And again the earth shook over his generosity.

Though the gods were delighted by what he’d done, the Bodhisatta’s subjects were horrified. Believing that ruin would surely befall the kingdom without their sacred elephant talisman, the people went to Sanjaya and demanded he banish the Bodhisatta to Mount Vamka deep in the Himalayas. He had no choice but to accept their demand and take back the throne. He gave the Bodhisatta one final day in the city before having to leave.

The Bodhisatta rejected the idea that his donation was wrong, but chose not to resist the will of the people. For his final day at home, 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, girls, cows, slaves, and more, and also to prepare every kind of food and drink imaginable, including hard liquor. (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 underway, the Bodhisatta told Maddi to carefully store 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.

All day the Bodhisatta gave away things to everyone who came, from brahmins to untouchables. Then, early the next morning, he bid farewell to his friends and family and rode off in a gorgeous carriage pulled by four thoroughbred horses, giving out ornaments adorned with the seven precious jewels to beggars he 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 them. 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 journey, and everyone they met along the way pitied them; even the trees, which bowed their branches so they could easily pick fruit.

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 tale of woe, and they invited him to stay and be their new king, but he refused. The Bodhisatta wouldn’t even enter the city proper; he lodged in a room at the city gate to avoid creating any conflict between the two kingdoms.

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

The Bodhisatta and his family put on ascetics’ clothes and began their new lives, he living in one room and Maddi and the children in another. The Bodhisatta made Maddi promise not to approach him at night (ascetics 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. She 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 waterpot down to the river and heard their nasty words; she returned home in tears. Jujaka felt bad for her and offered to get water himself from then on, but she thought 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 would leave him. Jujaka didn’t have enough money for this, so Amittatapana suggested he go to Mount Vamka and ask the Bodhisatta to give him a slave. Being old, Jujaka 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 right road. After he reached the forest, he was chased by a pack of dogs and climbed 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 this man had no good intent, the forester drew his bow and declared 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 had immunity and could not be killed) and had come to tell the Bodhisatta he had been forgiven and could return home. Thrilled by the good news, the forester called off his dogs and told Jujaka to come down. He pointed the way to Mount Vamka 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 eventually believed him when he said he was only going to pay respects. Accuta hosted Jujaka for one night, then pointed him in the right way. Jujaka reached the Bodhisatta’s home in the early evening, but slept on a nearby hill so he could approach the Bodhisatta when Maddi was not there to object.

At dawn the next morning, Maddi had a terrifying 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. The Bodhisatta knew that the dream foretold someone coming and asking for his children that day, but he did not want to upset her, so he lied and said it must have just been a result of uneasy sleep or indigestion. “Fear nothing,” he said. So Maddi did her chores at home and then walked 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 predicted suitor to arrive. He had not been able to practice charity for seven months 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. When Jujaka asked to have his children, the Bodhisatta agreed without hesitation, delighted that his dream interpretation had been correct.

The Bodhisatta asked Jujaka to stay at their camp one day so the children and their mother could say goodbye. But Jujaka refused any delay because, he said, women are cunning and stingy, and she would try to stop him from taking her children. 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 under lily pads in a lake. 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 told Jali that from then 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 coins, and male and female slaves.

The Bodhisatta brought his children back to the hut 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 with a vine and beat them bloody to force them down the path like cattle. Knowing he was one step closer to perfection, the Bodhisatta first felt joy as he watched his children marched off to be slaves, 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 is part of righteousness, and he realized the problem was his affection for his children. So through his superior mental ability he focused his mind 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 lay down blocking her path until after it was dark. When she got back home and her children did not run out to meet her as they usually did, Maddi 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. 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, Maddi fainted in front of the Bodhisatta. Ignoring his ascetic vows, he held her and splashed water on her face until she came to. Immediately she asked the Bodhisatta where the children were, and this time he told her what he had done, while also assuring her they would see them again someday. Maddi understood his desire to give away all he owned and knew there is no nobler gift than one’s children. 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 the Bodhisatta achieve supreme perfection of generosity in a way that wouldn’t cause any further hardship. Indra took human form and approached the Bodhisatta, asking to have Maddi as 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.

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 died. Indra made it all so.

While Jujaka walked home through the forest, 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 so that he ended up at the Bodhisatta’s home instead of his own.

Jujaka and the children were taken to the palace and King Sanjaya rejoiced at seeing his grandchildren. Jujaka told the king that 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. The king bought his grandchildren for the prices the Bodhisatta had set and threw in a seven-story palace as a special gift. Jujaka lay down on the couch of his new home and ate so many fine meats that he couldn’t digest them and died. He had a funeral, but no relatives came, so all that Jujaka had received was returned to the king.

Jali told his grandparents about their difficult life in the mountains. Their mother worked so hard every 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 thousand noble birthmates, fourteen thousand elephants, and fourteen thousand horse-drawn chariots for the long journey. A week later, the road lined with food, flowers, and musicians, they set out for Mount Vamka with Jali showing the way and the Bodhisatta’s auspicious white elephant part of the convoy, since the King of Kalinga had returned it.

After a long march, they set up camp at a lake near the Bodhisatta’s home. When the six family members 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. He performed a ceremony of thanks to his hut for sheltering him, then he and Maddi cleaned themselves up and changed into regal clothes. When the Bodhisatta mounted the sacred elephant, he 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, one year after being banished, the Bodhisatta returned home to a hero’s welcome. He immediately set all the city’s captive creatures free, even cats. But he worried about 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. The Bodhisatta 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 visit 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, so named because it featured opposites. Flames shot from one half of his body and water streamed from the other, alternating between top and bottom and left and right; and all the while, six-colored rays of light shone out of every pore of his skin, lighting up both heaven and hell. (The Buddha performed the Twin Miracle twice; the other time is discussed in Jataka #483.)

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 also amazed the people, and the Buddha told this story so they knew that 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 earlier births of Anuruddha and Sariputta, two of the Buddha’s top disciples, and the forester was an earlier birth of 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. His daughter was an earlier birth of 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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