This Jataka tale illustrates the perfection of character of truthfulness (sacca).
The Bodhisatta was once a king’s advisor. Four great kings—a naga king; a garuda king; Indra, king of the gods; and King Dhananjaya, the Bodhisatta’s king—were friends in their previous lives, and one day, after keeping the holy-day fast and meditating, they sat down to chat. Indra wondered what their greatest virtues were. The naga king said he had great patience: garudas are the mortal enemies of nagas, but anger never arose in him when he saw one. The garuda king said he possessed great self-restraint: nagas are the garudas’ favorite food, but he remained hungry rather than kill and eat one. Indra said he kept great abstinence from desire: he left behind the glory of heaven, where every sort of happiness can be found, and came to earth to focus on the holy day. King Dhananjaya said he maintained great devotion to religious perfection: he went to his park to observe the holy day instead of letting loose in his harem, which had sixteen thousand dancing girls.
Each king felt his virtue was superior to the others, so they went to the palace to ask the Bodhisatta which of them was truly the greatest. After all four kings shared their stories of virtue, the Bodhisatta declared them equal, like the spokes of a wheel. All greatly pleased with this answer, they praised the Bodhisatta’s incomparable wisdom and gave him gifts: a jewel (the naga king), a golden garland (the garuda king), a robe made of heavenly silk (Indra), and one thousand cows (King Dhananjaya).
The naga king told his queen about the Bodhisatta’s wisdom and eloquence, and she resolved to meet him. She assumed that if she simply asked her king to bring him to the naga realm, he wouldn’t make the effort, so she faked illness and told him she would die if she did not obtain the Bodhisatta’s heart. The distressed naga king wanted to satisfy his queen, but he didn’t know anyone who would do such a wicked deed. Then he found a solution. He asked his beautiful daughter to seek a husband who would kill the Bodhisatta and take his heart; and because she thought her mother’s life depended on it, she agreed.
The naga princess gathered all the flowers in the Himalayas to make a couch and lay down singing a song about giving herself up to anyone who could satisfy her desire. Punnaka, a nephew of the goblin king Vessavana, was riding by on his magical horse (which had golden ears and ruby hooves) and heard her appeal. Falling in love instantly, he promised to kill the Bodhisatta and bring his heart to the naga realm. Punnaka offered the naga king a hundred elephants, a hundred horses, a hundred mules and chariots, and a hundred wagons filled with all sorts of jewels as a bride-price for his daughter’s hand in marriage. But the king said he didn’t want treasure; he only wanted the Bodhisatta’s heart.
Punnaka couldn’t go on such a treacherous quest without his uncle’s permission, but he was not willing to risk rejection—he had to be clever. He told his uncle his plans while he was settling a dispute over ownership of a palace, knowing he would be too busy to pay attention. Then, when the verdict was announced, Punnaka stood alongside the victor; and when Vessavana said, “Go thou and dwell in your palace,” he left immediately after hearing the words “Go thou.”
The Bodhisatta had a large entourage and there was no way Punnaka could seize him. But King Dhananjaya was a notorious gambler and Punnaka figured he could get the Bodhisatta through a game of dice. Punnaka climbed a sacred mountain and found a flawless, priceless lapis lazuli jewel that shone like lightning in the sky and granted all desires. Then he disguised himself as a man from a faraway country and challenged King Dhananjaya to a game, staking the peerless jewel and his wondrous horse. Punnaka spoke at length about the jewel’s beauty and then demonstrated his horse’s powers. He rode atop the city wall so fast the horse and Punnaka couldn’t be seen; then the horse walked on water and stood on Punnaka’s palm. The captivated king accepted the bet and countered with everything he owned except his body and his sovereignty. A room was prepared and witnesses assembled, and both men promised to accept the result without violence.
Each man called out his play and King Dhananjaya threw his golden dice up in the air. By Punnaka’s power, the dice were about to fall in his favor. But the king was very skilled and saw the roll was going against him, so he caught the dice in the air and threw once more. Again the dice were headed in Punnaka’s favor, and again the king caught them. It was then that Punnaka saw the king’s guardian deity, his mother from his previous life, there to help him. Punnaka stared at her with an angry face and she fled in fear. The king saw the same result coming in his third roll, but now by Punnaka’s power he could not reach out to grab the dice, so the roll came up Punnaka’s way. Then it was Punnaka’s turn, and the dice fell his way again. He had won.
Though King Dhananjaya was distraught, he kept his word and told Punnaka to take everything he wanted; but he balked when Punnaka said he was going to take the Bodhisatta. They went to ask the Bodhisatta himself whether he should be included in the bet or not. They sat in the court of justice and Punnaka, knowing the Bodhisatta always spoke the truth, asked the question at hand: Was the Bodhisatta part of the king’s family, or was he a slave? The Bodhisatta answered he was a slave who owed his prosperity to the king and was his to do with as he wished. Punnaka had won a second time. The Bodhisatta gave his family and the king final words of wisdom about how to live a good life, and after three days they, along with everyone in the city, bid him a tearful goodbye.
Punnaka flew off to the Himalayas with the Bodhisatta holding onto his horse’s tail and tried to dash him to death against the trees and mountains, but the Bodhisatta avoided striking any of them. They landed on the summit of Black Mountain, and Punnaka, not wanting to kill by his own hand, took the form of a demon and seized the Bodhisatta in his mouth. He hoped this would frighten him to death, but not a single hair on the Bodhisatta stood on end. Punnaka took the shape of a lion and threatened to attack; then an elephant, and then a giant snake, but still got no reaction. Next, Punnaka raised a mighty wind, hoping the Bodhisatta would fall off the mountain. When that didn’t work, he again took the form of an elephant and jumped around to shake the mountain, but the Bodhisatta still did not fall off. Finally, Punnaka climbed inside the mountain and uttered a tremendous roar, but the Bodhisatta was unfazed.
Realizing he had to kill the Bodhisatta himself, Punnaka grabbed him and hung him head down over a cliff. Finally, the Bodhisatta asked Punnaka why he wanted to kill him. Hearing about the naga queen’s request and the princess’s promise, the Bodhisatta realized this was all a misunderstanding: the heart of sages is their wisdom. There being no reason for a naga queen to want him dead, she must have asked someone to bring him there to preach and others misinterpreted her words.
The Bodhisatta asked Punnaka to let him explain the four duties of a righteous man before he died. Punnaka agreed to listen and put him back down on the ground. Good men, the Bodhisatta said, follow the path of those who came before, don’t harm those who support them, are loyal to their friends, and don’t fall under the spell of wicked women.
Punnaka reflected on this advice and felt shame. Marrying the naga princess was not worth the price, and Punnaka told the Bodhisatta he would take him back home. But the Bodhisatta wanted to go talk with the naga king. He knew this was dangerous but was confident in his powers of persuasion—he had just converted a bloodthirsty goblin, after all—and since he had never done anything evil in his life, he did not fear death. So Punnaka took the Bodhisatta to the naga realm, and without fear the Bodhisatta conversed about virtue with the king and queen, and both were pleased. The queen got what she wanted and Punnaka got his bride. After the Bodhisatta stayed in the glorious naga realm for six days, the newlyweds took him home. Punnaka gave the Bodhisatta his magical lapis lazuli jewel as thanks for changing his life.
King Dhananjaya had dreamed that the Bodhisatta would come back this day, so he ordered the whole city decorated, and he sat with a great multitude in a jeweled hall awaiting his return. The Bodhisatta shared his recent adventure with the assembled crowd and gave his magical jewel to King Dhananjaya. The king ordered a month-long festival with much food and drink in the Bodhisatta’s honor, and the city was full of joy.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
One day some of the Buddha’s disciples were discussing his supreme wisdom; in particular, how he was so quick-witted that he always crushed his opponents’ arguments, even reducing revered sages to silence. When the Buddha heard them talking about it, he said it was no big deal that he could convince others because he had reached enlightenment. Then he told them this story so they knew that he’d also been able to do the same in the past.
The Bodhisatta’s father, mother, wife, and eldest son were earlier births of the Buddha’s father, birth mother, wife, and son. Indra, the naga king, the garuda king, and King Dhananjaya were earlier births of Anuruddha, Sariputta, Moggallana, and Ananda, four of the Buddha’s top disciples.