This Jataka tale illustrates the perfection of character of truthfulness (sacca).
The Bodhisatta was once a king’s advisor. Four great kings – Indra, king of the gods; a naga king; a garuda king; 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: the garuda are the mortal enemies of naga, but anger never arises in him when he sees one. The garuda king said he possessed great self-restraint: naga are the garudas’ chief food, but he remains 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 going to his harem, which had sixteen thousand dancing girls.
Each felt their 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 robe made of heavenly silk (Indra), a golden garland (the garuda king), a jewel (the naga king), and one thousand cows (King Dhananjaya).
The naga king told his queen about the Bodhisatta’s wisdom and eloquence, and she decided she must 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 if she did not obtain the Bodhisatta’s heart, she would die. The distressed naga king wanted to satisfy his queen, but he didn’t know anyone who would do such a wicked act. Then he found a solution – he asked his beautiful daughter to seek a husband who would kill the Bodhisatta and take his heart; and in order to save her mother’s life, she agreed.
The naga princess gathered all the flowers in the Himalayas to make a couch and laid down singing a song 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 (with golden ears and ruby hooves) and heard her. Falling in love instantly, he promised to kill the Bodhisatta and bring his heart to the naga realm, He offered the naga king a hundred elephants, a hundred horses, a hundred mules and chariots, and a hundred wagons filled with all sorts of gems as a dowry 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 did not want to risk rejection. So 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 his uncle said, “Go thou and dwell in your palace,” he left immediately after hearing the words “Go thou.”
The Bodhisatta had a large retinue and there was no way Punnaka could seize him, but King Dhananjaya was a renown gambler in games of dice and Punnaka figured he could get the Bodhisatta this way. 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 far-away country and challenged King Dhananjaya to a game, staking the peerless jewel and his wonderous horse. Punnaka spoke at length about the beauty of the jewel and then gave a demonstration of 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 their play and King Dhananjaya threw the 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 Punnaka saw the king’s guardian spirit, 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.
King Dhananjaya was upset, but 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 final words of wisdom about how to live a good life to his family and to King Dhananjaya, and after three days they, along with everyone in the city, bid him a tearful goodbye.
Punnaka flew off with the Bodhisatta holding onto his horse’s tail and tried to dash him to death against the trees and mountains of the Himalayas, 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. Then Punnaka took the shape of a lion, an elephant, and a giant snake and threatened to attack, 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 still the Bodhisatta was not scared.
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 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. He decided marrying the naga princess was not worth the price and 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 cruel 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 he conversed about virtue with the king and queen, and both were pleased – the queen had 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 in thanks for changing his life.
King Dhananjaya had dreamt 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 the king. King Dhananjaya 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 he 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 he’d been able to do the same in the past too.
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.