The Bodhisatta was once a wealthy merchant. He was so righteous and generous that he gave alms to six hundred thousand people every day, and the food he donated was the same quality as what he ate himself. His generosity became legendary across India and eventually it warmed the throne of Indra, king of the gods. Indra worried that when the Bodhisatta died he would dethrone him and take over his job. So Indra decided to put an end to the Bodhisatta’s generosity by making everything he owned – from food to money to slaves – disappear. When the Bodhisatta and his wife next searched for something to give, they found their house empty beyond the clothes they were wearing.
Desperate to give something, they saw a grass cutter throw down his equipment and run away, so they picked it up and went to work in a field. They cut two bundles of grass to sell at the city gate and kept one small coin for themselves to buy food and gave the other coin away. But upon seeing other beggars they decided to give away the second coin too and not eat that day. They did the same over six days, and on the seventh the Bodhisatta was so ill from not eating he passed out.
Indra saw him fall down and came to talk. Standing in the air he told the Bodhisatta he was the one who took away their possessions and he ought to stop alms giving. The Bodhisatta answered that Indra was guilty of a great offense and vowed to never stop giving as long as he and his wife lived. Indra asked him to explain his desire to give and the Bodhisatta said he was not seeking any earthly or celestial reward, only insight and happiness. Indra was pleased by this answer and restored their former prosperity and then some, telling them to henceforth double their daily charity.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
Anathapindika, a wealthy supporter of the Buddha known for his extreme generosity, had a fairy living over the fourth gateway of his massive palace. The fairy did not worship the Buddha and was greatly annoyed that she and her children had to come down to the ground floor to pay respect to the Buddha or any of his elder disciples every time they visited Anathapindika. She tried unsuccessfully to get his business manager and his eldest son to make him stop hosting these people because of all the money he wasted.
Even after Anathapindika fell into poverty from neglecting his business in order to focus fully on helping people, he continued to give what he could to the Buddha’s brotherhood. The fairy now saw a chance to change his mind and she appeared before him in visible form imploring him to stop giving things to the Buddha and instead think of his future and his family. Anathapindika, whose faith in the Buddha never wavered, was so incensed by her words that he kicked her and her children out of the palace.
Now homeless, the fairy approached some gods to ask them to talk to Anathapindika and convince him to let her return to his palace. But when they heard the wicked words she had spoken, all refused. Indra, however, did propose a way that she could earn his forgiveness. Anathapindika had not sought recovery of many of the loans he had made and had also lost some buried treasure chests. Indra told the fairy to tell Anathapindika’s delinquent borrowers that while he had not sought payment of debts when he was wealthy, now that he was poor it was time to pay up. He further suggested she take some young goblins with her to scare these people into action. She should also use her supernatural powers to find the missing money.
The fairy did as Indra advised and placed a fortune in his treasury, then she went to seek forgiveness. She explained that she had been stained by passion and blinded by ignorance, but now understood the Buddha’s infinite virtue and had sought atonement by recovering his money. Anathapindika welcomed her conversion, but he wanted her to request a pardon in the presence of the Buddha. So the next day they went to his monastery and she confessed what she had done. The Buddha preached that to bad people sin looks good before it ripens, and to virtuous people goodness feels like sin before it ripens. The fairy then fell to the Buddha’s feet in tears to apologize and ask forgiveness, which both the Buddha and Anathapindika granted.
Anathapindika then began to speak highly of himself since he had not been swayed by the fairy to stop supporting the Buddha. But the Buddha corrected him, explaining that his dedication was no great accomplishment because he was living in the lifetime of a perfect Buddha. Then the Buddha told this story as an example of how he himself had once been so dedicated to giving alms that he ignored Indra’s advice to stop doing it.
The Bodhisatta’s wife was an earlier birth of the Buddha’s wife.