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The Illustrated Jataka & Other Stories of the Buddha by C.B. Varma


038 - The Sacrifice of Vessantara  

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Vessantara-Jataka, Sanchi

Vessantara-Jataka,Goli, Andhra Pradesh

The lineage of the Sivis is best known for its charity and sacrifices in the Indian traditions since time immemorial. Once, the Bodhisatta was born as Vessantara (Sanskrit: Vishvantara) in the dynasty of the Sivi in the kingdom of Jetuttara. King Sanjaya was his father; and Queen Phusati was his mother. He appeared to be a child prodigy because he spoke on the very day when he was born. Interestingly, on the same day a white elephant was also born. This elephant, who was given the name Pacchaya, was gifted with the supernatural power to make the rain fall.

Vessantara’s passion for charity was so intense that the earth trembled when he pledged to make a great gift at the young age of eight. At sixteen he married Maddi (Sanskrit: Madri). He had two children: Jali and Kanhajina.

At that time there was a great draught in Kalinga. So, eight Brahmins from Kalinga came to Vessantara to beg for his white elephant to make the rain fall in their country. Vessantara acceded to their request and donated the elephant. When the people of Jetuttara heard of this news they were terribly disturbed. Agitatingly, they went to the king and asked him to punish the prince by banishing him to the forest of Vankagiri. The will of the people eventually prevailed and Vessantara  had to go on exile much to the unwillingness of the king. Before setting out he obtained the king’s consent to hold an alms-giving ceremony called the “Gifts of Seven Hundreds (Sattasataka). On the occasion he gave away seven hundred pieces of seven hundred kinds of things to the needy people.

 

Vessantara, driving his chariot

When Vessantara took leave of his parents and was preparing to depart his wife Maddi insisted to accompany him with her children Jali and Kanhajina.

Vessantara’s chariot being drawn by the deer. Maddi and the two children in the coach with the king, the Thai version

They left the palace in a royal chariot drawn by four horses. On the way four brahmins met him and begged for his four horses. After giving the four horses to the brahmins when he began to fasten the girth tightly round his waist to put himself under the yoke and to drag the carriage there appeared four yakkhas in the form of red deer. They put their shoulders under the yoke like well-trained excellent horses and drew his carriage. When Maddi was staring at them with joy and surprise the Bodhisatta said,

Lo! the influence

of the benevolent forest

Of the hermitage

That the best of the deer

Extend hospitability

To the forest-guests

So ardently.

The queen, however, remarked,

You may conceal your merits, and say so

I call this to be your influence.

Like the laughing lotuses,

which surpass the beauty of the stars mirrored in the water,

Exposing so fully

To the curious gaze of the radiant Moon

With its groping rays

For the delightful titillation.

When they were thus involved in the pleasant conversation they encountered one more brahmin beggar, who begged for the carriage. So, Vessantara had to part with his carriage, too. He then lifted his son Jali in his arms, and Maddi lifted Kanhanjana; and thus they continued their jouney on foot. The sun was scorching. So, The cloud overspread overhead to act as a canopy. The trees extended their branches to offer them delicious fruits as an offering to their virtue of charity. When they longed for water the lotus ponds appeared before them to quench their thirst. Further, the yakkhas shortened their path to protect them from exertion. Thus, treading through Suvannagiritala, Kantimara, Mount Aranjagiri, Dunnivittha, the capital of Cheta (where his uncle ruled), Gandhamadana, the foot of Mount Vipula to the river Ketumati (where a forester offered them food) and then by crossing the river Nalika along the bank of lake Muchalinda and further crossing a dense forest they finally reached Vankagiri.

Vissakamma, the Engineer of Sakka had already built two hermitages for them in the forest. One was for Vessantara and the other was for the rest of the family. The power of Vessantara was so strong that no wild animal came near their hermitages. Happily, they spent four months.

Vessantara-Jataka, Mathura

One day, one old Brahmin named Jujaka came to the hermitage when Maddi had gone to the forest to bring some fruits for the family. Accosting Vessantara he begged for his two children because Amittatapana, his wife had demanded for two slaves for herself. As Vessantara was widely known for his dana-paramita  (perfection of charitability) the greedy Brahmin was intent on exploiting the situation. Vessantara tried to convince the Brahmin to change his mind in several ways. Yet, he insisted on accepting nothing but the two children. Knowing Jujaka’s mind the children were extremely terrified and ran away to a nearby pond and hid themselves. They, however, re-appeared when their father called them. And by then Vessantara had finally agreed to the shrew demand of Jujaka. The brahmin, then chanting some phrases of benediction to the donour ordered the children to accompany him. The children, who did not want to leave glued to the feet of their father to ask Jujaka to wait at least until the arrival of their mother. But shrewd and mean Jujaka without wasting time fastened the hands of the two delicate children with a creeper and forcibly dragged them to his destination. The bleeding and bewailing children, however, screamed,

Oh! the mother will certainly cry like the chataka  (bird) upon return

Whose little ones are killed.

How would she act

When she comes back with many roots and fruits

Gathered from the forest

But finds the hermitage empty.

Oh father! I have many toys –

Horses, elephants and chariots –

Give half to mother to assuage her grief.

When Maddi returned late in the evening and did not find her children around, she asked Vessantara of their whereabouts. But Vessantara kept silence. She then repeated the same question several times, yet Vessantara did not utter a single word. So, she again went inside the forest and looked for the children for whole night. Next morning, when she returned she fainted. Vessentara then helped her regain consciousness. That was the time he apprised her of the whereabouts of the children and narrated the story. By then Maddi had mustered up the courage to endure the trauma. Surprisingly, she praised Vessantara’s great act of dana-sila (Conduct of charity).

Their sacrifice trembled the earth. And so did mount Sineru with all its resplendent gems. Surprised, Sakka, the lord of the  devas inquired into the cause. When he learnt the cause of the quakes owing to the sacrifice of Vessantara he visited the hermitage next morning to test the firmity of his vow in the guise of a mendicant and begged him for his wife. Even then Vessantara did not lose the firmness of his mind and nodded to donate Maddi as well. Besides, no anger sprang even in the heart of Maddi. She did not wail. She rather looked stupefied and stood like a statue with her eyes fixed on her husband with a fresh load of suffering.

Admiringly, Sakka then said,

Though a house-holder

Yet giving up the most beloved children and wife in charity

With such detachment;

Can there be a greater exemplification of magnanimity?

Now, it was the time for Sakka to reveal his identity. He gave Maddi back to Vessantara. Furthermore, he offered eight boons to the great donor, which included the reunion of his family; his recall to the father’s kingdom; and his ability to benefaction.

In the meanwhile, Jujaka had traveled sixty leagues and having lost his way he reached Jetuttara, though he intended to reach Kalinga. His rugged appearance and harsh behaviour with the two delicate children attracted the royal guards, who brought him before the king. King Sanjaya, when  saw his grand-children and learnt their story he bought them back from the cruel brahmin in lieu of handsome gifts and seven-storeyed palace. But Jujaka could hardly enjoy those riches as he died of over-eating in a few days. The king along with Phusati, Jali and his army then marched to Vankagiri to bring back his son and the daughter-in-law.

The white elephant Pacchaya also joined the procession as he had just returned from Kalinga as no one could subdue him there.

Finally, after a month of merry-making in the forest they all returned to the kingdom, happily.

(Devadatta is identified with Jujaka and his wife Amittapana as Chincha; Sanjaya as Suddhodhana and Phusati as Mahamaya; Rahula with Jali, Uppalavanna as Kanhajina Rahulamata as Maddi; and Vessantara as the Bodhisatta).

See Vessantara Jataka Jataka Pali No.547; Cf.Vishvantara-Jataka Jataka Mala 9; Cariyapitaka 1.9; Avadanakalpalata No.23.

Note:

  • Vessantara’s sacrifice shook the earth seven times, which becomes a subject of dilemma in Milinda Panha p.113.

  • The story of Vessantara was portrayed in the relic chamber of Maha Thupa of Sri Lanka. See Mahavamsa 30.88.

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