Jātakamālā or Garland of Birth Stories

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30. The Story of the Elephant (Karuṇā)

If they may cause by it the happiness of others, even pain is highly esteemed by the righteous, as if it were gain. This will be taught by the following.

Once the Bodhisattva, it is said, was a huge elephant. He had his residence in some forest suitable for elephants, which had for its ornament, so to speak, the young offshoots of its excellent trees, whose tops were conspicuous by their twigs, flowers, and fruits. Its bottom was hidden under manifold kinds of shrubs and trees and grasses. It was beset with mountain-ridges and plateaus that made the effect, as if they were detained there by the charming beauty of the forest and would not long for another place. That wood was the abode of forest-animals, and contained a lake of abundant and deep water. It was far remote from the habitations of men, being surrounded on all sides by a large desert, where there was no tree, no shrub, no water. There he lived a solitary elephant.

1. Like an ascetic he stayed there, pleased with leaves of the trees, lotus-stalks and water, and with the virtues of contentment and tranquillity.

Now one time, when the Great Being was wandering near the border of that forest, it happened that he heard a noise of people from the side of the wilderness. Then this thought entered his mind: “What may this be? First of all, there is in this direction no road leading to any country; nor is it likely a hunting-party should have crossed a wilderness so large as this. Still less can there be question of an attempt to catch [282] my fellow-elephants, on account of the heavy toil with which it would be attended.

2, 3. Surely, this people are either astray, their guides having lost their way, or have been banished in consequence of a king's anger or of their own misconduct.

Such is the nature of the noise I hear, which is not made up of the strong tones of joy, cheerfulness, and merriment, but rather low-spirited sounds, as of people weeping under the overwhelming power of a great grief.

At all events, I will know what it really is.” Thus reflecting, the Great Being impelled by his compassion, hastened forward in the direction from whence the noise of that multitude came. When he heard more distinctly those sad and piteous accents of lamentation, unpleasant to the ears, the High-minded One, understanding that they were cries for help uttered by people in distress, ran with still greater swiftness, his mind being filled with the yearning of compassion.

After leaving the thicket, owing to the naked desert destitute of vegetation, he saw already from afar that body of persons who cried for assistance, keeping their eyes in the direction of the forest. They numbered seven hundred men, and were exhausted with hunger, thirst, and fatigue. And those men, on the other hand, saw the Great Being coming up to them, resembling a moving peak of a snow-covered mountain, or a condensed mass of white fog, or an autumn-cloud driven towards them by a strong wind; and as they were overcome with sorrow and utterly dejected, this sight frightened them much. In their fear they thought: “Alas! now we are certainly lost!” but they could make no effort to run away; hunger, thirst, and fatigue had destroyed their energy.

4. Powerless by hunger, thirst, and fatigue, and being in low spirits, they made no preparations for flight, though the peril seemed imminent.

The Bodhisattva perceiving their anxiety, exclaimed: “Be not afraid! Be not afraid! You have nothing to fear from my part,” and so comforting them, drew [283] nigh, uplifting his trunk and showing its tip broad, soft, and dark-red as copper. Moved by compassion he asked them: “who are you, sirs, and how are you come to this state?

5. Your pale faces betray the effect of dust and sun, meagre you are and suffering from sorrow and dejection of mind. Who are you and by what cause have you come here?”

On hearing him utter in a human voice these words not only indicative of a peaceful disposition, but of the desire to succour, the men recovered their confidence, and the whole assembly bowed to him. Then they spoke:

6. “An outburst of the king's anger blew us·away to this region from the very eyes of our kinsmen, who sorrowful must behold that banishment, O lord of elephants.

7. Yet, forsooth, there must be still some remnant of our good fortune and some favour of Fortune towards us that we have drawn the attention of Thee, who art better than friends and kinsmen.

8. By the auspicious sight of Thee we know we have crossed our calamity. Who, in truth, having seen even in his dreams such a being as Thee, would not be saved from distress?”

Then that eminent elephant spoke: “Well, how many are you, sirs?” The men said:

9, 10. “We numbered one thousand men, O fair-figured being, when the king left us here, but many of us, being unacquainted with adversity, have perished overcome by hunger, thirst, and sorrow.

And now, O lord of elephants, we estimate the number of those still alive to be seven hundred, who being about to sink down in the mouth of Death, look up to Thee as the embodied Comfort come to us to help.”

By these words the Great Being, as he was in the habit of compassion, was moved to tears, and commmiserating them said, to be sure, something like this: “Alas! alas!

11. Oh! How averse to tenderness, how devoid of [284] shame, how little anxious about the next world the mind of that king is! Oh! How his senses, caught by his royal splendour, something as fickle as lightning, are blind to his good!

12. Oh! He does not understand that Death is near, I suppose, nor has he been taught the unhappy end of wickedness! Alas! Oh! Those poor and helpless kings who, owing to the weakness of their judgment, are impatient of listening to words (of counsel).

13. And, verily, this cruelty towards living beings is performed on account of one single body, a perishable substratum of illnesses! I surmise that pāda 2 of this line is to be read rogibhūtasya nāśinaḥ.01 Alas! Fie upon ignorance!”

Now, while letting his eyes full of pity and tenderness go over that people, this thought appeared to the chief of elephants: “Being so tortured by hunger, thirst and fatigue, and their bodies having become so weak, how may they overcome that wilderness of an extent of many yojanas, where they find neither water nor shade, unless they have wholesome food? Nor does the forest of elephants contain proper food for them, not even for one day, without much trouble. Nevertheless, if they were to take their provisions from the flesh of my limbs and to use my bowels instead of bags, putting water in them, they would be able to cross this desert; not otherwise.

14. Let me, therefore, in their behalf employ my body, the abode of many hundreds of illnesses, that it may be for this multitude of men overwhelmed by suffering, like a raft to get across their misery.

15. Being born a man is the proper state for reaching happiness, either heavenly bliss or final extinction, and it is difficult to attain that state. May then this advantage not be dissolved to them!

16. Further, since they are come within the compass of my dominion, I rightly may call them my [285] guests. And they are in distress and destitute of relations; hence I have to show the more pity to them.

17. And this vessel of many infirmities, this substratum of manifold toil caused by everlasting illness, this assemblage of evils, whose name is ‘body,’ will now, after a long time, have at last its proper employment, serving to relieve others.”

Then some of them, who suffered intensely from the pain of hunger, thirst, fatigue, and heat, after bowing to him with folded hands and eyes wet with tears, in the manner of supplicants, asked him for water by means of signs with their hands. Others spoke to him piteous words:

18. “To us who are destitute of kindred, Thou art a kinsman, Thou art our recourse and refuge. Deign to shelter us in such a way as Thou deemest best, Illustrious One!”

Others again who had more energy of mind, asked him to show them some place where to find water and the way to get out of that dreadful desert.

19, 20. “If there is here some pond or river with cold water, or perhaps some waterfall, if a shady tree may be found here on a grass-plot, tell it us, O chief of elephants.

And since thou thinkest it possible to get out of this desert, show us mercy and point out the direction to us.

It is a good many days that we have been staying in this wilderness. For this reason, pray make us, O lord, get across it.”

Then the High-minded One who felt his heart growing still more wet with pity by their piteous requests, uplifting his trunk as big as the coils of a mighty serpent, showed them the mountain, beyond which they could make their escape from the wilderness, and spoke: “Underneath this mountain there is a large lake adorned with lotuses, white and red, and containing pure water. Go, therefore, by this way. With the water of that lake ye may quench your thirst, and dispel your fatigue and (the vexation of) heat.

Then, continuing your way, not far from that [286] place ye will meet with the corpse of an elephant, fallen down the mountain-plateau. The flesh of its limbs ye must take to serve for provisions on the journey, and provide yourselves with water, putting it in its bowels instead of bags; after which ye have to go farther in the very same direction. So ye will overcome this wilderness without much hardship.”

With such comforting language the High-minded One induced them to set out, but himself, running quickly by another way, ascended to the top of that mountain. Standing there, about to give up his own body for the purpose of rescuing that body of people, he strengthened his determination, This 'strong determination’ is the praṇidhi, also called praṇidhāna. By it he who performs some extraordinary meritorious action with the object of attaining some definite result in a future existence proclaims his design before carrying out his performance. Its counterpart in the ritual of Hinduism is the so-called saṁkalpa preceding the ceremony and contributory to its success. For other instances of it, though the name of praṇidhi is not used there, see Story 1, stanzas 30-32; 8, stanzas 53-55. 02 truly, by representing to his mind something like this.

21. “This performance does not tend to the attainment of a high state for myself, neither the magnificence of a king of men, the possessor of the royal umbrella, nor Heaven with the singular flavour of its surpassing enjoyments, nor the bliss of Brahma's world, nor even the happiness of release; Viz. 'final extinction’ or nirvāna. 03

22. But if there be any merit of mine in thus striving to help those men lost in the wilderness, may I become by it the Saviour of the World, of those creatures erring in the wilderness of Saṁsāra!”

Having thus resolved, and not minding because of his gladness, the painful death he would suffer by being crushed down that deep descent, the High-minded One gave up his body according to his design by precipitating himself down that steep mountain.

23. While falling, he shone like an autumn-cloud or like the moon sinking with reversed disc behind the [287] mountain of setting, or like the snow-cover of the peak of that mountain, cast down by the violent swiftness of the wind moved by the wings of Garuḍa.

24. With the heavy noise of a whirlwind he precipitated himself, shaking not only the earth and the mountains, but the mind of Māra possessed by the infatuation of sovereignty. In the original ca put twice in the second pāda of this stanza is hardly right. In the latter place, I suppose that it should be changed to sa. 04 And in his fall, he bent both the forest-creepers and the forest-deities.

25. No doubt, on that occasion the Celestials, residing about that forest, were affected with the utmost astonishment. From the ecstasy of their gladness the hairs on their body bristled, and they swung their arms in the sky, their fine fingers turned upwards.

26. Some overspread him with a thick shower of flowers sweet-scented and tinged with sandal-powder. Others covered him with their upper garments, wrought of (celestial) unwoven stuff and resplendent with golden decorations; others with their ornaments.

27. Others again worshipped him with hymns they had devoutly composed, and with the reverence of the añjali, their folded hands resembling opening lotus-buds. Or they honoured him with bent heads, lowering their beautiful head-diadems, and with prayers of veneration.

28. Some fanned him with an agreeable wind, such as arranges garlands (of foam) on the waves and is perfumed with the scents borrowed from the dust of flowers. Others held a canopy of dense clouds in the sky over his head.

29. Some were prompted by devotion to make Heaven echo his praise with the sounds of the celestial drums. And more, others enamelled the trees with an untimely outburst of new twigs, flowers, and fruits.

30. The sky assumed the lovely splendour of autumn, the sun's rays seemed to become longer, and the Ocean trembled and shook its wave-surface as from impatience to go and visit him out of gladness. [288]

Meanwhile those men, following the way pointed out to them, had reached the lake; and after refreshing themselves and recovering from heat, thirst, and fatigue, going on as the High-minded One had instructed them, they saw at no great distance from that place the body of an elephant that had died not long before. And they reflected: “What a strong likeness this elephant has to that chief of elephants!

31. Is he perhaps a brother to that mighty being, or some kinsman of his, or one of his sons? In fact, it is the self-same beautiful figure equalling a snow-peak that we behold in this body, even though it be crushed.

32. It looks like a condensation of the lustre of many groups of waterlilies, like the concrete form of moonshine, or rather like His image, reflected in a mirror.”

But some among them who had a keener judgment of the matter began to reflect thus: “As far as we see, this animal, whose surpassing beauty rivals the elephants of the world-quarters, is that very elephant, indeed, who has thrown himself from this plateau, in order that He might save us from distress who are without relations and friends.” (And having understood so, they said):

33. “That noise we heard, as of a whirlwind, as of an earthquake, was caused by His fall, to be sure.

34. This body, in truth, is His. It has the same yellowish-white hue of a lotus-root, and is covered with similar hairs as white as moonbeams and adorned with fine spots. These are the same tortoise-like feet with white nails. And this is the same backbone gracefully curved in the guise of a bow.

35. Also this is the same face long and full, embellished by the furrows of his wind-perfuming juice. And this is the same head, tall, auspicious, never touched by a driver's goad, standing on a strong neck.

36. This is the same couple of tusks of a honey colour; they boastingly bear the token (of his glory), being covered with the red dust of the mountain-slope. [289] And this is that trunk with long, finger-like tip, wherewith He showed us this way.

Oh! This is, in truth, a wonder of surpassing strangeness!

37. Ah! So great a friendship has He shown to us, without first inquiring into our family, our conduct and faith, to us broken by misfortunes and never heard of by Him before! How great must His goodness be for His friends and relations!

In every way veneration be to Him, that Illustrious One!

38. Assisting the likes of us, distressed people, overcome with fear and sorrow and desponding, He, bearing the shape of an elephant, holds up, as it were, the sinking behaviour of the pious. I have not adopted the ingenious conjecture of Professor Kern, siṣatsatām, as I now think the text of the MSS. gives a good sense, if but the complex of akṣaras sīdatsatām is divided into two words. Accordingly I read sīdat satām udvahatīva vṛttam. 05

39. Where has He been taught this extraordinary propitiousness? At the feet of what teacher may He have sat in the forest? The popular saying: ‘no beauty of figure pleases without virtues’ is exemplified in Him.

40. Oh! How He has manifested by the splendid loftiness of His nature the auspiciousness to be expected of (his auspicious figure)! Verily, even in His dead body, His self-satisfaction appears in His complexion shining like the Snow-mountain, as though it laughed with joy!

Who, therefore, will allow himself to feed on the body of this exceedingly virtuous being, who, surpassing by his goodness affectionate relations and friends, was thus inclined to help us, thus ready to sacrifice even his own life for our benefit? No, it becomes us rather to pay him our debt of gratitude by the cremation of his body with the proper rites and worship.”

Thus considering, they were inclined to indulge in mourning, as if a family-disaster had befallen them; their eyes grew dim with tears and they lamented [290] in a faltering voice.

But some of them who had a stronger frame of mind, perceiving their attitude and understanding the difference of the cases, spoke to them: “Verily, by doing so this excellent elephant would be neither worshipped nor gratified. For aught we know, it is by the accomplishment of his design that we ought to honour him.

41. For it was with the object of rescuing us, that he, a stranger to us, yea, not even knowing us, abandoned in this manner his body dear to him, to his guests, still dearer to him.

42. For this reason it is proper to fulfil his design. Otherwise, would not the exertion of that being be made fruitless?

43. He has offered affectionately his whole property, indeed, to entertain his guests. Who, then, would render his hospitality fruitless by not accepting it?

44. We are therefore bound to honour him by accepting it like the word of a teacher, whereby we will secure also our own welfare.

45. After surmounting our adversity, it will be the fit time to worship him either conjointly or severally, and to perform for this excellent elephant the whole of the funeral rites due to a deceased kinsman.”

Accordingly those men, keeping in mind that that chief of elephants had taken his determination with the object of rescuing them from the wilderness, obeyed his words. They took their provisions from the body of the Great Being, and filled his bowels with water, using them as water-bags. Then following the direction he had pointed out to them, they safely crossed that wilderness.

In this manner the righteous highly esteem even pain, as if it were gain, if they may cause by it the happiness of others.

[So is to be said when praising the righteous. Likewise, when discoursing on the Tathāgata or on the subject of listening with attention to the preaching of the Law.

When treating of how to acquire an auspicious nature, this is to be said: [291] “In this manner an auspicious nature obtained by exercise (of virtues) comes back in new existences.”

This story may also be told when demonstrating the virtue consisting in habitual charity. “So the habit of abandoning material objects makes it easy to give up even self-love.”

And on the words spoken by the Lord at the time of His Complete Nirvāna, when He was attended with celestial flowers and celestial music: “Something like this, in truth, is not the right manner, Ānanda, to gratify the Tathāgata,” this story may serve as the comment, by taking it for example: “In this manner worship consists in fulfilling the design (of the person honoured), not in offerings of perfumes, garlands, and the like.”]

In the Avadānakalpalatā this tale occurs in pallava 96, 9-15, where the Lord tells it succinctly. The elephant is called Bhadra (friendly; “auspicious”) there. Compare supra, stanzas 39, 40, where his atibhadratā, respecting bhadratā, is praised. Concerning the Bhadra-elephants Compare Kielhorn, Indian Antiquary, 1890, p. 60.