Ja 51 Mahāsīlavajātaka
The Birth Story about One with Great Virtue (1s)
In the present a monk gives up striving. To encourage him the Buddha tells a story of a king of old who persevered in mercy even when threatened with death; how he escaped being buried in the charnel ground, settled a dispute for two Yakkhas, and won back his kingdom and the lives of his subjects by his righteousness.
The Bodhisatta = the virtuous great king (sīlavamahārājā),
the Buddha’s disciples = the thousand ministers (amaccasahassaṁ),
Devadatta = the corrupt minster (paduṭṭhāmacca).
Keywords: Mercy, Perseverance, Devas.
“Certainly keep up hope, my man.” This story was told by the Teacher while at Jetavana, about a monk who had given up all earnest effort. Being asked by the Teacher whether the report was true that he was discontent, the monk
In the past when Brahmadatta was reigning in Benares, the Bodhisatta came to life again as the child of the queen; and on his name-day they gave him the name of prince Sīlava [Virtuous]. At the age of sixteen his education was complete; and later he came at his father’s death to be king, and ruled his people righteously under the title of the great king
Now one of the king’s ministers had dealt treacherously in the king’s harem, and this became matter of common talk. The ministers reported it to the king. Examining into the matter himself, the king found the minister’s guilt to be clear. So he sent for the culprit, and said: “O blinded by folly! You have sinned, and are not worthy to dwell in my kingdom; take your substance and your wife and family, and go hence.” Driven thus from the realm, that minister left the Kāsi country, and, entering the service of the king of Kosala, gradually rose to be that monarch’s confidential adviser. One day he said to the king of Kosala, “Sire, the kingdom of Benares is like a goodly honeycomb untainted by flies; its king is feebleness itself; and a trifling force would suffice to conquer the whole country.”
Hereon, the king of Kosala reflected that the kingdom of Benares was large, and, considering this in connection with the advice that a trifling force could conquer it, he grew suspicious that his adviser was a hireling instigated to lead him into a trap. “Traitor,” he cried, “you are paid to say this!”
“Indeed I am not,” answered the other, “I do but speak the truth. If you doubt me, send men to massacre a village over his border, and see whether, when they are caught and brought before him, the king does not let them off scot-free and even load them with gifts.”
“He shows a very bold front in making his assertion,” thought the king, “I will test his counsel
“Because we could not make a living,” said they.
“Then why did you not come to me?” said the king. “See that you do not do the like again.”
And he gave them presents and sent them away. Back they went and told this to the king of Kosala. But this evidence was not enough to nerve him to the expedition; and a second band was sent to massacre another village, this time in the heart of the kingdom. These too were likewise sent away with presents by the king of Benares. But even this evidence was not deemed strong enough; and a third party was sent to plunder the very streets of Benares! And these, like their forerunners,
Now in these days the king of Benares had a thousand gallant warriors, who would face the charge even of a rut elephant – whom the launched thunderbolt of Sakka could not terrify – a matchless band of invincible heroes ready at the king’s command to reduce all Jambudīpa to his sway! These, hearing the king of Kosala was coming to take Benares, came to their sovereign with the news, and prayed that they might be dispatched against the invader. “We will defeat and capture him, sire,” they said, “before he can set foot over the border.”
“Not so, my children,” said the king. “None shall suffer because of me. Let those who covet kingdoms seize mine, if they will.” And he refused to allow them march against the invader.
Then the king of Kosala crossed the border and came to the middle-country; and again the ministers went to the king with renewed entreaty. But still the king refused. And now the king of Kosala appeared outside the city, and sent a message to the king bidding him either yield up the kingdom or give battle. “I fight not,” was the message of the king of Benares in reply, “let him seize my kingdom.”
Yet a third time the king’s ministers came to him and besought him not to allow the king of Kosala to enter, but to permit them to overthrow and capture him before the city. Still refusing, the king bade the city-gates be opened,
Entering the city and finding none to bar his way, the king of Kosala passed with his army to the royal palace. The doors stood open wide; and there on his gorgeous throne with his thousand ministers around him sat the great king Sīlava in state. “Seize them all,” cried the king of Kosala, “tie their hands tightly behind their backs, and away with them to the cemetery! There dig holes and bury them alive up to the neck, so that they cannot move hand or foot. The jackals will come at night and give them sepulchre!”
At the bidding of the ruffianly king, his followers bound the king of Benares and his ministers, and hauled them off. But even in this hour not so much as an angry thought did the great king Sīlava harbour against the ruffians; and not a man among his ministers, even when they were being marched off in bonds, could disobey the king – so perfect is said to have been the discipline among his followers.
So king Sīlava and his ministers were led off and buried up to the neck in pits in the cemetery, the king in the middle and the others on either side of him. The ground was trampled in upon them, and there they were left. Still meek and free from anger against his oppressor, king
Now at midnight the jackals came trooping to the banquet of human flesh; and at sight of the beasts the king and his companions raised a mighty shout all together, frightening the jackals away. Halting, the pack looked back, and, seeing no one pursuing, again came forward. A second shout drove them away again, but only to return as before. But the third time, seeing that not a man amongst them all pursued, the jackals thought to themselves, “These must be men who are doomed to death.” They came on boldly; even when the shout was again being raised, they did not turn tail. On they came, each singling out his prey – the chief jackal making for the king, and the other jackals for his companions.
Seeking to free itself from the king’s teeth, the trapped jackal plunged madly to and fro, and thereby loosened the earth around the king. Hereupon the latter, letting the jackal go, put forth his mighty strength, and by plunging from side to side got his hands free! Then, clutching the brink of the pit, he drew himself up, and came forth like a cloud scudding before the wind. Bidding his companions be of good cheer, he now set to work to loosen the earth round them and to get them out, till with all his ministers he stood free once more in the cemetery.
Now it chanced that a corpse had been exposed in that part of the cemetery which lay between the respective domains of two Yakkhas; and the Yakkhas were disputing over the division of the spoil.
“We can’t divide it ourselves,” said they, “but this king Sīlava is righteous; he will divide it for us. Let us go to him.” So they dragged the corpse by the foot to the king, and said: “Sire, divide this corpse and give us each our share.” “Certainly I will, my friends,” said the king. “But, as I am dirty, I must bathe first.”
Straightaway, by their magic power, the Yakkhas brought to the king the scented water prepared for the usurper’s bath. And when the king had bathed, they brought him the robes which had been laid out for the usurper to wear. When he had put these on, they brought his majesty a box containing the four kinds of scent. When he had perfumed himself, they brought flowers of divers kinds laid out upon jewelled fans, in a casket of gold. When he had decked himself with the flowers, the Yakkhas asked whether they could be of any further service. And the king gave
The king, now bathed and scented, dressed and arrayed, ate of the dainty fare. Thereupon the Yakkhas brought the usurper’s perfumed water for him to drink, in the usurper’s own golden bowl, not forgetting to bring the golden cup too. When the king had drunk and had washed his mouth and was washing his hands, they brought him fragrant betel to chew, and asked whether his majesty had any further commands. “Fetch me,” said he, “by your magic power the sword of state which lies by the usurper’s pillow.” And straightaway the sword was brought to the king. Then the king took the corpse, and setting it upright, cut it in two down the backbone, giving one-half to each Yakkha. This done, the king washed the blade, and girded it on his side.
Having eaten their fill, the Yakkhas were glad of heart, and in their gratitude asked the king what more they could do for him. “Set me by your magic power,” said he, “in the usurper’s chamber, and set each of my ministers back in his own house.” “Certainly, sire,” said the Yakkhas; and forthwith it was done. Now in that hour the usurper was lying asleep on the royal bed in his chamber of state. And as he slept in all tranquillity, the good king struck him with the flat of the sword upon the belly. Waking up in a fright, the usurper saw by the lamp-light that it was the great king Sīlava. Summoning up all his courage, he rose from his couch and said: “Sire, it is night; a guard is set; the doors are barred; and none may enter. How then came you to my bedside, sword in hand and clad in robes of splendour?” Then the king told him in detail all the story of his escape. Then the usurper’s heart was moved within him, and he cried, “O king, I, though blessed with human nature, knew not your goodness; but knowledge thereof was given to the fierce and cruel Yakkhas, whose food is flesh and blood. Henceforth, I, sire,
On the morrow at daybreak, when the sun had risen, his whole host of every rank and degree was mustered by beat of drum at the usurper’s command; in their presence he extolled king Sīlava, as if raising the full-moon on high in the heavens; and right before them all, he again asked the king’s forgiveness and gave him back his kingdom, saying: “Henceforth, let it be my charge to deal with rebels; rule you your kingdom, with me to keep watch and ward.” And so saying, he passed sentence on the slanderous traitor, and with his troops and elephants went back to his own kingdom.
Seated in majesty and splendour beneath a white canopy of sovereignty
1. Āsīsetheva puriso, na nibbindeyya paṇḍito,
Passāmi vohaṁ attānaṁ yathā icchiṁ tathā ahū ti.
Certainly keep up hope, my man, the wise one should not be weary, I see myself as one who really is resolved on being king.
Thus spoke the Bodhisatta in this exalted utterance, declaring how sure it is that the earnest effort of the good will come to maturity. After a life spent in doing right he passed away to fare thereafter according to his deeds.
His lesson ended, the Teacher preached the Four Truths, at the close whereof the discontented monk became an Arahat. The Teacher showed the connection and identified the Jātaka by saying: “Devadatta was the traitorous minister of those days, the Buddha’s disciples were the thousand ministers, and I myself the great king Goodness.”
last updated: August 2023