Vessantara Jātaka (No. 547)
Vessantara (the Bodhisatta) was the son of Sañjaya, king
of Sivi, and queen Phusatī, and was so called because his mother started in
labour as she passed through the vessa street in the city of Jetuttara, and he
was born in a house in the same street. He spoke as soon as he was born (Cf.
BuA.228). On the same day was also born a white elephant named Paccaya. At the
age of eight, Vessantara wished to make a great gift and the earth trembled. He
married Maddī at the age of sixteen, and their children were Jāli and Kanhajinā.
At that time there was a great drought in Kālinga, and
eight brahmins came from there to Vessantara to beg his white elephant, which
had the power of making rain to fall. He granted their request, and gave the
elephant together with its priceless trappings (J.vi.488f. gives the details of
these). The citizens of Jetuttara were greatly upset that their elephant should
have been given away, and demanded of Sañjaya that Vessantara should be banished
to Vankagiri. The will of the people prevailed, and Vessantara was asked to take
the road along which those travel who have offended. He agreed to go, but before
setting out, obtained the king's leave to hold an almsgiving called the "Gift of
the Seven Hundreds" (Sattasataka), in which he gave away seven hundred of each
kind of thing. People came from all over Jambudīpa to accept his gifts, and the
almsgiving lasted for a whole day.
When Vessantara took leave of his parents and prepared for
his journey, Maddī insisted on accompanying him with her two children. They were
conveyed in a gorgeous carriage drawn by four horses, but, outside the city,
Vessantara met four brahmins who begged his horses. Four devas then drew the
chariot, but another brahmin soon appeared and obtained the chariot.
Thenceforward they travelled on foot, through Suvannagiritāla, across the river
Kantimārā, to beyond Mount Arañjaragiri and Dunnivittha, to his uncle's city, in
the kingdom of Ceta. The devas shortened the way for them, and the trees lowered
their fruit that they might eat. Sixty thousand khattiyas came out to welcome
Vessantara and offered him their kingdom, which, however, he refused. He would
not even enter the city, but remained outside the gates, and, when he left early
the next morning, the people of Ceta, led by Cetaputta, went with him for
fifteen leagues, till they came to the entrance to the forest. Vessantara and
his family then proceeded to Gandhamādana, northwards, by the foot of Mount
Vipula to the river Ketumatī, where a forester entertained them and gave them to
eat. Thence they crossed the river to beyond Nālika, along the bank of Lake
Mucalinda, to its north eastern corner, then along a narrow footpath into the
dense forest, to Vankagiri. There Vissakamma had already built two hermitages,
by order of Sakka, one for Vessantara and one for Maddī and the children, and
there they took up their residence. By Vessantara's power, the wild animals to a
distance of three leagues became gentle. Maddī rose daily at dawn, and, having
fetched water to wash, went into the forest for yams and fruit. In the evening
she returned, washed the children, and the family sat down to eat. Thus passed
Then from Dunnivittha there came to the hermitage an old
brahmin, called Jūjaka, who had been sent by his young wife, Amittatāpanā, to
find slaves for her, because when she went to the well for water the other women
had laughed at her, calling her "old man's darling." She told Jūjaka that he
could easily get Vessantara's children as slaves, and so he came to Vankagiri.
Asking the way of various people, including the hermit Accuta, Jūjaka arrived at
Vankagiri late in the evening and spent the night on the hilltop. That night
Maddī had a dream, and, being terrified, she sought Vessantara. He knew what the
dream presaged, but consoled her and sent her away the next day in search of
food. During her absence, Jūjaka came and made his request. He would not await
the return of Maddī, and Vessantara willingly gave him the two children. But
they ran away and hid in a pond till told by their father to go with Jūjaka.
When Vessantara poured water on Jūjaka's hand as a symbol of his gift, the earth
trembled with joy. Once more the children escaped and ran back to their father,
but he strengthened his resolve with tears in his eyes. Jūjaka led the children
away, beating them along the road till their blood flowed.
It was late in the evening when Maddī returned because
devas, assuming the form of beasts of prey, delayed her coming, lest she should
stand in the way of Vessantara's gift. In answer to her questions, Vessantara
spoke no word, and she spent the night searching for the children. In the
morning she returned to the hermitage and fell down fainting. Vessantara
restored her to consciousness and told her of what had happened, explaining why
he had not told her earlier. When she had heard his story she expressed her joy,
affirming that he had made a noble gift for the sake of omniscience.
And then, lest some vile creature should come and ask for
Maddī, Sakka, assuming the form of a brahmin, appeared and asked for her
Vessantara looked at Maddī, and she expressed her consent. So he gave Maddī to
the brahmin, and the earth trembled. Sakka revealed his identity, gave Maddī
back to Vessantara, and allowed him eight boons. Vessantara asked that
- (1) he be recalled to his father's city,
- (2) he should condemn no man to death,
- (3) he should be a helpmate to all alike
- (4) he should not be guilty of adultery,
- (5) his son should have long life:
- (6) he should have celestial food,
- (7) his means of giving should never fail,
- (8) after death he should be reborn in heaven.
In the meantime, Jūjaka had travelled sixty leagues with
the children, whom the devas cared for and protected. Guided by the devas, they
arrived in fifteen days at Jetuttara, though Jūjaka had intended to go to
Kālinga. Sañjaya bought the children from Jūjaka, paying a high price, including
the gift of a seven storeyed palace. But Jūjaka died of over eating, and as no
relation of his could be traced, his possessions came back to the king. Sañjaya
ordered his army to be prepared and a road to be built from Jetuttara to
Vankagiri, eight usabhas wide. Seven days later, led by Jāli, Sañjaya and
Phusatī started for Vankagiri.
In the army was the white elephant, who had been returned
because the people of Kālinga could not maintain him. There was great rejoicing
at the reunion of the family, and the six royal personages fell in a swoon till
they were revived by rain sent by Sakka, the rain only wetting those who so
wished it. Vessantara was crowned king of Sivi, with Maddī as his consort. After
a month's merry making in the forest, they returned to Jetuttara. On the day
Vessantara entered the city he set free every captive, including even cats. In
the evening, as he lay wondering how he would be able to satisfy his suitors the
next day, Sakka's throne was heated, and he sent down a shower of the seven
kinds of precious things, till the palace grounds were filled waist high.
Vessantara was thus able to practise his generosity to the end of his days.
After death he was born in Tusita (J.i.47; DhA.i.69).
The story was related on the occasion of the Buddha's
first visit to Kapilavatthu. The Buddha's kinsmen escorted him to the
Nigrodhārāma, but sat round him without doing any obeisance, because of their
great pride. The Buddha then performed the Twin Miracle, and the Sākyans, led by
Suddhodana, worshipped him. There was then a
shower of rain, refreshing all and falling only on those who so wished. When the
people expressed their wonder, the Buddha related this story, showing that in
the past, too, rain had fallen on his kinsfolk to revive them. (According to
BuA.245, the Jātaka was related at the end of the recital of the Buddhavamsa).
- Devadatta is identified with Jūjaka,
- Cincā with Amittatāpanā,
- Channa with Cetaputta,
- Sāriputta with Accuta,
- Anuruddha with Sakka,
- Sañjaya with Suddhodana,
- Mahāmāyā with Phusatī,
- Rāhulamātā with Maddī,
- Rāhula with Jāli, and
- Uppalavanna with Kanhajinā. (The story is given at
The story also occurs in the Cariyāpitaka (i.9), and is
often referred to (E.g., Sp.i.245; VbhA.414; Cv.xlii.5; c.74) as that of a birth
in which the Bodhisatta's dāna pāramitā reached its culmination. The earth shook
seven times when Vessantara made his gifts, and this forms the subject of a
dilemma in the Milinda-Pañha. (Mil.. p.113; for another question, see ibid.
The story of the Jātaka was sculptured in the Relic
Chamber of the Mahā Thūpa. (Mhv.Xxx.88).
The story of Vessantara is the first of the Jātakas to
disappear from the world (AA.i.51). See also Gūlha Vessantara.