Jataka 23

Bhojājānīya Jātaka

The War Horse

as told by Eric Van Horn

originally translated by Robert Chalmers, B.A., of Oriel College, Oxford University

originally edited by Professor Edward Byles Cowell, Cambridge University

This is a tale of mercy as well as political practicality. After being attacked by seven kings, the King of Benares could have exacted revenge. Instead, after being advised by the Bodhisatta, he treated them charitably. This was not only compassionate and humane, it led to them into never attacking him again, and the kingdoms were able to live peacefully together.

We have an example in more modern history. After World War I, the Treaty of Versailles exacted brutal revenge on the Germans. This led to a great deal of suffering in post-war Germany. In turn this led to the rise of fascism and World War II. After World War II, however, the Marshal Plan helped reconstruct Europe and Japan, leading to many decades of peace, and to Germany and Japan becoming two of the more stable countries in the world.

Though prostrate now.” This story was told by the Master while at Jetavana. It is about a monk who gave up persevering. For it was then that the Master addressed that monk and said, “Monks, in bygone days the wise and good persevered even amid hostile surroundings, and even when they were wounded, they still did not give in.” And, so saying, he told this story of the past.

Once upon a time when Brahmadatta was reigning in Benares, the Bodhisatta was born as a thoroughbred horse and was made the King’s personal war horse, surrounded by pomp and pageantry. He ate exquisite three-year old rice that was served to him in a golden dish worth a hundred thousand pieces of money. The ground of his stall was perfumed. Around his stall there were crimson curtains, while overhead there was a canopy studded with stars of gold. The walls were decorated with wreaths and garlands of fragrant flowers, and a lamp fed with scented oil was always burning there.

All the kings around Benares coveted the kingdom. Once seven kings surrounded Benares and sent an ultimatum to the King, saying, “Either give up your kingdom to us or we will attack.” Assembling his ministers, the King of Benares put the matter before them and asked them what to do. They said, “First of all, you should not go into battle yourself. Send your best cavalryman out to fight them. If he fails, we will decide what to do next.”

Then the King sent for that cavalryman and said to him, “Can you fight the seven kings, my dear soldier?” He said, “Give me your noble war horse, and then I could not only fight those seven kings, I could defeat all the kings in India.”

“My dear soldier, take my war horse or any other horse you want and do battle.”

“Very good, my sovereign lord,” said the cavalryman, and with a bow he passed down from the upper chambers of the palace. Then he had the noble war horse led out and sheathed in armor, armoring himself as well from head to toe. Strapping on his sword, he mounted his noble steed and passed out of the city gate. Then, with a lightning charge, he broke down the first camp, taking one king alive and bringing him back as a prisoner into the soldiers’ custody.

Returning to the field, he broke down the second and the third camps, and so on until he captured five kings, all alive. The sixth camp he broke down and captured the sixth king. But his war horse was wounded. He streamed with blood and the noble animal suffered from sharp pain. Seeing that the horse was wounded, the cavalryman had it lie down at the King’s gate. He loosened its armor and started to armor another horse.

As the Bodhisatta lay at full length on his side, he opened his eyes and saw what the cavalryman was doing. “My rider,” he thought to himself, “is putting armor on another horse. That other horse will never be able to break down the seventh camp and capture the seventh king. He will lose all that I have accomplished. This brave cavalryman will be killed, and the King will fall into the hands of the enemy. I alone, and no other horse, can break down that seventh camp and capture the seventh king.”

So, as he lay there, he called to the cavalryman and said, “Sir, there is no horse who can break down the seventh camp and capture the seventh king. I will not throw away what I have already done. Help me get up on my feet and put on my armor again.” And so saying, he repeated this stanza:

Though lying now, and pierced with arrows,

Yet still no one can match the war horse.

So harness none but me, O charioteer.

The cavalryman helped the Bodhisatta get up on his feet, bound his wound, and put his armor on him again. Mounted on the war horse, he broke down the seventh camp and brought back the seventh king alive. He handed him over to the custody of the soldiers.

They led the Bodhisatta up to the King’s gate, and the King came out to look at him. Then the Great Being said to the King, “Great King, do not kill these seven kings. Have them swear a loyalty oath to you and let them go. Let the cavalryman enjoy all the honor due to us both, for it is not right that a warrior who has presented you with seven captive kings should not be honored. And as for yourself, exercise charity, keep the Precepts, and rule your kingdom in righteousness and justice.” When the Bodhisatta had thus exhorted the King, they started to take off his armor. But as they were taking it off, he died.

The War Horse Addresses the King

Figure: The War Horse Addresses the King

The King had the body cremated with all respect, and he bestowed great honor on the cavalryman. He sent the seven kings to their homes after having them swear an oath never to war against him again. And he ruled his kingdom in righteousness and justice, passing away when his life ended to fare according to his karma.

Then the Master said, “Thus, monks, in bygone days the wise and good persevered even amid hostile surroundings. Even when wounded so grievously, I still did not give in. Whereas you who have devoted yourself to practicing the Dharma, why do you give up so easily?” Then he preached the Four Noble Truths, after which the faint-hearted monk won Arahatship. His lesson ended, the Master showed the connection. He identified the birth by saying, “Ānanda was the King of those days, Sāriputta the cavalryman, and I was the war horse.” (Sāriputta was one of the Buddha’s two chief disciples.)