sunset

Jataka 26

Mahilāmukha Jātaka

The Elephant Damsel-face

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


In the following story, note that Prince Ajātasattu was the son of King Bimbisara, the King of Magadha. King Bimbisara was a good man and a loyal follower of the Buddha. However, Devadatta conspired with Prince Ajātasattu to kill King Bimbisara and the Buddha, so that Ajātasattu would be become King and Devadatta would become the leader of the Saṇgha. At the time of this story Ajātasattu is apparently not yet the King. It is not clear if the story happens before, during, or after Devadatta’s attempts to kill the Buddha.

There are many stories like this in the Canon about monks (I have not seen one - yet - about a nun, but I am sure they exist!) trying to bend the rules. Some things never change, and stories like this show how the human mind has not changed in 2500 years.


Through hearing first.” This story was told by the Master while at the bamboo grove. It is about Devadatta, who attained both gain and honor because of the support of Prince Ajātasattu. Prince Ajātasattu built a monastery for Devadatta at Gayāsīsa. Every day he brought him five hundred kettles of perfumed three-year-old rice that was seasoned with all the best spices. All this gain and honor brought Devadatta many followers. Devadatta lived with them without ever leaving his monastery.

At that time there were two friends living in Rājagaha. One of whom took his vows under the Master, while the other took them under Devadatta. They continued to see each other, either casually or by visiting the monasteries. One day the disciple of Devadatta said to the other, “Sir, why do you go on daily alms rounds when they cause you such strain? Devadatta sits quietly at Gayāsīsa and feeds on the best food, seasoned with all the best spices. There’s no way like his. Why create misery for yourself? Why don’t you come in the morning to the monastery at Gayāsīsa and drink our sweet milk, try our eighteen kinds of solid food, and enjoy our excellent fare that is seasoned with all the best spices?”

Being pressured over and over again to accept the invitation, the Buddha’s monk began to want to go, and finally he began to go to Gayāsīsa, where he ate and ate. However, he always returned to the Bamboo grove at the proper hour.

It was not possible to hide forever what he was doing, and after a while it came out that he was going to Gayāsīsa and delighting himself with the food provided for Devadatta. His friends asked him, “Is it true, as they say, that you delight yourself on the food provided for Devadatta?”

“Who said that?” he said.

“So-and-so said it.”

“It is true, sirs, that I go to Gayāsīsa and eat there. But it is not Devadatta who gives me food. Others do that.”

“Sir, Devadatta is the enemy of the Buddhas. In his wickedness, he has gotten the support of Ajātasattu, and by that wickedness gotten gain and honor for himself. Yet you who took the vows according to this faith that leads to salvation, you eat the food that Devadatta gets by wickedness. Come. Let us take you to the Master.” And, taking the monk with them, they went to the Dharma Hall.

When the Master became aware of their presence, he said, “Monks, are you bringing this monk here against his will?”

“Yes, sir. This monk, after taking the vows with you, eats the food that Devadatta gets by his wickedness.”

“Is it true, as they say, that you eat the food that Devadatta gets by wickedness?”

“It was not Devadatta, sir, that gave it to me, but others.”

“Do not quibble here, monk,” the Master said. “Devadatta is a man of bad conduct and bad principle. Oh, how could you, who have taken the vows here, eat Devadatta’s food while practicing my Dharma? But you have always been prone to going astray and have followed anyone you meet.” And, so saying, he told this story of the past.


Once upon a time when Brahmadatta was reigning in Benares, the Bodhisatta became his minister. In those days the King had a state elephant named Damsel-face. He was virtuous and good and never hurt anyone.

Now one day some burglars came near the elephant’s stall at night and sat down to discuss their plans to commit a robbery in these words: “This is the way to tunnel into a house. This is the way to break in through the walls. Before carrying off the plunder, the tunnel or breach in the walls should be made as clear and open as a road or a ford. When stealing the goods, you shouldn’t be reluctant to kill. Otherwise there may be those who try to stop us. A burglar should get rid of any sense of shame and be pitiless, a man of cruelty and violence.”

After having agreed to act in this evil way, the burglars left. The next day they came again, and many other days as well, and they had similar conversations. Finally the elephant decided that they had come to teach him, and that he must become pitiless, cruel, and violent. And so it happened. No sooner did his mahout (elephant handler) appear in the early morning than the elephant took the man in his trunk and threw him to the ground and killed him. He did the same thing to a second, and a third, and to every person who came near him.

The Wicked Elephant

Figure: The Wicked Elephant

The news was brought to the King that Damsel-face had gone mad and was killing everybody that he saw. So the King sent the Bodhisatta, saying, “Go, wise man, and find out what has happened to him.”

Away went the Bodhisatta, and he soon satisfied himself that the elephant was not sick. As he thought over the possible causes of the change, he decided that the elephant must have heard people talking near him and imagined that they were giving him a lesson, and that this was what had corrupted the animal. Accordingly, he asked the elephant handlers whether anyone had been talking together recently near the stall. “Yes, my lord,” they answered. “Some burglars came and talked.” Then the Bodhisatta went and told the King, saying, “There is nothing wrong, sire, with the elephant physically. He has been corrupted by overhearing some burglars talk.”

“Well, what should we do?”

“Order good men, sages and brahmins, to sit in his stall and talk about virtuous conduct.”

“Do so, my friend,” said the King.

Then the Bodhisatta sent good men, sages and brahmins, to the stall, and he told them to discuss virtuous conduct. Sitting down near the elephant, they spoke as follows, “You should never cause harm or kill. All good beings should be compassionate, loving, and merciful.”

Hearing this the elephant thought they must mean this as a lesson for him, and he resolved to become good. And so it happened that he became good again.

“Well, my friend,” said the King to the Bodhisatta, “is he well now?”

“Yes, your majesty,” said the Bodhisatta. “Thanks to wise and good men, the corrupted elephant has become himself again.” And so saying, he repeated this stanza:

Through hearing first the burglars’ wicked talk

Damsel-face ranged abroad to wound and kill.

Through hearing later wise men’s virtuous words

The noble elephant became good once again.

The King said, “He can read the mind even of an animal!” And he bestowed great honor on the Bodhisatta. After living to a ripe old age, he, with the Bodhisatta, passed away to fare according to his karma.


The Master said, “In the past, too, you followed everyone you met, monk. Hearing burglars talk, you followed what they said, and hearing the wise and good talk, you followed what they said.” His lesson ended, he showed the connection and identified the birth by saying, “The unfaithful monk was the Damsel-face of those days, Ānanda was the King, and I myself was the minister.”