Jataka 3

Serivaṇija Jātaka

The Serivan, or The Gold Bowl

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 tale uses the same story in the present as Jataka 2 in which a monk loses heart, and it supposedly has the same themes of perseverance, persistence, and determination. However, it seems to me that this story is more about honesty and kindness on one hand and greed on the other. Read it and see what you think.

The origins of the Jātaka tales are not known, but many were probably borrowed and adapted to Buddhist themes from stories that already existed in India at the time of the Buddha. It is possible that since the story in the present was borrowed from Jātaka 2 that this is one of them. However it came to be a part of the Jātaka collection, it is a good story with a good theme.

If in this faith.” This lesson, too, was taught by the Blessed One while at Sāvatthi, also about a monk who gave up persevering.

For, when the man was brought by the Saṇgha exactly as in the previous story, the Master said, “You, Brother, who after devoting yourself to this glorious doctrine which bestows path and fruit, are giving up persevering, will suffer long, like the merchant of Seri who lost a golden bowl worth a hundred thousand pieces.”

The monks asked the Blessed One to explain this to them. The Blessed One made clear a thing concealed from them by rebirth.

Once upon a time in the kingdom of Seri, many years ago, the Bodhisatta dealt in pots and pans. Because his family name was “Serivan,” they called him “the Serivan.” There was also another merchant of that same name, and he was a very greedy person. He came from across the river Telavāha, and he entered the city of Andhapura. They agreed to divide the city between them, and so the first merchant set about hawking his wares in the streets of his district, and the other did the same in his district.

Now in that city there was a destitute family. Once they had been rich merchants, but by the time of our story they had lost all the sons and brothers and all their wealth. The sole survivors were a girl and her grandmother, and they made their living by working for hire. Nevertheless, they had a golden bowl in their house. In the old days the great merchant, the head of the family, used to eat from it. But it had been thrown among the pots and pans, and it was so dirty that the two women did not know that it was gold.

Now the greedy merchant came to the door of their house crying, “Water pots to sell! Water pots to sell!” And the young girl said to her grandmother, “Oh, do buy me a trinket, grandmother.”

“We're very poor, dear. What can we offer in exchange for it?”

“Why here’s this bowl which is no good to us. Let us change that for it.”

The old woman invited the merchant in, and she gave him the bowl, saying, “Take this, sir, and be so good as to give my granddaughter something in exchange.”

The merchant took the bowl in his hand and turned it over. Because he knew the weight and feel of gold, he suspected what the bowl was made of. He surreptitiously scratched a line on the back of it with a needle, and then he knew for certain that it was real gold. Then, thinking that he would get the pot without giving anything whatever for it to the women, he cried, “What's the value of this? Why it isn't worth anything!” And with that he threw the bowl on the ground, rose up from his seat, and left the house.

Now, the two merchants had agreed that the one might try the streets that the other had already been to. So the first merchant came into that same street and appeared at the door of the house, crying, “Water pots to sell!” Once again the young girl made the request of her grandmother, and the old woman replied, “My dear, the first merchant threw our bowl on the ground and ran out of the house. What have we got left to offer now?”

“Oh, but that merchant was a harsh man, grandmother dear, while this one looks a nice man and speaks kindly. Perhaps he would take it.”

“Call him in then.”

So he came into the house, and they gave him a seat and put the bowl into his hands. He immediately knew that the bowl was gold. He said, “Mother, this bowl is worth a hundred thousand pieces. I do not have that much money with me.”

“Sir, the first merchant who came here said that it was not worth anything, so he threw it to the ground and went away. It must have been because of your own goodness that the bowl turned into gold. Take it and give us something or other for it and then go your way.”

At the time the merchant had 500 coins and a stock worth as much more. He gave all of this to them, saying, “Let me keep my scales, my bag, and eight pieces of money, and you can have the rest.”

They agreed to this, and he departed as quickly as he could to the river where he gave his eight coins to a boatman and jumped into the boat. Subsequently that greedy merchant came back to the house, and he asked them to bring out their bowl. He said he would give them something or other for it. But the old woman raged at him with these words, “You said that our golden bowl, which is worth a hundred thousand pieces, was not worth anything. But there came an upright merchant who gave us a thousand pieces for it and took the bowl away.”

He angrily exclaimed, “He has robbed me of a golden bowl worth a hundred thousand pieces. He has caused me a terrible loss!”

An intense anger came upon him, so that he lost control over himself. He threw his money and goods at the door of the house. He threw off his upper and under cloths, and, armed with the beam of his scales as a club, he tracked the good merchant down to the river. There he found that the good merchant had already started across the river. He shouted to the boatman to come back, but the good merchant told him not to do so. As the greedy merchant stood there gazing at the retreating honest merchant, intense anger seized him, His heart grew hot. Blood gushed from his lips, and his heart cracked like the mud at the bottom of a tank that the sun has dried up. Because of the intense hatred he had towards the good merchant, he died right then and there.

The good merchant, after a life spent in charity and other good works, passed away to fare according to his karma.

The Greedy Merchant

Figure: The Greedy Merchant

When the Supreme Buddha ended this lesson, he, the All-Knowing One himself, uttered this stanza:

If in this faith you prove remiss, and fail

To win the goal where its teachings lead,

Then, like the greedy merchant called “the Serivan,”

Full long you'll regret the prize your folly lost.

After delivering his discourse in such a way as to lead up to Arahatship, the Master expounded the Four Noble Truths, after which the fainthearted monk attained that highest fruit of all, which is Arahatship.

And after telling the two stories, the Master made the connection linking them both together and identified the birth by saying in conclusion, “In those days Devadatta was the greedy merchant, and I was the wise and good merchant.” This was the first time Devadatta conceived a grudge against the Bodhisatta.