Jataka 9

Makhādeva Jātaka

King Makhādeva

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 the ultimate mid-life crisis story. While this story is a little extreme (!), the contemplation of death is a regular theme in the Buddha’s teaching. It is used as a reminder that our time in this life is short, and we should not waste it.

We usually think of renunciation as giving up the pleasures of worldly life. But those pleasures also come with a price. So a different way of thinking about renunciation is that you are giving up the stress and suffering that comes with seeking worldly, sensual pleasures and cultivating a higher and more deeply satisfying kind of pleasure. As the King says, “I have had my fill of human joys and would rather taste divine joys.”

Oh, these gray hairs!” This story was told by the Master while at Jetavana about the Great Renunciation, which has already been related in the Nidāna Kathā. (“The Story of Origins.” The Nidāna Kathā is an introductory text to the Jātakas but also stands on its own. It tells the story of all the Buddha’s previous lives starting from when he was inspired to become a Buddha.)

On this occasion the monks sat praising the renunciation of the Lord of Wisdom. Entering the Hall of Truth and seating himself on the Buddha-seat, the Master thus addressed the monks. “What were you just discussing?”

“We were praising, sir, your own renunciation.”

“Monks,” responded the Master, “not only in these days have I made a renunciation, in past days I similarly renounced the world.”

The monks asked the Blessed One for an explanation of this. The Blessed One made clear what had been concealed from them by re-birth.

Once on a time in Mithilā in the realm of Videha there was a King named Makhādeva, who was righteous and ruled righteously. For successive periods of eighty-four thousand years he had respectively amused himself as prince, ruled as viceroy, and then reigned as King. One day he said to his barber, “Tell me, friend barber, when you see any gray hairs in my head.”

So one day, years and years later, the barber did find among the raven locks of the King a single gray hair, and he told the King so. “Pull it out, my friend,” said the King, “and put it in the palm of my hand.” The barber plucked the hair out with his golden tongs and laid it in the King's hand. The King at that time still had eighty-four thousand years more to live. But nevertheless, at the sight of that one gray hair he was filled with deep emotion. He seemed to see the King of Death standing over him. “Foolish Makhādeva!” he cried. “Gray hairs have come upon you before you have been able to rid yourself of defilements.” And as he thought about the appearance of his gray hair, he grew hot within. The sweat rolled down from his body, and suddenly his clothing oppressed him and seemed intolerable.

King Makhādeva

Figure: The Gray Hair!

“Today,” he thought, “I will renounce the world for the life of a monk.”

He gave the grant of a village to his barber, which yielded a hundred thousand pieces of money. He sent for his eldest son and said to him, “My son, gray hairs have come upon me, and I am old. I have had my fill of human joys and would rather taste divine joys. The time for my renunciation has come. Take the sovereignty upon yourself. As for me, I will take up my abode in the pleasure garden called Makhādeva’s Mango-grove, and there I will tread the path of a spiritual seeker.”

At this his ministers gathered and said, “Why, sire, are you taking up the life of a monk?”

Taking the gray hair in his hand, the King repeated this stanza:

Lo, these gray hairs that on my head appear

Are Death’s own messengers that come to rob

My life. ’Tis time I turned from worldly things,

And in the hermit’s path seek saving peace.

And after these words, he renounced his sovereignty and became a recluse. Dwelling in that very Mango-grove of Makhādeva, over the next eighty-four thousand years he cultivated the Four Perfect States (love, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity) within himself, and, dying with insight full and unbroken, was reborn in the Brahma Realm. After passing from there, he became the King again in Mithilā under the name of Nimi. After uniting his scattered family, once more became a hermit in that same Mango-grove, winning the Four Perfect States and passing thence once more to the Realm of Brahma.

After repeating his statement that he had similarly renounced the world in bygone days, the Master at the end of his lesson preached the Four Noble Truths. Some entered the First Path (stream-entry), some the Second (once-returner), and some the Third (non-returner). Having told the two stories, the Master showed the connection between them and identified the birth, by saying: “In those days Ānanda was the barber, Rāhula the son, and I myself King Makhādeva.” (Ānanda was the Buddha’s cousin and his attendant, and Rāhula really was his son.)