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Jataka 51

Mahāsīlava Jātaka

The Evildoers

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 this story, we see a relentless belief in the power of doing good. It may seem a little naïve, but in fact we have many examples throughout history of such a devotion to good bearing fruit. But goodness is quiet. It does not make much noise, so it does not get much publicity when it happens. Violence and anger and discord are noisy, so they get a lot of attention. Of course, goodness does not always win out, at least not in this lifetime. But if you put it into the context of infinite lifetimes, there is a much greater sense of urgency about how we act in life and the implications for our actions.


Persevere, my brother.” This story was told by the Master while at Jetavana. It is about a monk who had given up pursuing the path. Being asked by the Master whether it was true that he was a backslider, the monk said that it was so. “How can you, brother,” the Master said, “grow cold in such a great enterprise? Even when the wise and good of bygone days lost their kingdom, their resolution was so unrelenting that they won back their kingdom.” 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 the child of the queen. On his name-day they gave him the name of Prince Goodness. At the age of sixteen his education was complete, and later he was crowned as King at his father’s death. He ruled his people righteously under the title of the great King Goodness.

He built an almonry (a place where alms were given to the poor) at each of the four city gates, another in the heart of the city, and yet another at his own palace gates. There were six in all, and he distributed alms to poor travelers and the needy at each one. He kept the Precepts and observed the fast-days. He overflowed with patience, loving-kindness, and mercy. He ruled the land in righteousness, cherishing all creatures alike with the fond love of a father for his baby.

Now one of the King’s ministers behaved treacherously in the King’s harem (presumably he committed an act of sexual indiscretion), and this became the subject of gossip. The ministers subsequently reported it to the King. When he investigated the matter himself, the King found the minister’s guilt to be clear. So he sent for the culprit and said, “Blinded by folly, you have committed a treacherous act, and you are not worthy to live in my kingdom. Take your possessions and your wife and family and leave.” Having been driven from the realm, that minister left the Kāsi country and entered the service of the King of Kosala.

Gradually he rose to be that monarch’s confidential adviser. One day he said to the King of Kosala, “Sire, the kingdom of Benares is like a honeycomb untainted by flies. Its King is feebleness itself. A very small force would be able to conquer the whole country.”

The King of Kosala knew that the kingdom of Benares was large. The advice that a small force could conquer it made him suspicious that his adviser was trying to lead him into a trap. “Traitor,” he cried, “you are paid to say this!”

“Indeed, I am not,” answered the adviser. “I speak the truth. If you doubt me, send men to attack a village just over his border. Then you will see that when they are caught and brought before him, the King will let them off scot-free. He will even give them gifts.”

“That is quite a bold assertion,” thought the King. “I will test his advice without delay.” So he sent some of his men to attack a village across the Benares border. The thugs were captured and brought before the King of Benares. He asked them, “My children, why have you attacked my villagers?”

They replied, “Because we could not make a living.”

“Then why didn’t you come to me?” the King said. “See that you do not do this again.” And he gave them gifts and sent them away.

They went back and told this to the King of Kosala. But this evidence was not enough to convince him to attack. A second band was sent to attack another village, this time in the heart of the kingdom. These men, too, were likewise sent away with gifts by the King of Benares. But even this evidence was not strong enough for the King, and a third party was sent to plunder the very streets of Benares! And these, like their predecessors, were sent away with gifts! Satisfied at last that the King of Benares was an entirely good King, the King of Kosala resolved to seize his kingdom, and he marched against him with soldiers and elephants.

Now in those days the King of Benares had a thousand gallant warriors who would even face the charge of a rut elephant (rut or musth is a condition in bull elephants in which testosterone levels can be 60 times greater than normal, and they become extremely dangerous to humans). Even the thunderbolt of Indra could not terrify this matchless band of invincible heroes who were ready to subdue all India at the King’s command. These soldiers, hearing that the King of Kosala was coming to take Benares, went to their sovereign with the news. They implored him that they might be sent against the invaders. “We will defeat and capture him, sire,” they said, “before he can so much as set foot over the border.”

“No, my children,” the King said. "No one will suffer because of me. Let anyone who covets my kingdom take it if they wish.” And he refused to allow his soldiers to march against the invader.

Then the King of Kosala crossed the border and came to the middle-country. Again the ministers went to the King with a renewed sense of urgency. But still the King refused. And now the King of Kosala appeared outside the city. He sent a message to the King telling him to either give up the kingdom or engage in battle. The King of Benares replied, “I will not fight. Let him seize my kingdom.”

Yet a third time the King’s ministers came to him and implored him not to allow the King of Kosala to enter but to allow them to fight and capture him outside the city. Still refusing, the King ordered the city gates to be opened. He seated himself in state on his royal throne with his thousand ministers around him.

Entering the city and finding no one to bar his way, the King of Kosala took his army to the royal palace. The doors stood open wide, and there on his gorgeous throne with his thousand ministers around him sat the great King Goodness in state. “Seize them all,” cried the King of Kosala. “Tie their hands tightly behind their backs and take them to the cemetery! Dig holes there and bury them alive up to the neck so that they cannot move their hands or feet. The jackals will come at night and finish the graves!”

At the bidding of the brute King, his followers bound the King of Benares and his ministers and hauled them off. But even in this hour the great King Goodness did not harbor so much as a single angry thought against the invaders. And not a man among his ministers, even when they were being marched off in bonds, could disobey the King, so perfect the discipline was among his followers.

So King Goodness and his ministers were led off and buried up to the neck in pits in the cemetery. The King was in the middle and the others were on either side of him. The ground was packed down around them, and they were left there. Still yielding and free from anger against his oppressor, King Goodness exhorted his companions, saying, “Let your hearts be filled with nothing but love and charity, my children.”

Now at midnight the jackals came stalking this banquet of human flesh. At the sight of the beasts the King and his companions shouted in unison, frightening the jackals away. The pack halted and looked back, and - seeing no one pursuing - again went forward. A second shout drove them away again, only to have them return as before. But the third time, seeing that no one pursued them, the jackals thought to themselves, “These must be men who are doomed to death.” They came on boldly, even when the men shouted. This time they did not run away. On they came, each singling out his target. The chief jackal went for the King, and the other jackals went for his companions. With cleverness and resolve, the King watched the beast’s approach. He raised his throat as if to receive the bite, but instead he bit his teeth into the jackal’s throat with a grip like a vice! Unable to free its throat from the mighty grip of the King’s jaws, and fearing death, the jackal howled a great howl. At his cry of distress the pack realized that their leader had been caught by a man. They lost all heart to approach their own destined prey, and they scampered away for their lives.

Seeking to free itself from the King’s teeth, the trapped jackal plunged madly back and forth. In so doing he loosened the earth around the King. Then the King let the jackal go, and with great effort, plunging from side to side, he got his hands free! He grabbed the edge of the pit, drew himself up, and came out of the ground like a cloud racing before the wind. Telling his companions to be of good cheer, he now started to loosen the earth around them and to get them out. Finally all of his ministers stood free once more in the cemetery.

At that time it so happened that a corpse had been exposed in a part of the cemetery that was between the respective domains of two ogres. And the ogres were arguing over who was to get the corpse.

“We can’t divide it ourselves,” they said. “But this King Goodness is righteous. He will divide it for us. Let us go to him.” So they dragged the corpse by the foot to the King, and said, “Sire, divide this man and give us each our share.” “Certainly I will, my friends,” the King said. “But because I am so dirty, I must bathe first.”

King Goodness and His Ogre Buddies

Figure: King Goodness and His Ogre Buddies

Using their magic power, the ogres brought scented water to the King that had been prepared for the rival ruler. And when the King had bathed, they brought him the robes that had been laid out for the rival to wear. When he had put these on, they brought his majesty a box containing the four kinds of scent. When he had perfumed himself, they brought flowers of different kinds laid out upon jeweled fans in a casket of gold. When he had decked himself with the flowers, the ogres asked whether they could be of any further service. The King told them that he was hungry. So the ogres went away and returned with rice flavored with all the choicest curries that had been prepared for the usurper’s table. And the King, now bathed and scented, dressed and attired, ate the delicious food. Then the ogres brought the usurper’s perfumed water for him to drink. It was in the usurper’s own golden bowl. And they did not forget to bring the golden cup, too. When the King had drunk and had washed his mouth and had washed his hands, they brought him fragrant betel nuts to chew.

Then they asked whether his majesty had any further commands. He said, “By your magic power get me the sword of state that lies by the usurper’s pillow." And straightway the sword was brought to the King. Then the King took the corpse, and setting it upright, cut it in two down the spine, giving one-half to each ogre. This done, the King washed the blade and sheathed it on his side.

Having eaten their fill, the ogres were glad of heart. In their gratitude they asked the King what more they could do for him. “Use your magic power to put me in the usurper’s chamber and put each of my ministers back in his own house.”

“Certainly, sire,” the ogres said, and it was done. Now in that hour the rival King was lying asleep on the royal bed in his chamber of state. And as he slept peacefully, the good King struck him with the flat of the sword upon the belly. Waking up in a fright, the rival King saw by the lamp-light that it was the great King Goodness. Summoning his courage, he rose from his bed and said, “Sire, it is night. A guard is set. The doors are barred, and no one may enter. How did you get to my bedside, sword in hand and wearing robes of splendor?”

Then the King told him the story of his escape. The rival King’s heart was moved, and he cried, “Oh, King, even though I am blessed with human nature, I did not understand your goodness. But now, because of fierce and cruel ogres whose food is flesh and blood, I do understand. From here on, I will not plot against such virtue as you possess.” So saying, he swore an oath of friendship upon his sword and begged the King’s forgiveness. And he made the King lie down on the bed of state while he lay down upon a little couch.

At daybreak his whole entourage of every rank and degree was mustered by the beat of a drum at the rival King’s command. He praised King Goodness in their presence, as if raising the full moon on high in the heavens. And right before them all, he again asked the King’s forgiveness. He gave him back his kingdom, saying, “From now on, let it be my responsibility to deal with rebels. Rule your kingdom with me to keep watch and defend.” And so saying, he passed sentence on the slanderous traitor, and with his troops and elephants went back to his own kingdom.

Seated in majesty and splendor beneath a white canopy of sovereignty upon a throne of gold with legs of a gazelle, the great King Goodness contemplated his own glory and thought to himself, “Had I not persevered, I would not be enjoying this luxury, nor would my thousand ministers still be living. It was by perseverance that I recovered the royal state I had lost, and I saved the lives of my thousand ministers. Truly, we should strive on relentlessly with undaunted hearts, seeing that the fruit of perseverance is so abundant.”

And with that the King broke into this heartfelt utterance:

Persevere, my brother. stand fast in hope.

Do not let your courage weaken and tire.

I see from all my woes in the past,

I am master of my heart’s desire.

Thus the Bodhisatta spoke in the fullness of his heart, declaring how sure it is that the earnest effort of good will ripen. After a life spent in doing good, he passed away to fare according to his karma.


His lesson ended, the Master preached the Four Noble Truths, at the close of which the backsliding monk won Arahatship. The Master showed the connection and identified the birth by saying, “Devadatta was the traitorous minister of those days. The Buddha’s disciples were the thousand ministers, and I myself was the great King Goodness.”