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Jataka 78

Illīsa Jātaka

The Story of Illīsa

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 rich and wonderful story. The situation with the miser is quite funny, especially in the Jātaka Tale itself. It has a little bit of A Christmas Carol feel to it. The fact that the barber turns out to be the Bodhisatta is particularly amusing.

One of the main characters in the Jātaka is Sakka, Lord of the Devas. In the Buddhist cosmology, Sakka is a very high-ranking god. Only an extremely virtuous being can be reborn as Sakka. Curiously there are three suttas in the Saṃyutta Nikāya that actually give instructions on how to become Sakka (!). Unfortunately, the bar is set very high, as you would expect. The suttas that give these instructions are SN I.11.11-13. Most people have violated at least one of the criteria by the time they are about three years old.

And of course, pitting yourself against a god with supernatural powers is sub-optimal. Good luck with that.

As for the Treasurer’s wife? Pure sainthood!

Note also a very important teaching of the Buddha, and that is non-contention. The Buddha taught that we should never enter into debates with others. We should simply explain what we believe to be true, and to always do so in harmony.


Both squint.” This story was told by the Master while at Jetavana. It is about a miserly Lord High Treasurer. We are told that there was a town named Jagghery near the city of Rājagaha. And in Jagghery a certain Lord High Treasurer lived. He was known as the Millionaire Miser, and he was worth eighty million rupees. He would not give away or use for his own enjoyment so much as the tiniest drop of oil that a blade of grass will soak up. So he made no use of his wealth either for his family or for sages and brahmins. It remained unenjoyed, like a pool haunted by demons.

Now, one day the Master arose at dawn, and he was moved with a great compassion. As he reviewed those ripe for conversion throughout the universe, he became aware that this Treasurer with his wife some four hundred miles away were destined to follow the Noble Eightfold Path.

Now the day before, the Lord High Treasurer had gone to the palace to wait upon the King. When he was on his way home, he saw a peasant who was very hungry eating a cake stuffed with gruel. The sight provoked a craving in him. But, arriving at his own house, he thought to himself, “If I say I want a stuffed cake, a whole bunch of people will want to share my meal, and that means going through a lot of my rice and ghee and sugar. I mustn’t say a word to anyone.” So he walked around wrestling with his craving. As hour after hour passed, he grew yellower and yellower, and the veins stood out like cords on his emaciated frame. Finally, unable to bear it any longer, he went to his room and lay down hugging his bed. But still he would not say a word to anyone for fear of wasting his stores! Finally, his wife went to him, and, stroking his back, she said, “What is the matter, my husband?”

“Nothing,” he said.

“Perhaps the King is angry with you?”

“No, he is not.”

“Have your children or servants done anything to annoy you?”

“Nothing of that kind, either.”

“Well, then, do you have a craving for anything?”

Still he did not say a word, all because of his preposterous fear that he might waste his stores. He just lay there speechless on his bed.

“Say something, husband,” his wife said. “Tell me what you have a craving for.”

“All right,” he said with a gulp. “I have a craving for one thing.”

“And what is that, my husband?”

“I would like a stuffed cake to eat!”

“Now why didn’t you say so at once? You’re rich enough! I'll cook enough cakes to feed the whole town of Jagghery.”

“Why worry about them? They must work to earn their own meal.”

“Well then, I'll cook only enough for our street.”

“How extravagant you are!”

“Then, I’ll cook just enough for our own household.”

“How lavish you are!”

“Very well. I'll cook only enough for our children.”

“Why bother with them?”

“Very well then, I'll only provide for our two selves.”

“Why should you have them?”

“Then I'll cook just enough for you alone,” his wife said.

“Do it quietly,” the Lord High Treasurer said. “There are a lot of people looking for signs of cooking in this place. Pick out any broken rice, being careful to leave the whole grain, and take a portable cook stove and cooking pots and just a very little milk and ghee and honey and molasses. Then go to the seventh story of the house and do the cooking up there. I will sit there alone and undisturbed to eat.”

Obedient to his wishes, the wife had all the necessary things carried up, climbed all the way up herself, sent the servants away, and sent word to the Treasurer to come. Up he climbed, shutting and bolting door after door as he ascended, until at last he came to the seventh floor. He also shut and bolted this door. Then he sat down. His wife lit the fire in the stove, put her pot on, and set about cooking the cakes.

Now in the early morning, the Master had said to the Elder Great Moggallāna, “Moggallāna, this Miser Millionaire in the town of Jagghery near Rājagaha, wanting to eat cakes himself, is so afraid of letting others know, that he is having them cooked for him right up on the seventh story. Go there, and by using your supernatural power transport the husband and wife, cakes, milk, ghee and all, here to Jetavana. I and the 500 monks will stay here today, and I will make the cakes and give them a meal.”

Obeying the Master’s request, the Elder used his supernatural powers to go to the town of Jagghery. There he rested in mid-air in front of the chamber window, duly clad in his under and outer cloths, bright as a jeweled image. The unexpected sight of the Elder made the Lord High Treasurer shake with fear. He thought to himself, “I climbed up here to get away from visitors, and now there’s one of them at the window!” And failing to understand what was really going on, he sputtered with rage, like sugar and salt thrown on the fire, and he burst out with “What will you get, sage, by simply standing in mid-air? Why, you may pace up and down until you’ve made a path in the pathless air, and yet you’ll still get nothing.”

The Elder began to pace back and forth in his place in the air!

“What will you get by pacing back and forth?” the Treasurer said. “You may sit cross-legged in meditation in the air, but still you’ll get nothing.”

Then the Elder sat down with legs crossed! Then the Treasurer said, “What will you get by sitting there? You may come and stand on the window sill, but even that won’t get you anything!”

The Elder went and stood on the window sill. “What will you get by standing on the window sill? Why, you may belch smoke, and yet you’ll still get nothing!” the Treasurer said.

Then the Elder belched smoke until the whole palace was filled with it. The Treasurer’s eyes began to smart as though pricked with needles. Finally, out of fear that his house might catch on fire, he stopped himself from adding, “You won’t get anything even if you burst into flames.” He thought to himself, “This Elder is incredibly persistent! He simply won’t go away empty-handed! I must give just one cake to him.” So he said to his wife, “My dear, cook one little cake and give it to the sage so he will go away.”

So she mixed a tiny amount of dough in a crock. But the dough swelled and swelled until it filled the whole crock, and it grew to be a great big cake! “What a lot you must have used!” the Treasurer exclaimed at the sight. And he took a very little piece of the dough with the tip of a spoon and put it into the oven to bake. But that tiny piece of dough grew larger than the first lump, and one after another, every piece of dough he took became huge! Then he lost heart and said to his wife, “You give him a cake, dear.” But, as soon as she took one cake from the basket, at once all the other cakes stuck fast to it. So she cried out to her husband that all the cakes had stuck together, and that she could not pry them apart.

“Oh, I'll soon get them apart,” he said, but he could not!

Then the husband and wife both grabbed on to the mass of cakes at the corner and tried to get them apart. But no matter how hard they pulled, they were no more successful together than they were by themselves on the mass.

Now as the Treasurer was pulling at the cakes, he started to sweat and his craving left him. Then he said to his wife, “I don't want the cakes. Give them, basket and all, to this monk.” And she approached the Elder with the basket in her hand. Then the Elder preached the Dharma to them and proclaimed the excellence of the Three Gems (Buddha, Dharma, and Saṇgha). And, teaching that giving brought true happiness, he made the fruits of charity and other good works shine forth even as the full moon in the heavens. Deeply moved by the Elder’s words, the Treasurer said, “Sir, come here and sit on this couch to eat your cakes.”

“Lord High Treasurer,” the Elder said, “the All-Wise Buddha with 500 monks sits in the monastery waiting for a meal of cakes. If it would be your good pleasure, I ask you to bring your wife and the cakes with you, and let us go see the Master.”

“But where, sir, is the Master at right now?”

“150 miles away, in the monastery at Jetavana.”

“How are we going to get there, sir, without spending a long time on the road?”

“If it be your pleasure, Lord High Treasurer, I will take you there using my supernatural powers. The head of the staircase in your house will stay where it is, but the bottom will be at the main gate of Jetavana. In this way I will transport you to the Master in the time that it takes to go downstairs.”

“So be it, sir,” the Treasurer said.

Then the Elder, keeping the top of the staircase where it was, proclaimed, “Let the foot of the staircase be at the main gate of Jetavana.” And so it came to pass! In this way the Elder transported the Treasurer and his wife to Jetavana quicker than they could get down the stairs.

Then the husband and wife went before the Master and said that meal time had come. And the Master, going into the Dharma Hall, sat down on the Buddha seat prepared for him with the Saṇgha gathered round. Then the Lord High Treasurer poured the Water of Donation over the hands of the Saṇgha with the Buddha at its head, while his wife placed a cake in the alms bowl of the Blessed One. Of this he took only enough to support life, as did the 500 monks.

Next the Treasurer went around offering milk mixed with ghee and honey and brown sugar, and the Master and the Saṇgha brought their meal to a close. Lastly the Treasurer and his wife ate their fill, but still there seemed no end to the cakes. Even when all the monks and the scrap-eaters throughout the monastery had all had a share, still there was no sign of the end approaching. So they told the Master, saying, “Sir, the supply of cakes grows no smaller.”

“Then throw them down by the great gate of the monastery.”

So they threw them away in a cave not far from the gateway, and to this day they call that spot “The Crock Cake.”

The Lord High Treasurer and his wife approached and stood before the Blessed One, who returned thanks, and at the close of his words the pair attained stream-entry. Then, taking their leave of the Master, the two mounted the stairs at the great gate and found themselves in their own home once more. Afterwards, the Lord High Treasurer spent all of his of money solely on the Buddha and his Dharma.

On the next day the Perfect Buddha, returning to Jetavana after his alms round in Sāvatthi, delivered a discourse to the monks before retiring to the seclusion of the Perfumed Chamber. In the evening, the monks gathered together in the Dharma Hall and exclaimed, “How great is the power of the Elder Moggallāna! In a moment he converted a miser to charity, brought him with the cakes to Jetavana, set him before the Master, and established him in liberation. How great is the power of the Elder!” As they sat talking about the goodness of the Elder, the Master entered, and, upon asking, was told about the subject of their discussion. “Monks,” he said, “a monk who wants to convert a household should approach that household without causing it annoyance or aggravation, just like a bee when it sucks the nectar from a flower. This is how he should declare the excellence of the Buddha.” And in praise of the Elder Moggallāna, he recited this stanza:

Just as a bee in a flower

harming neither hue nor scent

gathers nectar, then flies away,

so in towns a Wise One fares.

(This verse is in the Dhammapada. It is verse 49.)

Then, to emphasize the Elder’s goodness, he said, “This is not the first time, monks, that the miserly Treasurer was converted by Moggallāna. In other days, too, the Elder converted him and taught him how actions and their results are linked together.” So saying, he told this story of the past.


Once upon a time when Brahmadatta was reigning in Benares, there was a Lord High Treasurer named Illīsa. He was worth eighty million rupees, and he had all the defects that a man can have. He was lame, he had a crooked back, and he had a squint. He was an unconverted infidel and a miser, never giving of his wealth to others or enjoying it himself. His house was like a pool haunted by demons. Yet, for seven generations his ancestors had been prosperous, giving freely of their wealth. But when he became Treasurer, he broke with the traditions of his house. He burned down the house where they had given alms. He drove the poor from his gates, and he hoarded his wealth.

One day, when he was returning from attendance on the King, he saw a peasant who had traveled a long way and was very tired. He was sitting on a bench filling a mug from a jar of poor spirits, He drank it all, garnishing it with a dainty morsel of stinking dried fish. The sight made the Treasurer thirsty for spirits, but he thought to himself, “If I drink, others will want to drink with me, and that would cost me a great deal of money.” So he walked about, keeping his thirst under control. But, as time wore on, he could do so no longer. He grew as yellow as old cotton, and the veins stood out on his sunken frame. One day, retiring to his chamber, he lay down hugging his bed. His wife came to him and rubbed his back as she asked, “What is the problem with my lord?"

(What follows is to be told in the words of the former story.) But, when she said, “Then I’ll only brew enough liquor for you,” he said, “If you make the brew in the house, there will be many people watching, and to send out for the spirits and sit and drink it here is out of the question.” So he took one single rupee and sent a slave to get him a jar of spirits from the tavern. When the slave came back, he made him go from the town to the riverside and put the jar down in a remote thicket. “Now be off!” he said, and he waited until the slave was some distance off before he filled his cup and started to drink.

Now the Treasurer’s father, who had been reborn as Sakka in the Realm of Devas because of his charity and other good works, was wondering at that moment whether his generosity was continuing or not. He saw that his tradition of generosity had stopped and learned of his son’s behavior. He saw how his son, breaking the traditions of his house, had burned the alms house to the ground, had driven the poor from his gates, and how, in his miserliness and fearing to share with others, had snuck away to a thicket to drink by himself. Moved by the sight, Sakka cried, “I will go to him and make my son see that actions have their consequences. I will convert him and make him charitable and worthy of rebirth in the Realm of Devas.”

So he came down to earth and once more walked in the world of men. He pretended to be the Treasurer Illīsa with the latter’s lameness and crooked back and squint. In this way he entered the city of Rājagaha and made his way to the palace gate. There he asked for his arrival to be announced to the King. “Let him come,” said the King. And so he entered and stood with proper respect before his majesty.

“What brings you here at this unusual hour, Lord High Treasurer?” the King asked.

“I have come, sire, because I have eighty million rupees of treasure in my house. I humbly ask you to take them to fill the royal treasury.”

“I will not do that, my Lord Treasurer. The treasure within my palace is greater than this.”

“If you will not have it, sire, I will give it away to someone else.”

“By all means, do so, Treasurer,” the King said.

“So be it, sire,” said the pretend Illīsa. And with proper respect he left to go the the Treasurer’s house. The servants all gathered around him, but not one could tell that this was not their real master. Entering, he stood on the threshold and sent for the porter. He gave him orders that if anybody who looked like him should appear and claim to be master of the house, they should be soundly beaten and thrown out of the house. Then, climbing up the stairs to the upper story, he sat down on a beautiful couch and sent for Illīsa’s wife. When she came he said with a smile, “My dear, let us be generous.”

At these words, the wife, the children, and the servants all thought, “It has been a long time since he was like this. He must have been drinking to be so good-natured and generous today.” And his wife said to him, “Be as generous as you please, my husband.”

“Send for the crier,” he said, “and ask him to proclaim by the beat of a drum all throughout the city that everyone who wants gold, silver, diamonds, pearls, and the like, should come to the house of Illīsa the Treasurer.”

His wife did as he asked, and a large crowd soon assembled at the door carrying baskets and sacks. Then Sakka asked that the treasure chambers be thrown open, and he cried, “This is my gift to you. Take whatever you want and go your way.”

The crowd grabbed the riches that were stored there and piled them in heaps on the floor. They filled the bags and sacks they had brought and went off loaded down with the spoils. Among them was a peasant who yoked Illīsa’s oxen to Illīsa’s carriage, filled it with the many things of value, and went out of the city along the highroad. As he traveled along, he went near the thicket and sang the Treasurer’s praises in these words: “May you live to be a hundred, my good lord Illīsa! What you have done for me this day will enable me to live without doing another stroke of work. Whose were these oxen? - yours. Whose was this carriage? - yours. Whose was the wealth in the carriage? - yours again. It was no father or mother who gave me all this. No, it came to me solely from you, my lord.”

These words filled the Lord High Treasurer with fear and trembling. “Why, the fellow is saying my name in his chatter,” he said to himself. “Can the King have distributed my wealth to the people?” With that thought he leaped from the bush, and, recognizing his own oxen and cart, seized the oxen by the yoke, crying, “Stop, fellow. These oxen and this cart belong to me.”

The man leaped down from the cart, angrily exclaiming, “You rascal! Illīsa, the Lord High Treasurer, is giving away his wealth to everyone in the city. What is your problem?” He sprang at the Treasurer and struck him on the back like a falling thunderbolt, and then he went off with the cart.

Illīsa picked himself up, trembling in every limb. He wiped off the mud and hurried after his cart, seizing hold of it. Again the countryman got down, and seizing Illīsa by the hair, doubled him up and thumped him on the head for some time. Then he took him by the throat, threw him back the way be had come and drove off.

Sobered by this rough treatment, Illīsa hurried home. There, seeing people making off with the treasure, he fell to grabbing this man and that man, yelling, “Hey! What’s this? Is the King robbing me?” And every man he grabbed knocked him down.

Bruised and smarting, he sought to take refuge in his own house, but the porters stopped him saying, “Hey, you rascal! Where are you going?” Beating him soundly with bamboo, they took their master by the throat and threw him out the door.

“No one but the King can set this right,” Illīsa groaned, so he went to the palace. “Why, oh why, sire,” he cried, “have you plundered me like this?”

“It was not I, my Lord Treasurer,” the King said. “Did not you yourself come and state your intention of giving your wealth away if I would not accept it? And did you not then send the crier around and carry out your promise?”

“Oh, sire, it was not I who came to you and said such a thing. Your majesty knows how frugal I am, and how I never give away so much as the tiniest drop of oil which a blade of grass will soak up. May it please your majesty to send for the one who gave away my wealth and to question him on the matter.”

Then the King sent for Sakka, and the two men were so exactly alike that neither the King nor his court could tell which was the real Lord High Treasurer. The miser Illīsa said, “Who, and what, sire, is this Treasurer? I am the Treasurer.”

“Well, really I can’t say which is the real Illīsa,” the King said. “Is there anyone who can tell them apart for certain?”

“Yes, sire, my wife.”

So they sent for his wife, and they asked her which of the two was her husband. And she said Sakka was her husband and went to his side. Then in turn Illīsa’s children and servants were brought in and asked the same question. All unanimously declared that Sakka was the real Lord High Treasurer. Here it occurred to Illīsa that he had a wart on his head, but it was hidden by his hair. The existence of the wart was only known to his barber. So, as a last resource, he asked that his barber be asked to identify him.

Now at this time the Bodhisatta was his barber. Accordingly, the barber was sent for and asked if he could distinguish the real from the false Illīsa. “I could tell, sire,” he said, “if I can examine their heads.”

“Then look at both their heads,” the King said. Instantly Sakka caused a wart to rise on his head! After examining the two, the Bodhisatta reported that, as both of them had warts on their heads, he couldn’t for the life of him say which was the real Treasurer. And then he uttered this stanza:

Both squint. Both halt. Both men are hunchbacks, too.

And both have warts alike!

I cannot tell which of the two is the real Illīsa.

Hearing that his last hope had failed him, the Lord High Treasurer started to tremble. Such was his intolerable anguish at the loss of his beloved riches that he fell down in a swoon. It was then that Sakka showed his supernatural powers, and, rising in the air, he addressed the King in these words: “I am not Illīsa, Oh King, but Sakka.” Then those around Illīsa wiped his face and splashed water over him. Recovering, he rose to his feet and bowed to the ground before Sakka, King of the Devas.

Figure: Sakka Shows His Power

Figure: Sakka Shows His Power

Then Sakka said, “Illīsa, the wealth was mine, not yours. I am your father, and you are my son. In my lifetime I was generous to the poor and rejoiced in doing good. Because of that I was reborn to this lofty state and have been reborn as Sakka. But you, who are not walking in my footsteps, have grown stingy, and you are a miser. You burned my alms house to the ground, drove the poor from the gate, and hoarded your riches. You do not enjoy them yourself, nor has any other human being. But your wealth has become like a pool haunted by demons where no man may quench his thirst. However, if you rebuild my alms house and show generosity to the poor, the goodness of your actions will bear fruit. But if you will not, then will I strip you of everything you have, I will split your head with the thunderbolt of Indra, and you will die.”

At this threat Illīsa, quaking for his life, cried out, “From here on I will be generous.” Sakka accepted his promise, and, still seated in mid-air, established his son in the Precepts and preached the Dharma to him, departing afterwards to his own home. And true to his promise, Illīsa was diligent in almsgiving and other good works, and so assured his rebirth in heaven.


“Monks,” the Master said, “this is not the first time that Moggallāna converted the miserly Treasurer. In bygone days as well the same man was converted by him.” His lesson ended, he showed the connection and identified the birth by saying, “This miserly Treasurer was the Illīsa of those days. Moggallāna was Sakka, King of the Devas. Ānanda was the King, and I was the barber.”