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Jataka 80

Bhīmasena Jātaka

The Frightful Army

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 an interesting story about a life in which the Bodhisatta is born as a physically deformed dwarf. But he still manages to show his intelligence, courage, and his physical ability.


You flaunted your prowess.” This story was told by the Master while at Jetavana. It is about a braggart in the Saṇgha. Tradition says that he used to gather monks of all ages around him, and then delude everyone with lying boasts about his noble descent. “Ah, brothers,” he would say, “there is no family as noble as mine, no lineage so peerless. I am a descendent of the highest of princely lines. No man is my equal in birth or ancestral estate. There is absolutely no end to the gold and silver and other treasures we possess. Our slaves and servants are fed on rice and meat stews and are clothed in the best Benares cloth. They have the best Benares perfumes with which to annoint themselves, while I, because I have joined the Saṇgha, have to content myself with this vile fare and this vile robe.”

But another monk, after enquiring into his family’s status, exposed the emptiness of this boast to the Saṇgha. So the monks met in the Dharma Hall and talked about how that brother, in spite of his vows to leave worldly things and devote himself only to the Dharma, was going about deluding the Saṇgha with his lying boasts. While the fellow’s shamefulness was being discussed, the Master entered and asked what they were discussing, and they told him. “This is not the first time, monks,” the Master said, “that he has gone about boasting. In bygone days he also went about boasting and deluding people.” 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 a brahmin in a market town in the North country. When he was grown up, he studied under a teacher of worldwide fame at Takkasilā. There he learned the Three Vedas and the Eighteen Branches of knowledge, and he completed his education. He became known as the sage Little Bowman. Leaving Takkasilā, he came to the Andhra country in search of practical experience. Now, it happened that in this birth the Bodhisatta was somewhat of a crooked little dwarf, and he thought to himself, “If I make my appearance before any king, he is sure to ask what a dwarf like me is good for. I will find a tall broad fellow to act as my proxy, and I will earn my living in the shadow of his more imposing presence.”

So he went to the weavers’ quarter where he saw a huge weaver named Bhīmasena. He greeted him and asked him his name. “My name is Bhīmasena,” said the weaver.

(In the Indian epic poem the Māhabhārata, Bhīmasena is the second son of the warrior King Panda. The name Bhīmasena means “one who leads a terrible army.” The name may have been borrowed from there.)

“And what makes a fine big man like you work at so sorry a trade?”

“Because I cannot make a living any other way.”

“Weave no more, my friend. There is no better archer on the whole continent than me. But kings would scorn me because I am a dwarf. And so you, friend, must be the man to show your prowess with the bow. Then the king will hire you and use your skills regularly. Meantime I will be behind you to perform whatever you are asked to do. In that way I will earn my living in your shadow. In this manner we will both thrive and prosper. You only have to do as I tell you.”

“Very well,” said the weaver.

So the Bodhisatta took the weaver with him to Benares, acting as his little page boy. Putting the weaver in the front, when they were at the gates of the palace, he sent word of his coming to the King. Being summoned into the royal presence, the pair entered together, bowed, and stood before the King.

“What brings you here?” said the King.

“I am a mighty archer,” said Bhīmasena. “There is no other archer like me on the whole continent.”

“What pay would you want to enter my service?”

“A thousand pieces every two weeks, sire.”

“Who is this man of yours?”

“He's my little page boy, sire.”

“Very well, enter my service.”

So Bhīmasena entered the King’s service, but it was the Bodhisatta who did all of his work for him.

Now in those days there was a tiger in a forest in Kāsi that blocked a busy high-road. He had killed many people. When this was reported to the King, he sent for Bhīmasena and asked whether he could catch the tiger.

“How could I call myself an archer, sire, if I cannot catch a tiger?”

The King gave him a large sum of money and sent him on the errand. Bhīmasena then went home to give the news to the Bodhisatta.

“All right,” said the Bodhisatta. “Off you go, my friend.”

“But aren’t you coming too?”

“No, I won't go, but I’ll give you a little plan.”

“Please do, my friend.”

“Well don’t be rash and approach the tiger’s lair alone. What you will do is to organize a strong band of countryfolk to march to the spot with a thousand or two thousand bows. When you have the tiger’s attention, you run into the thicket and lie down flat on your face. The countryfolk will beat the tiger to death. Then as soon as he is dead, you bite off a vine with your teeth, and go up to the dead tiger holding the vine in your hand. At the sight of the dead body of the brute, you will burst out with, ‘Who killed the tiger? I meant to lead it by a vine, like an ox, to the King. I had just stepped into the thicket to get a vine. I must know who killed the tiger before I could get back with my vine!’ Then the countryfolk will be very frightened and bribe you heavily not to report them to the King. You will get credit for killing the tiger, and the King will give you lots of money.”

“Very good,” said Bhīmasena, and off he went. He got the tiger killed just as the Bodhisatta had told him. Having made the road safe for travelers, he came back with a large following to Benares. He said to the King, “I have killed the tiger, sire. The forest is safe for travelers now.” The King was very pleased, and he showered him with gifts.

On another day, word came that a certain road was harassed by a buffalo. Once more the King sent Bhīmasena to kill it. Following the Bodhisatta’s directions, he had the buffalo killed in the same way as the tiger. He then returned to the King, who once more gave him lots of money. He was a great lord now. Intoxicated by his high status, he treated the Bodhisatta with contempt. He stopped following his advice, saying, “I can get along without you. Do you think there’s no man but yourself?” He said this and many other harsh things to the Bodhisatta.

A few days later, a hostile King marched on Benares and laid siege to it. He sent a message to the King telling him to either surrender his kingdom or to do battle. The King immediately ordered Bhīmasena out to fight him. So Bhīmasena was armed from head to foot. He mounted a war elephant sheathed in full armor. And the Bodhisatta, who was seriously alarmed that Bhīmasena might get killed, armed himself from head to foot as well and seated himself modestly behind Bhīmasena.

Surrounded by soldiers, the elephant passed through the gates of the city and arrived at the front of the battle. At the first sound of the martial drum Bhīmasena started shaking with fear.

“If you fall off now, you’ll get killed,” the Bodhisatta said. Accordingly he tied a rope around him. He held tightly to the rope to prevent him from falling off the elephant. But the sight of the battle proved too much for Bhīmasena. The fear of death was so strong in him that he defecated on the elephant’s back.

“Ah,” the Bodhisatta said. “The present does not tally with the past. You pretended to be a warrior. Now your skill is confined to fouling the elephant you ride on.” And so saying, he uttered this stanza:

You vaunted your prowess, and boasted loudly.

You swore you would rout the foe!

But is it consistent, when faced with their numbers,

To vent your emotion, sir, so?

When the Bodhisatta had ended these taunts, he said, “But don’t you be afraid, my friend. I am here to protect you.” Then he made Bhīmasena get off the elephant and told him to go wash himself and then go home. “And now to win fame this day,” the Bodhisatta said, yelling a battle cry as he dashed into the fight. Breaking through the King’s camp, he dragged the enemy King out and took him back alive to Benares. In great joy at his bravery in battle, his royal master loaded him with honors, and from that day forward all India was loud with the fame of the sage Little Bowman. To Bhīmasena he gave a large sum of money (severance pay!) and sent him back to his own home. Then he excelled in charity and good works, and at his death passed away to fare according to his karma.

Figure: The Brave Dwarf and the Cowardly Bhīmasena

Figure: The Brave Dwarf and the Cowardly Bhīmasena


“Thus, monks,” the Master said, “this is not the first time that this monk has been a braggart. He was the same in bygone days as well.” His lesson ended, the Master showed the connection and identified the birth by saying, “This braggart monk was the Bhīmasena of those days, and I was the sage Little Bowman.”