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Jataka 87

Maṃgala Jātaka

Superstition

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


Over the centuries, Buddhists have had to deal with a lot of superstition. It is a common theme in the Buddha’s teachings. And in fact, this is not just an ancient problem, there is still a lot of superstition in Buddhist countries. In Thailand they still believe in fortune telling, and so forth.


Whoever renounces.” This story was told by the Master while at the Bamboo Grove. It is about a brahmin who was skilled in telling fortunes using pieces of cloth. Tradition says that a brahmin lived at Rājagaha. He was superstitious and held false views. He did not believe in the Three Jewels. This brahmin was very rich and wealthy. But a female mouse gnawed a suit of clothes of his that were lying in a chest. One day after bathing himself, he called for this suit, and then he was told of the mischief that the mouse had done. “If these clothes stay in the house,” he thought, “they will bring bad luck. This bad omen is sure to bring a curse. It is out of the question to give them to any of my children or servants. Whoever has them will bring misfortune on anyone who is around him. I must have them thrown away in a charnel ground, but how will I do that? (A charnel ground is an open area where the corpses of people who cannot afford a cremation are left.) I cannot hand them to servants. They might want them and keep them to the ruin of my house. My son must take them.”

So he called his son. Telling him the situation, he asked him to take the clothes on a stick - without touching them with his hand - and throw them away in a charnel ground. Then the son should wash himself all over and return.

Now that morning just at dawn the Master looked around to see if there were any people who could be led to the truth. He saw that the father and son were destined to attain liberation. So he disguised himself as a hunter on his way to hunt, and he went to the charnel ground. He sat down at the entrance, emitting the six-colored rays that mark a Buddha.

Soon the young brahmin came to that spot, carefully carrying the clothes on the end of his stick just as his father had told him, as if he were carrying a snake.

“What are you doing, young brahmin?” the Master asked.

“My good Gotama,” he replied, “this suit of clothes, having been gnawed by mice, is bad luck and as deadly as if it were steeped in venom. So my father, fearing that a servant might want and keep the clothes, sent me with them. I promised that I would throw them away and bathe afterwards, and that is the errand that has brought me here.”

“Throw the suit away, then,” said the Master, and the young brahmin did so.

“They will suit me just fine,” the Master said. He picked up the cursed clothes right before the young man’s eyes despite the latter’s earnest warnings and repeated pleas to him not to take them. And then the Master went off to the Bamboo Grove.

Figure: The Cursed Suit

Figure: The Cursed Suit

The young brahmin ran home to tell his father how the Sage Gotama had declared that the clothes would suit him, and that despite all of his warnings to the contrary, he took the suit away with him to the Bamboo Grove. “Those clothes,” the brahmin thought to himself, “are bewitched and cursed. Even the Sage Gotama cannot wear them without catastrophe coming to him, and that would damage my reputation. I will give the Sage other clothing and get him to throw that suit away.”

So he started out with his son to the Bamboo Grove carrying a large number of robes. When he came upon the Master he stood respectfully on one side and said, “Is it true, as I hear, that you, my good Gotama, picked up a suit of clothes in the charnel ground?”

“Quite true, brahmin.”

“My good Gotama, that suit is cursed. If you use it, it will destroy you. If you need clothes, take these and throw that suit away.”

“Brahmin,” the Master replied, “I have renounced the world and am content with the rags that lie by the roadside or bathing places or are thrown away on dust heaps or in charnel grounds. Whereas you have held your superstitions in bygone days as well as in the present.” So saying, at the brahmin’s request, he told this story of the past.


Once upon a time a righteous king reigned in the city of Rājagaha in the kingdom of Magadha. In those days the Bodhisatta was reborn as a brahmin of the Northwest. Growing up, he renounced the world for the life of a recluse. He won the Knowledges (as in the previous Jātaka the power of faith, the power of moral shame, the power of moral dread, the power of energy, and the power of wisdom) and the Attainments (jhānas) and went to live in the Himalayas.

On one occasion he returned from the Himalayas and went to live in the King’s pleasure garden. On his second day there he went into the city to collect alms. Seeing him, the King had him summoned into the palace. There he provided him with a seat and some food, making him promise that he would stay in the pleasure garden. So the Bodhisatta used to get his food at the palace and he lived on the royal grounds.

Now in those days a brahmin known as Cloth-prophet lived in that city. He had a suit of clothes in a chest that was gnawed by mice, and everything came to pass just as in the foregoing story. But when the son was on his way to the charnel ground the Bodhisatta got there first and took his seat at the gate. Picking up the suit that the young brahmin threw away, he returned to the pleasure garden. When the son told this to the old brahmin, the latter exclaimed, “It will be the death of the King’s recluse.” He begged the Bodhisatta to throw the suit away for fear that he might perish. But the ascetic replied, “Rags that are thrown away in charnel grounds are good enough for us recluses. We have no belief in superstitions about luck that is not approved by Buddhas, Pacceka (“solitary” or non-teaching Buddha) Buddhas, or Bodhisattas. No wise man should believe in luck.” Hearing the truth thus expounded, the brahmin abandoned his errors and took refuge in the Bodhisatta. And the Bodhisatta, preserving his wisdom unbroken, was reborn in the Brahma Realm.

Having told this story, the Master, as Buddha, taught the Dharma to the brahmin in this stanza:

Whoever renounces omens, dreams and signs,

That man is free from superstition’s errors.

He will triumph over the mind’s corruption

And over attachments to the end of time.


When the Master had thus preached his doctrine to the brahmin in the form of this stanza, he proceeded to teach the Four Noble Truths. At the close of his teaching that brahmin, with his son, attained stream entry. The Master identified the birth by saying, “The father and son of today were also the father and son of those days, and I was the recluse.”