sunset

Jataka 96

Telapatta Jātaka

The Hungry Ogres

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 quite a story. Imagine how mindful we would be if the penalty for failing to be mindful was that we would be eaten by ogres!

There is a minor technical inconsistency here, in that at any one time, there is only supposed to be one Buddha. It is possible that having more than one Buddha is possible because they were “pacceka” or “solitary, non-teaching” Buddhas.

As one with care.” This story was told by the Master while he was living in a forest near the town of Desaka in the Sumbha country. It is about the Janapadakalyāṇi Sutta (This is in the Saṃyutta Nikāya in section 17, “Lābhasakkārasaṃyutta Connected Discourses on Gains and Honor”, passages 13-20). On that occasion the Blessed One said, “Just as if, monks, a great crowd were to gather together, crying ‘Hail to the most alluring woman of the land! Hail to the most alluring woman of the Land!’ And then a greater crowd gathered, crying ‘The most alluring woman of the land is singing and dancing!’ And then suppose a man who was fond of life arrived, afraid of death, fond of pleasure, and averse to pain. And suppose he was told, ‘Hi, there! You must carry this pot of oil, which is full to the brim, through the crowd and the most alluring woman of the land. A man with a drawn sword will follow in your footsteps. And if you spill a single drop, he will cut off your head.’ What do you think, monks? Would that man, under these circumstances, be careless, and take no pains in carrying that pot of oil?”

“By no means, sir.”

“This is a parable that I framed to make my meaning clear, monks, and here is its meaning: The brimming pot of oil typifies a concentrated state of mind with regard to the body. The lesson to be learned is that such mindfulness should be practiced and perfected. Do not fail in this, monks.” So saying, the Master gave a discourse concerning the most seductive and alluring woman of the land, with both text and interpretation.

Then, in order to show its practical application, the Blessed One went on to say, “A monk who wants to practice right mindfulness in regard to the body should be as careful not to let his mindfulness drop as the man in the parable who was not to let a single drop of oil to spill from the pot.”

When they had heard the discourse and its meaning, the monks said, “It was a hard task, sir, for the man to pass by with the pot of oil without gazing on the charms of the most alluring woman of the land.”

“It was not hard at all, monks. It was quite an easy task. It was easy for the very good reason that he was escorted by one who threatened him with a drawn sword. But it was a truly hard task for the wise and good of bygone days to preserve right mindfulness and to curb their passions so as not to look at celestial beauty in all its perfection. Still they triumphed, and as a result, they won a kingdom.”

So saying, he told this story of the past.


Once upon a time when Brahmadatta was reigning in Benares, the Bodhisatta was the youngest of the King’s 100 sons. And he grew up to manhood. Now in those days there were Pacceka Buddhas (non-teaching, or “silent” Buddhas) who used to come to take their meals at the palace, and the Bodhisatta took care of them.

One day, the Bodhisatta was thinking about the great number of brothers he had. He wondered whether there was any chance of his coming to the throne of his father in that city. He decided to ask the Pacceka Buddhas to tell him what would happen.

On the next day the Buddhas came. They took the water pot that was consecrated for holy uses. They filtered the water, washed and dried their feet, and sat down to their meal. As they sat, the Bodhisatta came and sat down by them with a courteous salutation. Then he asked his question.

They answered and said, “Prince, you will never become the King in this city. But in Gandhāra, 7,000 miles away, there stands the city of Takkasilā. If you can reach that city, in seven days you will become the King there. But there is danger on the road. You will have to travel through a great forest. It is twice as far to go around the forest as it is to pass through it. Ogres live there, and ogresses have villages and houses along the way. When the sky is embroidered with stars overhead, their magic creates a seductive couch that is covered by a magical dye. Arranged in celestial splendor, the ogresses sit in their houses seducing travelers with sweet words. ‘You seem tired,’ they say. ‘Come here and eat and drink before you continue your journey.’ Those that do their bidding are given seats and fired to lust by the charm of their wanton beauty. But before anything can happen, the ogresses kill them and eat them while their blood is still warm. They tempt men’s senses, captivating the sense of beauty with utter loveliness, the ear with sweet music, the nostrils with heavenly odors, the taste with heavenly foods of exquisite flavors, and the touch with red-cushioned couches that are divinely soft. But if you can subdue your senses and be strong in your resolve not to look at them, then on the seventh day you will become the King of the city of Takkasilā.”

“Oh, sirs, how could I look at the ogresses after your advice to me?”

So saying, the Bodhisatta asked the Pacceka Buddhas to give him something to keep him safe on his journey. They gave him a charmed thread and some charmed sand. He said farewell to the Pacceka Buddhas and to his father and mother. Then, after going to his own home, he addressed his household as follows, “I am going to Takkasilā to make myself the King there. You will stay behind here.” But five of them said, “Let us go too.”

“You may not come with me,” the Bodhisatta answered, “for I am told that the way is plagued by ogresses who captivate men’s senses. They destroy those who give in to their charms. The danger is great, but I will rely on myself and go.”

“If we go with you, Prince, we promise not to look at their malevolent charms. We, too, will go to Takkasilā.”

“Then be steadfast,” the Bodhisatta said, and he took those five with him on his journey.

The ogresses sat waiting by the road in their villages. One of the five, the lover of beauty, looked upon the ogresses. Being ensnared by their beauty, he lagged behind the rest.

“Why are you dropping behind?” the Bodhisatta asked.

“My feet hurt me, prince. I’ll just sit down for a bit in one of these pavilions, and then I will catch up to you.”

“My good man, these are ogresses. Don’t be seduced by them.”

“Be that as it may, prince, I can’t go any further.”

“Well, you will soon show your true character,” the Bodhisatta said, as he went on with the other four.

Yielding to his sense desire, the lover of beauty drew near to the ogresses who tempted him, and they killed him then and there. Then they left, and further down the road they raised a new pavilion using their magic. They sat there singing to the music of many different instruments. And now the lover of music dropped behind and was eaten. Then the ogresses went on further and sat waiting in a bazaar stocked with sweet scents and perfumes. And here the lover of sweet-smelling things fell behind. And when they had eaten him, they went on further and sat in a stand where a profusion of heavenly foods of exquisite taste was offered for sale. And here the gourmet fell behind. And when they had eaten him, they went on further and sat on heavenly couches created by using their magic. And here the lover of comfort fell behind. And he, too, was eaten.

The only one left now was the Bodhisatta. One of the ogresses followed him, promising herself that for all his stern resolution that she would succeed in eating him. Further on in the forest, woodsmen and others, seeing the ogress, asked her who the man was that walked on ahead.

“He is my husband, good gentlemen,” she said.

“Hi, there!” they said to the Bodhisatta. “When you have got a sweet young wife, as fair as the flowers, who leaves her home and puts her trust in you, why don’t you walk with her instead of letting her trudge wearily behind you?”

“She is no wife of mine, but an ogress. She has eaten my five companions.”

“Alas! good gentlemen,” she said, “anger will drive men to say their wives are ogresses and ghouls.”

Next, she used her magic to make it appear that she was pregnant. And then she created the look of a woman who has borne one child. She conjured a child on her hip. She kept following the Bodhisatta. Everyone they met asked the same questions about them, and the Bodhisatta gave the same answer as he traveled on.

At last he came to Takkasilā. There the ogress made the child disappear, and she followed alone. At the gates of the city the Bodhisatta entered a rest house and sat down. Because of the Bodhisatta’s potency and power, she could not enter, so she adorned herself in divine beauty and stood on the threshold.

The King of Takkasilā was at that moment passing by on his way to his pleasure garden and was snared by her beauty. “Go, find out,” he said to an attendant, “whether she has a husband with her.” When the messenger came and asked whether she had a husband with her, she said, “Yes, sir. My husband is sitting inside the rest house.”

“She is no wife of mine,” the Bodhisatta said. “She is an ogress and has eaten my five companions.”

And as before she said, “Alas! Good gentlemen, anger will drive men to say anything that comes into their heads.”

Then the man went back to the King and told him what each of them had said. “Great wealth is a sign of high birth,” the King said. And he sent for the ogress and had her seated on the back of his elephant. After a solemn procession around the city, the King came back to his palace and had the ogress lodged in the apartments reserved for a queen.

After bathing and perfuming himself, the King ate his evening meal and then lay down on his royal bed. The ogress, too, prepared herself a meal. Then she dressed in all her splendor. As she lay by the side of the delighted King, she turned on to her side and burst into tears. Being asked why she wept, she said, “Sire, you found me by the side of the road, and there are many women in your harem. Living here among enemies I will feel crushed when they say ‘Who knows who your father and mother are, or anything about your family? You were picked up by the side of the road.’ But if your majesty would give me power and authority over the whole kingdom, nobody would dare to annoy me with such taunts.”

“Sweetheart, I have no power over those who live in my kingdom. I am not their lord and master. I only have jurisdiction over those who revolt or commit immoral acts. (This was the custom in India. Kings had limited power.) So I cannot give you power and authority over the whole kingdom.”

“Then, sire, if you cannot give me authority over the kingdom or over the city, at least give me authority within the palace. Then I can rule over those who live here.”

He was so captivated by her charms, the King gave her authority over everyone in the palace. Contented, she waited until the King was asleep. She then made her way to the city of the ogres and returned with the whole crew of ogres to the palace. She herself killed the King and ate him, skin, tendons, and flesh, leaving only the bare bones. And the rest of the ogres entered the gate and ate everything that came in their way. They did not leave even a bird or a dog alive.

Figure: Dining at the Palace

Figure: Dining at the Palace

On the next day when people came and found the gate shut, they beat on it with impatient cries. Finally they were able to get into the city. All they found was the whole palace strewn with bones. And they exclaimed, “So the man was right in saying she was not his wife but an ogress. In his foolishness the King brought her home to be his wife, and doubtless she has gathered the other ogres, eaten everybody, and then left.”

Now on that day the Bodhisatta, with the charmed sand on his head and the charmed thread twisted around his brow, was standing in the rest house, sword in hand, waiting for the dawn. Those others, meantime, cleaned the palace, garnished the floors, sprinkled perfumes on them, scattered flowers, hanging bouquets from the roof and decorating the walls with garlands, and burning incense in the place. Then they met together and said, “The man who could control his senses to not look at the ogress as she followed him in her divine beauty is a noble and steadfast man filled with wisdom. With someone like that as King, it would benefit the whole kingdom. Let us make him our King.”

And all the courtiers and all the citizens of the kingdom agreed. So the Bodhisatta was chosen King. He was escorted into the capital and decked in jewels and coronated as the King of Takkasilā. Shunning the four evil paths (the realms of “asuras,” hell, the animal realm, and the hungry ghost realm), and following the ten paths of kingly duty (1. Not killing, 2. Not stealing, 3. Abstaining from sexual misconduct, 4. Not lying, abstaining from divisive speech, 5. Abstaining from abusive speech, 6. Abstaining from gossip, 7. Do not covet another person’s wealth 8. Kindness, and 10. Generosity), he ruled his kingdom in righteousness. And after a life spent in charity and other good works, he passed away to fare according to his karma.


His story told, the Master, as Buddha, uttered this stanza:

As one will bear a pot of oil with care,

Full to the brim, that none will spill,

So he who travels to foreign lands

Should show control over his own heart.

When the Master had given the highest teaching, which is Arahatship, he identified the birth by saying, “The Buddha's disciples were the king’s courtiers in those days, and I was the prince that won a kingdom.”