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Jataka 122

Dummedha Jātaka

The Fool

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 the Bodhisatta is born as a wondrous, great elephant. In fact, the elephant is so amazing that his owner, the King, is jealous of him and tries to kill him. But our hero in this story is the humble mahout (elephant trainer). He decides that this wonderful beast is much too good for a petty King. So he has this elephant fly to the domain of a good King and presents him to the good King as a gift. The moral of the story - as stated in the opening line - is that someone who thinks he is great because of his status may also fall prey to his own foolishness!

Exalted status brings a fool great woe.” This story was told by the Master while he was at the Bamboo Grove. It is about Devadatta. The monks had met together in the Dharma Hall. They were talking about how the sight of the Buddha’s perfections and all the distinctive signs of Buddhahood (this refers to the Sela Sutta, which is III.7 in the Sutta Nipata and Sutta 92 in the Majjhima Nikāya) maddened Devadatta, and how in his jealousy he could not bear to hear the praises of the Buddha’s transcendent wisdom. Entering the Dharma Hall, the Master asked what they were discussing. When they told him, he said, “Monks, just as now, in the past Devadatta was maddened by hearing my praises.” So saying, he told this story of the past.


Once upon a time when King Magadha was ruling in Rājagaha (“Rājagaha” literally means the “home of the raja/king”) in Magadha (one of the two superpowers in ancient India), the Bodhisatta was born as an elephant. He was white all over, and he was graced with all the beauty of form described above. (This is apparently a reference to the passage in Jātaka 72: “When he was born, he was white all over like a mighty mass of silver. His eyes were like diamond balls, like a manifestation of the five brightnesses. His mouth was red like scarlet cloth. His trunk was like silver flecked with red gold, and his four feet were as if polished with lacquer. Thus he was of consummate beauty, adorned with the ten perfections.”) And because of his beauty the King made him his state elephant.

One festival day the King had the city decorated like a city of the devas. The elephant was dressed with all of his ornaments. He mounted the elephant and made a solemn procession around the city accompanied by a great retinue. All along the route the people were moved by the sight of the peerless elephant. They exclaimed, “Oh what a stately gait! What perfect proportions! What beauty! What grace! Such a white elephant is worthy of a universal monarch.”

All of this praise of the elephant aroused the King’s jealousy. So he decided to have it thrown off of a cliff and killed. He summoned the mahout and asked whether he considered the elephant to be well trained.

“Indeed, he is well trained, sire,” said the mahout.

“No, he is very badly trained,” said the King.

“Sire, he is well trained,” countered the mahout.

“If he is so well trained,” said the King, “can you get him to climb to the summit of Mount Vepulla?”

“Yes, sire,” said the mahout.

“Away with you, then,” said the King.

The King got down from the elephant and had the mahout mount the elephant. The King walked to the foot of the mountain while the mahout rode the elephant up to the top of Mount Vepulla. The King and his courtiers followed him up the mountain. He had the elephant taken to the edge of a cliff.

“Now,” The King said to the mahout, “if he is as well trained as you say he is, make him stand on three legs.”

The mahout touched the animal with his goad and called to him, “Hi, my beauty. Stand on three legs.”

“Now make him stand on his two forelegs,” said the King.

The Great Being raised his hind legs and stood on his forelegs alone.

“Now have him stand on his hind legs,” said the King, and the obedient elephant raised his forelegs until he stood only on his hind legs.

“Now have him stand on one leg,” said the King, and the elephant stood on one leg.

Seeing that the elephant did not fall over the cliff, the King cried, “Now if you can, make him float in the air.”

The mahout thought to himself, “All India cannot match this elephant for the excellence of his training. Surely the King must want him to fall over the cliff and meet his death.”

So he whispered in the elephant’s ear, “My son, the King wants you to fall over and be killed. He is not worthy of you. If you have the power to travel through the air, rise up with me on your back and fly through the air to Benares.”

And the Great Being, endowed as he was with the marvelous powers which come from great virtue, rose straight up into the air. Then the mahout said, “Sire, this elephant, possessed as he is with the marvelous powers that flow from great virtue, is too good for a worthless fool like you. Only a wise and good king is worthy to be his master. When someone as worthless as you gets an elephant like this, they don’t know his value. So they lose their elephant and the glory and splendor that come with it.”

So saying the mahout, seated on the elephant’s neck, recited this stanza:

Exalted status brings a fool great woe.

He proves to be his own worst foe.

“And now, goodbye,” he said to the King.

And rising up in the air, he flew to Benares and hovered in midair over the royal courtyard. There was a great stir in the city and all cried out, “Look at the state elephant that has come through the air for our King. He is hovering over the royal courtyard!”

Figure: The Great Elephant Meets the Deserving King

Figure: The Great Elephant Meets the Deserving King

The news was rapidly sent to the King who came out and said, “If your coming is for my benefit, land here on the earth.”

And with that the Bodhisatta descended from the air. The mahout climbed down and bowed before the King. He told him the story of their leaving Rājagaha.

“It was very good of you,” said the King, “to come here.” And in his joy he had the city decorated and the elephant installed in his state stable. Then he divided his kingdom into three parts. He gave one to the Bodhisatta, one to the mahout, and he kept one for himself. And from the day of the Bodhisatta’s coming his power grew until all India came under his authority. As the Emperor of India, he was charitable and did good works until he passed away to fare according to his karma.


His lesson ended, the Master identified the birth by saying “Devadatta was the King of Magadha in those days. Sāriputta was the King of Benares. Ānanda was the mahout, and I was the elephant.”