sunset

Jataka 138

Godha Jātaka

The Lizard

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 another story in which we find an ill-behaved “holy man.” It isn’t just now that we find people who are supposed to be religious leaders behaving badly. Some things are – sadly - timeless.

With matted hair.” This story was told by the Buddha while he was at Jetavana. It is about a hypocrite. The incidents were like those above related. (This apparently refers to Jātaka 128, Biḷāra Jātaka.)


Once upon a time when Brahmadatta was reigning in Benares, the Bodhisatta was born as a lizard. Nearby a village on the borders there lived a recluse who had attained the Five Knowledges (the power of faith, the power of moral shame, the power of moral dread, the power of energy, and the power of wisdom), and he was treated with great respect by the villagers. The Bodhisatta lived in an anthill at the end of the walk where the recluse paced up and down. Two or three times each day he would go to the recluse and hear his teaching and his wisdom. Then he would pay homage to the good man and return to his own home.

After a certain time the recluse bade farewell to the villagers and went away. In his place there came another recluse to live in the hermitage. He was a rascally fellow. Assuming the holiness of the newcomer, the Bodhisatta acted towards him as he did toward the first recluse. One day there was an unexpected storm in the dry season. It drove the ants out from their hills. The lizards came out to eat them. They were caught in great numbers by the village folk. Some were cooked with vinegar and sugar for the recluse to eat.

Pleased with such a tasty dish, he asked what it was. They told him that it was a dish of lizards. He reflected that he had a remarkably fine lizard as his neighbor, and he decided to eat him. Accordingly, he prepared a pot for cooking and made the sauce to serve the lizard in. He sat at the door of his hut with a mallet hidden under his yellow robe waiting for the Bodhisatta to come. He maintained an air of perfect peace.

In the evening the Bodhisatta arrived. As he drew near, he sensed that the recluse did not seem quite the same. He had a look about him that did not bode well. In the wind that was blowing towards him from the recluse’s cell, the Bodhisatta smelled the scent of lizard’s flesh. He realized at once that the taste of lizard had made the recluse want to kill him with a mallet and eat him. So he headed homeward without calling on the recluse.

When the Bodhisatta started to walk away, the recluse realized that the lizard must have deduced his plot. But he marveled at how he could have discovered it. Determined that the lizard should not escape, he drew out the mallet and threw it, just hitting the tip of the lizard’s tail. Quick as a wink the Bodhisatta dashed into his refuge. He stuck his head out by a different hole than the one in which he had gone. He cried, “Rascally hypocrite, your robes of holiness led me to trust you, but now I know your villainous nature. What is a thief like you doing with the clothing of a holy man?” Thus upbraiding the false recluse, the Bodhisatta recited this stanza:

With matted hair and garb of skin

Why mimic a recluse’s piety?

A saint without, thy heart within

Is choked with foul impurity

(This is Dhammapada verse 394.)

Figure: The Rascally Hypocrite

Figure: The Rascally Hypocrite

In this way the Bodhisatta exposed the wicked recluse, after which he ducked back into his ant-hill. And the wicked recluse departed from that place.


His lesson ended, the Master identified the birth by saying, “The hypocrite was the wicked ascetic of those days. Sāriputta was the good recluse who lived in the hermitage before him, and I was the lizard.”