sunset

Jataka 140

Kāka Jātaka

The Crow

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


Many years ago I heard a story on public radio about a nurse who took care of terminally ill children. He used to read them fairy tales. He pointed out the difference between myths and fairy tales. He said that in myths, the heroes are gods and powerful beings. But in fairy tales the heroes are the seemingly weaker characters, and they overcome the seemingly stronger characters. Jack in the Beanstalk is a good example.

Many of the Jātaka Tales have that same quality. In this story, the hero is a simple crow, the Buddha’s manifestation in a previous life. This story shows that true power comes from one’s kindness, compassion, and good qualities, not from status or physical form.

In ceaseless dread.” This story was told by the Master while he was at Jetavana. It is about a wise counsellor. The incidents will be related in the twelfth book in connection with the Bhaddasāla Jātaka (Jātaka 465).


Once upon a time when Brahmadatta was reigning in Benares, the Bodhisatta was born as a crow. One day the King’s chaplain went out from the city to the river. There he bathed, perfumed and garlanded himself, donned his finest clothes, and then went back to the city. On the archway of the city gate there sat two crows. One of them said to his mate, “I am going to foul this brahmin's head.”

“Oh, don’t do that,” the other crow said. “This brahmin is a great man, and it is an evil thing to bring on the hatred of the great. If you anger him, he may destroy the whole of our kind.”

“I really must,” said the first crow.

“Very well, but you are sure to be discovered,” said the other crow, and he flew quickly away.

Just when the brahmin was under the battlements, down dropped the filth on him as if the crow were dropping a string of flowers. The enraged brahmin immediately developed a hatred of all crows.

Now at this time it so happened that a female slave in charge of a granary spread the rice out in the sun at the granary door. She was sitting there to guard it when she fell asleep. Just then a shaggy goat appeared and started to eat the rice until the girl woke up and drove it away. Two or three times the goat came back as soon as she fell asleep and continued to eat the rice. So when she had driven the creature away for the third time she thought that if the goat kept returning, he would eat half of her rice, and that she must do something to scare the animal away for good.

So she took a burning torch, and, sitting down, pretended to fall asleep. When the goat came back, she suddenly sprang up and hit its back with her torch. The goat’s shaggy hide immediately caught fire. It ran into a hay shed near the elephant’s stable and rolled in the hay. The shed caught fire and the flames spread to the stables. As the stables caught fire, the elephants began to suffer, and many of them were badly burned. It was beyond the skill of the elephant doctors to cure them.

When this was reported to the King, he asked his chaplain whether he knew what would cure the elephants. “Certainly I do, sire,” said the chaplain. When he was asked to explain, he said his medicine was crows’ fat. So the King ordered crows to be killed and their fat extracted.

As a result, there was a great slaughter of crows, but none of them had any fat on them. So they went on killing until dead crows lay in huge piles everywhere. And there was great fear among all crows.

Now in those days the Bodhisatta lived in a great cemetery. He was the head of 80,000 crows. One of these told him about the fear among the crows. And the Bodhisatta, feeling that he was the only one who could end this dilemma, resolved to free his kinsfolk from their great dread.

Reviewing the Ten Perfections (generosity, virtue, renunciation, wisdom, energy, patience, honesty, resolve, loving-kindness, and equanimity) and using kindness as his guide, he flew to the King’s palace. He entered at an open window and landed under the King’s throne. Immediately a servant tried to catch the bird, but the King entered the chamber and stopped him.

Gathering himself, the Great Being - remembering kindness - came out from under the King’s throne. He said to the King, “Sire, a king should remember the maxim that kings should not act from lust and other evil passions in ruling their kingdoms. Before acting, it is proper to first examine and understand the whole matter. Only then should he do that what is beneficial. If kings do not do what is beneficial, they fill thousands with a great fear, even the fear of death. And in prescribing crows’ fat, your chaplain was prompted by revenge to lie for crows have no fat.”

With these words the crow won over the King’s heart. He commanded that the Bodhisatta should be set on a throne of gold. There he was anointed beneath the wings with the choicest oils. He served the Bodhisatta the King’s own meats and drink from vessels of gold.

When the Great Being was full and at ease, the King said, “Sage, you say that crows have no fat. Why is that?”

“In this way,” the Bodhisatta answered with a voice that filled the whole palace. He proclaimed the Dharma in this stanza:

In ceaseless dread, with all mankind for foes,

Their life is passed, and hence no fat have crows.

This explanation given, the Great Being taught the King, saying, “Sire, kings should never act without examining and having all the facts.”

Figure: The Wise Crow Teaches the Dharma

Figure: The Wise Crow Teaches the Dharma

Well pleased, the King laid his kingdom at the Bodhisatta’s feet. But the Bodhisatta restored it to the King, whom he established in the Five Precepts. He encouraged the King to protect all living beings from harm. And the King was moved by these words to grant immunity to all living creatures. In particular he was unceasingly protective of crows. Every day he had six bushels of rice cooked for them. And the Great Being was given special food that was for him alone.


His lesson ended, the Master identified the birth by saying, “Ānanda was King of Benares in those days, and I was the king of the crows.”