sunset

Jataka 150

Sañjīva Jātaka

The Story of Sañjīva

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 one of the iconic stories in the Pāli Canon. King Bimbisara was a good man, a good king, and a devoted supporter of the Buddha. He was killed by his son, Ajātasattu, who could not wait to become king. Ajātasattu also conspired with Devadatta to take over the Buddha’s Saṇgha, and was even involved in attempting to assassinate the Buddha. In this story, in a moment of contrition, Ajātasattu wants to consult the Buddha and perhaps gain some favor with him.

Befriend a villain.” The Master told this story at the Bamboo Grove. It is about King Ajātasattu’s adherence to false teachers. He believed in that rancorous foe of the Buddhas, the base and wicked Devadatta. In his infatuation with Devadatta and in order to honor him, he spent a large amount of money to build a monastery for Devadatta at Gayāsīsa. And following Devadatta’s wicked advice, he killed the good and virtuous old King, his father (Bimbisara), who was a devoted supporter of the Buddha. In doing so, Ajātasattu destroyed his own chance of winning goodness and virtue, and he brought great misfortune to himself.

Hearing that the earth had swallowed up Devadatta (According to the texts, this is how Devadatta died. It may have been an earthquake.), he feared a similar fate for himself. And such was the frenzy of his terror that he did not spend his time concerned with his kingdom’s welfare. He did not even sleep on his bed, but spent the nights roaming about, shaking in every limb like a young elephant in an agony of pain. In his fantasies he saw the earth yawning for him and the flames of hell darting forth. He could see himself tied down on a bed of burning metal with iron spears being thrust into his body. Like a wounded cock, he could not find peace for a single instant.

He finally decided to see the All-Wise Buddha, to reconcile with him and to ask for his guidance. But because of the magnitude of his transgressions he shied away from going into the Buddha’s presence.

When the Kattikā (the lunar month that comes between October and November) festival came around, and by night Rājagaha was illuminated and adorned like a city of the gods, the King, as he sat high on a throne of gold, saw Jīvaka Komārabhacca sitting near. (Jīvaka was the court physician and a devoted follower of the Buddha.) The idea flashed across his mind to go with Jīvaka to the Buddha. But he felt like he could not say outright that he would not go alone but wanted Jīvaka to take him. The better course he thought would be to praise the beauty of the night and then propose sitting at the feet of some sage or brahmin. Then he would ask the courtiers what teacher could give the heart peace. Of course, they would all praise their own masters, but Jīvaka would be sure extol the All-Enlightened Buddha. Then he would go to the Buddha with Jīvaka.

So he burst into many praises of the night, saying, “How fair, sirs, is this clear cloudless night! How beautiful! How charming! How delightful! How lovely! What sage or brahmin shall we seek out, to see if he may happily give our hearts peace?”

Then one minister recommended Pūraṇa Kassapa, another Makkhali Gosāla, and others Ajita Kesakambala, Kakudha Kaccāyana, Sañjaya Belaṭṭhiputta, or Nigaṇṭha Nātaputta. The King heard all these names in silence, waiting for his chief minister Jīvaka to speak. But Jīvaka, suspecting that the King’s real object was to make him speak, kept silent in order to make sure. At last the King said, “Well, my good Jīvaka, why do you have nothing to say?”

With that Jīvaka rose from his seat and with hands clasped in adoration towards the Blessed One, cried, “Sire, over there in my mango grove the All-Enlightened Buddha lives with 1,350 monks. This is the great fame that has come to him.” Jīvaka then proceeded to recite the nine titles of honor ascribed to him (1. Tathāgata, 2. Arahant, 3. fully-enlightened Buddha, 4. endowed with wisdom and conduct, 5. Well-Farer, 6. Knower of the worlds, 7. incomparable Trainer of men to be tamed, 8. Teacher of gods and humans, 9. enlightened and blessed. [DN 2.40]), beginning with “Venerable.” When he had further shown how from his birth onwards the Buddha’s powers had surpassed all the earlier signs and expectations, Jīvaka said, “Let the King go to him, the Blessed One, to hear the Dharma and to ask questions.”

His objective having been obtained, the King asked Jīvaka to have the elephants prepared, and he went in a royal procession to Jīvaka's mango grove. There he found the Buddha in a perfumed pavilion among the Saṇgha. It was as tranquil as the ocean in perfect repose. Wherever he looked, the King saw only the endless ranks of monks. They exceeding in numbers any following he had ever seen.

Pleased with the demeanor of the monks, the King bowed low and spoke words of praise. Then saluting the Buddha, he seated himself, and asked him, “What is the fruit of the holy life?”

The Blessed One gave utterance to the Sāmaññaphala Sutta (“The Fruits of the Holy Life” [DN 2]) in two sections. (The division of the Sāmaññaphala Sutta into two parts has been lost.) Glad at heart, the King made his peace with the Buddha at the close of the Sutta. He rose up and departed with solemn obeisance.

Soon after the King had left, the Master addressed the Saṇgha and said, “Monks, this King is uprooted. If this King had not killed the righteous ruler, his father, in lust for the kingdom, he would have won the arhat’s clear vision of the Dharma before he got up from his seat. But for his evil favoring of Devadatta, he has missed the fruit of stream-entry.”

On the next day the monks discussed all this and said that Ajātasattu’s crime of patricide, which was due to that wicked and sinful Devadatta, had cost him liberation, and that Devadatta had been the King’s ruin. At this point the Master entered the Dharma Hall and asked the topic of their conversation. Being told, the Master said, “This is not the first time, monks, that Ajātasattu has suffered for favoring the wicked. Similar conduct in the past cost him his life." So saying, he told this story of the past.


Once upon a time when Brahmadatta was reigning in Benares, the Bodhisatta was born into the family of a wealthy brahmin. When he came of age, he went to study at Takkasilā University. There he received a complete education. He became a teacher in Benares, and he enjoyed world-wide fame. He had 500 young brahmins as pupils. Among these was one named Sañjīva, to whom the Bodhisatta taught a spell for raising the dead to life. But though the young man was taught this spell, he was not taught the counter charm. Proud of his new power, he went to the forest with his fellow pupils to gather wood. There they came upon a dead tiger.

“Now watch me bring the tiger to life again,” he said.

(This can’t end well…)

“You can’t,” they said.

“You watch and you will see me do it.”

“Well, if you can, do it,” they said, and they climbed up a tree to watch.

Sañjīva chanted his charm and struck the dead tiger with a potsherd. The tiger jumped up and sprang at Sañjīva as quick as lightning. The tiger bit him on the throat, killing him outright. Then the tiger fell dead right then and there on the same spot as Sañjīva. So there the two lay dead side by side.

Figure: Let Dead Tigers Lie

Figure: Let Dead Tigers Lie

The young brahmins took their wood and went back to their master to whom they told the story. “My dear pupils,” he said, “see how by being wicked and showing favor to the evil, he brought this calamity on himself.” And so saying he uttered this stanza:

Befriend a villain, aid him in his need,

And, like that tiger which Sañjīva raised

To life, he devours you straight for your pains.

Such was the Bodhisatta’s lesson to the young brahmins. And after a life of almsgiving and other good deeds, he passed away to fare according to his karma.


His lesson ended the Master identified the birth by saying, “Ajātasattu was the young brahmin of those days who brought the dead tiger to life, and I was the world-renowned teacher.”