Jataka 155

Gagga Jātaka

Gagga’s Story

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 story is about a combination of superstition and social conventions. In this story, the Buddha admonishes his monks for saying that ancient Indian equivalent of “Bless you” when someone sneezes. On the other hand, because it was a social convention, and presumably people were saying it to be polite, he allowed them to respond when common people (non-monastics) said this to them. So it is an interesting balance in the Saṇgha. The monks are instructed not to respond to each other’s sneezes in this way. On the other hand, they are told to behave politely for this social convention.

I had to laugh when I read this story. It has been so ingrained into me that I always say, “Bless you“ when someone sneezes. I was once severely chastised for doing so (!) for the same reason that the Buddha does to his monks when they do it. However, I reserve the right to – as the Buddha also says – behave politely and acknowledge a sneeze using the social convention!

Gagga, live a hundred years.” The Master told this story when he was staying in the monastery built by King Pasenadi in front of Jetavana. (The Jātaka commentaries say that this monastery was called “Rājakārāma.”) It is about a sneeze.

One day, we are told, as the Master gave a talk to four persons who were sitting around him, he sneezed. “Long life to the Blessed One! Long life to the Buddha!” the monks all cried aloud, and they created a big fuss.

The noise interrupted the talk. The Master said to the monks, “Why, monks, if one cries ‘Long life!’ on hearing a sneeze, would a man live or die any differently because of that?”

They answered, “No, no, Sir.”

He went on, “You should not cry ‘Long life’ for a sneeze, monks. Whosoever does so is guilty of an unwholesome act.”

It is said that at that time, when a monk sneezed, people used to call out, “Long life to you, Sir!” But the monks had their principles and did not answer. Everybody was annoyed by this. They asked, “Why is it that the priests around Buddha the Sakya prince do not answer when they sneeze, and someone wishes them long life?”

All this was told to the Blessed One. He said, “Monks, common people are superstitious. When you sneeze and they say, ‘Long life to you, Sir!’ I permit you to answer, ‘The same to you’.” Then the monks asked him, “Sir, when did people begin to answer ‘Long life’ and ‘The same to you’?” The Master said, “That was long, long ago.” And he told them this story from the past.

Once upon a time, when Brahmadatta was the King of Benares, the Bodhisatta was born as a brahmin’s son in the kingdom of Kāsi. His father was a lawyer whose name was “Gagga.”. When the lad was sixteen years old or so, his father gave him a fine jewel.

They both traveled through town after town, village after village, until they came to Benares. There the man had a meal cooked in the gatekeeper’s house. But as he could find nowhere to stay, he asked where there was lodging to be had for wayfarers who came too late? (Indian cities had a strict curfew.) The people told him that there was a building outside the city, but that it was haunted. Nonetheless he could stay there if he liked. The boy said to his father, “Do not fear any goblin, father! I will subdue him and bring him to your feet.” So he persuaded his father to stay at the haunted building, and they went to the place together.

When they got to the haunted building, the father lay down on a bench. His son sat beside him, rubbing his feet.

Now the goblin that haunted the place had received it for twelve years’ of service that he had given to Vessavaṇa (Vessavaṇa is one of the Four Heavenly Kings, which is in the realm just above the human realm in the Buddhist cosmology. He rules the northern direction and his subjects are the yakkhas.) He lived on the central rafter of the hut.

A condition of his staying at the building was that if any man who entered it should sneeze, and if long life was wished for him, the goblin should answer, “Long life to you!” If anyone did not respond in the proper way by saying, ”The same to you,” the goblin had the right to eat them.

He decided to make the father of the Bodhisatta sneeze. Accordingly, using his magical power he raised a cloud of fine dust that entered the man’s nostrils. And as he lay on the bench, he sneezed. The son did not cry “Long life!” and down came the goblin from his perch, ready to devour his victim. But the Bodhisatta saw him descend, and he thought, “There is no doubt that he made my father sneeze. This must be a goblin that eats everyone who does not say ‘Long life to you’.” Addressing his father, he repeated this verse as follows:

“Gagga, live a hundred years, aye, and twenty more, I pray!

May no goblin eat you up. Live a hundred years, I say!”

The goblin thought, “I cannot eat this one because he wished ‘Long life to you.’ But I shall eat his father.” He went up to the father. But the man determined the truth of the matter. “This must be a goblin,” he thought, “who eats anyone who does not reply, ‘Long life to you, too!’” And so addressing his son, he repeated the second verse:

“You too live a hundred years, aye, and twenty more, I pray!

Poison be the goblin’s food. Live a hundred years, I say!”

The goblin heard these words. He turned away, thinking “I cannot eat either one of them.” But the Bodhisatta asked him, “Come, goblin, how is it that you eat the people who enter this building?”

“I earned the right because I gave twelve years of service to Vessavaṇa.”

“What, are you allowed to eat everybody?”

“I can eat anyone who does not say ‘The same to you’ when another wishes them long life.”

“Goblin,” said the boy, “you have done some wicked deeds in former lives that have caused you to be born fierce, cruel, and a bane to others. If you do the same kind of thing now, you will continue to pass from darkness to darkness. Therefore from now on abstain from such things as taking life.”

Explaining Virtue to the Goblin

Figure: Explaining Virtue to the Goblin

With these words he humbled the goblin. He scared him with a fear of rebirth in hell. Then he established him in the Five Precepts and made him as respectful as an errand-boy.

On the next day, the people came and saw the goblin. They learned how the Bodhisatta had subdued him. They went and told the King, “My lord, some man has subdued the goblin. He made him as respectful as an errand-boy!”

So the King sent for him. He gave him the post as Commander-in-Chief. He heaped honors upon the father. He made the goblin the Treasurer. And after giving alms and doing good the goblin departed to swell the hosts of heaven.

In this way the Master finished this story which he told to explain when the custom first arose of answering “Long life” by “The same to you.” He identified the birth, saying, “In those days, Ānanda was the King, Kassapa was the father, and I was his son.”