sunset

Jataka 163

Susīma Jātaka

King Susīma

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 of dubious Buddha Dharma. Again, however, judge for yourself. But it is hard to believe that the Buddha would encourage competition with other religious groups. In fact, he famously encouraged his lay supporters if they had previously supported another teacher to continue to support them. Still, the inspiring part of the story is the young brahmin’s determination to win back his family legacy.


100 black elephants.” The Master told this story while he was at Jetavana. It is about the arbitrary giving of alms.

We hear that at Sāvatthi, a family used to sometimes give alms to the Buddha and his friends and sometimes they used to give to the other sects. Sometimes the givers would form themselves into groups. The people of one street would get together, or all of the inhabitants would collect voluntary offerings and present them.

On this occasion all the inhabitants had made such a collection. But the people were divided. Some demanded that this collection be given to the rival sect, while some spoke for those who followed the Buddha. Each party stuck to their position. The supporters of the rival sects voting for them, and the supporters of Buddha voted for the Buddha’s Saṇgha. Then it was proposed to vote on the question, and it so happened that those who were for the Buddha were in the majority.

So their plan was followed, and the followers of the rival sects could not present the gifts. Instead they were given to the Buddha and his disciples.

The citizens invited the Buddha’s followers. For seven days they gave rich offerings. On the seventh they gave the last of the articles they had collected. The Master returned thanks after which he taught them about the fruits of the path. Then he returned to Jetavana. And when his followers had done their duties, he delivered a Buddha’s discourse standing before his scented chamber, after which he retired.

In the evening the monastics discussed the matter in the Dharma Hall. “Friend, how the rival disciples tried to prevent these offerings from coming to the arahants! Yet they couldn’t do it. All of the offerings were laid before the arahants’ feet. Ah, how great is the Buddha’s power!”

Just then the Master arrived. He asked, “What are you discussing?”

They told him.

“Monastics,” he said, “this is not the first time that the rival disciples have tried to prevent an offering that should have been made to me. They did the same before. But these offerings always were finally laid at my feet.” So saying, he told them a tale of long ago.


Once upon a time a King named “Susīma” ruled over Benares. The Bodhisatta was the son of his chaplain’s lady. When he was 16 years old, his father died. The father had been the Master of Ceremonies in the King’s elephant festivals. He alone had made all of the decisions about how to decorate the elephants for the festival. By this means he earned as much as ten million gold coins at each festival.

At the time of our story the time for an elephant festival came round. And the brahmins all flocked to the King with these words, “O great King! The time for an elephant festival has come, and the festival should be organized. But your chaplain’s son is very young. He does not know either the three Vedas or the lore of elephants (The elephant training manual). Shall we conduct the ceremony?” To this the King agreed.

The brahmins went away delighted. “Aha,” they said, “we have kept this young man from performing the festival. We will do it ourselves and keep the profit!”

But the Bodhisatta’s mother heard that there was to be an elephant festival in four days. “For seven generations,” she thought, “we have managed the elephant festivals from one generation to the next. The old tradition will pass away from us, and our livelihood will melt away!”

She wept and wailed. “Why are you crying?” her son asked. She told him. He said, ‘Well, mother, should I conduct the festival?”

“What, you? You don't know the three Vedas or the elephant lore. How can you do it?”

“When are they going to hold the festival, mother?”

“Four days from now, my son.”

“Where can I find teachers who know the three Vedas by heart, and all the elephant lore?”

“Just such a famous teacher, my son, lives at Takkasilā University. That is in Gandhāra. It is 10,000 kilometers from here.”

“Mother,” he said, “we will not lose our hereditary right. It will take me one day to get to Takkasilā. It will take one night for me to learn the three Vedas and the elephant lore. On the next day I will travel home, and on the fourth day I will manage the elephant festival. Cry no more!” With these words he comforted his mother.

Early the next morning he broke his fast and set out all alone for Takkasilā University. He reached it in a single day. He found the teacher, greeted him, and sat on one side.

“Where have you come from?” the teacher asked.

“From Benares, teacher.”

“Why did you come here?”

“I want to learn the three Vedas and the elephant lore from you.”

“Certainly, my son, you shall learn it.”

“But, sir,” our Bodhisatta said, “my situation is urgent.” Then he told him the whole matter, adding, “In a single day I have traveled 10,000 kilometers. Give me your time for this one night only. Three days from now there will be an elephant festival. I will learn everything after one lesson.”

The teacher consented. Then the boy washed his master’s feet, and gave him a fee of 1,000 gold coins. He sat down on one side and learned everything by heart. As the day broke, he finished the three Vedas and the elephant lore.

“Is there any more to learn?” he asked.

“No, my son, you have learned it all.”

The Quick Learner

Figure: The Quick Learner

After an early meal he took his leave. And in a single day he was back in Benares. He greeted his mother. “Have you learned your lesson, my boy?” she said. He answered “yes,” and she was delighted to hear it.

On the next day, the festival of the elephants was prepared. A hundred elephants were prepared. They wore gold ornaments and gold flags. They were covered with a plethora of fine gold, and the palace courtyard was duly decorated. The brahmins stood there in their fine gala dress, thinking to themselves, “Now we will perform the ceremony. We will do it!”

Shortly the King arrived dressed in all his splendor. The Bodhisatta was likewise dressed like a prince. He was at the head of his staff. He approached the King with these words, “Is it really true, O great King, that you are going to deprive me of my right? Are you going to give other brahmins the right to manage this ceremony? Have you said that you mean to give them the various ornaments and vessels that are used?” And he repeated the first stanza as follows:

“100 black elephants, with tusks all white

Are yours, all shiny, gold, and bright.

To the brahmins you give festival oversite,

Forgetting my old ancestral right.”

King Susīma, thus addressed, then repeated the second stanza:

“100 black elephants, with tusks all white,

Are mine, all shiny, gold, and bright.

To the brahmins I take back the oversite,

My lad, remembering your ancestral right.”

Then a thought struck the Bodhisatta. He said, “Sire, if you do remember my ancestral right and your ancient custom, why do you abandon me and make others the masters of your festival?”

“Why, I was told that you did not know the three Vedas or the elephant lore. That is why I have ordered the festival to be managed by others.”

“Very well, sire. If there is one among all these brahmins who can recite a portion of the Vedas or the elephant lore better than me, let him stand forward! Not in all India is there anyone who knows the three Vedas and the elephant lore for the ordering of an elephant festival!” Proud as a lion’s roar rang out the answer!

Not a single brahmin stepped forward to contend with him. So the Bodhisatta kept his ancestral right and conducted the ceremony. And laden with riches, he returned to his own home.


When the Master ended this story, he taught the Four Noble Truths. Some entered on the First Path (stream-entry), some on the Second (once-returner), some the Third (non-returner), and some the Fourth (arahant). The he identified the birth: “Mahāmāyā was at that time my mother (the Buddha’s biological mother), King Suddhodana was my father (the Buddha’s biological father), Ānanda was King Susīma, Sāriputta was the famous teacher and I was the young brahmin.”