Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

by Gelongma Karma Migme Chödrön | 2001 | 940,961 words

This page describes “jataka of the red fish” as written by Nagarjuna in his Maha-prajnaparamita-sastra (lit. “the treatise on the great virtue of wisdom”) in the 2nd century. This book, written in five volumes, represents an encyclopedia on Buddhism as well as a commentary on the Pancavimsatisahasrika Prajnaparamita.

Once in time gone by (bhūtapūrvam atīte ’dhvani), the entire population was stricken with a disease that turned them yellow and pallid (pitapānḍukaroga). The Bodhisattva then changed into the red fish (rohitamatsva), gave his own flesh (svaka māmsa) to the sick people and saved them from this disease.

Notes on this Jātaka:

The mention of the yellow sickness and the red fish allows us to recognize the avadāna of king Padmaka, told in many sources:

1) Avadānaśataka, I, p. 168–172, no. 31: Padmaka (transl. Feer, p. 114–116). – Siuan tsi po yuan king, T 200, k. 4, p. 217a1–c4: no. 31:

King Lien-houa (Padmaka) gave up his body and became the red fish.

In olden times, the Bodhisattva was Padmaka, king of Benares. An autumnal epidemic, the yellow sickness (pāṇduroga), broke out in the city. The king himself began to take care of his subjects, but all remedies were in vain. The doctors advised him to capture the fish called Rohita to cure the sickness but no one succeeded in capturing it. Faced with the distress of his subjects, the king sacrificed his life for them by wishing to appear as the great Rohita fish in the Vālukā river of Benares.

He dropped on the terrace of his palace, immediately died and appeared in the river as the great fish “like unto ambrosia (amṛta)”.

The inhabitants of the city ran up with their knives to cut up the still living fish. For twelve years he filled beings with his own flesh and blood, never letting his mind stray from supreme bodhi.

When the disease died out, the Rohita fish raised his voice and said:

“I am king Padmaka; for you I have sacrificed my own life and have taken on this new form of existence. When I attain supreme perfect bodhi, I will liberate you from the ultimate sickness (atyantavyādhi) – i.e., saṃsāra – and establish you in nirvāṇa.”

2) Bodhisattvāvadānakalpalatā, 99th pllava: Padmakāvdāna, ed. Dass, II, p. 926–929, ed. Vaidya, II, p. 544:

abhavaṃ padmakāmhyo ‘haṃ vārāṇasyāṃ nṛpaḥ purū |
sarvārtiharaṇāsaktaḥ prajānāṃ janakopamaḥ || 4 ||
tenārtipraṇidānena vārāyāḥ sarito ‘mbhasi |
kṣaṇenaivāham abhavaṃ sumahān rohitas timiḥ || 10 ||

3) P’ou sa pen hing king, T 155, k. 3, p. 119b18–29:

During an epidemic, the king Po-mi (Padmaka?) uprooted and burned the leaves of a tree that caused the sickness, then he threw himself into the water, changed into a fish and invited his subjects to eat him. All the sick people who ate his flesh were cured.

4) Khotanese Jātakastava, ed. and transl. by Dresden, p. 439, 39th story:

As King Padmaka, you saw the people in distress, ill with hunger, without refuge, troubled. A red fish you became like a mountain of flesh. The people ate you; they became quite well.

In yet other circumstances, the Bodhisattva changed into a great fish to save living beings, but it is not a question either of Padmaka or Rohita.

5) Rāṣṭrapālaparipṛcchā, ed. Finot, p. 26, l. 7–8;Transl. Ensink, p. 26:

bodhicariṃ caramāṇahu pūrvaṃ
matsya babhūva yadā jalacāri |
tyakta mayāśraya satvahitāya
bhakṣita prāṇisahasraśatebhiḥ ||

6) Lieou tou tsi king, T 152, k. 1, p. 1c26–2b7 (transl. Chavannes, Contes, p. 11–14), Story no. 3: Daridrajātaka:

Once the Bodhisattva was a poor man who, in order to prevent the fish from devouring one another, threw himself into the sea and offered himself to the big fish. He was reborn as king of the sturgeons; his body measured several lis. Finding at the seashore a kingdom that was suffering from drought, he climbed out onto the shore. The people of the land began to devour him to maintain their lives. Although they ate his flesh for many months, the fish lived forever.

7) Chen king, T 154, k. 5, p. 107b8–21: chap. 55 P’i yu king (cf. Chavannes, Contes, IV, p. 87).

In a land close to the ocean, in order to save his people who were reduced to famine by drought, the king Sa-ho-ta (Sarvadatta?) stopped eating; after seven days he died and came back as a gigantic fish whose flesh nourished the people.

Above, p. 714F, the Traité mentioned this king Sarvadatta or Sarvaṃdada to whom several jātakas are dedicated; see also the Khotanese Jātakastava, ed. Dresden, p. 433, 24th story.

8) Hien yu king, T 202, k. 7, p. 402a5–b24, chap. 38 entitled Chö-t’eou-lo-kien-ning (Śārdūlakarṇa); ḥDzaṅs blun (Tib. Trip. 1008) oder Der Weise und der Thor übersetzt und herausgegeben von J. J. Schmidt, ch. XXVI.

In order to save his people from a long drought, Śārdūlakarṇa, king of Jambudvīpa, jumped from the top of a tree into a great river where he was reborn as an immense fish. For twelve years, the inhabitants were able to feed on his flesh.

The theme of the Bodhisattva-fish is exploited in the mural paintings of central Asia (E. Waldschmidt, Über die Darstellungen…, in Buddhistische Spätantike, VI, p. 59–60., fig. 198–200) and the sculptures of Barabodur (Krom and van Erp, Barabudur Archaeological description, 1927, p. 430, tables IBb 74–76).

9) In the form of a snake, the Bodhisattva repeated the deeds he had accomplished in the form of a fish. See Si-yu-ki (T 2087, k. 3, p. 883a24–26) where it is said that in the valley of Swat, near a monastery, there is the great stūpa of Sou-mo. When the Tathāgata was once Śakra Devendra, the world was suffering from an epidemic. Śakra had pity on beings and changed himself into a sou-mo snake; all those who ate his flesh were cured.

In this regard, T. Watters, On Yuang Chwang’s Travels, I, p. 236, mentions a Jātaka of the Bodhisattva taking place in the land of Kuru, district of Thanesvar, capital Indraprastha. According to the Ratnakūṭa, T 310, k. 8, p. 44c17–29, when the Bodhisattva was Śakra devendra, he went to his country and changed into a reptile called Jen-leang. Rising up into the sky, he addressed the inhabitants of Jambudvīpa in stanzas, promising to cure them if they cut off his flesh and ate it. The sick people gathered there in crowds in the land of Kuru, cut up the reptile and ate it. All were cured. The flesh of the snake underwent no decrease and unendingly renewed itself.