The Mahavastu (great story)

by J. J. Jones | 1949 | 502,133 words | ISBN-10: 086013041X

This page describes jataka of the three birds which is Chapter XXVII of the English translation of the Mahavastu (“great story”), dating to the 2nd-century BC. This work belongs to the Mahasanghika school of early Buddhism and contains narrative stories of the Buddha’s former lives, such as Apadanas, Jatakas and more..

Chapter XXVII - Jātaka of the Three Birds

Once upon a time,[1] long ago, O sons of Vasiṣṭha, in the city of Benares in the province of Kāśi, there ruled a king named Brahmadatta,[2] who was virtuous, mighty, powerful, wealthy and possessing a great army. His kingdom was prosperous, flourishing and peaceful, had plenty of food, and was well and thickly peopled (272) with happy subjects. Violence and riot had ceased, robbers were held in check, and commerce thrived.

He had a numerous harem, but no son. And so the king pondered on how he could have a son. From his ministers he heard that in a hermitage on the slopes of the Himalayas there dwelt seers who were powerful, possessed the five superknowledges and had mastered the four meditations. The king should consult these as to how he could have a son. “These powerful seers,” said the ministers, “will reveal to his majesty how he may have a son.”

Then the king, with his women-folk, his daughters, his ministers and his army set out for the hermitage of these seers. On the way he with his women and his army made a halt. There he saw three birds flying out of the hollow trunk of a cotton-wood tree,[3] namely, a female owl, a female śārika,[4] and a female parrot. When he saw this, the king was seized with curiosity, and he ordered a man to go and see what there might be in the hollow trunk of the tree. The man climbed up the tree, looked, and saw three eggs. He called out, “Sire, I see three eggs.” The king replied, “Bring them down wrapped up one by one in a fold of your dress so that they do not break.” The man wrapped them up one by one in a fold of his dress and brought them down unbroken.

The king questioned his ministers, “Whose eggs are these?” But they replied, “The fowlers had better be asked; this is their province.” The fowlers were summoned and the king questioned them saying, “Ho there! fellows, find out whose eggs these are.” Now the fowlers were experienced in such a matter, and knew all birds’ eggs, and what every bird was like. So they replied, “Your majesty, of these three eggs the first is an owl’s, the second a śārikā’s and the third a parrot’s.”

The king then asked, “Can these eggs be hatched?” And the fowlers replied, “They can, your majesty, since they were brought down (273) without being damaged.” The king asked, “What treatment should be given these eggs in order that, when so treated, they be successfully hatched?” “Your majesty,” said they, “a piece of cotton cloth must be cut and arranged to hold them on all sides. Then when the eggs have been steeped in honey and ghee they must be placed on it, and a piece of cotton cloth over them will cover them like a broody hen.”

The eggs were laid down as the fowlers had directed, and by and by the king reached the hermitage of the seers. He halted his army on one side, while he himself with his women went on to the hermitage. When the seers saw the king they rose up to meet him, as was the custom of seers. “Hail and welcome, O great king,” said they, “let his majesty seat himself on this couch.” The king and his women having bowed at the feet of the seers sat down.

Now the eldest of the seers acted as chief of the household, and he, having saluted the king, asked him, “What is your majesty’s business with the seers?” The king replied, “I have a numerous harem, but none of the women has borne me a son. I have no son, so what I desire is that it be shown me how I may have a son.”

The eldest of the seers said, “Your majesty, you remember those three eggs back there which were carried down from the hollow trunk of the cotton-wood tree. Keep them wrapped up. From these will issue sons for you.” The king was amazed at the great gifts of the seers, in that, though living far away in this hermitage, they knew of those three eggs back there which he had caused to be brought down from the hollow trunk of the cotton-wood tree.

After bowing at the feet of the seers the king set out again for Benares, which he duly reached. In course of time all those three eggs were hatched. (274) From the first of them was hatched an owl chicken, from the second a śārika chicken, and from the third a parrot chicken. By the king’s command these chickens were brought up and reared. And when they were grown up all three were intelligent, sagacious, and gifted with human speech, and used to talk with one another in the language of men. King Brahmadatta, knowing the force of their sagacity, asked them one by one concerning the duty[5] of a king. And the birds explained this as they understood it to be.

When he had heard the expositions of all the three, King Brahmadatta was delighted.

In Benares there was a glorious king, Brahmadatta. This king had three sons who were clever birds.

The first was an owl, the second a śārika, the third a parrot, all three of them naturally clever.

Knowing the force of their sagacity, the king, the lord of men, rejoiced, and said, “I'll ask them all one by one and privily concerning the duties of a king.

“I’ll begin by asking the owl. ‘Greetings to you, bird. What, my son, do you consider is the duty of one who rules a kingdom?’”

The owl replied:—

“At long last my father asks me about the duties of a king. Come then, I’ll tell you, and do you listen with attentive mind.

A king should not fall into the power of wrath. Rather let him curb his anger, for, O king, neither the interests nor the duty of a man thrive when he is angry.

“But when a king is not subject to wrath, his interests, his duty and his wisdom always thrive. Hence should he restrain his anger.

(275) “When a dispute arises, he should pay equal attention to both parties to it, and hear the arguments of each and decide according to what is right.

“He should not, O king, act out of favouritism, hatred, fear or folly. He should hear the arguments of each side and act according to what is right.

“He will not go to ruin, for the intelligent man knows how to look after his interests,[6] so that, preserving his good name, he follows the road to heaven, O king.

“Thus, O king, shun what is unjust and rule in accordance with a king’s duty. So will you, mighty lord, pass thither.

“Do not delight overmuch in the excitement of sensual pleasures, for his enemy overcomes him who is drunk with pleasures.

“A king should administer all the affairs of his city and his provinces as well in righteousness.

“He should uphold his sovereignty in city and province by his good qualities, by the giving of largesse, and by performing his duties.

“Then he should maintain his influence with his court by performing his duty.[7] He should be one whose subjects, because of his bounty, cannot be alienated from him.

“Know of everybody, O king, whether he is loyal or disloyal, in the army, among your servants, in the city and in the provinces.

“While keeping an eye on state affairs, a king should dispense gladness to all. He should keep all from doing violence, and show that it is righteousness that brings reward.

“As in the days of former kings large bodies of immigrants came together to be admitted into the realm, so do you admit them, O king.

“O lord of men, always show favour to the poor and protect the rich (276) who are your subjects.

“A king who is fond of gambling with his wealth and loves the wives of others, becomes hateful to his subjects, and soon loses his life.

“A king, on the other hand, who is not covetous, but is prudent, and is always indifferent to the wives of others, becomes dear to his subjects, and, my father, long does he live.

“O king, do not foster hostility towards neighbouring kings. Whosoever hates, will be repaid with hatred by his foes.

“Cultivate ties of friendship with neighbouring kings, O mighty lord, for other peoples honour kings who are steadfast in friendship.

“Do not, O king, talk at great length[8] on all sorts of topics, but utter your judgments at the appropriate time and make them bear on the point at issue.

“Keep your counsel secret, and always conceal it, O king. For princes who reveal their counsel come to great harm.

“But a king who keeps his counsel secret wins great glory. He falls not into the power of his enemy, nor does he have any regrets afterwards.

“Those who are not confused in their judgment nor loose of talk, but are full of purposefulness, do not excite the anger of enemies, as the scorpions excited that of the snakes.[9]

“As for the man who keeps all relating to his counsel secret, his foe, (277) being rid of fear, becomes like one of his subjects.

“Always, O king, give your protection to those who live justly. For the wheel of power turns in dependence on the wheel of justice.[10]

“By the power of those who live righteously, all ills are assuaged. The devas send rain in season, and then the corn-crops grow.

“It is thus, O king, that the deeds done by virtuous men are a source of blessing in this world and of happiness in the world beyond.

“A king should therefore see to it that his acts are just. For, O king, your good is also that of your kingdom.

“Be circumspect in all things, O lord of men, and diligent in the care of your treasury and granary.

“Such is my salutary counsel. Do you, O king, accept it fully, and act in accordance with it.

“If you follow it, glory and renown will be yours. Your kingdom will be peaceful, prosperous, flourishing and populous.”

When he had heard the owl’s excellent words, so full of truth and profit, the king said, “I’ll ask the śārika. Tell me, śārika, what the duties of a king are.”

The young śārika replied:—

“At long last, father, you ask me about the duties of a king. Come, then, I’ll tell you. Do you listen with attentive mind.

“This world, father, rests on two foundations. The acquisition, without avarice,[11] of wealth, and the conservation of what is gained.

“Therefore, O lord of men, to acquire wealth and conserve what you have gained (278) make firm efforts within the bounds of righteousness.

“Sire, the realm of that king who rules unrighteously becomes weakened and rent on all sides.

“But, sire, the realm of the king who rules righteously is strong, prosperous, flourishing and populous.

“Reprove those who merit reproof, commend those who are worthy of commendation, help those who deserve help, and always find pleasure in doing kindness.

“The king who knows not how to apportion blame and approval, nor to dispense help and kindness, loses his wealth.

“Do not appoint as overlords of village or province even your own sons and brothers, if they be unscrupulous, violent and base.[12]

“A king should exercise leniency for the sake of parents. For those who are disgraced and driven from their inheritance become dangerous enemies.[13]

“A kingdom where insidious enemies are at work becomes split up into five[14] realms. Do not trust them, and do not be led astray by them.

“The noble who is led astray and obeys the wills of others falls into the power of his enemies, and later has cause for regret.

“To win power for yourself, and out of regard for your kingdom, examine all matters yourself, even though you thus incur the displeasure of your foes.

“Speak, whether by day or by night, only after due deliberation; for men stand about to listen, and will use what they hear to confound you.

(279)“He who is brave only and no more soon perishes. The rich man goes on winning power. He who has command of wealth and the power of eloquence will do you harm if he becomes offended with you.

“Therefore, along with his wife and children, banish the wily man who has much wealth at his disposal, the rich and plausible demagogue, and the crafty man however slender his means.

“Sire, appoint as your minister a man who is wise and thinks of what is beneficial, who is not covetous, but is loyal and a counsellor to the realm.

“When ministers are imperfect in wisdom, and set small store on it, kingdoms and the heads of kingdoms have their troubles increased.

“O king, through the power of the wisdom of intelligent ministers kingdoms and the heads of kingdoms grow in prosperity.

“A covetous and foolish minister, O lord of men, is of no avail to king or kingdom.

“Therefore, O lord of men, appoint as your minister a man who is not covetous, but is prudent and devoted in counsel, a guide to the realm.

“Your eye is not as good as a spy; your policy is not as good as a spy. Therefore a king should employ a spy in all his affairs.

“O king, keep firm control over all your followers in your kingdom, both military and civilian, in all they have to do.

“Therefore, O king, you should find a wise door-keeper. He will exercise vigilance, and this will ensure your ease.

“Such is my salutary counsel (280). Do you, O king, accept it fully, and act in accordance with it.

“If you will follow this, glory and renown will be yours. Your kingdom will be peaceful, prosperous, flourishing and populous.”

“Now has the owl as well as the śārika been questioned and they have given their answers to me. Next I ask you, parrot, concerning the true duties of a king.

“Clever and sensible parrot, tell me truly what are the kinds of kingly power[15] a king should desire to have.”

The parrot replied:—

“O lord of men, a five-fold power is desirable for a king. Be attentive and hearken to my words.

“The first power is innate in him; the second power is the power of his sons, the third that of relations and friends.

“The fourth, O king, is that of his army, and regard as the fifth the matchless power of wisdom.

“Whosoever, O king, has this five-fold power, his kingdom is firm, prosperous, rich and populous.

“The force of wisdom is powerful above all the others Through it a man accomplishes all he has to do, O lord of men.

“By it he shuns what is not to be done, and accomplishes what is to be done. It brings blessings to himself, to his relations and friends, and to the whole kingdom.

“A man who is deficient in wisdom in a king’s affairs, even though he be of high birth, is not helpful to the king, nor dear to the kingdom.

(281 ) “Soon, O king, such a realm is destroyed by rival kings. The subjects become alienated and seek another lord.

“Exceeding great honour has the king who is wise and sensible, who appoints as his ministers men who are good, courageous, brave and discerning.

“Glory will be his in this world and the heavenly way in the world beyond, if he has shunned unrighteousness and pursued righteousness.

“Do the right by your mother and father, O great king, for the king who has walked in righteousness in this world[16] goes to heaven.[17]

“Do the right by your son and wife, O great king, for the king who has walked in righteousness in this world goes to heaven.

“Do the right by your friend and minister, O great king, for the king who has walked in righteousness in this world goes to heaven.

“Do the right by recluse and brāhman, O great king, for the king who has walked in righteousness in this world goes to heaven.

“Do the right by town and country, O great king, for the king who has walked in righteousness in this world goes to heaven.

“Do the right in this world and beyond, O great king, for the king who has walked in righteousness in this world goes to heaven.

“Such is my salutary counsel. Do you, O king, accept it fully, and act in accordance with it.

“If you will follow this, glory and renown will be yours, and your kingdom will be peaceful, prosperous, flourishing and populous.”

Then thus spoke to them illustrious Brahmadatta (282), “Wholly wise are you, my sons, clever and sensible.

“I shall act in accordance with the words of counsel spoken by you all. For I have learnt from your talk on justice what is profitable for the life beyond.”

Calling to mind a former existence and a former birth, the Exalted One, the Master, explained this Jātaka to his monks:

“When of yore I lived in one of my intermediate existences (saṃsāra), I was then this parrot, Śāriputra was the śārika, Ānanda was the owl, and Śuddhodana was Brahmadatta.”

Thus does the Exalted One, now exempt from trouble, fear and sorrow, relate to his monks his rebirths, his endless, toilsome faring up and down in the past.

Here ends the avadāna of the Mahāvastu called the “Jātaka of the Three Birds.”

Then the Bodhisattva putting off his parrot nature became a young man, and taught the ten right ways of behaviour.

Ten powers[18] are declared by the Buddha, the kinsman of the sun, to be the attributes of the valiant Bodhisattvas. Hear me as I recount them.

The wise Bodhisattva has power over his own life, and the power of intelligence. He has won power over rebirth, over his acts and his thoughts. He has the power of dharma, and of magic, and power over his own purpose. The wise Bodhisattva has power over time and place. These are the ten powers.

(283) Relying steadfastly and confidently on these ten powers, the valiant men bring to moral maturity[19] thousands of koṭis of beings.

The Bodhisattvas purify the Buddha-field[20]; they are guides. The Bodhisattvas are radiant and filled with great compassion.

When this Jātaka was finished eighty-four thousands were brought to moral maturity and a full comprehension of dharma.[21]

Footnotes and references:


This story closely resembles Jātaka 521.


Several kings of this name are mentioned, and it was probably a dynastic name.


Sāmbalī, Sanskrit śālmali. Cf. Pali simbali.


The maynah bird, Pali sālikā, or sāliyā.


Dharma. Kṛtya is also used in the following verses.


Literally “for he is intelligent in that he does what profits him” arthakāraṇāt. Senart plausibly suggests °kāriṇo—“for the intelligent man does what profits him.”


Vaṭṭa, explained by Senart as the Pali orthography of vṛtta. If so, perhaps “propriety” is a better translation than “duty.”


Literally “do not be one whose utterance is spread out” prakīrṇoccāraṇo.” Cf. avikīrṇavācā, “loose of talk,” immediately below, and the English “to spread oneself.”


An obscure reference. The enmity of the mongoose or Indian ichneumon and the snake is, of course, a commonplace of Indian fable, e.g. Hitopadeśa IV, fable 5, and Pañcatantra, 1. fable 20.


Balacakraṃ hi niśrāya dharmacakraṃ pravartate. Strictly speaking, as niśrāya normally is a post-position, “leaning on,” the meaning of this sentence should be “the wheel of justice turns in dependence on the wheel of power.” But such a doctrine of “might is right” is hardly in keeping with the tone of the rest of the passage. Niśrāya is, therefore, here taken as a preposition. For niśrāya see note p. 114.


Reading alubdha for alabdha of the text.


Chava, cf. Pali chava (= śava) (1) “corpse”; (2) adj. “vile,” etc.


The text here is very uncertain.


For the use of “five” as a significant number see references in Pali Dictionary.


Balaṃ... rājadharmam.


Or “in this respect,” iha. So for the succeeding stanzas.


With this and the succeeding stanzas compare those at J. 5. 123, 223, and 6. 94.


Vaśita. These vaśitas, being attributes of a Bodhisattva, are not to be found in the Pali texts. There is, however, a more or less similar list in the Mahāvyutpatti (see Böhtlingk and Roth s.v.). They may be compared, but are not to be confused, with the ten balas of a Tathāgata. The whole passage, however, is obviously out of place here.




See note p. 95.


 Reading, on Senart’s suggestion, caturaśītisahasrehi dharma abhisamita abhūt, literally “dharma was comprehended by 84,000.” Caturaśītisahasrāṇi must be supplied with paripācitā in the preceding stanza. Abhisamita is the past participle of abhisameti. (See note p. 131.)

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