The Mahavastu (great story)

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

This page describes plagues of former days which is Chapter XXVIII-a 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 XXVIII-a - Plagues of former days

When the exalted Buddha came to the confines of Vaiśālī all the demons of the plague fled, and the great multitude in their joy asked the Exalted One, “Behold, Lord, how do all the demons flee when the Exalted One comes to the confines of Vaiśālī?” The Exalted One replied, “O sons of Vasiṣṭha, why should it be strange that the demons flee when the Tathāgata, who has won perfect enlightenment, who is a deva above other devas, enters the confines of your city? There was another occasion also on which the demons fled before me, namely, when as a seer I entered the confines of the city of Kampilla.” The Licchavis asked, “Was it so, Lord?” “Yes,” he replied.

Once upon a time, O sons of Vasiṣṭha, long ago, in the land of Pañcāla, in the city of Kampilla,[1] there reigned a king named Brahmadatta, who treated his servants kindly, and was charitable and liberal. Therefore the province of Kampilla was prosperous, flourishing, peaceful, well-supplied with food, and thickly peopled with happy subjects. Punishments were abolished, and tumults suppressed. Robbers were put down and trade thrived.

Now the son of King Brahmadatta’s priest, named Rakṣita,[2] a man of great power, who practised the ten right ways of behaviour, realising the peril in the pleasures of sense and knowing (the way of) escape from them, was passionately bent on withdrawing from the world.

Seeing, then, the peril of sensuous desires, he went to the slopes of the Himalayas and embraced the religious life of a seer. In the Himalayas he constructed a hermitage (284), making a hut of grass and leaves, and lived on roots, leaves, flowers, and fruits. Following the practice of an unorthodox[3] recluse he kept vigil during the first and last watches of the night. He mastered the four meditations and realised the five super-knowledges.

The young man who had thus attained the four meditations and the five super-knowledges, who followed the path of the ten virtues and lived the holy life, could, as he sat cross-legged in his hermitage, touch the orbs of the moon and sun with his hand. An austere recluse, a gifted seer, he had power over all beings, including the devas of Brahmā’s world.

Once on a time, a terrible plague, the work of demons,[4] broke out in the great city of Kampilla and its province. Infected by this demonic plague many thousands of beings perished. When King Brahmadatta saw this great calamity in Kampilla, he sent a messenger to Rakṣita on the slopes of the Himalayas to say that a demonic plague was raging in Kampilla and that many thousands were perishing. “Well would it be were the blessed seer to come to Kampilla and bring mercy.”

When the seer heard the messenger’s words, he left the Himalayas and came to Kampilla. As he entered its confines all the demons fled.

The seer brought well-being to Kampilla and taught the ten virtuous ways of conduct to eighty-four thousand beings.

What spell does he, who is attended by good fortune in this world and the next, pronounce or study at the due time? What knowledge is his or what learning? What does he do that he is well-guarded[5] by blessing?

He is verily[6] blessing who consistently disdains magic-working[7] devas and men, kinsmen and all other such beings, who disdains the stings and torments of life, but feels compassion for all.

(285) He verily is a blessing who calms the ill-spoken word, enduring it with the power of forbearance, and who is patient when he hears harsh and offensive speech.

He verily is a blessing to his friends who calms the ill-spoken word, who takes compassion on his friends with his bounty, but is equally charitable to enemies as to friends who are always affectionate, trusting and loyal.

He verily is a blessing to his kinsfolk who among his people and friends constantly shines in virtue, wisdom and self-control.

He verily is a blessing to kings, in whom kings, lords of the earth, put their trust, knowing him to be for all time unequalled in this world for truth and courage.

He verily is a blessing in the home whom a fond mother...[8] compassionate towards her offspring, beautiful and virtuous has borne.

(286) They verily are a blessing among arhans, who praise the Buddha after the manner of Āryans and serve him with worship, who are learned, triumphant over doubt, and emancipated.

They verily are a blessing in the village who dispense food and drink in season, sandal-wood from Kāśi, perfumes and garlands, and who are well-disposed to recluses and brahmans.

He verily is a blessing in the village who teaches men that by eschewing falsehood, slander, adultery, murder and drunkenness they shall go to heavenly bliss.

It may well occur to you, O sons of Vasiṣṭha, that the seer named Rakṣita at that time and on that occasion was somebody else. You must not think so. And why? I, O sons of Vasiṣṭha, at that time and on that occasion was the seer named Rakṣita. You may think that the king, named Brahmadatta, in the city of Kampilla at that time and on that occasion was somebody else. That, too, you must not think. King Śreṇiya Bimbisāra here at that time and on that occasion was the king named Brahmadatta in the city of Kampilla. And it was then that I as a seer entered the confines of Kampilla and all those demons of the plague fled. So now, too, do the demons flee as I enter the confines of Vaiśālī.

Not only on these occasions have all demons fled on my entering the confines of a city. There was another occasion also.

Once upon a time, O sons of Vasiṣṭha, long ago, in the city of Benares in the province of Kāśi there ruled a king who was virtuous, majestic, strong and wealthy. He had a great army, treated his servants kindly, and was charitable and liberal. (287) His city of Benares and his province of Kāśi were flourishing, prosperous, peaceful, well-supplied with food, and populous.

Now this king had an elephant[9] which was virtuous, and of great might, force, and power. Through its force and power Benares and the province of Kāśi were immune from afflictions and calamities, and when it entered the confines of other towns and provinces, they, too, were rendered immune from afflictions and calamities.

Once there broke out a demonic plague in the city of Mithilā,[10] in Videha, and many thousands perished. The citizens heard that the king of Kāśi had an elephant which was virtuous, and of great might, force and power, and that any town or village it entered was rid of afflictions and calamities. So the king of Videha said to a certain brāhman, “Go to Benares. The king of Kāśi is at all times generous, charitable and liberal. Tell him how things are here, and ask him for his elephant. If that elephant comes here, all this demonic plague will be allayed.”

The brāhman, in obedience to the king’s command, in due time reached Benares and entered it. And the king of Kāśi happened to be coming out of Benares in great regal magnificence and pomp, with the elephant going in front gaily caparisoned, covered with a net-work of gold, and radiant with splendour. The brāhman stood in front of the king of Kāśi, and greeted him with a cry of “Victory to the king!” The king, on seeing the brāhman, stopped, and asked him, “What do you want, O brāhman? What can I give to you?”

The brāhman related to the king all about the onslaught of the demons in Mithilā, and said, “O great king, allow this elephant to come and bring mercy to Mithilā.” The king was merciful and ready to succour others, and he gave the elephant, all gaily caparisoned as it was, to the brāhman, saying, “I give you, brāhman, this caparisoned elephant, clothed in a net-work of gold, regal, royal, and noble(288), as well as its driver. Go your way.”

Perhaps, again, O sons of Vasiṣṭha, you will think that at that time and on that occasion, that king in Benares was somebody else. You must not think so. The king in Benares at that time and on that occasion was King Śreṇiya Bimbisāra here. Perhaps, again, O sons of Vasiṣṭha, you will think that at that time and on that occasion the king of Mithilā was somebody else. You must not think so. And why? The king of Mithilā at that time and on that occasion was general Siṃha[11] here. You will, perhaps, suppose that the brāhman was somebody else. Really he was this Tomara the Licchavi. You will, perhaps, think that the elephant was somebody else. Verily, you must not think so. I was the king’s elephant at that time and on that occasion. Then, too, did all the demons in Mithilā flee before me when I was in the form of that elephant, just as they have done now on my entering the confines of Vaiśālī.

Moreover, O sons of Vasiṣṭha, these were not the only occasions that all demons fled on my entering the confines of a city. They did so on another occasion also.

[The jātaka of the bull]

Footnotes and references:


Pañcāla (also Uttarapañcāla) and Kampilla alternate in the Pali texts, as here, between being the name of a land and of its capital city, respectively.


See note below p. 237.


I.e. “not a Buddhist,” literally “in the way outside” (sc. Buddhist orthodoxy) bāhirakena mārgena.


Amanuṣya, “not-human,” see note p. 208.


 Implying, of course, that he is “protected” from evil spells and misfortune. Senart seems to have missed the point concerning the significance of these verses. He calls them “formules d’exorcisme,” but analogous passages in the Pali texts show that their intention is rather to confute the popular belief in the worth of omens, spells, and charms. For example in the Mahāmaṅgala Jātaka (IV. 72 ff) the Buddha, as the bodhisatta Rakkhita Kumāra (cf. the name Rakṣita here) is asked to define what constitutes things of good omen, and he replies by confuting popular notions about good luck and giving instead a list of moral qualities the possession, or the possessor, of which alone can confer blessings on men. The parallel Mahāmaṅgala Sutta of Khp. and Sn. has the same motive, as well as the Ratana Sutta of the same two works. (A version of this latter sutta is found in the Mahāvastu, below p. 242).

A few obvious emendations in the Mahāvastu text of the first stanza readily make it parallel with the corresponding text of J. The first two lines of Senart’s text are:—

Kiṃ so naro jalpamacintyakālaṃ
Katamāsya vidyā katamaṃ sya dānaṃ,

While those of J. are:—

Kiṃ su naro jappam adhicca kāle
Kaṃ vā vijjaṃ katamaṃ vā sutānam.

It is fairly obvious that acintya should be changed into adhītya and sya dānam into śrutānam.

It is apparent also that the refrain of all the following verses, svastyayanam tadāhu is out of place at the end of this first stanza, which should end with kathaṃkaro rakṣito svastyayena corresponding with the Pali kathaṃkaro sotthānena gutto, etc.

Finally, on the interpretation suggested above, rakṣita is out of place in the refrain to all the verses except the first. The verses are not concerned with the qualification of a wizard but with the blessings conferred by a holy and moral life. The blessing (svastyayana) of each stanza consists in the exercise of the virtues eulogised in each. By the omission of rakṣita (and this can be done without violence to metrical laws) the refrain becomes practically identical in form, if not in content, with that of J. Also two MSS. of the Mahāvastu omit the word in two separate stanzas.


Literally “they say it,” tadāhu.


Siddhadeva, Cf, Miln, 120, 267, and other references in Pali Dictionary.




Literally “a Nāga elephant” hastināga, but nāga here is a mere conventional epithet, denoting “fine,” “valiant,” “heroic,” etc.


Capital of the Videha country which bordered on the Ganges and was one of the two important principalities of the Vajjian confederacy. In the Indian epics Mithilā is chiefly famous as the residence of King Janaka, and it is, nowadays, generally identified with Janakapura, a small town within the Nepal border. (D.P.N.)


Pali Sīha, a Licchavi general of Vaiśālī, who was originally a Nigaṇṭha, or Jain, but on the occasion of the Buddha’s visit to Vesāli he came to him and accepted his teaching. (D.P.N.)

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