The Mahavastu (great story)

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

This page describes jataka of shiri which is Chapter XII 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 XII - The Jātaka of Śiri

The monks said to the Exalted One, “It was by using his energy that the Exalted One won Yaśodharā.” The Exalted One replied, “Monks, this was not the first occasion on which I won Yaśodharā by using my energy. I did so on another occasion.” The monks asked, “Was there another occasion Lord?” The Exalted One replied, “Yes, monks.”

Once upon a time, monks, long ago, in the city of Vāravāli[1] there dwelt a brāhman who was master of the three Vedas, the indexes, the ritual, and the fifth branch of study, that is, traditional lore, and skilled in phonology, etymology and grammar[2]. As a teacher of the Brāhmaṇas and Vedas he taught the Vedas and mantras to five hundred young brāhmans. This brāhman had a daughter named Śiri, who was amiable, beautiful and endowed with perfect and pleasant beauty of complexion.

(90) Now this brāhman, who was a preceptor,[3] received a message from one who was having a sacrifice performed in a town beyond the sea. “Come yourself,” said the message, “or send someone. I’ll requite you.”

The brāhman asked his five hundred pupils, “Who of you will venture to go to a town beyond the sea, to a certain merchant there? To him who will go I shall give my daughter Śirikā.”

There was a young brāhman there who was clever, active and energetic, and he was deeply in love with Śiri. He was ready to venture, and said “Master, I will go.” And when the master had given him a letter he went on board a ship and departed.

In due time he reached the town beyond the sea, and handed the letter to the merchant. When the merchant had read the master’s letter he gave the young man precious stones, gold and silver, and dismissed him. The latter left the town beyond the sea as soon as he could and embarked on a ship for Vāravāli. In due time he arrived there. When he was about to step from the ship on to a landing boat,[4] in the crush his parcel fell into the sea.

The young brāhman reflected, “After I have with so much effort brought this parcel from that town beyond the sea, it falls into the sea as I am stepping on board the landing boat. By what means can I recover this prize? There is no other means but for me to drain the sea.” He took a large copper bucket,[5] and came to the sea-shore. He let down the bucket at the edge of the sea and tucked up his tunic at the waist.

Some devas of the sea disguised as brāhmans came on the scene and asked, “What is this for?” The young brāhman replied, “I am going to drain (91) the sea.” The brāhmans replied, “The sea can not be drained.”

The young brāhman said:

“Days and nights are long, O Brahmā devas,[6] and this bucket is big. For a skilful and diligent man, Siri is not hard to win.”

List to the tale of the energy of the Best of Men,[8] his power, his fortitude, and his enterprise, when as a brāhman youth in a former life he crossed the sea to win this prize.

Then when his treasure was lost and he was about to drain the ocean dry? [he prayed to the devas of the sea]. “Do all ye can,” [said he], “that I may recover my treasure. Be not heedless, lest you come to harm.”[9]

The Suvarṇa[10] devas, Asuras, Yakṣas and Rākṣasas and all beings that dwelt in the sea were terrified, so that the heaped up waters gave forth a loud roar and shout.

Then a female devā emerged in terror from the sea and looked about her in all directions. And she saw a young brāhman daring to drain and exhaust the ocean.

She came out of the water and standing before him asked, “Young man, what do you seek from the sea? (92) Tell us, and we shall give it to you, lest we suffer misfortune and be destroyedI.”[11]

“O devā,” said he, “I have lost my treasure here, and I am searching for it in the sea. I am trying to recover it by drawing off the water. For that purpose I would drain all the great ocean.”

“Many foolish men live in the world who are utterly confused as to what is good and right. As for you, young man, how can you be fully intelligent when you seek a thing so hard to find in the world?

“If eighty-four pūgas[12] of water were withdrawn it would make no perceptible difference.[13] Below the surface there is endless water.[14] How can you drain it all away?

“Many streams flow into the ocean and ceaseless rain falls upon it. The ocean is the home of mighty beings.[15] How can the law[16] be annulled?[17]

“You who in your folly commit this wrongful act ere long will be distressed in limb. You cannot drain the ocean as though it were a pool. Young man, this deed does not become you.”

(93) “O devā, I know the reason why you upbraid and admonish me. If the ocean were effaced it would no longer scoop out a channel for its stream nor uproot trees. No longer would there be an obstacle against reaching the shore beyond.[18]

“I shall not from indolence abandon my treasure. Having won the prize I shall not abate the energy wherewith I won it. Let the beings of the sea do this my bidding. This and nothing else I would declare.[19] I would not desist even before a raging fire; I would overturn the earth and moon and stars.”

The devas then reflected, “We must restore this treasure to the young man lest he drain the whole ocean. Here, take this precious treasure, and depart, young man, as one who has made a prosperous journey.”[20]

Always do the energetic have success in life, but adversity is the lot of the lazy. And the young man by virtue of his energy went his way in possession of his prize.

The Exalted One, the Master, calling to mind a former abode and a former life related this jātaka to his monks.

After a discussion of the skandhas, the dhātus, the āyatanas and the ātman,[21] the Exalted One explained the meaning of this jātaka.

(94) When of yore I lived in one of my existences which have neither beginning nor end (saṃsāra),[22] then was I the young brāhman and Yaśodharā was Śiri. Thus understand its meaning, thus bear this jātaka in mind.

And so the Exalted One, rid of old age, of fear and of grief, told the story of his former life to his monks, of his infinite tribulation, of his faring up and down in times long past.

The Exalted One said, “It may be again, monks, that you will think that at that time and on that occasion the young brāhman whose treasure fell into the sea was somebody else. But you must not think so. And why? I, monks, at that time and on that occasion was that young brāhman. It may be again, monks, that you will think that at that time and on that occasion the young daughter of the brāhman in the city of Vāravāli was somebody else. But you must not think so. And why? Yaśodharā here, monks, at that time and on that occasion was the daughter of the brāhman in the city of Vāravāli who was named Śiri. Then too was she won by me through my energy, just as on this other occasion she has been won.”

Here ends the Jātaka of Śiri.

Footnotes and references:


? Not mentioned in Pali texts.


For these terms, see above p. 74.


The text has tasya brāhmaṇasya... tasya uṣādhyāyasya (sic for upā°)—a clumsy separation of two expressions denoting the same person. Perhaps the text is defective.


Pratināva, a word otherwise unknown, but the context implies that it means a small boat used for landing from a big ship.


Vaddhaka, but there is neither in Sk. nor in Pali another instance of this word in this sense. It is to be noted, however, that M.W. gives as one of the meanings of vardhanī (from the same stem vṛdh) that of “water-jar of particular shape.” On the next page the form used is vardha.


Brahmā, vocative pl. of brahmā = a brahmā deva.


I.e. the Bodhisattva.


Literally “and he said ‘I will drain’,” etc.


I.e., they would suffer if, to recover his treasure, he would have to drain off the watery element in which their home was.


See Vol. I, p. 165, n. 2.


Reading vihanyamānās pl., instead of °mānas, sg.


Pūga, “mass,” “quantity” can also be used of a “volume,” as of water. B.R. cites varṣapūga “Regenmenge.” 84 is one of many symbolic figures for an indefinite or infinite number.


Literally, “it is not known by this,” na tena jñāyati.


The text here leads anantapāṇī, which Senart interprets as “des êtres vivants sans nombre.” Pāṇin is Pali from pāṇa = Sk. prāṇa. But anantā does not ordinarily connote “number” except with a noun of multitude, and anantapāṇin would more naturally mean “having endless life,” or in the plural, as here, “those having endless life.” Pāṇī has, therefore, been emended into pāna “drink” = “water.” The sense then is that the expanse of water visible on the surface is large enough, but it is nothing to the volume of the water beneath the surface.


Cf. V. 2. 238, A. 4. 199, Udāna 53-44.


Dharmaśāstra, the law, namely, against taking life.


Utsaryati, so explained by Senart, who, however, makes no comment on the strangeness of the form of this word. We should expect utsāryati—causal passive with parasmai suffix.


The whole stanza is rather obscure. The text, however, seems to be in order, except that we should read chinnasāgaro for °sāgaraṃ.


? Tathā bhaṇeyaṃ na tathā bhaṇeyaṃ “I would say this, I would not say that.” But the reading may be suspected.


Literally “whose ship has been successful,” siddhayānapatro.


I.e., respectively, “sensory elements,” “bodily or physical elements,” “elements of sense-perception” and “self” or ‘soul.”


Anavarāgrasmiṃ saṃsāre. The adjective anavarāgra as an epithet of saṃsāra occurs several times in the Mhvu. (I. 34; 2. 94, 237; 3. 67, 273) and also at Divy. 197. The P.E.D., which cites the last only as a BŚk. instance, describes the word as a wrong Sanskritisation of Pali anamatagga. The derivation of the Pali word is uncertain, and the P.E.D. bases its definition of it on the usage, namely, “whose beginning and end are alike unthinkable” (ana-mat (from man) -agga). The coiners of the BSk. form also would seem to have the same idea of the meaning of anamatagga (if, that is, they were working from that form), for anavarāgra literally means “without a bottom (beginning) or top (end).” Mrs. Rhys Davids at K.S. 2.118 renders the Pali as “incalculable is the beginning,” which may suit the context when the saṃsāra of the Buddha is alluded to, but is hardly correct etymologically.

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