The Mahavastu (great story)

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

This page describes shyama jataka which is Chapter XVII 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 XVII - Śyāmā Jātaka

Once upon a time, monks, long ago, there was in the northern country a city, named Takṣaśilā,[1] where there lived a merchant, (167) named Vajrasena, who traded in horses. He went from Takṣaśilā to Benares, taking some horses with him to sell. Now as he was on his way he and the rest of the caravan was attacked by brigands near Benares. All the traders were beaten and killed and the horses stolen. But the leader of the caravan hid himself behind the body of a dead man and so was not killed. When the brigands, assuming that the caravan-leader had been slain, went off with their plunder, Vajrasena the horse-dealer, by following a water-course, entered Benares and lodged in an empty house.

Now in the night thieves broke into the king’s palace in the city of Benares and seized a large amount of property. In the morning the ministers saw that the king’s palace had been broken into, and they reported the matter to the king. “Your majesty,” said they, “the royal palace has been broken into.” The king ordered them to examine the palace. They did so and saw that much property had been stolen. They informed the king, saying, “Your majesty, much property has been stolen from the palace.” The king ordered his ministers to track down the thieves. And they, at the king’s command, immediately started to hunt for the thieves in Benares. All houses were searched, including temples and empty houses.

In the course of their search the king’s servants[2] came to the empty house where Vajrasena the horse-dealer, who had been beaten by brigands, was lying. He, wearied out by a fatiguing journey, a wakeful night, and anxiety, had fallen asleep, and though the sun was up he had not awakened. The king’s men who were looking for the thieves saw him lying there with his limbs and clothes drenched in blood and having money on him. And they said amongst themselves, “This is the thief who robbed the king’s palace.” One of the king’s servants prodded him with his foot (168) and made him stand up. “Stand up, you pilfering rogue,” said he, “without a doubt you are the thief who marauded the king’s palace.”

Then the horse-dealer, in fear and trembling, stood up and asked what the matter was. They replied, “There’s no doubt it was you, pilfering rogue, who marauded the king’s palace.” He said to them, “Gentlemen, calm yourselves. I am not a thief, but a horse-dealer.” They replied, “We know a horse-dealer when we see one, but we know that you are a pilfering rogue.”[3] And in spite of his protests, he had his hands tied behind his back and was taken before the king. “Here he is, sire,” said they. “He was caught sleeping in an empty house.” The king was enraged and passed a terrible sentence. “Go,” he ordered, “take him to the Atimuktaka[4] cemetery and impale him alive.”

So, having his hands securely bound behind him, given intoxicants to drink and having a halter round his neck, to the accompaniment of the harsh[5] noise of a beaten drum, and surrounded by executioners armed with knives, swords and hatchets, and by thousands of people, he was led out and came to the street of the courtesans. There the leading courtesan Śyāmā lived. She was wealthy, opulent and rich, having abundant gold and silver to live upon, and plenty of female and male slaves and hirelings.

Now this leading courtesan Śyāmā saw the merchant being led out to his execution. And as soon as she saw him, she fell in love with him. As has been said by the Exalted One:—

By living together in the past and by kindness in the present, love is born as surely as the lotus in the water.[6]

By living together, by a look, or by a smile, thus is love born in man and beast.

(169) When it enters the mind and the heart becomes glad, even the intelligent man always succumbs to it,[7] for it means that there has been acquaintance in the past.[8]

That courtesan had been in love with the horse-dealer during a thousand lives. Therefore it was that exceeding great love was born in her. She said to herself, “If I do not win this man, I shall die.” So she at once said to a female slave of hers, “Here you, go and tell those executioners from me that I shall give them a large quantity of gold if they will not put this man to death. Another man will come along of the same complexion and appearance. Let them take him and put him to death.” The slave went and spoke to the executioners as she had been instructed. The executioners answered, “Very well, let it be so.” Then they went on their way to the cemetery.[9]

Now at this time there was at the courtesan’s house an only son of a merchant, who had bought access to the house for twelve years, of which ten had passed and two were left. As he said:—

Nobles have a hundred arts, brāhmans two hundred, kings a thousand, but a women’s arts are countless.

Then Śyāmā the courtesan, in the presence of the merchant’s son, set aside some food and condiments. The merchant’s son asked her, “Śyāmā, what is this for?” She replied, “Sir, when I saw that man who is to be executed, pity arose in me. So I said to myself, ‘I’ll take him some food myself.’” The merchant’s son said, “No, don’t go yourself. Send a slave.” She replied, “Who knows whether the slave will give it or not? I shall take it and give it myself.”

Then the merchant’s son (170) said, “Bring me the food. I shall go, so that you do not have to go yourself.” But she displayed still more wiles, and said, “Not so. You, sir, must not go. I shall go.” The merchant’s son said, “No, don’t you go. I’ll go.” The courtesan said, “Let it be as you wish, sir. Either I go or you go.”

Thus the merchant’s son took the food and set out. The courtesan said to a slave, “Go, and when the merchant’s son has been executed take the other man and hide him until the sun sets, so that no one may see him.”

By this time all the people had turned back, and the executioners had reached the cemetery when the merchant’s son came up carrying the food. He handed the food to the man who was to be executed. Then the executioners put the merchant’s son to death, and the horse-dealer was set free. He was secretly taken by the female slave to the courtesan’s house.

Then the horse-dealer was at once rubbed with perfumes,[10] bathed, clothed[11] in costly garments, and laid on a sumptuous couch, and fragrant garlands and food were brought him. He gave himself up wholly to the pleasures of the senses. And the two of them diverted, delighted and amused themselves.

Now the former merchant’s son had been coming there for ten years. When he was executed the full fee for the other two years was contributed by his parents. And when the horse-dealer saw what was going on he was filled with anxiety, and his countenance turned pale. He did not enjoy his food but vomited[12] it, for he feared lest he too would be destroyed in the same way as the former merchant’s son.

Then the courtesan questioned the horse-dealer. “Although, sir,” she said, “you have been here some time, (171) I have not seen you happy and enjoying yourself. What do you miss? What do you wish for? Whatever you have a desire for, that shall you have.”

The horse-dealer replied, “My own city of Takṣaśilā is bright with parks and lotus-pools, and there the people often go out in festive array to enjoy themselves in the parks. I mind me of those parks, of the amusements in them and in the pools.”

The courtesan answered, “Sir, here in Benares, too, there are parks and lotus-pools, and pleasant gardens full of flowers and fruits. If you have a wish to go to a park, I’ll come out to play there.” He replied, “Very well, let us go out.”

Then the courtesan had a certain park sprinkled and swept. She put the horse-dealer in a closed carriage, and, taking with her solid and soft food, drink, perfumes and garlands, she set out, attended by her slaves. Vajrasena, the merchant, said to the courtesan, “Surround[13] the lotus-pool with screens so that we can play the water-game privily without anyone seeing us.” The thought occurred to the courtesan: “What the young gentleman says is right. We shall play privily and no one will see us.” So the courtesan had the lotus-pool surrounded with screens. Then they two alone played the water-game and enjoyed and amused themselves.

Then the thought occurred to the horse-dealer: “If I do not get away to-day, I shall never again be able to do so.” Then he produced[14] the drink and gave her to drink, saying to himself, “When she is drunk, then I shall be able to escape.” The courtesan thought: “He is regarding me with love and is giving me to drink.” Now as she went on drinking she became intoxicated. (172) Then the horse-dealer said to the slaves, “Go, sit down by the vessels. We are going to play the water-game in private.” The slaves went and sat apart by the vessels, while they two went down to the pool to play the water-game.

Then the horse-dealer clasped Śyāmā by the neck and held[15] her under water[16] for an instant. Then he lifted her out. Śyāmā took it that the young gentleman was playing a water-game. Vajrasena the horse-dealer clasped Śyāmā and held her under the water again and again, a little longer each time. And Śyāmā grew faint. Finally he kept her under the water long enough to render her unconscious.

Vajrasena then thought: “Śyāmā here is dead. Now is my chance to escape.” So, thinking that Śyāmā was dead, he mounted the stairs of the lotus-pool, and, having looked about him, escaped without anyone seeing him.

Then the slaves thought among themselves: “The gentleman and the lady should be tossing the water about as they play in the pool. But we do not hear any sound of their playing. Let us go and see how it is.” They approached the lotus-pool and saw Śyāmā lying as if dead on a step of the pool. Somehow, they revived her. The slaves held her for a moment with her head downwards so that all the water in her ran out through her mouth.

As soon as she recovered Śyāmā asked her slaves, “Where is the young gentleman?” They replied, “Lady, the young gentleman is nowhere to be seen. It must be that he has run away.” She said, “Hurry, let us go to the city.” So she came to the city.

(173) Then Śyāmā the courtesan immediately summoned some caṇḍālas[17] and said to them, “I’ll give you sufficient gold to live on. I want you to bring me a newly dead man not yet bitten by carrion.” They replied, “We’ll bring one without fail.” They went to the cemetery, and, without being seen by anyone, brought away a newly dead man who had not been bitten. She gave the caṇḍālas their reward and dismissed them.

Śyāmā bathed the dead man with scented water, rubbed him with perfumes, clothed him in rich garments, and put him in a shroud securely wound.[18] Then she bade the slaves, “With one voice make lamentation and cry out, ‘The young gentleman is dead, the young gentleman is dead.’” And the slaves made lamentation in the way they had been instructed by Śyāmā. A great crowd of people heard the lamentation in Śyāmā the courtesan’s house that the merchant’s son was dead. And the parents of the young merchant heard that their only son was dead. They and all the relatives came weeping to the courtesan’s house. The dwellers in the Street of the Courtesans also sat around.

The parents said, “Remove this shroud. We would have a last look at our son.” But then the thought occurred to the courtesan: “If they remove the shroud, then they will find out, and I shall be tom to pieces.”[19] So she said to them, “Do not remove the shroud.” They asked, “Why?” She replied, “When the young gentleman was ill, I said to him, ‘Go to your parents’ house.’ But he replied, ‘It is many years since I have gone there, and I’ll not go now. When I am well[20] again, I shall go to see my parents.’ Now when he was not getting well but was being consumed by disease he enjoined me, saying, (174) ‘When I am dead, do not show me to my parents or to my relatives. Do me this favour.’ And I promised the young gentleman, saying, ‘Sir, I shall not show you when you are dead to your parents or to your relatives.’ I would rather put an end to my life[21] than let the young gentleman’s body be seen again. Therefore, if you remove the shroud I shall destroy myself. Such was the promise I made the young gentleman when he died.”

The merchant thought, “It must be as she says. For she was very dear to and beloved of my son, seeing that he would not give her up even when he was dying, while she was devoted and kind to our son. Now our dear son is dead. It is no use[22] to draw back the shroud from him if we cannot have our son that is dead.” And the merchant gave orders, saying, “Do not remove the shroud. Let it be as our son wished when he died.” Then with great honour he went out[23] of the city and brooded in solitude.

In the meantime the courtesan wailed piteously, grieved and lamented, and displayed her many wiles. In spite of efforts to hold her back, she ran to the funeral pile, intending to throw herself on it, but was prevented by the crowd as she was on the point of falling on it.

The parents of the young merchant thought, “This Śyāmā the courtesan loved and cherished our son, just as she was loved and cherished by him. What if we were now to take Śyāmā to our home,[24] where she will serve to remind us of our son.”[25] And so, having obtained permission from the king’s court,[26] the merchant took Śyāmā to his home.

And she, putting off her jewels and gold, dressed all in white, and with her hair in one plait, sat mourning for Vajrasena the horse-dealer. The thought occurred to the parents of the merchant’s son: “She is grieving for our only son.” (175) And the merchant and his wife treated Śyāmā as their son.

Then one day some actors came from Takṣaśilā to Benares.[27] The young actors came to the merchant’s house to beg for alms. Śyāmā noticed the northern accent of these young actors and asked them, “Where do you come from?” They replied, “We are from the northern parts.” She asked, “From what place?” They replied, “From Takṣaśilā.” She asked, “Do you know a merchant in Takṣaśilā named Vajrasena, who is a horse-dealer?”[28] The young actors replied, “Yes, certainly.”[29] She asked, “Can you do me a favour?” They replied, “Certainly we can. What do you want done?” She replied, “Recite these verses in the presence of the merchant:

Silken-clothed Śyāmā, whom you did clasp too tightly in your arms among the blossoming sāl-trees,[30] sends you greeting.

In due course the young actors came to Takṣaśilā, and, going to Vajrasena, they recited:—

Silken-clothed Śyāmā, whom you did clasp too tightly in your arms among the blossoming sāl-trees, sends you greeting.

When he had heard this couplet, Vajrasena the merchant replied to the young actors in verse:—

(176) Those who are overcome by passion and are eager to retaliate[31] do not lie down in comfort. Grateful men do not lie down in comfort; those who are addicted to vengefulness do not lie down in comfort.

I cannot believe you any more than if you were to say the wind could carry off a mountain.[32] How can this woman who is dead send me greeting?

The young actors replied:—

The woman is not dead, and she longs for none but you. She wears her hair in one plait, and is distraught in her longing for you.

Vajrasena the merchant said:—

She should not take me whom she does not know in exchange[33] for one she knew for so long, an inconstant man in exchange for a constant one.[34] I will go still farther away from here lest she take another in exchange for me.

It may be, monks, that you will think that at that time and on that occasion the horse-dealer named Vajrasena was somebody else. You must not think so. And why? I, monks, at that time and on that occasion was the horse-dealer named Vajrasena. You may think that at that time and on that occasion the courtesan named Śyāmā in the city of Benares was somebody else. You must not think so. And why? Yaśodharā here, monks, at that time and on that occasion (177) was the chief courtesan named Śyāmā in the city of Benares. Then, too, was I indifferent to her, just as on this other occasion.

Here ends the Śyāmā Jātaka.

Notes on the Śyāmā Jātaka:

The theme, with some interesting variations of detail, is that of the Pali Kaṇaverajātaka (No. 318 in Fausböll).

Footnotes and references:


Pali Takkasilā, capital of Gandhāra, and 120 yojanas from Benares. The road between the two places passed through jungles infested by robbers. It was already in pre-Buddhist times an educational centre. See D.P.N. for details and references.


Bhaṭṭa for bhaṭa.


Literally, “a horse-dealer is such, what you are like to is a wicked thief,” edṛśako aśvavāṇijako bhavati yādṛso tvaṃ pāpacauro tvaṃ.


Pali Atimuttaka, “a cemetery near Benares, where robbers used to deposit their goods” (D.P.N.).


Reading kharasvareṇa, as in J. 3. 59, for svarasvareṇa of the text.


This stanza is found at J. 2. 235, and has already occurred in our text, see above p. 95 and note there.


Literally “will go,” gacche.


Literally “there will be (= will have been) acquaintance in the past,” saṃstavo vai pure bhavet.


Kṛtāntasūnikā, “the slaughter-house of Yama (Kṛtānta),” but Senart js far from satisfied with his restoration of the text here.


Or anointed,” ucchāpito, a BSk. form of the past participle passive of the causative of ut-sad, “to anoint.” Cf. the Pali substantive ucchādana.


Parihāpito, BSk. for paridhāpito, causative past part. pass, from pari-dhā.


Chaḍḍeti as in Pali, for chardayati and chṛṇatti.


Pariveṭhāpehi, cf. Pali pariveṭhita from veṭheti, Sk. viṣṭ or veṣṭ. Immediately below we have veṭhāpitā—causative past. part. pass.


Agre sthāpayitvā. Senart calls attention to the reading ciṣṭayitvā of one MS., which he refers to the Māgadhan ciṭṭhadi or ciṭṭhai.


Nivarteti. Below we have the forms nivuṭṭiya and nivuṭṭāpiya with the same meaning.


Literally “covering her,” vāretvā.


A caṇḍāla was a member of the lowest and most despicable class of society, of a mixed caste, being the offspring of a śūdra and a brāhman woman.


Literally “put him in a camu and had him well-bound.” The precise meaning of camu here is uncertain. (Camū means the vessel into which the soma juice is received from the press.) Senart assumes the meaning “cercueil,” “coffin,” but this meaning hardly suits the context below where the young man’s parents, wishing to have a view of the dead body, request the bystanders” apaharatha etam camum, “remove this camu.” On page 174 we have the expression apanetuṃ camum, “to draw back the camu.” The translation “shroud” is adopted merely because it seems to suit the context better.


Chindiṣyam, with Pali Ātmane ending. In the next sentence “you” is the Pali tumhe, as also on the next page.




Ātmānamupasaṃkrameyam. Senart cites Taittirīya Upaniṣad, II.8, ātmānamupasaṃkrāmati, “to enter into true ātman,” sc. “to die.”


Alabhanīyo artho, “an object not to be had” = “not worth having.”


Niṣkāsiya. Cf. niṣkāsati Vol. I, p. 361 (text).


“Introduce her to our home,” gṛhaṃ pravaśyāmaḥ. The verb here must be a misprint for praveśayāmaḥ, the causative of praviś. Cf. the past part, pass, praveśita immediately below.


Literally “will be (as a) sight of our son,” putrasya darśanaṃ bhaviṣyati.


I.e. the king’s authority was needed to promote Śyāmā from a low to a higher caste.


From this point the details of the story correspond more closely to the Pali Kaṇaverajātaka.


Text has yonaṃ(?) pratyabhijānatha yūyaṃ... śreṣṭhiputro... yonam = yavanam, “a Greek,” is, of course, impossible. Senart suggests that the word hides some particles like bho nam, “ah! then.” Better, perhaps, would be bhotam, “Ah! you know him then.” The nom. śreṣṭhiputro could then be explained as in partial apposition to tam = “(I mean) the merchant’s son.” It cannot be the direct object of pratyabhijānatha.


Āma, Pali and BSk.



This seems to be an echo of the Pali or some other version where Syāmā was strangled in a thicket of kaṇavera bushes, and not left to drown as in our story.


Kṛtānukāraṃ pratikartukāmā. Cf. Pali kiccānukubba (J. 2. 205).


The text has simply vāto vā girimāvahe. J. 3. 62 gives the similitude with greater explicitness. Here again, however, the rendering of gāthās in English verse in J. trans. is very inadequate; it is not even a paraphrase, but merely a summary.


The text has nirmiṇeyā (nir-mā, “to fashion”). This should obviously be emended into nimineyā. Cf. Pali nimini and nimineyya in the corresponding gāthā (J. 3. 63), which are from nimināti, “to exchange for.” This in form corresponds to Sk. niminoti (ni-mi), but in meaning is influenced by ni-mā. Cf. Sk. nimaya—“barter,” “exchange.”


The context requires the change of dhruvam adhruveṇa into adhruvaṃdhruveṇa, as at J. 3. 63.

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