The Mahavastu (great story)

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

This page describes jataka of campaka (the naga king) which is Chapter XVIII 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 XVIII - Jātaka of Campaka (the Nāga king)

Then the monks said, “The Exalted One was saved by Yaśodharā as he was being led out to execution. Yaśodhara did much for the Exalted One when he was a Bodhisattva passing through his various lives (saṃsāra).”

The Exalted One replied, “Yes, Yaśodharā did very much for the Tathāgata as he passed through his various lives (saṃsāra). I was saved by Yaśodharā on another occasion also when I had fallen into the hands of an enemy.” 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 Benares, in the province of Kāśi, there ruled a king named Ugrasena, who was virtuous and majestic, who treated his subjects kindly, was charitable, and possessed great wealth and a large army. His kingdom was prosperous, flourishing, peaceful, well-supplied with food, and populous with happy subjects. Violence and tumults were quelled, robbers were held in check, and trade thrived.

Now in his province there dwelt a Nāga[1] king named Campaka, who was virtuous, had accumulated outstanding goodness,[2] and had a retinue of several hundred thousands of Nāgas. The home of this Nāga king, Campaka, was like the home of a deva. Everywhere were mansions built of the seven precious stones, flowers and fruits at all seasons, and bejewelled lotus-pools covered with lotuses of various colours.[3] Not far from one of these lotus-pools was a bejewelled terrace made of white coral and with columns of beryl. And the king had a harem of sixteen thousand Nāga maidens.

He lived happy in that Nāga home like a king of the devas. Observing the three days[4] of the half-month, the eighth, the fourteenth, and the fifteenth, he kept the fast[5] at the crossroads. He abode in freedom,[6] observing the eight rules of a layman.[7]

(178) Once, when the Nāga king was keeping the fast[8] at the cross-roads he was seen by a snake-charmer. And thus it was that Campaka, the Nāga king, was caught at the cross-roads by the snake-charmer, thrown into a snake-basket, and there he lay. But the Nāga king was not wroth at the snake-charmer, and though thus put away the powerful and mighty king had no desire to burn Benares and its provinces to cinders.[9] There he lay in his basket observing his vow.

Now the Nāga king had explained to his retinue certain signs. “If,” said he, “any harm should come to me while I am keeping the fast at the cross-roads, these signs of it will appear in the home of the Nāgas. If the trees and fragrant lotuses in the home of the Nāgas wither, know by this sign that the king of the Nāgas has been caught. If the leaves of the trees become sere and the lotus-pools dry up, know by this sign that the king of the Nāgas has been killed.”

So when Campaka, the king of the Nāgas, was held captive by the snake-charmer in his snake-basket, these signs appeared in the home of the Nāgas. Then the Nāgas, male and female, on seeing these signs in the home of the Nāgas, all sorrowed because their king had been captured. What then? Any one of them had the power to rescue the Nāga king from the hands of the snake-charmer, and yet none of them would do so. And the reason for this was that the Nāga king had previously enjoined upon his retinue, saying, “If, while I am observing the fast, anyone should seize and capture me, you are not to show him any unkindness or unpleasantness.[10] For this is my supreme vow.”

Then the chief queen of the Nāga king, with a company of[11] sixteen thousand female Nāgas, went to Benares and told King Ugrasena, who was seated on the terrace, of the capture of the Nāga king and of the circumstances of it. When King Ugrasena heard (179) the female Nāga praising the worth of the Nāga king he was delighted. The king said to the Nāga maiden, “Stay here or go to your own home until trustworthy messengers shall seek out the Nāga king and return here.” The female Nāga replied, “Your majesty, you can only deliver[12] the Nāga king by compensating the snake-charmer with the gift of a village or with gold. You cannot do so by royal command.”

The king replied, “So be it, O Nāga. I shall compensate the snake-charmer with the gift of a village or of gold; I shall certainly release Campaka, the Nāga king.” Then the Nāga maiden said to Ugrasena, the king of Kāśi, “Campaka, the Nāga king, and his sixteen thousand females put themselves under your protection, O king.” And when she had thus spoken the Nāga maiden went away.

King Ugrasena sent out messengers in all directions, telling them, “Campaka, the Nāga king, was caught while observing the fast by a snake-charmer. Fetch him.”

The desires of devas are fulfilled by their minds; those of kings by their word of command; those of rich men speedily, and those of poor men by their own work.[13]

In accordance with King Ugrasena’s command, the messengers brought to him the snake-charmer and the Nāga king. The king compensated the snake-charmer with a village and gold, and Campaka, the Nāga king, was set free.

Immediately on his release Campaka, the Nāga king, became again like a deva king,[14] and the abode of the Nāgas became as before, like an abode of devas. And when the people of the Nāga king saw their home as it formerly was they became glad and joyful, for it meant that the Nāga king had been set free.

Now the Nāga king was sitting on the same couch with Ugrasena, king of Kāśi, and said to him, “Your majesty, I wish that you and your court would see my realm.” The king replied, “You Nāgas are bitterly venomous and fierce. I cannot come to the Nāga realm.” The Nāga king said to him, “Your majesty, whosoever of us does violence to you who have just now proved a benefactor to us, let him fall with his entire body into a great hell; (180) let him fall to hell alive.[15] The earth, with the moon and stars, will collapse and the rivers turn back in their channels—verily I speak the truth—before I forget your good deed.” The king replied, “Let it be as the Nāga king wishes. I shall come to the realm of the Nāgas.”

And King Ugrasena gave orders to his ministers, saying, “Let the chariots, elephants, horses and various carriages be got ready. We go to visit the realm of the Nāgas.” On the word the ministers hurried to carry out the king’s command. The king, attended by his ministers and his retinue and an army in chariots, mounted the same carriage as Campaka the Nāga king. With great royal pomp and magnificence and to the people’s shouts of bravo! and the roar of drums and the blare of trumpets, he left the city of Benares and went to the realm of the Nāgas. He proceeded in his carriage as far as the ground allowed, and then, with his retinue, went on foot into the realm of Campaka the Nāga king.

Then he saw the realm of Campaka, the Nāga king, which was like the abode of devas, beautified by thousands of trees bearing flowers and fruits, decked out in variegated garlands, adorned with bejewelled lotus-pools covered with bright lotuses of various colours,[16] and containing bejewelled upper rooms and terraces with pillars of beryl and roofs of white coral. The king of Kāśi was led by Campaka, the Nāga king to a bejewelled couch.

The sixteen thousand Nāga maidens went up to Campaka, the Nāga king, and asked him, “How did you fare among your foes? How did you dispel hunger and thirst? And how were you set free thence?” The Nāga king replied, “I got as much food and drink as was proper, and I was set free by this king of Kāśi.”

Then the sixteen thousand Nāga maidens of the Nāga king became glad and joyful, and they gave King Ugrasena hundreds of cartloads of pearls mingled with beryl.

Campaka, the Nāga king, (181) regarded the realm of King Ugrasena in every way as the abode of devas.[17] He watched over the royal palace, and when a fire broke out extinguished it.

Here ends the introduction in prose[18] of the story of Campaka, the Nāga king.[19]


Who, tell me, are you who gleam like the lightning, like a star reflected in a pool, or like a twig of the tāmra[21] tree blossoming in the wood?

You were born in Nandana or the Citraratha grove.[22] You are a deva or Gandharva. Human you are not.

The Nāga maiden replied:—

I am no deva nor Gandharva, nor, your majesty, a human being. Sir, I am a Nāga maiden, come hither on a quest.[23]

The king said:—

Your heart is aflame. Your senses disturbed.[24] and the tears stream from your eyes. What have you lost? What do you seek by coming here? Briefly tell me this.

The Nāga maiden replied:—

A man came and seized for his livelihood him whom they call a fiery serpent, him whom they call a Nāga. Sire, deliver him, my husband, from his bonds.

(182) The Nāga could indeed burn the city to cinders, for with such great power is he endowed. But this Nāga, while seeking[25] for the dharma, fell into the hands of a begging tramp.

The king said:—

How can one believe that such a fiery, strong and stalwart Nāga should have been caught,[26] that an unrivalled and invincible serpent should fall into the hands of a begging tramp?

The Nāga maiden replied:—

The Nāga king went each fourteenth, fifteen and eighth day of the half-month to the cross-roads, and while he tarried there in freedom he fell into the hands of a begging tramp.

Thus you should believe that the Nāga, fiery, strong and stalwart though he be, the unrivalled, invincible serpent, was caught and fell into the hands of a begging tramp.

The king said:—

Be seated or stand, O Nāga maid, or go to your own home, until the messengers whom I’ll bid to go[27] and fetch him, shall find your glorious Nāga mate.

(183) The Nāga maiden replied:—

Justly and without violence set him free. With ransom of a village or of gold or of a hundred kine, let the Nāga king now in bondage be set free as one who is desirous of merit.[28]

The king said:—

Justly and without violence I will free him, with ransom of a village or of gold or of a hundred kine. Let the serpent go in freedom. Let the Nāga king win through to joy.

The Nāga maiden replied:—

Sixteen thousand Nāga maidens, gay with jewels and with rings, who make their home in the water, come to you, O lord, for protection.

The king’s messengers brought in the snake-charmer and the Nāga king. Then King Ugrasena said:—

I give you, hunter,[29] massive earrings of jewels, a hundred pieces of gold, a four-cornered[30] couch bright as a garland of flowers, and a wife like a goddess, if you set the serpent king free.

The snake-charmer replied:—

Without your gifts, O king, and at your command alone, I set him free. The Nāga king is righteous, of great power, and with his gaze on the world beyond. Mighty is he, yet he harms no one.

(184) When he had been set free, Campaka the Nāga said to the king of Kāśi:—

Honour to you, O king of Kāśi, honour to you who bring increase to Kāśi. I salute you. Come, O king, and see my abode.[31]

King Ugrasena said:—

What I did for you, O Nāga, was a difficult thing to do. You were in trouble. Now you are free from bondage. The sons of this world are ungrateful for what is done for them. But do not you, O Nāga, be forgetful of what I have done.

The Nāga king replied:—

May he live long in hell, and may he experience no bodily pleasure, who hurts the king our former benefactor and is not grateful to you for what you have done for us.[32]

The king said:—

You Nāgas are full of bitter venom; you are proud and powerful and quick to anger. So, O Nāga, I believe that you, a non-human, are wroth with us humans.[33]

The Nāga king replied:—

May he fall headlong to that hell, where the floor is made of knives, and have his feet up and head down, (185) who hurts the king our former benefactor and is not grateful to you for what you have done for us.

Though the wind should carry off the mountains, and moon and sun fall in ruin; though every stream should flow backwards in its channel, never, O king, could I speak an untruth.

The king said:—

As the Nāga king wishes, so be it, O lord of serpents. I shall come, as you request, to see your abode.

Then King Ugrasena said to his ministers:—

Let the gleaming royal chariots be got ready and the well-trained Kambodian (Kamboja / Kambojaka)[34] horses. See that the elephants be harnessed in their trappings of gold. I go to see the abodes of the Nāgas.

His ministers replied:—

Now are the gleaming chariots ready, and the well-trained Kambodian horses. The elephants have now been harnessed in their trappings of gold. The king can set out in all his pomp.

Thus did the king set out with his fourfold army, attended by his friends and counsellors, and followed by his folk.

(186) Drum and tabor, cymbal and conch, and the lute as well, were played in honour of King Ugrasena. And forth he went with all his might, honoured amid a host of women.

When the king of the Kāśis came to the abode of the Nāga king, he saw that the Nāga king’s realm was like that of the devas.

The king of the Kāśis saw that the abode of the Nāga king was full of mangoes and rose-apple trees, and was a haunt of many cuckoos.

Everywhere and at all seasons the forest trees were in bloom and wafted fragrant scents in the Nāga king’s abode.

There were well-fashioned lotus-pools with stairs of gold and silver, and covered over with red and white and blue lotuses, the haunt of various birds.

Terraces with columns of beryl and roofs spread with white coral did the king of Kāśi see in the abode of the Nāga king.

And when the king of Kāśi entered the abode of the Nāga king he went to lie on a splendid couch of gold and silver.

When the Nāgas saw that he had come with Campaka, the Nāga king, with joined hands raised they bowed before their king and the king of Kāśi.

And a Nāga maiden asked, “When you were among your foes, how did you dispel thirst and hunger?”

(187) The Nāga king replied:—

I had such food and drink as was proper to dispel my hunger and thirst. And this king of Kāśi soon set me free from my bonds.

Then the sixteen thousand Nāga maidens extolled Ugrasena, the king of Kāśi:—

Joy then, O king of Kāśi, to you and all your folk, as joy is ours this day in seeing once again our serpent lord.

Joy, then, to you, O king, and to all your folk, as joy is ours this day in common with our lord.

I give[35] the king five hundred cartloads of pearls mingled with beryl. When they are spread on the floor of your palace they will cover earth and dust.[36]

Then the king, seeing such a women’s hall made like a mansion of the devas, will amuse himself with the throng of women and rule over the prosperous city of the Kāśis.

King Ugrasena said:—

Well clothed in upper garment of cotton, you could live there[37] in inimitable beauty and in possession of celestial pleasures. Why then should you live on the ground?[38]

(188) The Nāga king replied:—

Not otherwise can one become a human being or life under the free air of heaven be devised.[39] I seek birth as a human being, that is why I practise austerities.[40]

King Ugrasena reflected:—

Now that I have seen how Nāgas, male and female, long for the life of human beings, what fair deed shall I perform that will make me safe from a state of woe?[41]

The Exalted one, the Master, calling to mind a former abode, a former birth, related this Jātaka to his monks.

The Exalted One explained the subject-matter of it in a discussion of the skandhas, the dhātus, the āyatanas and the ātman.[42]

“When of yore I lived one of my lives in the round of rebirth (saṃsāra) that has no beginning or end, then was I Campaka, the powerful Nāga king, and Yaśodharā was the Nāga maid Thus understand the Jātaka.”

Rid of old age, fear and grief, he told his monks of this birth of his, of all his many and infinite sufferings, his long faying up and down in the past.

The Exalted One said, “Then, monks, as the Nāga I was caught by the snake-charmer for the sake of my flesh, but was set free through the instrumentality of Yaśodharā. And when I was a horse-dealer in Benares, then also was I set free by her.”

Here ends the Jātaka of Campaka, the Nāga king.

Notes on the Campaka Jātaka:

Cf. Campeyya Jātaka (J. 4. 454 ff.).

Footnotes and references:


Rendered serpent king in J. trans. Cf. Vol. I, p. 35, n. 4. “Nāga” is retained here, to give greater verisimilitude to the tale, for the “serpents” to all intents and purposes behave like human beings, and the use of “Nāga” avoids repeated allusion to their real character.


Utsadakuśalasaṃcayo. On utsada see Vol. I, p. 6, n. 1.


The text enumerates them.


Literally “keeping (making) three-fold,” triṣkṛtva.


Upoṣadhaṃ upoṣati.


Literally “with body released or let go,” osṛṣṭakāya. Cf. Pali osaṭṭhakāyo urago carātu, “let the snake go free.” (J. 4. 460.)


Aṣṭāṅgasamanvāgata. In the Pali texts this is an epithet of uposatha, the fast itself (e.g., Sn. 401 f.), as it is also in BSk. texts of upavāsa (= upoṣadha, see next page). But our text seems definitely to apply it to the personal subject of the sentence. Upoṣadha is so qualified, as on the fast day Buddhist laymen were required to observe the śikṣāpadāni (sikkhāpadāni). It is only in this connexion that these precepts are given as eight. They are usually five or ten in number. See Vol. I, p. 168, n. 1.


Upavāsa samādatta. For upavāsa see preceding note. With samādatta, cf. Pali use of samādiyati. For the incident cf. V. 1. 87, where Gotama says to the Nāga who wanted to attain human status, gaccha tvaṃ nāga tatth’ eva cātuddase pannarase aṭṭhamiyā ca pakkhassa uposathaṃ upavasa. (The translator owes this reference to Miss I. B. Horner, who remarks that the Mhvu. allusion to the cross-roads is “striking and odd.”)


In the Pali version there is a preliminary story telling how the Bodhisattva had died and had been reborn as the Nāga king. There we are also told of the tortures inflicted on him by way of taming him; but he would not risk the loss of his virtue by exerting his power and wreak vengeance on his captor.


Apriya vipriya. Much less, the Buddhist moralist implies, are you to do him actual bodily harm.


Lacuna in text of a word or phrase on which the genitive depends.


Text has imperative, mocehi.


This couplet occurs several times in the Mhvu. See Vol. I, p. 213, n. 1.


Literally “became having the attributes of,” devarājaviṣayo samvṛtto.


Reading jīvo for jīvaṃ.


The text names them.


A lame ending to the prose story, containing, as it does, but a feeble allusion to the riches conferred on the king of Kāśi by the Nāgas as described in the Pali version and in the verse below. The next sentence implies that Campaka continued his services to Ugrasena after the latter’s return to his home.




The verse redaction following begins abruptly. In the Pali version these verses are interwoven in the framework of the story to form a coherent whole with the prose. In fact, the division of the story into prose and verse looks quite artificial.


Atha—implying, of course, some preceding matter which does not appear here. The correct place of this question would be in the prose passage describing the appearance of the Nāga maiden before the king.


Tāmrapādapa, cf. tāmrapādī, “a kind of plant related to the Mimosa pudica.” Or, perhaps, the allusion is merely to any tree with coppery or red branches or leaves.


The names of two parks in Trāyastriṃśa.


Avīcī for avīcid (cf. kiṃcī below), avl being participial adjective from av, “to wish for,” etc. The expression is rather strange, and perhaps the reading is incorrect. One MS. has acīnî, which may suggest that the correct reading should be arthinī, especially as the corresponding Pali (J. 4, 459) reads atthen(a) aṃhi idhāgatā.


Viluta, for BSk. vilulita = Sk. vilolita.


Yācamāno, a rather unusual application of this verb, which ordinarily means “to beg for.” If it is the right reading here, it may, as Senart suggests, be intended as antithesis of vaṇīpakasya (BSk. = Pali vanibbaka). But perhaps, ayam yācamāno in our text should be emended into apacāyamāno “honouring” as in the Pali version. Cf. apacāyaka (Vol. I, 198 text), which is BSk. for Pali apacāyika.


Senart, however, takes gṛhīta as = nigṛhīta, “qui a réprimé le Nāga, qui a dissimulé sa force et son apparence de Nāga,” and assumes that osṛṣṭakāyo in the next stanza refers to this, i.e. that it means “having abandoned or let go (the normal powers of) his body.” But osṛṣṭakāyo seems rather to mean “free” or “in freedom.” See n. 2. p. 192, above.


Reading gatā for gato. Nīyatām ti, “let him be brought” quote the words of the king’s command.


Puṇyārthiko, i.e., no violence is to be used in his behalf as this would mar his chance of winning merit. J. trans. has for puññatthiko, “that will win merit for thee.” This rendering is neither grammatically correct, nor is it in keeping with the context.


Reading ludda (Pali = Sk. raudra), “hunter,” for labdham of the text.


Reading catutsada (catuḥ-utsada) for catuḥśata, “four hundred” of the text. J. trans. renders the Pali catussada, “four-cushioned,” For utsada see Vol. I, of this translation, p. 6, n. 1.


Literally, “See our abode,” paśya mo niveśanam. The corresponding Pali (J. 4. 462) has passeyyam me niveśanam—“I’ll go to see my home.” But the Mhvu. seems to have the more correct reading, as the subsequent context shows that a request was made to the king that he should visit the abode of the Nāgas.


This must be the sense, but the text is asmādṛśo tuhya kṛtaṃ na jāne, “like us is not grateful, etc.” This is not intelligible, and it looks as though we should, following the corresponding Pali (J. 4. 463), emend into yo tādṛśaṃ, etc., “who is not grateful to you for such a deed.”


No manuṣasya, a singular substantive in apposition to a plural pronoun, the explanation being, either that the latter is a pluralis majestatis or that the former is a generic substantive with a plural signification.


Kamboja (Kambojaka) “One of the sixteen Mahājanapadas which, with Gandhāra, belonged, not to the Majjhimadesa but, evidently, to the Uttarāpatha. It is often mentioned as the famous birthplace of horses, e.g. DA. I. 124; A A. 1. 399; Vism. 332; also J. 4. 464.” (D.P.N.)


Reading dadāmi for dadāsi of the text.


This stanza and the next are obviously, even without the evidence of misplaced here. They should come at the end of the story where the king is given a parting gift. Also, Senart has been unfortunate in his construction of the text. Dadāsi for dadāmi has already been noted. His last couplet of the first stanza reads antaḥpure bhūmi samāstarā hi niṣkardamā tviṣimati nirarāja, which could only mean “the floor of your palace is of great expanse and without dirt, O energetic king of the water.” Senart is under the mistaken impression that the reference is to the king of the Nāgas. But the sense is easily restored by emending the last line (following the Pali at J. 4. 468) into niṣkardamā bheṣyati nīrajā ca, “it (the floor) will be without earth and without dust” i.e. it will be covered by the jewels. Two MSS. actually have bheṣyati and bhaviṣyati respectively. For bhūmi samāstarā the Pali has bhūmiyaṃ santharantu, and the participle saṃstīrṇā would suit our text better, but there is no MS. evidence to guide the restoration here. For the special use of saṃstṛ (Pali santharati) to denote “covering with layers” or “spreading in layers,” see Miss I. B. Horner: Book of the Discipline, 2, pp. xxii ff. Meanwhile, bhūmi samāstarā may be interpreted as “the floor a couch (for the pearls)” = “the floor spread with the pearls.”


The corresponding Pali (J. 4. 465) reads differently, having instead of tvam qualified by singular adjectives, the plural third pers. f. with correspondingly inflected adjectives, and pāyenti instead of yāpenta. This gives the sense that the Nāga maidens were thus beautifully dressed waiting on their king with drink. This latter sense would seem to be more apposite, but there is no MS. justification, apparently, for the emendation of the Mhvu. text, however slight that would need to be.


I.e., referring to his living as a serpent on the ground.


As distinct, that is, from the subaqueous life of a Nāga.


Here, again, the first two lines differ from the Pali (J. 4. 467), but not so much as to conceal that both derive from a common original. The Pali reads Janinda nāññatra manussalokā suddhī ca saṃvijjati saṃyamo ca, “O king, nowhere but in the world of men can purity and control be found.” Two MSŚ. of the Mhvu. in reading saṃyamo for saṃgamo would seem to imply that the Pali is nearer the original.


Literally, “that goes beyond a state of woe” apāyasamatikramam.


See n. 4, p. 90 above.

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