The Mahavastu (great story)

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

This page describes jataka of shiriprabha (the deer) which is Chapter XXI 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 XXI - Jātaka of Śiriprabha (the deer)

The Bodhisattva was living a life of hardship in the forest of penance near Uruvilvā. He kept to a diet of jujube for eighteen months, subsisting on one jujube fruit a day. He kept to a diet of sesame for eighteen months, subsisting on one sesame seed a day. He kept to a diet of rice for eighteen months, subsisting on one grain of rice a day. For eighteen months he maintained a complete fast.

One jujube fruit was his meal, one sesame seed, and one grain of rice. For wherever a perfect Buddha’s knowledge may be,[1] it is not in a vigorous body.[2]

Wholly like a shrivelled creeper[3] did his body become, and his jaw like a buffalo’s hoof in diameter.

His ribs became like the old and withered rafters within (a building)[4]—so much was the great Sage’s body emaciated by his austerities.

As a long plait of hair curves this way and that, so did his spine and neck curve this way and that.

(232) His eyes looked out like stars reflected in a pool of water; his breathing was deep like the bellows of a smith.

As an autumn gourd[5] plucked when unripe shrivels, so did the head of the Great Sage begin to shrivel.

Controlled of body was the great hero, paying no heed to thought of self, as he carried on with his grim austerities for the sake of all creatures.

Even though one used every word there is in speaking,[6] it would not be possible to relate what hardships the Hero went through after he had seen men in misery.

As a bird cannot reach the limit of the sky, and as the water in the sea is an immeasureable mighty mass,

So is it not possible, even with every word there is, to tell the limits of the virtues of the Lights of the World,[7] the Buddhas, the kinsmen of the sun.

His unanointed skin clung to his back. All his limbs collapsed; there was no strength left in him.[8]

When he sought to grasp the front of his body, it was his back that he held in his grasp; when the Seer tried to stand up he precipitately fell forwards.

When the four devas[9] saw the weak body of the Hero, they exclaimed, “The Seer is dead; there is no strength left in him.”[10]

While the Pre-eminent of men was practising such grim austerities, the worlds of devas, Asuras and men were seized with wonder.

(233) When King Śuddhodana heard from the men whom he questioned of the grim austerities which the prince was undergoing, he, Mahāprajāpatī the Gotamid, Yaśodharā, and all the kingdom of Śākya were filled with longing that now at last the prince would quietly abandon them. Yaśodharā, too, reflected: “It is not right nor fitting that, while a noble son is suffering, living a hard life, lying on a couch of grass and subsisting on coarse fare, I should be eating royal food in the royal palace, drinking royal drinks, wearing royal clothes and having royal beds made for me. Let me now then live on scanty fare, wear common clothes, and have my bed made of straw.” So she ate scanty fare, wore common clothes and had her bed made of straw.

When the Exalted one, after setting rolling the noble wheel of dharma, was staying at Rājagṛha with a company of thirteen and a half hundred monks, King Śuddhodana sent Chandaka and Kālodāyin[11] to him with a message, saying, “The Exalted One has shown compassion to devas and men; let him also show it to his kindred. Whatever the Exalted One tells you, that do.”

They left Kapilavastu and came to Rājagṛha. Going up to the Exalted One, they imparted to him the exhortation of King Śuddhodana and all his family. And the Exalted One, with his sense of due time, season and occasion, knew that the time season and occasion were come for visiting his native place. The Exalted One spoke to Chandaka and Kālodāyin, asking them, “Will you take up the religious life?” They replied, “We were bidden by King Śuddhodana to do whatever the Exalted One tells us.” And though they saw neither there nor elsewhere[12] any yellow robes (234) which they could put on when taking up the religious life, they consented and said to the Exalted One, “Lord, we will take up the religious life.”

The Exalted One then pronounced over them the formula of ordination of ‘Come, monks,’[13] saying to them, ‘Come, monks, Chandaka and Kālodāyin, and live the religious life under the Tathāgata”. And when the formula of “Come, monks” had been pronounced over them, every mark, emblem, safeguard[14] and usage of a layman disappeared from their persons, and there came to view three cloaks; a bowl was brought, their hair became fixed of its own accord,[15] and their way of deportment established—in short, the admission and ordination of the venerable Chandaka and Kālodāyin as monks was exactly that of monks who had been ordained a hundred years.

The venerable Udāyin[16] said to the Exalted- One, “Lord, Yaśodharā was passionately devoted to the Exalted One. While the Exalted One was living a hard life in the forest of penance, Yaśodharā, too, was living on scanty fare, wearing common clothes, giving up her royal beds, and making herself beds of straw.” The monks asked the Exalted One, “How, Lord, was it that Yaśodharā was devoted to the Exalted One?” The Exalted One replied, “Monks, that was not the first time that Yaśodharā was devoted to me. She was devoted to me on another occasion also.” The monks asked, “Was there another occasion, Lord?” The Exalted One replied, “Yes monks.”

Once upon a time,[17] monks, long ago, in a certain forest there lived a deer named Śiriprabha, who was comely, handsome, well-built of body, with red hooves and legs and shining eyes. He had charge of a herd of five hundred deer. And this king of deer had a chief queen who was passionately devoted and attached to him; not for an instant was she separated from him.

There was a certain hunter named Nīlaka who set[18] snares for the deer in that part of the forest. (235) As Śiriprabha, accompanied by that great herd of deer was roaming in that part of the forest, he was caught. And all the deer and does, on seeing their king caught, fled. But this one doe, being devoted and attached to the king, stayed behind and did not run away.

The doe addressed Śiriprabha in verse:—

Make valiant effort to escape,[19] O Śiriprabha, make a valiant effort, O king of deer, before that hunter comes who set the snare. Rend these snares of leather.[20] I shall have no joy apart from you.

Then, monks, Śiriprabha, the king of deer, replied to the doe in verse:—

I am making a valiant effort to escape, but I cannot, and fall back violently to the ground. These stout thongs of leather cut my feet.

Good dame, you will find delight with another lord in pleasant glades and hills and woods.

And, monks, the doe replied to the king of deer in verse:—

With you indeed I shall enjoy pleasant glades and hills and woods, but in another life.

When he heard them wailing and lamenting, the wicked, hard-hearted hunter came on the scene.

When the king of deer saw from afar the hunter coming, black of complexion, with white (236) teeth, red eyes, like a cannibal, in dark-blue garb, he again addressed the doe in verse:—

Lo, here comes the hunter, a black man dressed in blue, who will rend my skin and flesh, and slay me.

But when the hunter was near, the doe went up to him and addressed him in verse:—

Spread the leaves, hunter, and draw your knife. Slay me first, then do violence to the king of deer.

But, monks, this reflection occurred to the hunter, “The deer ran away when they saw me far off, and disappeared, but this doe, on the other hand, utterly without fear, sacrificed herself and came to meet me. She was not afraid, nor did she run away.” And the hunter was amazed and filled with wonder at seeing the behaviour of the doe. “What a doe this is,” said he. “We men have not the virtues of creatures like these. It is not they, who have such magnanimity, such fortitude, such gratitude and such devotion, that are beasts, although they gather food with their mouths. We are the beasts, who attack such a magnanimous deer and do it harm. Not[21] so. I shall rescue this deer from the snare.”

And the hunter addressed the doe in verse:—

I have neither heard nor seen a deer speaking like a human. Be at ease, lady, I set free the noble deer for you.

Thus Śiriprabha, the king of deer, who had been caught in a snare, was set free by the hunter. Then when she had seen the king of deer set free, the doe, (237) enraptured, joyful, glad and happy addressed the hunter in verse:—

“O hunter, may you and all your folk rejoice, as I this day rejoice on seeing the great deer set free”

The Exalted One, the Master, calling to mind a former abode of his, a former existence, related this Jātaka to his monks.

The Exalted One explained this tale with reference to the skandhas, the dhātus, the āyatanas and the ātman.[22] When of yore I lived in one of my lives which had no beginning or end (saṃsāra),[23] I was Śiriprabha, and Yaśodharā the doe. Ānanda was the hunter. Thus understand this Jātaka.

Thus, with old age, fear and grief cast away, he related to his monks this birth of his, his boundless great suffering, his faring up and down in the past.

Here ends the Jātaka of Śiriprabha the deer.[24]

Footnotes and references:


Saṃśraya, so interpreted by Senart on the analogy of samucchrita and samucchyaya (see Vol. I, p. 134, n. 1). Cf. Divy. 70, 73. But the expression is strange.


Sya = syāt.


“Like an entire kālāśītaka,” kālāśītako sarvo, unless we are to emend sarvo into parva “like the joint of a k.,” and so bring the simile into line with those on pp. 125, 126, and 129 of Vol. 2 of the text. For kālāśītaka see n. 4, p. 121.


Something is wrong with this line—jīṛṇagopānasyāntarikā ośīrṇā pārśvake yathā—and Senart admits that it is a hypothetical restitution. The simile is given on p. 125 (text), and the nearest we can get to the idea expressed there is by transposing pārśvakā (for pārśvake) and yathā.


Alambu, only here (?) for alābū, Pali alābu.


Literally “speak with every word,” sarvavācāya bhāṣatas.


See Vol. I, p. 37, n. 1.


The text—na ca vīryato saṃsati—is defective here, for, although “o” of vīryato may be shortened metri causa, no sense can be derived from saṃsati. Senart suggests that na ca vīryam sya śiṣyate would suit the context, although this reading has little MS. evidence in support of it. In the translation above, however, vīryato has been changed to vīryatā, which is the reading of one MS. where the phrase recurs below. This would leave saṃsati as the only difficulty, and Senart may be nearer the truth than he imagines, when he suggests śiṣyate.


I.e. “the Four Lords of the world,” see Vol. I, p. 25, n. 3.


See note 2. Cf. M. 1. 245.


Son of one of Śuddhodana’s ministers. The Mhvu. seems to be the only text which makes Chandaka accompany him on this mission. (See D.P.N., where the Mhvu. reference should be ii. 231.)


? nāpyatva nāpito.


See Vol. I, p. 3.


Gṛhigupti, but the exact meaning of gupti here is not clear; kalpa, “usage” (?) in gṛhikalpa also is unusual.


I.e. in the way it was worn by monks.


I.e. Kālodāyin. See D.P.N. for explanation of both names.


This is Jātaka No. 359 (Fausböll).


Oḍḍita, past. part, of Pali oḍḍeti, either a variant of uḍḍeti with the special sense of “to lay (snares),” or, more likely, a causative form ava (= o) + ḍī = “to stick to,” etc. See P.E.D.


Vikramāhi, from vikramati, which connotes at the same time, “effort,” “courage” and “escape” (vi).


Vāratraka, Pali vārattika, from varatta (cf. Vedic varatrā), “strap,” “thong,” “strip of leather.”


, elliptic. There is no known usage of governing the future which would give sense here by taking it with vaheṣyam, “I shall carry out of” (= “rescue”).


Cf. p. 90.


See p. 90, n. 5.


One MS. adds “in the Mahāvastu-Avadāna.”

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