The Mahavastu (great story)

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

This page describes jataka of the bird (shakuntaka) which is Chapter XXIII 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 XXIII - Jātaka of the Bird (Śakuntaka)

When the Bodhisattva, dismayed at the thought of this deliberate falsehood,[1] shrinking (241) from such a deliberate falsehood, had rebuffed the devas by saying “Enough of that,” and had taken some pleasant and appetizing food, then the fine[2] group of five disciples left him in disgust, saying, “The recluse Gotama has lapsed from his concentration, become remiss, and is once more taking a quantity of appetizing food.”

And during the six years that the Bodhisattva was living his life of hardship Māra was ever at his back seeking and watching for a chance to tempt him.[3] But though he pursued him closely for six years, he did not get a chance, did not get an opportunity,[4] and did not get access[5] to him, and in disgust he went away.

Him, whom Māra at no time could overcome any more than the winds can overcome the Himalayas, him, the repeller of death, do the worlds of devas and men adore.

The monks asked the Exalted One, “Did the Exalted One live a life of hardship from a desire for release?” The Exalted One replied, “That was not the first time, monks, that I lived a life of hardship from a desire for release.” The monks asked, “Was there another occasion, Lord?” The Exalted One replied, “Yes, monks, there was.”

Once upon a time, monks, long ago, in the city of Benares, in the province of Kāśi, a fowler used to catch birds in the forests with nets and snares. Shutting them up in cages, he fed them with com and water, and when he had made them plump[6] he sold them at a good price.

In this way a certain bird (śakuntaka) was caught and confined in a cage. Now this bird was sagacious, and saw how the birds which had been put in the cage before it had been fed and fattened, and then bought by somebody and taken out[7] of the cage. The sagacious bird understood that the fowler did not give them com and water from a desire for their welfare, but from a desire for his own profit, and that when they were fattened they were sold at a good price.

(242) “So,” said the bird, “I shall so act that no one will buy and no one will pay any attention to me and choose me. I’ll take just as much food as will keep me from dying but will not make me fat.” The bird thus ate so much food and drank so much water as did not fatten it but still kept it from dying.

A man who bought birds came along, and that bird was standing behind the door of its cage. The bird fancier put his hand into the cage and felt the bird all over, but did not find much flesh on it. He weighed it and found that it was not heavy. So he took the other birds, which were fat and heavy, to his home, and left it behind, thinking that the bird was lean and sick and that no one would take it. The fowler, too, saw this, and said, “It must be that this bird is sick. But if this sick bird is set at liberty, it will eat more com and drink more water. Then when it is fattened, it can be sold. I must see to it that this bird does not infect the other birds with sickness. I will take it out[8] of its cage and keep it out. It will get separate[9] com and separate water, and the moment it is fat enough it will be sold.”

The sagacious bird, too, won the fowler’s confidence. When he opened the door of the cage to give the birds com or water, the bird would enter the cage even without his knowing it. And also when he was absent (243) it would enter the cage of itself. When it wished to get out of the cage it would hop out itself. No one stopped it because it was considered to be a sick bird.

Now as it hopped in and out of its open cage in the manner of a weak bird, people paid no heed to it, regarding it as a sick bird. And when it realised that the fowlers trusted it, it started to take more com and drink more water, so that it could escape and fly far away. So when it became sure that it was time for it to escape, it rose up in the air, and, hovering above its cage, spoke this verse to the other birds.

The unreflecting man does not attain distinction.[10] See how by distinction of thought I am freed from my prison.

And when the bird (śakuntaka) had recited this verse, it flew away from the fowler’s place and returned to the forest.

The Exalted One said, “It may be again, monks, that you will think that at that time and on that occasion the sagacious bird was somebody else. You must not think so. And why? I, monks, at that time and on that occasion, was the sagacious bird. You will think that at that time and on that occasion the fowler was somebody else. You must not think so. And why? Wicked Māra at that time and on that occasion was the fowler. Then also did I practise austerities from a desire to be released from the cage of Māra the fowler.

Here ends the Śakuntaka-Jātaka.

Notes on the Śakuntaka Jātaka:

Fausböll 118, J. I.434 f.

Footnotes and references:


See p. 126.


Bhadra. Ironic.


Avatāra, BSk. in the sense of Pali otāra, “approach to, access, chance, opportunity,” only in these senses in the Māra myth; hence the word connotes “chance to tempt.” See P.E.D. for further details. Sk. avatāra, “descent” in the sense of “incarnation,” is very much later.


Ālambaṇa, Pali ārammaṇa.




Vaḍḍa-vaḍḍa, from vṛddh, “to increase.” Senart cites Hemacandra, 4. 364, for an example of the same form in Apabhraṃśa.


Kaḍḍhiyanti, passive of kaḍḍhati, Pali, “a dialect form supposed to equal Sk. karṣati, cf. Prk. kaḍḍhai, to pull, tear, kaḍḍhā, pit, dug-out.” (P.E.D.)


Niṣkuḍḍiya. Possibiy the more correct reading would be niṣkuḍḍhiya, and Senart suggests that the root is kṛṣ, “to drag," and compares kaḍḍhati, above p. 72, n. 1. Cf. also Pali nikkaḍḍhati. But the “u” still requires explanation.


Pāṭiyeka, Pali (also pāṭekka) the diaeretic form of pacceka, “several,” “distinct,” “single,” See P.E.D.


Viśeṣamadhigacchati. Cf. BSk. viśeṣadhigama.

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