The Mahavastu (great story)

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

This page describes jataka of the bird (shakuntaka) (2) which is Chapter XXVI 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 XXVI - Jātaka of the Bird (Śakuntaka) (2)

The monks said to the Exalted One, “See, Lord, how the wicked Māra followed closely upon the heels of the Exalted One when he abode in the forest of penance practising austerities, and how he aimed at and sought an opportunity to tempt him, but, not getting the opportunity, retired in disgust.” The Exalted One replied, “Monks, that was not the first time that wicked Māra followed closely on my heels, aiming at and seeking an opportunity to tempt me, and, not getting it, retired in disgust.” The monks asked the Exalted One, “Was there another occasion, Lord?” The Exalted One replied, “Yes, monks.”

Once upon a time, monks, long ago, near the city of Benares, in the province of Kāśi, (251) a fowler set[1] snares[2] and scattered bait in the forest to catch birds. Then he went to one side and sat down where he could get a view of the snares.

In that part of the forest there was a sagacious bird (śakuntaka) who had charge of a great flock of birds. Through the unique intelligence of its master, the flock of birds increased in number; it did not dwindle. He protected the birds from fowlers, from caṇḍālas,[3] from hunters, from cats and jackals, from polecats and mongoose.[4]

Now when the fowler had gone away, that bird, roaming in that part of the forest with his great flock of birds, came to the spot where the fowler had set his snares and scattered his bait. And as they moved about the birds scented the smell of sesame, rice, kodrava[5] and śyāma[6]. Scenting the smell of the bait, they looked here and there. At last they saw it; they could see it there all around them.

The birds reported this to the master of the flock. “Master,” said they, “in this place there are grains of sesame, rice, kodrava and śyāma, let us go and eat.” But the bird replied to them, “Do not go. This is a tract of the forest. Grain, whether of rice, kodrava or śyāma does not naturally grow here. These and other grains grow in fields, not in a forest tract. Now what has happened here is that fowlers have set a snare and scattered bait in order to catch birds. Do not go near, but go wherever I go.”

The fowler had caught sight of that great flock of birds in the forest. So he moved day by day from one place to another. Wherever he noticed the birds going, there day by day did he set his snares (252) and scatter bait. And all the time and everywhere the bird who was master of the flock kept the birds from the snares and the bait. Thus they steered clear of the snares.[7]

The fowler grew weary as he followed the master of the flock through the forest in order to spread his bait. Tormented by hunger and thirst, he said to himself, “Presently these birds will be caught; in a moment they will be caught; they will fall into the snares.” But the birds, following behind their master, went all round the snares, and although they saw the bait, they did not step on to the ground where there were a bait and a snare. By always walking away from the snares and bait they kept themselves safe.

The fowler, from where he stood by himself,[8] saw the birds walking all round the snares, and he said to himself, “They will go near in the evening; they will presently be caught; in a moment they will be caught.”

So the fowler, as he pursued the flock day after day through the forest, was tormented by hunger and thirst. His mouth was dry and his lips were swollen. He was tortured by the cold when it was cold and scorched by the heat when it was hot. He was burnt by the hot winds, and every evening tired out[9] he went home baffled, with his hands sore.

But seeing the flock of birds again he forgot his weariness,[10] and he constantly went chasing after the flock of birds, setting snares and scattering bait. Then, when in the last month of summer he had gone into the forest in pursuit of that flock of birds and had again set his snares (253) and scattered his bait, he went to one side and sat down where he could see his snares. The bird who was the master and guardian of the flock came with his great flock and walked all round the snares and the bait. The birds again saw the sesame and rice, and when they had seen them asked permission of their master, saying, “Let us go and feed on the sesame and rice.” But the master of the flock said, “Do not go near to them. For how can sesame and rice grow in the forest? Sesame grows in fields and[11] rice and other grain in irrigated land. Do not go near, but keep away from the place.”

And the fowler realised how things were. “For a long time now,” said he, “I have tired myself in the forest trying to catch the birds, setting my snares and scattering bait. I have spent a long time setting snares and scattering bait in this small tract of forest. Yet at no time have those birds gone near to the snares or fed on the bait. For many a year have I tired myself, being tormented by the cold when it was cold, scorched by the heat when it was warm, buffetted by the hot winds, famished with hunger and parched[12] with thirst. But never during so many years of my wandering about has a single bird from that great flock fallen into my hands. What trick can there be, by means of which ī may catch these birds in my snares?” And he said to himself, “What now if I were to cover[13] myself with leaves and twigs and so entice[14] these birds into my snares?”

Then, monks, in the last month of summer, in spite of being tormented by the hot winds (254) and suffering from hunger and thirst, the fowler covered himself with leaves and twigs, and set out to drive that big flock of birds to the place where the snares were. And, monks, those birds saw the fowler when he was some way off, moving[15] about under the cover of the twigs of trees, and they reported this to the master of the flock, saying, “Master, here is a tree moving about round the flock.”

And thus, monks, the master of the flock addressed the birds in verse:—

In the forest I have seen aśvakarṇa-[16]trees, vibhītakas,[17] karṇikāras,[18] mucilindas[19] and ketakas.[20] But these grow standing still. Here is a tree that moves. It cannot be a real tree; there must be something else here.

Then, monks, that fowler, tormented by the hot winds in the last month of summer, exhausted, broken and crushed, on that occasion spoke this verse:—

This is an old partridge[21] that has come here after breaking out of its cage. He is wise to snares, goes his way[22] and speaks like a man.

The Exalted One said, “It may be again, monks, that you will think that at that time and on that occasion the master of the flock of birds, that persuasive[23] and sagacious bird (śakuntaka), was somebody else. You must not think so. And why? I, monks, at that time and on that occasion was the master of the flock of birds, that persuasive and sagacious bird. You will think that the fowler was somebody else. You must not think so. Wicked Māra here, monks, at that time and on that occasion (255) was that fowler. Then also did he set snares and nets for me, lay his bait, and follow closely on my heels for a long time, aiming at and seeking an opportunity to tempt me, and not getting one, retire in disgust. And then, too, when I for six years was practising austerities in the forest of penance did he follow closely on my heels, aiming at and seeking an opportunity to tempt me, and not getting one, retire in disgust.”

Here ends the Śakuntaka-Jātaka.

Notes on the Śakuntaka Jātaka:

Fausböll, No. 209 = J. 2. 160 ff.

Footnotes and references:


Oḍḍita, see p. 222, n. 2.


The text has kālapāśa, “the noose of Yāma or death.” J. has vālapāśa, “hair-noose,” a reading found in our MSS. also at some places. The simple sense of “snare” is adequate for translation, whatever reading be adopted.


Members of a very low caste, see p. 167, n. 1.


The text has bhaṅgakula, which is an unknown word. Senart suggests that the reading of one MS. may point to a form mungusakula. Even so, we would have two words (the other being nakula) denoting the same animal. The translation given must be regarded as only approximately correct.


See p. 200, n. 5.


See p. 200, n. 6.


Literally, “they went from the space or area of the snares,” kālapāśokāsā (= kālapāśāvakāsāt) gacchanti.


eko tāto.


Khijjitvā, BSk. past participle of khijjati, passive of khid. Cf. akhijjanta, below same page.


Reading with one MS. akhijjanto for akhijjantam of the text, “not being wearied.”


Reading, with two MSS., ca for na of the text.


Text applies śuṣyanta, “parched” to both “hunger” and “thirst.”


Pariveṭhitvā, participle from pariveṭh Pali = pariveṣṭ. On p. 254 (text) we have both pariveṣṭayitvā and sampariveṭhita.


Ākāleyam, from kal, “impel”, “incite”, “urge”.


Parisakkanta, from Pali sakkati (= ṣvaṣk), “to go.”


Vatica Robusta W. and A.


Terminalia Bellerica.


See Vol. I, p. 186, n. 2.


A kind of flowering tree. Cf. mucilindaka, p. 58, n, 6.


Pandanus Odoratissimus.


Tittirika. J. 2. 162, has kappara, “jungle-cock,” but J. trans. does not bring out the point of this stanza clearly.


Read apakramati, as in J., for apakramanti.


Literally, “drawing” (i.e. others after him), parikaḍḍhaka, from kriṣ, “to drag,” cf. kaḍḍhati, p. 72, n. 1.

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