The Mahavastu (great story)

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

This page describes five hundred merchants (prose) which is Chapter IX(a) 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 IX(a) - The Five Hundred Merchants (prose)

The monks said to the Exalted One, “Behold, Lord, how the venerable Śāriputra and Maudgalyāyana and the five hundred monks with them were led by the Exalted One away from the pitiless heretical ways of the Wanderer Sañjayin, and saved from the ocean, the jungle, the wilderness of the round, without beginning or end,[1] of birth, death and old age.” The Exalted One replied, “Monks,” said he, “this is not the first time that I did so.[2] On another occasion they were saved by me from the terrible island of the Sirens[3] at a time when they had fallen into their hands. I led them safely across the great ocean and set them down in Jambudvīpa.” The monks asked, “Was there another occasion, Lord?” The Exalted One replied, “Yes, monks.”

Once upon a time, monks, long ago, five hundred merchants left Jambudvīpa and set sail on the great sea in an oceangoing vessel to seek for wealth. When their vessel reached mid-ocean (68) it was wrecked by a monstrous fish. And when their vessel was broken up they prayed to various devas, each one to the deva he believed in. Some called on Śiva, others on Vaiśravaṇa, others on Skanda, others on Varuṇa, others on Yama, others on Kuvera, others on Śakra, others on Brahmā and others on Diśā,[4] all crying, “May we escape alive from this great ocean.”

Now when their vessel broke up they leapt into the sea, taking with them floats of various kinds, some taking jars, others planks and others rafts made of the bottle-gourd.[5] Others clung to the body of a comrade who had been drowned. For the sea does not harbour a dead body for long,[6] but soon throws it up on the mainland or on an island, and they would thus reach that mainland or that island along with the corpse.

The merchants who thus floated on the sea were thrown by the wind on to the island of the Sirens. And on that island of the Sirens they saw thousands of trees of various kinds. In whatever part of the island they were brought[7] ashore by the wind, they saw hundreds of women strolling about, who were lovely and beautiful, dressed in gay attire, decked out with ornaments and wearing earrings of gems and jewels. Some were like young brides, others like women who had recently been delivered, and others like middle-aged women—but really they were so many hundreds of Sirens in human form. They seized every one of the merchants who had escaped from the sea. “Welcome,” said they, “noble sons of nobles. You will be husbands to us who are without husbands, lords to us who are without lords and consorts to us who are without consorts. For our own masters fell into misfortune and destruction when their ship was wrecked on the great ocean. Surely the sea was gracious to us when it brought you to this island.” They raised up the merchants by their shoulders, rescued them from the sea and set them on dry land. Then (69) they cheered them up, saying, “Noble friends, do not fret nor worry.[8] You have come to a rich island, with an unending supply of precious stones, abounding in food and drink, flowers and fruits, perfumes, garlands and ointments, garments, rugs and cloaks. Here with us, noble friends, amuse, delight and enjoy yourselves, drinking mead and partaking of joys with no thought of trouble.” The merchants replied, “Let us be for a while that we may shake off our sorrow.”

Then all the five hundred merchants[9] went away from the women, and when they had done so they wept, grieved and lamented, “O mother,” cried they, “O father, O son, O brother, O sister, O bright Jambudvīpa with its gardens!” When they had thus wept, grieved and lamented, they comforted one another and joined the women, each his own one.[10] They went with the women along a magnificent road of fresh verdant grass, without reeds, thoms or litter, without potsherds or gravel, dustless, even and flat, and came to a forest glade filled with all sorts of flowers and fruits. At all seasons[11] and times of the year there were in that forest glade flowers of divers kinds that were fragrant and sweet-scented. At all seasons and times of the year there were in that forest glade divers leaves for making powders[12] which were of good smell and taste, like the honey of the bee. There were lovely lotus-pools of pleasant water, echoing with the cries of swans and ducks and covered with lotuses of all kinds. When they emerged from this grove they caught sight of the dwellings of the Sirens, which were lofty, imposing and gleaming white like frost. They had glittering turrets with casements and windows[13] and star-shaped and crescent decorations. To their gaze the city of the Sirens was like the abode of Vaiśravaṇa.[14]

Thus the Sirens took the merchants, one each, to their homes that were like mansions of devas. (70) In these dwellings the merchants saw well-appointed couches with woollen rugs of downy fleece,[15] spreads of pure white cloth and red cushions at both ends. The couches were of gold, silver and ivory. They saw delightful nooks in a grove of Aśoka[16] trees which were laden with flowers and fruits, pleasant gymnasia,[17] and various kinds of exquisite food, drink and refreshments.

The merchants were made to sit on fine bejewelled seats, and had their hair and beards trimmed by barbers. Thus they were made ready to exercise in the gymnasia and bathe in the baths. When they had been washed, massaged and anointed they were smeared with the red ointment of the fragrant dark sandal-wood. They were then clothed in sumptuous garments, and decorated with fine garlands and bouquets. Costly and exquisite meals were set before them; solid and soft foods; various kinds of condiments of the best flavours, whether sugary, salt, sweet, acid, pungent or astringent;[18] various kinds of meat, namely, the flesh of boars, fishes, pheasants, quails, lābakas,[19] francolin partridges,[20] and antelopes. The Sirens entertained the merchants with various dances, songs, and musical instruments. Some played on tabours and drums,[21] on sindhavas,[22] cymbals, guitars,[23] lutes, nakulas,[24] sughoṣas,[25] bhāṇḍakas,[26] and flutes, while others sang sweetly.

When the Sirens saw that they had cheered up the merchants, they showed them their large stores of precious stones. They prepared for the gentlemen a choice, excellent and comfortable couch.[27] “Enjoy yourselves here, noble friends, in this island of precious stones (71) like sons of devas in Nandana. But you must not be careless and go along the way that lies south of the city.”

But, monks, he who was the leader of the five hundred merchants was clever and shrewd. And he asked himself, “I wonder why these women forbid us to go along the way to the south of the city. What now if I were to find out what there is to the south of the city or how things are there?” Then when the leader found the women were asleep or too drunk to be watchful, he took a sword, left the city and went along the road to the south. And on his way he came within sight of a habitation of a frightful aspect in a clear space, and heard the sound of the wailing of many men. Following the direction of this sound he saw a stronghold of iron encircled by walls of copper. Looking for the gate of this stronghold he went round it, keeping it to his right. He failed to find the gate, but he could still hear the sound of many men crying out, “O mother, O father, O son, O brother, O sister, O Jambudvīpa and its fair gardens.”

He went round the stronghold, and on the north side of it he saw a tall acacia[28] tree growing close against the wall. He climbed the acacia tree and within the stronghold he saw hundreds of famished[29] men. Their hair, nails and beards were long, their clothes filthy and ragged, and their skin and flesh shrivelled by the hot winds. They were dark and dirty, their hair was unkempt, and they were suffering the pangs of hunger and thirst. With their nails they were digging the ground for water. When they rose up from the ground they fell back again from weakness.

When they heard a noise among the branches and leaves of the acacia tree they all rose up and stretched out their joined hands. “O noble sir,” cried they, “Whether you are a deva, a Nāga, a Kinnara, a Gandharva, a Yakṣa or a Kumbhāṇḍa, we turn to you for refuge. Release us wretched ones from our bondage that we may once more (72) live in our[30] land and be reunited with our friends and kinsfolk.”

The leader of the merchants, perched in the acacia tree, wept and said to the merchants within,[31] “I am no deva, nor Nāga, Kinnara, Gandharva, nor Śakra nor Brahmā, nor the great king Virūḍhaka.[32] But my friends and I are from Jambudvīpa. In pursuit of wealth we went down to the great sea in a ship, but we were wrecked. We hundreds of merchants were rescued by these women. Then they diverted, delighted and amused themselves with us. As long as we do not offend them they will wish us no harm.”

The merchants within replied, “We too, sir, left Jambudvīpa and went down to the great sea in a ship in pursuit of wealth. But when we were in mid-ocean our ship was wrecked. We[33] five hundred merchants were rescued by these women, who diverted, delighted and amused themselves with us,[34] as they have now been doing with you. When your ship was wrecked and you were thrown by the wind on to the island, you were seen by the Sirens. Of our five hundred merchants two hundred and fifty,[35] and those the younger ones among us, were devoured.[36] And we, the remaining two hundred and fifty, were thrown into this gloomy[37] stronghold. Friend, these women are not human, they are Sirens.”

When the leader of the merchants, perched on the acacia tree, heard these words of the merchants imprisoned within the gloomy stronghold, he became frightened, terrified and agitated. Stretching out his joined hands he implored them, saying, “Tell me, what means is there whereby I may escape in safety from these Sirens?” They answered and said “When the moon is full in the month Kārttika,[38] the king of horses named Keśin,[39] who feeds on fragrant grain of rice which grows on untilled and unsown ground and is dustless and huskless, comes hither from the land of Uttarakuru to the island of the Sirens. And when he arrives he cries out three times in a human voice, saying, ‘Who is there here who wishes to cross the great ocean? I will take him across in safety.’ Turn for refuge (73) to that king of horses. He will take you away from the island of the Sirens across the sea. One of the five hundred merchants should cling to the mane of the king of horses, others to his several limbs, others cling to these one after the other, and others cling to his broad back, and he will bring all, whether it be a hundred or a thousand, in due course to Jambudvīpa. This is the means of escaping from the island of the Sirens and of reaching Jambudvīpa in safety. There is no other.”

The leader of the merchants said to the imprisoned merchants, “Do you also all come. Let us all go to Jambudvīpa. Leap over the walls of the stronghold, or else dig beneath[40] them.” But they answered and said, “You do not know what the stronghold of the Sirens is like. We cannot leap out of it. But do you[41] escape if you want to. Thus there will be deliverance for you. But if you are thrown into this gloomy stronghold, there will be no deliverance. Go in peace to your own land. In a certain city there you will find our fathers’ people. Greet them for us and bid them[42] give charity and perform deeds of merit. Bid them live in Jambudvīpa, even if it be by going begging round the houses with a potsherd for an almsbowl,[43] and not cross the sea again where such disasters as these may befall them. Or bid them seek a living by sending others to do the work,[44] and not think of going down to the sea where such disasters as these may befall them.”

He replied, “I myself will now go before the Siren, whom I left asleep,[45] wakes up and finds that I have come here.”

The leader of the merchants climbed down from the acacia tree, while the merchants within cried out, “Alas! alas![46] We shall be devoured by the Sirens. We have looked upon a fellow-man for the last time.”

After the leader of the merchants had climbed down from the acacia tree, he returned by the way he had come and lay down on the bed provided by the Sirens. And as he lay there he reflected, “How (74) shall I let these merchants know of this matter as I myself saw and heard it,[47] without the Sirens getting to know, and how can this plan of mine be urged upon them?[48] For if I tell these five hundred merchants about the king of horses before he arrives, then one or other of them, being drunk or careless, will tell the Sirens. Then we shall have cause to be sorry and shall fall into misfortune and disaster. Wise men are agreed that no matter to whom a secret is revealed it is hard to find one loyal enough to keep it. Let me then keep this secret to myself until the day of the full moon[49] in the month of Kārttika. Then when the king of horses has actually come to the island of the Sirens, I shall tell them of the danger we are in.”

So he kept the secret within his heart, and did not reveal it to anybody until the full moon of the month Kārttika. And when the full moon rose the king of horses arrived at the island of the Sirens. Then did their leader speak to the merchants, saying, “To-day do not indulge in drink and food, in song and music with the women. There is a certain matter about which you, my friends, must hear from me. Yonder is a hidden spot. Do you all gather there when the women have gone to bed.”

And when the women had gone to bed all the hundreds of merchants gathered in that hidden place and questioned their leader. “Tell us, leader,” said they, “what it is that you have seen or heard.” The leader explained the whole situation to the merchants, saying, "It occurred to me to ask myself why the women should keep us away from the way south of the city. So when my woman was lying fast asleep,[50] I with great eagerness took a sword and went out by the road south of the city. There I saw a stronghold as of copper which had no gate, for I saw none, but I heard the noise of wailing of a crowd of people. Then keeping the stronghold on my right (75) I went round to the north side of it, and there saw a tall acacia tree. I climbed the tree and looked down into the stronghold. There I saw many hundreds of merchants. They were lean and emaciated,[51] their skin and flesh shrivelled by the wind and heat. They were dark and their hair unkempt. They dug the ground with their nails to look for water, and they suffered pangs of hunger and thirst. Several hundred skeletons lay round about scattered in all directions. Merchants from this and that city were all gathered together there. I was told by those merchants that those who lived there were survivors of those who had been devoured by the Sirens. The others, two hundred and fifty of them, had been devoured. These women, therefore, are not human beings, but Sirens. If we do not make an effort to return to our own country, all of us, too, will fall into misfortune and destruction at the hands of these Sirens. It you wish for deliverance from the hands of this crowd of Sirens and to go in safety to Jambudvīpa, there is Keśin, the king of horses, from the land of Uttarakuru, who feeds on fragrant grain of rice which grows on untilled and unploughed soil and is without powder and husk. He comes here to the island of the Sirens when the moon is full in the month of Kārttika. He stands on the seashore on the northern side of the island of the Sirens, and shouts ‘Who is for the shore beyond the sea?’[52] So let us draw near to the king of horses. He will take us in safety to our own land.”

The five hundred merchants then went with their leader to the northern side of the city of the Sirens. There they saw Keśin, the king of horses, standing on the sea-shore and stretching out his neck and shouting, ‘Who is for the shore beyond the sea?’ The five hundred merchants went up to Keśin, the king of horses, and said to him, “O greatly compassionate one, we come to your refuge Do you cross and take us with you.”[53]

(76) The king of horses gave instructions to the merchants, saying, “When I go hence from the island of the Sirens, I shall take you[54] with me, neigh[55] three times and fly through the air. Then the Sirens who have borne you boys or girls will come and bring them along. They will pitch many a pitiful tale[56] and say, ‘Noble friends, do not forsake us at the bidding of another. Do not leave this pleasant and rich isle with its plentiful supply of precious stones.’ But you must not then pay any heed to the words of the Sirens. For he who will heed their words and become full of yearning and say ‘There is my wife, there my son, there my daughter,’ will again fall into the power of the Sirens and drop off my back to the ground. But he who will not heed the words of the Sirens nor say ‘There is my wife, there my son, there my daughter,’ nor have any yearning, will go in safety to Jambudvīpa clinging to my mane.”

Thus, monks, Keśin, the king of horses, after giving these instructions to the merchants, neighed three times and flew through the air carrying them all with him. When the Sirens heard the neighing[57] of Keśin, the king of horses, they came bringing their sons and daughters. They cried out, “Noble friends, do not forsake us at the bidding of another. Do not leave this pleasant and rich isle with its plentiful supply of precious stones.” And, monks, those of the merchants who were filled with yearning at the sight of the Sirens, fell from the horse’s back to the ground. Those who did not look back with yearning safely escaped from the island of the Sirens to Jambudvīpa.

It may be again, monks, that you will think that at that time and on that occasion, Keśin, the king of horses, was somebody else. But you must not think so. And why? I, monks, at that (77) time and on that occasion was Keśin, the king of horses. It may be again, monks, that you will think that at that time and on that occasion those five hundred merchants were some others. But you must not think so. And why? These monks here at that time and on that occasion were those five hundred merchants. Then did I rescue them from the pitiless land of the Sirens, carried them in safety across the ocean and set them down in Jambudvīpa. And now, too, have I turned them from the pitiless ways of wrong belief and led them across from the wilderness and jungle of the round, that is without beginning or end, of birth, old age and death.

Here ends the [prose version of the] Jātaka of the Five Hundred Monks led by Śāriputra and Maudgalyāyana, who were cast on the island of the Sirens.

Footnotes and references:


Anavarāgra, Pali anamatagga. See  P.E.D., C.P.D. and B.H.S.D.


The text repeats the whole statement.


Rākṣasīs, i.e. female Rāksasas, see Vol. I, p. 73, n. 5. The “Siren” of Greek mythology is not an exact counterpart, but the use of the term here is perhaps justified by the mise en scene, and at the same time obviates the constant repetition of a Sanskrit word in italics.


Wife of Rudra. The other gods invoked are invoked by sailors in a like predicament at Vol. I, p. 200.


Literally, “a row (or series) of bottle-gourds”, alābuśreṇi. Alābu (variously spelt alambu, alāmbu, ālāmbu, in the MSS.) is the Lagenaria Vulgaris Ser. Śreṇi has here the acc. sg. form śreṇiyam (MS. śreṇīyam). For other examples of this form see Edgerton Gram. §10. 63. The text has the sg. for each of the three terms.


Literally “does not live with,” sārdhaṃ samvasati. For the idea, see V. 2.237.


Allipiyānti. See Vol. 2, p. 419, n. See also B.H.S.D.


Paritaṣyati, BSk. = Pali paritassati “which in form clearly = Sk. paritriṣyati, but is frequently confused with (Pali) tasati (trasati),” P.E.D. Cf. B.H.S.D.


No account is taken of the fact that some had been drowned.


Svakasvakāni strīyo allīnā. For the BSk. use of neut. adj. with fem. noun, see Edgerton, Gram. §6. 61. (But it seems to accord better with the syntax and with the sense to take strīyo as acc. pl., dependent on allīnā, “resorted to”, than nom., as Edgerton does).


Utuka, BSk. and Pali. Not noticed in B.H.S.D.


Literally ‘powdered leaves’, or ‘powder of leaves’, patracūrṇa.


Siṃhapañjaragavākṣa. See Vol. 2, p. 33, n. 3.


I.e. Kuvera, god of wealth.


Lomaśagonika. Gonika is for Sk. and BSk. goṇika or gonaka, Pali goṇaka.


Jonesia Asoka.




For these six flavours see Vol. 2, p. 478 (text) and cf. Miln. 56. Here, however, instead of ambla (= Pali atnbila) as the first flavour, we have khaṇḍa? “sugary”.


A kind of quail.


Āliṅga, see Vol. 2, p. 155, n. 12.


? musical instruments from Sindh.


? “Eleven-stringed instruments,” ekādaśika.


See Vol. 2, p. 154, n. 6.


See Vol. I, p. 183, n. 3.


Unknown, but cf. bhāṇḍa ‘any musical instrument’, (M.W.)


Āryaputrānāṃ vayaṃ ca praṇitam... āsanaṃ prajñāpensuḥ. In this sentence vayam is inexplicable. Svakānām (< svaka = svaya in BSk.) would give good sense, viz., “they prepared seats for the men each for her own man.”


Sopavāsika (= sa-upa-v.). So Senart. Edgerton (B.H.S.D.), however, would read śvāsopavāsika “which may mean devoted to sighs, subject to sighs, or else fasting from (barely able to get) the breath of life.”


Mam, gen. pl.


It has not yet been explained that the captives were former merchants. The word “within” is supplied in translation to distinguish the two lots.


See Vol. I, p. 200, n. 3.


Mam. Nom. pl. But this is Senart’s emendation of me of the MSS. Edgerton (Gram. §20.41) says that if emendation is necessary, that into mo would be more plausible.


Asmākam, gen. with sārdham, for the instr.


Aḍḍhātiyā... śatā, i.e. “the third hundred less half.” Cf. Pali aḍḍhatiyā. Senart says that the MSS. here favours the form as he prints it.


Khāyita, BSk. and Pali, a twin form of khādita.


Or “coppery”, tāmra.




I.e., “the maned one.” Cf. Keśin, the name of Indra’s and Agni’s horses.


Heṣṭhato, BSk., Pali heṭṭhato.


Tumhe. Cf. Vol. 2, p. 168, n. 1.


Literally “you are to say to them” teṣāṃ vaktavyam.




Literally, “making (= using) the service of another” parasya preṣyakarmaṃ kṛtvā. Cf. Pali pessakamma.


Me rākṣasī śayitā, “my Siren lying down”, or, perhaps, it would be better to take me as an ethic dative.


Avidha, avidha, see Vol. 1, p. 251, n. 2.


Yathā me svayaṃ dṛṣṭo ca śruto ca, where the two participles are masc. although referring to the neuter (etat) kāryam.


Eṣo ca tujyo kāryo, where kārya is again masc. Tujya is the gerundive of tuj “to impel”, etc. But it may be doubted whether the text here is quite correct. Edgerton (B.H.S.D.) doubtfully prefers here the v.l. caturyo =? Sk. cāturya, “cleverness,” “stratagem,” “trick”. But it is not necessary to assume, as he does s.v. tujyo, that Senart regarded that form as a 2nd pers. pron. The context would hardly admit such an interpretation.


Kaumudī cāturmāsī, cf. Pali komudī caturmāsinī. V. 1.155, 176 f.; D. 1.47.


Sahasopinīye śayitāye. According to Senart sopina is an intermediate form between the Pali soppa and supina.


Dhamanīsantata. Cf. Pali dhamanisanthata, “strewn with veins” (santharati = saṃstṛ). The P.E.D. cites Weber, Bhagavatī, p. 289 for Jain Sk. dhamaṇisantata, and compares Lal. Vist. 226. Kern, Toev. s.v. considers that the right reading in Pali also should be santata (sam-tan—“to stretch or cover over”).


Literally, “who is he that goes to the beyond”? ko pāragāmīti.


Literally, “make us cross” asmākaṃ tārehi, where asmākam is gen. for acc. See Edgerton, Gram. §20. 48.


Yuṣmākam. gṛhitvā, gen. for acc. Ibid. §20. 50.


Hīṣitvā, for heṣitvā. See B.H.S.D.


Literally “They will talk many pitiful things,” bahūni karuṇakaruṇāni pralapiṣyanti.


Hīṣaṇa. See B.H.S.D.