The Mahavastu (great story)

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

This page describes jataka of the female elephant (hastin or hastini) (metrical) which is Chapter XII(b) 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 XII(b) - The Jātaka of the female elephant (hastin or hastinī) (metrical)

Put all distractions away, and all of you listen with undivided attention as I relate how arduous and thrilling the Bodhisattva’s career was.

Even when he was an elephant in the world of beasts he was kind to his mother. How much more should I celebrate him as a man,[1] venerable and wise?

Willingly I relate, as I have heard it said by my teachers, how Bodhisattvas the world over are affectionate, good-natured and devoted.

It was on the slope of the lower Himalayas, on pleasant Caṇḍagiri, which was adorned all over with the retreats of austere men;

The haunt of many Kinnaras, elephants, apes, monkeys, boars, leopards and tigers, the resort of stags and buffaloes and deer, and where bulls, yaks and sambaras[2]roamed.

All that fair wood was pleasant with the sweet songs of fairing birds, peacock, pheasant, partridge and cuckoo.

(134) Everywhere there glearned lotus-pools swarming with swans, and on the farther bank were ducks dripping with water, and wallowing[3] herds of elephants.

Here around a tree where bees made honey from pollen-laden flowers there flocked in play vari-coloured gazelles and birds.

There the fair wood was graced by venerable ascetics whose delight was in the joy of meditation and who had entered the stream,[4] and by others whose delight was in their studies.

There the fair wood was graced by the sight of young men with long matted hair and dressed in antelope-hides and bark, carrying various fruits and roots.

And in that delightful wood was an elephant, the best of his breed, devotedly tending his mother who was blind and was aged and weak.

But once, whilst he was roaming with the elephant herd and had strayed far away, the king with his army happened to be out hunting for elephants.

The king’s son saw this sterling elephant and excitedly he spoke, “O king, I have seen a noble elephant, the best in all the herd, with all fine qualities endowed.”

And when the king of Kāśi had seen this noble elephant who was a lord among the herd, he caught him and took him captive from the wood to the city.

But the elephant would not take food or drink, but kept on continually sighing. And the king of earth with gentle voice thus spoke to this jewel of an elephant.

“Fair elephant,” said he, “do not become lean, but accept this food and drink this water. I would have you to be happy in this fairest of all cities. So be not aggrieved.” (135) The best of elephants replied,

“O lord of men, I grieve not because of those fettering shackles, nor because of hunger and thirst. I have a greater sorrow than this, O king, and it is for this I grieve.”

The king said,

“O fair elephant, what greater sorrow is yours that you care not for drink or food? This other greater sorrow tell me.”

The young elephant replied,

“My mother is fast her prime, old, advanced in years, and blind. Without my company, O king, she will die. That is why I grieve.

“To her who cannot see I used to give the lily’s stalk and root, and then I would feed myself. To-day, she has no food, and that is why I grieve.

“And when her body was scorched by the summer’s heat I would bring cool water from the shady forest and bathe her. But to-day there is none to ward her. And for this I grieve.

“Sightless she now roams the wood, her body covered with dust, crying, ‘Where is my son?’ This is the greater sorrow I am this day afflicted with.”

When the king heard this tender and pitiful tale of the elephant, with his face bathed in tears he spoke to the elephant, saying “One would search in vain among many men[5] for such perfect goodness as this of yours, which causes such oppressing sorrow in your heart.”

[To his men he said:]

“Set the elephant free at once, let him roam the forest and tend the mother whom he reveres. (136) Let his mother he comforted and rejoice with her jewel of a son.

“The noble elephant’s mother, oppressed by pain and wounded by the shafts of grief, as she roams the wood makes it echo to her cries, as the thunder-cloud makes the sky re-echo.

“May mother and son be glad, and the beasts and the devas of the forest as well,” said the king. “See to it, I bid you,[6] that the sightless mother rejoice with her precious jewel.”

The best of elephants, chased by hunters for his ivory and by tigers for his blood and flesh, was taken and brought[7] to the capital of Kāśi.

The devas of the forest tell her that the best of elephants, endowed with the noblest qualities, had been caught by the king of Kāśi and taken in fetters from the forest to the city.

“This,” she said, “will surely mean my death, helpless and blind as I am. And that elephant, my good son, will also die through grief for me.

“For that elephant who wandered o’er the hills and through the leafy forest glades, will surely die through grief for me and his native glen.”

[The king said:]

“And so, noble elephant, forasmuch as your mother had never cause to be angry with you nor was ever neglected by you, but was ever lovingly tended by you, so will release be yours.

“Forasmuch as, O valiant one, you did never eat your food of leaves and roots without first giving some to your mother, so will release be yours.”

Then the noble elephant hurriedly went to his mother and affectionately spoke to her. He groomed her with tender creepers and cleaned her of dust.

(137) Said he, “I was bound in cruel fetters by the king of Kāśi in his fairest city. But because of you, my blind mother,[8] I was set free by the righteous king.”

When she heard the noble elephant’s voice and felt his touch, she received her son with joy and gladness, her sight restored.

The female elephant said:

“May the king of Kāśi and his people rejoice and be glad, as I to-day rejoice because of my son and my restored sight.”

To-day she has her son and with her own eyes sees him, a noble elephant, as before among the crags and woods, the haunts of wild beasts.

The perfect Buddha, the prince of speakers, out of his knowledge of his former lives, related this jātaka to his monks.

“I was that noble elephant,” said he, “and my mother was the female elephant. So to-day as well am I her son, and Gotamī[9] is dearly beloved of me.

“Thus do you who in the course of recurrent lives are brought to sorrow by love or hate, in order to give up love and hate live the life of dharma without thought of self.

Here ends the Jātaka of the Female Elephant.

Footnotes and references:


Reading manuṣyabhūtam for -bhūto.


A kind of deer, now called sambar.


Vilulita. BSk. and Pali, Sk. viluṭhita. See P.E.D. s.v. viloḷana. Not in B.H.S.D.


Literally “gone to the cascade”, nirjharagata, a strange expression which seems to occur only here, and is assumed to be synonymous with śrotāpanna, “a stream-winner,” or one who has entered on the first stage of the Way. See vol. 1, pp. 82, 94, 137, 138, 201, and notes.


Literally, “among many men it would be hard to find,” ekatyeṣu manuṣyeṣu suddullabhā.


Me, ethic dative.


Literally “entered” āvikṣa, aor. of āviś, for āvikṣat. This and the next stanzas obviously break the continuity of the story, interrupting as they do the course of the king’s speech. As Senart remarks, iṣṭam gājottamam, etc., are anomalously neuter. He also found it necesary to make many corrections before the text as given in the MSS. could assume the required metrical form. It is more than likely that these verses are an ill-fitting interpolation from another version of the story.


Anayanā, voc. of the adj. for -e, or causal abl. of the substantive, for -āt(d).


I.e. Mahāprajāpatī.