The Mahavastu (great story)

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

This page describes rahula in a former life which is Chapter XVII 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 XVII - Rāhula in a former life

The monks asked the Exalted One, “Lord, as a maturing of what karma was Prince Rāhula’s stay in the womb as long as six years?”[1] The Exalted One replied, “This long stay,[2] too, was the maturing of an old karma.”

Once upon a time, monks, long ago, in the country of Videha, in the capital city of Mithilā,[3] there was a brahman king. He had two sons, Prince Candra and Prince Sūrya. Sūrya was the elder and Candra the younger.[4]

Now, monks, this brāhman king of Videha passed away when his time was up and his karma was exhausted.[5] Then Candra said to Sūrya, “You are the elder, take over the kingdom. As for me I will leave home to take up the wandering life of a seer.” But Prince Sūrya replied to Prince Candra and asked, “What is a king’s duty?”[6] Prince Candra answered and said, “The king has to give orders to his people.” Sūrya said to Candra, “My boy, I, your king, order you to become king, while I will leave home and take up the religious life of a seer.”

Then, monks, Prince Sūrya anointed Prince Candra as king in Mithilā, and left home to take up the wandering life of a seer. And he, by living constantly in application to watchful endeavour accomplished the four meditations, achieved the five super-knowledges, and became a seer of great power and influence. (173) Those who had been Sūrya’s attendants when he was a prince, also left home to take up the wandering life of seers with him. They all achieved the four meditations and the five super-knowledges, and came to have great power and influence.

Sūrya the seer said to himself, “Now I have achieved the four meditations and the five super-knowledges, and these attendants of mine have done so also. What if I were now to endeavour to reach a further distinction?” And he resolved not to drink water which had not been given him, not even as much as could be held on a toothpick.[7] But, monks, on one occasion Sūrya the seer, through a lapse of mindfulness[8] drank water from another seer’s jar when it was not given him. When he had drunk it, the memory came to him that he had made a vow never to drink water which had not been given him, not even so much as could be held on a toothpick. “And now,” said he, “here have I, through a lapse of mindfulness, drunk water from this seer’s jar when it was not given me. I am a thief, and hence I am guilty of wrong-doing.[9] I committed a theft in drinking water from another’s jar when it was not given me.”

Then, miserable and dejected, he rose up from his seat and sat on the ground. The young brahmans approached Sūrya the seer and greeted him. But, monks, Sūrya the seer said to them, “Young men, do not greet me.” They said to him, “Master, why should we not greet you?” Sūrya the seer replied, “I, young men, am a thief.” The young men asked, “Why or how, master?” Sūrya the seer replied, “I drank water from that young man’s jar when it was not given me.” The young men then said, “Lord and master, do not speak so. You are not a thief. The water which you drank was as much yours as it was ours. Have no misgiving.” Sūrya the seer replied, “Young men, you know[10] that I made a vow that I should never drink water which was not given me, not even as much as could be held on a toothpick.[11] But now I have drunk water which was not first given me. (174) I have become a thief. Impose on me the penalty due from a thief.” The young men said, “Master, we are not fit to impose a penalty on you. But there is your brother, King Candra. Go to him. He will impose a penalty on you.”

So Sūrya the seer went to the capital city of Mithilā and to King Candra. And King Candra heard that his brother had come to Mithilā. With an army of the four divisions he went to meet him. When he came to him, he alighted from his carriage and greeted him. But Sūrya the seer said to King Candra, “Your majesty, do not greet me any more.” When this had been spoken, King Candra said to Sūrya the seer, “Why, my good man, should 1 not greet my elder brother, Sūrya the seer, when I see him?”

Then, monks, Sūrya the seer said to King Candra,

I am a thief, O king, I drank another man’s water. So impose on me the penalty of a thief.

But, monks, King Candra replied to Sūrya the seer. “I grant you a pardon, my good man. The water which you drank was from your own domain, for my kingdom is your kingdom. Go where you wish and have no guilty feeling.”[12]

Then Sūrya the seer addressed King Candra in verse:

O king, I cannot shake off this feeling of guilt. Well would it be were I punished with the punishment of a thief.

(175) Then the son of King Candra of Videha, and the nephew of Sūrya, said to his father, “Sire, let a penalty be imposed on the seer so that he can shake off his guilty feeling. Let not the seer pine away with remorse.” King Candra reflected, “What kind of penalty can I impose on Sūrya the seer so that he may be rid of his feeling of guilt?” Then he had a grove of Aśoka[13] trees sprinkled and swept; had a high couch arranged there, solid and soft food brought and royal sweetmeats hung on the branches of the trees. He said to Sūrya the seer, “Go, my good man, and sit down there in the grove of Aśoka trees. For there you will find solid and soft food, and a couch arranged for you. There I give you leave to enjoy yourself in comfort” And King Candra kept Sūrya the seer in the grove of Aśoka trees for six nights.

When the six nights were past, King Candra reflected, “How can I rid Sūrya the seer of his feeling of guilt, and let him go?” And, he said to himself, “What now if I were to proclaim a general amnesty?”[14] So, monks, on the seventh day King Candra proclaimed a general amnesty. And the counsellors said to Sūrya the seer, “Go, good sir, your punishment has been remitted. For King Candra has proclaimed a general amnesty.” Thus rid of his feeling of guilt he went once more to his hermitage.

The Exalted One said, “It may be, monks, that you will think at that time and on that occasion King Candra was somebody else. Prince Rāhula here was then he. I was he who was then Sūrya the seer. Because Sūrya the seer was confined in the Aśoka grove for six nights, as a maturing of that karma Prince Rāhula’s stay in the womb was six years long.”

Here ends the story of a former birth of Rāhula the Fortunate.[15]

Footnotes and references:


The only other allusion to this circumstance of Rāhula’s birth appears to be that in the Chinese life of the Buddha composed or translated from Indian sources about a.d. 588, and entitled Fo-pen-hing-tsih-king. See Beal: Romantic History of the Buddha, p. 360.


The text has only vaiso, i.e. vā = eva + eṣo, “this too.”


See vol. 1, p. 239, n. 2.


But they are first mentioned in the opposite order according to the convention in Buddhist texts to name the moon (candra) before the sun (sūrya).


Literally, “through the waning of his life and his karma,” āyuksayācca karmakṣayācca. Cf. vol. 1, p. 44, n. 2.


Literally, “what is to be done by a king?” hiṃ rājñā (so read for rājñām) kartavyam.


Udakarṃ dantakāṣṭam pi “water of a toothpick.” So interpreted by Senart, who calls attention to the different interpretation in the Chinese version, in which the two words are, according to Beal, rendered “water or even a toothpick.”


Smṛtisammoha. Cf. Pali saíisammosa.


Literally, “wrong-doing has arisen in me,” kaukṛtyam utpannam.


The text has 3rd pers. pl.


The meaning is clear, but something is wrong with the text. For the past participle bhuktam we should expect the gerundive (pari) bhuktavyam, as when the vow is first expressed. In the translation it is assumed that the pūrvam which follows bhuktam is a mistake for -vyam, being inadvertently copied from pūrvam in the next sentence.


Or “guiltiness,” kaukṛtya.


Jonesia asoka.


Literally, “were to have a setting free of all bonds made,” sarvabandhanapramokṣaṃ kārāpeyam.


Rāhulabhadra, Pali Rāhulabhadda, see e.g. Thag. 295 f.

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