The Mahavastu (great story)

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

This page describes dharmalabdha jataka which is Chapter XXV 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 XXV - The Dharmalabdha Jātaka

When the Exalted One had set rolling the excellent wheel of dharma, the monks said to him, “How was it that[1] Mara’s daughters came to the Exalted One desiring and seeking an opportunity to tempt[2] him, but not succeeding in finding one left him alone?” The Exalted One replied, “Monks, that was not the first occasion they acted so. They did so on another occasion also.” The monks asked, “Was there another occasion, Lord?” The Exalted One replied, “Yes, monks.”

Once upon a time, monks, long ago, in the city of Benares in the province of Kāśi, there was a trader named Dharmalabdha. He was a seafaring merchant and used to cross the great ocean and return after a prosperous voyage.[3]

Now once as he was leaving Benares some five hundred merchants approached him and said (287) “We, too, will cross the great ocean with you.” But Dharmalabdha replied, “You cannot go the way I go. For I go to the island of the ogresses,[4] and these ogresses seduce traders with hundreds of wiles. Hundreds of traders are there who have been seduced by the ogresses and have fallen upon misfortune and disaster. You cannot go with me.” Thus the merchant Dharmalabdha refused permission to those five hundred traders, “Lest,” as he said, “you be seduced by those ogresses and fall upon misfortune and disaster.”

But then the five hundred traders met together and said, “Here is this merchant Dharmalabdha who goes his prosperous way over the great ocean; he goes and comes in safety, and he quickly returns after a successful voyage. But he will give us no chance to go. Friends, whatever kind of merit the virtuous trader Dharmalabdha has acquired,[5] do you, too, acquire a like one,[6] so that when he sets out from Benares we, too, shall go.” And so all the five hundred traders acquired the same kind of merit as Dharmalabdha, and when he set sail all the five hundred traders set out with him and went with him as their leader.

When they reached the place where those ogresses lived, all the five hundred traders were called together by Dharmalabdha the merchant and given a warning. “Friends,” said he, “all you five hundred traders set out from Benares with me, and now we are about to reach the dwelling-place of the ogresses. These ogresses will try to seduce you in various ways, some with their beauty; (288) others with their voices; others with perfumes; others with sweet flavours, and others with their touch. There in your path they will conjure up various and divers desirable and lovely things; they will conjure up wares laid out for sale by the road-side. Wherever there is any desirable and lovely thing[7] do not look at it. None of you must covet it in any way. You must in no way lay hold of anything, you must in no way eat of anything. They will conjure up thousands of various kinds of flowering trees and fruit trees laden with intoxicating flowers and fruits, from the roots right up to the flowers heavy with clusters of leaves and fruits. But you must not touch any flower or any fruit. They will conjure up divers lotus-ponds, clear and bright, with cool water, and strewn with golden sands, covered with lotuses, and having pleasant strands for bathing. These, my friends, you must in no wise go near.[8] You must in no wise taste the water from the pools, or a red and white lotus, or a blue, red and white one, or a white one, or the fibrous stalk of a lotus. They will conjure up as well divers kinds of gems and precious stones. You must in no wise let greed for these arise in you. Whoever will let greed arise in him will never again return to Jambudvīpa; for thus will he pass from misfortune to disaster. But he who will turn away from everything in the dwelling-place of the ogresses will have a prosperous voyage and return successfully to his own land.”

When they should have acquired[9] merit the traders would set out[10] from Jambudvīpa for the great ocean, which was a source[11] of wealth and treasures.

(289) Embarking on their ships and going down to the sea they would gather treasures from the islands and return successfully.

Their merchant leader was a wise and prudent man, named Dharmalabdha, and he warned them, saying, “Traders, on the way we go are terrible ogresses who wield power through their magic and are well-versed in the art of illusion.

“The foolish simpleton who succumbs to their charms[12] will no more return to Jambudvīpa, his home. But he who will pay them no heed will successfully return to his home in Jambudvīpa.”

And so they went on the course that brought them to where the ogresses dwelt. These sought to seduce[13] the traders by means corresponding to the susceptibilities of each.[14]

With their beauty, their voices and their touch, with perfumes and sweet flavours, with many a varied pleasure, they sought to seduce the traders.

Thus the traders who were susceptible to beauty were seduced with beauty; those susceptible to sounds were seduced with charming songs and music; those susceptible to perfumes were seduced with charming perfumes of various kinds; those susceptible to sweet flavours were seduced with exquisite flavours of various kinds, and those susceptible to touch were seduced with contacts of various kinds.

Then all[15] the five hundred traders said, “Why should we night and day (290) wear ourselves out in the pursuit of various occupations, when we can enjoy here such beauty, sound, perfume, flavour, and touch? Let us divert and enjoy ourselves here, and return no more to Jambudvīpa.”

They told their leader Dharmalabda about it, saying to him, “Greet our friends, relations and kinsmen in Jambudvīpa for us, for we mean to stay and enjoy ourselves here.” Their leader replied and said to them, “Friends, these women are not human beings, they are ogresses. I told you so from the start. For I said to you, ‘To-morrow we shall reach the dwelling-place of the ogresses, and they will try to seduce you[16] in many ways.’ But you must not covet anything there. If you wish to return to your own land in safety, do not let yourselves imagine that these ogresses are human beings, lest you all pass from misfortune to disaster.” But though repeatedly warned by their leader Dharmalabdha, they did not heed him, because they were deluded by their folly.

The merchant-leader Dharmalabdha, with his own company, sailed on, and all[17] the things which the ogresses had conjured up vanished and seemed to have been just a dream. All the five hundred traders were devoured by five hundred ogresses, their bones alone being left.

When they had devoured the five hundred traders, the whole band of ogresses gathered together, and said, “Here is this merchant-leader Dharmalabdha repeatedly sailing this way. He wins wealth time after time and returns safely to his own land. He also prejudices[18] men against coming this way lest, as he says, they be devoured by ogresses. Who has the power to seduce this Dharmalabdha and then devour him?” Then a certain ogress came in, whose wiles were many and who had seduced and devoured several hundreds of traders. (291) She was prevailed on by the ogresses to seduce Dharmalabdha. “He will then,” said they, “be your meat.” So she transformed herself into a young and beautiful woman, and followed close behind Dharmalabdha wherever he went. Now and again she would move up within the view of the merchant-leader. But he paid no heed to the woman.[19]

The merchant-leader in virtue of his merit[20] came down to the sea-port carrying treasures of various kinds. He crossed the great ocean in safety and came to Jambudvīpa. But the ogress in the semblance of a young and beautiful woman followed close behind the merchant-leader and strove in many ways to seduce him.

When Dharmalabdha had safely reached the province of Benares, the ogress conjured up a young boy resembling the merchant-leader, to whom she presented him. “If,” said she, “you go and forsake me, at least take this boy. For who will bring him up when you are gone?” But the merchant-leader replied, “This is not my son, nor are you my wife. I am a human being; you are an ogress. Hundreds of traders have been seduced by you and your companions[21] and have fallen from misfortune to destruction.”

But then the ogress went about the villages, cities, towns and the provinces complaining to the people. “This Dharmalabdha,” said she, “with his fair words brought me from a certain town and now he would abandon me here. He will not receive this son of his nor take me with him.” The merchant-leader was reproved[22] by the crowd, by the men as well as by the women. “Merchant,” said they, “do not send[23] this woman away after bringing her from that seaport town. This is your son, for he is like you.”

The merchant-leader answered and said, “He is not my son, nor is she my wife. She is an ogress. Many hundreds of traders have been seduced by these ogresses and then devoured.” But the ogress said to the people, “This is just like those men who have gained their desire.{GL_NOTE:124345} When they are enamoured of a woman, then they talk about her hundreds of good qualities. (292) But when their passion is spent we are made out to be Piśācanīs,[25] and Rākṣasīs, and reviled on the score of a hundred blemishes.”

Thus did the ogress try to convince[26] the people, and thus did the merchant-leader Dharmalabdha safely reach his home in Benares.

The traders[27] at once replied to the merchant-leader and said, “Why should we toil[28] unceasingly night and day, when we have here and now attained the beautiful things we sought?

“So, master, bid farewell for us to our kith and kin in Jambudvīpa; for it is here that we shall enjoy ourselves. Thither we shall return no more.”

The merchant-leader said,

“O my friends, have you lost your senses[29]? If you act thus, before long you will become meat for ogresses.

“They will eat your skin, your fat and your flesh, and drink your blood. Glad will the ogresses be when they have won such a feast.

“He who will not do as I say will repent it afterwards." Thereupon other traders made haste to speak to the merchant-leader.

“Why,” said they, “should we toil night and day without ceasing when we have here and now got the sounds we sought?

“Master, bid farewell for us to our kith and kin in Jambudvīpa. For it is here that we shall enjoy ourselves; thither we shall return no more.”

(293) Other traders again made haste to speak to the merchant-leader. “Why,” said they, “should we toil night and day without ceasing when we have here and now got[30] the sweet scents we sought?

“Master, bid farewell for us to our kith and kin in Jambudvīpa, for it is here that we shall enjoy ourselves; thither we shall return no more.”

Other traders again, thereupon made haste to speak to the merchant-leader. “Why,” said they, “should we toil night and day without ceasing, when we have here and now the sweet flavours we sought?

“Master, bid farewell for us to our kith and kin in Jambudvīpa, for it is here that we shall enjoy ourselves; thither we shall return no more.”

The merchant-leader said:

“O my friends, what is this you do? Do you not remember,[31] or are you perverse? If you act so, you soon will become meat for ogresses.

“They will eat your skin, your fat, and your flesh, and drink your blood. Glad will the ogresses be when they have won such a feast.

“If you do not as I say you will repent it afterwards But still other traders made haste to speak to the merchant-leader.

“Why,” said they, “should we toil night and day without ceasing when we have here and now the contacts we sought?

(294) “Master, bid farewell for us to our kith and kin in Jambudvīpa, for it is here that we shall enjoy ourselves; thither we shall no more return.”

The merchant-leader said:

“O my friends, now[32] have you not lost your senses? If you act so, you will soon become meat for ogresses.

“They will eat your skin, your fat and your flesh, and drink your blood. Glad will the ogresses be when they have won such a feast. If you do not as I say, you will afterwards repent it.”;

Then the terrible ogresses quickly threw[33] all the traders into their grim stronghold of iron.

Then they all came together and took counsel because[34] that one merchant came time and again and safely sailed back across[35] the sea, and they were not able to devour him.

Now there was one ogress among them who was clever and cunning, and had seduced and devoured many a trader.

And she spoke to all the other flesh-eating and pitiless ogresses. “I,” said she, “will seduce him and he will he my meat.”

So when the merchant crossed the sea, the ogress crossed with him, following behind him close on his heels.

Said she to him, “Here is your little son; he will die of grief for you. So take him. Why should you forsake your own begotten son?”[36]

(295) Dharmalabdha replied:

“Deliver[37] him to him whose wife you are, instead of saying he is the son of a childless man. You are not a human being. You are an ogress, though you cannot devour me.”

But she went round the villages, towns, the kingdom and the provinces, saying to the people, “He, my husband, is forsaking me”

The people came together, both men and women, and reproved the man, saying, “Why do you desert your wife?”[38]

The nobles, too, the brahmans, the vaiṣyas and the śūdras[39] came together and reproved him, saying, “Why do you desert your wife?”

Dharmalabdha replied:

“My friends, she is not my wife; she is a terrible ogress. She is a cruel man-eater. Be assured of this.”[40]

Dharmalabdha in spite of being reproved by the crowd did not give way but persisted in saying, “This is not my son; this is not my wife. She is an ogress.” But she went about by night and sought to convince the people, saying, “This is just like men who have gained their desire. At one moment they are inflamed with passion;[41] the next moment their passion is spent. While they are still pursuing their desires they are always speaking hundreds of endearments to their women. But when their passion is spent, then we are made out to be Rākṣasīs, Piśācinīs, and low-class women, and reviled with a hundred insults.”

The woman was thus disowned[42] by Dharmalabdha. The counsellors reported this to King Brahmadatta, (296) saying, “Your majesty, the great merchant-leader Dharmalabdha brought a woman with him from a town across the sea, and she is lovely, handsome, possessing most perfect beauty; her equal in beauty is not known. But Dharmalabdha for some reason or other does not acknowledge her as his wife, nor does he acknowledge this son of his.”

The king bade his counsellors summon Dharmalabdha the merchant-leader before him. He was thus haled before the king, as was also the woman. When King Brahmadatta saw the woman, that she was lovely, handsome and possessing most perfect beauty, he fell violently in love with her. He then said to the merchant-leader, “If you have no use for the woman, give her to me.” Dharmalabdha replied, “Your majesty, do not commit an act of folly. She is not my wife, nor is this my son. She has come from across the sea trying to seduce me, following close behind me in order to try her wiles. She is not a woman; she is an ogress. Do not, your majesty, think of doing this.”

But the king, infatuated with the woman because of her tender beauty, refused to listen to Dharmalabdha. As was said by the Exalted One:

The impassioned man knows not what is good, nor does he perceive dharma. A man always becomes blind when passion overcomes him.

So the king took the woman into the women’s quarters. When King Brahmadatta had dallied with her and enjoyed and amused himself with her, he lay down with her. Now the ogress had put the whole court to sleep. She and her son then devoured the king. When they had devoured the king she sent her son to the other ogresses to tell them to come quickly, for all the court was ready to be eaten. In an instant the son returned bringing the crowd of ogresses. And that night they devoured all the people of the court, both those within and those without (297), men, women and children, elephants and horses, and nothing but bones and skulls were left.

In the morning the counsellors went to the palace and saw that the doors were closed. The household priests, too, came, and the army officers, the town treasurers and councillors,[43] and the community of traders with Dharmalabdha at their head, all came to give the morning’s greetings[44] as usual. They, too, saw that the palace doors were closed. The counsellors asked among themselves, “Why are the palace doors not open to-day? Usually the palace doors are open, the palace sprinkled and swept, and the appointed seats set out. We do not hear the sound of any one, either of a woman or of a man, or of an elephant or horse. In all the spacious palace with its crowd of people we do not hear the sound of anyone.”

But Dharmalabdha the merchant-leader said, “Gentlemen, you will no more hear any sound coming from the palace. That pitiless ogress who feeds on flesh and blood was admitted into the palace. And she has made great havoc there. Open these doors so that we may know what is toward in the palace.”

The counsellors had a ladder brought, and they made some men scale it, bidding them to go and open the doors. When these men got up into the palace they saw the skulls of elephants and horses. And they told the crowd of people, saying, “The whole court has been devoured; there are only skulls left.” They were then bidden to get down[45] and open the doors. They got down then and opened the doors. The counsellors, army officers and town councillors (298) passed through the outer gate of the king’s palace. In the elephants’ enclosure[46] they saw bones and skulls; in the horses’ enclosure only skulls were left, and only the bones, too, were left of the grooms and keepers. On the outside the royal palace looked frightful and smelt foul like a cemetery.

They opened the inner doors of the royal palace and went inside. There again they saw that only the bones were left of the king and his queens. And thus the palace both within and without looked frightful and smelt foul like a cemetery.

Then the counsellors and town councillors called the people together and had the palace within and without sprinkled, swept and fumigated. They paid due honour to the remains of the king and his queens. From all parts around the city a troop of soldiers of the four aims: fighters on elephants, cavalry, charioteers and infantry were levied and drawn up. In this way the city and province were protected against the assault of any king.

The counsellors, town-councillors and the country people assembled to deliberate. They consulted among themselves, saying, “Friends, who of us here in Benares can become a king fit to protect this kingdom righteously?” And they all, counsellors, town-councillors and country people, reflected thus: “There is no fitting king for Benares other than Dharmalabdha, the merchant-leader. He is virtuous and vigilant. Not even Yakṣas and Rākṣasas can succeed in tempting him. For thrice[47] has he crossed the great ocean, and every time he has had a prosperous voyage and returned in safety.” So they set Dharmalabdha on the golden throne and anointed him king.

The Exalted One said, “It may be again, monks, that you will think that at that time (299) and on that occasion Dharmalabdha the merchant-leader was somebody else. You must not think that. And why? I, monks, at that time and on that occasion was the merchant-leader named Dharmalabdha. The chief ogress was Māra’s daughter. Then, too, did she approach me, desiring and seeking an opportunity to tempt me. But she did not succeed. And this other time, too, when she approached me desiring and seeking an opportunity to tempt me did she fail to succeed.”

When the king had heard[48] from his chief ministers[49] that Dharmalabdha would not acknowledge the woman he had brought from over the sea,

He immediately instructed his chief counsellors,[50] saying to them, “If this man will not have the woman, take her into my women’s quarters.”

Conscious of the risk,[51] she did not set about eating[52] them herself,[53] but sent her son to take the news to the other ogresses and to say, “I have devoured the king. Come hither at once to eat.”[54] Five terrible blood-drinking ogresses all came to the palace, and then returned[55] the way they had come.[56]

The Exalted One, the Master, calling to mind a former abode, a former birth, related this jātaka to his monks.

The Exalted One explained the meaning of it in a discussion of the (300) skandhas, the dhātus, the āyatanas and the ātman.[57]

“When of yore,” said he, “I lived in one of my lives in the round of rebirth that has no beginning or end, then was I Dharmalabdha, the prudent trader. The daughters of Māra were the ogresses. Thus understand this jātaka.”

Rid of old age and grief, the Exalted One told his monks of his many and infinite sufferings, of his long faring up and down in the past.

Here ends the Jātaka of Dharmalabdha the merchant-leader.

Footnotes and references:


Unless we supply paśya. “Behold, Lord, how...,” as the formula generally is.


Avatāra, Pali otāra. See vol. 2, p. 228, n. 4.


Literally “having a successful ship,” siddhayānapātra.


A convenient English equivalent of Rākṣasī fem. of Rākṣasa. See vol. 1, p. 73, n. 5. The text reads rākṣasīdvīpasya maddhyena gacchāmi. In this circumlocution Senart sees yet another example in the language of the Mhvu. of the periphrastic declinations of modern Indian languages. Dvīpasya madhyena is simply equivalent to the acc. dvīpam.


Saṃgṛhṇati. An unusual verb to use in this connection.


Presumably to convince Dharmalabdha of their fitness to withstand the seductive charms of the ogresses. The merit would, of course, be acquired by the performance of some particular religious act.


The concord is irregular here—Yatra nu so kocitkāmakalyāṇam.


Allīpitavya, gerund, from allīpeti, Pali alliyāpeti.


Samudānetvā, from samudāneti Pali = BŚk. samudānayati.


Prastihensuḥ, aorist in potential meaning, for, on the analogy of the prose the metrical version should have begun with an account of the merchants deliberating and deciding that they would acquire merit, etc. The first two stanzas are really oratio obliqua, as is shown by the words svastinā punarāgatā which, in the light of the story, cannot mean “they returned in safety,” but rather “they would return, etc.” Three other verbal forms in -ensuḥ in the same passage, below, are pure aorist.


Literally, “mine,” ākara.


Literally “will do their will,” tāsu kahinti cechandam.


Reading upalobhensuḥ here and in the next stanza for upalabhensu(ḥ).


Literally, “according to their dispositions,” yathādhimukta-.


Reading sarve for sava (sic.).


Yuṣmākam, genitive object. Cf. p. 79, n. 3.


taṃ sarvam for tāni sarvāni (bhavanāni).


Vigrāheti. Cf. BSk. vigrāhita and Pali viggahita. See P.E.D. for references. Cf. B.H.S.D.


Literally, “his thought (or mind), did not go on the woman,” na... strīyaṃ (BSk. loc. for striyām) manaṃ (for manas, as often in BSk.) gacchati.


Taṃ puṇyam, “that merit.” But the phrase is obscure. Syntactically it can only be explained as an “adverbial accusative.”


Or, “by you ogresses,” for yuṣmābhiḥ is plural.


Upalabhyati (=—te) for upālabhyati. So also on p. 295 (text).


Mellehi, see vol. 1, p. 308, n. 1.


Arthalabdhā. Better, perhaps, is the reading arthalubdhā of one MS., “greedy for wealth.”


Female Piśācas. See Vol. I, p. 74, n. 2.


Literally, “convinced”, pattīpayati, which, if the reading is correct, can only be the causative of pattīyati (see Vol. 2, p. 106, n. 2). In view of the context Senart argues that the verb should be negatived. But the required sense is got by rendering “tried to convince”. Cf. the frequent use of lobheti in the same story in the sense of “try to seduce,” and the conative force implicit in the present tense of many verbs in Greek and Latin.


The metrical version is resumed from where it was left off, but it breaks the continuity of the prose.


Ghaṭṭāma for ghaṭāma. The roots ghaṭṭ and ghaṭ are frequently confused in our text. See e.g., vol. 3, p. 89, n. 5.


Literally, “is not your memory (or mindfulness) perverted,” na smṛtir vo asti viparyastā.


Te maṃ adhigatā, corresponding to te no adhigatā “they are got of (= by) us”, in the repetitions generally. While Senart admits that mam could well be emended into no, he is inclined to let it stand here for the reason that it appears elsewhere in our text as the genitive plural form of aham. See, e.g., on this same page of the text and p. 310 below. See Edgerton, Gram. § 20. 59.


Taṃ khalu vo na smaratha. This phrase differs, as is seen, from the form of the question elsewhere. For vo as nom. pi. cf. p. 82, n. 2. See also Edgerton, Gram. § 20. 44.


Taṃ khu.


Reading pratikṣipe for pratitiṣṭhe. If the latter is to stand, it must be taken in a causal sense, and is so explained by Edgerton, Gram. § 38. 24.


Tarata (sic), for tarati.


Orasa ātmano tava.


Appehi, from appeti, Pali id., Sk. arpayati, causative of .


Bhāryarām. See p. 7, n. 4.


People of the third and fourth castes respectively.


Literally, “thus know,” evaṃ jānethanattave. Senart leaves unexplained the terminaton ttave, which also occurs on p. 299 (text) in the expression āgacchathattave. This latter example could be analysed into āgacchath’ attave, where attave would be the Vedic infin. from ad “to eat,” the expression thus meaning “come to eat.” It is now seen that Edgerton, Gram. § 36. 14, offers the same explanation for jānethanattave, which he would analyse into jāneth’ an-attave, literally,” know, for not-eating,” i.e. “know that thus you may not be eaten.”


Sārajyanti. “Senart’s plausible emendation for sārakṣyanti or -rakṣati (= sārajjati, Sk. saṃrajyate),” Edgerton, B.H.S.D.


Literally “was not wished for” anicchiyati (for -te). Cf. the active na icchati “does not acknowledge”, below, next page (text).




Literally “to inquire after the comfortable night,” sukharātripṛcchikā.


I.e., inside the palace the palace or the grounds, so as to open the doors from within.


Bāhirīye “in what is outside” or “shut off from” (the palace itself).


This is the first time in the story that the voyages he had made are definitely numbered.


A resumption of the metrical version. As is seen the text is disjointed and fragmentary.


Mahāmātrā, Pali mahāmatta.


Mahāmātya. Pali mahāmacca.


Literally, “hindrance” or “obstacle,” antarāya. Dharmalabdha might intervene or the intended victims might wake up.


Literally, “did not eat,” na khāyi. For this verbal form, aor. 3 sg., cf. the past part, khāyita, p. 76, n. 3. See Edgerton. Gram. § 32. 23.


The text has sānam, genitive object of the verb. Senart suggests sāmam, “herself.” Whatever word is adopted, the other can be appropriately understood for purposes of translation.


Āgacchattattave. For the termination, see p. 282, n. 5.


Reading pratikramensu for parākramensu of the text.




See e.g., vol. 2, p. 90, n. 4.

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