The Mahavastu (great story)

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

This page describes five monks which is Chapter XXXII 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 XXXII - The five monks

The monks said to the Exalted One, “This good group of five monks[1] were once adherents of another sect, carried away by the strong current of heresy. But then the Exalted One turned them away from these paths of false belief, raised them up out of fear and dismay, out of the ocean of recurrent birth, and established them on the firm ground of peace, happiness, calm, fearlessness and nirvana.” The Exalted One replied, “Monks, that was not the only time that the good group of five were led by me across the ocean of recurrent birth. There was another occasion, also, when I, through sacrifice of my own self, saved them from the great ocean when their vessel had been wrecked and they were without shelter, protection, refuge or succour but fallen into dire straits and adversity, and established them in prosperity.” The monks asked, “Was there another occasion, Lord?” The Exalted One replied, “Yes, monks.”

(354) Once upon a time, monks, long ago, some merchants of Jambudvīpa were crossing the ocean in quest of gain. But their ship was wrecked by a monster fish. Now all the merchants who had previously performed some religious rite, whether an unknown or a strange one,[2] swam about in the sea by means of their arms.[3] The merchant-leader, too, had previously performed a religious rite, and so he also swam about in the sea. Thus five merchants were swimming in the sea near the leader.

Then the merchant-leader thought, “It is not possible for us to cross the great sea by swimming. We must needs all perish. But I have heard that the great sea will not brook a dead body[4] for a single night. What now if I were to sacrifice my own body and enable these five merchants to escape from the sea on to dry land in safety?”

The merchant-leader had a weapon in his hand, and he said to the five merchants, “Do you all cling[5] to me and I shall save you from the sea and set you in safety on dry land.” Then all the five merchants there in the sea that gave no stay or support[6] hung on to the merchant leader. And he with his weapon cut his own throat, for he knew that the sea cannot brook a dead body for a single night.

And so, monks, the sea quickly cast up his dead body on to dry land. The five merchants also by the force of the sea were cast up on shore along with the corpse.

Then did this great earth shake violently, and a loud shout was raised by all the powers of nature.[7] Devas, Nāgas, Yakṣas, and Asuras cried out, “What is this in the great sea?” The deva of the sea replied, “This is the Bodhisattva, who was sailing across the sea with other merchants when their ship was wrecked by a monster fish. Those merchants who had previously practised religion were saved from the sea by the Bodhisattva’s self-sacrifice and enabled to reach dry land. (355) But we[8] were living in slothfulness in that we did not notice that such are the arduous deeds performed by Bodhisattvas for the benefit of all beings.”

Once upon a time,[9] long ago, while the Most Eloquent One was faring onwards in his quest of enlightenment, he happened to cross the delightful ocean, the haunt of a monster fish.[10]

Then in mid-ocean his ship was wrecked by the monster fish. The wise merchant, though he had lost his wealth,[11] swam about in the sea.

When he saw the other merchants helpless, shiftless and in dire straits, he began to think of a way whereby he could succour them in their sorry plight.

And this reflection came to him; “I have heard it said that the sea, in which this monster fish lives, will not brook a dead body for a single night.

“I will then sacrifice myself that the merchants may not perish in the sea.” Thus spake he to himself, conscious of the firm resolution of one who had reached perfection of thought and conduct.

And that great compassion, which was solicitous of man’s welfare and which he had acquired during the course of his long career, inspired[12] the disposition of his heart.[13]

To the group of merchants he said, “I am going to sacrifice myself. Do you hold on to my body, for the deva of the sea will not keep a dead body for a single night.”

He took a sharp weapon and made an end of his own life.[14] Soon all the merchants were cast up on the shore.

The earth, with its mountains, cities and towns, its rocks and its forest glades, violently shook. (356) The ocean, the strongholds of the Dānavas,[15] and the lairs of the serpents trembled.

“What is this?” So did men and the devas of mountain and forest, and serpents ask one another. . .[16] Then did the disconsolate deva of the sea make answer.

“This Most Eloquent One,” said she, “this most select of elephants,[17] while he fared on in quest of enlightenment, was crossing the briny ocean. But I in my heedlessness was not aware of it.

“And he, the Best of Men, was shipwrecked, but he achieved[18] his quest in the sea. For he sacrificed his own dear self for the sake of the deliverance of other men.

“Because of his virtue,[19] the earth, with the sea and Mount Meru, quakes, and the strongholds of the Guhyakas and Dānavas and the lairs of serpents tremble.

“How can any being requite[20] the Choice Beings as they fare onwards in quest of enlightenment, not to speak of[21] when they have won omniscience?

“If a man becomes an adherent of the Conqueror’s teaching with his whole being, to that extent[22] he can requite[23] him who is the most select of elephants.

The Exalted One said, “It may be again, monks, that you will think that at that time and on that occasion the merchant-leader was somebody else. You must not think so. And that because it was I, monks, who was that merchant-leader. Those five merchants were none other than this good group of five monks. Through my self-sacrifice they were then rescued from the sea and landed in safety on the sea-shore. And now, too, have they, through my self-sacrifice, been led across the ocean of recurrent birth and set firmly in nirvana.

Here ends the Jātaka of the Good Group of Five.

Footnotes and references:


See p. 313, n. 2.


? Ajñātaṃ vā apūrvam, taken from the apparatus. But Senart leaves a lacuna for the whole clause, owing to the difficulty of restoring a satisfactory text from the MS. tradition which gives ye kecidvānijā te (ke) hi pūrvagṛhītokteti ajñātām vā apūrvām. In the next sentence it is said of the merchant-leader (sārthavāha) that he had to some extent engaged in some previous practice of a religious rite—sārthavāhenāpi kiṃcitpūrvaṃ pratipannam. (For this sense of pratipanna see B.H.S.D.). Below on the same page the merchants saved are those yehi pūrvaṃ pratipannam “those by whom a religious rite had been previously performed,” Though it is inexplicable how it arose, gṛhītokteti is taken to be a corruption of pratipannehi, (instrumental, by false attraction to tehi, for acc. Cf. MS. pratipannehi for—pannam, below on the same page). Senart’s lacuna, therefore, is filled in by restoring tehi pratipannehi ajñātaṃ vā apūrvam. This may not be satisfactory palaeographically, but it does give a construction and sense consonant with the context.


I.e., they were saved from drowning outright.


Literally, “live with a dead body,” mṛtakuṇapena sārdhaṃ na prativasati. For the idea cf. p. 78 (text).


Lagnatha. See Vol. 2, p. 382, n. 1, and B.H.S.D.


Apratiṣṭha anālamba. Cf. Sn. 173.




Mayam = vayam. This form of the 1st pers. pl. is not noticed (? recognised) by Edgerton, Gram., p. 111 § 20. 371.


A metrical version of the same tale.


Timimakara. Cf. timitimiṅgila. Vol. I. 245 (text), p. 200 (trans.).


Visārtha (= vi + sa + artha). Senart lists the word in his index, but has no note on it. Neither is it found in the dictionaries. For the formation cf. visārathi, “ohne Wagenlenke” (B.R.).


Bhajahe, from bhaj, “to share”. So, doubtfully, Senart. The context would certainly seem to require a historical present here. Edgerton (Gram. § 31. 20), however, explains the verb as an example of a future formation with h for sy, and with ending of 1st sg. mid. for 3rd, and he translates “will take possession of”.


Cittasantāna. Cf. Divy. 286, and Pali santāna. Edgerton (B.H.S.D.) adduces BSk. instances where santāna alone is used as a synonym for the whole compound.


Nivartaye ātmano... śarīram. But the lacuna makes the exact sense of nivartati here doubtful.


I.e., the Asuras. See Vol. I, p. 53, n. 3.




Gajasattvasāro, literally, “the essence of an elephant’s being.” Probably the idea behind the expression is that the Buddha is as select among men as the elephant is among beasts, and it was so paraphrased, rather loosely, in Vol. 1, p. 166 and Vol. 2, p. 12, of this translation.


Paripūrati. This verb is commonly used in both BSk. and Pali in the sense of “to accomplish fully,” but always with an object in the accusative. Edgerton (B.H.S.D.), therefore, argues that here the verb can only be taken in its literal sense of “to fill up”, and he considers that Senart is at fault in emending sāgaram of the MSS. into sāgare. Edgerton renders “the noble man filled the sea,” but it is difficult to see how this can be an expression for “giving his life to it.” It seems more reasonable to assume that the object of paripūrati, “accomplish”, is to be supplied from bodhāya caranto of the preceding stanza. This “faring after enlightenment” must have been present in the mind of the poet, and in thought he could easily supply the substantive corresponding to this participial phrase, viz., bodhicarim, a substantive which actually occurs as object of paripūrati in an example cited by Edgerton from Bhadracarī, 22.


In the New Testament sense, for anubhāva, “power”, “potency”.


Pratikartum. Or, possibly, “imitate, emulate”, though in this sense in BSk. this verb takes the dat. Here the object is gen. (for acc., as often).


Prāgeva. See p. 240, n. 4.


Etāvatā. This instance is not cited in B.H.S.D.


Literally, “there is requital”, pratikṛtaṃ bhavati.

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