The Jataka tales are a very important part of the Buddhist philosophy. They form a collection of over 500 fables and anecdotal stories which tell about the various incarnations of Buddha who was born as Siddhartha Gautama. The characters of these stories are humans as well as animals as the Buddhists believe in reincarnations as a stream of consciousness that links one life with another life. This concept known as “punarbhava” in Buddhist literature means – “becoming again”. Also rebirth is a process in cycles until one is liberated by self actualisation and extinguishes all the desires within. It may be noted that unlike the Hindu philosophy the Buddhist do not follow the premises or concept of soul or spirit.
Benares or Varanasi is considered to be the oldest city in the world under the Hindu mythology and maybe so, indeed. It is also a very important setting for many of the Jataka stories. For the Buddhist too, this city is as sacred as the Hindus and very near to Varanasi is Sarnath, where Buddha is supposed to have begun his teachings. Most of the Jataka stories are educative and informative from the angles of moral, spiritual as well as common sense. One of such stories which appealed to me is narrated as below. This one sets the precedence of duty and commitment above anything else.
Varanasi was once ruled by the king Bramhadatt. Under his reign, peace and prosperity prevailed over the kingdom. The holy city abounded with apes and peacocks, the trumpeting of elephants and the neighing of horses. Melodious music created by instruments wafted from the homes of the singing girls, accompanying their mellifluous voices. Known as the city of seven wonders, tens of different voices mingled with each other on the streets here.
A Bodhisatwa (future Buddha) was born in the family of the royal treasurer here. He had already passed through Koti(ten millions)s of births in his different incarnations before this and was ripe for attaining the height of consciousness(Moksha). Being born as a son to the wealthiest person of the land his childhood was most lavish and luxurious with all amenities and wealth.
In spite of his splendid upbringing, the Bodhiswat grew up as a man of great piety and extraordinary knowledge as he mastered all branches of teaching from his Gurus. He succeeded his father as the keeper of the king’s treasury. But though he exercised all his duties in the most efficient manner, he never missed out on helping others by giving out gifts and alms to anybody who approached him. There was none in the whole country who could excel him in giving alms to the poor and needy.
During the same time there also lived a holy Buddha. As a part of fulfilling the ten perfections, he had passed seven days and seven nights without eating a morsel of food. On completion of his holy trance he decided to have some food, only enough to keep him alive. Cleansing himself and wearing a Vikshu(beggar monk)’s robe , the Buddha reached the gates of the Bodhiswat’s palace, travelling through the thin air , with a begging bowl in hand, by virtue of his meditation.
Immediately on noticing the holy person in front of his door the Bodhiswat went in and brought rice and vegetables on a plate. He instructed his servant to fetch the bowl from the Buddha and fill it with food for him to eat. So the servant proceeded to fetch the bowl. But even as be advanced, and before he reached out his hand to hold the bowl, the ground beneath rocked with a terrible sound and heaved like the turbulent sea. Within moments, the earth opened itself, and ripping the ground like a huge yawning monster created a deep separating the holy Buddha. And the chasm was filled with seething flames, as if a volcano erupted.
The molten rocks spewed forth like fluid wax and rose up in clouds that even darkened the sun casting a dim shadow on everything. Seeing the fury of the hell unleashed before their eyes, the servant fled, along with his fellow menials. Only the Bodhiswat was left, standing upon one side of the abyss, and the Buddha, calmly waiting, upon the other. The abyss was not wide enough near the feet of the Buddha but rapidly widened before the feet of the Bodhiswat, and threatened to engulf him with the raging fire. This was all the handiwork of Mara, the evil demon. He wanted the Buddha to die of hunger and therefore sought to prevent any alms being given to him. Presently he too appeared in the form of a large cloud hovering to darken the place.
In a deep guttural voice that resonated like a mountain thunder Mara announced – “Go away, you foolish man. The Buddha shall not live by your alms; his hour has come and it’s my fury that you encounter between you and him.”
As the Bodhiswat looked at the Buddha across the chasm and the flames of fire; he found that the equanimity written all over the face which had not changed even a bit. Neither did he utter a word to dissuade nor give a sign of encouragement.
Putting all his concern away, the Bodhiswat cried aloud - "Mara, you shall not prevail! Your powers are not greater than my duty. O my lord Buddha, here I come. I fear none under your patronage. Come Sir; accept this food from the hands of your servant."
And with the dish of rice in his hands, the Bodhiswat strode resolutely into the roaring blaze of fire, uttering these: “Better to enter willingly into hell than neglect a duty or knowingly commit a wrong.”
The calm countenance of the Buddha now radiated with a benevolent smile. And, before the Bodhiswat could fall, there suddenly arose from the depths of the pits of the fire, a vast and beautiful lotus, like the one whose golden womb Brahma was born; it received the feet of the Bodhiswat, and bore him beyond the pit, as a spray of golden dust, sprinkled on him like a shower of stars. Then he poured into the Buddha's bowl the alms he deserved.
The darkness vanished; the abyss was nowhere and the Buddha, rising in air, passed over a bridge of rosy cloud into oblivion.
But the Bodhiswat was still standing upon the golden lotus and assured the people with his kind words of knowledge.
Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction from my perspective and without any prejudice or affinity towards religious feelings. I have taken some creative liberty to change the texture of the story from the version which I read, way back, first in Bengali and later in English. This is neither a literal translation nor a copy.