Home page Up (parent) Next (right) Previous (left) Abbreviations

Page last updated on 8 October, 2020

Association for Insight Meditation Home Page

Mahājanaka Jātaka (No.539)

Mahājanaka, king of Mithilā in Videha, had two sons, Ariṭṭhajanaka and Polajanaka. On his death, the elder came to the throne and made his brother viceroy, but, later, suspecting him of treachery, had him put in chains. Polajanaka escaped, and, when he had completed his preparations, laid siege to the city, killed Ariṭṭhajanaka, and seized the throne. Ariṭṭhajanaka’s wife escaped in disguise, taking with her a lot of treasures. She was pregnant, and as her child was the Bodhisatta, Sakka’s throne was heated, and he appeared before her as a charioteer and took her to Kālacampā. There she was adopted by an Udicca brahmin as his sister and the child was born. When he played with other boys they mocked at him, calling him the widow’s son. He asked his mother what this meant, but she put him off with evasive answers until one day he bit her on the breast and insisted on being told the truth. When he was sixteen, she gave him half the treasures, and he embarked on a ship going to Suvaṇṇabhūmi for trade. The ship was wrecked in mid ocean, but nothing daunted, Mahājanaka (as the boy was called) swam valiantly for seven days, until Maṇimekhalā, goddess of the sea, admiring his courage, rescued him and placed him in the mango grove in Mithilā.

Meanwhile Polajanaka had died and left orders that the throne should go to one who could find favour in the eyes of his daughter, should know which is the head of a square bed, could string the bow that required the strength of one thousand men, and could draw out the sixteen great treasures. No one seemed forthcoming who was able to fulfil these conditions; the ministers thereupon decked the state chariot with the five insignia of royalty and sent it out, accompanied by music. The chariot left the city gates, and the horses went to the mango grove and stopped at the spot where Mahājanaka lay asleep. The chaplain, seeing the auspicious marks on his feet, awoke him, and explaining to him his mission, crowned him king. When he entered the palace, Sīvalī (the late king’s daughter) was immediately won over by his appearance, and willingly agreed to be his queen. He was told of the other conditions mentioned by the dead king; he solved the riddles contained in some and fulfilled them all.

In time Sīvalī bore him a son, Dīghāvu-kumāra, whom, in due course, Mahājanaka made viceroy. One day Mahājanaka went into his park, and noticing how a mango tree, which bore fruit had been plundered by his courtiers while another which was barren was left in peace, he realised that possessions meant sorrow, and retiring into a room, lived the ascetic life. His life span was ten thousand years, of which three thousand still remained to him. After living for four months in the palace, he resolved to renounce the world, and having made his preparations, secretly left the palace. The queen met him on the stairs, but did not recognise him in his ascetic garb. On discovering his absence, she ran after him and tried by many devices to persuade him to return, but in vain. She then urged his people to follow him, but he turned them back. She, however, would not obey him, and for sixty leagues she and the people followed Mahājanaka.

The sage Nārada, dwelling in Himavā, saw Mahājanaka with his divine-eye and encouraged him in his resolve, as did another ascetic, Migājina, who had just risen from a trance. Thus they journeyed on until they reached the village of Thūna. There the king saw a dog running away with a morsel of roasted flesh, which it dropped in its flight. The king picked it up, cleaned it, and ate it. The queen, very disgusted, felt that he was not worthy to be a king. Further on they saw a girl shaking sand in a winnowing basket; on one arm she wore a single bracelet, on the other arm, two. The two bracelets jingled, while the single one was noiseless. Mahājanaka pointed out the moral of this to Sīvalī, and she agreed to go a different way, but soon came running back to him and followed him until they came across a fletcher, straightening an arrow, looking at it with one eye only. On being questioned by the king, he answered that the wide horizon of two eyes served but to distract the view. However, Sīvalī still refused to leave him until, on the edge of a forest, he told her there could be no more intercourse between them, and she fell senseless. The king rushed into the forest, while the ministers revived the queen. When she recovered the king was no more to be seen, and she returned to the city. Thūpas were erected on various spots connected with the king’s renunciation, and the queen lived as an ascetic in the royal garden of Mithilā.

The story was told in reference to the Buddha’s Renunciation.

Maṇimekhalā is identified with Uppalavaṇṇā, Nārada with Sāriputta, Migājina with Mahā-Moggallāna, the girl with Khemā, the fletcher with Ānanda, Sīvalī with Rāhulamātā, Dīghāvu with Rāhula, while Mahājanaka was the Bodhisatta (J.iii.30‑68).

The Jātaka exemplifies the perfection of energy (viriya-pāramī). BuA.51.