Week 2: Jataka Tales (Birth Stories of the Buddha)

Assignments - Reading - Resources - Image Gallery

Suvannahamsa-Jataka. "Contented be..."

Reading time: 5 minutes. Word count: 900 words.

The frametale here is about a greedy Buddhist nun named "Fat Nanda" who likes garlic. Although the dietary practices of Buddhism vary among the different Buddhist sects, there are many Buddhists who do not eat garlic at all, and in some Buddhist sects garlic is strictly forbidden. Meanwhile, the "story of the past" told inside the frame is a story that will be familiar to you: it is a Buddhist variation on the story of the "goose who laid the golden eggs."

This story was told by the Master about a Sister named Fat Nanda.

A lay brother at Savatthi had offered the Sister hood a supply of garlic, and, sending for his bailiff, had given orders that, if they should come, each Sister was to receive two or three handfuls. After that they made a practice of coming to his house or field for their garlic.

Now one holiday the supply of garlic in the house ran out, and the Sister Fat Nanda, coming with others to the house, was told, when she said she wanted some garlic, that there was none left in the house, it had all been used up out of hand, and that she must go to the field for it. So away to the field she went and carried off an excessive amount of garlic. The bailiff grew angry and remarked what a greedy lot these Sisters were!

This piqued the more moderate Sisters; and the Brethren too were piqued at the taunt when the Sisters repeated it to them, and they told the Blessed One.

Rebuking the greed of Fat Nanda, the Master said, "Brethren, a greedy person is harsh and unkind even to the mother who bore him; a greedy person cannot convert the unconverted, or make the converted grow in grace, or cause alms to come in, or save them when come in; whereas the moderate person can do all these things."

In such wise did the Master point the moral, ending by saying, "Brethren, as Fat Nanda is greedy now, so she was greedy in times gone by."

And thereupon he told the following story of the past.

Once upon a time when Brahmadatta was reigning in Benares, the Bodhisatta was born a brahmin, and growing up was married to a bride of his own rank, who bore him three daughters named Nanda, Nandavati and Sundarinanda.

The Bodhisatta dying, they were taken in by neighbors and friends, whilst he was born again into the world as a golden mallard endowed with consciousness of its former existences.

Growing up, the bird viewed its own magnificent size and golden plumage, and remembered that previously it had been a human being. Discovering that his wife and daughters were living on the charity of others, the mallard bethought him of his plumage like hammered and beaten gold and how by giving them a golden feather at a time he could enable his wife and daughters to live in comfort.

So away he flew to where they dwelt and alighted on top of the central beam of the roof. Seeing the Bodhisatta, the wife and girls asked where he had come from; and he told them that he was their father who had died and been born a golden mallard, and that he had come to visit them and put an end to their miserable necessity of working for hire.

"You shall have my feathers," said he, "one by one, and they will sell for enough to keep you all in ease and comfort." So saying, he gave them one of this feathers and departed.

And from time to time he returned to give them another feather, and with the proceeds of their sale these brahmin-women grew prosperous and quite well-to-do.

But one day the mother said to her daughters, "There's no trusting animals, my children. Who's to say your father might not go away one of these days and never come back again! Let us use our time and pluck him clean next time he comes, so as to make sure of all his feathers."

Thinking this would pain him, the daughters refused. The mother in her greed called the golden mallard to her one day when he came and then took him with both hands and plucked him.

Now the Bodhisatta's feathers had this property that if they were plucked out against his wish, they ceased to be golden and became like a crane's feathers.

And now the poor bird, though he stretched his wings, could not fly, and the woman flung him into a barrel and gave him food there. As time went on his feathers grew again (though they were plain white ones now), and he flew away to his own abode and never came back again.

At the close of this story the Master said, "Thus you see, Brethren, how Fat Nanda was as greedy in times past as she is now. And her greed then lost her the gold in the same way as her greed now will lose her the garlic. Observe, moreover, how her greed has deprived the whole Sisterhood of their supply of garlic, and learn therefrom to be moderate in your desires and to be content with what is given you, however small that may be."

So saying he uttered this stanza:

Contented be, nor itch for further store.
They seized the swan - but had its gold no more.

So saying, the Master soundly rebuked the erring Sister and laid down the precept that any Sister who should eat garlic would have to do penance.

Then, making the connexion, he said, "Fat Nanda was the brahmin's wife of the story, her three sisters were the brahmin's three daughters, and I myself the golden mallard."

Questions. Make sure you can answer these questions about what you just read:

  • what happened to the man's wife and daughters when he died?
  • how did the father return to help his family after he had died?
  • what did the mother do to the bird? how did the daughters react?

Source: Jataka #136. The Jataka, or Stories of the Buddha's Former Births (in six volumes). Editor: E.B. Cowell. 1895.

Modern Languages MLLL-2003. World Literature: Frametales. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 9, 2004 12:48 PM