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Jataka Tales: A Window Into Buddhist India
Part 1: Makhadeva
Cherian Philipose, The Epoch Times
3/20/2009

India is rich in oral tradition. Children become cultured sitting on their parent’s knee. Adults know many folktales and pour the most entrancing stories into the ears of their offspring. Today’s Indian society is syncretic and the household teller may narrate tales from several religious traditions: Hindu, Buddhist, and Islamic.

When the Buddha Shakyamuni became enlightened under the Bodhi tree 2,500 years ago, he remembered that he had cultivated the dharma, or law, in many previous lifetimes. Sometimes in his lectures, he would relate the stories of his past lives to his disciples.

The Jataka Tales are these stories told in 547 poems. They have been translated and studied in many languages. So ubiquitous they are in India that they have been adapted as illustrated children’s books.

The deep-rootedness of these stories in the Indian consciousness is a testament to the role that storytelling helps to keep alive the idea of reincarnation.

In the first of this series of selections from the Jataka we tell the story of King Makhadeva. It is the ninth poem in the original Jataka texts.

The Story of Makhadeva

Once, the Buddha Sakyamuni sat in a hall with his disciples. The monks were praising the quality of the Buddha’s renunciation. Buddha then said that he had practiced renunciation in previous lifetimes as well. So saying, he began the following story:

Once upon a time, in Mithila, in the realm of Videha, there ruled a king called Makhadeva. He was a righteous king and ruled wisely for 84,000 years. Even though he had lived for that long, he remained vigorous and youthful, with plenty of years to come.

One day, as he was getting a haircut, his barber told him, “O king, I have found a grey hair on your head.”

“Then pull it out and place it here on my palm,” said Makhadeva. The barber did so.

The king looked at the grey hair and was deeply shaken. He began to sweat profusely. In that moment, his fine clothes grew oppressive on his body.
“O I am indeed a foolish man,” he exclaimed. “I have wasted so much time!”

For in that hair, Makhadeva thought he saw the Lord of Death dancing with delight to welcome him. “This very day,” he said to his barber, “I shall renounce this world for the life of a monk.”

He gave the barber a village as a gift. To his eldest son he bestowed his his kingdom, telling him, “My son, grey hairs are come upon me, and I am become old. I have had my fill of human joys, and fain would taste the joys divine the time for my renunciation has come.”

Makhadeva made his decision known to his ministers, who did not understand why he would give up a life of luxury to be a monk.

He showed them the grey hair from his head.

Then he got himself ordained as a monk and went and lived as hermit in the forest. After years of rigorous cultivation, he attained exalted level and ascended to Heaven.

Here Shakyamuni added, “It is I, O disciples, who was that king.”

From the Translated Jataka:

“Lo, these grey hairs that on my head appear/
Are Death’s own messengers that come to rob/
My life. ’Tis time I turned from worldly things/
And in the hermit’s path sought saving peace.”

Translation by Robert Chalmers, courtesy of www.sacred-texts.com.

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