Vessantara, the Charitable Prince: Thinking Differently

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

Reading the Jataka Tale: Vessantara the Charitable Prince reveals the deep Hindu roots of a story that was a cultural religious parable a thousand years or more before the arising of the historical Buddha. In the Theravada tradition the Buddha is said to have told this tale on his first return visit to Kapilivatsu, his home. Even now it is a story venerated in the Thet Mahachat festival in Thailand.

It is taught to explain the significance of dana on the path to enlightenment and the story of Prince Vessantara has been celebrated historically in Theravadan literature, art and popular practice. Vessantara was a arhat said to be the past life that directly preceded the historical Buddha of this era. This connection is important in Theravadan literature and practice because it highlights the importance of generosity in reaching enlightenment.


Phusati, Sakka’s principal consort became the mother of the historical Buddha of our time in his next-to-last birth. She gave birth to a son and he was named Vessantara. At the time of his birth he spoke saying, “Mother, what gift can I make?”

As a youth, Vessantara contented himself with giving away readily and frequently the things he had acquired. At sixteen the kingdom of Sivi was given over to him and he was married to princess Maddi. The kingdom prospered, their marriage was a happy one, and to them a son, Jali, and a daughter, Kanhajina were born.

When Vessantara was a baby a young white elephant was brought to the royal stables. Vessantara often rode this elephant through the city to distribute gold to the alms halls. Indeed, many of his subjects attributed the prosperity of the kingdom and the benign rains that watered the fields to the virtue of the white elephant.

At one time the nearby kingdom of Kalinga was suffering from a prolonged drought. The kingdom’s people prayed and supplicated to the gods but the drought would not end. Hearing of the white elephant and of Vessantara’s generosity they suggested that the king send emissaries to ask Vessantara for the creature. Hearing the request Vessantara granted it immediately.

The citizens of Vessantara’s kingdom were so distressed by the loss of the white elephant that they felt had insured their prosperity they forced King Sanjaya to resume the throne and banish Vessantara. Before being banished Vessantara gave away all of his possessions, and he had many. The people came from far away in order to receive a gift. Then, with his wife and children who refused to remain behind, he took leave of the kingdom. They left in a chariot drawn by four horses. A short way outside the gates they came upon four Brahmin who had arrived too late to be given gifts so they asked for the four horses; which Vessantara promptly gave them. A fifth Brahmin, seeing the others riding away asked for the chariot and was immediately gifted with it. The noble prince and wife continued on their way by foot, each carrying one of their children.

Jujaka, a penniless Brahmin, who was unable to buy slaves for his beautiful young wife sought out the fabled generosity of Vessantara. Finding Vessantara alone in a forest hermitage where the ex-prince lived, as ascetics with his family, the man made his request. As soon as Vessantara caught sight of the old man he was overjoyed, for he knew that at last he had an opportunity to make a supreme gift. As Jujaka made his unusual request, Vessantara agreed to give Jujaka his two beloved children. The children hearing the words tried to hide but Vessantara coaxed them out and presented them to Jujaka. Jujaka bound the children’s hands with vines, whipping them with the same vines to move them on their way. Vessantara began to weep but realizing that his grief was due to attachment he regained the calm of an ascetic.

Vessantara did not tell his wife, Maddi, what he had done. Instead he watched as the distraught mother searched in vain for the children. Overcome with distress Vessantara eventually told her and she did not protest. Understanding his desire to give away all he possessed she rejoiced that he made such a supreme gift in his effort to reach omniscience.

Sakka, the king of the gods, had been observing and knew that Vessantara would next give away Maddi in order to achieve his goal. Sakka took the guise of a Brahmin and approached the hermitage. Vessantara realized then that he must give away his dear wife in order to reach his goal. He gave her willingly to the old Brahmin and Maddi submitted without a word. She knew that it was the way for her husband to attain perfect knowledge. Having seen that Vessantara was capable of supreme charity, Sakka returned Maddi to him.

Jujaka, with the children got lost in the forest and found themselves in the town of Sivi where the children were recognized by King Sanjaya, the children’s grandfather. The king, overjoyed did not punish Jujaka. Instead, he paid the man a great ransom which he used to live a sumptuous existence until he died of overindulgence.

King Sanjaya found Vessantara and Maddi at the hermitage where he reunited them with their children. The king asked Vessantara to resume his role as ruler of the kingdom of Sivi. He accepted. Vessantara ruled gloriously for many years and after his death remained a symbol of generosity for all time.

Edited from ‘Ten Lives of the Buddha: Siamese Temple Paintings and Jataka Tales, by Elizabeth Wray, Clare Rosenfeld and Dorothy Baily, Weatherhill 1972, Section X. [italics are mine for emphasis and clarification]

In the Mahayana tradition the practice of generosity is experienced as the foundation from which all other moral thinking and ethical behaviors arise from. Generosity is at the very core of any Bodhisattva in training, no matter if they are a monastic who has practiced for decades or a layperson who has recently stepped onto the Noble Path. This is not to say that the other Buddhist traditions do not also teach the value of generosity.

Notably generosity is not mentioned in the Four Ennobling Truths or in its Eightfold Path, and it isn’t listed as a factor of enlightened moments (though in my experience acts of intentional generosity are most likely to lead to those moments as interconnection becomes so clear). The practice of generosity, giving freely without expectation is the first of Ten Refinements, what I think of as the Bodhisattva in Training handbook.

The how, the why, the what and the when of acting generously should be grounded firmly in the intention of the Four Ennobling Truths and its Eightfold Path, or it will have the tendency to fall into negative karmic consequences. Reading and experiencing “Vessantara: The Charitable Prince” there arise more examples of how NOT to practice generosity, at least from the view of a Bodhisattva in training.

The first three Ennobling Truths are that suffering exists for all human beings – the cause is craving, attachment and dualistic thinking – a path to the cessation of suffering exists. The initial experience of Vessantara might be ‘what a generous person he was’, he gave away his white elephant, his kingdom, his horses, his chariot, his wealth, his children, and his wife. Certainly in the tale he did those things . . . but what what his intent? Was it to lessen the suffering of neighboring Kalinga, of six brahmins (including the one who later was revealed as Sakka, a deity)? Or, as the tale states, to advance Vessantara’s goal of reaching enlightenment as an arhat? In the tale Vessantara gave away his children and didn’t tell his wife what he had done until he was ‘overcome with distress’. She, in turn, understanding ‘his desire’ rejoiced the he had made such a supreme gift in ‘his effort to reach omniscience (in some texts this is translated as Ultimate Knowledge or Nirvana). If one reaches the conclusion that Vessantara’s intent was to promote his own advancement to a lofty goal while causing suffering to others than what lesson is being taught?

In Buddhist philosophy it is taught that our thoughts are revealed in our actions. Experiencing the actions of Vessantara as they relate to the Eightfold Path should reveal his thoughts.

Intent: To achieve enlightenment.

View: Others were tools to reach that goal.

Speech: To convince others to help him reach that goal, or to conceal his actions in relation to that goal.

Action: All calculated to reach his goal regardless of the karmic consequences to others.

Livelihood: Pursued in whatever way could lead to his goal.

Mindfulness: Only of his welfare. (He is shown as having no awareness of the effects of actions on others.)

Effort: To reach his goal.

Concentration: On his goal.

On the whole there was nothing inherently wrong in Vessantara’s goal of becoming an arhat and reaching Nirvana. Both, in many Buddhist traditions, are commendable goals that can advance human flourishing and alleviate suffering. However, would these acts of selfishness really been the path to becoming the historical Buddha of our era? Our was it a final, clear lesson in how to engage in appropriate acts of generosity and compassion?

Practicing non-attachment should not lead to causing the suffering of others. In questioning the Venerable Nagasena, King Milinda asked the ‘million dollar question’:

‘Venerable Nâgasena, do all the Arhats give away their wives and children, or was it only Vessantara the king who did so?’

‘All of them do so, not Vessantara only.’

‘Do they then give them away with their own consent?’

‘The wife, O king, was a consenting party. But the children, by reason of their tender age, lamented. Had they thoroughly understood, they too would have approved.’

‘A hard thing, Nâgasena, was it that the Arhat carried out, in that he gave away his own children, his only ones, dearly beloved, into slavery to the Brahman. And this second action was harder still, that he bound his own children, his only ones, and dearly beloved, young and tender though they were, with the jungle rope, and then, when he saw them being dragged along by the Brahman,–their hands

bruised by the creeper,–yet could look on at the sight. And this third action was even harder still, that when his boy ran back to him, after loosing the bonds by his own exertion, then he bound him again with the jungle rope and again gave him away. And this fourth action was even harder still, that when the children, weeping, cried: “Father dear, this ogre is leading us away to eat us!” he should have appeased them by saying: “Don’t be afraid.” And this fifth action was even harder still, that when the prince, Gâli, fell weeping at his feet, and besought him, saying: “Be satisfied, father dear, only keep Kanhâginâ (his little sister). I will go away with the ogre. Let him eat me!”–that even then he would not yield. And this sixth action was even harder still, that when the boy Gâli, lamenting, exclaimed: “Have you a heart of stone then, father, that you can look upon us, miserable, being led away by the ogre into the dense and haunted jungle, and not call us back?”–that he still had no pity. And this seventh action was even harder still, that when his children were thus led away to nameless horrors until they passed gradually to their bitter fate , out of sight–that then his heart did not break, utterly break! What, pray, has the man who seeks to gain merit to do with bringing sorrow on others! Should he not rather give himself away?’

From The Questions of King Milinda, T.W. Rhys Davids, Sacred Books of the East
What, pray, has the man who seeks to gain merit to do with bringing sorrow on others! Should he not rather give himself away?’

That is the question that any Buddhist must ask themselves, and then experience the selflessness that comes with the appropriate answer based in the Four Ennobling Truths.