Illīsa the Cheap – Jataka Tales

Buddha’s Tales for Young and Old
[Miserliness]
[Illīsa-Jātaka]
The Buddha told this story while living in Jetavana
monastery with regard to the miserly banker named Macchari
Kosiya.
There was a very wealthy banker of the town of
Sakkhara, which is near the city of Rājagaha. His real name
was Kosiya; but because he was very miserly, he came to be
called Macchari Kosiya, or Stingy Kosiya.¹⁹ One day, when
returning from the palace, he saw a half-starved urchin eating
a sweetcake, which he was dipping in a sweet gruel. This
made him hungry, but he feared spending money on such
food. When he went to bed, he could not get this out of his
mind. And he stayed in bed brooding. His wife, seeing this,
asked him the reason for his misery. And finding out the
reason, she said she would cook enough sweetcakes for the
entire town. But Kosiya said that would be an extravagance,
and persuaded his wife to cook just one cake, and to make it
using broken grains of rice. Fearful that someone might ask
for a piece of his cake, he retired with his wife to the seventh
¹⁹ The Kosiya clan in the usual course of events is a Brahmin clan that is
noted for
voluntarily helping others.
story of his mansion, and there had his wife start cooking
after he had bolted all the doors.
The Buddha saw him with his divine eye [dibba-cakku],
and sent the venerable Moggallāna to him. Moggallāna stood
poised in mid-air just outside Kosiya’s window and indicated
his wish to have something to eat. Kosiya, at first, refused to
give him anything. But afterward, he asked his wife to cook
a single small cake for Moggallāna. When she tried to do
this, though, she was not able to cook a small cake. And the
cakes she cooked kept getting bigger and bigger.
As she was cooking, she put the cakes in a basket.
Finally, when she tried to take a single cake for Moggallāna,
they all stuck together. So Kosiya, out of frustration,
presented all the cakes and the basket itself to the elder.
Moggallāna then preached the importance of generosity
[dāna], and transported Kosiya, his wife and the cakes to
Jetavana monastery. There, the cakes were offered to the
Buddha and to 500 monks. And even after they had all eaten,
there were still cakes left. Those remaining cakes were
thrown away at one of the gates of Jetavanārāma.
The Buddha then preached to Kosiya and his wife, and
they entered the stream entrance state of mind [sotāpatti].
Afterward, Kosiya spent all his wealth in the service of the
Buddha and his disciples.
One evening, the monks gathered in the preaching hall
were talking about the Buddha being able to see what is
happening with his divine eye, and how the venerable
Moggallāna had converted Kosiya, cleverly making a little
thing miraculously become many. When the Buddha
entered, he asked the monks what they were talking about.
And on finding out, he said, “This is not the first time that
this miserly billionaire was converted by the venerable
Moggallāna.” And on the request of the monks, he told this
story of the past:
Once upon a time, there was a billionaire in northern
India. He was an adviser to a king. Although he was very
rich, he was not at all good looking. He was lame due to
crooked feet, and his hands were also deformed into crooked
positions. His eyes were crooked too, that is to say, he was
cross-eyed. And some would say he had a crooked mind as
well, for he was without any religion whatsoever! You might
think people would call him, ‘Illīsa the Crooked’, but that
was not the case.
Illīsa also happened to be a miser, one who will not
give anything to anybody. He would not even spend any of
his wealth on his own enjoyment. Therefore, it was said that
his home was like a pond possessed by demons, where no
one could quench his thirst.
However, Illīsa’s ancestors, going back seven
generations, were the most generous of gift givers. They gave
away the very best of their possessions. But when Illīsa
inherited the family fortune, he abandoned that great family
tradition.
The family had always maintained a charity dining-hall,
where anyone could come for a free hot meal. Illīsa burned
this free food kitchen to the ground, since he wanted to be rid
of the expense. Then he pushed the poor and hungry from his
door, hitting them as they went. He quickly earned a
reputation for hoarding all his wealth and possessions. Soon
people began calling him, ‘Illīsa the Cheap’.
One day when he was returning home from advising the
king, Illīsa saw a tired worn out villager by the side of the
road. He had obviously walked a great distance. He was
sitting on the ground pouring cheap wine into a cup. He was
drinking it, along with some smelly dried fish.
Seeing this made Illīsa thirsty for a drink of liquor.
Then he thought, “I would love to have a drink! But if I do,
others may want to drink with me, and that could cost me
money!” For that reason alone, he suppressed his craving for
alcohol.
As time passed, his craving did not disappear. Instead,
fighting it and worrying constantly made him look sick. His
skin turned yellow, and he became thinner and thinner until
the veins stuck out from his flesh. He fought a constant battle
against his thirst for liquor. He slept face down, holding onto
the bed tightly while he slept.
His wife began to notice the changes in him. One day,
while massaging his back to comfort him, she asked, “Are
you sick, my husband?” “No,” said Illīsa. “Did the king get
angry at you?” she asked. “No,” said he. “Have our children
or the servants done anything to upset you?” asked his wife.
Again he said “No.” “Do you have a strong craving for
something?” she continued.
Illīsa the Cheap kept silent. He was afraid that if he told
her it might end up costing him money! But his wife began
pleading, “Tell me, please tell me.” Finally, swallowing hard
and clearing his throat, he answered, “Yes, I do have a strong
craving.” “A craving for what?” she asked. “For a drink of
alcoholic liquor,” he admitted at last.
“Oh, is that all!” said his wife. “Why didn’t you tell me
this at first? You are not poor. You can easily afford to buy a
drink for yourself and the whole city as well! Shall I brew a
big batch of liquor for us all?”
Of course this was not what Illīsa the Cheap wanted to
hear. He blurted out, “Why should we give liquor to others?
Let them earn their own!” Then his wife asked, “Well then,
what about just for us and our neighbors?” “I didn’t know
you had become so rich all of a sudden!” he shot back at her.
“How about just our household?” she asked. “How generous
you are with my money!” he replied. “All right then,” she
said, “I will brew just enough liquor for you and me, my
husband.” “Why should you be included? Women should not
drink liquor!””
“Now I understand you perfectly well!” said Illīsa’s
wife. “I will make only enough liquor for you alone.” But
Illīsa the Cheap always thought of even the slightest chance
of spending money. He said, “If you prepare liquor here,
people will notice and come ask for some. Even if I buy some
in a liquor store and bring it here to drink, others will find out
and want some. There will be no liquor given away in this
house!”
So Illīsa decided to give the smallest coin he had to a
servant boy, and sent him to the liquor store. When he
returned, Illīsa took him down to the riverside. He took the
small bottle of liquor from the boy, and set him to stand
watch nearby. Then Illīsa the Cheap hid in the underbrush,
poured some liquor into a cup, and secretly began drinking.
It just so happened that when Illīsa’s father had died, he
had been reborn as Sakka, King of the Heaven of 33. This
was because of his lifelong generosity.
At this particular moment, Sakka was curious about
whether his free food kitchen was still giving out food to all
who wished it. He discovered that it no longer existed, that
his son had given up the family tradition and had even kicked
the hungry out onto the street! He saw his miserly son
drinking by himself, hiding in the bushes, afraid he might
have to share with others.
Sakka decided to change Illīsa’s mind and teach him a
lesson about the results of both good and bad actions. He
decided to make him become generous, rather than cheap, so
that he too might be reborn in a heaven world.
The King of the Heaven of 33 disguised himself so that
he looked exactly like Illīsa the Cheap. He too had crooked
feet, crooked hands and crooked eyes. He entered the city,
went to the palace, and asked for an audience with the king.
The king said, “Let my adviser Illīsa come in.”
He asked, “Why have you come at this untimely
moment?” “My lord,” said Sakka, “I have come to give my
billionaire’s wealth to you to fill up the treasury.” The king
replied, “No, no. I have enough, much more than that.” The
disguised Sakka said, “Then if you do not want it my lord,
kindly permit me to give it away as I wish.” “Do as you say,”
said the king.
Sakka went to Illīsa’s house. The servants greeted him
as if he were indeed their master. He entered the house and
sat down. He summoned the gatekeeper and said, “If
anybody comes here who looks like me and says, ‘This house
is mine’, don’t let him in. Instead beat him on the back and
kick him out!” Then he went upstairs and called for Illīsa’s
wife. Smiling at her he said, “My love, let us be generous!”
At first, Illīsa’s wife, children and servants were
surprised. They said to each other, “It was never in his mind
to give anything to anybody before today. This must be
because he’s been drinking alcohol and has gotten a little soft
in the head!”
Illīsa’s wife said, “As you wish, my lord, give away as
much as you like.” “Call for the drummer,” said Sakka, “and
order him to go and beat his drum in the city. Have him
announce that all who desire gold, silver, pearls, jewels, lapis
lazuli, diamonds and coral, are to come to the home of Illīsa
the billionaire.” She did as he said.
Soon a big crowd began to arrive, carrying baskets,
buckets and bags. Sakka opened up the storerooms of Illīsa’s
wealth. He said, “I give you all these riches. Take as much as
you want and go.” The people took it all outside and piled it
up. They filled up their containers and carried them away.
One clever man from the countryside harnessed Illīsa
the Cheap’s bullocks to Illīsa the Cheap’s bullock cart. Then
he filled it to the brim with Illīsa the Cheap’s seven
treasures²⁰, and rode out of the city by the main road.
Without knowing it, he passed by the bushes where the
real Illīsa was still drinking liquor. He was so happy to be
suddenly rich, that he shouted out as he went, “May Lord
Illīsa the billionaire live a hundred years! Because of you I
have struck the jackpot. I won’t have to work another day in
my life! These were your bullocks, your cart and your seven
treasures. They were not given to me by my father and
mother – but by you, Illīsa the generous!”
²⁰ The seven treasures, or kinds of wealth, are gold, silver,
pearls, jewels (or,
perhaps, crystal), lapis lazuli, diamonds, and coral.
The hidden Illīsa was shocked to hear this. He thought,
“This man is talking about me! Has the king taken my wealth
and given it away?” Then he jumped out from the bushes and
shouted, “Hey you, what are you doing with my bullock
cart?” He grabbed the reins and stopped the cart.
The villager got down and said, “What’s wrong with
you? The billionaire Lord Illīsa is giving his wealth to all the
people of the city. What do you think you’re doing?” As he
said this he struck Illīsa on the head as hard as a thunderclap
and rode away on the cart filled with treasure.
Illīsa the Cheap bounced to his feet and chased after the
cart. He grabbed the reins again. This time the villager held
onto Illīsa by the hair, pulled his head down, and struck it
hard with his elbow. He grabbed him by the neck, threw him
to the ground, and then continued on his way.
All this rough treatment sobered up Illīsa. He ran home
as fast as he could. He saw the crowds of people carrying off
his precious riches. He grabbed hold of them to stop them,
but they just pushed him out of the way and knocked him
down. Nearly fainting from his bruises, he tried to get into his
home. But the gatekeeper said, “Where do you think you’re
going?” Beating him with a cane, he grabbed him by the neck
and threw him out.
Illīsa thought, “Now no one can help me but the king.”
So he ran to the palace and went straight inside. He said, “My
lord, why do you want my house to be looted?” The king
said, “This is not my doing. I myself heard you say that if I
would not accept your wealth, you would give it to all the
citizens. I applaud your generosity! And did you not send a
drummer into the streets to announce you were giving your
wealth to any and all?”
“My lord king must be joking!” said Illīsa. “I didn’t do
any such thing. People don’t call me ‘Illīsa the Cheap’ for
nothing! I don’t give anything to anybody if I can help it!
Please, lord king, summon whoever is giving my treasures
away, and clear up this matter.”
After being summoned by the king, Sakka came to the
palace. Illīsa asked, “Who is the real billionaire, my lord
king?” Neither the king nor his ministers could tell the
difference between them.
The king said, “We cannot recognize which one it is.
Do you know someone who can recognize you for sure?”
“Yes, my lord, my wife can recognize me,” said Illīsa. But
when she was called for and asked to decide, she stood next
to Sakka and said, “This is my husband.” When Illīsa’s
children and servants were summoned, they too picked
Sakka.
Illīsa thought, “I have a wart on my head, covered up
by my hair. Only my barber knows this.” So he said to the
king, “Please summon my barber. He knows me very well.”
The barber was called for and the king asked him, “Can
you tell us which of these two men is Illīsa the billionaire?”
“I must examine their heads,” he said, “then I will determine
who the real Illīsa is.” “Do so,” said the king.
Immediately Sakka, King of the Heaven of 33, made a
wart appear on his head. When the barber examined them he
found warts on both their heads. He said, “Oh lord king, I
cannot recognize which of these is Illīsa. Both have crooked
feet, both have crooked hands, both have crooked eyes, and
both have warts on the same spots on their heads. I can’t tell
the difference!”
Hearing these words, Illīsa began trembling. His mind
became so unbalanced from losing his last hope of regaining
his wealth, that he fainted on the spot.
At that very moment, Sakka said, “I am not Illīsa. I am
Sakka, King of the Gods of the Heaven of 33.” As he said
this, he used his super powers to rise into the air and remain
suspended there.
Attendants splashed cold water on Illīsa’s face and
woke him from his fainting spell. He knelt down in respect
before Sakka, King of Gods.
Then Sakka spoke: “This wealth came from me, Illīsa,
not from you. I myself, when I was your father, did many
meritorious deeds. I was glad to give to the poor and needy.
That is why, when I died, I was reborn as Sakka, King of
Gods.
“However, you have violated our family tradition.
Being a non-giver, living the life of a miser, burning my
charity dining-hall to the ground, and chasing the homeless
beggars from your door – you have kept all the family wealth
to yourself. You are so cheap that you cannot even use the
wealth for your own enjoyment! It is utterly wasted and
useless. The family fortune has become like a pond possessed
by demons, where no one can quench his thirst. It would be
better if you were dead!
“Illīsa, my former son, if you change your ways you
will be the one to benefit most. If you rebuild my free food
kitchen and give hot meals to all who ask, you will earn both
merit and peace of mind. But if you refuse to be generous, I
will make all your riches disappear. And I will split your
crooked skull with my divine diamond dagger [vajira]!”
In fear of his own death, Illīsa the Cheap promised, “I
will give generously from now on, oh King of Gods.”
Sakka accepted his promise. Still floating in the air, he
preached on the true value of giving [dāna]. He also
convinced him to practice the Five Training Steps [pañca-
sīla-s, the first five sikkhā-pada-s], for the benefit of himself
and others. These are to give up entirely: destroying life,
taking what is not given, sexual wrongdoing, speaking
falsely, and losing one’s mind from alcohol.
Then Sakka disappeared and returned to his heavenly
home.
Illīsa did indeed change his ways. He gave alms
generously, did many other good deeds, and became much
happier. When he died he was reborn in a heaven world.
After finishing the telling of this Jātaka story, the
Buddha identified the births in this way:
“The billionaire banker today was also the billionaire of
the past. The good King Sakka then is today the venerable
Moggallāna. And the king then is today the venerable
Ānanda.”
The moral: “Poor indeed is the rich man who won’t part with
a penny.”