King Banyan Deer – Jataka Tales

Buddha’s Tales for Young and Old
[Chapter 1. Compassion]
Once upon a time, an unusual and beautiful
deer was born in the forests near Benares, in
northern India. Although he was as big as a young
colt, it was easy for his mother to give birth to
him. When he opened his eyes, they were as
bright as sparkling jewels. His mouth was as red
as the reddest forest berries. His hoofs were as
black as polished coal. His little horns glistened
like silver. And his colour was golden, like a per-
fect summer’s dawn. As he grew up, a herd of 500
deer gathered around him, and he became known
as King Banyan Deer.
Meanwhile, not far away, another beautiful
buck deer was born, just as splendidly golden in
colour. In time, a separate herd of 500 deer came
to follow him, and he was known as Branch Deer.
The King of Benares at that time, was very
fond of eating venison. So he regularly hunted and
killed deer. Each time he hunted, he went to a dif-
ferent village and ordered the people to serve him.
They had to stop what they were doing, whether
plowing or harvesting or whatever, and work in
the king’s hunting party.
The people’s lives were upset by these in-
terruptions. They grew less crops, and other busi-
nesses also had less income. So they came to-
gether and decided to build a large deer park for
the king, at Benares. There he, could hunt by him-
self, with no need to command the services of the
villagers.
So the people built a deer park. They made
ponds where the deer could drink, and added trees
and grasses for them to eat from. When it was
ready, they opened the gate and went out into the
nearby forests. They surrounded the entire herds
of Banyan and Branch deer. Then, with sticks and
weapons and noise makers, they drove them all
into the deer park trap, and locked the gate behind
them.
After the deer had settled down, the people
went to the king and said, “Our crops and income
have suffered because of your hunting require-
ments. Now we have made you a pleasant safe
deer park, where you can hunt by yourself as you
like. With no need of our aid, you can enjoy both
the hunting and the eating of deer.”
The king went to the new deer park. There
he was pleased to see the vast herds. While watch-
ing them, his eye was caught by the two magnifi-
cent golden deer, with large fully grown antlers.
Because he admired their unusual beauty, the king
granted immunity to these two alone. He ordered
that they should be completely safe. No one could
harm or kill them.
Once a day the king would come and kill a
deer for his dinner table. Sometimes, when he was
too busy, the royal cook would do this. The body
would then be brought to the chopping block to be
butchered for the oven.
Whenever the deer saw the bow and ar-
rows, they went into a panic, trembling for their
lives. They ran around wildly, some being injured
and some wounded, many suffering great pain.
One day, King Banyan Deer’s herd gath-
ered around him. He called Branch Deer, and the
two herds joined for a meeting. King Banyan Deer
addressed them. “Although in the end, there is no
escape from death, this needless suffering due to
injuries and wounds can be prevented. Since the
king only wishes the meat of one deer per day, let
one be chosen by us each day to submit himself to
the chopping block. One day from my herd, and
the next day from Branch Deer’s herd, the vic-
tim’s lot will fall to one deer at a time.”
Branch Deer agreed. From then on, the one
whose turn it was, meekly surrendered himself
and laid his neck on the block. The cook came
each day, simply killed the waiting victim, and
prepared the king’s venison.
One day, the turn fell by chance to a preg-
nant doe in Branch Deer’s herd. Caring for the
others as well as herself and the unborn one, she
went to Branch Deer and said, “My lord, I am
pregnant. Grant that I may live until I have deliv-
ered my fawn. Then we will fill two turns rather
than just one. This will save a turn, and thereby a
single life for one long day.”
Branch Deer replied, “No, no, I cannot
change the rules in midstream and put your turn
upon another. The pregnancy is yours, the babe is
your responsibility. Now leave me.”
Having failed with Branch Deer, the poor
mother doe went to King Banyan Deer and ex-
plained her plight. He replied gently, “Go in
peace. I will change the rules in midstream and
put your turn upon another.”
And the deer king went to the executioner’s
block, and laid down his own golden neck upon it.
A silence fell in the deer park. And some
who tell this story even say, that silence also fell
in other worlds not seen from here.
Soon the royal cook came to kill the willing
victim on the block. But when he saw it was one
of the two golden deer the king had ordered
spared, he was afraid to kill him. So he went and
told the King of Benares.
The king was surprised, so he went to the
park. He said to the golden deer, still lying on the
block, “Oh king of deer, did I not promise to spare
your life? What is the reason you come here like
the others?”
King Banyan Deer replied, “Oh king of
men, this time a pregnant doe was unlucky
enough to be the one to die. She pleaded for me to
spare her, for the sake of others as well as her un-
born baby and herself. I could not help but feel
myself in her place, and feel her suffering. I could
not help but weep, to think the little one would
never see the dawn, would never taste the dew.
And yet, I could not force the pain of death on an-
other, relieved to think it was not his turn today.
So, mighty king, I offer my life for the sake of the
doe and her unborn fawn. Be assured there is no
other reason.”
The King of Benares was overwhelmed.
Powerful as he was, a tear rolled down his cheek.
Then he said, “Oh great lord, the golden king of
deer, even among human beings, I have not seen
any such as you! Such great compassion, to share
in the suffering of others! Such great generosity,
to give your life for others! Such great kindness
and tender love for all your fellow deer! Arise.” I
decree that you will never be killed by me or any-
one else in my kingdom. And so too, the doe and
her babe.”
Without yet raising his head, the golden
one said, “Are only we to be saved? What of the
other deer in the park, our friends and kin?” The
king said, “My lord, I cannot refuse you, I grant
safety and freedom to all the deer in the park.”
“And what of the deer outside the park, will they
be killed?” asked Banyan. “No my lord, I spare all
the deer in my whole kingdom.”
Still the golden deer did not raise up his
head. He pleaded, “So the deer will be safe, but
what will the other four-footed animals do?” “My
lord, from now on they too are safe in my land.”
“And what of the birds? They too want to live.”
“Yes, my lord, the birds too will be safe from
death at the hands of men.” “And what of the fish,
who live in the water?” “Even the fish will be free
to live, my lord.” So saying, the King of Benares
granted immunity from hunting and killing to all
the animals in his land.
Having pleaded for the lives of all crea-
tures, the Great Being arose.
[Chapter 2. Teaching]
Out of compassion and gratitude, King
Banyan Deer – the Enlightenment Being, taught
the King of Benares. He advised him to climb the
five steps of training, in order to purify his mind.
He described them by saying, “It will benefit you,
if you give up the five unwholesome actions.
These are:
• destroying life, for this is not
compassion;
• taking what is not given, for this
is not generosity;
• doing wrong in sexual ways, for
this is not loving-kindness;
• speaking falsely, for this is not
Truth;
• losing your mind from alcohol,
for this leads to falling down the
first four steps.
He further advised him to do wholesome
actions, that would bring happiness in this life and
beyond. Then King Banyan Deer, and both herds,
returned to the forest.
In the fullness of time, the pregnant doe,
who had stayed with Banyan’s herd, gave birth to
a fawn. He was as beautiful as a lotus blossom
given as an offering to the gods.
When the fawn had grown into a young
buck deer, he began playing with Branch Deer’s
herd. Seeing this, his mother said to him, “Better
to die after a short life with the great compassion-
ate one, than to live a long life with an ordinary
one.” Afterwards, her son lived happily in the herd
of King Banyan Deer.
The only ones left unhappy, were the farm-
ers and villagers of the kingdom. For, given total
immunity by the king, the deer began to fearlessly
eat the people’s crops. They even grazed in the
vegetable gardens inside the villages and the city
of Benares itself!
So the people complained to the king, and
asked permission to kill at least some of the deer
as a warning. But the king said, “I myself prom-
ised complete immunity to King Banyan Deer. I
would give up the kingship before I would break
my word to him. No one may harm a deer!”
When King Banyan Deer heard of this, he
said to all the deer, “You should not eat the crops
that belong to others.” And he sent a message to
the people. Instead of making fences, he asked
them to tie up bunches of leaves as boundaries
around their fields. This began the Indian custom
of marking fields with tied up leaves, which have
protected them from deer to this very day.
Both King Banyan Deer and the King of
Benares lived out their lives in peace, died, and
were reborn as they deserved.
The moral is: Wherever it is found, compas-
sion is a sign of greatness.