The Elephant Who Saved a Kingdom

One day, while Buddha was staying at Jetavana, a bhikkhu came to him and confessed that he was weak-hearted. Buddha encouraged him, saying, “Monk, in bygone days you won the entire kingdom of Baranasi and presented it to a tiny baby boy. You did it by sheer determination. Now that you have embraced this great discipline leading to liberation, how could you possibly lose heart?” Then he told this story of the past.

Long, long ago, when Brahmadatta was king of Baranasi there was a village of carpenters who earned their livelihood by building houses. Every day they took a boat upriver and went into the forest. There they cut trees and shaped beams and timbers for houses. Then they numbered all the pieces to be put together into a frame. Taking all the lumber back to the river, they loaded it on the boat and returned to town. They were very skillful at their work and earned substantial wages.

One day, near their jungle workplace, an elephant stepped on a splinter of acacia wood. The splinter pierced the elephant’s foot, which began to swell and fester, causing him terrible agony. When the elephant heard the carpenters cutting wood, he thought, “Perhaps those carpenters can cure my foot.” Limping with pain, he approached them and lay down. At first, the carpenters were very surprised at this, but, noticing his swollen foot, they looked closely and discovered the splinter. With a sharp tool they made an incision around the splinter, fastened a string to it, and pulled it out. Then they lanced the wound, cleaned it thoroughly with warm water, and wrapped it in clean bandages. In a short time the elephant’s foot had healed completely.

Grateful to the carpenters for having saved his life, the elephant decided to repay them by helping them with their work. From that time on, he pulled up trees and rolled logs for them. Whenever the carpenters needed tools, he picked them up with his trunk and took them to where they were working. At lunchtime, the carpenters brought food to the elephant, so that he didn’t have to forage.

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After some time, the elephant realized that he was getting old and would not be able to continue serving the carpenters much longer. One day he brought his son, a magnificent, well-bred white elephant. He said to the carpenters, “This young elephant is my son. Since you saved my life, I give him to you. From now on, he will work for you.” After he had explained all his duties to his son, the old elephant returned alone to the forest.

The young elephant worked faithfully and obediently, the same as his father had done. The carpenters fed him as they had fed his father, and he thrived.

At the end of each work day, the elephant bathed in the river before returning to the forest. The carpenters’ children enjoyed pulling him by the trunk and playing all sorts of games with him both in the water and on the riverbank.

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Of course, noble creatures, be they elephants, horses, or men, never urinate or defecate in water. This elephant, being noble and pure white, was always careful never to do anything of the kind while he was in the river. He always waited until he came out.

One day, when it rained very heavily, flood waters caught a half-dry cake of the white elephant’s dung and carried it down river. This piece of dung floated to Baranasi where it lodged in a bush, right at the spot where the king’s elephant keepers brought the king’s five hundred elephants to bathe. When these beasts caught the scent of the dung of the noble young elephant, they refused to enter the water. Instead, they extended their tails, fanned their ears, and ran from the river.

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When the keepers explained what had happened to the elephant trainers, the trainers realized that there was something in the water. Orders were given to search the river, and the lump of dung was found in the bush. The trainers powdered the dung and mixed it with a little water. Then they sprinkled it over the backs of the other elephants. This caused the animals to smell very sweet, and they immediately went into the water to bathe. The trainers were sure the dung had come from a very noble elephant. They reported all this to the king and advised him to capture the elephant for himself.

The king ordered a raft prepared and set off upstream. When he reached the place where the carpenters had settled, he found the young elephant playing in the water. As soon as the elephant heard the sound of the king’s drums, he came out of the water and drew near to the carpenters. They all went together to pay their respects to the king.

“Sire,” the carpenters said, “if you wish us to do any work for you, you didn’t need to come yourself. You could have sent for it, and we would have brought it to you.”

“No, my friends,” the king answered. “I’ve come not for wood, but for this elephant.”

“He is yours, Sire!” they replied immediately, but the elephant refused to budge.

Addressing the elephant directly, the king asked, “What do you want me to do?”

“Order the carpenters paid for what they have spent on me, Sire,” the elephant answered.

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“Willingly, friend.” The king ordered a hundred thousand coins to be piled by the elephant’s trunk, by his tail, and beside each foot, but this was not enough for the elephant; he still refused to go. Each of the carpenters was given clothes for himself and his wife. Then the king provided money for all the children.

Satisfied that his friends would be able to manage without his help, the elephant bade farewell to the carpenters, their wives, and the children, and departed with the king.

The king took the elephant to his capital, which was beautifully decorated to mark the occasion. He led the elephant around the city in a solemn procession and gave him a beautifully furnished stable.

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The elephant served as the king’s comrade, and no one else was ever permitted to ride him. With the help of this elephant, the king won supremacy over all India.

After some time, the Queen Consort became pregnant. When it was almost time for her to give birth, the king died.

Everyone realized that if the elephant were to learn of the death of the king, his heart would break, so he was cared for as usual, but not a word was said.

As soon the king of Kosala heard rumors of the king’s death, however, he thought, “Surely Baranasi is at my mercy!” and he decided to attack the kingdom.

Marching at the head of a great army, he laid siege to the capital. The people of Baranasi closed the city gates and sent a message to the king of Kosala: “The Queen of Baranasi is near the time of her delivery, and the astrologers have predicted that she will bear a son in seven days. If, indeed, she bears a son, we will fight to protect the kingdom. Please grant us seven days.” The king of Kosala agreed to their terms.

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Just as predicted, on the seventh day, the baby boy was born. Since he was born to win the hearts of his people, the Queen named him Alinacitta, which means “Inspirer.”

On that day, the army emerged to begin fighting the king of Kosala. Without a leader, however, the soldiers were driven back and began to waver.

Shortly after the battle began, messengers went to see the queen. “Our army is losing ground,” they reported, “and we are afraid of defeat. The state elephant, our late king’s loyal friend, has not been told that the king is dead, that a prince has just been born, and that we are besieged by the king of Kosala. Shall we tell him?”

“Yes, the time has come,” answered the Queen. She quickly dressed her baby boy and wrapped him in a fine cloth. Then she went with all the court to the elephant’s stable. There she laid the infant at the elephant’s feet, saying, “Master, your comrade, the king, is dead, but we were afraid to tell it to you for fear your heart would break. This is your king’s son. Now the king of Kosala is besieging our city, and is making war upon us. Our army is losing ground. Either kill your son yourself or win back his kingdom for him!”

The elephant stroked the child with his trunk and gently lifted him up to his own head. Then with lamentation for his dead master, he took the baby and laid him in his mother’s arms.

The elephant told the officers to dress him in his armor and to prepare for battle. They unlocked the city gate, and escorted him out. The great beast emerged trumpeting. His awe-inspiring demeanor so surprised and frightened the invaders that they panicked and fled in retreat.

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During the rout, the elephant managed to seize the king of Kosala by his topknot. He carried his prisoner to the young prince and dropped him at the baby’s feet. Soldiers sprang to kill the invader, but the elephant stopped them. “Be careful in the future,” the noble elephant advised the captive king. “Never presume to take advantage of us because our Prince is young.” Then he allowed the king to go.

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Alinacitta was consecrated King at the age of seven. Like his father, he ruled all of India, and no foe dared rise up against him again. His reign was just, and, when he came to the end of his life, he went to swell the hosts of heaven.

To conclude his discourse, Buddha observed that any monk, strong in will and seeking a refuge in the Triple Gem, would prevail as did the determined elephant of yore. After Buddha had declared the Truths, the weak-hearted monk was established in Arahatship.

Identifying the birth, Buddha said, “Queen Mahamaya was then the mother; this monk was the elephant who won the kingdom and handed it over to the child; Sariputta was the father elephant; and I myself was the young prince.”

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