Today’s story is a re-telling of a 3rd century Jataka Tale. Also known as the “Birth-stories”, the Jatakas form one of the sacred books of the Buddhists, and tell wisdom stories of the Buddha in his many reincarnations.
THE BANYAN DEER
THERE was once a deer the color of gold. His eyes were round and shone like jewels from his noble head. His horns were majestic and smooth as silver. His mouth was the deep red of a flower. Strong legs stretched down from a powerful body to hooves that were bright and hard, and when he ran, the underfur of his fine tail flashed white. He was King to a herd of five hundred Banyan Deer – and was a glorious sight to behold.
The king of the Banyan Deer led his herd wisely, guiding them to a deep forest. Here they were sheltered by trees and could live without much fear of danger.
Not far off, roamed another large herd, and these were called the Monkey Deer. They, too, had a majestic buck as their king.
Now, a new King had recently come into power and ruled over that country. He was fond of hunting, and in particular, had a strong desire for the taste of deer meat. Day after day, he would call on the people of his town to drive the deer out of the forests and across the fields – so that his courtiers and himself, could easily hunt them.
This was most difficult for the townspeople for – not only were their fields being torn apart by the royal hunt, but while they were gone helping the King, no one was left to do their work. Not only that, but the kings passion for hunting pulled his attention away from affairs of the state. These duties were being neglected, thus – disrupting order in the kingdom.
To solve this problem, the townspeople met, and devised a simple plan to build a park. Here they planted grass, and provided water for the Deer. They then cut hundreds of tall saplings for the purpose of building a stockade. When everything was prepared they drove the Deer in with much effort, and shut the gate. In this way the king could go into the park and hunt to his heart’s content – and the townspeople could go on with their daily work.
The king was notified that now he could easily hunt as much as he desired.
In the meantime, the herds of deer ran in fear around and around the edges of the stockade, trying to escape. But they could not.
The King of the Banyan Deer saw this, and called his herd to gather around him. He spoke to ease their fears, saying:
“Brothers and sisters, look around you! The sky is blue overhead. At our feet, the grass is green and lush, and there is plenty to eat. Do not have fear! Where there is life, there is hope. Have trust in me, and there will be a way.”
The following day, the new King came to observe the great herds that were now captured – inside the stockade. The two majestic Deer kings caught his attention, and he immediately gave his courtiers orders to spare the lives of these two, fine, animals. The others, he said, could be hunted at will.
Bows were drawn and the herds scattered in terror, wounding each other with antlers and hooves as they raced wildly to avoid the flying arrows.
This would happen almost every day. As soon as any of the Deer saw the hunters coming they would shake with fear and run, for they knew that every day, one of them would lose its life and in the process, others would be sorely wounded.
“Brother, many of our subjects are being killed – and besides those, many are being wounded. The pain they suffer is unbearable. Perhaps we can devise a lottery, whereby one from my herd can go up to be killed one day, and the next day – one from your herd will go up. Fewer Deer will be lost this way.”After some time had gone by like this, the King of the Banyan deer called on the King of the Monkey Deer, and said:
The king of the Monkey Deer agreed, and the plan was set in place.
The next time the king and his courtiers arrived, they found that one deer stood directly below them. Its legs and body trembled but nonetheless, it held its head high. It quickly dawned on the King what was happening, and he thought to himself: “Ah, these are noble creatures indeed! They have chosen one of them to stand alone and die, in order that the others shall be spared from suffering! ”
Touched by the wisdom and compassion of the deer kings, he proclaimed that from that day on, only the one deer presenting itself was allowed to be shot.
A strange heaviness descended on his heart. Unstringing his bow, he rode back – in silence – to the palace.
On and on it went in this way for some time until one day the lot fell to a doe, who had recently given birth to a young fawn. She ran to her king and begged him to spare her life, saying,
“O King of the Monkey Deer, please – please let the turn pass me by until my baby is old enough to get along without me! Then, I will go and take my turn.”
But the king of the monkey deer did not relent. He told her that if the lot had fallen to her she must take her turn and die, just as the others had before her. There would be no exceptions.
In desperation, she ran to the King of the Banyan Deer and fell to her knees, begging him to save her life for the sake of her fawn, who would surely die without her. The king of the Banyan dear looked upon her with deep, kind eyes.
“Rise, sister Doe” said he “ The terms of the lottery are that only one a day should die, not two. So go now, back to your herd and your faun. I will see that all is taken care of. “
When the hunters arrived in the morning, they were stunned to find the King of the Banyan Deer standing below them, prepared to sacrifice himself. Knowing that his life was not allowed to be taken, a messenger was promptly sent back to the palace.
The king rode down in haste to see for himself what the disturbance was about.
“King of the Banyan Deer!” he called “Did I not grant you your life? Why is it then, that you stand there?”
“Your Highness” the Banyan King explained “today the lot fell on a doe, with a faun. I chose to break the terms of the lottery to spare her life and that of her baby’s. It is my duty and my right, as a king, to stand in her place.”
The king stood in awe, speechless at this noble act of mercy and kindness. Finally he spoke.
“Noble Banyan Deer,” he said, “Never in my life have I witnessed such an act of courage and compassion. You have given me a great lesson! It is a kings duty to care for even the least of his subjects. Through your willingness to sacrifice yourself for the good of another, today, you have made this clear to me. Because of this, I shall give you a gift. I grant that your life, and that of the Does, be spared. Furthermore, from this day hence I vow, that no deer shall ever be hunted again, in either park or forest. Go, and live in peace.”
The King of the Banyan Deer bowed his head and thanked the King. Gathering his herd, he departed with them, followed by the Monkey Deer and their King, back into the depths of the forest.
The king set a stone pillar on the spot where he had spoken with the Banyan Deer. Carved upon it was the figure of a deer, encircled with these words:
“In Homage to the Noble Banyan Deer, Compassionate Teacher of Kings.”
He too lived on, for the rest of his life caring wisely for all living beings.