Folk-Lore/Volume 2/Bhuridatta


IN Folk-lore, i, p. 278, there is an extract regarding the Cherokees’ belief relative to the connection between serpents and precious stones, and, at page 209 of the same issue, there is a passage on Dracs in the Rhone, that are so similar to incidents in the Bhuridatta Játaka of the Buddhist literature, that I venture to think that a sketch of that legend, as taken from the Burmo-Pali version, would be of interest to the readers of Folk-Lore, and, without further preface, proceed to give it.

Once upon a time, there reigned in Benares a king who was afraid that his eldest son was becoming too powerful, so he ordered him to leave the country until the time should come for him to ascend the throne. The prince accordingly went into the forest on the banks of the Jumna, and lived there in a hut as an ascetic. Just at that time a Nágí (serpent-lady), who had lost her husband, came wandering in search of another, and, seeing the empty hut, wondered whether the owner was a real hermit or an ordinary man; and, in order to find it out, covered the couch with flowers and fairy scents, and went away. In the cool of the evening the prince returned from the forest, where he had been searching for fruits and roots. He wondered who had been decorating his bed with flowers, and then went to sleep on it; a hermit would have first thrown them all away. Next day the serpent-lady came back, and, seeing he had slept on the flowers, knew he was not a real hermit, and redecorated the bed. As she was going away, however, the prince, who had been on the watch, came up and asked her who she was. She told him, and, as she was very beautiful, he married her, She created a fairy palace in the forest, in which they dwelt, and bore him a son named Ságara,[1] and, two or three years afterwards, a daughter named Samuddajá.[2] The prince is then discovered by a hunter and informed of his father's death. The nobles come out from the city and insist on his returning to the kingdom. The serpent-lady says she cannot accompany him, because she is afraid that in her anger she may destroy some of his people, seeing that the serpent-people are very irritable and unable to restrain their poison. She says, "Though my duty and inclination are to follow my husband, yet, if I were to see anything to anger me, the person who caused my anger to arise would be reduced to ashes." Next morning she hands over the children to him, and begs him to take the greatest care of them, and be careful to let them have plenty of water to play in, as they are half serpent by nature. When he got to Benares he had some tanks made for the children to play in. One day, when the prince and princess were swimming in the pond, a fresh-water tortoise put its head up and looked at them, which so frightened the children that they fled to their father and told him there was a devil in the pond. The king had the pond dragged, and the tortoise was caught and brought before the king. His nobles advised that it should be put to death in various ways; but one of them, who was very much afraid of water, thought that it ought to be punished by being hurled into the river. On hearing this, the tortoise put his head out, and said: "My Lord King, I have done no harm, but I am nevertheless willing to undergo any punishment rather than that."

The king at once ordered him to be thrown into the whirlpool in the Jumna. Now, this whirlpool was the direct road to Serpent-land, and the tortoise fell close to a Naga, who was the son of Dhatarattha, the Nága king. He was immediately arrested, and, to save himself from punishment, cried out that he was an ambassador from the King of Benares, sent to offer his daughter in marriage to King Dhatarattha. At first he was not believed, but, after some argument, he prevailed on the Serpent king to send some young Nágas back with him to Benares. On the road the tortoise got away and hid himself, and the Nágas arrived at the palace alone. The King of Benares asked what they had come for, and on being informed, got angry, and declared that he could not give the lady Samuddaja in marriage to such a creature as a serpent. The Nágas at this were highly incensed, but, being ambassadors, could not destroy Benares, so went back to make their report. King Dhatarattha thereupon summoned his hosts, and ordered them to spread themselves all over the city of Benares, but not to hurt anyone. At this the people of Benares were so terrified that they cried out to know why they were so plagued by serpents; and on being informed, they begged the Nága king to allow them to go to their own king to entreat him. The people cried out to the king to give the Princess Samuddajá in marriage to Dhatarattha. The king was so terrified at the noise made by his people, and the hissing of the Nágas, that he consented to give his daughter to the Nága king. After the wedding they went back to Nága land, and the King Dhatarattha gave an order that no one was to show himself to Queen Samuddajá in serpent form.[3]

Samuddajá bore four sons, viz., Sudassana (good-looking), Datta (given?), Subhoga (wealth), and Arittha. Datta was the Bodhisat (i.e., one who is on the road to the Buddhaship), and he grew so wise that Indra gave him the name of Bhuri-datta. Bhuridatta was filled with a desire to progress in wisdom, and on his return to Nága land from the kingdom of Indra, informed his parents that he intended to fast regularly on the proper days. They acquiesced in his proposal, but told him he had better not do so on the surface of the world, as he would be exposed to many dangers. However he found that whilst he was fasting in Serpent-land the distractions were too many for him, so he determined to go up to the land of men, and calling his wives and ladies, he informed them that he should keep his fasts coiled on the top of an ant-hill at the foot of a banyan-tree near the bank of the Jumna, and on the morning after the fast they were to come and fetch him.

Now there dwelt in a village near the gate of Benares a Brahman hunter, and one day he was following a deer with his son Somadatta, and being belated, climbed up into the tree at whose foot Bhuridatta was coiled. In the early morning the Brahman was aroused by the sound of music, and looking, saw Bhuridatta sitting surrounded by his queens, dressed in all their fairy jewels. He went up to Bhuridatta, and said:

"Who art thou with eyes so red,
Gleaming in thy noble head,
Strong of limb and broad of chest.
Girt with fair ones proudly dressed?"

To which Bhuridatta made reply:

"Brahman, I am Bhuridatta,
Son of Raja Dhatarattha,
When my eye in anger flashes.
Human realms are burnt to ashes."

As Bhuridatta could see that this Brahman was a wicked old fellow, likely to betray him to others who would come and injure him whilst fasting (when he would be powerless), he determined to carry him off to Nága land, and endow him with great wealth. He took Somadatta there too, after reciting several stanzas descriptive of the beauties of Serpent-land. The Brahman dwelt there for a long time in great luxury, and Bhuridatta gave him all that he wanted; but at last a desire to return home and see his wife made him discontented, and he determined to go, notwithstanding Bhuridatta's offer of further wealth. The old Brahman declared all he wanted was to see his wife, and then turn ascetic; so Bhuridatta allowed them to depart, telling them that if they changed their minds and came back, he would give them further riches.

The Brahman and his son return home, and on the road see a pond, in which they bathe; and as soon as they do so all their fancy garments fall off and disappear, and their old clothes are restored to them. Seeing this, Somadatta wept, but his father consoled him by pointing out the pleasure of hunting.

When they got to the house, the Brahman's wife came out to welcome them; and they told her where they had been, but, on hearing they had brought back none of the splendid things that were given them, and that the old Brahman had even refused a splendid ruby that would give everything that one wished for, she flew into a passion, abused her husband, and drove him out of the house.

About that time a Garula[4] (fabulous eagle) was looking out for Nágas (their hereditary enemies), and having seized one, carried it off towards the Himavanta forest. The serpent, in its struggle, caught hold of a banyan-tree in the country of Benares, at the foot of which a hermit was sitting. The Garula carried off both serpent and tree to Himavanta, and, after eating the fat of the serpent, discovered he had brought the tree too. Recognising the tree, he was terrified lest the hermit should lay a curse on him. So he went to the hermit and questioned him as to whether the Garula who carried off the tree was to be blamed. Finding that the hermit was not angry with the Garula, he admitted that it was he who had unwittingly done it, and taught the hermit the charm for subduing serpents.

Not long afterwards, a poor Brahman came to this hermit and served him, and in return the hermit taught him the snake charm. The Brahman then went off, and as he was travelling along one morning, he came across a number of serpent-ladies dancing on the river-bank round the great wishing-ruby. The Nágas, hearing the Brahman reciting the charm, thought it was a Garula, and dived into the earth in a fright, leaving the ruby, which the Brahman at once seized with delight.

Shortly after, he met Nesáda, the hunter, and his son Somadatta, and Nesáda, recognising the ruby which had been offered to him, was seized with a desire to get it from the snake charmer.

He proposes to get it by artifice, but Somadatta will have nothing to say to the matter, rebukes his father for his wickedness in trying to take what he had already refused when it was offered to him, and forsakes his father to become a hermit. Nesáda then goes up to the snake charmer, and asks him what he will take for his ruby; the snake charmer refuses, at first, to part with it, saying:—

"Ne'er will I my ruby barter
For earth's treasures, or for silver;
'Tis a stone of wondrous power,
Such a ruby none can purchase."[5]

On being again pressed by Nesáda to name a price for the ruby, he agrees to give it to the man who can point out to him the King of Serpents. Nesáda, after some further conversation, takes the Brahman to the place where Bhuridatta lies coiled round the ant-hill,[6] and pointing him out, says:

"Seize, then, the Serpent king,
Give me that jewel:
Like fireflies sparkling
Of that one 's the red head:
Like well-carded cotton,
His body behold there;
He sleeps on the ant-hill
Fast seize him, O Brahman."

Bhuridatta opens his eyes, and seeing the two Brahmans, immediately takes in the situation, and, after some reflection on the wickedness and treachery of Nesáda, elects to permit himself to be captured rather than give way to passion. The snake-charmer hands over the ruby to Nesada, when it slips through his fingers and disappears.

The snake-charmer then smears himself with some unguent, and, seizing Bhuridatta by the tail, draws him quickly through the other hand until he grips him by the throat, and then opening his jaws, spits some chewed drugs into his mouth. When the drugs have taken effect he holds him up by the tail and makes him vomit all his food, and then laying him on the ground, kneads him with his feet from the tail towards the head; he then bangs him on the ground till he is quite limp and almost lifeless, crams him into a small wicker-basket, and goes off to make him perform at the various villages.

The scene now changes back to Serpent-land, where Bhuridatta's mother and wives are alarmed at his not returning home. His brothers come at the usual time to pay their respects to their mother, and, after considerable talking and weeping, his brothers agree to go in search of Bhuridatta.

Sudassana directs Arittha to go to Deva-land, Subhoga to Himavanta, and says he himself will go to the land of men.

A cousin of Bhuridatta, named Ajamukhi, says she will accompany Sudassana, and, as Sudassana is going in the form of a hermit, she changes herself into a frog, and hides in his top knot of hair. Bhuridatta's wives take him to the ant-hill, and there they find the shavings and cuttings of twigs where the snake charmer had made the basket, and feel sure that he has been caught. Sudassana, therefore, goes to the nearest village, and hears that a snake charmer had been there holding a performance, and he follows on from village to village until he gets to the king's city. The snake charmer had just made himself ready to give a performance before the king. Sudassana mixes in the crowd, and follows. The snake charmer spreads his carpet, puts down his cages, and calls on the great serpent to come forth. Bhuridatta, recognising his brother, came out and made straight towards him. The people ran away, but Sudassana stood firm, and the serpent, having rested his head on Sudassana's instep, returned to his cage.

The snake charmer asked Sudassana if he was bitten, and told him not to be afraid, for he could at once cure him.

Sudassana answered, "Fear not, O snake charmer, thy serpent dared not bite me, for I am a very powerful snake charmer."

The snake charmer gets angry, and wants to know who he is; whereupon Sudassana offers to fight the serpent with his frog for 5,000 pieces of silver.

The snake charmer asks him to put down the money, or get a surety, whereupon Sudassana walks into the palace and gets the king to stand security. Seeing the king come out with Sudassana, the snake charmer tries to frighten Sudassana, but Sudassana tells him his serpent has no poison in his fangs, and cannot hurt.

At this the snake charmer gets more angry, and, after some further talk, Sudassana calls to Ajamukhi, and she hops down into his hand, where she lets fall three drops of poison. Then Sudassana, with a loud voice, cries out, "Now shall this kingdom of Benares be destroyed."

The king asks him to explain himself, and he says he cannot see anywhere that he can throw away the poison so as to prevent its doing harm. If he were to throw it on the earth, all the herbs and trees would be burnt up; if he were to throw it in the water, everything in the water would be killed. On begging him not to destroy the country, Sudassana tells the king to have three holes dug in a row. The first he filled with drugs, the second with cow-dung, and the third with some unknown charm; and, on bis casting the three drops of poison into the first hole, flames burst forth, which passed on to the second hole, and were extinguished in the third. The snake charmer was so terrified that he cried out, "I release the great serpent," and his whole body became a leper as white as snow. Bhuridatta then came forth in his proper form, and Sudassana explains to the king that they are the children of Samuddaja. The king is much pleased, and entertains them, and they all return to Nága land.

Subhoga, in the meantime, had searched the Himavanta forest, and all the seas and rivers, and at last came back to the river Jumna. Nesáda also went down to the Jumna to cleanse himself from the effects of his sin in betraying Bhuridatta, and got to the bathing-place just as Subhoga returned there. Hearing Nesáda's lamentations, he thought, "This is the wretch who caused all the trouble to my brother; I will slay him." So, circling his tail round Nesáda'slegs, he dragged him under the water. The Brahman, however, got his head above water, and a conversation ensues between them, the result of which is that Subhoga is not clear as to whether it would be right to slay a Brahman, so he takes him away to Nága land, and brings him before Bhuridatta, to see what he says about the matter. Arittha takes the part of the Brahman, and quotes the stanzas which explain how Brahm, the creator, divided men into four classes, viz.: The Brahmans, to teach; the Kshatryas, to rule; the Vesyas, for cultivating; and the Sudras, to be the slaves of the other three classes. He also adduces other proofs of their value and holiness.

The Bodhisat Bhuridatta then refutes Arittha in a number of stanzas, proving that Brahm is a very poor ruler of the universe if he cannot make everyone happy and eliminate misery altogether.

  1. Ságara means "The Ocean".
  2. Samuddajá means "Sea-born".
  3. The offspring of man and Nága could not change into a serpent, but had only some of the Nága characteristics.
  4. The Garulas, or Galunas, when they wish to catch a Nága, divide the waters of the sea by flapping their wings over it.
  5. The conversation is carried on mostly in short verses.
  6. White-ant hills are a favourite resort of serpents.