KUSA JĀTAKA (NO.531)
MISMATCH OF BEAUTY AND UGLY, MATCHLESS OUTCOME
The Buddha told this story about a backsliding monk while residing at Jetavana Monastery.
Once upon a time, there lived King Okkāka, ruler of the Malla Kingdom with his queen consort Sīlavatī in the royal city of Kusavātī. With the divine intervention of Lord Sakka, the barren Queen Sīlavatī finally conceived and bore the king two sons. The first-born, named Kusa, was wise but ugly while the second son, named Jayampati, was handsome but a fool. Both boys were raised with great state.
When Kusa turned sixteen, the king wished to hand over the kingdom to him and to see him married. Kusa knew that with his unattractive appearance, a lovely princess would never favour him. She would run away, putting his family and kingdom to shame. Hence, thrice he rejected his parents’ pleas to marry. On the fourth time, feeling that it was not befitting to oppose his parents, he devised a plan.
Kusa obtained gold from the chief goldsmith and fashioned it into a figure of a woman, beautiful beyond words, like a heavenly nymph. He then proclaimed, “When I find a woman like this, I will take her as my wife.”
The queen summoned her councillors, instructed them to place this gold figure, robed in beautiful clothing, in a covered carriage and traverse the length and breadth of the continent, and whatsoever king’s daughter they find with likeness to the image, to present it to that king and say, “King Okkāka will contract a marriage between his prince and your daughter.”
Whichever kingdom they went to, no one had seen such a maiden until they reached the city of Sāgala in the Kingdom of Madda. The King of Madda had eight extraordinarily beautiful daughters. They were like heavenly nymphs. The eldest and most beautiful was Pabhāvati, whose body streamed forth rays of light like the rising sun.
Pabhāvati had a humpbacked nurse, who cared and served her. One day, the humpbacked nurse, whilst going to fetch water to wash Pabhāvati’s hair, came by the golden figure placed by the Malla councillors at the city’s gate. Thinking her charge was disgracefully standing on the road, the nurse slapped the image. Seeing the commotion, the envoys questioned the nurse and were overjoyed when told that the image was not worth one sixteenth of her foster daughter’s beauty.
The envoys immediately returned to Kusavātī and informed the king and queen. They set forth for the city of Sāgala and upon meeting the King of Madda, they proposed the betrothal of their son and his daughter, which the Madda King accepted.
Seeing the Madda princess’s extraordinary beauty, the wise Queen Sīlavatī knew that should Pabhāvati see her son, she would not stay a single day but would surely run away. So she devised a plan. The queen informed the King of Madda and Pabhāvati that their family custom forbade a wife to see her husband by daylight until she had conceived and to which the princess agreed to follow.
Thence, Kusa was made king and Pabhāvati his queen consort. However, they were not allowed to see each other by day, only at night. A few days passed and longing to see his wife by day, Kusa begged his mother many times. Eventually, the queen mother allowed Kusa to see his wife but under disguise as an elephant-keeper and a horse-stable groom so that he could gaze at his wife while she walked by.
One day, Kusa concealed himself in the lotus-pool in the garden, in which his wife was bathing. No longer able to contain his deception, Kusa jumped out of the water and grabbed his wife’s hand, saying, “I am King Kusa.” On seeing Kusa’s face, Pabhāvati, thinking that a goblin had caught hold of her hand, fainted. When she woke up, she realised that her husband was hideous. She fled the palace, to return to her father’s kingdom.
King Kusa, however, chose to let her go and decided to win her back by his own power. In truth, his ugliness was due to his past non-virtuous act of angrily taking back his portion of cake that was offered to a Pacceka Buddha by the past Pabhāvati. Then, the past Pabhāvati made another offering to the Pacceka Buddha with the aspiration of not having anything to do with the past Kusa in the future. Seeing the bowl of the Pacceka Buddha illuminating brightly during the offering, the past Kusa reoffered his portion of cake with the aspiration of having Pabhāvati as his wife in the future.
Thus, Kusa left his kingdom and his royal comforts to pursue his wife. In his endeavour to win her back, he did many things that was beneath a king such as becoming a lute player, a potter, a basket weaver, a garland maker and an apprentice to the king’s cook. Each time, he did not appear before her but crafted and created things of beauty and good taste as gifts and offerings to her. Alas, each time Pabhāvati recognised Kusa’s handiwork and was unimpressed. So conceited was she that each time, she became enraged and acted harshly and cruelly rejecting Kusa and his gifts.
This continued for seven months. Unable to see Pabhāvati and failing to win her over, Kusa finally gave up and decided to return to his kingdom. At this moment, realising what was happening, Lord Sakka intervened. He dispatched messages to seven kings separately as if they came from the King of Madda himself, saying, “Pabhāvati has left King Kusa and returned home. You are to come and take her as your wife.”
The seven kings concurrently arrived at the city with their large followings. Upon knowing that the King of Madda had fooled them all, they threatened him, demanding either he gave Pabhāvati in marriage to all of them or they would fight him. The king, realising this difficult predicament and angry with his daughter for casting off King Kusa, decreed that he would slay her and cut her body into seven pieces to be presented to each of the seven kings.
Hearing this, Pabhāvati became terrified and finally admitted that Kusa, her husband, was with her all the time, living as a cook in the palace. Initially, her parents didn’t believe her but seeing her speak confidently, they summoned the cook. When Kusa saw her coming towards him, he decided that now was the time to break down her pride and made her grovel in the mud to seek his forgiveness.
Hearing her predicament and convinced of her sincerity, King Kusa, having bathed and dressed in kingly finery, mounted a richly caparisoned elephant with Pabhāvati seated behind him and left the city.
As soon as he saw the forces of the enemies, he charged towards them with a lion’s roar, frightening them and capturing all the seven kings. After overcoming them, instead of killing them, he gave his wife’s younger sisters’ hand in marriage to the kings, thus pacifying them and they peacefully returned to their own lands.
At that time, Kusa’s father and mother were members of the royal household of the Sakyan clan. His younger brother was Ānanda. The humpback nurse was Khujjuttarā, Pabhāvati was Yasodhara and King Kusa was the future Buddha.
At the end of the discourse the backsliding monk attained the first stage of sainthood.
Due to pride, holding oneself supreme, one becomes blind to the good qualities in others, just as Pabhāvati had fled from King Kusa due to her narcissistic obsession with her own beauty. The future Buddha in a grand display of non-conclusive conclusion, never settling on any losing situation, finally conquered the most subtle pride of Pabhāvati.
At the same time, the past Yasodhara, referred to as Pabhāvati in this story, had made the aspiration to support the future Buddha, King Kusa, since the meeting with Dipankara Buddha in a remote past. Hence, conditionally, Pabhāvati had to push King Kusa to the maximum limits of human experience. Finally, when the consequential conditionalities came together, all of King Kusa’s struggles were crowned not only by the triumph over Pabhāvati but also his supremacy over all the seven kingdoms.
In Kusa Jātaka, the future Buddha
was a wise king but was born ugly
due to a past misbehaviour towards a Pacceka Buddha.
He was immediately deserted by Queen Pabhāvati
who saw him as a goblin in her bathing pool.
In desperation, he had to skilfully hide behind
roles that were beneath a king –
as a lute player, a potter, a basket weaver,
a garland maker and an apprentice cook
in his endeavour to win over Pabhāvati.
In order for King Kusa to win back his beloved queen,
Sakka had to intervene by instigating the seven kings to wage war for Pabhāvati’s hand in marriage.
Her bewildered father, in desperation,
threatened to chop her into seven pieces to appease the kings.
This shocked Pabhāvati out of her pride
and obsession with her own beauty,
and led her to finally submit to King Kusa with humility.
Hence, the triumphant story of the future Buddha
reuniting with his beloved queen,
together with the avoidance of an imminent bloodbath
via political marriages of Pabhāvati’s sisters to the seven kings, to form a powerful alliance,
led a backsliding monk to attain the first stage of sainthood
during the Buddha’s lifetime.