There lived a king by the name of Sanjaya and his queen Phusati who bore him a child with special powers. Upon his birth, the infant prince is said to have asked his mother, “Mother what could I gift you?” The gods too took notice of this special child, who was soon named Vessantara.
When he was eight, the prince once again surprised everyone by saying that he wished to donate something that was entirely his own, not gifted by anyone else. He wanted to give away his eyes, flesh or even his heart. The gods were further impressed. The years passed, the prince grew up, completed his education and married the princess of a neighbouring kingdom, Princess Maddi. The kingdom prospered and soon a son and a daughter were born to the young couple.
When Prince Vessantara was still a child, a young white elephant had been brought to the stables and the two had developed a special bond. The prince was often seen sitting atop the elephant donating generously to his people. The prince was deeply attached to the pachyderm. But as fate would have it, there came about a long period of drought on one the neighbouring kingdoms. The king of that state was advised to send eight Brahmins to Prince Vessantara to ask for the elephant as a gift as that would end the state’s drought.
When the Brahmins landed up, the prince was distributing alms to the needy. They asked for the elephant and he readily gifted it away. The gods took notice and greeted his decision with thunder and lightning. However, the prince’s decision did not go down too well with his own people. They considered the elephant to be the harbinger of prosperity and angered by the prince’s action, they asked for his banishment.
While the king and queen were distressed, they bowed to the request of the people and it was soon time for the prince to leave. True to character, he donated all that he had and people travelled long distances to receive alms from him. Finally having donated every possession, the prince and his family got on to a chariot to leave the village. However, four Brahmins arrived just at that moment. They were late for the alms. But the prince had given everything away; all he had were the horses drawing his chariot. There were four and the prince gave them to the Brahmins.
The gods were moved at his acts of selflessness. They despatched four deities in the form of stags to drive the chariot. However, soon another Brahmin appeared and asked for the chariot, and the Prince donated that too without hesitation. The stags disappeared and the family continued on foot. After an arduous journey, they found themselves in a forest where the family began living the lives of ascetics. They built two huts, one for Prince Vessantara and the other for his wife and children.
In a village nearby there lived an old Brahmin, Jujaka, who was married to a young girl. His wife was regularly taunted by the women in the village when she went to the village well about her husband’s age. Soon she decided not to go there anymore and asked her husband to hire servants for the job. When Jujaka said that he could not afford servants, she suggested that he go to the prince who was livin in exile somewhere close by, and ask for his children. He would never say no to anybody.
Now the forest that the prince and his family had chosen belonged to his uncle. And he had deployed guards to ensure that no one approached the Prince, lest he donate whatever little he had. When Jujaka tried to get there he was chased away. But when Jujaka told them that he was sent by the prince’s father to fetch him back, the guards allowed him in.
Jujaka waited for the prince’s wife to leave for collecting wood before going up to him with his request. The Prince agreed and handed over the weeping children to Jujaka. Jujaka tied their hands with creepers and dragged them away. When the Prince felt sadness at seeing his children go, he realised that he was still a slave to worldly emotions and controlled his thoughts. But his wife was heartbroken and fainted. On gaining consciousness, she felt miserable but thought it was her duty to stand by her husband’s act of generosity.
At this last act of generosity, however, the Supreme Sakka was worried. He knew that the Prince could donate anything, even his wife. To prevent some unscrupulous Brahmin from doing the same, the Sakka went up to the prince in the form of one and asked for his wife. The prince gave her up too. The heavens shook and the earth rumbled at this ultimate donation. Sakka then appeared in his true form and gave his wife back. Meanwhile, Jujaka had lost his way with the children and instead of reaching his village; he reached the Kingdom of Prince Vessantara. He was taken to the King who recognised his grandchildren. On learning what had happened, the King gave him riches to last a life time in exchange of the children.
Later the king decided to go to the forest and get the prince and his wife back. The citizens of the village too agreed and soon the prince and his wife were back. Soon Prince Vessantara assumed the throne and later ascended the heavens for his acts of generosity. The prince is considered to be one of the previous births of Gautam Buddha and the main objective of the Jataka is to impress upon people the significance of the generosity and charity in one’s life.