This is a story from the Kattahari Jataka. The king of Benaras, Brahmadatta, during one of his regular visits to a forest nearby, came across a beautiful woman. She was walking around and singing the most beautiful songs. Brahmadatta instantly fell in love with her and the two got intimate. Now even as the two got ready to say their goodbyes, the woman realised that she had conceived.
She told the King that she had conceived a child and would become a mother soon. The king took out his signet ring and gave it to the woman and told her that if she gave birth to a girl, then she should sell the ring and use the money to bring up the girl, but if she gave birth to a son, she should bring both the ring and the son to her.
As it turned out, the woman gave birth to a son. This was none other than a Boddhisatva. Soon the boy grew up but whenever he went out to play, he would hear a voice say, ‘No father has hit me’ and soon he began asking his mother about his father. His mother told him the entire story and that his father was the King of Benaras. On hearing this, the boy insisted that he be taken to his father.
The two travelled to the palace and inside the court, the woman introduced her son as the son of the king. But the king denied any knowledge of the woman and refused to acknowledge his son. The woman then showed the signet ring. But Brahmadatta denied that it was his ring.
The truth was that the king had recognised both, but he was worried about being publicly shamed. The woman said that she had no witness to the event and so saying, hurled him up in the air. She announced to all the people present there that day that if her words were untrue, the boy would crash to earth. But if she were telling the truth, the child would be suspended mid-air.
The king instinctively put his arms out to hold the child from falling. It is said that a thousand hands were stretched out in the court to hold the child, but the Bodhisatva descended on none except his father and was soon seated on the king’s lap. The king relented and not only declared him the heir-apparent but also announced that the woman was his queen. After the death of Brahmadatta, the Bodhisatva ascended the throne by the title of King Kattahavahana and ruled righteously.
This is a very familiar story and many of you may have read it and bears a strong resemblance to Kalidasa’s Shakuntala. Like all Jataka tales, the story follows a cryptic narrative style and glosses over the romance-separation- love-reunion aspects of the story. It cuts to the message directly: As a king who bears the name of Brahmadatta, he has to uphold the virtuous way of life and thus when he denies the child to be his, the woman doesn’t waste her time shedding tears, she simply hurls the boy into the air.
(The entire set of stories under Jataka Tales refers to the previous lives of Buddha, ascribing different forms to his different births. In whichever form he appears, the tales exemplify virtuous behaviour)