The Great Monkey and the discovery of mangoes (a Jataka story)


Illustration by Andy Gammon

Long ago, before men had tasted mangoes, the bodhisattva was reborn as a monkey, near the banks of the Ganges. Growing up strong and vigorous, he became leader of his troop. The monkeys found a huge mango tree on the river bank: ‘Its sweet fruits of divine flavour were as large as water jars, and from one branch the fruit fell on dry ground, from another they fell into the Ganges.’ The troop feasted eagerly on the fruit, but the bodhisattva pondered, and decided that he must not let the ripe fruit fall into the river, or there would come a time when disaster would befall his followers.

So after the next blossoming, he made the monkeys eat or discard all the fruitlets on the branch that overhung the river. However, one single fruit ripened because an ants’ nest hid it from view, and it fell into the water.

Meanwhile, many miles downstream in the great royal capital Benares, King Brahmadatta was idling away his life. His many wives did their best to keep him amused, his courtiers flattered him and devised elaborate feasts, and the king himself grew more fat and more bored. In the afternoon he would go with his court to his bathing place on the Ganges. Nets were strung across the river, upstream and downstream, to keep out the crocodiles, and the king would wallow in the shallows to his heart’s content, and then emerge for a picnic.

One night, after the king had returned to his palace, the fisherman who put away the crocodile nets found a strange object caught in the mesh. Was it the egg of some huge water bird? Red and green it was, weighty, soft to the touch; swollen, blushing, and fragrant. Did the fisherman know what it was? no! — So he gave it to the chief queen. Did the queen know what it was? no! — So she gave it to the king. Did the king know what it was? no! — So he asked the queen, who asked the fisherman, who did not know. The fisherman fetched the woodman: he would know. He said to the king ‘Eat it, sire’. Suspiciously, the king made the woodman taste some first, and an enchanting perfume filled the palace as the fruit was cut.

Yes, it was the very mango that had fallen from the monkey’s tree, and the king was soon guzzling its flesh, leaving some small pieces to tantalize his wives and courtiers. He was delighted, and the fragrant essence pervaded his body. They were ecstatic, and the fragrant essence pervaded their bodies. But when the mango was finished, the sensuous king craved more; the whole gourmand court were obsessed with mangoes. So Brahmadatta ordered an expedition for the next morning. They would all go up river to look for the tree. The bodhisattva monkey’s worst fears were about to be realized.

The king’s boats stopped under the mango tree, its branches bending with ripe fruit, and Brahmadatta and his wives and courtiers feasted to repletion, all falling asleep under the great tree. The moon rose. At midnight, our monkey troop arrived for their mangoes, not noticing their new and deadly rivals snoring contentedly on the ground. The noise of the monkeys woke the king, who saw them and smiled. `The mango is an ideal fruit, but it lacks a savoury. Tomorrow we will eat mangoes and roast monkey!’ Brahmadatta awakened his men and had the tree surrounded by archers, ready to shoot at first light.

Trembling, the monkeys came to their leader — ‘What shall we do?’ ‘Do not fear,’ he whispered, and climbed to the very end of the bough which overhung the river. With a prodigious leap, he made the far river bank, landing in a bush. There, he carefully calculated the length of his leap, broke off a long bamboo pole to reach the branch, tied one end to the top of the bush, and tied the other end to his waist. The great monkey gathered every sinew for a mighty leap, and ‘with the speed of a wind‑torn cloud’ he sprang for the branch. But oh! the pole was just too short. With a despairing convulsion, the bodhisattva clutched the branch as he fell. ‘O monkeys, my back must be the bridge. Run swiftly to the pole and safety.’

So the troop escaped the dreadful fate of adorning Brahmadatta’s breakfast table. But look — the last monkey to cross is the bodhisattva’s great rival, and he stamps on his chief’s back as he passes, causing his heart to crack in a wave of pain. The cruel rival fled, laughing. The bodhisattva was alone, lashed to a bamboo pole, hanging on to the tree.

Brahmadatta had seen all in the growing light. ‘This is but a beast, yet he risks all to save his kin!’ and at daybreak he sent his boats into midstream and had a platform built on them. Gently, the dying monkey was taken down and tended. The king sat next to him on the ground and spoke, his heart full. ‘You could have saved yourself, great being. What are you to those chatterers, what are they to you?’ ‘Those monkeys are my charge, king. In terror of your brutal arrows, they looked to me, and so I saved them. Neither death nor bondage will disturb my breast, since those I ruled are now safe. I tell this to you, O king, that you may learn that a wise ruler seeks the welfare of all in his domain.’

And so the bodhisattva died, and Brahmadatta gave him a monarch’s funeral, enshrined his bones, and abandoned his own luxurious ways to rule righteously, following the instructions of a monkey.

Catherine RhysDavids, Stories of the Buddha, Dover, New York 1989 (1st edn 1929), 149–53. Tradition says that the Buddha told this story when discussing the value of seeking the welfare of one’s kin. Feats of courage and self sacrifice in defence of the troop are well known among the macaque group of monkeys (an early illustration of this birth story from the Bharat Stupa shows monkeys of this type), and are ascribed to kin selection. The idea is that it is genetically worth while to risk your life if you save the lives of close relatives, since they carry similar genes to yours. However, despite the naturalistic observation of much of this two thousand year old story, it is important as a moral fable, and not for its portrayal of animal behaviour.