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Tales From the Jātaka - The Cheating Merchant

Updated on February 27, 2020
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Scene for The Life of the Buddha
Scene for The Life of the Buddha

Jataka Tale - The Cheating Merchant

Once on a time when Brahmadatta was reigning in Benares, The Bodhisatta was born into a merchant's family and on name-day was named "Wise." When he grew up he entered into partnership with another merchant named "Wisest," and traded with him. So, these two took five hundred wagons of merchandise from Benares to the country-districts, where they unloaded their wares, returning afterwards with the profits to the city.

When it came time to divide their proceeds, Wisest said, "I must have a double share." "Why so?" asked Wise. "Because while you are Wise, I am Wisest; and Wise ought to have only one share to Wisest's two. "But we both had an equal interest in the stock-in-trade and in the oxens and wagons. Why should you have two shares?" "Because I am Wisest." And so they talked away till they fell to quarrelling.

"Ah!" thought Wisest, "I have a plan." He then bade his father to hide in a hollow tree, enjoining the old man to say, when the two came, "Wisest should have a double portion." This arranged, he went to the Bodhisatta and proposed to him to refer the claim for a double share to the competent decision of the Tree-Sprite. Then he made his appeal in these words: "Lord Tree-Sprite, decide our cause!" Hereupon the father, who was hiding in the tree, in a changed voice asked them to state the case.

The cheat addressed the tree as follows: "Lord, here stands Wise, and here stand I Wisest. We have been partners in trade. Declare what share each should receive."

"Wise should receive one share, and Wisest two" was the response.

Hearing this decision, the Bodhisatta resolved to find out whether it was indeed a Tree-Sprite or not. So he filled the hollow trunk with straw and set it on fire. Wisest's father was half roasted by the rising flames and clambered up by clutching hold of a bough. Then falling to the ground he uttered this stanza:

Wise rightly, Wisest wrongly got his name;
Through Wisest, I'm nigh roasted in the flame.

Then the two merchants made an equal division and each took half; and at their death passed away to fare according to their deserts.

"Thus you see," said the Master, "that your partner was as great a cheat in past times as now." Having ended his story, he identified the Birth by saying,"The cheating merchant of today was the cheating merchant in the story, and I the honest merchant named Wise."


Translated by E.B. Cowell

Once on a time when Brahmadatta was reigning in Benares -- Many Jātaka tales begin this way, though there is no known king named Brahmadatta
Because Benares is the place where Gautama Buddha preached his first sermon (the "Deer-Park Sermon") and as it is situated on the sacred river Ganges, it is the great holy city of the Hindus

Bodhisatta -- "A being on the path to enlightenment." or a buddha-to-be; more commonly known by the Sanskrit equivalent Bodhisattva. In the Jātaka the term always connotes Gautama Buddha in one of his previous incarnations.

Tree Sprite -- One of the many demigods whose worship was absorbed into early Buddhism from popular cults of tree worship (male and female tree deities are abundantly represented in early Buddhist art).


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