Once the Bodhisatta was born as a deer. He grew up to be a magnificent stag—a Sambar, the largest of the many kinds of deer that roam the forests of India. He had a shaggy grey coat and antlers that towered over his head. Sarabha was his name. He dwelt deep in the forest, browsing on leaves and wild fruit. With his long, funnel-shaped ears, he listened for any sounds of danger in the forest world.
Now, the king in Varanasi was a mighty man, a skilled archer, with a great passion for hunting. He considered himself the only man worthy of the name. One day he assembled his courtiers and they set off for the hunt. The king was determined to have success. When they arrived at the forest, he said to his men, “Whichever one of you lets a deer go by, that one will be punished.”
His companions thought to themselves, “No matter how alert we are, there’s always the chance that we will miss the deer.” They considered the problem and decided, “However we can, let us make sure the deer runs to the spot where the king is standing, so that it may fall by his arrow. Let him be the one to strike it or miss it.”
They made this agreement and directed the king to take up his position at the far end of the path by which they had entered the thicket. Then they encircled the thicket and beat the ground with their clubs to scare up the game. Sarabha, the stag, was the first to spring up. He ran all around the thicket three times, searching for an escape. On every side he saw a line of men standing without a break—arms pressed against arms, bows at the ready. There was no space between them. But where the king stood, he saw an opening. With eyes blazing, he made straight for the king.
The king let fly an arrow but missed. Quickly, he restrung his bow.
Now, deer are clever at avoiding an arrow. When the arrows come straight towards them, they stop and stand still, letting the arrows fly by. When the arrows come from behind, they move with speed and hasten away. When the arrows rain down from above, they swivel and bend, avoiding them. And when the arrows come from all sides at once, they turn this way and that, dodging them. They even fall onto the ground, pretending to be struck, and then, with great speed, they jump up and make their escape.
The king released a second arrow. The deer fell to the ground and the king let out a roar: “Sarabho me viddho! I got him! I struck him!”
But the deer sprang up, unharmed. Swift as the wind, he bounded away, breaking through the circle of men at the very spot where the king had been standing.
The king’s companions saw the great deer making his escape. Fearing the king’s wrath, they gathered together and asked each other, “Who was guarding the spot where the stag got through?”
“The king,” one of them answered. “It was the king’s spot.”
“But the king said, ‘I got him!’”
“Indeed, he said he struck the deer, but it was not even wounded.”
“Perhaps,” said one of them in a low voice, “the king meant he struck the earth, he got the earth.”
In this way, they laughed at the king and made sport.
The king heard them laughing. He thought to himself, “These men are mocking me. They do not know my measure.”
Preparing himself, he took up his sword, and went off on foot, saying, “I will seize this stag.”
He sprang after the deer. Sarabha had entered the forest, following a faint trail made by the animals who lived there. The king pursued him, following the stag deeper and deeper into the woods, catching a glimpse now and then of his shaggy grey coat. Ahead of him, Sarabha bounded along the path, all the while listening for the sound of the king’s step on the dry leaves and twigs that littered the forest floor. His long ears bent back, gathering the sound, while with his nose he gathered the smells of this part of the forest, where he had never been before.
As he went along, his sense of smell alerted him to danger. The path he was following led straight towards a body of water. By its scent, he knew it wasn’t a shallow pond, exposed to daylight, or a forest stream, running sweet and clear. It was a great covered pit, where a tree had fallen and then rotted away, leaving a hole where the rain had come in, year after year, filling it to a depth of many feet.
Concealed by fallen branches and leaves, the pit was not visible to the eye. As he approached, Sarabha caught the scent of the standing water—stagnant, pungent with the smell of rotting vegetation. At once, he changed his course, leaving the path and veering to one side into the thicket where there was no path.
He continued on, still listening for the king’s footsteps far behind him.
The king never wavered from the trail. He went straight along and fell headfirst into the pit. There he floundered in the deep water, unable to climb up the steep, slippery sides where the earth was crumbling and loose. His breath came quickly and he feared for his life. In his struggle, one thought came to him over and over again: All for the sake of my pride, I am lost here. Surely, I will perish in this rank water and none shall ever find me or my bones.
Deep in the thicket, Sarabha stopped. With his long ears tilted back, he stood listening for the crackle and crunch of the king’s footsteps, the sound that had accompanied him the whole of this long afternoon. But all he heard were the sounds of the forest: bird song, the buzzing of insects, the wind in the swaying branches overhead. Had the king also come to a halt? Had he given up the chase? Sarabha stood and listened.
Then he knew what had happened. The king had fallen into the covered pit. The great stag stood for a moment longer, listening to the wild sounds of the forest. Then he turned around and retraced his steps through the brush. He approached the edge of the pit and looked down. There the king floundered in the murky water, desperately trying to extract himself from the muck. Sarabha watched him. This angry being, this creature with two legs and a red face, had pursued him with the sole intention of killing him. Did he not deserve to die? Compassion sprang up in the heart of the noble stag. Softly, he said to himself. “Let the king not perish while I stand here, a witness to his struggle.”
He stood on the edge of the pit and spoke to the king in a human voice: “Do not be afraid, great king.”
Then the noble stag found a foothold and stepped down onto a large rock, half-buried on one side of the pit. Intent upon rescuing the king, as if he were his own beloved son, he leaned down and bent his beautiful antlers towards the king, encouraging him to take hold. The king reached up, took hold of the stag’s antlers and pulled himself up and out of the pit. Trembling, with his soaked garments clinging to him, he stood before the great stag.
Sarabha knelt on the ground and invited the king to take his seat on his back. He brought him out of the forest, setting him down on the road to the city, where his army was just setting out in search of him. There the noble stag spoke again to the king and established him in the path of non-harming and generosity.
The king did not wish to be separated from the stag. “Lord,” he said, “King of the Deer. Come with me to Varanasi. I will give you the kingdom.”
“Maharaja, great king,” said the stag. “We are four-footed creatures, we deer, we have no need of a kingdom. If you bear me any affection, guard the precepts I have shown you, of non-harming and generosity. Let those who are your subjects also guard and protect these precepts of non-harming and generosity.”
Saying this, he departed.
The king made his way to his army. His eyes were full of tears as he remembered the kindness and compassion of the stag. And on that very day, surrounded by his army, he returned to the city and proclaimed by beat of drum that all those who dwelt in his realm would henceforth protect the five precepts and practice non-harming and generosity.
But the king did not relate to anyone the kindness of the Great Being, nor what had happened in the forest. The people had heard the king’s proclamation:
“There was to be no more hunting of birds or animals. No fishing in the lakes and rivers of the kingdom.”
But why? They asked each other. Had the king really given up hunting? Or did he wish to reserve all the animals for his own hunting pleasure? After all, hadn’t the king always boasted that he was a mighty man, and the only man deserving of the name?
Rumors reached the palace, where a maid-servant related to the queen what the people were saying. The queen coaxed the king to tell her what had happened in the woods. So he did.
“Ah, my dear,” she said to him, “If you wish your subjects to understand your transformation and to follow your example of non-harming, then you must tell them the story of the noble stag.”
Though he hesitated at first, the king called a great assembly. The people came to listen. He spared no detail and described his own boastfulness, his determination to have success in the hunt, and how his men had laughed at him. He told of his pursuit of the great stag, the pit of stagnant water where he fell and was certain he would die. He told of his rescue by the very creature whose death he had sought. The people were moved by the king’s story and willingly gave up hunting. They only entered the forest to collect wild plants and herbs.
And there, if they were lucky, they sometimes caught a glimpse of the great Sambar, Sarabha.
In his single-minded pursuit of the stag, the king represents one way of viewing the wilderness and the wild creatures who inhabit it — as something to bring under human dominion and to exploit for human aims. The deer does not exist for him, other than as a means to restore his wounded pride. Instead of catching the stag, he finds himself in a direct encounter with his own mortality. Facing his possible demise in the pit of stagnant water, he sees clearly that vanity and pride are the source of his troubles. This insight signals the beginning of his transformation. Later, when he is rescued by the stag, the king willingly abandons hunting. Since his identity has been so tied up with the hunt, however, his subjects have difficulty in believing that he has changed. In order to win their trust, he must tell them the whole story, the one in which he is no longer the mighty king, returning successfully from the hunt. Rather, he is the bedraggled monarch, rescued by a wild creature who could easily have abandoned him to his fate, but who instead chose to see the person he could become, one who seeks the welfare of all, including the wild creatures of the world. ♦
From Parabola Volume 44, No. 2, “The Wild,” Summer 2019. This issue is available to purchase here. If you have enjoyed this piece, consider subscribing. Four times a year Parabola has explored the deepest questions of human existence. Without your support, we would cease to exist. Please consider helping us by making a donation.