A Jataka Tale: The Story of Prince Mahajanaka


I’d like to retell a Jataka Tale which is called ‘The Story of Mahajanaka’ (in Thai: ‘Phra Mahachanok’). I’ve come across this tale in the book ‘Folk Tales of Thailand’ by P.C. Roy Chaudhury. For a better understanding, Jataka Tales are stories about the previous lives of the Buddha. These are tales with a moral in which the Buddha shows some virtue.

A Jataka Tale: Prince Mahajanaka

In this life the Buddha was born as Prince Mahajanaka, the son of King Mithila of India. He was born after his father, the King, was killed by his brother Polajanaka. The Queen found harbour at a Brahmin’s house and Prince Mahajanaka was born and grew up there. When the Prince was 16 years old he wanted to see his father’s kingdom. Thus, he left his mother behind taking half of her jewels with him and sailed in the direction of Suvannabhumi. His aim was to make a fortune there.

Mahajanaka is saved by the Goddess Manimekhala Wat Yai Intharam, Chonburi*

Mahajanaka is saved by the Sea Goddess Manimekhala, Wat Yai Intharam, Chonburi (photo credit: buddha-images.com)

However, he got shipwrecked and the Goddess of the Sea, Manimekhala, rescued him. She took him to a mango-grove of Mithila, the former kingdom of Mahajanaka’s father. Since Polajanaka had died, his daughter, the Princess Sivali, was in charge of the kingdom. The throne would go to the man who married Sivali but she wanted her suitors to pass many tests. Thus, no one had taken this chance.

A scene from the Mahajanaka, Jataka tale, mural at Wat Yai, Chonburi*

A scene from the Mahajanaka, Jataka tale, mural at Wat Yai Intharam, Chonburi (photo credit: buddha-images.com)

Nonetheless, some ministers were sent out and they met Mahajanaka. They realized that he must be of royal origin considering the auspicious symbols on his feet. Thus, Mahajanaka was prompted to take all the tests imposed by Princess Sivali. Since the Prince passed the tests, he was allowed to marry Sivali. They lived happily together and a son was born who later became the viceroy of the kingdom.

Mahajanaka suffers a shipwreck*

Mahajanaka suffers a shipwreck, mural painting at Wat Yai Intharam (photo credit: buddha-images.com)

However, there was an event that changed Mahajanaka’s mind and life forever. One day, he realized that the mango trees in the grove were constantly plundered and then the barren ones were left alone. Hence, he came to the conclusion that it would be better to desire and possess less. If one had less worldly possessions, one would not desire and crave more.

This was when Mahajanaka gave up his kingdom and continued living as an ascetic. A short while later, he decided to become a hermit. Even though his wife tried to change his mind and the kingdom was threatened, King Mahajanaka vanished in the forest and his wife Sivali also became an ascetic in the royal gardens of Mithila.

"Phra Mahachanok" as animation project in honour of His Majesty's birthday (photo credit: nationmultimedia.com)

“Phra Mahachanok” as animation project in honour of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s Birthday (photo credit: nationmultimedia.com)

Finally, the Jataka tale about Mahajanaka has been very popular in Thai culture. In fact, this story is His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s favourite tale. Thus, last year the story was made into an animation project in honour of His Majesty’s Birthday. You may watch this film here 🙂

Yours, Sirinya

(Reference: P.C. Roy Chaudhury, Folk Tales of Thailand, SterlingPublishers, 1976)

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