Buddhist Fables

Buddhist Classics

Life and Legends of Buddha

The Illustrated Jataka & Other Stories of the Buddha by C. B. Varma Introduction | Glossary | Bibliography

002 – The Story of Two Swans

The Vidyadhara women and the swans in the Lake Manasa, Ajanta

Once there lived myriad swans in the Manasa Lake in the Himalayas. When swarmed together they looked like the darting grove of lotuses. When they dispersed in segregation the beauty of the lake even surpassed the splendour of the embellished blue sky with the white clouds. Their soft and silky-voice was more sonorous than the sound of a woman’s anklets. Furthemore, the king of the swans, called Dhritarastra was golden hued and appeared far more gracious than others. His commander-in-chief, Sumukha, however, resembled his king in every way. All the more, both were equally virtuous and elegant.

By and by, the elegance of the two birds became a favourite topic of discussion among the celestial and supernatural beings like the Devas (radiant beings), Nagas (Serpants), Yaksas (ogres with great supernatural powers; also the attendants of Kubera); and the Vidyadhara women (believably dwelling in the Himalayan region and possessing the power of special sciences to perform spells). These beings also conversed with the enlightened human beings, who in turn, conversed with their disciples and friends. Thus, the fame of the two swans spread all over the human land like a wild fire and reached the court of the king of Varanasi, too.

Impressed and charmed the Varanasi king’s urge to possess the two birds became so intense that he decided to capture them by all means. So, he had a magnificent lake constructed, which rivalled the splendour of the Lake Manasa. Thence, a variety of attractive water plants, water lilies and lotuses of all sorts, namely, padma, utpala, kumuda, pundarika, saugandhika, tamarasa and kahlara were grown there. The lotus pollen carried by the ripples of the lake would embellish the banks like the gold wires. Further, the limpidity and calmness of the lake’s transparent water displaying the fair hue of the swarms of fishes swimming beneath its surface would catch the eye of every beholder. Thus, at night the lake would become a mirror for the moon and stars. Further, the elephants dipped their trunks and blew forth the cascades of spray like the loosened pearls from a string there. And the fragrance of which then mingled with the odour of their ruts and the juices of the trampled flowers and the emanated pastes of the bathing beauties of all over the places, made the lake the most spectacular site on the earth.

The flying swans, Ajanta

Furthermore, the king in order to win the confidence of the birds ensured the safety for all birds by a royal proclamation. So, myriad birds visited the newly constructed lake and made it their new home.

Now, in a gorgeous autumn day, when the rainy season was just over, and the sky looked resplendent blue, a pair of Manas swans by chance flew over the newly constructed lake, which to them appeared to be the birds’ paradise. Allured, they descended and lived there joyously until the advent of the next rain. Upon return to Manas, the description of the splendour of the newly discovered lake, which they narrated before their friends, impelled most of the swans to visit the new lake. But their king and his commander-in-chief were opposed to any proposal to visit the place inhabited by the human beings. He instead said:

The birds and animals have the habit

Of expressing their feelings by their cries;

But the creatures called the ‘men’

Are skilled in the expressions

Contrary to their intentions.

Nonetheless, the swans persisted and persisted; and at last the king and his commander had to accede to their repeated requests. Eventually, one day they all flew to Varanasi and descended on the new lake; and their graceful presence further enhanced the beauty and the splendour of the lake.

When the swans arrived there along with the two most conspicuously gorgeous birds – whose wings were radiant gold; beaks and feet had the lustre, which even surpassed gold; and whose size exceeded an average swan – the king was informed of their arrival in no time. He then without wasting time, hired the service of a skilled fowler (nishada) to catch those two birds. The fowler in turn laid down some well-concealed snares on the sites often frequented by the two swans. Next day, when the swans were wandering cheerfully in a bright sunny day their king reached the site where the fowler had concealed a snare. And he was decoyed. Alarmed, he cried loudly to warn all his friends and called upon them to fly away. Responding to the call all the swans flew away. But Sumukha, the commander-in-chief, however, insisted to stand by his king at the time of his distress. So, despite the requests made by Yudhisthira he stood there adamantly.

Yudhisthira and Sumukh in the
royal court as the royal guests to
deliver sermons

When the fowler came near them, he noticed that one of the two prized swans was not caught. Nonetheless, it was neither flying away nor showing any sign of fear. The fearlessness of that bird surprised him. Further, when he came closer, Sumukha, the uncaught fearless bird, requested him to hold him captive in place of the other swan as he was his king. The exemplification of such loyalty and valour by a bird changed the mind of the nishada so much so that he released both the birds notwithstanding the fear of incurring the wrath of the Varanasi king by defying the royal order order, which meant nothing but the death sentence. The two birds did not fly away to take advantage of the situation. When set free, they wanted to reciprocate goodness to the fowler. So, they perched on his shoulders and asked him to carry them to his king because they wanted him to be saved from his king’s wrath.

In the court when the king was apprised of the whole story he, too, was greatly moved by the virtues and valour of the two swans. He extended hospitality to them; and amnesty to the fowler. The birds then stayed there for a few days as the royal guests to give some discourses to the king and his courtiers. They then flew back to the Manas to join other swans.

Though born in an inferior family, a wise man shines forth

Like the fire in the night, if endowed with the virtuous conduct

(Tr. Jataka Pali 502.158)

[The king of swans was Bodhisatta; and Ananda was the commander-in-chief].

See Hamsa Jataka (No.502); Chullahamsa Jataka (No.533); Mahahamsa Jataka (No.534); Jatakamala No.22

Note: The Pali equivalent for Dhritarashtra is Dhatarattha; and he lived in Chittakuta of the Himalayan region. The names of the king of Varanasi; and the fowler’s name varies in each Jataka. The queen of Varanasi in the Pali tradition is, however, called Khema.