Buddhist Fables

Buddhist Classics

Life and Legends of Buddha

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

043 – Matanga – The World’s First Crusader of Untouchability

Once, the Bodhisatta was born in a Chandala family by the name Matanga. Those days the caste-system was very rigid in ancient India and untouchability was rampant.

One day, a pretty maiden Ditthamangalika, the daughter of a wealthy and the so-called ‘high-caste’ family was on her way to a park with her friends. Before, she could enter the park, she saw Matanga coming from the opposite direction. Considering his sight ‘inauspicious’, because he was a ‘Chandala’ and ‘untouchable’ according to the social norms of the time and place, she abruptly, recoiled and turned round to go back to her palace. This made her friends furious. They scornfully caught hold of the poor man and thrashed him by calling him “untouchable”. Thus, they punished him for having trodden the path on which they intended to walk. Bruised and hurt, Matanga lay there unconscious and bleeding.

When he regained consciousness he vehemently challenged the evil system of untouchability and resorted to the non-violent peace agitation by sitting on a hunger strike in front of the Ditthamangalika’s house for seven days to press his demand of marriage with that girl. Then he looked emaciated and appeared as if he was to die soon. The social evil of the untouchability was so strong those days that the father of the girl decided to get rid of his daughter rather than to let an ‘untouchable’ die on his door-step. So, he pushed his daughter out of his house to marry Matanga.

When Ditthamangalika’s pride ebbed away, Matanga decided to honour her. He, therefore, asked her to invite all her kinsmen and make a public announcement that her husband was the ‘Greatest Brahmin’ by way of his righteous karma. When the people assembled to examine the truth, Matanga miraculously appeared before them by breaking the moon’s disc. This restored the honour of his wife and since then she was no longer treated as a pariah or an ‘untouchanble’ in that city.

Nonetheless, the evil social custom of untouchability did not die out there. Still some people practised that custom in the city. So, Matanga thought of teaching a lesson to that category of people. He, therefore, one day threw a tooth-pick into the river, which flew and entangled in the hair of a haughty brahmin, whose name was Jatimanta. Furious, the brahmin looked around and found that it was Matang – a ‘low caste man’ -who had thrown the tooth-pick into the river. So, fretting and fuming, he went to him and rebuked and rebuffed him. Further, he threatened him to quit the river-side instantly lest his head would split into seven pieces on the seventh day by the force of the brahmin’s spiritual power. Matanga was least frightened. He accepted the challenge boldly and did not leave the place. He instead demonstrated his power by stopping the sun to rise for seven days. The people then got annoyed with the brahmin, because he had insulted Matanga, who in turn had stopped the sun-rise. So, they caught hold of Jatimanta, and brought him before Matanga and forced him to apologise by bowing his head on latter’s feet. Matanga then forgave him but the People kicked the haughty brahmin out of the city.

One day, Matanga visited Mejjha country, where the brahmin had made his abode. Accidentally, the latter saw him there, and decided to avenge his humiliation. So, he conspired with the local king to arrest and kill Matanga by falsely accusing him to be a sorcerer. The foolish king took the advice of the brahmin and sent his men to kill him as and when they could find him. The king’s men detected Matanga in an inn, where he was taking dinner. They suddenly attacked him from behind and slayed him by swords and spears. Thus, came the saga of Matanga, who is often called a ‘legend’, to an end. Nonetheless, his memory shall always remain alive in the hearts of the people to be a perennial source of inspiration because he was the first in the world to have challenged the evil system of untouchability.

Matanga’s final story was, however, rewritten by the Nature, which became furious at his horrendous assassination, and showered hot ashes from heavens to completely wipe out the Mejjha kingdom and the history records the event in these words of the bards:

The country of Mejjha was destroyed
Due to the heinous killing of hero Matanga,
Thus they say,
The nature swept away the nation in revenge.

Note: Matanga is identified with the Bodhisatta.

See Matanga Jataka Jataka Pali No.497.