Vessantara (the Bodhisatta) was the son of Sa˝jaya, king of Sivi, and queen Phusatī, and was so called because his mother started in labour as she passed through the vessa street in the city of Jetuttara, and he was born in a house in the same street. He spoke as soon as he was born (Cf. BuA.228). On the same day was also born a white elephant named Paccaya. At the age of eight, Vessantara wished to make a great gift and the earth trembled. He married Maddī at the age of sixteen, and their children were Jāli and Kanhajinā.
At that time there was a great drought in Kālinga, and eight brahmins came from there to Vessantara to beg his white elephant, which had the power of making rain to fall. He granted their request, and gave the elephant together with its priceless trappings (J.vi.488f. gives the details of these). The citizens of Jetuttara were greatly upset that their elephant should have been given away, and demanded of Sa˝jaya that Vessantara should be banished to Vankagiri. The will of the people prevailed, and Vessantara was asked to take the road along which those travel who have offended. He agreed to go, but before setting out, obtained the king's leave to hold an almsgiving called the "Gift of the Seven Hundreds" (Sattasataka), in which he gave away seven hundred of each kind of thing. People came from all over Jambudīpa to accept his gifts, and the almsgiving lasted for a whole day.
When Vessantara took leave of his parents and prepared for his journey, Maddī insisted on accompanying him with her two children. They were conveyed in a gorgeous carriage drawn by four horses, but, outside the city, Vessantara met four brahmins who begged his horses. Four devas then drew the chariot, but another brahmin soon appeared and obtained the chariot. Thenceforward they travelled on foot, through Suvannagiritāla, across the river Kantimārā, to beyond Mount Ara˝jaragiri and Dunnivittha, to his uncle's city, in the kingdom of Ceta. The devas shortened the way for them, and the trees lowered their fruit that they might eat. Sixty thousand khattiyas came out to welcome Vessantara and offered him their kingdom, which, however, he refused. He would not even enter the city, but remained outside the gates, and, when he left early the next morning, the people of Ceta, led by Cetaputta, went with him for fifteen leagues, till they came to the entrance to the forest. Vessantara and his family then proceeded to Gandhamādana, northwards, by the foot of Mount Vipula to the river Ketumatī, where a forester entertained them and gave them to eat. Thence they crossed the river to beyond Nālika, along the bank of Lake Mucalinda, to its north eastern corner, then along a narrow footpath into the dense forest, to Vankagiri. There Vissakamma had already built two hermitages, by order of Sakka, one for Vessantara and one for Maddī and the children, and there they took up their residence. By Vessantara's power, the wild animals to a distance of three leagues became gentle. Maddī rose daily at dawn, and, having fetched water to wash, went into the forest for yams and fruit. In the evening she returned, washed the children, and the family sat down to eat. Thus passed four months.
Then from Dunnivittha there came to the hermitage an old brahmin, called Jūjaka, who had been sent by his young wife, Amittatāpanā, to find slaves for her, because when she went to the well for water the other women had laughed at her, calling her "old man's darling." She told Jūjaka that he could easily get Vessantara's children as slaves, and so he came to Vankagiri. Asking the way of various people, including the hermit Accuta, Jūjaka arrived at Vankagiri late in the evening and spent the night on the hilltop. That night Maddī had a dream, and, being terrified, she sought Vessantara. He knew what the dream presaged, but consoled her and sent her away the next day in search of food. During her absence, Jūjaka came and made his request. He would not await the return of Maddī, and Vessantara willingly gave him the two children. But they ran away and hid in a pond till told by their father to go with Jūjaka. When Vessantara poured water on Jūjaka's hand as a symbol of his gift, the earth trembled with joy. Once more the children escaped and ran back to their father, but he strengthened his resolve with tears in his eyes. Jūjaka led the children away, beating them along the road till their blood flowed.
It was late in the evening when Maddī returned because devas, assuming the form of beasts of prey, delayed her coming, lest she should stand in the way of Vessantara's gift. In answer to her questions, Vessantara spoke no word, and she spent the night searching for the children. In the morning she returned to the hermitage and fell down fainting. Vessantara restored her to consciousness and told her of what had happened, explaining why he had not told her earlier. When she had heard his story she expressed her joy, affirming that he had made a noble gift for the sake of omniscience.
And then, lest some vile creature should come and ask for Maddī, Sakka, assuming the form of a brahmin, appeared and asked for her Vessantara looked at Maddī, and she expressed her consent. So he gave Maddī to the brahmin, and the earth trembled. Sakka revealed his identity, gave Maddī back to Vessantara, and allowed him eight boons. Vessantara asked that
In the meantime, Jūjaka had travelled sixty leagues with the children, whom the devas cared for and protected. Guided by the devas, they arrived in fifteen days at Jetuttara, though Jūjaka had intended to go to Kālinga. Sa˝jaya bought the children from Jūjaka, paying a high price, including the gift of a seven storeyed palace. But Jūjaka died of over eating, and as no relation of his could be traced, his possessions came back to the king. Sa˝jaya ordered his army to be prepared and a road to be built from Jetuttara to Vankagiri, eight usabhas wide. Seven days later, led by Jāli, Sa˝jaya and Phusatī started for Vankagiri.
In the army was the white elephant, who had been returned because the people of Kālinga could not maintain him. There was great rejoicing at the reunion of the family, and the six royal personages fell in a swoon till they were revived by rain sent by Sakka, the rain only wetting those who so wished it. Vessantara was crowned king of Sivi, with Maddī as his consort. After a month's merry making in the forest, they returned to Jetuttara. On the day Vessantara entered the city he set free every captive, including even cats. In the evening, as he lay wondering how he would be able to satisfy his suitors the next day, Sakka's throne was heated, and he sent down a shower of the seven kinds of precious things, till the palace grounds were filled waist high. Vessantara was thus able to practise his generosity to the end of his days. After death he was born in Tusita (J.i.47; DhA.i.69).
The story was related on the occasion of the Buddha's first visit to Kapilavatthu. The Buddha's kinsmen escorted him to the Nigrodhārāma, but sat round him without doing any obeisance, because of their great pride. The Buddha then performed the Twin Miracle, and the Sākyans, led by Suddhodana, worshipped him. There was then a shower of rain, refreshing all and falling only on those who so wished. When the people expressed their wonder, the Buddha related this story, showing that in the past, too, rain had fallen on his kinsfolk to revive them. (According to BuA.245, the Jātaka was related at the end of the recital of the Buddhavamsa).
The story also occurs in the Cariyāpitaka (i.9), and is often referred to (E.g., Sp.i.245; VbhA.414; Cv.xlii.5; c.74) as that of a birth in which the Bodhisatta's dāna pāramitā reached its culmination. The earth shook seven times when Vessantara made his gifts, and this forms the subject of a dilemma in the Milinda-Pa˝ha. (Mil. p.113; for another question, see ibid. 274f).
The story of the Jātaka was sculptured in the Relic Chamber of the Mahā Thūpa. (Mhv.xxx.88).
The story of Vessantara is the first of the Jātakas to disappear from the world (AA.i.51). See also Gūlha Vessantara.