It is told about Gautama Buddha that he spent many lives in animal form, as various animals of the forest, before being born in human form as the prince, Siddhartha of the Sakhya clan. This story is about his life as King of the Deer.
Three kings come into our story. One is Brahmadatta, a man, King of Benares, who had a “deer park” — a large private hunting ground where roamed a thousand deer. The second is the future Buddha, king of the Banyan Deer and golden in color, the third the king of another herd, the Branch Deer.
There were five hundred Banyan deer and five hundred Branch deer in the preserve.
Brahmadatta used to ride through this forest with bow and arrow uplifted, frightening and scattering the deer in all directions, in his quest for deer meat. Some fell while running away and, crippled, died of starvation; for all of them life was made miserable. Finally the two deer kings got together and the Banyan King (the Bodhi-sattva) said, “Friend, to avoid all this fright and loss of life, let us make an arrangement. Every day we shall draw lots, one day from your herd, one day from mine, and whosoever’s turn it is will go to the chopping block and lay down his or her head for the executioner’s axe. That way the King will have his meat.” King Brahmadatta was getting old and hunting was now difficult for him, so he was satisfied. But he said that the two beautiful king deer were never to be killed (royalty recognizing royalty, you see).
One day it fell to the lot of a doe of the Branch Deer to lay her head on the block. She went to the Branch Deer King and said, “Lord, please put off my turn because I am going to have a little one. I am sure the lot is not meant to kill two at once. After the fawn is born I will take my turn.”
But the Branch Deer King replied, “You know that I cannot pass your turn on to others, like that. Don’t upset things. Go on your way.”
Not getting any help from him, the doe went to the King of the Banyan Deer, bowed before him and told him her plight. He was moved with pity and compassion. He said he would take her turn. (It was the very nature of this great soul, who would one day become the Buddha, to give his own life to save that of another.) He then went to the chopping block and lay down with his head upon it. When the King’s cook arrived and saw him he was astonished and ran to tell King Brahmadatta what had happened.
The King came on his chariot followed by a crowd of people. “Friend,” he said, “King Deer, did I not grant you that you would not be killed? Why then are you lying here?”
“Oh, Great King,” said he, “a doe whose little one was just about to be born, came to me and said, ‘Please change my turn to that of someone else.’ Now it was impossible for me to deny such a pitiable request, so I have taken her turn.”
At this, Brahmadatta’s heart melted. In his face and his voice it was seen that new feelings of compassion and remorse were coming over him. He commanded that there should be no more killing of the deer in his park. The influence of the Bodhi-sattva totally transformed his life.
To this day, the place is called the Deer Park, to remind us of how the deer were saved from the huntsmen.
This is from the book Jataka Tales (Yesterday’s Classics) by Ellen C. Babbitt.