The Jataka tales talk about the various lives of the Buddha when he was born as animal or bird and how he showed mercy and virtuousness in whichever form he was.
This is one such story where the Buddha (Bodhisattva) was born as a deer in a herd of Banyan Deer in the forests adjoining Kashi. He was a beautiful one with a golden coat and spots like shining stars. He had a crimson mouth and his hoofs were jet black. His antlers were majestic. He was charming and so the herd made him their king. He was very kind and compassionate and just, which were the qualities needed for a king.
In the same forest there was another herd of Branch Deer whose king was also a very impressive Branch Deer. The herd was also a big herd.
Now, the King of Kashi, Brahmadatta had developed a fondness for deer meat. He wanted to eat deer meat everyday and therefore went to hunt for deer every day. Not only did he go, but wanted the villagers to come with him into the jungle to scare the animals so that he could hunt easily.
This went on for quite some time and the villagers started getting fed up with this directive of the King. They felt it was a huge waste of their time to go with the king and their daily routine and businesses were suffering due to this and therefore decided among themselves that they would make a park near the jungle and drive all the deer into it.
Accordingly, they made a park and built a high fence around it. The area they fenced had lot of trees and shrubs and the people made some ponds for water and managed to drive all the deer into the park. The park had strong gates too.
The next day, the Headman of the village met the King and said with great humility “Your Majesty, we all want to very much help you in your hunting trips, but our vocations suffer if we do not devote time for it. Hence we have built a huge park and all the deer are in there making it easy for you to hunt. Pardon us your majesty!”
The King understood their problem and agreed to hunt in the park every day. The people were happy that they could do their jobs without being disturbed. But, the deer were greatly disturbed. Now they had limited space and it was sure that one of them would die every day. But they could do nothing about it.
The King went to the park and he first spotted the two king deer, the King Banyan Deer and the King Branch Deer. The King Banyan deer was so charming and attractive and so was the King Branch deer that the King told his men who had come with him including the Royal Cook and these two deer should not be touched come what may.
Every day, the King or his cook went to the park, hunted a deer and brought the meat with great ease. Whenever the deer knew that the King or the cook had come, they ran hither and thither and dashed against trees and each other and their large antlers got entangled in tree branches and broke and everyday many were injured in this process. The King Banyan deer was extremely sad for what was happening.
He called a meeting with the King Branch Deer and discussed how the damage could be minimised.
“We are destined to be killed one day or the other” said he, “but we can certainly reduce the damage and injuries to the members of our herd. It is really painful that our herd has to endure a lot of pain everyday”
“Yes” agreed the King of Branch Deer.” I am also thinking on what could be done to minimise the damage. But what can be done, I wonder?”
“Well”, said The King of Banyan Deer, “If I may suggest something, maybe one from our herds could go and lie at the gate everyday taking turns. First day it will be from my herd and next day it can be from your herd and so on. At least the King or his cook will not come in and hunt and thereby the damage to the herd will be avoided”
“I agree to your suggestion” said the King of Branch Deer. They then called their herds and told them of the suggestion and all the deer agreed.
So from the next day onwards, one of the deer went and lay down near the gate and the King or Cook came and killed it and took it away. This went on for a while.
One day, it was the turn of a pregnant doe to go and lie at the gate to be killed. She was a branch deer and she felt terrible to go and sacrifice her fawn in the process of killing herself. She hesitated to go and ask her king but the motherly instinct in her would not let her fawn to be killed before he was born. So, slowly, she walked to the King Branch Deer with faltering steps and said “O King, I am pregnant with a fawn and it has been decided that it is my turn to sacrifice myself tomorrow….” She paused. Tears were flowing from her eyes.
The king looked at her questioningly. She continued. “I do not mind giving up my life for the herd your majesty! But… but…” The doe could not continue.
The King was not happy. “Look here doe” he said. “I cannot show any preference to you. All the deer are same to me. Do not expect any relaxation” he said in a stern voice.
The doe broke down. “O King, it is not for my sake I am speaking. What is the fault of the fawn that is unborn? Does he not have the right to be born, or the right to enjoy the fresh grass with fresh dew drops? Does he not have the right to jump and play with other fawns…? It is not that I will not go O King. Let my fawn be born and as soon as he is a few months old and is independent of me, I shall go”
The King Branch Deer was unperturbed by her emotional outburst. With a stone like expression he said, “I cannot make any exceptions for any one O doe! Go away from here and prepare yourself”
The doe felt miserable and was walking towards the gate with tears gushing from her eyes. The King Banyan Deer happened to sight her. He was feeling bad to see the doe shedding tears and asked her what the matter was.
Reluctantly, the doe told her request and what had happened when she requested her king.
“Do not worry” said the King Banyan Deer. “Go and take rest and be happy. I will take care of the situation” The doe was reluctant to go and he again said, “Go, my dear, go and eat fresh grass and keep your mind calm. You need not go to be sacrificed today I will take care”
The doe went away, thanking him but wondered who would take her place.
It was time for the King’s hunt. That day, the King himself came to pick up the prey. He was surprised to see the King Banyan Deer lying at the gate, with his skin glistening in the morning sun. He was shocked.
“Get up O Deer”, he said, “I have granted immunity to you as you are so charming and noble looking. Are there no deer in your herd to give up their life? Get up O deer and send another deer”
“No” said the King Banyan Deer. “It was the turn of a pregnant doe to come today. Well, being a member of this herd, she had to come but what is the fault of the fawn that is unborn? Is he not destined to be born, or to enjoy the fresh grass and the nature and his mother’s love? Should he not enjoy jumping and playing with other fawns… Therefore I decided I will give up my life in her place today. Take me O King. Kill me now!”
The King was deeply touched. He felt very very ashamed of his greed for deer meat and the manner in which he was mercilessly slaughtering the herds of deer day by day.
“Get up, O King of Deer! You have enlightened me. Please get up. I am feeling terribly ashamed of my actions all these days. Even though I am endowed with the sixth sense, I have behaved like an animal whereas, your action has made you superior to me. I… I..am terribly ashamed” His eyes were full of tears and he covered his face crying.
After a while he regained his composure and said. “OK King Banyan Deer, I will not kill any of your herd any more. Please go to the jungle and be free”
The King Banyan Deer said, “ O King, I do not want my herd alone to enjoy this gesture of yours…” The King said hurriedly, “ Oh no, all the deer can go. I will not harm even one of them”, to which the King Banyan Deer said, “ Not only deer, O King, all the animals , birds and fishes deserve to live”
“Yes”, said King Brahmadatta, from now onwards, I will see that no harm befalls you all in my kingdom!”
So saying, he threw open the gates of the park and all the deer ran out joyfully into the wilderness and the King stood seeing the sight with tears of joy!