The Tale of the Merchants at Sea

Here’s a retelling of the Samudda-vāṇija Jātaka (no. 454). It’s a great little tale, which depicts our current environmental situation with uncanny precision. It is the Buddhist version of the widespread flood myth, which probably originated in Mesopotamia perhaps 3000 BCE. The setting here, which depicts the flood as afflicting lost merchants in a far-off land, perhaps preserves a memory of the distant origins of the story.

The story is ideal for a children’s class on the environment. But I haven’t found any up-to-date translations. So I have used the old translation (which you can read here) as a basis, and modernized the language and cleaned up the narrative a little.

Once upon a time, when Brahmadatta was king of Benares, there stood near Benares a great town of carpenters, containing a thousand families. The carpenters from this town used to advertise that they would make a bed, or a chair, or a house. But after being paid an advance, they couldn’t make a single thing. So people abused those dishonest carpenters whenever they met them. They were harassed so much that they could live there no longer.

“Let’s go into some foreign land,” they said, “and find some place to live.” So to the forest they went. They cut down trees, built a mighty ship, launched her in the river, and took her away from that town. Then, together with all their families and friends, they sailed down the river to the ocean.

There they sailed at the wind’s will, until they reached an island that lay in the middle of the sea. Now in that island grew all kinds of wild plants and fruit-trees: rice, sugar-cane, banana, mango, rose-apple, jackfruit, coconut, and every other kind of delicious food.

Another man had been shipwrecked on that island before them. He lived there, eating the rice and enjoying the sugar-cane and all the rest, by which he had grown strong and sturdy. He went naked, and his hair and beard were grown long.

The carpenters thought, “If this island is haunted by demons, we shall all perish; so we will explore it.” So seven brave, strong men, armed with the five kinds of weapons, went to explore the island.

At that moment the castaway had just had breakfast, washed down with sugar-cane juice, and in high contentment was lying on his back in a lovely spot, cool in the shade on some sand which glistened like silver plate. He was thinking, “Life is good here! If I was in civilized lands, I would have to work all day for my food. Here I have all I want, provided by Nature herself!” He burst out in song, just for the joy of it.

The scouts who were exploring the isle heard his singing and said, “It seems to be the voice of a man. Let’s go and meet him.” Following the sound they came upon the man, but when they saw him naked with such long shaggy hair they were terrified.

“It’s a goblin!” they cried, and put arrow to bow ready to shoot.

When the man saw them, he called out in fear, “I am no goblin, sirs, I am a man: spare my life!”

“What!” they said. “Do men go all naked and defenceless like you?”

But it was true. He was a man, and eventually they began to talk pleasantly together. The new-comers asked how the castaway came there.

The castaway told them what had happened. “As a reward for your good deeds you have come here.” he said. “This is a first-rate island! No need to work with your hands for a living. There’s endless rice and sugar-cane, and anything else you might want, and all growing wild. We can all live here without anxiety.”

“Is there nothing else,” they asked, “to hinder our living here?”

“Only this,” he said: “the isle is haunted by spirits, who get furious when their home is polluted. So when you go to the toilet, dig a hole in the sand and hide it there. That’s the only danger, there is no other. Only always be careful on this point.”

So they all made their home on the island and lived happily, becoming strong and healthy on the plentiful diet of fruits and grains.

Now, among these thousand families there were two master workmen, one at the head of each five hundred people. And one of these was foolish and greedy of the best food, the other wise and not always worried about getting the best of everything.

Then they thought, “We have not had a party for a long time. Let’s make some toddy from the juice of the sugar-cane.” So they fermented some sugar-cane juice and made toddy, a strong liquor. They all got drunk, and sang, danced, and laughed together. But being thoughtless they relieved themselves here, there, and everywhere without hiding it, so that the island became foul and disgusting.

The spirits were enraged that these thoughtless men made their beautiful island all foul. They got together for a spirit conference to discuss the matter.

“We have cared for this island for so long,” one spirit said. “We made it beautiful, and provided it with everything that you could want. When these strangers came, we welcomed them and shared everything with them, holding nothing back.”

“All we asked,” said another spirit, “was that they respect the land and not pollute it. They knew this, but still they fouled everything.”

They sat in silence for a time. Finally, one of the spirits spoke up.

“It is too much,” he said. “We cannot endure any more. Let us call the sea and cleanse the island! Let us bring forth a flood, and wash the men back to the ocean from where they came!”

The other spirits agreed. They determined to raise up the ocean to drown the island in fifteen days time, at the full moon when their power was greatest.
But there was a good spirit among them who thought, “These people have done wrong, but they don’t deserve to die.”

So out of compassion she approached the people while they were sitting at their doors chatting pleasantly after dinner. The spirit made the whole island one blaze of light. Adorned in splendor she stayed poised in the northern sky and spoke to them.

“Carpenters!” she said. “The spirits are angry with you. Do not stay in this place! In half a month from this time, the spirits will bring up the sea and destroy you one and all. Flee now, or you will all perish!”

With this advice, she returned to her own home. All the people were terrified, and a great noise arose as they argued in confusion about what this message meant.

Meanwhile another spirit, who was cruel-hearted, wanted revenge on the people. “Perhaps they will follow her advice and escape,” he thought. “I will prevent them from leaving, and bring them all to utter destruction!”

So he approached the people just like the other spirit had done, blazing with light and standing in the southern sky.

“You have been warned of a great danger,” he said. “But that was a lie! There will be no flood. The spirits have always looked after you – we don’t wish you any harm. That other spirit is just selfish, and wants to have the island all to herself. Ignore her and her ridiculous threats. See, the sky is clear, the living is good. Stay, and enjoy the good life you have made for yourselves here. The spirits of this place will bring you all you need.”

When that spirit had left, the foolish carpenter lifted up his voice and cried, “Let all people listen to me! We have been a people lost. We were cast out of our homes, driven to wander across the wide ocean. Against all hope we found this, our new home. How can we leave now? Surely the southern spirit speaks the truth!”

And all those foolish people who only wanted to eat and drink listened to him and wished to stay.

But the wise carpenter did not agree. “We have advice from two spirits,” he said. “One speaks of danger, and begs us to flee, while the other tells us to have no fear and that we should stay. We do not know which of these is telling the truth. This shows that one should not just believe everything you hear. Considering both messages, the wise should consider carefully in their own hearts and then make a balanced decision. So let us build a great ship. If we work hard together, we can complete it before the full moon. Then, if the warning of a flood comes true, we will be saved. If there is no flood, then no harm is done. We can leave the ship and continue to live here.”

“Ridiculous!” said the foolish carpenter. “You see a crocodile in a teacup! The first god spake in anger against us, the second in affection. We know this, for the spirits have always been kind to us here. If we leave this wonderful island, where shall we go? And why should we go back to working hard like slaves, when we have all we want? But if you must go, take your tail with you! We want no ship!”

And so the foolish carpenter, with his 500 followers, went back to their drinking. They laughed and sang even louder, paying no attention to the filth that they were making.

The wise man went with his 500 and built a ship, large enough to hold them and their belongings.

On the day of the full moon, at the time of moon-rise, up from the ocean a wave arose, and it swept knee-deep over the whole island. The wise man, when he saw the rising of the wave, cast loose the ship. Those of the foolish carpenter’s party were scared, but they said to one another, “A tsunami has arisen! Never mind, it will sweep over the island, but it will be no deeper.”

But the tsunami did rise deeper. It rose waist-deep, then man-deep, even as deep as a palm-tree, and it rolled over the whole island.

The wise man, skilful and reflective, not greedy for good things, departed in safety with his 500. But the foolish, greedy carpenter, having no thought for the dangers of the future, was destroyed with all his people.