Once upon a time, Brahmadatta, the King of Benares, had a son. When the child was born, the king gathered together eight hundred wise men, soothsayers, to determine his son’s future. These wise men predicted that the boy would grow to be a great king, famous all over India for his skill with the sword, the spear, the bow, the battle-axe and the shield. Because of this prophecy, the child’s parents named him Prince Five-Weapons.
When the Prince turned sixteen, the king sent him away to Kandahar, to the city of Takkasila, to study with a famous teacher. The prince obeyed, and studied well. When his studies were over, the Prince’s teacher gave him a set of the five weapons for which the prince was named, and the prince set out to return to Benares.
On the way, he came to a thick, dark forest. As he was about to enter the forest, the local people tried to stop him. The forest was haunted by a Yaksha, or ogre, they called Hairy-grip, who killed everyone he met. But the prince wasn’t afraid, and plunged straight ahead.
In the middle of the forest, he ran into the yaksha. Hairy-grip was tall as a palm tree, with a head the size of a temple, eyes like saucers, and two tusks. He had a hawk’s face, a mottled purple belly, and the palms of his hands and the soles of his feet were a deep blue-black.
“A-ha!” cried the yaksha. “Just in time for lunch!”
But the prince was still not afraid. He grabbed his bow, and out of his quiver drew a poison-tipped arrow, and shot the yaksha! The arrow caught in the yaksha’s long hair, where it stuck. The prince shot another arrow, and another — fifty in all — but every single one stuck in the ogres’s hair.
The yaksha laughed as he pulled out the arrows, snapping them in two and throwing them on the ground. The prince attacked the yaksha with his sword — thirty-three inches long — but it, too, got stuck in the yaksha’s mane. So the prince struck out with his spear, and then with his battle-axe, but both of those stuck, too!
But the prince was still defiant. “I am the Prince of Five Weapons!” he shouted. “But my trust is not in my weapons, but in myself! I’ll pound you to dust!”
And he swung out at the yaksha with his right fist. And (surprise!) his fist stuck. So the prince swung with his left hand, then kicked with his right foot, and his left foot, and finally head-butted the yaksha full on. And — of course — everything stuck. The prince hung tangled in the yaksha’s hair, caught in five places.
The yaksha should have eaten the prince right then and there, but the man’s bravery impressed him. No one had ever defied Hairy-grip the ogre before. “Why aren’t you afraid?” the yaksha asked.
“Why should I be afraid?” said the prince. “I have a lightning bolt in my belly; if you eat me, you won’t be able to digest it. It will tear you apart from the inside out. I will die, but so will you. And that’s why I’m not afraid.”
This frightened the yaksha, who thought “I could never devour a lion-man like this one. Better to let him go.”
And so the yaksha untangled the prince from his hair.
“Young sir, you are a lion of a man! I will not eat you up. I set you free from my hands, as the moon is disgorged from the jaws of Rāhu after the eclipse. Go back to the company of your friends and relations!”
Once freed, the prince told Hairy-grip that he had been born a murderous, blood-thirsty ogre because of the sins of his former lives, and if the yaksha kept on with his ways, he would forever be reborn as dark, horrible creatures, living dark, horrible lives. But it didn’t have to be that way.
And the prince lectured the yaksha on the five types of wickedness and how they are punished, and the five types of virtue and how they are rewarded, until Hairy-grip repented, and converted to a life of goodness and self-denial. Then the prince left the forest, reminding the yaksha to keep to a virtuous life.
As he left the forest, the prince told that people that that the yaksha wasn’t a killer any longer, then returned home to Benares. Eventually, he inherited the kingdom from his father, and ruled long and well, giving alms and doing other good works.
- This retelling is based primarily on “The Demon with Matted Hair,” found in Indian Fairy Tales (1892), by Joseph Jacobs, and on the 1895 translation by Robert Chalmers that you can find on sacred-texts.com. I also used information from Wikipedia and a few other versions of the story that are online. The story is from The Jatakas: tales of the previous lives of the Buddha. The stories are meant to be fables, or moral lessons; this story was a lecture from the Buddha to a discouraged follower, to never give up on striving after righteousness: “dauntless perseverance in the hour of need.”
- Prince Five-Weapons is an incarnation of the Buddha, of course, and the yaksha is a previous incarnation of Angulima, a highway robber and murderer who tried to make the Buddha his thousandth victim, but instead was converted to Buddhism and became a monk. His repentance freed him from the cycle of rebirth.
- In some versions of the story, the prince tells the yaksha that he has a sword of diamond in his belly, rather than a lightning bolt. The effect is the same: if the ogre eats the prince, he will be torn apart and die. The text says that when the prince referred to this sword or lightning bolt, he was referring to “the weapon [or fire] of knowledge that he had within him.” Luckily the yaksha was more literal-minded than the prince.
- Jacobs, in his notes to this story, argues that it is probably the original source of “The Tar Baby,” the story about the trickster Br’er Rabbit and his enemy Br’er Fox, most famously (or infamously) recorded by J. C. Harris in his series of Uncle Remus stories, around 1881. The story was widespread among Black communities of the American South, and variants can be traced to Western and Southern Africa. There are Native American variants, as well. Like a good scientist, Jacobs offers a specific, falsifiable test in support of his hypothesis:
I venture to predict that the Tar Baby story will be found in Madagascar in a form nearer the Indian than Uncle Remus, and I will go further, and say that it will not be found in the grand Helsingfors [Finnish] collection of folk-tales, though this includes 12,000, of which 1000 are beast-tales.
By now, someone must have checked whether his prediction was correct or not, but I haven’t looked into it.
- The illustration above is from the version of Indian Fairy Tales on Project Gutenberg. Honestly, I wrote this entire post just so I could use that image. The Gutenberg version uses images from the original book made available through the Internet Archive. The illustrations are by John D. Batten, and hand-colored by Gloria Carew, on Japanese vellum. Go check them out, they’re lovely.