King Usinara and the Huge Hound

Another in a series of stories for liberal religious kids, this is a Jataka tale, shortened and altered to make it suitable for middle elementary children. Sophia Fahs included her version of this story in the classic curriculum From Long Ago and Many Lands. Fahs heavily altered the story, however. More about that in the notes at the end of the story. Now, here’s the story:

One day, the followers of Buddha were sitting in the Hall of Truth talking with one another.

“Isn’t it amazing,” one of them said, “that the Buddha gave up a beautiful home, and now lives only for the good of the world?”

“Yes,” said another, “isn’t it amazing that he has attained supreme wisdom, yet rather than making himself rich, he goes about teaching goodness?”

Buddha came into the Hall and heard them talking. “Yes, it is true,” said the Buddha. “Even in my previous lives, even then when I had not attained supreme wisdom, I still always tried to live for the good of the world. Let me tell you the story of one of my previous lives.”

And this is the story the Buddha told:


Once upon a time, there reigned a king named Usinara. In the land of this king, the people had given up doing good, given up all religion, and instead they followed the paths of evil-doing. Sakka, the ruler of all the gods, looked upon this, and saw that people were suffering because they did evil.

“What shall I do, now?” he said to himself. “Ah, I have it! I will scare and terrify humankind. And when I see they are terrified, I will comfort them, I will tell them the universal Law of life, I will restore the religion which has decayed!”

So Sakka made the god Matali into the shape of a huge black hound, with four tusks each as big as a plantain, with a hideous shape and a fat belly. Sakka fastened this horrible dog with a chain, and turned himself into a hunter. Together they walked to King Usinara’s city.

“The world is doomed to destruction!” the hunter cried out, so loudly that he terrified everyone within earshot. He repeated this cry as he walked up to the very gates of the city.

The people of the city saw the huge dog and heard the hunter’s cries, and hurried into the city to tell the king what had happened. The king ordered the city gates to be closed. But the hunter and the huge dog leaped over the wall.

When they saw that the hunter and the dog had gotten inside the city, everyone ran away to find a place to hide. Those who could not get to their houses in time ran to the king’s palace to find safety.

The hunter and the dog came to the palace. The dog raised itself up, put its paws on the window of the room where the king was hiding, and barked. Its bark was a huge roaring noise that seemed to go from the depths of the earth to the highest heaven. Upon hearing this bark, the people were terrified and horrified, and no one could say a word.

At last the king plucked up his courage, and went to the window. He called out to the hunter: “Ho, huntsman! why did your hound roar?”

“The hound is hungry,” said the hunter.

“Well,” said the king, “I will order some food to be given to it.”

The king told his servants to give all the food in the palace to the dog. The huge dog gulped all the food down in one mouthful, then roared again.

Again the king called out the window: “Huntsman! Why does your dog still roar?”

“My hound is still hungry,” said the hunter.

Then the king had all the food for all his elephants and all his horses and all his other animals brought and given to the huge dog. Once again, the dog swallowed it in one gulp. So the king had all the food in the entire city brought. The huge dog swallowed all that in one gulp, and then roared again.

The king then said to himself, “This is no hound. I will ask him wherefore he is come.” Terrified with fear, he said to the hunter: “Why does this huge hound, with sharp white fangs as big as plantains, come here with you?”

“The dog comes to eat my enemies,” said the hunter.

“And who are your enemies?” said the king.

“All those people who are smart and educated, but who use their skill only to acquire money. All those who do not take care of their parents, once their parents get old. All those who betray their friends or spouses or siblings. All those who pretend to follow religious principles, but who actually do whatever they want. All those who are criminals, and kill and rob. All those who have hearts filled with evil, and who are evil and deceitful.

“These,” said the hunter, “all these are my enemies, O king!”

And the hunter made as though he would let the hound leap forth and devour all those who did the deeds of enemies. But as all the multitude was terror-struck, he held in the hound by the leash.

The Sakka shed his disguise of a hunter. By his power he rose and poised himself in the air, and said: “O great king, I am Sakka ruler of the gods! Seeing that the world was about to be destroyed by evil, I came hither. Religion had become corrupt and humans were suffering because they were doing evil. From henceforth I will know how to deal with the wicked, but you had better remain vigilant, lest I have to return.”

So King Usinara and all the people saw how they must stop doing evil, and return to the ways of virtue. They must stop doing evil, or the huge dog would remain hungry, and would keep roaring!

And when they saw that humankind had turned away from evil, and once again was following the paths of good — then Sakka and Matali returned to their own place.


When the Master had finished telling this story, he went on to say: “So you see, in my former lives I lived for the good of the world.”

Buddha and his followers all believed that they had had many previous lives, and had been reincarnated many times. And his followers knew that one of the characters in the story had been Buddha. But which one?

At last Buddha told them: “At that time, my follower and friend, Ananda, was Matali,” said the Buddha. “And I was Sakka.”


Notes to the story:

My version of this story comes from Jataka tale no. 469, Maha-Kanha Jataka, in The Jataka vol. IV, trans. by W. H. D. Rouse [1901], pp. 111-115. (To read it online, click here.)

Sophia Fahs put a much modified version of this Jataka tale in her book From Long Ago and Many Lands. As usual, Fahs, leaves off the framing story which typically comes at the beginning and the end of each Jataka tale; the framing story often starts with a situation taking place among Buddha’s followers, which reminds Buddha of one of his past lives; and the framing story ends with Buddha telling which of the actors in the story he was.

The Fahs version of the story is further modified beyond just dropping off the framing story. As usual, she gets rid of any elements that contradict her theology of religious naturalism. Furthermore, she turns the story into a social justice morality tale. Her version is very similar to to a story which was published in an anthology of the Progressive era, The Cry for Justice: An anthology of the literature of social protest, ed. Upton Sinclair (2nd ed., New York: Upton Sinclair, 1915), p. 461. Sinclair took his version from The Gospel of Buddha “told by” Paul Carus (Chicago: Open Court, 1895), pp. 176-177.

Obviously, the point of Carus’ “The Parable of the Hungry Dog” — and of Fahs’ “The Dog and the Heartless King” — is that we should engage in social justice work. But the Fahs and Carus stories also Westernize the story and strip out some peculiarly Buddhist elements — Fahs much more so than Carus. She removed all mentions of the Buddha to make the story conform to her subtle sense of cultural superiority, and to allow her to use the story for her own moral and religious ends. It’s not quite cultural misappropriation, but it’s close.

The version by Paul Carus is interesting enough that it’s worth reprinting here:


There was a great king who oppressed his people and was hated by his subjects; yet when the Tathagata came into his kingdom, the king desired much to see him. So he went to the place where the Blessed One stayed and asked: “O Sakyamuni, canst thou teach a lesson to the king that will divert his mind and benefit him at the same time?”

And the Blessed One said: “I shall tell thee the parable of the hungry dog:

“There was a wicked tyrant; and the god Indra, assuming the shape of a hunter, came down upon earth with the demon Matali, the latter appearing as a dog of enormous size. Hunter and dog entered the palace, and the dog howled so woefully that the royal buildings shook by the sound to their very foundations. The tyrant had the awe-inspiring hunter brought before his throne and inquired after the cause of the terrible bark. The hunter said, ‘The dog is hungry,’ whereupon the frightened king ordered food for him. All the food prepared at the royal banquet disappeared rapidly in the dog’s jaws, and still he howled with portentous significance. More food was sent for, and all the royal store-houses were emptied, but in vain. Then the tyrant grew desperate and asked: ‘Will nothing satisfy the cravings of that woeful beast?’ ‘Nothing,’ replied the hunter, ‘nothing except perhaps the flesh of all his enemies.’ ‘And who are his enemies?’ anxiously asked the tyrant. The hunter replied: ‘The dog will howl as long as there are people hungry in the kingdom, and his enemies are those who practice injustice and oppress the poor.’ The oppressor of the people, remembering his evil deeds, was seized with remorse, and for the first time in his life he began to listen to the teachings of righteousness.”

Having ended his story, the Blessed One addressed the king, who had turned pale, and said to him:

“The Tathagata can quicken the spiritual ears of the powerful, and when thou, great king, hearest the dog bark, think of the teachings of the Buddha, and thou mayst still learn to pacify the monster.”

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