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King Bimbisara had a son, Prince Ajatasattu, who was a good friend of the Buddha’s enemy, Devadatta. The two spent much time together and soon Devadatta had convinced the young prince to kill his father.
One silent and dark night, Prince Ajatasattu crept into the king’s room with a knife tied to his thigh. He was creeping toward his sleeping father when the palace guards caught him and the king discovered the plan. Kind King Bimbisara thought to himself, “Ah, I have remained king for too long. It is time for me to step down and make Ajatasattu king so that he can rule in peace, and I can retire into a religious life.” Instead of punishing Ajatasattu for his evil intentions, King Bimbisara made him king.
After Ajatasattu was made the new king he surprised everyone, including his father. Swift like a viper caught by its tail, he sprang round against his father and had him thrown into the darkest, coldest dungeon in the palace.
“Let him have no visitors other than my mother,” ordered Ajatasattu. “And give him no food so that he will starve to death.”
But King Bimbisara did not die. His loyal wife secretly brought him food hidden in her clothes. When Ajatasattu found out and stopped this, she carried food in her hair knot. Again Ajatasattu found out. Finally, the queen had to bathe her body and cover it with a mixture of honey, butter, ghee and sugar. By licking this food off her body, the good king survived. At last Ajatasattu found out his mother’s plan and banned her from visiting his father at all. Now the king had no food at all to sustain him and would surely die.
Days passed and still the king did not die. Ajatasattu lost his patience and shouted out in rage, all through the palace, “Call the barber.”
When the barber came, the king spoke to him in a fury, “I command you to go to Bimbisara’s cell, cut open the soles of his feet with your razor, tear the skin away and put salt and oil on the raw flesh. Then I command you to force him to walk on burning charcoal until he dies.”
When King Bimbisara saw the palace barber approaching, tears of joy watered his cheeks as he thought, “At last my son has realised his folly. Now he sends a barber to trim my beard and cut my hair before releasing me from prison.” Instead, with the help of two soldiers, the barber carried out the orders of the new king Ajatasattu and the good king died in great pain.
On that very day, Ajatasattu received news that his wife had given birth to a son. Great was his joy at being a father and a thought came to his mind. He hurried to his mother and asked, “Tell me mother, did my father love me as much as I love my son?”
His mother turned around, stared at him in silence with her sorrowful eyes and then murmured in disbelief, “What did you say, Ajatasattu? You asked if your father loved you?”
“Ajatasattu, when you were in my womb, I wanted to drink blood from your father’s hand. When he found this out, happily he cut his wrist for me to drink his blood for you. When the fortune-tellers predicted that you would be your father’s enemy, I tried to have a miscarriage but he prevented me. Again I tried to kill you when you were born; he stopped me even though he knew that one day you would kill him. Is that not love?
“Do you see that scar on your thumb? That was a boil you had when you were small. You were crying from so much pain that nobody could put you to sleep. When your father heard this, he stopped from his royal duty and came running to see you. Gently he took you in his lap and sucked the boil until it burst open in his mouth. Oh my son, your father swallowed it out of love for you — that pus and blood. In what way did he not love you, Ajatasattu? Tell me, Ajatasattu, would you do for your son what your father did for you? This man who loved you, this man who you have killed.”
When he heard this, Ajatasattu was choked with tears. He ordered his guards, “Run, run and release my father before he dies.” But none of them moved. “Go, I command you. Release my father before he dies,” Ajatasattu shouted.
Then his adviser stepped forward and said slowly, “Great king, your father died this morning.” Ajatasattu fell to his knees and cried until his body jerked violently, uttering over and over, “Forgive me, father. Please forgive me.”
Ajatasattu realised the love of a father only when he became a father himself. As for King Bimbisara, he was reborn as a deva in the Catummaharajika Heaven.