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Sibi Jataka is one of the Jataka tales detailing episodes of the various incarnations of Buddha. Each Jataka tale illustrates the Buddhist ideals of Dharma and sacrifice in various forms. Tradition states that these tales were narrated by Buddha himself during his ministry in India to emphasise that by the constant practice of virtuous deeds one reaches the status of Nirvana or enlightenment.
The Story of King Sibi
King Sibi ruled over the kingdom of Sibi and was known for his philanthropy. One day, Indra and Agni came to test the limits of the king's generosity. The two gods disguised themselves as a hawk and a dove. The hawk started chasing the dove and the dove fell on King Sibi's lap trembling with fear. The hawk demanded the king to surrender the dove as its prey. The king refused saying that the dove had sought his protection.
After much argument the hawk agreed to leave the dove alone if the king would offer a piece of flesh from his own body which was equivalent to the weight of the dove. The king was more than happy to make such a sacrifice. Strangely, after endless slicing off his flesh and placing it on the scale, the king found that he could not equal the weight of the dove. The king threw his entire body on the scale and even then the scales tipped in favor of the dove. At this point the hawk and the dove revealed their true identity and praised the king for his unbounded charitable spirit.
There are many versions of the Sibi Jataka and the one narrated above is also found in the Mahabharata. Another version of the story of Sibi is narrated as follows:
Indra came as a blind person to King Sibi and asked him to donate one of his eyes so that he could regain his sight partially. Sibi, however, offered both eyes for the complete restoration of the blind man's sight. The ready willingness of king Sibi to sacrifice both his eyes moved Indra into revealing his true form and blessing the king.
In the Chinese Buddhist tradition, the two versions of the story are attributed to two different kings. The king who sacrifices his eyes is called Kuai-mu Wang - the king with happy eyes.
The story is depicted in numerous Buddhist cave paintings. An example of this can be found in Cave 17 at Ajanta. This shows a man holding a set of scales while the king is engaged in cutting his flesh out. The panel also shows the king’s courtiers, and subjects rejoicing this noble act of their king. A painting in the Mogao Caves (Cave 275) shows a panel illustrating five jataka tales. The two versions of the Sibi legend are depicted in this panel.
Connections with the Chola Dynasty
The story of King Sibi has been linked with the South Indian dynasty of Cholas who ruled between c 100 C.E. to c. 1250 C.E. The later Cholas claimed to have descended from Sibi. The Tamil name for Sibi was Sembiyan. This name was assumed by many Chola kings.