In a certain town there lived a rich man named Muddanna with his wife and his only son. For one reason or another, they went through a bad time, all their riches slipped away, and they became poor. The wife had to go begging from door to door and bring home some food every day. One day she got tired of it and said to her husband and her son, “I've been begging food for you two while you sit at home and eat. Why don't the two of you harness our two bullocks and till the little bit of land we still have?”
Muddanna thought it was a good idea, harnessed his two bullocks named Rama and Lakshmana, and went to till the field. He worked till noon, when God came down to see him in the guise of an old beggar with a begging bowl and a stick and asked for alms. Muddanna looked at him and thought to himself sadly, “What can I give? My garden is dried up. If I'd tilled last year and grown something, I could have given this beggar something now. I must at least beg and get something for him.”
Just as he was leaving the field, his wife met him with three balls of cooked flour that she had collected from begging in town. She asked them all to sit under the shady tree, which they did. Just when his wife was about to distribute the food she had brought, Muddanna said, “You take half a ball, I'll take the other half. Let our son and this swami take one each.”
When they finished eating, the swami said, “ Avva, I need some water.”
The wife said, “This place is dry. There's not a drop of water anywhere nearby. What shall we do?”
The swami said, “I'll tell you where to go. Go a little distance in this direction till you find a patch of sand. Dig in it a little. You'll find a freshwater spring.”
While Muddanna's wife and son went to fetch water, the man said to Muddanna quietly, “Your troubles are only beginning. More is on the way.”
“What troubles?” asked Muddanna in alarm.
“When you go home and tie up the bullocks, your wife will fall down dead. By the time you finish her funeral rites, your son will die. By the time you carry your son's body to the cemetery and come back after burying him, you'll find your two bullocks cold on the ground.”
Muddanna said nothing. He just looked down at the earth under his feet.
When he came home, tied up his bullocks in the shed, and came into his hut, he found his wife dead. He took the body to the cemetery and buried her properly. Meanwhile, the son died in grief and despair at the death of his mother, who had fed him all his life, even begging for food for his sake. Muddanna carried him also to the cemetery and gave him a proper burial. He returned home thinking fondly of his two bullocks. But, when he looked for them, he found the bullock named Rama and the other one named Lakshmana lying dead near the back door, one on the left, the other on the right. He got them carried to a field and buried them with his own hands. Now he thought life was not worth living and went to the forest. He climbed a hill and threw himself down into a whirlpool. But nothing happened to him, not a hair was hurt, not even the point of a thorn touched him. He thought, “Ah, it looks as if I've a lot of karma to live through. I've got to suffer it till it's finished.”
As he walked on, he saw a step-well with twelve steps under a guava tree that had plenty of fruit on its branches. Ugranarasimha, the Fierce Lord Who Was Half-Lion and Half-Man, had coveted the fruit of that tree, climbed on it, slipped, and fallen into the deep well. Similarly, a seven-foot tiger, a seven-headed snake, and even the Monkey God had climbed the tree for the fruit, slipped, and fallen into the well. Just as Muddanna was preparing to jump into it himself, the Fierce Lord called out to him in a piteous voice, “ Appa, you look like a good man. Help me get out of this slippery well and I'll help you in time of need.”
Muddanna said, “If you will give me the gift of death, I'll help you.”
But the Fierce Lord said, “How can I kill someone like you and earn myself a stint in hell? Don't despair. Think of me whenever you need me; I'll appear and help you. Come now, get me out of here.”
Muddanna helped him out and he vanished. The seven-foot tiger also begged him to help him out of the well, saying, “You want to die, don't you? Don't you know, I live by killing people like you? Help me out of here and I'll help you die.”
Muddanna thought, “One can certainly trust a tiger to kill. The time to die is at last near. I've come to the end of my karma.”
With all his might, he lifted the heavy seven-foot tiger out of the well. But the tiger, as he shook the water off his coat, had changed his mind.
“How can I kill someone who has saved my life? Think of me when you are in trouble; I'll appear and help you,” he said and went on his way.
Thinking that at least the seven-headed snake would bite him and give him the death he longed for, he lifted out the snake and set him on dry ground. It too refused to bite him and asked him to think of it whenever he was in trouble. Then it too went on its way, leaving Muddanna where he was.
After a while, despairing of ever dying, he thought of visiting the tiger in his cave. The tiger wondered to himself what he could offer to one who had saved his life, and split his skull open. Out of it fell a large diamond. Muddanna picked it up, and went to visit the Fierce Lord, Ugranarasimha, who was so pleased to see his rescuer that he ordered him a grand dinner. He even sent his own son to the market to bring some fresh banana leaves for his guest's dinner. Muddanna had just given the boy the precious tiger-head diamond to look at; turning it over in his hand, the boy had come to the market. The princess of that city had just announced through the town crier that she would marry anyone who would bring her the jewel in the tiger's head. People had meanwhile reported seeing just such a jewel in the boy's hand. The palace guards went there with naked swords and took him at once to the princess. The boy confessed that the jewel was not his but Muddanna's. So they went after Muddanna, found him, and dragged him to the palace. He looked like an ordinary man, not at all like a hero. So they concluded he must have stolen it, and the princess ordered him thrown into jail.
Sitting on the floor of the jail, Muddanna remembered the seven-headed serpent, which appeared at once, making a hissing noise. It consoled Muddanna: “Look, don't be afraid. I'll go now and bite the queen. When the guards come with the news, tell them you know how to bring her back to life. Leave the rest to me.”
It went at once to the queen's quarters and bit the queen. In no time, the news of the queen's sudden death by snakebite spread all over the city and made everyone shudder. Muddanna told his jailers, “I know how to bring her back to life. Try me.”
They only mocked at him.
“You whoreson bastard, you're trying tricks on us. You think you'll get out of jail that way? Who can bring a dead woman to life?”
He said, “I can. Try me. Take me there in handcuffs and leg-irons and all. See what I can do.”
“All right, let's see what you can do,” they said, and dragged him to the queen's quarters, where her body lay. He remembered the seven-headed snake, who arrived at once and sucked the poison from the queen's wound. She sat up at once as if she had just woken up from a long sleep. The king thought this was truly a magician. He even thought that such a clever man would make a proper bridegroom for his daughter. But his daughter, the princess, had other ideas. She would marry him only on one condition.
“You did bring my mother back to life. But she and my father are now eighty years old. If, by your magic, you can make them young again, I'll happily marry you,” she said.
Then Muddanna thought of the Monkey God, who leapt at once into his sight from nowhere. Muddanna said, “I have to go to the world of Brahma. Can you take me to him? I have to ask Him something.”
The Monkey God sat him on his tail and made it grow and grow and grow till it reached all the way to the world of Brahma, and landed Muddanna there. He asked Brahma the Creator, “O Brahma, give me a fruit or something that will make people young.”
Brahma smiled and said nothing. He took out a bunch of keys from his waist, gave it to a servant, and asked him to open the door of a room nearby. When the door opened, what did Muddanna see but his wife sitting there, combing her long hair! As soon as she saw him, she ran to him and fell at his feet, crying, “My husband, my husband.” When Brahma asked his servants to open the door of another room, their son came out of it, crying, “O Father, I haven't seen you for so long!” When the door of the next room was opened, the two bullocks named Rama and Lakshmana were standing there, chewing their cuds. Nowhere could they find the fruit that would make men and women young again. Then Brahma the Creator asked Muddanna, “Tell me what you want: do you want the fruit that will make people young, or do you want your family, your samsara, back?”
Muddanna replied without any hesitation, “Lord, what are you saying? I don't want anything to do with that king, or that queen, or that princess, or that kingdom. The taste of the first morsel is best. I want my wife, my son, my bullocks. Let me take them home. Please.”
Brahma sent them all home with him. All his troubles had come to an end as suddenly as they had begun and he lived happily thereafter.
[AT 160, Grateful Animals, Ungrateful Man. Cf. Bødker, type 1120.]