An Eye transplant and a Pound of Flesh

An article from a Sri Lanka newspaper.

By Bhante Dhammika of Australia

Sibi is a small rural town in Pakistan’s Balochistan Province and like many such places it has little to recommend it. It is occasionally the scene of terrorist attacks by Balochi separatists, it has no forts, palaces or ancient ruins that might attract tourists from outside, and it often records the highest temperatures in Pakistan. But as unlikely as it may seems this woebegone, dusty town was once the setting for one of Buddhism’s most enduring and beautiful legends.

Depiction of the  Sivi Jataka from Gandhara, 5th century CE




In ancient times it was the capital of the small city state of Aritthapura and at one time was ruled by a king named Sivi or sometimes Sibi or Shibi. This king gets a mention in the Mahabharata and the Cholas of south India claimed to be descendants of him, a claim that had no basis in fact.

The earliest mention of King Sivi however is from the Jataka, in the Sivi Jataka, number 499 of the collection. According to this story the Bodhisattva was once reborn as King Sivi and he had made a vow to give anything if anyone asked it of him. Aware of this vow, Sakra decided to test the king to see how genuine his vow was. He manifest himself as a blind man and approached the king pleading; “Give me sight. Will no one give me sight?” Hearing this, filled with compassion, and determined to fulfil his vow, the king led the blind man to a surgeon and asked that his own eyes be taken out and transplanted into the sunken sockets of the blind man. At this point the Jataka increases the tension of the story by having the surgeon ask the king; “Are you sure this is what you want to do?” But the king is adamant and requests that the operation proceeds. What follows is a fairly explicit description of how the eyeballs were squeezed from their sockets, how the optic nerve (or is it the extraocular muscles?) is severed, and the pain this caused. Before the surgeon severs the optic nerve for good he again asks; “Are you sure you want me to do this? Once I cut it there is no turning back.” The king, now in terrible pain, begs the surgeon to hurry up and do the needful. The scene is so vivid that one is tempted to think that the ancient Indians may have actually tried to perform such an operation. As happens in most such Jatakas, the drama ends well with the king’s sight being restored.

In later Buddhist Sanskrit text there is another version of this story. Here King Sibi makes a vow that he will do whatever he can to save a life should the need ever arise. Saka manifests himself as a hawk who catches a dove within view of the king. Seeing this the king pleads with the hawk to release its prey but the bird retorts: “Then how am I to feed myself and my young?” The king thinks for a moment and then says; “I will cut some flesh from my thigh and give it to you if you let the dove go.” Driving a hard bargain the hawk agrees but says it wants the same amount of flesh as would have been provided by the dove. The king agrees, a pair of scales are produced and the process of slicing off a dove’s-worth of flesh is about to begin when Sakka reveals himself and expresses his satisfaction that King Sibi has had the courage to go through with his vow.

Although the imagery of cutting eyes balls out of their sockets or slicing flesh off a living person are disconcerting, even shocking, the purpose of both versions of this Jataka story is clear. A true hero will be prepared to sacrifice much of himself or herself for others. Jesus said pretty much the same thing in the Gospel of John: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

Depiction of the Sivi Jataka from the Borobudur temple, 11th century CE.

The Sivi version of the story is depicted in a relief from Sarnath and Nagajunakonda in Andhra Pradesh, in a mural on the walls of the Mulkirigala temple in Sri Lanka and elsewhere.

This version has had an unexpected consequence. Sri Lanka has the highest number of people willing to donate their corneas after death to be used to help restore sight to the blind. This is due to campaigning starting in 1964 by the Sri Lanka Eye Donation Society and also because Buddhists in the country  are familiar with the story of King Sivi’s gift. The society has 450 branches in the country and every year is able to provide thousands of corneas to be used in eye surgery around the world.

The alternative Sibi version of the story is depicted in the art of numerous Buddhist countries. Perhaps the most well-known of these is the depiction on one of the panels of the great Buddhist temple of Borobudur in Java. In the middle of the panel a pair of large and impressive scales can be seen and in the right hand dish of the scales the dove is waiting to be weighed against the king’s flesh. This version of the story has had an influence too, although in literature rather than medicine.

In around 1597 William Shakespeare wrote his famous play The Merchant of Venice. In the play a young merchant promises to guarantee a loan his friend plans to take out in order to woo his sweetheart. The agreement is that if the loan, which is given without interest, cannot be repaid by a set date the moneylender will be repaid not in cash but with a pound (about 450 grams) of the guarantor’s flesh. The moneylender has made this stipulation because he secretly hates the guarantor and hopes that he will not be able to repay the money. The date passes without the loan being repaid and the moneylender demands his pound of flesh. The lender is soon able to repay the loan and even offers to double the amount rather have his flesh cut off, but the moneylender demands that the original agreement be kept. He does not want the money, he wants the pound of flesh. They go to court and the judges uphold the original agreement but they also decide that moneylender can have his pound of flesh but without shedding a drop of blood, which would be a criminal offence under the law.

This is one of Shakespeare’s most dramatic plays and the origin of the ideas in it have been explored in great detail. Its chief source was Giovanni Fiorentino’s llPecorone written in 1378. But where did Fiorentino get the idea of cutting off flesh of a certain weight to repay a loan? The simple answer is that no one knows. But the idea is so gripping, so iconic, so unusual, that one cannot help thinking that at some time before the 14th century, probably many centuries earlier, it may have travelled from India, through the Middle East and eventually filtered into Europe. If this is correct, it may be a small contribution Buddhist literature made to the works of Shakespeare.

The story of King Sibi endured for centuries despite the disappearance of Buddhism in India. In 1907 M. Longworth Dames published his Popular Poetry of the Baloches, containing English translations of verses, songs and poetry he had transcribed in the Balochi tongue during the previous decades. One of the poems he recorded in 1884 is immediately recognizable as the Jataka story, only the king is a Muslim named Ali.

But to return to the town of Sibi. In a semi-desert area to the south of the town is a collection of ruins. One of these looks suspiciously like it was once a stupa. We know that there was such a monument somewhere in or near the town because the Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang mentioned one in his travelogue, erected “where King Sivika sliced his body to ransom a dove from a hawk, in order to acquire Buddhahood.” No archaeological examination has ever been done to determine the date and purpose of this monument, and probably never will be. But it is quite likely that it is what remains of the stupa erected to commemorate King Sivi’s noble deed.

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I am 3/4ths Sri Lankan (Jaffna) Tamil, 1/8th Sinhalese and 1/8th Irish; a proper mutt. Maternal: Grandfather a Govt Surveyor married my grandmother of Sinhalese/Irish descent from the deep south, in the early 1900’s. They lived in the deep South, are generally considered Sinhalese and look Eurasian (common among upper class Sinhalese). They were Anglicans (Church of England), became Evangelical Christians (AOG) in 1940's, and built the first Evangelical church in the South. Paternal: Sri Lanka (Jaffna Tamil). Paternal ancestors converted to Catholicism during Portuguese rule (1500's), went back to being Hindu and then became Methodists (and Anglicans) around 1850 (ggfather). They were Administrators and translators to the British, poets and writers in Tamil and English. Grandfathers sister was the first female Tamil novelist of modern times I was brought up as an Evangelical even attending Bible study till about the age of 13. Agnostic and later atheist. I studied in Sinhala, did a Bachelor in Chemistry and Physics in Sri Lanka. Then did Oceanography graduate stuff and research in the US. I am about 60 years old, no kids, widower. Sri Lankan citizen (no dual) and been back in SL since 2012. Live in small village near a National Park, run a very small budget guest house and try to do some agriculture that can survive the Elephants, monkeys and wild boar incursions. I am not really anonymous, a little digging and you can find my identity.

18 thoughts on “An Eye transplant and a Pound of Flesh”

  1. This reminds me of when Lord Shri Ram was preparing for battle and conducted Durga Puja for blessings before war. The puja requires 108 lotus petals and Shri Ram was one or two short. He promptly proceeded to cut out his eyes since they were beautiful like a lotus petal, at which point Devi manifests and stops Him.

    Balochistan is a part of the holy geography of Bharatvarsha as it contains the Hinglaj shaktipeeth.

    India should continue to work towards liberating this land and driving away mlecchas from Bharat.

  2. Brilliant!

    By the way, Is Baluchistan perhaps the most unknown quantity in S-Asia. I mean we hardly have any history about it before like 1500s and all.

  3. Very interesting connection between Buddhist literature and “The Merchant of Venice”.

    Balochistan is legally and constitutionally part of Pakistan. It is not a disputed territory. India has zero claim on it just as Pakistan has zero claim on Nagaland. Any thoughts of taking Balochistan away from Pakistan are counterproductive and foolish.

    1. OK, Kabir, I am not competent to say this to you, but every time a wet dream comment of a nationalist appears in BP, you should not be responding. If you have a keyboard, you can rule the world in an imaginary timeline.

      New Delhi has difficulty sending 100 people on a train to the border. This is not a diss, but sometimes, it is better to be incompetent and be India, than be a competent military power like Germany or Japan and kill a million people.

      1. You are right. I should know better than to reply to these stupid statements.

        I do wish people would get over their fantasies of trying to destroy Pakistan. It is much better to accept our existence as a sovereign nation and move ahead. Terms like “mlecchas” are also religious slurs and should not be used.

  4. In any case, since you, Zach and one other contributor are in London, the Sivi Jataka slab, I believe is in British Museum in London, but can any one of you confirm that it is there? As a schoolboy in Maharashtrian school, I saw the Sivi Jataka panel also in Ajanta cave 17. Finally, when the Ghaznis went through Balouchistan and removed the last vestiges of Buddhism, the monks escaped through Afghanistan to the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas in China, but I have not been able to go there because of passport issues.

    Separately, I am fascinated by sBarkkum’s explorations of Indian history through Buddhist Jatakas!

    1. kabir

      Did not realize Taxila was in Pakistan Punjab (assumed it was in India).

      TAXILA: The Dharmarajika stupa, the largest Buddhist complex in Taxila believed to have been established by Mauryan emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BC, on Monday (May 2017) came alive with rituals and prayers of Buddhist monks from Sri Lanka.

      It may be mentioned that last year Pakistan provided sacred relics, including two bone relics of Lord Buddha, a golden casket containing the relics and a stone reliquary in a stupa shape for an exhibition in connection with the Vesakh Buddhist festival in Sri Lanka.

      Also in June 2011, Pakistan had sent the holy relics to Sri Lanka for an exhibition there when the world was marking the 2600th anniversary of the attainment of the enlightenment.

      The relic casket of steatite with a miniature gold casket inside, containing holy bone relics, were discovered near the Dharmarajika stupa.

      Ancient Taxila was situated at the pivotal junction of the Indian subcontinent and Central Asia. The origin of Taxila as a city goes back to c. 1000 BCE.[1] Some ruins at Taxila date to the time of the Achaemenid Empire in the 6th century BCE, followed successively by Mauryan Empire, Indo-Greek, Indo-Scythian, and Kushan Empire periods.

      Owing to its strategic location, Taxila has changed hands many times over the centuries, with many empires vying for its control. When the great ancient trade routes connecting these regions ceased to be important, the city sank into insignificance and was finally destroyed by the nomadic Hunas in the 5th century. The renowned archaeologist Sir Alexander Cunningham rediscovered the ruins of Taxila in the mid-19th century. In 1980, Taxila was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.[2] In 2006 it was ranked as the top tourist destination in Pakistan by The Guardian newspaper.

      1. Pakistan-Baluchisthan-Afghanisthan was the centre of the Gandhara kingdom, and not to mention a series of Greek-Buddhist empires. For about 1000 years from 300 BC to 700 AD, a Greek remnant empire absorbed Buddhism and regurgitated it as Mahayana. Indo-Greek kings such as Menander relocated themselves in Sialkot, Taxila, and other cities, particularly in Swat. After the Mauryas, Buddhism in India died a slow death, and the center of Buddhist world relocated to NWFP-Afghanisthan region, but controlled by Indo-Greeks.

        The topic of most interest to Lankans is Chapter 29 of Mahavamsa. During the time of Menander, a Greek monk, Mahadharmaraksita, led 30,000 Buddhist monks from a now-disappeared town around 150 km of Kabul in Afghanistan to SriLanka for the dedication of a stupa. Imagine Greek monks spreading Buddhism from Afghanisthan to SriLanka, and later to China.

  5. WIKI: “The exact origin of the word ‘Baloch’ is unclear. Rawlinson (1873) believed that it is derived from the name of the Babylonian king and god Belus. Dames (1904) believed that it is derived from the Persian term for cockscomb, said to have been used as a crest on the helmets of Baloch troops in 6th century BCE. Herzfeld (1968) proposed that it is derived from the Median term brza-vaciya, which describes a loud or aggressive way of speaking.”

    WIKI: “It appears likely that the Sivis originally lived in north of river Kabol in remote antiquity, from where sections of them moved southwards in later times and settled in what is called Seva around Bolan Pass, which region was known as Sivistan till recently.”

    “Baluchistan” (i.e. Beludzistan) = the place where Belići (=Whites in Serbian) live.
    “Belus” – Serbian ruler, first Aryan leader, founded Babylon, Baghdad got the name after him, city Nineveh dedicated and named after him, mentioned in the Bible as ‘gigantic hunter, first before the God’ (his first world crown –🙂

    “cockscomb” – in history first used by Serbian soldiers, many armies today use as a part of their uniforms
    “brza-vaciya” – brza=fast (in Serbian)
    “Sivi” = Grey (in Serbian)
    “Seva”; “Bolan Pass” = Painful (sore, ailing) pass (Serbian words)

    Thanks Sereno from Serendib, you gave me some new material for my research.

    1. another european trying to adapt South Asian things, last time you guys (english) perverted our history and took advantage of it for short term gains it bit nicely in your ass in the form of Hitler. Now a days the funniest thing is some “white people” calling themselves “aryans” waving swasti ka etc. What they really don’t understand is being aryan means respecting cows, worshipping them and reading vedas, of course these dimwits have no fucking clue about what they’re talking about.

      1. Are you talking to ME? Are You talking to me? Your stupidity disguises your racism, otherwise you would not be putting me in the same YOU with Poms. You may read the last week’s Thread about Bengal famine to stretch your brain curves. Did you want to say something about my above comment? Obviously no, just to spill your frustration here. I can give you thousands of similar examples or you can read past comments. Zach should introduce at least 3-months reading apprenticeship of old comments plus a questionnaire to pass IQ>50 before commenting here. Did you say swastika? The first letter in my alphabet 5000BC? What you can say? Vedas? Which is this word in which language they were written? Is this maybe your mother (or grandfather?) tongue? ’Aryan means respecting cow’? It is maybe not the dumbest thing written here but it is the original and only an emasculated ox could say something like this.

        Considering that you are a recent creature here you may deserve the second chance. Well, try to find the connection between worshiping cows, the link in my above comment and the name of Baghdad. If you get stuck, ask me to give you a tip. Stay cool.

  6. Was just reading up on perhaps one of the most consequential king of Lanka, Vijaybahu. It seems once he liberated Lanka, Buddhism had been dealt such a heavy blow(in earlier centuries) ,that during his coronation he could not find enough Buddhist monks, and had to ask the King of Burma to send few and ordain other monks. Its fascinating how close Buddhism was historically to completely fall off the map of Lanka, something which cannot be even comprehended today when we think of Lanka. The history of Buddhism in Lanka could have been mirrored Buddhism in India.

    Contrasting this with India, even during the long Sultanate rule , N-India seemed never to run out of Hindu priests to coronate a King. In similar circumstances to Vijaybahu, Shivaji had a totally different set of priests during his coronation, when the earlier set of priests felt he was too “lowly” to become a King.

    I was thinking had the Safavid been a Zoroastrian dynasty would they have found Zoroastrian priests for their coronation or had to get few Parsi priests from India to make up the numbers.

    1. Saurav,

      Thank you very much. Did not know about Buddhism about to be lost during Vijayabahu I ( 1055–1110). The second time it was almost lost was during Kirti Sri Rajasinghe (1747-1782) reign.

      Under the guidance and influence of Weliwita Sri Saranankara Thero, with the Dutch assistance, king Kirti Sri Raja Singha successfully invited Bhikkus from Siam (Thailand) to revive the higher ordination of Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka.

      Kirti Sri Rajasinghe was a prince from the Madurai Nayak Dynasty and the brother-in-law of Sri Vijaya Raja Singha. He succeeded his brother-in-law to the throne in 1751. According to his descendants, they were Telugu Waduga

      back to Vijayabahu
      Vijayabahu took Lilavati, the daughter of Jagatipala of Kanauj as his queen. He also married Tilokasundari (TriLoka Sundari*), a princess from Kalinga, with the view of strengthening ties with the Kalingas.

      Vijayabahu I was also responsible for re establishment of ties with Kalinga. Magha of Kalinga and Nissanka Malla claimed inheritance of the Lanka throne thru this connection. They also claimed descent thru Sinhabahu and Sinhaseevali the mythical parents of the mythical Vijaya the “founder” of the Sinhalese. Magha destroyed Sri Lanka. Magha is also called Kulankai Cinkai Ariyan the purported first king of the Aryacakravarti dynasty

      * TilokaSundari, the beautiful woman of the three worlds. If I had a daughter I would have named her TilokaSundari regardless of her looks.

      1. In spite of what is written in the unreferenced book, I am skeptical of the idea of Buddhism lost in Srilanka, OR, it just followed the history of India. Let me explain.

        The history of lanka was highly influenced by History of India. Mahavamsa talks about Tamil interlopers such as Ellalan invading the island around 145 BCE. Chola king Karikalan utilized superior Chola naval power to conquer Ceylon in the first century CE. However, at this time, Buddhism and Jainism were more popular than Hinduism, and hence, Saivism, Tamil Buddhism, Jainism arrived into Lanka, as also the proliferation of village deity worship. The Amaravati school was influential in the region when the Telugu Satavahana dynasty established the Andhra empire and its rulerHāla (~29 CE) married a princess from the island. In the 6th century CE, a special coastal route by boat was established from the Jaffna peninsula southwards to Saivite religious centres in Trincomalee (Koneswaram) and further south to Batticaloa (Thirukkovil), passed a few small Tamil trading settlements in Mullaitivu on the north coast. The conquests and rule of the island by Pallava king Narasimhavarman I (630–668 CE) and his grandfather King Simhavishnu (537–590 CE) saw the erection and structural development of several temples around the island, particularly in the north-east, and thus Pallava Dravidian rock temples remained a popular and highly influential style of architecture in the region over the next few centuries. Next came the RajaRaja Chola and his descemndants who conqured large parts of Lanka, but were not succesful in maintaining the rule, as they were primarily a plundering power.

        While 10 centuries of invasions happened, there did exist kingdoms in Kandy, Anuradhapura and south, but an evidence that Buddhism was a central religion of Lanka was absent. Thus, when VijayaBhahu regained power and sought a BUddhist narrative, and Buddhist princess, he sought out the priests and wives from Kanauj and Burma, as rivals to persistent intrusions from the south. A surprising conclusion was that Barmars themselves have been in existence in the Irrawaddy and central Burma for 6 centuries, but still were able to provide priests.

        History is often written to suit the winning ruler. Is it possible Vijayabhahu was trying to rewrite his own history as a “Buddhist” Lankan ruler at this time?

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