Sushil was a miser. Though his treasure house was full, he was too stingy to give away even the smallest coin. And since food cost money, he ate almost nothing, and starved his family and servants besides.
One morning, as Sushil took his daily walk through town, he saw a young boy eating a sweet rice dumpling. Sushil’s mouth watered as he made his way home.
“If only I could ask my wife to make me a sweet dumpling,” he said to himself. “But if I wanted one, so would my wife. And if my wife wanted one, so would the children. And if the children wanted one, so would the servants. So I had better just keep quiet.”
When Sushil arrived home, he said nothing about a dumpling. But he wanted one so badly, he felt weak. His legs shook, and he had to go to bed.
His wife, Nirmala, came to him. She asked, “What is wrong, my husband?”
Sushil lay groaning and clenched his teeth.
“Is there something you want?” said Nirmala.
Sushil’s face grew red, then purple. At last he squeaked, “I would like a sweet rice dumpling.”
“That is no problem,” said Nirmala. “We are wealthy enough. Why, I will make sweet dumplings for the whole town!”
Sushil gasped in horror. “You will make a pauper of me!”
“Well then,” said Nirmala, “I will make dumplings for our family and servants.”
“Why would the servants need any?” said Sushil.
“Then I will make them for us and the children.”
“I am sure the children can do without.”
“Then I will make one for you and one for me.”
“Why would you want one?” said Sushil.
Nirmala sighed and went out, and returned after a while with a single sweet dumpling. Then she looked on as Sushil, moaning with delight, devoured every crumb.
Now, it happened that all this was seen by Sakka, the King of Heaven, who was sitting on his marble throne in his thousand-mile-high palace. “Not in seventy-seven millennia,” he declared, “have I ever seen such a miser. I will teach this fellow not to be so stingy.”
So the god waited till the next day, when Sushil left on his morning walk. Then he made himself look just like Sushil and came down to earth.
Sakka walked into Sushil’s house as if he were Sushil himself. In Sushil’s own voice he told a servant, “Run through the town and invite everyone you see. Today Sushil will share his wealth!”
When Nirmala heard these words, she cried, “Husband, can this be true? Heaven be praised for your change of heart!” Then she helped him open the treasure house.
Soon the people of the town arrived. “Take what you will!” said the pretend Sushil. “And if anyone who looks like me tries to stop you, drive away the scoundrel!”
“Thanks to Lord Sushil!” cried the townspeople. “The most generous man alive!” They rushed into the treasure house and loaded themselves with gold, silver, diamonds, and pearls.
Just then, the real Sushil came home. When he saw his treasure being carried out the gate, he screamed, “Robbers! Thieves! Put that back! How dare you!”
But the townspeople said, “This must be the one that Lord Sushil warned us about.” And they chased Sushil halfway across town.
Sushil rushed on to the Rajah’s court. “Your Majesty,” he declared, “the people of the town are taking all I own!”
“But your own servant invited them!” said the Rajah. “I heard him myself. Did you not give the order?”
“Never!” said Sushil. “If the order was given, I beg you to bring the one who gave it!”
So the Rajah sent a messenger. Soon came Sakka, still pretending to be Sushil, along with Nirmala and the children. The children stared wide-eyed at the two Sushils, and Nirmala nearly fainted.
“Impostor!” screamed Sushil.
“Deceiver!” screamed Sakka.
“I cannot tell the difference between you,” said the bewildered Rajah. He turned to Nirmala. “Can you say which is the true Sushil?”
Nirmala looked at both men. “Your Majesty,” she said, “may I ask them a question?”
“Certainly,” said the Rajah.
Nirmala turned to Sakka. “Is it better to be generous to yourself, to your family, to your servants, or to your neighbors?”
“It is best to be generous to all!” answered Sakka. “When you are generous, others also grow generous, and everyone is wealthier.”
Then Nirmala turned to Sushil. “Is it better to be generous to yourself, to your family, to your servants, or to your neighbors?”
“To none!” shrieked Sushil. “It is a waste of wealth that can never be regained!”
Nirmala took a deep breath, gathered the children, then drew close to Sakka. She said, “This is the true Sushil, Your Majesty.”
“But, Nirmala!” cried Sushil. “My wife! My children!”
At that, the god stepped forward, and with a blinding flash of light changed back to his own shape. “Your Majesty, I am not Sushil but Sakka. I came down from Heaven to teach this man a lesson.”
He turned to the trembling and downcast Sushil. “Do you see? You are so stingy, even your wife and children deny you.”
“There is but one hope for you,” said Sakka. “Will you stop being such a miser?”
“Well,” said Sushil, “maybe I could be a little more generous.”
“A little more?” demanded Sakka.
“Well, maybe a little more than a little more,” said Sushil.
“You had better be a lot more generous,” said Sakka. “Or I’ll be back!”
And with another flash of light, he vanished.
“Well!” said the Rajah to Sushil. “It seems you indeed have been taught a good lesson!”
“I suppose so, Your Majesty,” said Sushil. He turned shyly to Nirmala. “Wife?” he said, holding out his hand.
“Husband!” she said, taking it. “Oh, husband, let us celebrate! I have an idea. Let us make sweet rice dumplings for the entire town!”
Sushil gasped in horror. His legs shook. He groaned and clenched his teeth. His face grew red, then purple. Then he squeaked—
About the Story
The tale of the “Millionaire Miser” appears in several versions in the Jataka, a gigantic collection of folktales, legends, and fables compiled by Buddhists and set down in final form around the 5th century A.D. The Jataka tales are intended to illustrate moral points and are used by Buddhist preachers and teachers much as Christian clergy use stories from the Bible.
Sakka, the King of Heaven, is a popular figure appearing in many of the Jataka tales. He is actually a Buddhist version of the Hindu god Indra, borrowed like many other elements from Hindu folklore and mythology. (One of Indra’s standard epithets is Sakra, meaning “powerful.”) Among Chinese Buddhists, Sakka becomes known as Yu Huang, the Jade Emperor.
A distinctive feature of the Buddhist Sakka is that he is more a position than a person. Virtuous people may find themselves incarnating as the King of Heaven in between lives on earth. Buddha himself is said to have earned the post at various times before his enlightenment.
My sources for this retelling were #78, #450, and #535, in The Jataka, edited by E. B. Cowell, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1905; and Tales Told in India, retold by Berta Metzger, Oxford University Press, Madras, 1935.
How to Say the Names
Nirmala ~ NEER-ma-la
Sakka ~ SOK-a (sounds like “sock a”)
Sushil ~ SOO-shil