This fantastic short story is taken from the Maha-Ummagga Jataka Tale (#546), but it’s not actually a part of it. It’s a footnote in the book The Jataka or Stories of the Buddha’s Former Births (E. B. Cowell ed., Cambridge University Press, 1895-1907) and is told by one of the ancient scholiasts to demonstrate the exceptional wisdom of Queen Talata, who is smarter than all ten of the royal advisers. She’s the mother of King Culani-Brahmadatta, whose plan to conquer all of India is thwarted by the Buddha-to-Be, and her involvement in the conquest is one of the reasons people were so frightened.
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A wealthy man was crossing a river. When he got to the middle it was too deep to walk any further, and he couldn’t swim. He called out to men on the bank, “I am carrying a bundle of husked rice, a meal of boiled rice wrapped in a leaf, and one thousand rupees; I will give whichever of these I like to anyone who takes me across.”
A strong man came and took him by the hands, pulling him across. When they reached the shore, the wealthy man told his helper, “You may have either the husked rice or the boiled rice.”
“What!” he shouted. “I risked my life to save you! That is not what I want; give me the money.”
“I told you that I would give you what ‘I’ liked. Take it or leave it.”
A bystander who saw everything took the rich man’s side because this was indeed what he’d promised. But the strong man refused and took the matter to court. The judges also ruled in the rich man’s favor because he offered what he said he would.
Still angry, the strong man petitioned the king and he agreed to oversee an appeal. The king questioned the two men as well as the judges who’d ruled on the case and carefully considered both sides. And he too ruled against the man who’d risked his life because the rich man did exactly what he said he’d do.
The king’s exceptionally wise mother, Queen Talata, was in attendance and she faulted her son’s verdict. He told her to do better if she could.
She called the rich man before her and told him to put his three possessions on the ground in front of him and to repeat exactly the words he’d said while in the river: “I will give whichever of these I like to anyone who takes me across.”
Then the queen asked the man to pick up which of the three things he liked the most, and he grabbed the money. The queen then confirmed, “And did you, or did you not say to the man, that you would give him what you liked?”
“Yes, I did say this.”
“Then you must give him the money.”
The rich man began to cry and everyone else applauded in great delight.