Once upon a time, many years ago, the King and Queen of Benares gave birth to the Bodhisattva in the person of the first son of the royal household. They called him Prince Peerless.
When the prince was old enough to run and play about the palace, a second son, Heaven Sent, was born. The two brothers grew and played together, and they were very happy, for there was much to delight them in and around the palace. The years passed, and they grew into tall young men. When Prince Peerless reached the age of maturity, he was sent to the distant city of Takhasila to sit at the feet of a great teacher. Peerless devoted himself to his master, and grew daily in wisdom. In time he had perfected the eighteen accomplishments, and in the art of archery he had no equal.
His education complete, Prince Peerless returned to Benares. There he learned that King Brahmadatta was dying, and that from his deathbed he had declared that Peerless, his first-born, would be made King. But Peerless didn't want to be King, and requested that his younger brother, Heaven Sent, be given the crown instead. And so it was that when Brahmadatta died, his second son took his place on the throne.
Peerless was very happy to see his brother ruling Benares. He himself cared nothing for the glory of kingship and had no desire for worldly things. However, his good qualities soon made some members of the court very jealous, and they began to plot against him. They filled the King's head with lies about Peerless.
"He just pretends to be good," some said. "He doesn't even like you," others whispered. Soon Heaven Sent became convinced that Peerless meant no good and was now secretly after the kingship. Afraid of losing power, he sent soldiers to take his brother prisoner. Fortunately, Peerless had friends in the palace who warned him of the plot, and when the soldiers came for him he was gone. The King ordered a search of the palace and grounds, but by this time Peerless was already far from Benares. He was disappointed with his brother for believing the lies, and, thinking it best to stay away, traveled until he came to a neighboring kingdom. He went immediately to the Royal Palace, where he sent word to the King that an archer had come and wished to enter his service.
'What wages does he ask?" the King inquired.
"A hundred thousand a year," was the reply.
"Good!" said the King, "let him come in."
Peerless came in to the palace and stood before the King.
"Are you the archer?" asked the King.
"I am," answered Peerless.
The King asked a few questions and, satisfied with the answers, said, "Very well, I will take you into my service."
After that, Peerless remained in the service of the King, but the other archers were annoyed and grumbled that a hundred thousand was too much.
It had been the King's custom for many years to take a daily walk in the royal park. The park was filled with fragrant flowers, many little streams and fountains, and trees which bore beautiful and delicious fruits. One day while walking the King stopped to rest near a certain ceremonial stone seat. At his request, a magnificent couch was brought for him to lie on. Happening to look up as he rested, he saw a cluster of ripe mangos at the top of a giant tree. "I'd love to have a mango, but that's too high to climb," he thought. So, summoning his archers, he asked them if they could cut off the cluster with an arrow.
"Certainly, Sire, it is the easiest thing in the world, " they said, "but your Majesty has seen our skill demonstrated many times. Why not let the newcomer try?"
The King could not refuse such a request, so he sent for Peerless. He explained the task and asked Peerless if he was up to the challenge.
"Yes, I will do it with pleasure, your Majesty," replied Peerless, "but only if I may choose my position."
"Of course. What position do you want?"
"The place where your couch stands."
The King ordered the couch moved and Peerless began to prepare himself for the task. Since he carried the pieces of his bow hidden beneath his clothing, he asked the King to have a screen set up so he could change. The screen was brought, and Peerless disappeared behind it. He removed the white cloth which he wore and put on a flowing red robe. He tied a crimson sash around his waist, and over this he fastened his jeweled belt securely. From a bag which had been at his waist he took the pieces of his sword, which he assembled and placed on his left side. Next he put on a mail coat of gold and fastened his bowcase over his back. From the case he took the pieces of his great ramshorn bow and put them together, fixing the bright coral bowstring carefully. Finally, he wound an orange silk turban about his head. Then, twirling an arrow with his fingers, he threw open the screen and came out, looking like a serpent prince emerging from the underworld. Peerless went directly to his chosen place. Setting arrow to bow, he turned to the King and put this question to him:
"Am I to bring this fruit down with an upward shot or by dropping the arrow upon it?"
"My son," said the King, "I have seen a mark brought down by an upward shot many times, but never one taken in the fall. You had better make the shaft fall on it."
"Very well, your Majesty, this arrow will fly up to the Heaven of the Four Great Kings and then return by itself. You must be patient until it returns." The King promised that he would be. Then the archer spoke again. "Your Majesty, this arrow will pierce the stalk exactly in the middle on the way up, and when it comes down, it will not swerve a hair's breadth either to the right or to the left, but hit the very same spot and bring down the cluster."
So saying, Peerless let the arrow fly. As it sped upward, it pierced the exact center of the mango stalk. The archer waited until he knew his arrow had reached the place of the Four Great Kings, then shot another arrow after it at even greater speed than the first. This arrow struck the feather of the first and turned it back, then itself went up as far as the Heaven of the Thirty-three Archangels. There the gods caught and kept it.
The other arrow sounded like a thunderbolt as it cut through the air, and everyone wondered aloud at the noise.
"That is the arrow falling," Peerless told them. Then they were ail frightened for their lives, for fear the arrow would fall on them. Peerless comforted them, promising that the arrow would not hit anyone. And when the arrow came down it did not sway a hair's breadth either way but cut neatly through the stalk of the mango cluster, which the archer caught in one hand as he caught the arrow in the other.
"Never have we seen such a thing before!" cried the onlookers at this marvel. Then there was no end to their praise of the great man. They cheered and clapped and snapped their fingers for joy. They showered Peerless with fine presents, jewels, horses, and gold. The King was especially pleased to have such a master archer at his court. In recognition of Peerless's great skill he gave him special rooms in the palace which opened into a private little park which ran down to the river.
However, in Benares things were not going so well for King Heaven Sent. Knowing that Peerless was far away, seven kings laid siege to the city and demanded that Heaven Sent surrender to them. Heaven Sent was frightened out of his wits, and kept asking, "Where is my brother? Where is Prince Peerless?"
When his courtiers told him that Peerless was in the service of the neighboring king, the King commanded, "Go, fall at his feet and beg him in my name to help us, or I am a dead man."
The messengers traveled with lightning speed to Peerless. As soon as he heard the news, the Prince took leave of his master and returned to Benares. Promising to rid the city of the invaders, Peerless comforted his brother and told him he need fear nothing. He then scratched this message upon an arrow: "1, Prince Peerless, am in Benares. I will shoot only one arrow, but I mean to kill you all with it. Let those who care for their life make their escape."
Peerless shot the arrow so that it fell right in the middle of a golden dish from which the seven kings were eating together. When they read the message on the arrow they all fled, half dead with fright.
So it was that Peerless put to flight all seven without killing so much as a fly. The city of Benares was again safe and at peace. As they rejoiced, a court singer sang this song:
Prince Peerless skilled in archer's craft,
A mighty chief was he;
Swift as lightning sped his shaft,
Great warriors' bane to be.
Among his foes what havoc done!
Yet hurt he not a soul;
He saved his brother,
And he won the grace of self control.