At the time of the Buddha there lived a man and woman who had a beautiful daughter named Samavati. They lived in harmony and happiness until the plague broke out in their city. Fearing for their lives, they decided to travel to Kosambi, the capital of Vamsa, where they hoped to seek support from Ghosaka, the Finance Minister of King Udena, who was a family friend.
The municipality had set up a public alms hall to cope with the refugees left homeless as a result of the plague. Samavati went there to obtain food for her parents and herself. On the first day she asked for three portions of food, on the second day she asked for two portions of food, and on the third day she asked for one portion of food.
Mitta, the man who was distributing the food, asked her sarcastically if she had finally realized the capacity of her stomach. Samavati replied quite calmly that on the first day there were three of them for whom she was taking food. Then her father succumbed to the plague and died. On the second day she was bringing food for her mother and herself. Then her mother succumbed to the plague and died. And so, today, she only needed one portion of food.
Mitta felt badly about his sarcasm and thoughtless remark. He offered to adopt Samavati as his foster child. Samavati agreed. She then joined her foster father in helping in the distribution of alms. Before long Samavati, who was very capable and intelligent, had organized the chaotic and noisy alms hall into an orderly, well-run operation. So much so that Ghosaka, the Finance Minister, was surprised at the change and complimented Mitta on his organization. Mitta modestly gave the credit to his adopted daughter and introduced Ghosaka to Samavati.
When Ghosaka found out that Samavati was his departed friend’s daughter he decided to adopt her and bring her up as his own. Even though Mitta loved her dearly and did not want to lose his foster daughter he realized that she would have many luxuries as the Finance Minister’s daughter that he could not possibly afford. Not wanting to stand in the way of Samavati’s good fortune, he agreed. As Ghosaka’s daughter, Samavati became heiress to a large fortune and moved among the nobility.
The king of Kosambi, King Udena, had two beautiful consorts. He had married the first, Queen Vasuladatta, for political reasons, and his second queen, Magandiya, for her intelligence. Neither of his consorts, however, provided him with the love, compassion and gentleness that he wanted from a wife. In fact, if anything Magandiya was rather cold, self-centred and harsh.
One day the King saw the beautiful, gentle and compassionate Samavati. Captivated by her beauty and gentleness, he decided to have her as his third consort. Ghosaka, who loved his adopted daughter dearly and knew the temperament of the king, refused. King Udena was furious. He dismissed Ghosaka from his position as Finance Minister and confiscated his mansion.
Samavati was desolate at the misfortune that her adopted father had to face on her behalf. Even though she did not want to marry the king she agreed to his proposal providing that Ghosaka was reinstated and given back his mansion. The King agreed. Samavati soon became the King’s favourite consort.
In keeping with her position, Samavati had a large retinue of servants who took care of her every wish. Among them was a servant named Khujjuttara. Each day the queen gave Khujjuttara eight gold coins to buy flowers. Each day Khujjuttara pocketed four of the gold coins and bought flowers with the remainder. One day when she went to buy flowers the florist informed her that he had invited the Buddha and His monks for alms and asked her if she would like to stay and participate.
Khujjuttara agreed. She stayed on to help and after the meal listened attentively to the Buddha’s discourse. Khujjuttara was transformed by the Buddha’s teaching. She had a keen mind developed over countless years. By the end of the discourse she attained the first stage of sainthood, Sotapanna. Regretting her former deceit, Khujjuttara bought eight gold coins’ worth of flowers for the queen.
The moment Queen Samavati saw Khujjuttara she noticed a difference. Khujjuttara looked serene and exuded an inner radiance. She was also perplexed as to why there was double the quantity of flowers. The queen questioned Khujjuttara about her transformation and the extra flowers. Khujjuttara confessed the truth and her previous deceit and begged for forgiveness. She then informed the queen about the discourse of the Buddha that had changed her life.
Impressed by Khujjuttara’s inner transformation the queen decided to find out more about the Buddha and His teachings. She appointed Khujjuttara as her personal attendant and requested her to visit the monastery every day. She instructed her to listen to the Dhamma and come back and teach what she had learned to the queen and her court.
Khujjuttara, who had an outstanding memory, repeated the Buddha’s teaching word for word. The queen and her ladies were inspired by the Dhamma and Kujjuatara’s gift to them. Placing her on a higher chair and themselves seated on lower seats, they listened to her with respect and gratitude.
Queen Samavati, who was totally inspired by the Dhamma, asked the king’s permission to invite the Buddha and His disciples to the palace for their daily meals. Unable to attend Himself, the Buddha sent ananda as His representative to the palace. Each day (whilst the Buddha was in residence in Kosambi), ananda accepted his noonday meal from Queen Samavati and taught her and the ladies of her court the Dhamma. Before long Queen Samavati attained the first stage of sainthood, Sotapanna. Many of the ladies of the court also attained higher stages of sainthood. Her foster father, Ghosaka, embraced the doctrine and built a large monastery in Kosambi named Ghositarama for the Buddha and His retinue.
Queen Samavati continued to grow in the Dhamma. Her most outstanding trait was her immense love and compassion for all living beings. Samavati was the embodiment of compassion and loving-kindness and radiated it to all with whom she came in contact.
However, the Queen’s popularity and the fact that she was undoubtedly King Udaya’s favourite did not please Queen Magandiya. She had accepted Samavati as it was common practice for the King to have more than one consort. But she could not accept Samavati’s veneration of the Buddha and the Dhamma.
As a young girl Magandiya had been exceptionally beautiful. Her parents when looking for a suitable partner for her had looked for an exceptionally handsome and cultured man. One day the Buddha had visited their house in seek of alms. Not recognizing the Buddha, but pleased with his deportment and countenance, they had offered Magandiya in marriage to Him. The Buddha had refused the offer and dispensed a sutta on impermanence and the loathsomeness of the body for which He had no desire. Magandiya, however, who was vain and proud of her beauty, took His discourse personally and felt slighted at being refused. Seeing Samavati venerate the Buddha who she felt had slighted her made her remember the old wounds. She decided to focus her anger and jealousy on Samavati. She tried many times to break the faith and love that King Udena had for Samavati by making false accusations. But Samavati remained calm and full of compassion and loving-kindness. Nothing that Magandiya did changed the strong love that the king had for his favourite queen.
In desperation Magandiya decided to kill the queen. With the help of some greedy relatives she planned to set fire to her quarters on a day when she herself was away from the city. Magandiya was aware of the king’s wrath and wanted to ensure that no blame could possibly be directed at her. Queen Samavati and the majority of her court perished in the fire. The queen, however, remained to the end full of compassion and loving-kindness. She encouraged her ladies, who were engulfed by flames, to concentrate and abide in the Dhamma by saying:
"It would not be an easy matter,
Even with the knowledge of the Buddha,
To determine exactly the number of times
Our bodies have thus been burnt by fire
As we have passed from birth to birth
In the beginning-less round of existence.
Therefore be heedful."
Inspired by her words the ladies of the court meditated and achieved mental development so that at death all among them had entered the various stages of sainthood.
On hearing the sad news the monks questioned the Buddha as to the place of rebirth of the queen and her ladies and the cause of their tragic death. The Buddha then informed them that all of the ladies had reached either the first, second or third stage of sainthood and as such were reborn in the Deva and Brahma Realms from which they would in due course attain Arahanthship.
He then went on to explain that in a previous birth Samavati had been born as Queen of Benares and had gone to the river to bathe with her ladies. Feeling cold, she had instructed her maids to set the bushes that surrounded them on fire. Too late they had realized that a Pacceka Buddha was meditating there, hidden from view among the bushes. Afraid that she would be admonished for her careless act if the Pacceka Buddha lived to tell His story, she had instructed her maids to pour oil over Him in the hope of killing Him. They had not succeeded in killing the Pacceka Buddha, but the premeditated murder had resulted in Samavati’s and her ladies’ present demise.
Despite Magandiya’s devious plan the king realized that she had instigated Samavati’s murder. Maddened by his grief he instructed Magandiya and her relatives to be tortured and burned to death as punishment. Later the king regretted his revenge. He kept seeing the compassionate Samavati and felt that he was even more distanced from her due to his act of revenge than resulted from her death. He embraced the teachings of the Buddha that had transformed Samavati and became one of his royal patrons. The Buddha declared Samavati to be foremost among the female lay disciples who practised loving-kindness.