The Bodhisattva as Solomon
Cambodia

One day there were two women who were arguing over a baby boy. Each of them claimed to have given birth to him, and they cried “He is mine!”

The matter was so serious that it was brought before the Bodhisattva. He considered the case and told the two women to each take one of the child’s hands into their own and then pull the child towards them. Both women did so, each taking one of the child’s hands and pulling as hard as they could. Soon the baby began to scream with pain, at which point of course the true mother immediately let go, since she did not want to see her son in pain. The wise Bodhisattva decreed this woman to be the true mother, since true love forbids causing pain.

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Note: This is a folktale. It is my re-telling, and no one owns the elements which belong to it.
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Commentary

The first thing that I noticed about this story (which is of course not exactly a fairy tale in the strictest sense) is its similarity to a traditional Jewish story about King Solomon. Exactly the same story is told: two women, each who claim to be the mother to a son. The difference between the stories is that Solomon demands the baby be cut in half, decreeing in advance to the women what is going to happen to the baby, instead of making each of them the instrument of that baby’s pain. The Bodhisattva is tricksier, doing active instead of passive teaching.

A Bodhisattva, by the way, is a being who has reached Enlightenment and so could leave the cycle of reincarnation, but chooses to be reincarnated again and again into samsara in order to help others reach Enlightenment. The Dalai Lama is an example of a contemporary Bodhisattva. The Bodhisattva is a common element in many Southeast Asian tales, in which he functions much like Elijah the Prophet does in Jewish folklore; he turns up, surprises people, makes sound judgment and often operates as a deus ex machina.

As a matter of fact, I am fascinated by the parallels between Jewish and Asian folklore, and not just between Elijah, Solomon and the Bodhisattva. They are both often concerned with portrayal of real political struggles in folktale as well. I can’t make much more than a cursory comparison at present, but I do think that the comparison can be made, and I hope I’ll get a chance to compare these two traditions more in the future.