Which is worse, doing something wrong or not doing the right thing when you should? There’s a view to be found in the Miga Jataka, Pali Canon No. 12, which is the story of the noble deer-king of Varanasi.
The Jataka says that the deer-king Nigrodharaja (‘Kingly as the Banyan’) had eyes like gems, silver horns and a giant golden body. His herd numbered 500 and his friend ‘Sakha’ was another equally splendid deer-king who also led a 500-strong herd. Their home was the lush forest around Varanasi and life should have been wonderful except that the then Kashinaresh had a weakness for venison and his hunters had to fetch some for the royal dinner every day.
Tired of the daily scramble through the forest, the hunters banded with the king’s other men and with a terrifying beating of drums, drove both herds into the royal park to be picked off at leisure.
The Kashinaresh was called to admire their work and when he saw the two splendid deer-kings, he said they were not to be touched (some things don’t change: there was a story just the other day in The Bangkok Post about a water buffalo whose beautiful horns saved it from the slaughterhouse). But the other deer were fair game, which meant several deaths daily as the captive deer ran about in terror.
The two deer-kings then decided that their herds would take turns sending a deer a day to the hunters and this rule would be strictly maintained. A sad peace prevailed in the park until one day a pregnant doe from Sakha’s herd who was to go next, pleaded that her turn be postponed until her fawn was born. But Sakha wouldn’t hear of it and so the poor mother went to Nigrodharaja to save her baby.
The hunters were taken aback next day when the great golden deer-king came up docilely to be killed. The king came tearing out of the palace and Nigrodharaja (who was the Bodhisattva) spoke and explained why he had switched places. A long and serious conversation between the killer king and the captive king led to vegetarian promises by the Kashinaresh (we do not know if he kept his word) and freedom for the herds. And so the Bodhisattva by his compassion saved the creatures in the kingdom. Ananda, the Buddha’s good and faithful disciple, was the softie-at-heart Kashinaresh and Devadatta, whom we all knowwas the Buddha’s horrible cousin, was — Sakha.
— Renuka Narayanan writes on religion and culture