There was a famine in the city of Utpalavati. The fields were withered, the store-rooms empty, and the cows were "thinned by death" and the people were starving.
Rupavati, a beautiful woman, seemingly unaffected by the famine, goes for a walk during these terrible times. On her walk, she encounters a woman who has just given birth to adorable baby boy. Because of the famine and the difficulties of the boys childbirth, the woman has become crazed with hunger. Rupavati can see she is about to eat her own son to assuage herself
Rupavati attempts to convince the woman to eat something else in the house instead of her son but the woman retorts that there is nothing else to eat. Rupavati asks the woman to wait a bit and she will bring food back to her to eat. But, the woman is too far gone, she says "My belly has wasted away, the earth seems to spit open before me, my heart is on fire, and the world seems dark to me. No sooner will you go out from this doorway than my vital breaths will rise out of me."
Rupavati decides to cut off her own breasts to feed the mother. She asks the starving woman for a weapon and uses that for her self amputation. Once the woman has eaten enough to calm down Rupavati says "Sister, be informed that I have purchased your son with my own flesh and blood. I am leaving him with you in truth. By no means may you eat your son while I go back to my house to bring you some food."
Rupavati goes home to get more food for the starving woman as promised. She tells her husband what happens when she enters the house bloody and mutilated. She asks her husband to prepare some food for the woman. He tells her to prepare the food herself, he will speak some words of truth which go like this;
"Good wife, a marvelous deed such as this has never been seen or heard of anywhere before. By these true words of truth, may both of your breasts appear as they were before!" As soon as such an expression of truth has been made by her husband, Rupavati breasts are restored.
Seeing what has happened, the God Sakra decides to come to test Rupavati and see if she is truly virtous. He comes to her house and begs for food. He then asks her questions, many questions about her sacrifice. Pleased with her answers and he gives her a boon, he makes her male, and makes her a prince, Prince Rupavata.
Prince Rupavata later becomes King Rupavata the new king of Utpalavati after the former king dies and leaves no heirs. He rules for sixty years before he dies.
He is reborn as a merchants son, Candraprabha, who feeds more hungry beings with his body. Candraprabha is reborn as a son of a Brahmin named Brahmaprabha, who gives his body to a starving tigress who is about to devour he cubs.
Rupavati, Candraprabha and Brahmaprabha are identified as a past lives of Buddha. The starving woman's son is a past life of Buddha's son Rahula.
The things that bother me about the story are the boon that a woman becomes a man, meaning it is more desirable to be male than female. I read that there are other stories where woman who to become men to be true boddhisatvas. And that one of the thirty-two marks of buddhahood is a sheath on one's penis, therefore, a woman would have to become male to become a Buddha.
The cutting off of the breasts seems to be an act conceived in the sadist male mind. I think of the Christian Saint Agatha who is often depicted with two loaves of bread as symbols of her mutilated breasts.
It also is interesting to me that it is so hard to find a Jataka tale where the Buddha is a woman. This is the only one I have found so far. I want to thank Reiko Ohnuma and his/her article "The Story of Rupavati: A Female Past Birth of the Buddha." Without this article I would know nothing of Rupavati. All my quotes are taken from the article which appears in Volume 23 of the Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies in 2000.