The following story is a part of upcoming book TIMELESS TALES OF A WISE SAGE by U. Mahesh Prabhu with illustrations from Shantheri Bhat.
All who live upon their wits,
Many learned, too, are mean,
Do the wrong as quick as right:
Illustration may be seen
In the well-known tale that features
Camel, crow, and other creatures.”
In a certain city, long ago, there lived a merchant who once loaded a hundred camels with valuable cloth and set out in a certain direction. Now, one of his camels was overburdened and fell limp, with every limb relaxed. Then, the merchant divided the pack of cloth, loaded it on other camels and, because he found himself in a wild forest region where delay was impossible, he proceeded, leaving the wounded camel behind.
When the trader was gone, the wounded camel hobbled about and began to crop the grass. Thus, in a very few days, the poor camel regained his strength.
In that forest lived a lion, who had as hangers-on a leopard, a crow, and a jackal. As they roamed the forest, they encountered the abandoned camel, and the lion said, after observing his fantastic and comical shape, “This is an exotic in our forest. Ask him what he is.” So the crow informed himself of the facts and said, “This is what goes by the name of camel in the world.” Thereupon the lion asked him, “My good friend, where did you come from?” And the camel gave precise details of his separation from the trader, so that the lion experienced compassion and guaranteed his personal security.
One day, the lion fought an elephant and received severe injuries. He was, then, limited to his cave. And when five or six days had passed, they all found themselves in urgent distress from the failure of food. So the lion, observing how they drooped, said to them, “I am crippled by this wound and cannot supply you with the usual food. You will just have to make an effort on your own account.”
And they replied, “Why should we care to thrive, while our lord and king is in this state?” “Bravo!” said the lion “You show the conduct and devotion as good servants. Round up some food-animal for me while I am in this condition.” Then, when they made no answer, he said to them, “Come! Do not be bashful. Hunt up some creature. Even in my present condition, I will convert it into food for you and myself.”
So, the four started to roam the woods. Since they found no food-animal, the crow and the jackal conferred together, and the jackal said “Friend crow, why roam about? Here is this camel, who trusts our king. Let us provide for our sustenance by killing him.”
“A very good suggestion,” said the crow. “But after all, the master guaranteed his personal security, and so cannot kill him.”
“That’s true,” said the jackal “I will interview the master and make him privy to killing this camel. Stay right here until I go home and return with the master’s answer.” With this, he hastened to the master.
When he found the lion, he said “Master, we have roamed the entire forest, and are now too famished to stir a foot. Besides, the king is on a diet. So, if the king commands, one might fortify one’s health today by means of camel’s flesh.”
When the lion had listened to this ruthless proposal, he cried out angrily, “Shame upon you, most degraded sinners! The moment you repeat those words, I will strike you dead. Why, I guaranteed his personal security! How can I kill him with my own paw? You have heard the saying:
The wise declare and understand
No gift of cow or food or land
To be among all gifts as grand
As safety granted on demand.”
“Master,” replied the jackal, “if you kill him after guaranteeing his safety, then you are indeed blameworthy. If, however, of his own accord, he devotedly offers his own life to his lord and king, then no blame attaches. So you may kill him on condition that he voluntarily destines himself to slaughter. Otherwise, pray eat one or another of the rest of us. For the king is on famished, and if food fails, he will experience a change for the worse. In that case, what value have these lives of ours, which will no longer be spent in our master’s service? If anything disagreeable happens to our gracious master, then we must follow him into the fire. For the Neeti says:
Save the chieftain of the clan,
Whatsoever the pain;
Lose him, and the clan is lost:
Hub-less spokes are vain.”
After listening to this, the lion said, “Very well. Do as you will.”
With this message, the jackal hastened to say to the others: “Well, friends, the master is very low. The life is oozing from the tip of his nose. If he goes, who will be our protector in the forest? So, since starvation is driving him toward the other world, let us go and voluntarily offer our own bodies. Thus, we shall pay the debt we owe our gracious master. And the Neeti says:
Servants, when disaster
Comes upon their master,
If alive and well,
Tread the road to hell.
So they all went, their eyes brimming with tears, bowed low before the lion and sat down.
On seeing them, lion said, “My friends, did you catch any creature, or see any?” And the crow replied “Master, though we roamed everywhere, we still did not catch any creature, nor see any. Master, pray eat me and support your life for a day. Thus the master will be replete, while I shall rise to heaven. For the saying goes:
A servant who, in loyal love,
Has yielded up his breath,
Adorns a lofty seat in heaven,
Secure from age and death.”
On hearing this, the jackal said, “Your body is small. If he ate you, the master would scarcely prolong his life. Besides, there is a moral objection. For the verse tells us:
Crow’s flesh and such small leaving
Are things to be passed by:
Why eat an evil somewhat
That does not satisfy?
“You have shown your loyalty, and have won a saintly reputation in both worlds. Now make way, while I address the master.” So the jackal bowed respectfully and said, “Master, pray use my body to support your life today, thus conferring on me the best of earth and heaven. For the Neeti says:
Since servants’ lives on masters hang
In forfeit for their pay,
The master perpetrates no sin
In taking them away.”
Hearing this, the leopard said, “Very praise worthy, indeed, my friend. However, your body is rather small, too. Besides, he is better by not eating you, since you belong to the same carnivore family. You know the Neeti:
The prudent, though with life at stake,
Avoid forbidden food,
(Too small at that) – from fear to lose
Both earth’s and heaven’s good.
Well, you have shown yourself a loyal servant. There is truth in the stanza:
That swarms of gentlemen delight
A monarch, is not strange,
Since, first and last and time between,
Their honor does not change.
Make way, then, so that I, too, may win the master’s grace.”
Thereupon, the leopard bowed low and said, “Master, pray prolong your life for a day at the cost of my own life. Grant me and everlasting home in the heaven, and spread my fame afar on earth. Pray show no hesitation. For the Neeti says:
A servant who, by loyal love,
Has demonstrated worth,
Attains a lasting home above
And glory on the earth.”
Hearing this, poor camel thought, “Well, they used the most elegant phrases. Yet the master did not kill a single one of them. So I, too, will make a speech befitting the occasion. I have no doubt that all three will contradict me.”
Having come to this conclusion, he said, “Very admirable, friend leopard. But you too are a carnivore. How, then, can the master eat you? There is a Neeti to fit the case:
The mere imagining of wrongs
To kinsmen done, confirms
The loss of earth and heaven. Such rogues
Turn into unclean worms.
Make way, then, so that I, too may address the master.”
So poor camel stood in presence, bowed low and said, “Master, these you surely may not eat. Pray prolong your life by means of my life, so that I may win the best of earth and heaven. For the Neeti says:
No sacrifice and no saint
Can ever rise as high
As do the simple serving folk
Who for the master die.”
Hereupon the lion gave the word, the leopard and the jackal tore his body, the crow pecked out his eyes, poor camel yielded up and all the others ravenously devoured him.
“And this is why I say:
All who live upon their wits…