Ancient Sanskrit tale told by the Vedic sages translated, retold and illustrated by U. Mahesh Prabhu
Long ago, in India, there was a very prosperous city called Shravasti. So prosperous was the city that it had not a single beggar. Although basking in affluence – people weren’t particularly happy.
One day a stranger arrived here. He was very weary, yet graceful. It was clear to everyone from his saffron robes that he was a Sadhu – a holy man, a hermit committed to austerities. He appeared to be detached and seemed to crave for no comfort or riches – at least until that point in time.
This sadhu, who wore simple saffron robes, had with him a staff and a bowl to receive offerings from those who were generous enough. His hair and beard were matted together for want of combing and brushing. He walked slowly and painfully through the crowds, till he came to large tree, and there he sat down exhausted, holding out his bowl for the gifts of people.
People of Shravasti were thrilled to have an opportunity to give, they have never had the pleasure of giving alms. So, they were very eager to give him anything of his choice. Sadhu made it clear that he would accept nothing to eat except rice still in the husk and nothing to drink but pure water. He was, however, willing to take money. Soon people brought him a good many silver and gold coins.
Time passed and soon the sadhu became popular among all and sundry in Shravasti. His fame spread far and beyond the city, and people came from far away to seek his blessings and/or advice. As this sadhu was educated and worldly wise – his counsels often helped those in distress or need. Grateful people always paid him handsomely in coins and food. Needless to say – he became rich in due time. So wealthy that he could have done a great deal of good with all this money he had earned by helping the poor and suffering, but unfortunately, he seldom thought of doing anything with it – be that good or bad. Instead, he got to love the money itself. At night or in the afternoon, when all those in the city had gone to bed, and there was no fear of his being found out, he would sneak into the forest, and hide his money inside a deep hole of a great tree.
Whenever he found an opportunity he would visit the place and enjoy the pleasure of looking at his wealth. Every time he visited this tree, he would bend down, clear away the earth of dried leaves, take out the money and let it slip through his fingers, or hold it up to the light, to watch how they gleamed and glistened. This sight gave him unparalleled bliss. In due time he was became a selfish miser. Something a holy man were never to be. Since people of Shravasti were unaware of his greed and miserly conduct – they continued to adore and respect him besides giving him coins and food out of respect.
Many months had passed when on one-day sadhu went to his usual hiding place only to find that someone was there before him. Eagerly he knelt, full of fear of exactly what happened. All his care in concealing the hole had been wasted, for it was quite empty. The sadhu could hardly believe his own eyes. He rubbed them hard, thinking that there was something wrong with what he was seeing. Eventually he realized for sure that his coins were gone without a trace! He began to run from tree to tree, peering into their roots, and when there was nothing to be seen, he rushed back again to his empty hole, to consider it once more. Then he wept and tore at his hair, stamped about and cried aloud to all the gods he believed in, making all kinds of promises, of what he would do if only they would be kind to let him have his treasure back. His plea went unheeded by the gods. It must, he felt sure, have been one among the people of Shravasti; and he now remembered he had noticed that a good many of them had looked at his bowl with longing eyes, when they saw the gold coins in it. “What horrible wicked people they are,” he said to himself. “I hate them. I should curse them all.” The idea of curse got no relief to him, anger only mounted, and he eventually worn out of giving way to his rage.
After roaming about in the forest for a long time, the sadhu went back to his place in Shravasti. Soon he began pouring his grief to the people who had provided him a place to stay. They did all they could to comfort him, telling him that he would very soon have plenty more money. They also told him that it was mean of him to hide away his riches, instead of using them to help the deserving; and this added very much to his rage. At last, he lost all the self-control and cried. “It is not worth for me live even a while longer. I will go to Kashi and there I will starve myself to death.”
The news of sadhu’s loss spread very quickly through Shravasti; and as is so often the case, everyone who told the story made it a little different. So much that it became difficult to know what the actual truth was. There was sense of great distress in town when they realized that sadhu would go away, and they didn’t want him to do that – they adored and loved him for his “holiness” and “wisdom”. They were proud of having a “wise” and “holy” person living amongst them, and ashamed that he should have been robbed whilst he was with them. When they heard that he meant to starve himself to death, they were dreadfully shocked, and were determined to do all they possibly could to prevent it.
One after another of the respected men of Shravasti came to see him, and entreated him not to be in such a hurry to be sure that his treasure would never be found. They said they would all do everything they possibly could to get it back for him. Some of them thought it was very wrong of him to make such a fuss about it, and blamed him for being a miser. They told him it was foolish to care so much for what he could not take with him when he died, and one especially wise old man gave him a long lecture on the wickedness of taking away the life which had been given to him by God to prepare for that in the other world. “Put the idea of starving yourself out of your head,” he said, “and while we are seeking your treasure, go on as you did before you lost it. Next time you have any money and jewels, turn them to good instead of hoarding them up.”
Despite all that things people told him, the sadhu was quite determined that he would not live any longer. He set off to Kashi, taking no notice of anyone he met, but just marching steadily on. At first many people followed him, but by degrees they left off doing so, and soon he was quite alone.
After walking for a few hours, he could not help noticing a man approaching from the direction in which he was going. He was tall, handsome and dignified. His charisma was something none could fail to admire. He was the king of the whole country, whose name was Prasannajeet. Behind him were his counsellors and soldiers – seeming formidable in their profession. Everybody loved this king. He took great interest in his people’s welfare and always wished them well.
The king stood so exactly in the path of the Brahman that it was impossible to pass him without taking any notice of him, and the unhappy man stood still, hanging down his head and looking very miserable. Without waiting for a moment, Prasannajeet asked sadhu as to why he look sad.
Having heard all about the loss of his money, Prasannajeet was very much vexed that such a thing should have happened in his land. He had also heard from his intelligence chief, accompanying him, that the sadhu meant to kill himself, and this distressed the king more than anything else, because he thought it was very wicked and terrible thing to do!
Prasannajeet said to sadhu “Do not grieve any more. I will find your treasure and give it back to you. Should I fail, I will pay you as much as it was worth out of my own coffers; for I cannot bear to think of someone killing oneself for silly reasons like such. Now tell me very carefully where you hid your coins. Make sure you tell me every minute details of this case.”
The sadhu was greatly delighted to have this assurance from the king for he knew well that the king would keep his word. He offered to take him the precise location and explain every intricate detail. The king agreed and observed the scene of theft in great detail.
After the king had seen the big empty hole, and the noticed exactly where it was, and the nearest way to it from the town, he returned to his palace, first telling the sadhu to go back to the place he lived in the city and wait there till he received a message from him. Sadhu agreed. King was glad that sadhu was not going to die.
As soon as Prasannajeet was back to his palace, he pretended to be ill. His head ached badly, he said, and he could not make out what was the matter with him. He sent a proclamation all-round the town, asking all the doctors to come to the palace to diagnose his problem.
All the doctors obeyed he proclamation, each of them hoping that he would be the one to cure the king and hoped to win a great reward. So many were they that the grand reception room was full of them, and they all glared at each other so angrily that the attendants kept careful watch lest they should create a ruckus.
One at a time they were taken to the king’s private room, but very much to their surprise and disappointment he seemed quite well and in no need of help from them. Instead of talking about his own illness, he asked each doctor who his patients were in the town, and what medicines he was giving to them. Once Prasannajeet’s question were answered they were asked to leave.
At last, however, a doctor came, who said something which made the king to engage him longer than he had kept any of the others. This doctor was a very famous healer who saved the lives of many of Prasannajeet’s subjects. He informed the king that a merchant named Matri-Datta was very ill, suffering greatly and that to cure him was prescribed the juice of a certain plant named Nagaballa. When the king learnt about this he summed Matri-Datta to the palace, at once.
Although ill and suffering, Matri-Dutta did not dare disobey the king: so, he rushed at once. As soon as he appeared, Prasannajeet asked first inquired about his health and apologized for having summoned him in his present condition before asking “When your doctor ordered you to take the juice of the Nagaballa plant whom did you send to find it?”
To this Matri-Datta replied trembling with fear “My servant, O king, sought it in the forest; and having found it, brought it to me.”
“Go back and send that servant to me immediately,” ordered the king; and the merchant hurried back home, wondering very much why the king wanted to see his servant.
When Matri-Datta told his servant that he was to go to the palace to see the king, the man was dreadfully frightened, and begged his master not to make him go. This made Matri-Datta more sceptical. “Go at once,” he said, “and whatever you do, speak the truth to the king. That will be your only chance if you have offended him.”
Again, and again the servant entreated Matri-Datta not to insist, and when he found it was no good, he asked him at least to come with him to the palace and plead for him with the king. The merchant knew then for certain that something was seriously wrong, and he consented to go to the palace with his servant, partly out of curiosity and partly out of fear for himself. When the two got to the palace, the attendants at once led the servant to the presence of the king, but they would not let the master go with him.
Directly the servant entered the room and saw the king sitting on his throne, he fell upon his face at the foot of the steps, crying “Mercy! Mercy!” He was right to be afraid, for Prasannajeet said to him in a loud voice “Where are the gold and the jewels you took from the hole in the roots of that tree?” The servant, who really had taken the coins, was terrified when he realized that the king knew the truth. He had not a word to say at first, but just remained lying on the ground, trembling all over. Prasannajeet too was silent, and the attendants waiting for orders behind the throne looked on, wondering what would happen now.
When the silence lasted about ten minutes, the thief raised his head from the ground and looked at the king, who still said not a word. Something in his face however made the wicked servant hope that he would not be punished by death despite the great wrong he had done. The king looked very stern, it is true, but not enraged against him. So, the servant rose to his feet, and clasping his hands together as he held them to Prasannajeet, said in a trembling voice “I will fetch the treasure, I will fetch the treasure.” “Go then at once,” said the king, “and bring it here”: and as he said it, there was a beautiful expression in his eyes, which made the thief sorrier for what he had done that he would have been if Prasannajeet had said “Off with his head!” or had he ordered him to be whipped.
As soon as the king said, “Go at once,” the servant started to his feet and hastened away. He had put it in another hole in the very depths of the same forest; and it was a long time before he got back to the palace with it. The treasure was very heavy. He had thought the king would send some guards with him, to see that he did not run away, and that they would have helped him to carry the sack full of gold and jewels; but nobody followed him.
It was hard work to drag the heavy load all the way alone; but at last, quite late in the evening he was back at the palace gates. The soldiers standing there let him pass without a word, and soon he was once more in the room in which the king had received him. Prasannajeet still sat on his throne, and the attendants still waited behind him, when the thief, so tired he could hardly stand, once more lay prostrate at the bottom of the steps leading up to the throne, with the sack beside him. How his heart did beat as he waited for what the king would say! It seemed a very long time before Prasannajeet spoke, though it was only two or three minutes; and when he did, this is what he said, “Go back to your home now, and don’t take what doesn’t belong to you anymore!”
Very thankfully he nodded, scarcely able to believe that he was free to go and that he was not to be terribly punished. Never again in the rest of his life did he take anything that did not belong to him, and he never tired of telling his children and his friends of the goodness of the king who had forgiven him so gracefully.
The sadhu, who had was full of delight when he heard from king’s guard that it had been found. He hastened to the palace, and was taken before the king, who said to him: “There is your treasure. Take it away, and make a better use of it than before. If you lose it again, I shall not try to recover it for you.”
The sadhu, glad as he was to have his money and jewels restored, did not like to be told by the king to make a better use of them. Besides this he wanted to have the thief punished; and he began talking about that, instead of thanking Prasannajeet and promising to follow his advice. The king looked at him much as he had looked at the thief and said:
“The case is closed as far as I am concerned, now go in peace.”
The sadhu, who was accustomed to being honoured by everyone from the king on his throne to the beggars in the street, was astonished at the way in which Prasannajeet spoke to him. He would have said more, but the king made a sign to his attendants, two of whom dragged the sack to the entrance of the palace and left it there, so that there was nothing for the sadhu to do but to take it away with him.