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Book 3. Crows and Owls

The Frogs That Rode Snakeback

There was once an elderly black snake in a certain spot, and his name was Slow-Poison. He considered the situation from this point of view: "How in the world can I get along without overtaxing my energies?" Then he went to a pond containing many frogs, and behaved as if very dejected.

As he waited thus, a frog came to the edge of the water and asked: "Uncle, why don't you bustle about today for food as usual?"

"My dear friend," said Slow-Poison, "I am afflicted. Why should I wish for food? For this evening, as I was bustling about for food, I saw a frog and made ready to catch him. But he saw me and, fearing death, he escaped among some Brahmans intent upon holy recitation, nor did I perceive which way he went. But in the water at the edge of the pond was the great toe of a Brahman boy, and stupidly deceived by its resemblance to a frog, I bit it, and the boy died immediately. Then the sorrowing father cursed me [369} in these terms: 'Monster! Since you bit my harmless son, you shall for this sin become a vehicle for frogs, and shall subsist on whatever they choose to allow you.' Consequently, I have come here to serve as your vehicle."

Now the frog reported this to all the others. And every last one of them, in extreme delight, went and reported to the frog-king, whose name was Water-Foot. He in turn, accompanied by his counsellors, rose hurriedly from the pond for he thought it an extraordinary occurrence - and climbed upon Slow-Poison's hood. The others also, in order of age, climbed on his back. Yet others, finding no vacant spot, hopped along behind the snake. Now Slow-Poison, with an eye to making his living, showed them fancy turns in great variety. And Water-Foot, enjoying contact with his body, said to him:

I'd rather ride Slow-Poison than

The finest horse I've seen,

Or elephant, or chariot,

Or man-borne palanquin.

The next day, Slow-Poison was wily enough to move very slowly. So Water-Foot said: "My dear Slow-Poison, why don't you carry us nicely, as you did before?"

And Slow-Poison said: "O King, I have no carrying power today because of lack of food."

"My dear fellow," said the king, "eat the plebeian frogs."

When Slow-Poison heard this, he quivered with [370} joy in every member and made haste to say: "Why, that is a part of the curse laid on me by the Brahman. For that reason I am greatly pleased at your command." So he ate frogs uninterruptedly, and in a very few days he grew strong. And with delight and inner laughter he said:

The trick was good. All sorts of frogs

Within my power have passed.

The only question that remains,

Is: How long will they last?

Water-Foot, for his part, was befooled by Slow-Poison's plausibilities, and did not notice a thing.

At this moment another black snake, a tremendous fellow, arrived on the scene. And being amazed at the sight of Slow-Poison used as a vehicle by frogs, he said: "Partner, they are our natural food, yet they use you as a vehicle. This is repellent."

And Slow-Poison said:

I know I should not carry frogs;

I have it well in mind;

But I am marking time, as did

The Brahman butter-blind.

"How was that?" asked the snake. And Slow-Poison told the story of

The Butter-blinded Brahman

There was once a Brahman named Theodore in a certain town. His wife, being unchaste and a pursuer of other men, was forever making cakes with [371} sugar and butter for a lover, and so cheating her husband.

Now one day her husband saw her and said: "My dear wife, what are you cooking? And where are you forever carrying cakes? Tell the truth."

But her impudence was equal to the occasion, and she lied to her husband: "There is a shrine of the blessèd goddess not far from here. There I have undertaken a fasting ceremony, and I take an offering, including the most delicious dishes." Then she took the cakes before his very eyes and started for the shrine of the goddess, imagining that after her statement, her husband would believe it was for the goddess that his wife was daily providing delicious dishes. Having reached the shrine, she went down to the river to perform the ceremonial bath.

Meanwhile her husband arrived by another road and hid behind the statue of the goddess. And his wife entered the shrine after her bath, performed the various rites - laving, anointing, giving incense, making an offering, and so on - bowed before the goddess, and prayed: "O blessèd one, how may my husband be made blind?"

Then the Brahman behind the goddess' back spoke, disguising his natural tone: "If you never stop giving him such food as butter and butter-cakes, then he will presently go blind."

Now that loose female, deceived by the plausible revelation, gave the Brahman just that kind of food [372} every day. One day the Brahman said: "My dear, I don't see very well."

And she thought: "Thank the goddess."

Then the favoured lover thought: "The Brahman has gone blind. What can he do to me?" Whereupon he came daily to the house without hesitation. But at last the Brahman caught him as he entered, seized him by the hair, and clubbed and kicked him to such effect that he died. He also cut off his wicked wife's nose, and dismissed her.

"And that is why I say:

I know I should not carry frogs . . .

and the rest of it."

Then Slow-Poison, with noiseless laughter, hummed over the verse:

The trick was good. All sorts of frogs . . .

and the rest of it. And Water-Foot, hearing this, was conscience stricken, and wondering what he meant, inquired: "My dear sir, what do you mean by reciting that repulsive verse?"

"Nothing at all," said Slow-Poison, desiring to mask his purpose. And Water-Foot, fooled by his plausible manner, failed to perceive his treachery.

Why spin it out? He ate them all so completely that not even frog-seed was left.

"And that is why I say:

Bear even foes upon your back, . . . [373}

and the rest of it. Thus, O King, just as Slow-Poison destroyed the frogs through the power of intelligence, so did I destroy all the enemy. There is much wisdom in this:

The forest-fire leaves roots entire,

Though trunks remain a shell;

The flooding pool of water cool

Uproots the roots as well."

"Very true," said Cloudy. "And besides:

This is the greatness of the great

Whom gems of wisdom decorate;

Despite what hurts and hinders, too,

They see an undertaking through."

"Very true," said Live-Strong. "And once again:

The final penny of a debt,

The final foeman dire,

The final twinges of disease,

The final spark of fire -

Finality on these imposed

Leaves nothing to desire.

"O King, you are truly fortunate. For your undertaking has had final success. Indeed, valour is not sufficient to end a matter. Victory is wisdom's business. As the proverb says:

'It's not the sword destroys a foe,

'It's wit that utterly lays low:

Swords kill the body; wit destroys

Fame, family, and regal joys. [374}

"Thus, success comes with minimum effort to a man of wisdom and manliness. For

Wisdom broods over the inception;

Memory does not fail;

Means appear to predilection;

Counsels wise prevail;

Sparkles fruitful meditation;

Mind attains its height;

Joy achieves its consummation

In a worthy fight.

"Thus kingship belongs to the man possessing prudence, capacity for self-sacrifice, and courage. As the verse puts it:

Associate in full delight

With someone who is wise,

Self-sacrificing, brave; thereby

Win virtue as a prize;

On virtue follows money; and

qOn money follows fame;

Then, personal authority;

qAnd then, the kingly name."

And Cloudy replied: "It is wonderful how immediate is the reward of knowing social ethics. By virtue of which you penetrated and exterminated Foe-Crusher with his retinue." Whereupon Live-Strong said:

"Where at last you need sharp measures,

First try gentle measures there:

Thus the lofty, lordly tree-trunk

Is not felled without a prayer. [375}

"And yet, O my king, why say of a future matter either that it involves no effort or that it is not readily attainable? There is wisdom in the saying:

Since words with actions fail to suit,

The timidly irresolute

Who see a thousand checks and blocks

Turn into public laughingstocks.

Nor are thoughtful men heedless even in minor matters. For

The negligent who say:

'Some day, some other day -

The thing is petty, small;

Demands no thought at all,'

Are, heedless, headed straight

For that repentant state

That ever comes too late.

"But as for my master, who has overcome his foes, he may sleep tonight as soundly as ever he did. You know the saying:

In houses where no snakes are found,

One sleeps; or where the snakes are bound:

But perfect rest is hard to win

With serpents bobbing out and in.

"And again:

A noble purpose to attain

Desiderates extended pain,

Asks man's full greatness, pluck, and care,

And loved ones aiding with a prayer.

Yet if it climb to heart's desire,

What man of pride and fighting fire, [376}

Of passion, and of self-esteem

Can bear the unaccomplished dream?

His heart indignantly is bent

(Through its achievement) on content.

"Therefore my heart is at peace. For I saw the undertaking through. Therefore may you now long enjoy this kingdom without a thorn - intent on the safeguarding of your people - your royal umbrella, throne, and glory unshaken through the long succession of son, grandson, and beyond. Remember:

A king should bring his people ease,

But he should also aim to please;

His reign is else of little note,

A neck-teat on a female goat.

And once again:

Love of virtue, scorn of vice,

Wisdom - make a kingdom's price.

Then is Glory proud as slave,

Then her plumes and pennons brave

Near the white umbrella wave.

"Nor must you, in the thought, 'My kingdom is won,' shatter your soul with the intoxication of glory. And this because the power of kings is a thing uncertain. Kingly glory is hard to climb as a bamboo-stem; hard to hold, being ready to tumble in a moment, with whatever effort it be held upright; even though conciliated, yet sure to slip away at last; fidgety as the bandar-log; unequilibrated as water on a lotus-leaf; mutable as the wind's path; untrustworthy as rogues' friendship; hard to tame as a [377} serpent; gleaming but a moment like a strip of evening cloud; fragile by nature, like the bubbles on water; ungrateful as the substance of man's body; lost in the moment of attainment, like the treasure of a dream. And furthermore:

Whenever kings anointed are,

Let wit spy trouble from afar;

Anointing-jars too often spill,

With holy water, pending ill.

"And no man in the wide world is beyond the clutch of pending ill. As the poet sings:

Remember Rama, wandering far;

Remember Nala's sinking star;

With Bali's bonds, the Vrishnis' tomb,

And Lanka's monster-monarch's doom;

The Pandus' forest-borne disaster,

And knightly Arjun, dancing-master.

Time brings us woe in countless shapes.

What saviour is there? Who escapes?

Ah, where is Dasharath, who rose to heaven

And dwelt its king beside?

Ah, where King Sagar, he to whom It was given

To bind the ocean's tide?

Where arm-born Prithu? Where is Manu gone,

Sun-child (yet suns still rise)?

Imperious Time awakened them at dawn,

At evening closed their eyes.

And again:

Where is Mandhatar, conqueror supreme?

Where Satyavrat, the king?

God-ruling Nahush? Keshav, ever the gleam

Of science following? [378}

They and their lordly elephants, I ween,

Their cars, their heavenly throne,

By lofty Time conferred, in Time were seen,

And lost through Time alone.

And yet again:

The king, his counsellors,

His maidens gay,

His golden groves, Fate stings.

They sink away.

"Thus, having won kingly glory, quivering like the ear of a rogue elephant, take delight in her, but trust in wisdom only."

Here ends Book 3, called "Crows and Owls," which treats of peace, war, and the other four expedients. The first verse runs:

Reconciled although he be,

Never trust an enemy.

For the cave of owls was burned,

When the crows with fire returned.


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