The Panchatantra – Story 58


There were once in Ujjain four Brahmin boys who were intimate friends. They said to one another, ‘Let us go abroad and become learned/ They accordingly went to a celebrated teacher in Kanauj and studied very hard under him for twelve years(In ancient India the usual period for graduation was twelve years, but many earnest scholars continued their studies for another twelve or twenty-four years). At the and of this period they became consummate scholars. They took leave of their teacher and started back for Ujjain with their books. They resolved to take a different route from the one they had taken when going to Kanauj. Their idea in doing this was to see new towns and villages and also to prove their ability to travel by an utterly strange route. 

When they had gone some considerable distance they came to a bifurcation of the road. They were perplexed as to which route to take. One of them said, ‘Now the problem is which route is to be followed by us. My book says, “The difference between a learned man and a fool is that the former will never need to ask another about his course of action as his learning will enable him to solve all problems of life. The fool is always depending on the advice and help of another. “So it is out of the question to ask anybody about the correct route. We ourselves must decide it.’ The four sat down at the forking of the road and opened their books(Books were literally the guides, philosophers and friends of the ancient Indian Pandit, and their contents were gospel truths to him. For everything on earth, heaven and hell he consulted them and went by them). 

Just then a funeral procession with the corpse of a dead merchant went along one of the two roads as it led to the burning ground. At once one of the learned men looked into his book and said, ‘The problem is solved. My book says, “One should in cases of doubt adopt the course adopted by the many. “So, we have perforce to follow the route taken by these numerous persons.’ The other three roared with delight at this easy solution and followed the road taken by the funeral procession whiling away their time with many beautiful couplets praising the advantages of learning and the helplessness of the unlearned. The road abruptly stopped at the burning ground. The learned men stood at some distance from the funeral pyre and considered what they should do next. 

They saw an ass also standing there. ‘Ah, this must mean something’ said one of them’. ‘What does this ass’s standing by us on this burning ground show?’ At once another consulted his book and said, ‘I have it. It shows that this ass is our friend. It is written here, “He who stands by one in sickness, in adversity, in a famine, in a war, in the court of the King, and? in the burning ground is a friend(Most friends intrigue against each other in the Courts of Kings. Such are not real friends. That is one meaning. Another is that a friend should stand by one even when summoned by the King for being tried and punished). This ass stands by us in a burning ground. So he is assuredly our friend. Let us therefore give him the greetings due to a friend.’ So, one clung to the ass’s neck in fervid embrace, another kissed the ass, a third washed his feet, and a fourth shed tears of joy at meeting him after such long separation and enquired about his health and why he had not been seen for such a long time The astounded mourners saw all this and laughed heartily even in their sorrow. 

Soon, a camel which had broken loose from its owner when about to be harnessed came gallopping along to the cremation ground’. ‘What does this signify?’ asked one of the learned men. Another referred to his book and said, ‘It is written here, “Virtue gallops along(The meaning is that virtue is never calculating or halting but always swift in execution and that it gallops with one to Heaven)”, ‘So this animal must be Virtue as it is galloping’. At this a third learned man referred to his book and said, ‘My book says, “Yoke what is beloved unto you with Virtue and see that they always march together(The meaning is ‘always see that what you like goes hand in hand with virtue and never part company with it’)”. ‘So we must yoke this camel, which is Virtue personified, with this ass which is beloved unto us owing to its being our friend.’ The four then took a piece of rope and, after heroic efforts, tied the struggling camel and ass together, receiving many kicks from the animals and the jeers of the mob in the process. 

Then the learned men tried to march them together. The animals, not being accustomed to this novel method of progression, refused to move. This did not surprise their tormentors. It is said in my book,’ said one of them ‘that it is the most difficult thing in the world to make what is beloved unto us march along with virtue. Our teacher said that we have to force them to do so, Let us therefore give good blows to this ass and make it march with Virtue.’ They then beat the ass with a stout stick and it filled the place with its brayings. The camel too belowed in its fright, and both the animals were confusedly going round and round while the blows increased as the learned men wanted them to keep to a straight course. The washerman who owned the ass and the merchant who owned the camel both rushed to the spot on hearing the cries of their animals and the deafening din of the assembled crowd. Seeing the real situation, they both took stout cudgels and beat the learned men for their so horribly ill-treating their animals. 

The learned men ran away at great speed to escape more beating and halted only when they were free from all danger of pursuit. ‘What did those two fellows mean by beating us ?’ asked one when they had all halted to take breath. Another referred to his book and said. ‘My book says, “A fool cannot see the wisdom of a sensible act. “That is the reason. How could those fools understand the wisdom of making what is beloved unto us march hand in hand with virtue ? Indeed, I doubt whether they even knew the ass to be our friend and the camel to be the personification of virtue. To their prosaic eyes, they were only an ordinary ass and camel and we but ordinary men. Oh, when will all these unlearned masses get the light of knowledge and see things in other than their vulgar aspects?’ The others agreed with this masterly diagnosis. 

Presently, a farmer passed them in the opposite direction. He asked them, ‘Why were you running so fast One of the learned men referred to his book and said, It is written here “A learned man cannot run fast enough from fools”. We were pursued by some fools, and we are all learned men. So we ran at top speed though I am afraid we neither began at the correct moment nor reached the requisite standard’. The farmer went away bewildered. When the four had proceeded some more distance, they saw a river with deep water and innumerable reeds. The problem was how to cross this river as there was no boat. One of the learned men referred to his book and said, ‘Thank God, this problem can be easily solved. It is written here, “A wise man knows how to ferry himself across.’ 

Saying this, he jumped among the reeds in order to pluck one of them. He got caught among the reeds and the deep mud and water and could not extricate himself. Only his head was just above the water level. His friends were unable to pull him out. One of them referred to his book and said, ‘It is written here “When the whole is about to be lost, a wise man forsakes one half in order to save the other half. With one half he can somehow accomplish his object. He will be helpless if the whole is lost. “Our friend is about to be entirely lost to us. I shall save at least half of him’ With this, he took his big knife and cut off his friend’s head. When he had the head secure in his hands, he found that it could not speak or walk or do anything with at least half the ability of his friend as he had expected. ‘What is this due to?’ said he in bewilderment. One of his- friends referred to his book and said, ‘My book says, “Some things should be left to themselves till a use is found for them”. This is evidently one of those things. So let us leave it here and come for it. when we have a use for it.’ So the three left the head on the river bank and, frustrated in their attempts to cross the river, went in another direction and reached a village. 

Each of the learned men was invited by a different villager to his house for meals. One was given by his host shredded rice(The shredded rice will be, of course, long, crooked, intricate and twisted) done in ghee. The learned man looked up his book add said, ‘It is written here “Intricate, crooked and twisted things lead one to ruin.”So I will have none of this’ and ran away without eating anything. The second learned man was given by his host some pancakes. He referred to his book and said, ‘ It is written here “A wise man should have nothing to do with shallow things having no depth”So I will not have anything to do with these’ and went away dinner-less. The third learned man was given by his host vatikas(These are little round cakes made of blackgram and rice and with holes in the middle). He looked up his book and said, ‘ It is written here “Gaps and holes bring about calamities”. So I do not want any of these’ and went away without eating a bit. The story spread in the village rapidly, and soon a crowd of men, women and children followed the three learned men, jeering land hooting and laughing. Thus the learned men, who had been received with respect, were sent out with jeers, all because they lacked the saving grace of commonsense. 

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