Panchatantra: The Duel between Elephant and Sparrow

There are actually two different kinds of fever that can afflict elephants: male elephants can suffer from musth (an intense rise in testosterone levels but not related to mating), while the rut happens during the mating season when the female elephants are sexually receptive.

[Notes by LKG]

This story is part of the Panchatantra unit. Story source: The Panchatantra of Vishnu Sharma, translated by Arthur W. Ryder (1925).

The Duel between Elephant and Sparrow
(inside the story of The Plover)

In a dense bit of jungle lived a sparrow and his wife, who had built their nest on the branch of a tamal tree, and in course of time a family appeared.

Now one day a jungle elephant with the spring fever was distressed by the heat and came beneath that tamal tree in search of shade. Blinded by his fever, he pulled with the tip of his trunk at the branch where the sparrows had their nest and broke it. In the process the sparrows' eggs were crushed, though the parent-birds — further life being predestined — barely escaped death.

Then the hen-sparrow lamented, desolate with grief at the death of her chicks. And presently, hearing her lamentation, a woodpecker bird, a great friend of hers, came grieved at her grief, and said: "My dear friend, why lament in vain? For the Scripture says:

For lost and dead and past
The wise have no laments:
Between the wise and fools
Is just this difference.

And again:

No life deserves lament;
Fools borrow trouble,
Add sadness to the sad,
So make it double.

And yet again:

Since kinsmen's sticky tears
Clog the departed,
Bury them decently,
Tearless, whole-hearted."

"That is good doctrine," said the hen-sparrow, "but what of it? This elephant curse — his spring fever! — killed my babies. So if you are my friend, think of some plan to kill this big elephant. If that were done, I should feel less grief at the death of my children. You know the saying:

While one brings comfort in distress,
Another jeers at pain;
By paying both as they deserve,
A man is born again."

"Madam," said the woodpecker, "your remark is very true. For the proverb says:

A friend in need is a friend indeed,
Although of different caste;
The whole world is your eager friend
So long as riches last.

And again:

A friend in need is a friend indeed;
Fathers indeed are those who feed;
True comrades they, and wives indeed,
Whence trust and sweet content proceed.

"Now see what my wit can devise. But you must know that I, too, have a friend, a gnat called Lute-Buzz. I will return with her, so that this villainous beast of an elephant may be killed."

So he went with the hen-sparrow, found the gnat, and said: "Dear madam, this is my friend the hen-sparrow. She is mourning because a villainous elephant smashed her eggs. So you must lend your assistance while I work out a plan for killing him."

"My good friend," said the gnat, "there is only one possible answer. But I also have a very intimate friend, a frog named Cloud-Messenger. Let us do the right thing by calling him into consultation. For the proverb says:

A wise companion find,
Shrewd, learnèd, righteous, kind;
For plans by him designed
Are never undermined."

So all three went together and told Cloud-Messenger the entire story. And the frog said: "How feeble a thing is that wretched elephant when pitted against a great throng enraged! Gnat, you must go and buzz in his fevered ear so that he may shut his eyes in delight at hearing your music. Then the woodpecker's bill will peck out his eyes. After that I will sit on the edge of a pit and croak. And he, being thirsty, will hear me, and will approach expecting to find a body of water. When he comes to the pit, he will fall in and perish."

When they carried out the plan, the fevered elephant shut his eyes in delight at the song of the gnat, was blinded by the woodpecker, wandered thirst-smitten at noonday, followed the croak of a frog, came to a great pit, fell in, and died.

"And that is why I say:

Woodpecker and sparrow
With froggy and gnat,
Attacking en masse, laid
The elephant flat."

"Very well," said the plover. "I will assemble my friends and dry up the ocean."

With this in mind, he summoned all the birds and related his grief at the rape of his chicks. And they started to beat the ocean with their wings, as a means of bringing relief to his sorrow.

But one bird said: "Our desires will not be accomplished in this manner. Let us rather fill up the ocean with clods and dust." So they all brought what clods and dust they could carry in the hollow of their bills and started to fill up the ocean.

Then another bird said: "It is plain that we are not equal to a contest with mighty ocean. So I will tell you what is now timely. There is an old gander who lives beside a banyan tree, who will give us sound and practical advice. Let us go and ask him. For there is a saying:

Take old folks' counsel (those are old
Who have experience)
The captive wild-goose flock was freed
By one old gander's sense."

"How was that?" asked the birds. And the speaker told the story of . . . The Shrewd Old Gander.

(800 words)

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