Panchatantra: Numskull and the Rabbit

There are trickster rabbits in the cultures of many countries, and here you will find a marvelous tale of a tricky rabbit who is able to get the better of a mighty lion!

[Notes by LKG]

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

Numskull and the Rabbit

In a part of a forest was a lion drunk with pride, and his name was Numskull. He slaughtered the animals without ceasing. If he saw an animal, he could not spare him.

So all the natives of the forest — deer, boars, buffaloes, wild oxen, rabbits, and others — came together, and with woe-begone countenances, bowed heads, and knees clinging to the ground, they undertook to beseech obsequiously the king of beasts: "Have done, O King, with this merciless, meaningless slaughter of all creatures. It is hostile to happiness in the other world. For the Scripture says:

A thousand future lives
Will pass in wretchedness
For sins a fool commits
His present life to bless.


What wisdom in a deed
That brings dishonour fell,
That causes loss of trust,
That paves the way to hell?

And yet again:

The ungrateful body, frail
And rank with filth within,
Is such that only fools
For its sake sink in sin.

"Consider these facts and cease, we pray, to slaughter our generations. For if the master will remain at home, we will of our own motion send him each day for his daily food one animal of the forest. In this way neither the royal sustenance nor our families will be cut short. In this way let the king's duty be performed. For the proverb says:

The king who tastes his kingdom like
Elixir, bit by bit,
Who does not overtax its life,
Will fully relish it.

The king who madly butchers men,
Their lives as little reckoned
As lives of goats, has one square meal,
But never has a second.

A king desiring profit, guards
His world from evil chance;
With gifts and honours waters it
As florists water plants.

Guard subjects like a cow, nor ask
For milk each passing hour:
A vine must first be sprinkled, then
It ripens fruit and flower.

The monarch-lamp from subjects draws
Tax-oil to keep it bright:
Has any ever noticed kings
That shone by inner light?

A seedling is a tender thing,
And yet, if not neglected,
It comes in time to bearing fruit:
So subjects well protected.

Their subjects form the only source
From which accrue to kings
Their gold, grain, gems, and varied drinks,
And many other things.

The kings who serve the common weal,
Luxuriantly sprout;
The common loss is kingly loss,
Without a shade of doubt."

After listening to this address, Numskull said: "Well, gentlemen, you are quite convincing. But if an animal does not come to me every day as I sit here, I promise you I will eat you all."

To this they assented, with much relief, and fearlessly roamed the wood. Each day at noon one of them appeared as his dinner, each species taking its turn and providing an individual grown old, or religious, or grief-smitten, or fearful of the loss of son or wife.

One day a rabbit's turn came, it being rabbit-day. And when all the thronging animals had given him directions, he reflected: "How is it possible to kill this lion - curse him! Yet after all,

In what can wisdom not prevail?
In what can resolution fail?
What cannot flattery subdue?
What cannot enterprise put through?

"I can kill even a lion."

So he went very slowly, planning to arrive tardily, and meditating with troubled spirit on a means of killing him. Late in the day he came into the presence of the lion, whose throat was pinched by hunger in consequence of the delay and who angrily thought as he licked his chops: "Aha! I must kill all the animals the first thing in the morning."

While he was thinking, the rabbit slowly drew near, bowed low, and stood before him. But when the lion saw that he was tardy and too small at that for a meal, his soul flamed with wrath, and he taunted the rabbit, saying: "You reprobate! First, you are too small for a meal. Second, you are tardy. Because of this wickedness I am going to kill you, and tomorrow morning I shall extirpate every species of animal."

Then the rabbit bowed low and said with deference: "Master, the wickedness is not mine, nor the other animals'. Pray hear the cause of it."

And the lion answered: "Well, tell it quick, before you are between my fangs."

"Master," said the rabbit, "all the animals recognized today that the rabbits' turn had come and, because I was quite small, they dispatched me with five other rabbits. But in mid-journey there issued from a great hole in the ground a lion who said: 'Where are you bound? Pray to your favourite god.'

"Then I said: 'We are travelling as the dinner of lion Numskull, our master, according to agreement.'

"'Is that so?' said he. 'This forest belongs to me. So all the animals, without exception, must deal with me according to agreement. This Numskull is a sneak thief. Call him out and bring him here at once. Then whichever of us proves stronger, shall be king and shall eat all these animals.'

"At his command, master, I have come to you. This is the cause of my tardiness. For the rest, my master is the sole judge."

After listening to this, Numskull said: "Well, well, my good fellow, show me that sneak thief of a lion, and be quick about it. I cannot find peace of mind until I have vented on him my anger against the animals. He should have remembered the saying:

Land and friends and gold at most
Have been won when battles cease;
If but one of these should fail,
Do not think of breaking peace.

Where no great reward is won,
Where defeat is nearly sure,
Never stir a quarrel, but
Find it wiser to endure."

"Quite so, master," said the rabbit. "Warriors fight for their country when they are insulted. But this fellow skulks in a fortress. You know he came out of a fortress when he held us up. And an enemy in a fortress is hard to handle. As the saying goes:

A single royal fortress adds
More military force
Than do a thousand elephants,
A hundred thousand horse.

A single archer from a wall
A hundred foes forfends;
And so the military art
A fortress recommends.

God Indra used the wit and skill
Of gods in days of old,
When Devil Gold-mat plagued the world,
To build a fortress-hold.

And he decreed that any king
Who built a fortress sound,
Should conquer foemen. This is why
Such fortresses abound."

When he heard this, Numskull said: "My good fellow, show me that thief. Even if he is hiding in a fortress, I will kill him. For the proverb says:

The strongest man who fails to crush
At birth, disease or foe,
Will later be destroyed by that
Which he permits to grow.

And again:

The man who reckons well his power,
Nor pride nor vigour lacks,
May single-handed smite his foes
Like Rama-with-the-axe."

"Very true," said the rabbit. "But after all, it was a mighty lion that I saw. So the master should not set out without realizing the enemy's capacity. As the saying runs:

A warrior failing to compare
Two hosts, in mad desire
For battle, plunges like a moth
Headforemost into fire.

And again:

The weak who challenge mighty foes
A battle to abide,
Like elephants with broken tusks,
Return with drooping pride."

But Numskull said: "What business is it of yours? Show him to me, even in his fortress."

"Very well," said the rabbit. "Follow me, master."

And he led the way to a well, where he said to the lion: "Master, who can endure your majesty? The moment he saw you, that thief crawled clear into his hole. Come, I will show him to you."

"Be quick about it, my good fellow," said Numskull.

So the rabbit showed him the well. And the lion, being a dreadful fool, saw his own reflection in the water and gave voice to a great roar. Then from the well issued a roar twice as loud, because of the echo.

This the lion heard, decided that his rival was very powerful, hurled himself down, and met his death.

Thereupon the rabbit cheerfully carried the glad news to all the animals, received their compliments, and lived there contentedly in the forest.

Leo et Puteus

(1400 words)

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