Panchatantra: The Sensible Enemy

If you are wondering about the little poems that fill these stories, there is a limitless supply of them in Sanskrit. This poetic form is called a subhashita, something "well-spoken," and you can read about the subhashita tradition at Wikipedia.

[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 Sensible Enemy

There was once a prince who made friends with a merchant's son and the son of a man of learning. Every day the three found entertainment in various diversions, flirtations, and pastimes in public squares, parks, and gardens. Every day the prince showed his aversion to the science of archery, to equitation and elephant-riding, to driving and hunting.

At last, when his father one day gave him a wigging, telling him that he showed no aptitude for kingly pursuits, he disclosed to his two friends the injury inflicted on his self-esteem. And they rejoined: "Our fathers, too, are continually talking nonsense when we show our aversion to their business. This tribulation, however, we have not noticed for many days because of the pleasure we took in your friendship. But now that we see you also grieved with the same grief, we are grieved exceedingly."

Thereupon the prince said: "It would be unmanly to remain here after being insulted. Let us depart together, all grieved with the same grief, and go somewhere else. For

The truly self-respecting man
Discovers what he is, and can,
Deserves, and dares, and understands
By travelling in foreign lands."

So much being determined, they considered where it was advisable to go. And the merchant's son said: "You know that no desire is anywhere attained without money. Let us therefore go to Climbing Mountain, where we may find precious gems and enjoy every heart's desire." The truth of this presentation they all recognized, so started for Climbing Mountain.

There, as fate decreed, each of them found a priceless, magnificent gem, whereupon they debated as follows: "How are we to guard these gems when we leave this spot by a forest trail thick with peril?"

Then the son of the man of learning said: "You know I am the son of a counsellor, and I have consequently thought out an appropriate plan, namely, that we swallow our gems and carry them in our stomachs. Thus we shall not be an object of interest to merchants, highwaymen, and other such people."

Having adopted this plan, each inserted his gem in a mouthful of food at dinner time and swallowed it. But while they were doing so, a fellow who was resting unperceived on the mountain slope, observed them and reflected: "Look here! I, too, have tramped Climbing Mountain for many days, searching for gems. But I had no luck. I found nothing. So I will travel with them and wherever they grow weary and go to sleep, I will cut their stomachs open and take all three gems."

With this in mind, he came down the slope and overtook them, saying: "Good masters, I cannot pierce the frightful forest alone and reach my home. Let me join your caravan and travel with you."

To this they assented for they desired the increase of friendliness, and the four continued their journey.

Now in that forest, near the trail, was a Bhil village, nestling in a rugged bit of jungle. As the travellers passed through its outskirts, an old bird in a cage began to sing — this bird belonging to a numerous aviary kept as pets in the hut of the village chief.


This chief understood the meaning that all kinds of birds express in their song. He therefore comprehended the old bird's intention and cried with great delight to his men: "Listen to what this bird tells us. He says that there are precious gems in the possession of yonder travellers on the trail and that we ought to stop them. Catch them, and bring them here."

When the robbers had done so, the chief stripped the travellers with his own hand, but found nothing. So he set them free to resume their journey, clad in loincloths only. But the bird sang the same story, so that the village chief had them brought back and freed them only after a most particular and minute inspection.

Once more they started, but when the bird impatiently screamed the same song, the chief recalled them once more and questioned them, saying: "I have tested this bird time and again, and he never tells a lie. Now he says there are gems in your possession. Where are they?"

And they replied: "If there are gems in our possession, how did your most careful search fail to reveal them?"

But the chief retorted: "If this bird says the thing over and over, the gems are certainly there, in your stomachs. It is now evening. At dawn I am determined to cut your stomachs open for gems." After this scolding, he had them thrust into a dungeon.

Then the captive thief reflected: "In the morning, when their stomachs are cut open and the chief finds such splendid gems, the greedy villain will be quite certain to slash my belly too. So my death is a certainty, whatever happens. What am I to do? Well, the proverb says:

When that last hour arrives, that none,
However shrewd, may miss,
A noble spirit serves his kind,
And death itself is bliss.

"It is best, then, to offer my own stomach first to the knife, saving the very men I had planned to kill. For when my stomach is cut open first of all and that villain finds nothing, grub as he may, then he will cease to suspect the existence of gems and, heartless though he be, will yet have mercy enough to renounce the cutting of the stomachs of those others. Thus, by giving them life and wealth I shall gain the glory of a generous deed in this world and a rebirth in purity hereafter. This is, so to speak, a wise man's death, though I did not seek the opportunity." And so the night passed.

At dawn the village chief was preparing to cut open their stomachs when the thief clasped his hands and humbly entreated him. "I cannot," he said, "behold the cutting of the stomachs of these my brothers. Pray be gracious, and cut my stomach first."

To this the chief mercifully agreed, but he found no sign of a gem in the stomach, cut as he would.

Thereupon he penitently cried: "Woe, woe is me! Swelling with greed at the mere interpretation of a bird's song, I have done a ghastly deed. I infer that no more gems will be found in the other stomachs than in this."

The three were therefore set free uninjured, and hastening through the forest, they reached a civilized spot.

The robber for his victims died.

Better the sensible enemy than ... The Foolish Friend.


(1100 words)




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