Week 2: Jataka Tales (Birth Stories of the Buddha)

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Baka-Jataka. "Guile profits not..." (continued)

Reading time: 6 minutes. Word count: 1100 words.

After the elabroate frametale about the tailors, you will now read the "story of the past," which is about a tricky crane... and an even trickier crab - along with a bunch of very foolish fish.

Once on a time the Bodhisatta came to life in a certain forest haunt as the Tree-Sprite of a tree which stood near a certain lotus pond. In those days the water used every summer to fall very low in a certain pond, not very big, which was plentifully stocked with fish.

Catching sight of these fish, a certain crane said to himself, "I must find a way to cajole and eat these fish." So he went and sat down in deep thought by the side of the water.

Now when the fishes caught sight of him, they said, "Of what are you thinking, my lord, as you sit there?"

"I am thinking about you," was the reply.

"And what is your lordship thinking about us?"

"The water in this pool being low, food scarce, and the heat intense, I was wondering to myself, as I sat here, what in the world you fishes would do."

"And what are we to do, my lord?"

"Well, if you’ll take my advice, I will take you up one by one in my beak, and carry you all off to a fine large pool covered with the five varieties of lotuses, and there put you down."

"My lord," said they, "no crane ever took the slightest thought for fishes since the world began. Your desire is to eat us one by one."

"No; I will not eat you while you trust me," said the crane. "If you don’t take my word that there is such a pond, send one of your number to go with me and see for himself."

Believing the crane, the fish presented to him a great big fish (blind of one eye, by the way), who they thought would be a match for the crane whether afloat or ashore; and they said, "Here’s the one to go with you."

The crane took the fish off and put him in the pool, and after showing him the whole extent of it, brought him back again and put him in along with the other fish in his old pond. And he held forth to them on the charms of the new pool.

After hearing this report, they grew eager to go there, and said to the crane, "Very good, my lord; please take us across."

First of all, the crane took that big one-eyed fish again and carried him off to the edge of the pool, so that he could see the water, but actually alighted in a Varana tree which grew on the bank. Dashing the fish down in a fork of the tree, he pecked it to death, after which he picked him clean and let the bones fall at the foot of the tree.

Then back he went and said, "I’ve thrown him in; who’s the next?" And so he took the fish one by one, and ate them all, till at last when he came back, he could not find another left.

But there was still a crab remaining in the pond; so the crane, who wanted to eat him up too, said, "Mister crab, I’ve taken all those fishes away and turned them into a fine large pool covered all over with lotuses. Come along; I’ll take you too."

"How will you carry me across?" said the crab.

"Why, in my beak, to be sure," said the crane.

"Ah, but you might drop me like that," said the crab; "I won’t go with you."

"Don’t be frightened; I’ll keep tight hold of you all the way."

Thought the crab to himself, "He hasn’t put the fish in the pool. But, if he would really put me in, that would be capital. If he does not, why, I’ll nip his head off and kill him."

So he spoke thus to the crane, "You’d never be able to hold me tight enough, friend crane; whereas we crabs have got an astonishingly tight grip. If I might take hold of your neck with my claws, I could hold it tight and then would go along with you."

Not suspecting that the crab wanted to trick him, the crane gave his assent. With his claws the crab gripped hold of the crane’s neck as with the pincers of a smith, and said, "Now you can start." The crane took him and showed him the pool first, and then started off for the tree.

"The pool lies this way, nunky," said the crab; "but you’re taking me the other way."

"Very much your nunky dear am I!" said the crane; "and very much my nephew are you! I suppose you thought me your slave to lift you up and carry you about! Just you cast your eye on that heap of bones at the foot of the tree; as I ate up all those fish, so I will eat you too."

Said the crab, "It was through their own folly that those fish were eaten by you; but I shan’t give you the chance of eating me. No; what I shall do is to kill you. For you, fool that you were, did not see that I was tricking you. If we did, we will both die together; I’ll chop your head clean off."

And so saying he gripped the crane’s weasand with his claws, as with pincers. With his mouth wide open and tears streaming from his eyes, the crane, trembling for his life, said, "Lord, indeed I will not eat you! Spare my life!"

"Well, then, just step down to the pool and put me in," said the crab. Then the crane turned back and stepped down as directed to the pool, and placed the crab on the mud, at the water edge. But the crab, before entering the water, nipped off the crane’s head as deftly as if he were cutting a lotus stalk with a knife.

The Tree-Fairy who dwelt in the tree, marking this wonderful thing, made the whole forest ring with applause by repeating this stanza in sweet tones:

Guile profits not your very guileful folk.
Mark what the guileful crane got from the crab!

"Brethren," said the Master, "this is not the first time this fellow has been cozened by the robe-maker from the country; in the past he was cozened in just the same manner."

His lesson ended, he showed the connexion, and identified the Birth, by saying, "The Jetavana robe-maker was the crane of those days, the robe-maker from the country was the crab, and I myself the Tree-Fairy."

Questions. Make sure you can answer these questions about what you just read:

  • how did the crane persuade the fish to trust him?
  • what happened to all of the fish? what happened to the crab?
  • what happened to the crane in the end?

Source: Jataka #38. The Jataka, or Stories of the Buddha's Former Births (in six volumes). Editor: E.B. Cowell. 1895.

Modern Languages MLLL-2003. World Literature: Frametales. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 9, 2004 12:48 PM