The War Between the Swans and the Peacocks

The War between the Swans and the Peacocks

The Hitopadesha comprises stories divided into four sections: Gaining Friends, Losing Friends, Waging War, and Making Peace. Today’s story, The War between the Swans and Peacocks, is the first in the section Waging War.

As with all children, the three princes looked forward to the story session with their teacher. So, when Vishnusharman walked over to the princes the following morning, he couldn’t help but notice their eagerness.

“Sir! You mentioned that one section of the stories is about settling quarrels. If you don’t mind, can you tell us those stories now? You see, as future kings and warriors, we must learn how to fight wars,” the princes asked enthusiastically.

Vishnusharman smiled to himself. “Ah! My plan is working!” he thought. “The princes are thinking about their future and want to learn more.” He nodded to the boys and said aloud, “Yes, indeed. I will tell you about waging wars.

It all began with the war between the peacocks and swans. The armies of the two kingdoms were matched equally, and it looked like neither would win the war. So, when the crows approached the swans, the waterfowl accepted their friendship, thinking that victory was theirs. Alas! That’s not what happened at all! They had no idea that the crows were in the enemy camp.” Vishnusharman let the silence hang in the air for a few seconds.

“What! How? Tell us! Tell us!” The princes spoke all at once. 

“This is what happened,” began Vishnusharman.

The War between the Swans and Peacocks.

The island of Karpuradwipa has a large lake filled with lotus blooms. The lake, called Padma-Keli because of the lotus flowers, was the home of the Royal Swan Hiranyagarbha. The council of birds in that region felt strongly about having a leader. “Without a king, we’d be like a boat lost at sea minus the captain! We’ll drift along without any sense of where we’re going or what danger lies ahead! Who wants to live with all that confusion and doubt?” The birds discussed amongst themselves reached an agreement and chose Hiranyagarbha as their king.

The days passed without significant troubles because they were on an island and were cut off from the mainland. Not many people came there. But it was not to last. One day, a crane landed in the water when King Hiranyagarbha was resting with his family among the lotus flowers. The visitor was called Dirghamukha because of his long beak.

The king greeted the crane and called him over to his side. “Hello, Dirghamukha! How are you? It’s been a while since I saw you last. Where have you been? Is everything well with you? What’s going on in the world outside?”

“Your Highness!” The crane lowered his head in respect. “I’m so glad to see you! I’ve brought some news that you must hear. In fact, that’s why I rushed home.”

“Tell me!” Commanded the king.

“Your Highness, I was flying over the Vindhya Mountain, over in Jambudwipa. Chitravarna, the Peacock, rules over the birds in that land. I landed to explore some burned-down grass when a flock of birds came by. They asked me who I was. I told them I worked for you, King Hiranyagarbha of Karpuradwipa. I also said that I like to visit new places.

I suppose my answer made them curious because they asked me which place I liked best. I was shocked! “Ha! Which is better? What kind of a question is that? How can there be any comparison between the two places? Of course, Karpuradwipa wins hands down. Why, it is as good as heaven, and our king, Hiranyagarbha, is another form of Lord Indra himself! One look at it, and you will see what I mean. You know, that’s a good idea! Why don’t you leave this wasteland and come with me to see for yourselves?

I thought the other birds would share my enthusiasm. On the other hand, they looked pretty annoyed, angry even. As I was puzzling over their attitude, it struck me!

Milk may be harmless, but if you feed it to a snake, it turns into poison. Why do we advise someone? It’s because you think you’re helping that person, right? But advise a fool; he’ll get angry and turn on you! That’s why you mustn’t go around giving free advice. It would be best if you watched who you counsel. Guide only those who understand that you are trying to help them, not those who are clueless. Otherwise, it’ll be like the case of the birds that went to aid the monkeys. Look what happened there! The birds were forced to flee because the monkeys tore down their nests!!!”

“What story is that? Why did the monkeys destroy the bird nests?” Hiranyagarbha asked the crane.

The crane loved the sound of his voice. He settled in to tell the story of the weaver birds and the monkeys.

The Weaver Birds and the Monkeys

As the Narmada River runs through the land, many streams flow into it, emptying their water into its rushing body. A silk cotton tree stood along the banks of one such winding arm of water. This tree was a favorite spot for birds to build their nests, even during the monsoon season. Once, during the rainy season, grey clouds blanketed the sky, turning the day dark. The birds sheltered in their nests as the rain pelted the earth. A flurry of movement caught their attention, and they looked down. A troop of monkeys huddled under their tree, trying to stay dry from the water puddling all around them.

The birds meant well when they called out to the monkeys and said, “Hey! You monkeys! See how wet you are, and look at us, nice and cozy up here! We’ve built ourselves these nice warm nests with our beaks. Whereas you, who have hands and feet, are sheltering from the rain under the tree. Why can’t you be more like us? Then, you’d find a way to stay safe and dry in the rain.”

The monkeys were not thrilled. How dare the birds criticize them like this? That, too, sitting safely on their perches! It’s easy to tell others what to do when you are sitting warm and dry without feeling the bone-chilling wind wrap around you. The monkeys bit their teeth and thought, “Let’s see what happens when the rain stops!

That was it! When the downpour ended, the monkeys clambered up on the tree, destroyed the nests, and broke the eggs. The birds could do nothing but watch in horror.

That is why I say it was my mistake to advise the peacocks. I should have known better and kept quiet, for only an intelligent person would accept guidance. It is useless to waste your energies on a fool,” Dhirgamukha, the crane, sighed.

“Oh! Did you tell the peacocks this story? What did they say??” The King Swan asked the crane.

“Oh, you should have been there to see the fuss they created, your highness. Would you believe it if I told you those no-good, uppity peacocks challenged me? “Who made the swan a king?” They asked as if that would scare me and make me back down. I told them off in the same tone.

“Ha! Who made a peacock the king?” I yelled.

The pesky birds came at me, but I was no slouch, I tell you. I fought back boldly. When people challenge or threaten you, you must be ready to battle it out. That is not the time to talk about forgiveness or be wishy-washy.”

The king swan smiled upon hearing this. “But it is a good idea to know whether you are equal to your enemy before going to war. Otherwise, your foes will override you in a snap. It is better to be smart and leave the battlefield quickly than to stay back and be exposed as a fool. Look what happened to the donkey in a tiger’s skin—the foolish animal hung around the fields for long and got caught because its voice gave it away.”

“Donkey? In a tiger’s skin? Why would a donkey do that?” The crane stared blankly at the swan king.

To be continued…

Click here to listen to the previous episode of the Hitopadesha:

Episode 15: The lapwings and the Ocean

The War Between the Swans and the Peacocks

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