Hitopadesha: The Donkey in the Tiger Skin

The donkey in the tiger skin

This episode has multiple stories, beginning with The Donkey in the Tiger Skin. Dhirghamukha, the crane, greets the Swan King, Hiranyagarbha, and narrates the events in his travels. The crane is clueless about being rude to the birds he meets and talks boastfully. Hiranyagarbha cautions him by telling the story of the donkey in the tiger skin.

The Donkey in the Tiger Skin

“Well,” began Hiranyagarbha. “A washerman by the name of Vilasa lived in the city of Hastinapura. When he collected the clothes from his customers, Vilasa loaded them all onto his donkey. Now, the donkey was old, weak, and struggled to carry such heavy loads. Nor did Vilasa give it healthy food. He was too cheap to feed it properly. One day, he came up with a crooked plan to fatten the donkey without spending any money. Vilasa walked the animal through the jungle to where it bordered a field. Satisfied that there was plenty of food, the washerman threw a tiger skin over the animal and let it lose. The trick worked like a charm. The farmers caught sight of the donkey in the tiger skin from afar and stayed away in fear. The donkey ate and ate and ate and grew plump. Days went by. Things would have been fine if Vilasa brought the animal there only for a few days, but no! He was too greedy, and the donkey, of course, had no sense of danger. The inevitable happened.

One of the farmers was puzzled that this tiger just hung around the fields and didn’t go away to hunt or explore the forest. So, he armed himself with a bow and arrow, wore an animal skin similar to a donkey’s, and walked into the fields. The donkey saw the animal skin, not the man. It mistook him for a female donkey and brayed in welcome. The furious farmer shot the donkey right there. That’s why I say we shouldn’t stick around too long around our enemies.” The Swan king paused.

But Dhirgamukha paid no attention to the lesson in the story. He continued to ramble. “The peacocks shrieked and called me names. “You Rascal! Have you no shame? You are here in his kingdom, eating from his land, and you speak so disrespectfully of our king! How dare you? Did you think we would stand by and keep quiet if someone said such things?” They surrounded me and pecked with their beaks.

“You dimwit of a crane. Your king doesn’t have what it takes to protect even what he can hold in his hand. How on earth will he protect his kingdom, eh? You are like a frog in a well. You only know what is in your little kingdom without any idea of what goes on outside. If you knew more about the world, you’d know that the swan is nothing at all! You wouldn’t dare ask us to serve him.

Have you seen those humongous trees with canopies offering shade and fruits? There is a reason why people like them so much. The tree will still be valued for its shade even if there are no fruits. If you must serve someone, choose someone worthy, not just anyone who calls himself a king.

In fact, just knowing someone important and influential will make life easy for you. You’ll be safe, people will treat you well and even offer to do things for you. You only have to see how the rabbits used the moon to protect themselves from the elephants to understand this,” the long-tailed birds finished.

I must say my curiosity was awakened. What could the moon have to do with the rabbits? So, I asked the peacocks to tell me the story of the old hare and the elephants.

The Old Hare and the Elephants

One year, there was a severe drought as the monsoons failed. Naturally, the ponds, lakes, and rivers that depended on the rain dried up in the forest. The jungle animals struggled to find water. A herd of elephants felt this hard, unable to quench their immense thirst. They approached their leader and shared their fears.

“There is no water to be had anywhere. What are we going to do? We’re walking around blindly, unable to find water. The water bodies have so little water that it isn’t enough even for small animals to wade in and bathe; forget the others our size! Most of the lakes and rivers we come to are dry, with cracks in the ground. We can’t last very long like this. How will we save ourselves?”

The leader of the elephant herd listened to the others calmly, for she remembered there was a pool sort of hidden away. She led the others through the trees and bushes to the clear, cool pond. The herd rushed to the pond and guzzled the water joyfully. The elephants decided to stay nearby to get to the water quickly.

Now, the land around the pond was also home to a warren of rabbits. Unfortunately for the rabbits, in their eagerness to wet their parched throats, the elephants headed straight to the pond without paying attention to anything in their way. Because of this, the tiny animals were trapped under the thunderous feet of the giants. It happened so regularly that the rabbits were worried. One rabbit, called Shilimukha was so anxious and thought the whole family would be wiped out. Vijaya, an older rabbit, heard his concerns and said,

“Oh, no! It won’t come to that. I will find a way to stop this.”

As Vijaya set out, he began to think about the best way to tackle the elephants. He couldn’t just barge in and tell them to stop coming to the pond, could he? What was to stop them from getting angry and crushing him under their feet? Luckily, Vijaya was a sensible rabbit who knew he needed a good plan.

“Hmmm! What is the best way to address these elephants? These gigantic animals can kill you with their touch just as the snake searches with its snout, the king by giving you special treatment, and the traitor by laughing to lower your guard. Oh, wait! I think I know what to do!” Leaping and running, the rabbit made it to the top of a nearby hill and waited. The trees shook, and the earth moved as the pounding noise of a hundred heavy feet announced the arrival of the elephants. The rabbit stood, puffed up his chest, and greeted the matriarch leading the elephant herd.

The leader looked up and bellowed, “Who are you? Where did you come from?” It was rather unexpected for the elephants to be stopped by a rabbit.

“I am a rabbit,” replied Vijaya, “sent by the Moon God.”

“Oh! What do you want?” asked the leader.

“Remember, as a messenger, I will speak the truth because you cannot attack me. My safety is guaranteed. I will tell you what the Moon God said.

“The rabbits in this clearing guard my pool. You have been trampling them carelessly when you come to drink water and they are fleeing the forest. These rabbits have been under my protection all these days. But now, they are too scared to go near the pool and guard it. Have you noticed how the marks on my body look like a rabbit? That is why I’m called Shashanka.”

The elephant leader felt her stomach tighten. She had not intended to anger the Gods and bring their wrath on the herd. So, she quickly apologized, “I’m so sorry, my lord. I didn’t know that you had appointed guardians for this pond. We won’t go to the pool again.”

The rabbit wanted to make sure the elephants wouldn’t return. So, he commanded, “Well, I suggest you come back to the pool at night and speak to our lord even as he shakes with anger. If you soothe him by bowing low, you may leave this forest and never come back.”

So that night, the leader of the herd came to the pool, and Vijaya, the rabbit, came to stand beside him. The moon’s reflection lit up the pond. The wind blew over the water, making gentle ripples. It looked as if the moon was trembling in anger. The elephant bowed low in respect and fear. The rabbit called out to the moon and said, “Dear lord. The elephants did not mean to scare the rabbits or to kill them. It was an accident. They have promised not to be this careless ever again. I feel you must let them go.”

The elephants were pleased by the generosity of this rabbit, and they said their goodbyes and got out of there as fast they could, which was quite fast indeed, for elephants can move quickly despite their size.

So, you see, even making things up about being close to a powerful person can help you get away from great danger!” The birds ended their story with a threat.

Click here for the previous episode of the Hitopadesha:

The War Between the Swans and the Peacocks

Hitopadesha: The Donkey in the Tiger Skin

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