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Saturday, March 24, 2018

The Vulture and the Jackal - Maha Bharatha Series 68


The story of vulture and jackal in Book 12, Section 153 is about the question of life coming back after death.

In this story, a child dies of convulsions, yes – the text says convulsions. When the family takes the body to the cremation ground, the members have a rough time leaving the body there to be eaten by vultures and jackals. They wish the child will come back to life somehow. Then comes a wise vulture which tells them that life can never return after death and asks them to go home. But, there is a cunning jackal which wants to eat too but cannot do so during the day when the vultures are active. Therefore, he wants to delay the family from going home till darkness sets in, when he will have unhindered access to the dead body. That conversation is worth reading.

The vulture says: “Life and death are inevitable. No one ever comes back to life after death. I have seen several who bring the bodies of their relatives to this ground and go home. Later they themselves are brought here when their allotted time in this world is over. This place is full of vultures and jackals and wild animals. So, before the sun sets, go back home”. The family members start to go back home, crying all the while.

The jackal shows up now and tells them: “Don’t you have any affection for your child? Even the birds and beasts show affection for their off-springs. Parents love their children for no rewards, here or hereafter. What is wrong showing your sadness and crying? The sun is here and there is still time. Besides, this child may yet come back to life”. The family is swayed and stay back to lament.

The vulture comes back and says: “Do not listen to that wile jackal. Where is your intelligence and mental strength? Don’t you see that when this body made of five elements is deserted by their presiding deities (space, air, fire, water and earth) it is of no consequence? Why don’t you think of your own selves and what is bound to happen (your impermanence)?  It was his karma and time that took the boy’s life. Everyone succumbs to time. What is the use of lamentations? Cast off your grief. Go and spend your time in performing penance (tapas, meditation). Go and do your duties and follow the scriptures.”

It is the jackal’s turn now. He says: “ You weaklings, how easy it is for that light-brained vulture to convince you! How can you let go of all your affections by listening to mere words? How can you let yourself be convinced so easily? I thought human beings do experience great grief when they cry at the death of their kin. But I can see how shallow that sense of grief is. It appears to me that your affection for this child is not that great. If you do desire for the child to come back, you have to be resolute. You cannot give up and go away leaving this beautiful son of yours for birds and animals to feed on”.

The vulture countered by saying; “ I have lived a very long time. I have never ever seen a dead person – male, female or ambiguous sex -  come alive. Some die in the womb. Some die soon after birth. Some die while still in the crawling stage. Some die in youth. Some die in old age. But die they must. Lives of all creatures - birds, beasts and humans – come to an end. Grief only increases if you indulge in it. It increases at the sight of the object of affection and even by the memory of that object.  My words may be cruel; but based on reality. My words are meant to help you with your own emancipation”.  The relatives were getting ready to go home on listening to these words.

The jackal asks how they can be cruel and leave the body and go. He says: “Your affection for this child will not come to an end just because you leave this place. You will be remembering and continuing to cry. Have you not heard the stories of Samvuka and Sweta and the restoration of life after death by His grace? There is still sun light. Stay and pray so you can get the child back”.

The vulture said: “One may have wealth; may have intelligence; might have performed penances. No matter, everyone has to die. I have seen kinsmen lamenting for the dead on these grounds several times. It is beyond belief that all of you think that this child will come back to life. Your cries and lamentations and all of you with your merits cannot make it happen. Only Brahma, Vishnu or Rudra can bring this child back to life with a boon. Go back home and live a life of righteousness, truth, justice, compassion for all creatures, sincerity and honesty. What is the use of crying?”  On hearing these wise words, the relatives were ready to leave.

The arguments and counter-arguments between the vulture and the jackal continue. The relatives are confused completely and do not know what to do. It is obvious that both the vulture and the jackal were interested only in their own interests. The humans were carried away by their arguments and were not able to think for themselves.

The story seems to be about the role of reason and emotions in general. It takes special significance when thinking about death. Obviously, the vulture is the wise one, reason with long experience. The cunning jackal is the representation of our emotions. This battle between emotions and reason is a perennial one. The entire Maha Bharatha can be viewed from this angle. The battle of Kurukshetra is this mental battle.

The end of the story is not exactly what I would rate as a rational one. The end says that the relatives prayed so hard that Lord Rudra took pity on them and revived the child. This is a story after all. The point is probably to show that by His Grace anything is possible, even getting life back after death. There is, however, a small passage in that final episode that requires attention. Rudra did not give the life back for ever. The passage says that Rudra extended the life for 100 years. That makes it more realistic.


1 comment:

Ramesh said...

Interesting. The conflict between reason and emotion is all too visible every day. Brought out by this tale in an interesting manner.

Our culture explains away a tragedy like a child dying as karma. I find that difficult to accept. I can understand everybody having a finite time in this world. But when we see wide disparities in what that time is, its difficult to philosophically accept that.

Is it all just chance and random events. Or is there some philosophy behind it. Maybe humans will never know.