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Monday, May 21, 2018

Friend or Foe? - Maha Bharata Series 76


I missed one earlier section (138) from Book 12. I am glad I found it. This is a story of a mouse, a cat, a mongoose and an owl, as told by Bhishma in response to a question by Yudhishtra on how a king should behave when faced with multiple enemies. The conversation between the mouse and the cat is full of wisdom on friendship in general, in addition to the answer for the primary question.

The section starts with Bhishma saying that circumstances decide the course of events in life and it is difficult to advice what to do and what not to do. A friend may become a foe and a foe may become a friend.  Planning for the future and presence of mind are needed for a successful life. He tells the story of three fish one of which is prudent and thinks ahead, one has presence of mind and one is a procrastinator. As one can guess the procrastinator dies and the other two escape. The episode ends with a statement that in addition to foresight and presence of mind, one must avail oneself of means for accomplishment of one’s goals and know the proper place and time for action.

In the main story, a cat and a mouse live in the same tree -the cat living in the branches where he gets a full catch of birds for food and the mouse lives in a hole at the bottom of the tree.  One day the cat is caught in a hunter’s net. The mouse realizing that the cat is caught in the net moves around freely in search of food. He finds meat spread by the hunter as a lure and starts eating. He forgets that he is too close to the net in which the cat is trapped and becomes careless. The mouse suddenly notices that a mongoose has arrived on the scene and is looking at the mouse as food for the day. At the same time, the mouse also notices an owl on the branch of a tree ready to pounce on him.

The mouse is now in danger of attack by two enemies – the mongoose and the owl. The cat is an enemy too but he is in trouble himself. So, the mouse thinks: “ A wise person should never sink in despair and lose one’s wit when faced with danger. He must save his life by effort and intelligence. I am surrounded by three enemies. In this situation my only refuge is this cat, even though he is my natural enemy. It is best to make friends with him because he is also in imminent danger of being caught by the hunter. He may be amenable to counsel for his own good. If I make him understand his own interest in helping me, he may make peace with me. Besides, a person when faced with a stronger person should seek peace even with an enemy. It is better to have a fool for a friend than have a learned person as an enemy. The cat is probably foolish and will fall for my words; but for the present I will consider him an intelligent foe. After all he knows he is in danger”.  

The mouse points out to the cat that he is in danger of being attacked by the mongoose and the owl if he moves towards his hole and is afraid. He is aware that once the hunter comes, the cat’s life will also be in danger. He says: “I have an idea so both of us can escape. You cannot cut through the net. But, I have sharp teeth and can cut the net, so you can escape. I will act as you friend but, you should promise not to attack me once you are free. After all, both of us have lived in this tree for a long time. I have to trust you and get near you and be with you so that the mongoose and the owl will not kill me. It is said that he on whom no one places trust and he who never trusts anyone are not wise. This is a proper time for an understanding between us. I want you to live and hope you will want me to live. Can I trust you not to kill me? This is a good time for us to trust each other and act”.

The cat agrees and says: “Through your grace I have got back my life. I will always be your disciple and obey your commands forever. A person returning a favor never becomes equal to the person that did good in the first instance. The former acts to repay services received. The latter, however, acted without any such motive. Let us be friends. Come quickly to me”. The mouse says that he need to creep under the cat’s belly so that the mongoose and owl will know they have no chance of getting near him and the cat agrees. The mouse creeps under the cat’s belly and the mongoose and the owl go away.

The mouse starts to cut the net but very slowly. He does not want to finish the job till the proper time. The cat gets angry and asks why he is delaying. The mouse replies: “Do not fear. Do not be impatient, O friend! I will keep my promise. We know the requirements of time. An act done at the proper time succeeds; and an act done at an improper time leads to calamity.  If I let you free at an improper time, I will be afraid. Therefore, the proper time is when I see the hunter approach because at that time both of us will be in a state of fear. As soon as I see him, I shall cut the strings. You will run and climb the tree at once and will not think of anything else except your safety. And I will run to my hole”.

The cat who had kept his own part of the covenant, feels betrayed and says: “I saved you from danger promptly. Now you should do the same for me by cutting the net quickly before the hunter comes. If I have hurt you in the past, please forget and forgive. I hope you are not remembering our former hostility and trying to deceive me. If you do, I will get back sooner or later”.

The mouse replied: “Oh, my friend, I have heard you. I know what your objective is. Listen to my point of view. That friendship which is based and maintained on fear must be maintained with great caution. After making a deal with a stronger individual one has to be cautious so he does not get injured. Nobody is any body’s friend. Nobody is anybody’s foe. People become friends or foes based purely on self-interest. It is best to leave some part of the promise unfulfilled till the time comes. If I cut the net just when the hunter comes you will run away to save your own life. That is the only way I can be sure of my life. As you can see I have cut most of the net. There is only one more spot to cut. I will cut it as soon as I see the hunter approaching”.

As promised the mouse cuts the nest with his teeth as soon as the hunter’s head is seen at a distance, and both escape – the mouse to his hole and the cat runs up the tree before the hunter gets close.

The cat wants to keep his promise of friendship. He says he is grateful to the mouse for his help and says that he and his family will always honor him. He says: You saved my life. I want to be friends with you. You can trust me” and invites the mouse to come up and visit him. The mouse thought and said: “Friends and foes should be properly studied. There is no such thing as friend or a foe. Forces of circumstances dictate who become friends and who become foes. Interests and gains are important in these relationships. Therefore, there is no place for blind trust. One should not trust who is undeserving of trust. One should not place too much trust on one worthy of trust either.  Our species are natural enemies. You and I became friends forced by our common plight. You may keep your promise. But, your family members have no reason to offer the same safety for me. Therefore, I decline your invitation”.

And further, “A person becomes important for a purpose he serves. Our affection started because of a sufficient cause. That cause is not present any more. You understand your interest and I understand mine. You are more powerful than me. Guided by my self-interest I prefer to stay where I am safe. You do likewise and keep away from the hunter”. As soon as he heard the name of the hunter, the cat got frightened and ran away to a distance place! The mouse also went to a different place to live. 

Bhishma continued: “The mouse and the cat owed their escape to their reliance upon each other's services. When two persons who were once enemies make peace with each other, it is certain that each of them will try to win over the other. It is better to be wise and be careful.  In fear, one should seem to be fearless, and while really mistrusting others one should seem to be trustful. When the time comes,  one should make peace with an enemy; and when the time comes, one should wage war with even a friend. If one acts like a man in fear before the cause of fear arrives, one is never filled with fear when it actually arrives. A person who always acts with fearlessness, causes great fear in others.  'Do not be afraid' is an useless advice. It is fear that should move a wise person to understand his weakness and seek the advice of wise and experienced men. For these reasons, one should, when in fear, seem to be fearless, and when mistrusting (others) should seem to be trustful. But never be untruthful. At a time of grave danger, make peace with a powerful foe. But, do not trust the foe again once you gain your purpose”.


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