27. The Greatest Thing
A devotee spent all his time thinking of God. Not a day passed that he didn't bathe and offer worship to his family gods. One day a mendicant gave him a doll and asked him to worship it. The man asked him, “Is this the greatest thing in the world?”
The mendicant said, “I think so. But if you find anything greater, worship that. ”
So he brought the doll home and started offering it worship. As part of his offering, he would place a banana, peeled and sliced, in front of the doll. Every day a mouse would come and eat the banana. He was very happy to see that the banana was gone every morning and thought that god was personally eating his offerings. So he continued to offer bananas. One day he caught sight of the mouse eating the banana.
“Ah, I didn't realize it. This mouse is greater than that god. He's the real god,” he said, and started worshiping the mouse. One day a cat stalked the mouse, killed it, and ate it. “O, so a cat is greater than a mouse,” he said, and started to worship the cat. He lighted oil lamps and had beautiful ceremonies for the cat. This went on for a while. Meantime his little son acquired a dog, which jumped on the cat one day. The scared cat fled for dear life.
“Ah, the dog is so much greater,” he said and transferred his worship to the dog. One day the dog went into the kitchen and put its snout into a fresh pot of cooked rice and lentils and ate it up. His wife caught it in the act and thrashed it with a stick till its back broke.
Now he knew that his wife was greater than even the dog. So he started worshiping her. Yet he wanted his meals on time every day. When, one day, she was late with them, he got very angry. As she was bringing his plate, he grabbed a stick and beat her.
He stopped smack in the middle of this incident, for he realized that he himself was greater than his wife. And while he was preparing himself to worship himself, he realized that his stomach was what he truly worked for. Everything he ate went into his stomach, and so he began to worship it. What he did next, we don't know.
Types and Motifs
Type AT 2031B, The Most Powerful Idol. In the Judaic and Islamic traditions, this story is known as “Abraham Learns to Worship God,” in which Abraham first worships a star at nightfall, then the moon which obscures the star, then the sun, and finally gives up idolatry.
Another cumulative tale with a human actor, which satirizes human desire—here the desire to search for the greatest thing to worship. Such tales tend to have a circular, self-defeating structure. This one ends up unexpectedly with a man worshiping his own belly.
The classic tale of this kind in India is The Man Who Seeks the Greatest Being as a Husband for his Daughter, Type AT 2031C, told all over India, and told in our earliest collections—the Jātakas, the Pañcatantra, and the Kathāsaritsāgara. It goes like this: A sage catches a mouse, which changes into a girl. He treats her as his daughter and wants to marry her to the greatest being in the world. He begins with the sun, then goes to the cloud that covers the sun, the wind that moves the cloud, the mountain that stops the wind, and finally to a mouse that digs holes in the mountain. He changes his daughter back to a mouse and marries her to a mouse, thereby returning everything to the status quo. Such tales are arguments for the status quo, against someone wishing to live beyond the station to which he was born, and are so used in conversation.