37. The Magician and His Disciple
A childless king did penance (tapas) and prayed to Siva. By His grace, he had two sons. The king and queen fondly doted on these children of their late years. Enemy kings took advantage of his being very old and his children being very young. They laid siege to his kingdom. The king could not withstand the attack. Vanquished, he left the palace with his wife and children while it was still honorable to do so. He went to a faraway kingdom and lived there as a beggar. The hardships of his life did not bother him, but he did worry about his children. They were already seven and eight, and he was anxious about their education. One day he went to a learned guru and pleaded with him: “You must take my children under your wing and give them a proper education. I am poor. I cannot offer you money. But I can give you one of my children as repayment.”
The guru agreed and kept the children with him. The old king returned to his beggar's life.
The guru was good to the boys. He sent the older boy to graze cows and taught him little skills like counting. The younger boy was very smart. When the guru showed him one thing, he learned ten things. He learned the eighteen mythologies, the six sciences, and the four Vedas. Besides, he became expert in the arts of magic—sorcery, legerdemain, especially in metempsychosis, the subtle art of entering other bodies. Very soon he was better than his guru.
One day the younger son sat in a corner and looked into the far distance with his inner eye to see what his parents were doing. He was grieved by their hardships. His heart melted for them. They had not one but two sons. Yet their old age was empty; they had nothing but trouble. He also learned about his father's promise. As repayment for his sons' education, his father was going to give away one of them. But the clever guru had taught his elder brother only to be a cowherd, and had educated only him, the younger of the two. There must be some trick, some treachery in this arrangement.
The young man got up, thinking, “If I don't do something about this right now, my parents will lose me and die in poverty.” He changed at once into a bird, flew to his parents' place, and changed back into himself before he entered their hut. As their son touched their feet respectfully, the old king and queen were full of joy. They touched his hair, fondled his face, held his hand, and blessed him.
“Son, what brought you here? Is everything well? Tell us,” they asked.
The son said, “Father, ever since you left us in the care of our guru, my brother and I have done everything to please him. The guru has taught me everything, but he has neglected my brother. He sends him out everyday with the cows. I know you've promised to give one of us to him. When the time comes, offer to give the guru my brother and ask for me. He will tell you all sorts of things—how wonderful my brother is, how much smarter and better educated he is. But you must be stubborn, insist that you want only the younger boy. I'll take care of the rest. I came here only to tell you this.”
Then he touched their feet again, changed into a bird, and flew away.
His old father waited for the right day, chose an auspicious hour, and went to the guru. When the guru learned of the father's visit, he dressed the older brother in silk, brought him to the school room, made him sit in front as if he were a top-ranking Number One student, and spread big books in front of him. In his conversation, he named him several times. As for the younger brother, he was dressed in rags and made to sit with the stupidest pupils. When the old father arrived, the guru showed him both his sons and said, “Look, of your two sons, the older boy is brilliant. He learns everything before you even mention it. He has become a great scholar. But the younger fellow listens to nothing I say. Nothing enters his head. He doesn't want to do anything. He grazes cattle. You can have one of these two. Tell me which one you want.”
The old king remembered what his young son had told him when he came as a bird. He replied, “Wise sir, you've taught at least one of them some good sense. You've taken a lot of trouble over them. That's a great thing. Whatever happens to me now, you shouldn't be harmed or cheated. So I'll give you the smart fellow, the older brother. You keep him. I'll take the stupid one. The older fellow is too smart for us; when he sees how poor we are, he'll leave us one day in search of better things. The younger fellow will adjust to our poverty better.”
The guru thought, “I gave him a finger. He took the whole hand.” In spite of all his persuasions, the old king insisted on taking the younger son, and finally did so.
When they reached home, the son was hungry and wanted food. As the father had spent all day in travel, he had not gone out that day to beg. So there was no food at home. The parents told him how they lived, showed him how little they had. That night they all drank water and went to bed.
Early next morning, the son heard a town crier beat his tom-tom and make an announcement: “A reward, a reward for anyone who will bring a rooster to fight the palace rooster!”
The young man woke up his father at once and said, “Father, let's make some money. I'll become a rooster. Take me to the palace and sell me for a thousand rupees.”
And he changed into a big fat rooster. Somewhat fearfully, the father held the rooster under his arm and took it to the palace. The local king was thrilled with it. He gave the old man a thousand rupees as a reward and also a new turban as a special gift. The servants brought an iron coop and covered the rooster with it. As soon as they disappeared, the rooster turned into a bandicoot, burrowed a hole in the ground, and returned to his parents as their beloved prince.
That evening the palace was ready for the cockfight. When they picked up the iron coop, the cock was gone. There was only a big rat hole in the ground. The servants ran to the king and told him that a bandicoot had eaten up the rooster. He couldn't believe it, so he too came and looked. In his dismay, he said: “It's a shame that in such a solid palace as ours there are bandicoots and rats that make burrows. I'm ashamed to live in such a palace. Break it down and build a stronger palace!”
Work began that very day.
The thousand rupees the parents got for the rooster didn't last very long. “What next?” asked the old man. The son said, “Father, in this town there's a merchant named Ratnakara. He fancies horses. I'll change into a rare breed of horse. You can sell it to him for a thousand rupees.”
Then he changed into a rare breed of horse called Pancakalyani, “the breed of five virtues.” The old king took the horse to the merchant Ratnakara. The merchant looked at it and knew at once what a splendid horse it was. He said, “This looks like a valuable horse. But we must get its quality, the condition of its teeth and the whorls on its body, examined by experts.”
Then he sent for the guru who had taught him much about horses. The guru came down and carefully examined the horse's mouth and teeth and every inch of its body all the way down to the tip of its tail. It didn't take him long to discover that the horse was no other than his own pupil, who was now playing tricks on people. He was still hurting from having to give him up. He knew he had been outwitted then by his own prize pupil. He felt he couldn't let it happen again. He couldn't let the young fellow get too strong and do his master in. So he made plans to destroy him. He told the merchant, “O surely, this is a rare breed. No doubt about it. But there are things wrong with its quality, the whorls aren't right. The science of horses says that only a sanyasi can ride it safely. So I'll buy it. Why don't you give me a gift of a thousand rupees? Giving a brahmin such a gift will earn you merit.”
The merchant Ratnakara gave him the money. The guru gave the bewildered old king the thousand rupees and bought the horse.
Then the guru mounted the horse and rode it roughshod. He rode it into pits and craters, onto boulders and craggy places, till the horse was dying of fatigue and thirst, and then he took it to a creek with a tiny trickle of water. The pupil who was the horse knew his guru's treacherous plans and made his own calculations. As soon as he touched water, he changed into a fish and glided away in the water. The guru saw what was happening and at once called his disciples. He asked them to pour poison into the water. They ran to the hermitage to get the poison.
The prince, who was now a fish, knew he would be killed if he stayed in the water. He looked around. He saw an untouchable whetting his knife, getting ready to cut up a dead buffalo. The prince quickly left his fish form and entered the carcass of the dead buffalo. When the untouchable turned around, he saw the dead buffalo get up and walk away. He started running, panic-stricken, screaming that a demon had entered the dead beast. The watchful guru knew at once that this was another of his star pupil's tricks. He stopped the untouchable and told him, “Look here. If you run like this, this demon buffalo will destroy you. You must kill it now. I'll help you.”
They quickly captured the fleeing animal and forcibly tied it to a tree. The guru told the untouchable, “Strike now with your knife.”
The prince didn't know what to do and was about to give up when he saw a many-colored parrot lying dead in the bole of that very tree. Just as the untouchable was swinging his knife at him, the prince entered the parrot's body and flew up into the sky. The guru took the form of a brahmany-kite and gave him chase. But after all, the pupil was young, the guru was old. Though the kite had large wings, he couldn't move them fast enough. The parrot flew farther and farther away. As he flew over a palace, he saw a princess on the terrace, shaking out and drying her long hair in the sunshine after a bath. She was exquisitely beautiful. The parrot flew down and perched right on the back of her hand. She was amazed. Who wouldn't be glad if a lovely parrot came all on its own and perched on one's hand? She caressed it, kissed it, talked to it. She was beside herself with delight when she found that the parrot could also talk.
When the kite saw her take the bird in, he knew his enemy had eluded him. He was downcast, but he flew on, hatching new plots.
The princess loved the many-colored parrot and took great care of it, never letting it out of her sight. She would bathe, eat, and sleep in the company of the parrot in the cage. After several days, the prince who was now a parrot waited one night till the princess was asleep and came out of the cage. He changed into his human form, gently undressed the princess, fondled her all over, and returned to the cage as a parrot.
In the morning, when the princess woke up, her sari was in disarray. Her body still remembered the touch of a man. Was it a dream, or had someone come into her bedroom? All the doors of her chamber were shut. The sentinels outside were still there. Not even a fly could have come in past the wakeful sentinels and the bustling maids. Who could have entered her bedroom and done these things to her? If he (she was sure it was a man) came once, he would come again. She would catch him next time, she decided, and settled her disheveled clothes.
That night she didn't play long with the parrot. She went to bed early and lay there pretending to be asleep. At midnight, the parrot came out of the cage and turned into a prince. He came to her bed and started doing what he had done the previous night. The princess got up suddenly, caught his hands, and asked him, “Who the devil are you? How did you get here? You were a parrot. How did you become a man?”
The prince, caught in the act, had to tell her the truth. He told her his whole life. He confessed: “It's true what I did was wrong. But I couldn't control myself when I saw you lying there in all your beauty. You must become mine. Or else, I'll be heartbroken.”
As he blurted out his love, the princess too loved him.
“Who in the world has your looks, your magical powers? You are my husband from this moment. I'll help you in any way I can,” she promised.
The prince used his magical inner eye again and learned of his guru's plots even as he sat there on her bed. Then he said to her, “Princess, tomorrow my guru will come to this palace in the guise of an acrobat. He wants to kill me. He will please your father with his marvelous acrobatic feats and ask for a reward. When your father offers him gold and silver, he'll refuse it and ask for the parrot in the princess's bedroom. Your father will send maids to get the parrot. You must refuse. He will send maids again and again, many times. Then you get into a rage and break the neck of the parrot in front of them all. But my guru will not stop there. He'll ask for the necklace of pearls round your neck. At that point, you tear off the pearl necklace and throw it down. I'll do the rest.”
After this talk, he made love to the princess most tenderly, and went back to the cage as a parrot.
Next day, just as the prince had foretold, the guru did come in the guise of an acrobat. He showed the king and the court various kinds of fabulous tricks. They all shouted happily, “Great! Terrific!” The delighted king held out to him a handful of gold coins. But the acrobat would have none of it. He said, “Your Highness, your daughter has a many-colored parrot. That's what I'd like to have. Give it to me if you wish. I want nothing else.”
The king sent maids to the balcony, where the princess sat watching. She refused to yield the parrot two or three times. When the king insisted, she came down, threw a tantrum, and twisted the parrot's neck, killing it then and there.
The acrobat now asked for the pearl necklace that had appeared magically around her neck. In her rage, she pulled it off and spilled the pearls on the court floor. The pearls turned into little worms. The acrobat ran towards them, quickly changed into a hen, and began to peck at them and devour them. At once the prince, who was now the worms on the floor, abruptly changed into a tomcat, leaped on the hen, and held it by its neck.
The guru cried out from within the hen, “ Ayyo, I'm defeated. I surrender. Let me go now. Remember, you were once my disciple.”
The disciple screamed from within the cat, “No, you're full of lies. I'm going to kill you this time, so that you won't bother me or anyone else again.”
All the people who were standing around were astonished at the turn of events. Cats and hens talking like human beings! Can such things be?The king, who had recovered his poise sooner than others, raised his voice: “Who are you? What's with all these shapes?” he asked.
The hen squeaked, “Ask the cat.”
The cat explained, beginning with, “This is my guru. I was his disciple,” and went on to tell the whole story: how his father had lost his kingdom, how he had sent his two sons to the guru, how the guru had tried to cheat his father, how he had himself escaped all the villainous plots, right up to the present moment. The king heard the story and said, “A guru shouldn't be killed. Let him go. He will not bother you anymore.”
The prince was now confident of his powers. He could counter whatever the guru did, escape every snare. So he showed mercy and let the guru go. Both of them gave up their animal forms, as cat and hen, and became human again.
The king married his daughter to the young prince and gave him half his kingdom as dowry. The prince brought home to the palace his elder brother from the guru's place, and sent palanquins to his parents, who had seen life at its worst, a king and a queen who had lived as beggars. He waged war against his father's old enemies and won back his father's kingdom for him.
Everyone was happy. Even the guru.
Types and Motifs
Type AT 325, The Magician and his Pupil. Well-known in many parts of India and also throughout Europe, this tale was used as a test case in a nineteenth-century controversy over the Indian origin of European folktales. Theodor Benfey, in the Prolegomena to his Pantschatantra (1859), used it to illustrate the way in which tales from India are taken over into Mongolian literature and through this intermediary carried to Europe. Some fifty years later, his disciple, Emmanuel Cosquin, used the same tale to dispute the Mongolian connection and to confirm the Indian origin of the tales. “Among the most popular of oral stories” in Europe (Thompson 1946:69), it is told in the sixteenth century by Straparola, appears in collections of the Near East and southern Siberia, and is told in the Dutch East Indies, the Philippines, and North Africa, and was brought to Missouri by the French and to Massachusetts by Portuguese-speaking Cape Verde Island Negroes (see Thompson, ibid, for details). The plot is remarkably constant in all these tellings. Minor variations occur in the Transformation Flight (Motif D 671), in which the hero transforms himself into objects, animals, or other persons to deceive the pursuer. In some tellings, we have an Obstacle Flight (D 672), in which the fleeing hero throws behind him magic objects that become obstacles in the pursuer's path (e.g., comb becomes forest, pebble becomes hill).
In India this tale of rivalry between an older and a younger man throws light on Indian “Oedipal patterns.” As I've written elsewhere, the Indian Oedipus-figure is pursued, exiled, or otherwise overwhelmed by the father-figure. Unlike the Greek (and European) Oedipus, he almost never kills his father, but submits to him. But the overt rivalry between the generations is most often seen in guru/disciple stories. Guru and disciple are traditionally equated with father and son. The classic, and classical, case is that of Vasista and Visvamitra in the Mahābhārata, which also involves the Brahmin/Kshatriya rivalry and hierarchy (see Ramanujan 1983). It is characteristic, I think, of Indian folklore patterns that in this tale the disciple/son vanquishes and almost (but not quite) kills the guru/father. In the classical instances (e.g., Vasista and Visvamitra), the younger man never wins. In the folktale, he does win, but the rivalry stops short of parricide (guru-cide). In European tellings, the disciple (as cat, etc.) bites off the head of his master (as a rooster). The above is a simplified discussion of a complex issue.
The motif D 622.1, animal by day, man by night, in which a woman or a man takes into her/his bedroom a bird in a cage or an animal that turns into a human being at night, is a common motif. See Tale No. 71, “The Turtle Prince.”