57. A Shepherd's Pilgrimage
A brahmin once started out on a pilgrimage to Kashi. A shepherd who was grazing his sheep on the mound asked him, “ Swami, where are you going?”
“I'll go where I want to. You stay with your sheep,” said the brahmin.
“O brahmin sir, please tell me where you are going,” begged the shepherd.
The brahmin replied, “I'm going to Kashi.”
“If you're going to Kashi, I'll come with you,” said the shepherd.
“What will you do with the sheep?”
“O, nothing. They'll graze their fill and then they'll go home. People there will look after them. Let me go with you.”
“All right, you can come with me,” said the brahmin.
So they walked towards Kashi together. After a little while, the shepherd asked, “ Swami, where is Kashi?”
“You'll see it, you'll see it. Don't be in such a stupid hurry.”
“ Ayyo, then show it to me. Where is it?”
“Don't behave like an impatient demon. Just come with me. You are a shepherd. You won't be able to see the goddess of the Ganges anyway.”
“You said you'll show me Kashi. Where is it?” asked the shepherd.
“It's not too far. Come and see the bank of the Ganges,” said the brahmin, showing him the holy river.
“Then where is Kashi?”
“Here, you idiot, right in front of you. This is Kashi. And this is the River Ganges. And don't you talk to me now. I have to take my bath,” said the brahmin.
“ Ayyo, why are you doing this to me? I was grazing my sheep and you said you would show me Kashi. Here you show me this river, this water. You are a phony brahmin. Do we have to come this far to see a bit of water? Don't we have water in our village tank?” scolded the shepherd.
The goddess Ganges heard this and found it terribly amusing. Everyone was overawed by her river, the Ganges, holiest of rivers. Here was someone who wasn't even impressed by it. So she laughed aloud, and came straight up out of the river. She held him by the chin affectionately, asked him to open his mouth and show her his tongue. When he put out his tongue, she called him a poor dear fool and wrote magic letters on his tongue and blessed him: “May you understand the language of all eighteen million beings. And you'll be crowned king in three days. But if you tell anyone about this, may your head break into a thousand pieces!” And then she vanished.
The brahmin meanwhile dipped and dipped in the holy water of the Ganges and didn't get even one glimpse of the goddess. But the idiot shepherd had understood everything in a flash, in that one moment. He left the brahmin behind and walked on by himself. He listened to the birds and understood what they said. He listened to the ants and understood what the ants said.
He soon walked into a city where the reigning king had just died. According to custom, they had sent out the royal elephant with a garland. While the people of the city stood in the streets anxiously waiting for the elephant to pick the next king and garland him, it wandered towards the shepherd, who was standing there watching the fun, threw the garland round his neck, picked him up, and placed him on its back. The people cheered and led him to the palace to crown him king. They even found a princess for him and asked him to rule the kingdom.
One day, he asked his queen to play pachisi on the terrace. As the two of them sat down to play and started rolling the dice, a line of ants was forming close to where they sat. The ant at the head of the line saw the couple playing dice, and turned around. The whole line scattered at once and began to move away. The ant-in-chief asked the one in front why the line was moving away. It replied, “O, look, the king is sitting there. I felt a bit shy.”
The chief ant replied, “Why do you have to be shy? Let's march right in front of him. What can he do to us?”
The king heard it all. He understood every word of it and burst out laughing. The queen asked him why. He said evasively, “Because I'm going to win and you're going to lose.”
She said, “I know that's not why you laughed. Tell me the truth.”
He said, “Well, I could tell you. But if I did, my head would split into a thousand pieces.”
“Even if your head should split into a thousand pieces, you should tell me. Yes, you must,” said the queen, pouting.
“Do I really have to tell you? Don't you want me to stay alive?”
“Live or die, but you must tell me why you laughed the way you did.”
“Then I'd rather die. Make arrangements for the funeral. Order seven cartloads of sandalwood for the cremation fire,” said the king. And at once she ordered seven cartloads of sandalwood and made a fire in a pit.
Before he threw himself in the fire he thought he should circumambulate his capital city. As he walked through the city in a ritual procession, his eyes fell on a he-goat and a she-goat grazing on an old fort wall. The he-goat said, “Get me those leaves that have fallen there. I can't reach them.”
The she-goat replied, “I can't. It's too close to the edge. I may fall and die.”
The he-goat said, “If you die, I won't become a widower. I'll get another she-goat. I'm not like the foolish king of this country who is ready to fall into the fire because he can't tell his wife what's on his mind. Why can't he throw her into the fire and get himself another queen?”
The king stopped there for a minute and heard what the he-goat had said. He turned to his wife and asked her, “Do you really want to hear why I laughed?”
“Yes, what else?” she said.
“If I tell you, I'll die!”
“Then die if you must. Tell me first and then die,” said she.
By this time they had come to the pit of fire. When they reached the edge, instead of jumping into it himself, he seized her and threw her into the blazing fire. Then he got himself another queen and lived for a long time.
[AT 670, The Animal Languages.]