The tiger figures prominently in Indian folklore and mythology. It transcends all divisions – sectarian, linguistic or regional; a reflection of its presence across South Asia, from the cool mountains of Bhutan in the far north to the tropical lowlands of Kerala in the deep south. It is worshiped in myriad forms and depicted in a multitude of roles – bloodthirsty beast, protective spirit, villainous brute or kindly soul. In some of those tales, the big cat is accompanied by the Indian jackal (Canis aureus indicus), a much smaller, far humbler carnivore of the dog family, Canidae. This is a reflection of the combative association between the two species (more about that later) in nature. Here’s one example that was adapted by the Australian folklorist, Joseph Jacobs, in his 1892 collection ‘Indian Fairy Tales’.
The Tiger, the Brahman and the Jackal
Once upon a time, a tiger was caught in a trap. He tried in vain to get out through the bars, and rolled and bit with rage and grief when he failed. By chance a poor Brahman came by. “Let me out of this cage, oh pious one!” cried the tiger. “Nay, my friend,” replied the Brahman mildly, “You would probably eat me if I did.”
“Not at all!” swore the tiger with many oaths; “On the contrary, I should be forever grateful, and serve you as a slave!” Now when the tiger sobbed and sighed and wept and swore, the pious Brahman’s heart softened, and at last he consented to open the door of the cage. Out popped the tiger, and, seizing the poor man, cried, “What a fool you are! What is to prevent my eating you now, for after being cooped up so long I am just terribly hungry!”
In vain the Brahman pleaded for his life; the most he could gain was a promise to abide by the decision of the first three things he chose to question as to the justice of the tiger’s action. So the Brahman first asked a pipal tree what it thought of the matter, but the pipal tree replied coldly, “What have you to complain about? Don’t I give shade and shelter to every one who passes by, and don’t they in return tear down my branches to feed their cattle? Don’t whimper. Be a man!”
Then the Brahman, sad at heart, went further afield till he saw a buffalo turning a well-wheel; but he fared no better from it, for it answered, “You are a fool to expect gratitude! Look at me! Whilst I gave milk they fed me on cotton-seed and oil-cake, but now I am dry they yoke me here, and give me refuse as fodder!” The Brahman, still more sad, asked the road to give him its opinion.
“My dear sir,” said the road, “How foolish you are to expect anything else! Here am I, useful to everybody, yet all, rich and poor, great and small, trample on me as they go past, giving me nothing but the ashes of their pipes and the husks of their grain!” On this the Brahman turned back sorrowfully, and on the way he met a jackal, who called out, “Why, what’s the matter, Mr. Brahman? You look as miserable as a fish out of water!”
The Brahman told him all that had occurred. “How very confusing!” said the jackal, when the recital was ended, “Would you mind telling me over again, for everything has got so mixed up?” The Brahman told it all over again, but the jackal shook his head in a distracted sort of way, and still could not understand. “It’s very odd,” said he, sadly, “But it all seems to go in at one ear and out at the other! I will go to the place where it all happened, and then perhaps I shall be able to give a judgment.”
So they returned to the cage, by which the tiger was waiting for the Brahman, and sharpening his teeth and claws; “You’ve been away a long time!” growled the savage beast, “but now let us begin our dinner.” “Our dinner!” thought the wretched Brahman, as his knees knocked together with fright, “What a remarkably delicate way of putting it!” “Give me five minutes, my lord!” he pleaded, “In order that I may explain matters to the jackal here, who is somewhat slow in his wits.” The tiger consented, and the Brahman began the whole story over again, not missing a single detail, and spinning as long a yarn as possible.
“Oh, my poor brain! Oh, my poor brain!” cried the jackal, wringing its paws. “Let me see! How did it all begin? You were in the cage, and the tiger came walking by…”
“Pooh!” interrupted the tiger, “What a fool you are! I was in the cage.”
“Of course!” cried the jackal, pretending to tremble with fright, “Yes! I was in the cage… No I wasn’t… Dear! Dear! Where are my wits? Let me see… The tiger was in the Brahman, and the cage came walking by… No, that’s not it, either! Well, don’t mind me, but begin your dinner, for I shall never understand!”
“Yes, you shall!” returned the tiger, in a rage at the jackal’s stupidity, “I’ll make you understand! Look here… I am the tiger…”
“Yes, my lord! ”
“And that is the Brahman…”
“Yes, my lord!”
“And that is the cage…”
“Yes, my lord!”
“And I was in the cage. Do you understand?”
“Yes. No. Please, my lord…”
“Well?” cried the tiger impatiently.
“Please, my lord! How did you get in?”
“How! Why in the usual way, of course!”
“Oh, dear me! My head is beginning to whirl again! Please don’t be angry, my lord, but what is the usual way?”
At this the tiger lost patience, and, jumping into the cage, cried, “This way! Now do you understand how it was?”
“Perfectly! ” grinned the jackal, as he dexterously shut the door, “And if you will permit me to say so, I think matters will remain as they were!”
Image Attribution: The image above is sourced from Wikimedia Commons and represents an illustration of the story ‘The Tiger, the Brahman and the Jackal’ from Indian Fairy Tales (1892). The stories were compiled by the Australian folklorist Joseph Jacobs, and illustrated by the English artist John Dickson Batten. The image was scanned from a copy preserved by the New York Public Library, USA.
Reference: Internet Sacred Texts Archive