The Old Tiger and the Traveller

This is a translation by Arthur W. Ryder (published 1908) of the first (non-frame) story from the Hitopadesha. If you like this (and even if you don’t), you will like his translation of the Panchantantra.

The Hitopadesha, like the Panchatantra, is a collection of emboxed stories, with interspersed verses—often quotations from famous sources—illustrating various morals that are not always followed by the characters. In a sense, the Hitopadesha is a “rewrite” of the Panchatantra, as it contains many of the same stories, but it streamlines the flow of the narrative and draws from many additional sources as well. It is written in fairly simple Sanskrit. The whole Sanskrit text is available at GRETIL, and a word-for-word translation by Max Mueller is also available online (v.2).

If you see below on the left the page images from a printed book, they are from the book “Friendly Advice” and “King Víkrama’s Adventures” by Judit Törzsök, published as part of the Clay Sanskrit Library series. The images are from a preview of the book, where you can read Ms. Törzsök’s translation. I trust that five pages of a 737-page book qualifies as fair use, and not copyright infringement. The Sanskrit text here is printed in Roman letters, using, in addition to the common International Alphabet of Sanskrit Transliteration, an unconventional notation to help with sandhi, but if you find it confusing, just ignore all the punctuation and spaces, and you’ll be able to read it as easily as “normal” IAST.

Ryder may have used a very slightly different text from the one here, but the differences are clear and not of much importance. This is one of those stories in which the verses are of more interest than the simple plot. The “moral” of the story—the context in which the story is told—is that one must not act without thinking (“ataḥ sarvathā avicāritaṃ karma na kartavyam”).

Without further preamble…

The old Tiger and the Traveller

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One day I was wandering in the southern forest and there I saw an old tiger who had taken the ceremonial bath and was holding a bunch of sacred grass in his paw. He was sitting on the edge of a pond and every once in a while he would call out: “Travellers! Travellers! Here is a golden bracelet which is yours for the taking.”

Now one and another, after listening to the tiger, became frightened, and none would go near him. But by and by there came one greedy wayfarer who thought: "This is a lucky chance. Yet I suppose I ought not to take so great a risk. For I know:

The blessing of a blessing dies,
    If come upon in evil ways;
The very draught that deifies,
    If it be poisoned, slays.

On the other hand, the winning of a good thing always involves a certain risk. As the proverb says:

To him who never takes a chance,
Fortune her favor never grants;
But to the bold her favor gives,
And he is happy—if he lives.

Suppose I investigate."

So he said aloud: “Where is this bracelet of yours?”

The tiger held out his paw and showed the bracelet, but the traveller said: “How can I trust a bloodthirsty creature like you?”

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“Listen, good traveller,” answered the tiger, "long ago when I was young I was terribly wicked. I killed any number of cows and Brahmans and men, and in revenge I don’t know how many of my own sons were killed, and my wife too. To-day I am alone in the world. Then a certain pious man taught me to practise blessed charity, and I am now following his teachings. I take my ceremonial bath, I give gifts, I am old, my claws and teeth are fallen out, and I show mercy. Why should you not trust me? You know yourself what the eight cardinal virtues are:

Gifts to God's creatures, gifts to God,
    Study, and penance, self-restraint,
Absence of greed, and lack of fraud,
    And patience: these make up the saint.

Now the first four may practised be
For show, without sincerity;
But the last four are only found
In those whose inmost heart is sound.

Now I am so free from greed that, though I hold this bracelet of gold in my own paw, I am eager to give it to anyone who wants it. But there you have the saying ‘Tiger eats man,’ and it is hard to get around it. You know yourself:

In ancient ruts the world moves even now;
    And though sage words from harlot lips may flow,
    Men rather heed the Brahman's counsel, though
He may have murdered some unhappy cow.

Besides, I have studied the sacred law. Listen:

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As heaven's water in a thirsty place,
    As food to them that faint,
Thrice blest the gift, O pride of Pandu's race,
    Which beggar takes from saint.

Their life to other creatures is as dear,
    As your life is to you;
The saint has pity for another's fear,
    And takes his point of view.

A man may read his duty clear
    In giving—and withholding too,
In woe and weal, in smile and tear:
    "Just take the other's point of view."


Who sees in all that lives his own dear life,
    Who sees in others' wealth a clod, a weed,
As his own mother sees his neighbor's wife,
    He sees, he sees indeed.

Now you are a poor man. That is why I am particularly anxious to give you this. For the proverb says:

Unto the poor give alms, my son,
    Waste not your gold on men of wealth;
With medicine much can be done,
    But not for men in perfect health.

And again:

When place and time are rightly met,
    The gift in duty's name that's given
To one who cannot pay the debt,
    Will help the giver on to heaven.

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Bathe in this pool therefore and then receive the golden bracelet."

So the traveller plucked up courage and went down into the pool to bathe; but he stuck fast in the mud and could not escape.

The tiger saw that he was stuck, and said: “Aha! You’re stuck fast in the mud. I’ll pull you out.”

So he crept up very, very slowly and caught hold of the traveller, while the traveller was thinking:

Not by theology or Vedic lore
    Can scoundrels win the right to trust complete;
Look at the character; that counts for more:
    The milk of cows is naturally sweet.

The self-baptism of the elephant
    Is like the piety of lustful folk;
The hag beneath her load of gems must pant;
    And sin finds scripture a convenient cloak.

Plainly, I acted foolishly in putting my trust in this bloodthirsty creature. The proverb is right:

The things that can claw, and the things that can gore,
    Are very untrustworthy things;
And a man with a sword in his hand, furthermore,
    And rivers and women and kings.

And again:

The habits we acquire are little worth;
The nature that was ours before our birth
Will master us, while yet we live on earth.

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And yet again:

The thousand-beamed moon that moves alone—
    Denying dark to sin—mid heaven's stars,
Fate's foreordained decree must still atone,
    And meet eclipse, that all her beauty mars.
What power of man can hope to alter now
The lines that fate once wrote upon the infant's brow?"

While he was turning these matters over in his mind, the tiger killed him and ate him.