Vikram and Betal Stories – Of a high-minded family
In the venerable city of Bardwan, O warrior king! (quoth the Vampire) during the reign of the mighty Rupsen, flourished one Rajeshwar, a Rajput warrior of distinguished fame. By his valour and conduct he had risen from the lowest ranks of the army to command it as its captain. And arrived at that dignity, he did not put a stop to all improvements, like other chiefs, who rejoice to rest and return thanks. On the contrary, he became such a reformer that, to some extent, he remodelled the art of war.
Instead of attending to rules and regulations, drawn up in their studies by pandits and Brahmans, he consulted chiefly his own experience and judgment. He threw aside the systematic plans of campaigns laid down in the Shastras or books of the ancients, and he acted upon the spur of the moment. He displayed a skill in the choice of ground, in the use of light troops, and in securing his own supplies whilst he cut off those of the enemy, which Kartikaya himself, God of War, might have envied. Finding that the bows of his troops were clumsy and slow to use, he had them all changed before compelled so to do by defeat; he also gave his attention to the sword handles, which cramped the men’s grasp but which having been used for eighteen hundred years were considered perfect weapons. And having organized a special corps of warriors using fire arrows, he soon brought it to such perfection that, by using it against the elephants of his enemies, he gained many a campaign.
One instance of his superior judgment I am about to quote to thee, O Vikram, after which I return to my tale; for thou art truly a warrior king, very likely to imitate the innovations of the great general Rajeshwar.
(A grunt from the monarch was the result of the Vampire’s sneer.)
He found his master’s armies recruited from Northern Hindustan, and officered by Kshatriya warriors, who grew great only because they grew old and–fat. Thus the energy and talent of the younger men were wasted in troubles and disorders; whilst the seniors were often so ancient that they could not mount their chargers unaided, nor, when they were mounted, could they see anything a dozen yards before them. But they had served in a certain obsolete campaign, and until Rajeshwar gave them pensions and dismissals, they claimed a right to take first part in all campaigns present and future. The commander-in-chief refused to use any captain who could not stand steady on his legs, or endure the sun for a whole day. When a soldier distinguished himself in action, he raised him to the powers and privileges of the warrior caste. And whereas it had been the habit to lavish circles and bars of silver and other metals upon all those who had joined in the war, whether they had sat behind a heap of sand or had been foremost to attack the foe, he broke through the pernicious custom, and he rendered the honour valuable by conferring it only upon the deserving. I need hardly say that, in an inordinately short space of time, his army beat every king and general that opposed it.
One day the great commander-in-chief was seated in a certain room near the threshold of his gate, when the voices of a number of people outside were heard. Rajeshwar asked, “Who is at the door, and what is the meaning of the noise I hear?” The porter replied, “It is a fine thing your honour has asked. Many persons come sitting at the door of the rich for the purpose of obtaining a livelihood and wealth. When they meet together they talk of various things: it is these very people who are now making this noise.”
Rajeshwar, on hearing this, remained silent.
In the meantime a traveller, a Rajput, Birbal by name, hoping to obtain employment, came from the southern quarter to the palace of the chief. The porter having listened to his story, made the circumstance known to his master, saying, “O chief! an armed man has arrived here, hoping to obtain employment, and is standing at the door. If I receive a command he shall be brought into your honour’s presence.”
“Bring him in,” cried the commander-in-chief.
The porter brought him in, and Rajeshwar inquired, “O Rajput, who and what art thou?”
Birbal submitted that he was a person of distinguished fame for the use of weapons, and that his name for fidelity and velour had gone forth to the utmost ends of Bharat-Kandha.
The chief was well accustomed to this style of self introduction, and its only effect upon his mind was a wish to shame the man by showing him that he had not the least knowledge of weapons. He therefore bade him bare his blade and perform some feat.
Birbal at once drew his good sword. Guessing the thoughts which were hovering about the chief’s mind, he put forth his left hand, extending the forefinger upwards, waved his blade like the arm of a demon round his head, and, with a dexterous stroke, so shaved off a bit of nail that it fell to the ground, and not a drop of blood appeared upon the finger-tip.
“Live for ever!” exclaimed Rajeshwar in admiration. He then addressed to the recruit a few questions concerning the art of war, or rather concerning his peculiar views of it. To all of which Birbal answered with a spirit and a judgment which convinced the hearer that he was no common sworder.
Whereupon Rajeshwar bore off the new man at arms to the palace of the king Rupsen, and recommended that he should be engaged without delay.
The king, being a man of few words and many ideas, after hearing his commander-in-chief, asked, “O Rajput, what shall I give thee for thy daily expenditure?”
“Give me a thousand ounces of gold daily,” said Birbal, “and then I shall have wherewithal to live on.”
“Hast thou an army with thee?” exclaimed the king in the greatest astonishment.
“I have not,” responded the Rajput somewhat stiffly. “I have first, a wife; second, a son; third, a daughter; fourth, myself; there is no fifth person with me.”
All the people of the court on hearing this turned aside their heads to laugh, and even the women, who were peeping at the scene, covered their mouths with their veils. The Rajput was then dismissed the presence.
It is, however, noticeable amongst you humans, that the world often takes you at your own valuation. Set a high price upon yourselves, and each man shall say to his neighbour, “In this man there must be something.” Tell everyone that you are brave, clever, generous, or even handsome, and after a time they will begin to believe you. And when thus you have attained success, it will be harder to unconvince them than it was to convince them. Thus—
“Listen not to him, sirrah,” cried Raja Vikram to Dharma Dhwaj, the young prince, who had fallen a little way behind, and was giving ear attentively to the Vampire’s ethics. “Listen to him not. And tell me, villain, with these ignoble principles of shine, what will become of modesty, humility, self-sacrifice, and a host of other Guna or good qualities which–which are good qualities?”
“I know not,” rejoined the Baital, “neither do I care. But my habitually inspiriting a succession of human bodies has taught me one fact. The wise man knows himself, and is, therefore, neither unduly humble nor elated, because he had no more to do with making himself than with the cut of his cloak, or with the fitness of his loin-cloth. But the fool either loses his head by comparing himself with still greater fools, or is prostrated when he finds himself inferior to other and lesser fools. This shyness he calls modesty, humility, and so forth. Now, whenever entering a corpse, whether it be of man, woman, or child, I feel peculiarly modest; I know that my tenement lately belonged to some conceited ass. And–“
“Wouldst thou have me bump thy back against the ground?” asked Raja Vikram angrily.
(The Baital muttered some reply scarcely intelligible about his having this time stumbled upon a metaphysical thread of ideas, and then continued his story.)
Now Rupsen, the king, began by inquiring of himself why the Rajput had rated his services so highly. Then he reflected that if this recruit had asked so much money, it must have been for some reason which would afterwards become apparent. Next, he hoped that if he gave him so much, his generosity might some day turn out to his own advantage. Finally, with this idea in his mind, he summoned Birbal and the steward of his household, and said to the latter, “Give this Rajput a thousand ounces of gold daily from our treasury.”
It is related that Birbal made the best possible use of his wealth. He used every morning to divide it into two portions, one of which was distributed to Brahmans and Parohitas. Of the remaining moiety, having made two parts, he gave one as alms to pilgrims, to Bairagis or Vishnu’s mendicants, and to Sanyasis or worshippers of Shiva, whose bodies, smeared with ashes, were hardly covered with a narrow cotton cloth and a rope about their loins, and whose heads of artificial hair, clotted like a rope, besieged his gate. With the remaining fourth, having caused food to be prepared, he regaled the poor, while he himself and his family ate what was left. Every evening, arming himself with sword and buckler, he took up his position as guard at the royal bedside, and walked round it all night sword in hand. If the king chanced to wake and asked who was present, Birbal immediately gave reply that “Birbal is here; whatever command you give, that he will obey.” And oftentimes Rupsen gave him unusual commands, for it is said, “To try thy servant, bid him do things in season and out of season: if he obey thee willingly, know him to be useful; if he reply, dismiss him at once. Thus is a servant tried, even as a wife by the poverty of her husband, and brethren and friends by asking their aid.”
In such manner, through desire of money, Birbal remained on guard all night; and whether eating, drinking, sleeping, sitting, going or wandering about, during the twenty-four hours, he held his master in watchful remembrance. This, indeed, is the custom; if a man sell another the latter is sold, but a servant by doing service sells himself, and when a man has become dependent, how can he be happy? Certain it is that however intelligent, clever, or learned a man may be, yet, while he is in his master’s presence, he remains silent as a dumb man, and struck with dread. Only while he is away from his lord can he be at ease. Hence, learned men say that to do service aright is harder than any religious study.
On one occasion it is related that there happened to be heard at night-time the wailing of a woman in a neighbouring cemetery. The king on hearing it called out, “Who is in waiting?”
“I am here,” replied Birbal; “what command is there?”
“Go,” spoke the king, “to the place whence proceeds this sound of woman’s wail, and having inquired the cause of her grief, return quickly.”
On receiving this order the Rajput went to obey it; and the king, unseen by him, and attired in a black dress, followed for the purpose of observing his courage.
Presently Birbal arrived at the cemetery. And what sees he there? A beautiful woman of a light yellow colour, loaded with jewels from head to foot, holding a horn in her right and a necklace in her left hand. Sometimes she danced, sometimes she jumped, and sometimes she ran about. There was not a tear in her eye, but beating her head and making lamentable cries, she kept dashing herself on the ground.
Seeing her condition, and not recognizing the goddess born of sea foam, and whom all the host of heaven loved, Birbal inquired, “Why art thou thus beating thyself and crying out? Who art thou? And what grief is upon thee?”
“I am the Royal-Luck,” she replied.
“For what reason,” asked Birbal, “art thou weeping?”
The goddess then began to relate her position to the Rajput. She said, with tears, “In the king’s palace Shudra (or low caste acts) are done, and hence misfortune will certainly fall upon it, and I shall forsake it. After a month has passed, the king, having endured excessive affliction, will die. In grief for this, I weep. I have brought much happiness to the king’s house, and hence I am full of regret that this my prediction cannot in any way prove untrue.”
“Is there,” asked Birbal, “any remedy for this trouble, so that the king may be preserved and live a hundred years?”
“Yes,” said the goddess, “there is. About eight miles to the east thou wilt find a temple dedicated to my terrible sister Devi. Offer to her thy son’s head, cut off with shine own hand, and the reign of thy king shall endure for an age.” So saying Raj-Lakshmi disappeared.
Birbal answered not a word, but with hurried steps he turned towards his home. The king, still in black so as not to be seen, followed him closely, and observed and listened to everything he did.
The Rajput went straight to his wife, awakened her, and related to her everything that had happened. The wise have said, “she alone deserves the name of wife who always receives her husband with affectionate and submissive words.” When she heard the circumstances, she at once aroused her son, and her daughter also awoke. Then Birbal told them all that they must follow him to the temple of Devi in the wood.
On the way the Rajput said to his wife, “If thou wilt give up thy son willingly, I will sacrifice him for our master’s sake to Devi the Destroyer.”
She replied, “Father and mother, son and daughter, brother and relative, have I now none. You are everything to me. It is written in the scripture that a wife is not made pure by gifts to priests, nor by performing religious rites; her virtue consists in waiting upon her husband, in obeying him and in loving him–yea! though he be lame, maimed in the hands, dumb, deaf, blind, one eyed, leprous, or humpbacked. It is a true saying that ‘a son under one’s authority, a body free from sickness, a desire to acquire knowledge, an intelligent friend, and an obedient wife; whoever holds these five will find them bestowers of happiness and dispellers of affliction. An unwilling servant, a parsimonious king, an insincere friend, and a wife not under control; such things are disturbers of ease and givers of trouble.'”
Then the good wife turned to her son and said “Child by the gift of thy head, the king’s life may be spared, and the kingdom remain unshaken.”
“Mother,” replied that excellent youth, “in my opinion we should hasten this matter. Firstly, I must obey your command; secondly, I must promote the interests of my master; thirdly, if this body be of any use to a goddess, nothing better can be done with it in this world.”
(“Excuse me, Raja Vikram,” said the Baital, interrupting himself, “if I repeat these fair discourses at full length; it is interesting to hear a young person, whose throat is about to be cut, talk so like a doctor of laws.”)
Then the youth thus addressed his sire: “Father, whoever can be of use to his master, the life of that man in this world has been lived to good purpose, and by reason of his usefulness he will be rewarded in other worlds.”
His sister, however, exclaimed, “If a mother should give poison to her daughter, and a father sell his son, and a king seize the entire property of his subjects, where then could one look for protection?” But they heeded her not, and continued talking as they journeyed towards the temple of Devi–the king all the while secretly following them.
Presently they reached the temple, a single room, surrounded by a spacious paved area; in front was an immense building capable of seating hundreds of people. Before the image there were pools of blood, where victims had lately been slaughtered. In the sanctum was Devi, a large black figure with ten arms. With a spear in one of her right hands she pierced the giant Mahisha; and with one of her left hands she held the tail of a serpent, and the hair of the giant, whose breast the serpent was biting. Her other arms were all raised above her head, and were filled with different instruments of war; against her right leg leaned a lion.
Then Birbal joined his hands in prayer, and with Hindu mildness thus addressed the awful goddess: “O mother, let the king’s life be prolonged for a thousand years by the sacrifice of my son. O Devi, mother! destroy, destroy his enemies! Kill! kill! Reduce them to ashes! Drive them away! Devour them! devour them! Cut them in two! Drink! drink their blood! Destroy them root and branch! With thy thunderbolt, spear, scymitar, discus, or rope, annihilate them! Spheng! Spheng!”
The Rajput, having caused his son to kneel before the goddess, struck him so violent a blow that his head rolled upon the ground. He then threw the sword down, when his daughter, frantic with grief, snatched it up and struck her neck with such force that her head, separated from her body, fell. In her turn the mother, unable to survive the loss of her children, seized the weapon and succeeded in decapitating herself. Birbal, beholding all this slaughter, thus reflected: “My children are dead why, now, should I remain in servitude, and upon whom shall I bestow the gold I receive from the king?” He then gave himself so deep a wound in the neck, that his head also separated from his body.
Rupsen, the king, seeing these four heads on the ground, said in his heart, “For my sake has the family of Birbal been destroyed. Kingly power, for the purpose of upholding which the destruction of a whole household is necessary, is a mere curse, and to carry on government in this manner is not just.” He then took up the sword and was about to slay himself, when the Destroying Goddess, probably satisfied with bloodshed, stayed his hand, bidding him at the same time ask any boon he pleased.
The generous monarch begged, thereupon, that his faithful servant might be restored to life, together with all his high-minded family; and the goddess Devi in the twinkling of an eye fetched from Patala, the regions below the earth, a vase full of Amrita, the water of immortality, sprinkled it upon the dead, and raised them all as before. After which the whole party walked leisurely home, and in due time the king divided his throne with his friend Birbal.
Having stopped for a moment, the Baital proceeded to remark, in a sententious tone, “Happy the servant who grudges not his own life to save that of his master! And happy, thrice happy the master who can annihilate all greedy longing for existence and worldly prosperity. Raja, I have to ask thee one searching question–Of these five, who was the greatest fool?”
“Demon!” exclaimed the great Vikram, all whose cherished feelings about fidelity and family affection, obedience, and high-mindedness, were outraged by this Vampire view of the question; “if thou meanest by the greatest fool the noblest mind, I reply without hesitating Rupsen, the king.”
“Why, prithee?” asked the Baital.
“Because, dull demon,” said the king, “Birbal was bound to offer up his life for a master who treated him so generously; the son could not disobey his father, and the women naturally and instinctively killed themselves, because the example was set to them. But Rupsen the king gave up his throne for the sake of his retainer, and valued not a straw his life and his high inducements to live. For this reason I think him the most meritorious.”
“Surely, mighty Vikram,” laughed the Vampire, “you will be tired of ever clambering up yon tall tree, even had you the legs and arms of Hanuman himself.”
And so saying he disappeared from the cloth, although it had been placed upon the ground.
But the poor Baital had little reason to congratulate himself on the success of his escape. In a short time he was again bundled into the cloth with the usual want of ceremony, and he revenged himself by telling another true story.