IN the stories narrated in the Puranas, birds and beasts speak like men, and sometimes they give sound advice and even teach spiritual wisdom. But the natural qualities of those creatures are adroitly made to peep through this human veil.
One of the characteristic beauties of the Puranic literature is this happy fusion of nature and imagination. In a delightful passage in the Ramayana, Hanuman, who is described as very wise and learned, is made to frolic with apish joy, when he imagined that the beautiful damsel he saw at Ravana's inner courtyard was Sita.
It is usual to entertain children with stories in which birds and beasts are made to speak. But the stories of the Puranas are meant for elderly people, and in them usually some background is given in explanation of animals having the gift of human speech.
The usual expedient employed is a previous birth when those creatures were human beings. For instance, a deer was a rishi in a previous birth, or a fox a king. The subsequent degradation being due to a curse.
In such cases the deer will act as a deer and yet speak as a rishi, and in the fox the clever nature is shot through with the characteristics of a wise and experienced king. The stories are thereby made interesting vehicles of the great truths they sometimes convey.
Khandavaprastha, that forest full of uneven places and thorns and prickles and cumbered with the crumbling vestiges of a long dead city, was indeed a frightful place when it came into the possession of the Pandavas.
Birds and beasts had made it their abode, and it was infested with thieves and wicked men. Krishna and Arjuna resolved to set fire to the forest and construct a new city in its place.
A saranga bird was living there with its four fledgelings. The male bird was pleasantly roaming about in the forest with another female bird neglecting wife and children. The mother bird looked after its young ones.
As the forest was set on fire as commanded by Krishna and Arjuna and the fire spread in all directions, doing its destructive work, the worried mother bird began to lament:
'The fire is coming nearer and nearer burning everything, and soon it will be here and destroy us. All forest creatures are in despair and the air is full of the agonising crash of falling trees. Poor wingless babies! You will become a prey to the fire. What shall I do? Your father has deserted us, and I am not strong enough to fly away carrying you with me."
"Mother, do not torment yourself on our account. Leave us to our fate. If we die here, we shall attain a good birth in some future life. If you give up your life for our sake, our family will become extinct. Fly to a place of safety, take another mate and be happy. You will soon have other children and be able to forget us. Mother, reflect and do what is best for our race."
Despite this earnest entreaty, the mother had no mind to leave her children. She said: "I shall remain here and perish in the flames with you."
This is the background of the story of the birds. A rishi named Mandapala long lived faithful to his vow of perfect brahmacharya but when he sought entry to the higher regions, the gatekeeper said: "There is no place here for a childless man" and turned him back. He was then born as a saranga bird and lived with a female companion named Jarita. She laid four eggs. Then he left Jarita and wandered in the woods with another female companion, Lapita.
The four eggs of Jarita hatched in time and they were the four birds mentioned above. As they were the children of a rishi they could cheer and encourage their mother in the way they did.
The mother bird told her children: "There is a rat-hole by the side of this tree. I shall put you there. You can get into the hole and escape the fire. I shall close the mouth of the hole with earth and the fire will not touch you. When the fire dies down I shall let you out."
The children would not agree. They said: "The rat in the hole will devour us. It is better to perish in the flames than to die ignobly by being eaten up by rats."
The mother bird tried to relieve the fears of the children and said: "I saw an eagle devour the rat. There is now no danger for you inside the hole."
But the children said: "There are sure to be other rats in the hole. Our danger is not ended by the killing of one rat by the eagle. Kindly save your life by flying before the fire reaches us and this tree catches fire. We cannot get into the rat-hole. Why should you sacrifice your life for our sake? How have we merited it, who have done nothing for you? We have only brought you unhappiness since we came into the world. Take another mate and live happily."
The fire which destroyed the whole forest, mercifully left the baby birds unscathed. When the fire had subsided, the mother bird came back and saw with wonder that her children were safe and chirping merrily. She embraced them and was intensely happy.
While the fire was raging, the male bird, anxious for the safety of his young ones, had expressed his fears to his new love-bird Lapita. She had petulantly upbraided him. Hearing his repeated laments "Is it so?" she said: "I know your mind, I know that you desire to go back to Jarita, having had enough of me. Why falsely bring in the fire and the children? You have yourself told me that the children of Jarita would never perish in fire since the Fire god has given you that boon. You may as well tell the truth and go away, if you like, to your beloved Jarita. I shall only be another of the many trusting females betrayed by unworthy males and cast out wandering in the forest. You may go."
The bird Mandapala said: "Your assumption is untrue. I took birth as a bird for obtaining children and I am naturally anxious about them.
I shall just go and see them and then come back to you " Having thus consoled his new mate, be went to the tree where Jarita was seated.
Jarita paid no attention to her consort but remained absorbed in joy at finding her children alive.
Then she turned to her husband and asked in an indifferent tone why he had come. He replied with affection:
"Are my children happy? Who is the eldest among them?"
Then Jarita cut in icily: "Do you greatly care? Go back to her for whom you abandoned me. Be happy with her."
Mandapala philosophised: "A woman will not care for her husband after she has become a mother. Such is the way of the world. Even the blameless Vasishtha was thus ignored by Arundhati."