The sixth weapon and the sticky ghoul

We, like those before us, don’t need telling that the five weapons were the good old panchendri or five senses, those built-in snares that tend to lead each of us astray.
(Photo | Shiba Prasad Sahu, EPS)
(Photo | Shiba Prasad Sahu, EPS)

Old stories are very much about the kind of responses possible to us in various tricky situations, which is what makes them so interesting and valuable. I would like to retell two such tales here. A lesser-known Jataka tells us of the importance of mental agility, or rather, self-control and focus. Jatakas, with their elaborate build-up, may take their time occasionally to get to the point but those were the days of long evenings with oil lamps and scary shadows, just right for a ghoulish yet moral tale. In this story, the ‘Bodhisattva’ or Buddha in a previous birth, was born as a prince of Varanasi. Eight hundred astrologers predicted above his baby head that he would be a great warrior ‘with mastery over the five weapons’. So they named the prince ‘Panchaastra’, meaning ‘five weapons’ in Sanskrit.

We, like those before us, don’t need telling that the five weapons were the good old panchendri or five senses, those built-in snares that tend to lead each of us astray.

In due course, the prince was sent for higher learning to Taxila in the north-west, to an accomplished guru of the age. After a pleasant, useful stay in Taxila, the prince set off home to Varanasi carrying five wonderful weapons gifted by his guru, literally becoming a ‘Panchaastra’ in addition to his mastery of the five senses.

Entering a dark jungle, the prince, in the best classical tradition, was promptly treated to a perfect concert of blood-curdling howls. When these horrific sounds that made even his princely hair stand on end died away to a menacing silence, he was straight away, and with vigour, set upon by a man-eating ghoul. The Jataka reliably informs us that the ghoul had a particularly nasty nature and also rejoiced in sticky skin, staring eyes and an unpleasantly mottled belly.

The prince remained perfectly cool and calm, a credit to both his horoscope and his training. He unleashed one weapon after another at the ghoul but everything that he sent flying at his foe merely stuck to the ghoul’s hair and body.

Finally, he attacked him with his strong, hard fists. But he found that he too was firmly stuck to the ghoul’s skin. Even the nasty ghoul, though determined not to forgo lunch, privately wondered at the prince’s courage. Meanwhile, the prince meditated on the guru he had left behind in Taxila and sure enough, he was rewarded with a thought.

“My greatest weapon is still unused,” he proceeded to calmly inform the ghoul, which by now was quite regretting that it had to eat so likely a lad. “It is a diamond-edged weapon lodged inside me by my
guru’s extraordinary powers. If you eat me, it will tear your guts apart from within. So there.”

Greatly impressed, if not by fear of a fancy astra than certainly by the prince’s bravado, the ghoul freed the prince. It sent him on his way with false, bright promises to desist thereafter from being a menace to society. The prince raced away to safety, mentally saluting his guru for teaching him to think his way out of a fix—the greatest weapon of all.

Another and very poignant Jataka goes that the Bodhisattva was once born as a baby quail in ancient Magadha, which is in present-day Bihar. Of course, the baby quail’s parents knew nothing of their region’s history or that it was a holy land those days where saints and sages walked and taught. The parent birds made their nest in a fine old lodhra tree (a Symplocus racemosa), of which entire forests grew in ancient Magadha, as noted with enthusiasm in several old texts.

Physicians and their apprentices made regular forays into the forest to gather precious lodhra bark for a range of Ayurvedic cures, for it was cherished as a divya aushadi or divine medicine. But the little quail family remained undisturbed deep in the forest. The parent quails flew out every day to forage for their nestling, and life was proceeding exactly as it ought.

One day, however, a sudden fire broke out in the forest. Birds and animals fled in terror as the fire tore unstoppably through the trees. As terrified as the rest, the baby quail’s parents completely lost awareness of everything but the need to save their own lives and flew away, leaving their baby behind.

Hearing the terrible noise of crackling flames, falling branches and the cries of stampeding animals, the baby quail stretched its tiny body to peer out of its nest. When it saw the fire advancing purposefully, it understood the situation at once. “My poor parents have fled in fear, abandoning me to my fate,” it thought. “If my wings were grown, I could fly. If I had legs, I could run away. But I can do neither, and so I must die.”

In that moment of cold clarity, the baby quail found inspiration. “There are only two real powers in this world,” it found itself thinking, “The power of truth and the might of goodness. I accept the truth that I am weak and alone. But I also feel that there must be so much merit stored in the world by the good deeds of good people. Let me call upon both forces.”

Making the most enormous mental effort to block out its terror, the baby quail began to switch off its sight, hearing and other senses, and to concentrate its thoughts into total stillness. When it had withdrawn deep into its mind and could neither hear the noise outside nor feel the heat, it said, “Here am I alone, with wings that cannot fly. By this truth and by the faith that I find in me in the power of goodness, I ask you, O fire, to please turn back without harming me or the others in this forest.”
And, says the Jataka, the fire retreated sixteen paces and died out because of the baby quail’s satyakriya or act of truth.



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