Each culture has its set of trickster characters, creatures that rely on sheer presence of mind to haul themselves and others out of trouble. Often, the trickster uses its wits to survive in a merciless world. On other occasions, it puts its brains to work helping those who have fallen on difficult times. Sometimes, all that cunning is of no use and ends with the trickster paying with its life. In many parts of the world, it is a small and inconspicuous canid that plays the part – the Coyote (Canis latrans) of North America, the Red Fox of Europe (Vulpes vulpes), the Black Backed Jackal (Canis mesomelas) of Africa and the Golden Jackal of Asia (Canis aureus). Their resourceful behaviour and social nature made humans identify them as kindred spirits. In fact, members of the dog family (the Canidae) depend a great deal on their social organization to hold their own against much larger animals.

Over the millennia, different cultures developed their own folklore of devious wild dogs. Here’s one such tale, from the Buddhist Jatakas – the ‘Bilara Jataka’. It tells the story of a Jackal that began preying upon a pack of rats by pretending to be a saint, only to be discovered and killed in turn. The Jatakas are a vast collection of stories dealing with ethics and human behaviour. Revolving around the former lives of the Buddha, they narrate episodes from the lives of different Bodhisattva (one of the many forms assumed by the Buddha during his previous births – supernatural being, nobleman, outcaste or even animal). Apart from their fascinating insights into human psychology and morality, the Jatakas are a treasure trove of information with regard to the history, society and economy of ancient South Asia (going back to the 4th century BCE or even earlier).

Bilara Jataka (The Hypocritical Jackal)

Once upon a time when Brahmadatta was reigning in Benares, the Bodhisatta was born a rat, perfect in wisdom, and as big as a young boar. He had his dwelling in the forest and many hundreds of other rats under his sway. Now there was a roving jackal who espied this troop of rats and fell to scheming how to beguile and eat them. And he took up his stand near their home with his face to the sun, snuffing up the wind, and standing on one leg. Seeing this when out on his road in quest of food, the Bodhisatta conceived the jackal to be a saintly being, and went up and asked his name.

“‘Godly’ is my name,” said the jackal. “Why do you stand only on one leg?” “Because if I stood on all four at once, the earth could not bear my weight. That is why I stand on one leg only.” “And why do you keep your mouth open?” “To take the air. I live on air; it is my only food.” “And why do you face the sun?” ” To worship him.” “What uprightness! ” thought the Bodhisatta, and thenceforward he made a point of going, attended by the other rats, to pay his respects morning and evening to the saintly jackal. And when the rats were leaving, the jackal seized and devoured the hindermost one of them, wiped his lips, and looked as though nothing had happened.

In consequence of this the rats grew fewer and fewer, till they noticed the gaps in their ranks, and wondering why this was so, asked the Bodhisatta the reason. He could not make it out, but suspecting the jackal, resolved to put him to the test. So next day he let the other rats go out first and himself brought up the rear. The jackal made a spring on the Bodhisatta who, seeing him coming, faced round and cried, “So this is your saintliness, you hypocrite and rascal!” And he repeated the following stanza :

“Where saintliness is but a cloak
Whereby to cozen guileless folk
And screen a villain’s treachery,
The cat-like nature there we see.”

So saying, the king of the rats sprang at the jackal’s throat and bit his windpipe asunder just under the jaw, so that he died. Back trooped the other rats and gobbled up the body of the jackal with a ‘crunch, crunch, crunch’; that is to say, the foremost of them did, for they say there was none left for the last-comers. And ever after the rats lived happily in peace and quiet.

Image Attribution: The image above is sourced from Wikimedia Commons and shows an engraving of a Golden Jackal from the book ‘Histoire naturelle des mammifères’, tome 2 (dating back to 1824). The book was authored by Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire and Frédéric Cuvier.