This Jataka tale happens to be a childhood favorite of mine. I still remember the illustrations from the comic book where I first encountered it (the Amar Chitra Katha’s ‘Jataka Tales’ series). Again a cautionary tale where an over-smart bird pays for its transgressions with its life.

Baka Jataka (The Crane and The Crab)

Once on a time the Bodhisatta came to life in a certain forest-haunt as the divinity of a tree which stood near a certain lotus-pond. In those days, the water used every summer to fall very low in a certain pond, not very big – which was plentifully stocked with fish. Catching sight of these fish, a certain crane said to himself, “I must find a way to cajole and eat these fish.” So, he went and sat down in deep thought by the side of the water. Now when the fishes caught sight of him, they said, “Of what are you thinking, my lord, as you sit there?” “I am thinking about you,” was the reply. “And what is your lordship thinking about us?” “The water in this pool being low,  food scarce, and the heat intense, I was wondering to myself, as I sat here, what in the world you fishes would do.” “And what are we to do, my lord?”

“Well, if you’ll take my advice, I will take you up one by one in my beak, and carry you all off to a fine large pool covered with the five varieties of lotuses, and there put you down.” “My lord,” said they, “no crane ever took the slightest thought for fishes since the world began. Your desire is to eat us one by one.” “No; I will not eat you while you trust me,” said the crane. ” If you don’t take my word that there is such a pond, send one of your number to go with me and see for himself.” Believing the crane, the fish presented to him a great big fish (blind of one eye, by the way), who they thought would be a match for the crane whether afloat or ashore; and they said, “Here’s the one to go with you.”

The crane took the fish off and put him in the pool, and after shewing him the whole extent of it, brought him back again and put him in along with the other fish in his old pond. And he held forth to them on the charms of the new pool. After hearing this report, they grew eager to go there, and said to the crane, “Very good, my lord; please take us across.” First of all, the crane took that big one-eyed fish again and carried him off to the edge of the pool, so that he could see the water, but actually alighted in a Varana tree which grew on the bank. Dashing the fish down in a fork of the tree, he pecked it to death, after which he picked him clean and let the bones fall at the foot of the tree.

Then back he went and said, “I’ve thrown him in; who’s the next?” And so, he took the fish one by one, and ate them all, till at last when he came back, he could not find another left. But there was still a crab remaining in the pond; so the crane, who wanted to eat him up too, said, “Mister crab, I’ve taken all those fishes away and turned them into a fine large pool covered all over with lotuses. Come along; I’ll take you too.” “How will you carry me across?” said the crab. “Why, in my beak, to be sure,” said the crane. “Ah, but you might drop me like that,” said the crab; “I won’t go with you.” “Don’t be frightened; I’ll keep tight hold of you all the way.” Thought the crab to himself, “He hasn’t put the fish in the pool. But, if he would really put me in, that would be capital. If he does not, why, I’ll nip his head off” and kill him.” So, he spoke thus to the crane, “You’d never be able to hold me tight enough, friend crane; whereas we crabs have got an astonishingly tight grip. If I might take hold of your neck with my claws, I could hold it tight and then would go along with you.”

Not suspecting that the crab wanted to trick him, the crane gave his assent. With his claws the crab gripped hold of the crane’s neck as with the pincers of a smith, and said, “Now you can start.” The crane took him and shewed him the pool first, and then started oft for the tree. “The pool lies this way, uncle,” said the crab; “but you’re taking me the other way.” “Very much your dear uncle am I!” said the crane; “and very much my nephew are you! I suppose you thought me your slave to lift you up and carry you about! Just cast your eye on that heap of bones at the foot of the tree; as I ate up all those fish, so I will eat you too.” Said the crab, “It was through their own folly that those fish were eaten by you; but I shan’t give you the chance of eating me. No; what I shall do, is to kill you. For you, fool that you were, did not see that I was tricking you. If we die, we will both die together; I’ll chop your head clean off.”

And so, saying he gripped the crane’s weazand with his claws, as with pincers. With his mouth wide open, and tears streaming from his eyes, the crane, trembling for his life, said, “Lord, indeed I will not eat you! Spare my life!” “Well, then, just step down to the pool and put me in,” said the crab. Then the crane turned back and stepped down as directed to the pool, and placed the crab on the mud, at the water-edge. But the crab, before entering the water, nipped off the crane’s head as deftly as if he were cutting a lotus stalk with a knife. The divinity who dwelt in the tree, marking this wonderful thing, made the whole forest ring with applause repeating this stanza in sweet tones:

Guile profits not your very guileful folk. 

Mark what the guileful crane got from the crab!

Image Attribution: The image above is sourced from Wikimedia Commons, and shows an illustration of  a Mud Crab (Scylla serrata) by the Japanese artist Kawahara Keiga (1786-1860). This particular painting was executed between 1823 and 1829. Keiga, a native of Nagasaki, was famed for his illustrations of Japanese wildlife, people, daily life and landscapes from the Tokugawa Period (1603-1868).