Throughout the generations, storytelling has been one of the most effective and compelling ways to teach children good habits and moral concepts. This rings especially true in India, where traditional tales have been passed down for thousands of years to impart and preserve values for younger generations. In this series, we retell some of these traditional folktales to revive simple yet profound moral lessons that can enrich our lives today.
Today’s stories show us how thinking of others and having a strong will can turn a seemingly impossible endeavor into a successful enterprise. The first story is from the collection of Jataka Tales – a collection of Indian folktales illustrating the virtues of Gautama Buddha in his previous lives. The second is a short story from Hitopadesha, one of India’s most widely read Sanskrit books that contains colorful children’s stories with meaningful lessons.
The Sandy Road
Once upon a time there was a very skilled merchant in a remote village. His dream was to travel to the town to sell his precious goods and make a good profit. After thinking about it for several years, he finally made up his mind and recruited a group of talented men to accompany him on his undertaking, which involved crossing a vast desert.
The group packed water, rice and firewood to survive the trip. With the wagons loaded, they set off early, confident that their meticulous preparation would ensure a safe and successful journey.
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As the sun ascended, the desert sand became too hot to tread on. Realizing that travel during the day would be impossible, the crew changed their plan. They would eat and rest in the daytime and advance in their journey at night, when the moon would bring a fresh breeze to cool the sand.
The men built an early-morning fire, cooked rice, and ate. They spread a large cover over the oxen and wagons and rested. Before the sun set, they repeated their simple meal and resumed the journey. For several days they advanced in this way, following the directions of the navigator – a crewman who could read the stars.
One morning, the guide told the worn-out crew that they had only one night to go before they reached the city. That night, confident of their success, the merchant told his men to get rid of the firewood and water, for they would no longer spend the night in the desert.
Having set the oxen in the direction of the city and assured that the journey would soon come to an end, the navigator gave himself permission to sleep through the night, as the intense daytime sunlight had prevented him from getting adequate rest. The crew walked on, giving their all in the last effort.
Near dawn, the navigator suddenly awoke to find that they were still in the same place as the day before. Perplexed, he asked the crew to stop and said, “The oxen must have turned around while I was asleep. We are still one night away from the town.”
They had no water for the oxen and no wood to cook the rice. The men fell silent and some began to worry that they would not make it out of the desert alive.
The merchant was deeply concerned for the men. After all, they had risked their lives to help him achieve his dream, and now they would have no chance of fulfilling their own. Determined to save their lives, he started his search for water.
After walking for a while, the merchant found some grass and thought to himself, “If there are plants here, there must be water beneath.” He asked his men to bring a spade and hammer to dig the earth.
Through arduous efforts, they dug a very deep hole, only to find solid rock. Disappointed, the merchant climbed down into the hole and, after putting his ear to the rock, heard the water running. He climbed out of the hole with renewed hope, for breaking the rock was the key to their survival.
The merchant said to his most capable man, “We must not give up. We have to go down and try.” Thinking of his crewmates, the young man struck the rock countless times until at last it broke. The water rushed out at such a speed that the man could barely climb out of the hole.
The oxen and men quenched their thirst. They took some extra wooden yokes from their wagons to make a fire and cook the rice. With their bodies replenished – and the navigator fully awake – they continued their journey.
Upon arriving at the town, they sold all the merchandise. They returned to the village, having gained not only wealth, but a great lesson in perseverance.
The Monkeys and the Bell
Many years ago, there was a thief in a village who had a special interest in shiny objects. As he walked by a temple, he saw a lustrous bell. That night, he broke into the temple and stole it.
He ran into the jungle, hoping that no one had witnessed the scene. Although the sound of the stolen bell did not awaken any villagers, it certainly caught the attention of a passing tiger. The animal jumped upon the thief and took his life. The bell, which had fallen to the ground, remained in the middle of the forest for the next few days.
A group of monkeys came across the shiny artifact, and were so fascinated by the harmonious sound it produced, that they decided to take it home. That night, they amused themselves with it the top of the hill.
The playful sounds were loud enough to reach the village, whose inhabitants were bewildered and somewhat frightened. When the thief’s body was finally found, the villagers concluded that a demon who attacked villagers rang a bell every time it committed a crime.
Panicked, many people began to leave the village. But there was one brave woman whose love for the village was stronger than her fear of the alleged demon. She was so sad to see her people leave that she decided to solve the problem.
One night she went into the forest to discover what caused the mysterious noise. Before long, the monkeys were detected, and she devised a plan to take the bell away from them. She visited the king of the village and offered to bring peace to his people if he would finance the enterprise. The king, who was terrified of the demon, accepted without hesitation.
The lady bought nuts and fruits and arranged some in a circle on the ground as an offering to the gods. She prayed for divine assistance in helping her fellow villagers regain tranquility. With her faith strengthened, she set out on the journey to the forest.
When the sky was dark, she placed the rest of the treats under a tree near the hill. It didn’t take long for the hungry monkeys to smell food and race towards the delicious snacks. In their greedy haste, they dropped the bell just as the lady was expecting. She quietly picked it up and ran back to the village.
The lady presented the bell to the king, assuring him that the village would no longer be disturbed when the sun set. From then on, every night was quiet for the villagers, and those who had left finally returned.
Although the brave lady did not seek fame or fortune, her fellow villagers were very grateful to her. Her heroic act became a story to tell and retell, teaching younger generations the power of selflessness and determination.