With the news of exciting literary festivals in a number of cities, an old tale comes back that exists in several versions around the world. It contains the universal moral that wanting too much at once is bad for you. To track it backwards through time and space we could think first of the variation about ‘the goose with the golden feathers’ collected by the Brothers Grimm in Germany, in the heart of Europe, in the 18th and 19th centuries. Jean de La Fontaine had previously retold a version of ‘the goose that laid golden eggs’ in the 17th century for the king and queen of France, who did not listen, and Caxton, the English writer, diplomat and pioneer of printing had retold the tale in English in the fifteenth century from which we get the phrase “Killing the goose that laid the golden egg” as a comment on how greed does not pay.
How did this tale come to Europe? Western scholars have traced it to one Avianus, a fable-writer in Latin, around the fourth century CE (from the Indian perspective, the time when Mahakavi Kalidasa was doing well in Ujjain). Avianus apparently got the story from Babrius, a Greek, who must have got it from good old Aesop (Who was he, really? Nobody is quite sure, yet). They also say that the ancient Persian province of Sogdiana knew it well, as seen on an eighth century mural that illustrates this tale in Panjikent, Tajikistan. I cannot resist remembering here that Alexander married the Sogdian princess Rukhsana (‘Roxanne’) in the third century.
Following this story back to its oldest-known versions, we come to the Suvanna-Hansa Jataka (Pali) and prior to that, the similar but different tale of the Suvarna Hamsa (Sanskrit) in the Mahabharata, whose oldest bits are said to date back to the eighth to ninth centuries BCE, while the Lord Buddha is sixth or fifth century BCE.
The version we all almost certainly know comes from the Jataka and here’s how the old tale goes. Once upon a time, when Brahmadatta was Kashinaresh (the king of Benares), the Bodhisattva was born as a brahmin who married according to custom and produced three daughters whom he named Nanda, Nandavati and Sundarinanda. But he took ill and died and his wife and daughters were reduced to living on bhiksha (alms). Meanwhile the Bodhisattva was reborn as a suvarna hamsa or golden goose that remembered its past life. It went back to its former family in Kashi and told them to pluck out one golden feather a day from its body to sell and live by. This went on very well for some months but one day his former wife had an anxiety attack, recalling their bad times. She conspired with her children to pluck the golden goose bare of all its feathers in case it flew away and never came back. You know what happened next and the moral still holds true. Especially if we finish off our health capital and suffer burnout, don’t you think? In that sense, we are our own suvarna hamsa and good health is our golden plumage.
The views are expressed personal.