With celebrations on around the world for Sambuddhatva Jayanti, the 2600th anniversary of the Buddha’s Nirvana, a beloved jataka comes to mind as an illustration of how we in India may not have much by way of sangha, but seem to have internalised the Buddha and the dharma in wondrous ways.
In this particular jataka (Number 35), the story goes that the Bodhisattva was once born as a baby quail (‘vattaka’ or ‘bater’) in a forest in ancient Magadha. The baby quail’s parents flew out every day to forage for food for their nestling and life was on course, proceeding exactly as it ought.
However, a sudden forest fire broke out as could and did happen in Magadha during the height of summer. The birds and animals fled in terror as the fire swooped unstoppably through the forest. 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 noise, the baby quail stretched its little body to peep out of its nest. When it saw the fire advancing purposefully it understood the situation. ‘My poor parents have fled in fear, abandoning me to my fate,’ it thought. ‘If my wings were grown, I would fly. If I had legs, I could try to run away. But I can do neither, so I must die.’
At that moment of cold clarity amidst the heat, the baby quail found inspiration. ‘There are two powers in this world,’ it found itself thinking despite its dreadful situation or perhaps because of that.
‘They are the might of truth and the might of goodness. I can understand the truth that I am weak and alone. And there must be so much goodness stored in this world by the merits of good people past. Let me call upon both forces.’
So the baby quail concentrated its thoughts and said, ‘Here I am alone, with wings that cannot fly. By this truth and by the faith I find in me, I ask you, O Fire, to please turn back without harming me or the others.’
And, says the jataka, the destructive force retreated sixteen lengths and died out because of the baby quail’s act of truth. A lone baby quail’s satyakriya in story. Bapu’s satyagraha in fact. Incredible, isn’t it, our legacy of insistence that truth works?
Renuka Narayanan writes on religion and culture