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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

The Talkative Tortoise

By Vishnu Sharma (Pilpay) (c. 1000 B.C.?)

  • [The story of ‘The Talkative Tortoise’ we give in two of its many extant versions. The first is Rouse’s translation from the Pali of the ‘Jataka’ (No. 215). The second is from Sir Thomas North’s translation (London, 1570) of ‘The Morall Philosophie of Doni,’ the first English version of the Fables of Pilpay.]

  • First Version

    From the ‘Jataka’

    “THE TORTOISE needs must speak,” etc.—This is a story told by the Master while staying in Jetavana, about Kokalika. The circumstances which gave rise to it will be set forth under the Mahatakkari Birth. Here again the Master said: “This is not the only time, brethren, that Kokalika has been ruined by talking; it was the same before.” And then he told the story as follows.

    ONCE on a time Brahmadatta was King of Benares; and the Future Buddha, being born to one of the King’s court, grew up, and became the King’s adviser in all things human and divine. But this King was very talkative; and when he talked there was no chance for any other to get in a word. And the Future Buddha, wishing to put a stop to his much talking, kept watching for an opportunity.

    Now there dwelt a tortoise in a certain pond in the region of Himalaya. Two young wild geese, searching for food, struck up an acquaintance with him, and by-and-by they grew close friends together. One day these two said to him: “Friend tortoise, we have a lovely home in Himalaya, on a plateau of Mount Chittakuta, in a cave of gold! Will you come with us?”

    “Why,” said he, “how can I get there?”

    “Oh, we will take you, if only you can keep your mouth shut, and say not a word to anybody.”

    “Yes, I can do that,” says he: “take me along!”

    So they made the tortoise hold a stick between his teeth; and themselves taking hold so of the two ends, they sprang up into the air.

    The village children saw this, and exclaimed, “There are two geese carrying a tortoise by a stick!”

    [By this time the geese, flying swiftly, had arrived at the space above the palace of the King, at Benares.]

    The tortoise wanted to cry out, “Well, and if my friends do carry me, what is that to you, you caitiffs?”—and he let go the stick from between his teeth, and falling into the open court-yard he split in two. What an uproar there was! “A tortoise has fallen in the court-yard, and broken in two!” they cried. The King, with the Future Buddha and all his court, came up to the place, and seeing the tortoise asked the Future Buddha a question: “Wise sir, what made this creature fall?”

    “Now’s my time!” thought he. “For a long while I have been wishing to admonish the King, and I have gone about seeking my opportunity. No doubt the truth is this: the tortoise and the geese became friendly; the geese must have meant to carry him to Himalaya, and so made him hold a stick between his teeth, and then lifted him into the air; then he must have heard some remark, and wanted to reply; and not being able to keep his mouth shut, he must have let himself go; and so he must have fallen from the sky and thus come by his death.” So thought he; and addressed the King: “O King, they that have too much tongue, that set no limit to their speaking, ever come to such misfortune as this;” and he uttered the following verses:

  • “The tortoise needs must speak aloud,
  • Although between his teeth
  • A stick he bit; yet, spite of it,
  • He spoke—and fell beneath.
  • “And now, O mighty master, mark it well.
  • See thou speak wisely, see thou speak in season.
  • To death the tortoise fell:
  • He talked too much, that was the reason.”
  • “He is speaking of me!” the King thought to himself; and asked the Future Buddha if it was so.

    “Be it you, O great King, or be it another,” replied he, “whosoever talks beyond measure comes by some misery of this kind;” and so he made the thing manifest. And thenceforward the King abstained from talking, and became a man of few words.

    This discourse ended, the Master identified the Birth:—“Kokalika was the tortoise then, the two famous elders were the two wild geese, Ananda was the King, and I was his wise adviser.”

    Second Version

    From North’s ‘Doni’

    [From the earliest English version of the Fables of Bidpai: reprint London, 1888. Published by David Nutt, in the Strand.]

    IN the fishings of the Sophie there was a world of fowls that kept about it to feed of those fishes; and amongst them was a tortoise of the water that had close friendship with two great and fat fowls, who diving under water drove the fish all about, and they no sooner appeared almost above water, but at a chop they had them in their mouths. The lake was full of clefts; I cannot tell how but by certain earthquakes. And by little and little it began to wax dry, so that they were fain to void out the water to take out the great number of fish that were in it, that they should not die in that drought, but rather eat them up. The fowls therefore of that lake, meaning to depart out of that country, came one morning to break their fast together, and to take their leave of the tortoise their friend. The which when she saw them forsake her, she wept bitterly, and pitifully lamenting she said, “Alas! what shall I do here alone? But what thing can come worse to me than to lose the water and my friends at one instant! O poor tortoise that I am, wretched creature I! whither should I go to seek out water, that am so slow to go? I like not to tarry longer in this country. O good brethren, help me, I pray you! forsake me not in my distress! Ah, unhappy was I born in this world, that I must carry my house with me, and can put no victuals into it. In others’ houses, alack! there is place enough for their necessaries; but in mine I can scant hide myself. Ah woe, woe is me, how shall I do? If ye have any pity on me, my brethren, and if ye have taken me for your friend, help me, for God’s sake. Leave me not here to burst for thirst. I would gladly go with you if that you would gladly put me in some lake, and I would follow mine old trade as I have done; therefore, dear fowls, help me!”

    These words did penetrate the hearts of these great water fowls; and taking no less pity on her than looking to their own profit, they said unto her, “Dear mother tortoise, we could not do better than satisfy thy desire, but alas, what means have we to carry thee hence into any lake? Yet there is an easy way to bring it to pass, if that thy heart will serve thee to take upon thee to hold a piece of wood fast in thy teeth a good while. And then we (the one on the one side of thee, and the other on the other side) will with our bills take the end of the stick in our mouths also, and so carry thee trimly into some lake, and there we would lead our lives and fare delicately. But in any case thou must beware thou open not thy mouth at any time, because the other birds that fly up and down will gladly play with thee and laugh to see thee fly in the air, thou that art used to tarry on the earth and under the water. Therefore they will tell thee marvelous wonders, and will be very busy with thee, and peradventure they will ask thee: O pretty she beast, whence comest thou, I pray thee, that thou art flying thus, and whither wilt thou? But take thou no heed to them, see them not, nor once hearken to them, I would advise thee. And if they prattle to thee, saying,—Oh, what an enterprise of birds! good Lord! what a piece of work they have taken in hand!—Whist! not a word thou, for thy life. Nor look not that we should answer them; for we having the stick in our mouths cannot speak but thou must needs fall, if the stick (by talk) fall out of our mouths at any time. Well, now thou hast heard all, how sayest thou? will thy mind serve thee? hast thou any fancy for the matter?”

    “Who? I? Yes, that I have. I am ready to do anything. I will venture rather than I will tarry behind.”

    The fowls found out a stick, and made the tortoise hold it fast with her teeth as she could for her life, and then they each of them took an end in their mouth, and putting themselves up, straight flew into the air: that it was one of the foolishest sights to see a tortoise fly in the air that ever was seen. And behold a whole flight of birds met them, seeing them fly thus strangely, and hovered round about them, with great laughters and noises, and speaking the vilest words to them they could: Oh, here is a brave sight! look, here is a goodly jest! whoo! what bug have we here? said some. See, see! she hangeth by the throat, and therefore she speaketh not, said others; and the beast flyeth not, like a beast.

    These taunts and spiteful words went to the heart of the tortoise, that she was as mad as she could be: so she could no longer hold, but answer she would (at least as she thought), and when she opened her mouth to speak, down she fell to the ground, and smashed her all to pieces; and all because she would have said,—I am an honest woman, and no thief; I would ye should know it, knaves, rascals, and ravening birds that ye are.—So that, contemning the good counsel was given her,—or to say better, because she would not believe them,—she paid her folly with death.