The Transmigration of Souls

A Santhal Pargana Tale

translated by Cecil Henry Bompas

All the cats of Hindus have believed and believe, and the Santals also have said and say, that Thakur made the land and sky and sea and man and animals and insects and fish and the creation was complete and final: he made their kinds and castes once for all and did not alter them afterwards; and he fixed the time of growth and of dwelling in the body; and for the flowers to seed and he made at that time as many souls as was necessary and the same souls go on being incarnated sometimes in a human body and sometimes in the body of an animal; and so it is that many human beings really have the souls of animals; if a man has a man’s soul he is of a gentle disposition; but if he gets the soul of a dog or cat then he is bad tempered and ready to quarrel with everyone; and the man with a frog’s soul is silent and sulky and those who get tiger’s souls when they start a quarrel never give up till they gain their point. There is a story which proves all this.

There was once a Brahman who had two wives and as he knew something of herbs and simples he used to leave his wives at home and go about the country as a quack doctor; but whenever he came home his two wives used to scold him and find fault with him for no reason at all till they made his life a burden. So he resolved to leave two such shrews and one day when they had been scolding as usual he put on the garb of a jogi and in spite of their protests went out into the world.

After journeying two or three days he came to a town in which a pestilence was raging and he sat down to rest under a tree on the outskirts. There he noticed that many corpses had been thrown out and he saw two vultures fly down to feed on the bodies; and the he-vulture said to his mate “Which corpse shall we eat first?” Now the Brahman somehow understood the language of the birds—but the mate returned no answer though the he-vulture kept on repeating the question; at last she said “Don’t you see there is a man sitting at the foot of the tree?” Then they both approached the Brahman and asked why he was sitting in such a place and whether he was in distress; he told them that trouble had driven him from his home and that he was wandering about the world as chance led him, because the continual quarrelling of his two wives was more than he could bear. The vultures said “We will give you a means by which you may see your wives as they really are” and one of them pulled out a wing feather and told him when he went to any house begging to stick it behind his ear and then he would see what the people were really like; and they advised him to marry a woman who gave him alms with her hands. Then he got up and went away with the feather, leaving the birds to prey on the corpses.

When the Brahman came to a village to beg he saw by the aid of the feather, that some of the people were really cats and some were dogs and other animals and when they gave him alms they brought it in their teeth; then he made up his mind to go home and see what his wives really were; and he found that one was a bitch and one was a sow; and when they brought him water they carried the cup in their months; at this sight he left the house again in disgust, determined to marry any woman who offered him alms with her hands.

He wandered for days till at last the daughter of a Chamar, when he begged, brought him alms in her hands; and he at once determined to stay there and marry her at all costs; so he sat down and when the Chamar asked why he did not go away he said that he meant to marry the girl who had given him alms and live in his house as his son-in-law; the Chamar did all he could to remonstrate at such an extraordinary proposal as that a Brahman should destroy his caste by marrying a Chamar; the Brahman said that they might do what they liked to him but that he would not leave till he obtained his bride. So at last the Chamar called in his castefellows and relations to advise him whether he would be guilty of any sin in yielding to the proposal of the Brahman; and they called into council the principal villagers of all the other castes and after fully questioning the Chamar and the Brahman the judgment of the villagers was that the marriage should take place and they would take the responsibility. Then the Brahman was made to give a full account of himself and where he had come from, and when this was found to be true, the bride price was fixed and paid and the marriage took place and the Brahman became a Chamar.