A Royal Thief Catcher, Translated by S. M. Mitra
from the Sanskrit
In one of the smaller cities of India called Sravasti the people
gathered together on a very hot day to stare at and talk about a
stranger, who had come in to the town, looking very weary and walking
with great difficulty because his feet were sore with tramping for a
long distance on the rough roads. He was a Brahman, that is to say,
a man who devoted his whole life to prayer, and had promised to give
up everything for the sake of pleasing the god in whom he believed,
and to care nothing for comfort, for riches, or for good food.
This Brahman carried nothing with him but a staff to help him along,
and a bowl in which to receive the offerings of those who thought it
their duty to help him and hoped by doing so to win favour in the sight
of God. He was naked, except for a cloth worn about his loins, and his
long hair was all matted together for want of combing and brushing. He
made his way very slowly and painfully through the crowds, till he came
to a shady corner, and there he sank down exhausted, holding out his
bowl for the gifts of the people. Very soon his bowl would have been
full of all sorts of good things, but he made it clear that he would
accept nothing to eat except rice still in the husk, and nothing to
drink but pure water. He was however willing to take money; and when
the people who wished to help him found that out, they brought him
a good many silver and gold pieces. Some who had no money to spare
gave him jewels and other things which could be sold for money.
1. Can you explain why the Brahman would only accept such food as
rice in the husk and water?
2. Do you think it was right or wrong of the Brahman to take money
As time went on, the Brahman became very well known in Sravasti. His
fame indeed spread far beyond the town, and people came from far away
to consult him about all sorts of things, and he gave them good advice,
for he was a very wise man. Those who wanted him to tell them what to
do paid him for his advice, and as some of them had plenty of money
and were glad to help him, he soon became quite rich. He might have
done a great deal of good with all this money by helping the poor and
suffering, but unfortunately he never thought of doing so. Instead
of that, he got to love the money for its own sake. At night, when
all those who had come to see him had gone to rest, and there was no
fear of his being found out, he used to steal away into the forest,
and there he dug a deep hole at the root of a great tree, to which
he took all his money and jewels.
In India everybody has a siesta, that is to say, a sleep in the
middle of the day, because the heat is so great it is difficult to
keep well and strong without this extra rest. So, although it is quite
light at the time, the streets are deserted, except for the dogs who
prowl about, trying to find something to eat. Now the Brahman loved
his money and other treasures so much, that he used very often to
do without this siesta and go to the forest to enjoy the pleasure of
looking at them. When he got to the tree, he would bend down, clear
away the earth and leaves with which he had hidden his secret hole,
take out the money and let it slip through his fingers, and hold up
the jewels to the light, to watch how they gleamed and glistened. He
was never so happy as when he was alone with his riches, and it was
all he could do to tear himself away from them when the time came to
go back to his shady corner. In fact he was becoming a selfish miser
instead of the holy man the people of Sravasti thought he was. By the
time the siesta was over he was always back again in his place beneath
the tree, holding out his bowl and looking as poor and thin as ever,
so that nobody had the least idea of the truth.
3. Why was it wrong for the Brahman to hide away his money and jewels?
4. Can anyone be a miser about other things as well as money and
jewels? If so, what other things?
For many months the Brahman led this double life; until one day,
when he went as usual to his hiding-place, he saw at once that some
one had been there before him. Eagerly he knelt down, full of fear
of exactly what had actually happened. All his care in concealing the
hole had been wasted, for it was quite empty. The poor man could not
at first believe his own eyes. He rubbed them hard, thinking that
there was something the matter with them. Then he felt round and
round the hole, hoping that after all he was mistaken; and when at
last he was obliged to believe the terrible truth that there really
was not a sign of his money and jewels, he became almost mad with
misery. He began to run from tree to tree, peering into their roots,
and when there was nothing to be seen, he rushed back again to his
empty hole, to look into it once more. Then he wept and tore at his
hair, stamped about and cried aloud to all the gods he believed in,
making all kinds of promises, of what he would do if only they would
give him back his treasures. No answer came, and he began to wonder who
could have done such a terrible thing. It must, he felt sure, have been
one of the people of Sravasti; and he now remembered he had noticed
that a good many of them had looked into his bowl with longing eyes,
when they saw the money and precious stones in it. "What horrible,
wicked people they are," he said to himself. "I hate them. I should
like to hurt them as they have hurt me." As he thought in this way he
got more and more angry, until he became quite worn out with giving
way to his rage.
5. What would you have done if you had been the Brahman when he lost
6. Is it wrong to be angry when any one has done you an injury?
After roaming about in the forest for a long time, the Brahman went
back to the house in Sravasti where some kind people had lent him a
room, glad and proud to have such a holy man, as they thought he was,
living under their roof. He felt sure they had had nothing to do with
the loss of his treasure, because they had given him many proofs of
their goodness and honesty. Soon he was pouring out all his grief to
them, and they did all they could to comfort him, telling him that he
would very soon have plenty more money and jewels. They let him see
however that they thought it was mean of him to hide away his riches,
instead of using them to help the poor and suffering; and this added
very much to his rage. At last he lost all self-control and cried,
"It is not worth while for me to live any longer. I will go to some
holy place of pilgrimage by the banks of the river, and there I will
starve myself to death."
A place of pilgrimage, you know, is one where some great event,
generally connected with religion, has taken place, to which
pilgrims go to pray in the hope of winning some special favour from
God. The word pilgrim means a wanderer, but it has come in course
of time to signify any traveller who comes from a distance to some
such place. Benares in India is a very famous place of pilgrimage,
because it is on the River Ganges, which the Hindus worship and love,
believing that its waters can wash away their sins. Hundreds and
thousands of Hindus go there every year to bathe in it, and many
who know that they have not long to live wait on its banks to die,
so that after their bodies have been burnt, as is the custom with
the Hindus, their ashes may be thrown into the sacred stream.
7. Can you name two other places of pilgrimage, one held sacred by
Christians and one by Hindus?
8. Will you explain exactly why the two places you have thought of
are considered holy?
The news of the Brahman's loss spread very quickly through Sravasti;
and as is so often the case, every one who told the story made it a
little different, so that it became very difficult to know what the
truth really was. There was great distress in the town, because the
people thought the Brahman would go away, and they did not want him to
do that. They were proud of having a man they thought so holy, living
amongst them, and ashamed that he should have been robbed whilst he was
with them. When they heard that he meant to starve himself to death,
they were dreadfully shocked, and determined to do all they possibly
could to prevent it. One after another of the chief men of Sravasti
came to see him, and entreated him not to be in such a hurry to be
sure that his treasure would never be found. They said they would
all do everything they possibly could to get it back for him. Some of
them thought it was very wrong of him to make such a fuss about it,
and blamed him for being a miser. They told him it was foolish to
care so much for what he could not take with him when he died, and
one specially wise old man gave him a long lecture on the wickedness
of taking away the life which had been given to him by God to prepare
for that in the other world. "Put the idea of starving yourself out
of your head," he said, "and whilst we are seeking your treasure,
go on as you did before you lost it. Next time you have any money
and jewels, turn them to good account instead of hoarding them up."
9. Do you think the Brahman was of any real use to the people of
10. In what qualities do you think the Brahman was wanting when he
made up his mind to starve himself to death?
In spite of all that any one could say to him, the Brahman was quite
determined that he would not live any longer. He set off to the place
of pilgrimage he had chosen, taking no notice of any one he met,
but just marching steadily on. At first a number of people followed
him, but by degrees they left off doing so, and soon he was quite
alone. Presently however he could not help noticing a man approaching
from the direction in which he was going. Very tall, very handsome,
very dignified, this man was one whom no one could fail to admire,
even if he had been only an ordinary person. But he was the king of
the whole country, whose name was Prasnajit; and a little distance
behind him were a number of his attendants, waiting to obey his
orders. Everybody, even the Brahman, loved the king, because he took
such a very great interest in his people and was always trying to do
them good. He had heard all about the loss of the money, and was very
much vexed that such a thing should have happened in his land. He had
also heard that the Brahman meant to kill himself, and this distressed
him more than anything else, because he thought it a very wicked and
terrible thing to do.
The king stood so exactly in the path of the Brahman that it was
impossible to pass him by without taking any notice of him, and
the unhappy man stood still, hanging down his head and looking very
miserable. Without waiting for a moment, Prasnajit said to the Brahman:
"Do not grieve any more. I will find your treasure for you, and give
it back to you; or if I fail to do so I will pay you as much as it was
worth out of my own purse: for I cannot bear to think of your killing
yourself. Now tell me very carefully where you hid your gold and
jewels, and everything about the place, to help me to make sure of it."
The Brahman was greatly delighted to hear this, because he knew full
well that the king would keep his word, and that, even if his own
treasure was never found, he would have plenty of money given to him
by the king. He at once told Prasnajit exactly where he had put his
store, and offered to take him there. The king agreed to go with him
at once, and he and the Brahman went straight away to the big hole
in the forest, the attendants following them a little way behind.
11. If you had been the king, how would you have set about finding
12. Was it a good or a bad thing for the Brahman to have secured the
help of the king?
After the king had seen the big empty hole, and noticed exactly where
it was, and the nearest way to it from the town, he returned to his
palace, first telling the Brahman to go back to the house he lived
in, and wait there till he received a message from him. He promised
to see that he wanted for nothing, and sent one of his attendants
to a rich merchant of Sravasti, who had already done a good deal
for the Brahman, to order him to supply the holy man with all he
needed. Very glad that after all he was not going to die, the Brahman
obeyed willingly, and for the next few days he was taken care of by
the merchant, who supplied him with plenty of food.
As soon as Prasnajit was back in his palace, he pretended that he was
taken suddenly ill. His head ached badly, he said, and he could not
make out what was the matter with him. He ordered a proclamation to
be sent all round the town, telling all the doctors to come to the
palace to see him. All the doctors in the place at once hastened to
obey, each of them hoping that he would be the one to cure the king
and win a great reward. So many were they that the big reception
room was full of them, and they all glared at each other so angrily
that the attendants kept careful watch lest they should begin to
fight. One at a time they were taken to the king's private room,
but very much to their surprise and disappointment he seemed quite
well and in no need of help from them. Instead of talking about his
own illness, he asked each doctor who his patients were in the town,
and what medicines he was giving to them. Of course Prasnajit's
questions were carefully answered; but the king said nothing more,
just waving his hand to shew that the interview was at an end. Then
the attendants led the visitor out. At last however a doctor came,
who said something which led the king to keep him longer than he had
kept any of the others. This doctor was a very famous healer who had
saved the lives of many of Prasnajit's subjects. He told the king
that a merchant named Matri-Datta was very ill, suffering greatly,
but that he hoped to cure him by giving him the juice of a certain
plant called nagaballa. At the time this story was written, doctors
in India did not give their patients medicine, or write prescriptions
for them to take to chemists to be made up, because there were no
chemists in those days, such as there are in all the towns of Europe,
who keep the materials in stock for making medicines. A doctor just
said to his patient, "you must take the juice of this or that plant";
and the suffering person had to go into the fields or woods to find
the plant or else to send a servant to do so.
When the king heard that the doctor had ordered Matri-Datta to take the
juice of the nagaballa plant, he cried "No more doctors need come to
see me!" and after sending away the one who had told him what he wanted
to know, he gave orders that Matri-Datta should be sent for at once.
13. Can you guess why the king sent for the doctors?
14. Do you think Matri-Datta had anything to do with stealing the
Ill and suffering though he was, Matri-Datta did not dare disobey the
king: so he came at once. As soon as he appeared, Prasnajit asked him
how he was, and said he was sorry to have to make him leave his home
when he was ill, but the matter on which he wished to see him was
of very great importance. Then he suddenly added: "When your doctor
ordered you to take the juice of the nagaballa plant whom did you
send to find it?"
To this Matri-Datta replied trembling with fear: "My servant, O king,
sought it in the forest; and having found it, brought it to me."
"Go back and send that servant to me immediately," was the reply; and
the merchant hurried away, wondering very much why the king wanted to
see the man, and hoping that he himself would not get into disgrace
on account of anything he had done to make Prasnajit angry.
15. Have you any idea why the king wanted the servant sent to him?
16. From what the story tells you so far, do you think Prasnajit was
a good ruler of his kingdom?
When Matri-Datta told his servant that he was to go to the palace to
see the king, the man was dreadfully frightened, and begged his master
not to make him go. This made Matri-Datta pretty sure that he had done
something wrong and was afraid of being found out. "Go at once," he
said, "and whatever you do, speak the truth to the king. That will be
your only chance if you have offended him." Again and again the servant
entreated Matri-Datta not to insist, and when he found it was no good,
he asked him at least to come with him to the palace and plead for him
with Prasnajit. The merchant knew then for certain that something was
seriously wrong, and he consented to go to the palace with his servant,
partly out of curiosity and partly out of fear for himself. When the
two got to the palace, the attendants at once led the servant to the
presence of the king, but they would not let the master go with him.
Directly the servant entered the room and saw the king sitting on
his throne, he fell upon his face at the foot of the steps, crying,
"Mercy! mercy!" He was right to be afraid, for Prasnajit said to him
in a loud voice: "Where are the gold and the jewels you took from
the hole in the roots of a tree when you went to find the nagaballa
plant for your master?" The servant, who really had taken the money
and jewels, was so terrified when he found that the king knew the
truth, that he had not a word to say at first, but just remained
lying on the ground, trembling all over. Prasnajit too was silent,
and the attendants waiting for orders behind the throne looked on,
wondering what would happen now.
17. Have you guessed what the nagaballa plant had to do with finding
out who had stolen the money and jewels?
18. If you had been the king, what punishment would you have ordered
for the thief?
When the silence had lasted about ten minutes, the thief raised his
head from the ground and looked at the king, who still said not a
word. Something in his face however made the wicked servant hope that
he would not be punished by death in spite of the great wrong he had
done. The king looked very stern, it is true, but not enraged against
him. So the servant rose to his feet, and clasping his hands together
as he held them up to Prasnajit, said in a trembling voice: "I will
fetch the treasure, I will fetch the treasure." "Go then at once,"
said the king, "and bring it here": and as he said it, there was a
beautiful expression in his eyes, which made the thief more sorry
for what he had done than he would have been if Prasnajit had said,
"Off with his head!" or had ordered him to be beaten.
19. What do you think is the best way to make wicked people good?
20. What is the most powerful reason a man or woman or a child can
have for trying to be good?
As soon as the king said, "Go at once," the servant started to his
feet and hastened away, as eager now to restore what he had stolen
as he had been to hide it. He had put it in another hole in the very
depths of the forest; and it was a long time before he got back to
the palace with it, for it was very heavy. He had thought the king
would send some guards with him, to see that he did not run away,
and that they would have helped him to carry the sack full of gold
and jewels; but nobody followed him. It was hard work to drag the
heavy load all the way alone; but at last, quite late in the evening,
he was back at the palace gates. The soldiers standing there let him
pass without a word, and soon he was once more in the room in which
the king had received him. Prasnajit still sat on his throne, and
the attendants still waited behind him, when the thief, so tired he
could hardly stand, once more lay prostrate at the bottom of the steps
leading up to the throne, with the sack beside him. How his heart did
beat as he waited for what the king would say! It seemed a very long
time before Prasnajit spoke, though it was only two or three minutes;
and when he did, this is what he said, "Go back to your home now,
and be a thief no more."
Very, very thankfully the man obeyed, scarcely able to believe that
he was free to go and that he was not to be terribly punished. Never
again in the rest of his life did he take what did not belong to him,
and he was never tired of telling his children and his friends of
the goodness of the king who had forgiven him.
21. Do you think it would have been better for the thief to have
22. What lesson did the thief learn from what had happened to him?
The Brahman, who had spent the time of waiting in prayers that his
treasure should be given back to him, and was still determined that,
if it were not, he would starve himself to death, was full of delight
when he heard that it had been found. He hastened to the palace and was
taken before the king, who said to him: "There is your treasure. Take
it away, and make a better use of it than before. If you lose it again,
I shall not try to recover it for you."
The Brahman, glad as he was to have his money and jewels restored, did
not like to be told by the king to make a better use of them. Besides
this he wanted to have the thief punished; and he began talking
about that, instead of thanking Prasnajit and promising to follow his
advice. The king looked at him much as he had looked at the thief and
said: "The matter is ended so far as I have anything to do with it:
go in peace."
The Brahman, who was accustomed to be honoured by every one from the
king on his throne to the beggars in the street, was astonished at
the way in which Prasnajit spoke to him. He would have said more,
but the king made a sign to his attendants, two of whom dragged the
sack to the entrance of the palace and left it there, so that there
was nothing for the Brahman to do but to take it away with him. Every
one who has read this wonderful story would, of courses like to know
what became of him after that, but nothing more is told about him.
23. Do you think that the Brahman learnt anything from his loss and
recovery of his treasure?
24. Was the Brahman more wicked than, the thief or the thief than
25. Do you think the Brahman continued to be a miser for the rest of
26. What were the chief characteristics of the king—that is to say,
what sort of man do you think he was?
27. Which of the people who are spoken of in this story do you like
and admire most, and which do you dislike most?