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Jataka 38

Baka Jātaka

The Crane and the Crab

as told by Eric Van Horn

originally translated by Robert Chalmers, B.A., of Oriel College, Oxford University

originally edited by Professor Edward Byles Cowell, Cambridge University


This is a story about a cheater who gets cheated by an even more clever cheater. It might be called “What goes around comes around,” which is our way of describing karma in the West.


There is no benefit in deceit.” The Master told this story while at Jetavana. It is about a monk who had been a tailor.

Tradition says that there was a monk at Jetavana who was exceedingly skillful in all operations to be performed with a robe, such as cutting, joining, arranging, and stitching. Because of his skill, he used to make robes and so he got the name of “The Robe Tailor.” You might ask, what did he do? Well, he exercised his craft on old bits of cloth and turned out a nice soft robe. After the dyeing was done, he would make the old bits of cloth look like new by treating them with a wash containing flour to make a dressing. Then he would rub it with a shell until it looked quite smart and attractive. Then he would lay his handiwork aside.

Being ignorant of robe-making, the monks would come to him with brand-new cloth and say, “We don’t know how to make robes. You make them for us.”

“Sirs,” he would reply, “a robe takes a long time to make. But I have one that I just finished. You can take it if you leave the new cloth in exchange.” And, so saying, he would take the finished robe out and show it to them. And they, seeing its fine color and knowing nothing about what it was made of, thought it was a good strong robe. So they gave their brand new cloth to the “Robe Tailor” and went off with the robe he gave them. When it got dirty and it was washed in hot water, it revealed its true character, and the worn patches were visible here and there. Then the owners regretted their bargain. Eventually that monk became known for cheating all who came to him.

Now, there was a robe maker in a town who used to deceive everybody just as the brother did at Jetavana. This man’s friends among the monks said to him, “Sir, they say that at Jetavana there is a robe maker who deceives everybody just like you.” Then the thought struck him, “Come now, let me fool that city man!” So he made a very fine robe out of rags, and he dyed it a beautiful orange. He put this on and went to Jetavana. The moment the other saw it, he coveted it and said to its owner, “Sir, did you make that robe?”

“Yes, I did, sir,” was the reply.

“Let me have that robe, sir, and I will give you another one in its place.”

“But, sir, we village monks find it hard to get the requisites. (The requisites are food, medicine, clothing, and shelter.) If I give this to you, what will I wear?”

“Sir, I have some brand-new cloth at my shelter. You can take it and make yourself a new robe.”

“Reverend sir, I have shown you my own handiwork. But, if you want it, what can I do? Take it.” And having deceived the other by exchanging the robe made from rags for the new cloth, he went on his way.

After wearing the botched robe, the Jetavana man washed it not long afterwards in warm water. He saw that it was made out of rags, and he was put to shame. The whole of the Saṇgha heard the news that the Jetavana man had been deceived by a tailor from the country.

Now, one day the monks were seated in the Dharma Hall discussing the news, when the Master entered and asked what they were talking about. They told him the story.

The Master said, “Monks, this is not the only instance of the Jetavana robe maker’s deceitful tricks. In bygone times he did the same thing, and as he has been deceived now by someone from the country, so he was also in bygone times.” And so saying, he told this story of the past.


Once upon a time the Bodhisatta was born in the forest as the fairy of a tree that stood near a certain lotus pond. In those days the water used to fall very low every summer in the pond. The pond was not very big, and there were many fish there. Catching sight of these fish, a certain crane said to himself, “I must find a way to trick and eat these fish.” So he went and sat down in deep thought by the side of the water.

Now when the fish saw him, they said, “What are you thinking, my lord, as you sit there?”

“I am thinking about you,” he replied.

“And what is your lordship thinking about us?”

“The water in this pool is very low, food is scarce, and the heat is intense. I was wondering to myself, as I sat here, how you fish will manage.”

“And what are we to do, my lord?”

“Well, if you take my advice, I will pick you up one by one in my beak and carry you all off to a fine large pool covered with the five varieties of lotuses and put you down there.”

“My lord,” they said, “no crane ever cared about fish since the world began. You want to eat us one by one.”

“No, I will not eat you if you trust me,” the crane said. “If you don’t believe me that there is such a pond, send one of you to go with me and see for himself.” Believing the crane, they presented a great big fish to him (blind of one eye, by the way), who they thought would be a match for the crane, and they said, “Here’s the one who will go with you.”

The crane took off with the fish and put him in the pool, and after showing him the whole extent of it, brought him back again and put him in his old pond with the other fish. And he told them about the charms of the new pool.

After hearing this, they were eager to go there, and they said to the crane, “Very good, my lord. Please take us there.”

The crane started with that big one-eyed fish. He carried him to the edge of the pool so that he could see the water, but he actually landed in a pear tree that grew on the bank. Throwing the fish down in a fork of the tree, he pecked it to death, and then he picked him clean and let the bones fall to the foot of the tree. Then back he went and said, “I’ve thrown him in. Who’s next?” And so he took the fish one by one and ate them all until finally there were no fish left.

But there was still a crab remaining in the pond. So the crane, who wanted to eat him too, said, “Mister crab, I’ve taken all those fishes away and put them into a fine large pool covered all over with lotuses. Come along. I’ll take you too.”

“How will you carry me across?” the crab asked.

“Why, in my beak, to be sure,” said the crane.

“Ah, but you might drop me like that,” said the crab. “I won’t go with you.”

“Don’t be frightened. I’ll keep tight hold of you all the way.”

The crab thought to himself, “He hasn’t put the fish in the pool. If he does put me in, that would be great. But if he does not, why, I’ll nip his head off and kill him.” So he said to the crane, “You’d never be able to hold me tight enough, friend crane. But we crabs have got a very tight grip. If you let me take hold of your neck with my claws, I can hold tight and then I will go along with you.”

Not suspecting that the crab wanted to trick him, the crane agreed. The crab gripped hold of the crane’s neck with his claws like the pincers of a blacksmith, and he said, “Now you can start.” The crane took him and showed him the pool first and then started off for the tree.

“The pool is this way, uncle,” the crab said, “but you’re taking me the other way.”

“Very much your dear uncle I am!” said the crane, “and very much my nephew you are! I suppose you thought I am your slave to lift you up and carry you about! Just look at that heap of bones at the foot of the tree. I ate all those fish, so I will eat you too.”

The crab said, “It was through their own folly that those fish were eaten by you. But I will not give you the chance to eat me. No. What I will do is to kill you. For you, fool that you were, did not see that I was tricking you. If we die, we will both die together. I’ll chop your head clean off.” And so saying he gripped the crane’s throat with his claws like pincers. With his mouth wide open and tears streaming from his eyes, the crane, trembling for his life, said, “Lord, indeed I will not eat you! Spare my life!”

“Well, then, just fly to the pool and put me in,” said the crab. Then the crane turned back and landed as directed to the pool and placed the crab on the mud at the water’s edge. But the crab, before entering the water, nipped off the crane’s head as deftly as if he were cutting a lotus stalk with a knife.

The tree fairy who lived in the tree saw this wonderful thing. He made the whole forest ring with applause and repeated this stanza in sweet tones:

Deceit does not profit the deceitful folk.

See what the deceitful crane got from the crab!

The Trickster Gets Tricked!

Figure: The Trickster Gets Tricked!


“Brothers,” the Master said, “this is not the first time this fellow has been deceived by the robe maker from the country. In the past he was deceived in the same way.” His lesson ended, he showed the connection and identified the birth, by saying, “The Jetavana robe maker was the crane of those days. The robe maker from the country was the crab, and I myself the tree fairy.”