Greed Is Always Their Undoing

In the first book of the Panchatantra (the classic Sanskrit collection of moral fables), the writer, Vishnu Sarma, mentions “five evils” that can befall an individual or a state:  absence or dearth; rebellion; addiction; calamities; and tactical inversions.  Each of these is explained in the following way.

Absence or dearth.  This situation comes about when a ruler lacks one of the six following requirements:  good ministers, land and subjects, strong fortresses, a decent treasury, worthy allies, and effective power.

Rebellion.  This evil is self-explanatory and requires little elaboration.

Addiction.  This category includes women, gambling, hunting, and alcohol or drugs.  They originate in desire and form what is called the “desire-group.”  There is another group in this category, called the “anger-group,” which includes things like abusive speech, torture, and severity of punishment.  The anger-group type of addictions has its origin in rage.  If permitted to grow without any restraint, there is no doubt that these things can become addictions.

Calamities.  These come in the following varieties:  acts of God, disasters caused by fire and water, by disease, by panic, by famine, and by tremendous rains.

Tactical inversions.  This essentially means failing to manage the following problems of statecraft:  peace and alliances, war, advance or pursuit, halting and holding, falling back or seeking shelter, and the use of ruses or stratagems.  A “tactical inversion” is choosing the wrong tactic in a given situation.

These, then, are the enumerated evils as Vishnu Sarma describes them in the first book.  He does not mention greed specifically in his list, perhaps because he saw it as falling within the category of addictions.  Yet he does provide us with the following fable, which illustrates the fate of those who are animated by avarice.  It is called the tale of The Crab and the Crane.

An old crane lived by a mountain lake.  He liked to give the appearance of weakness and infirmity, as a way of gaining the sympathy of those who had dealings with him.  He would often deliberately ignore the fishes who even swam close to him; yet this was a ruse designed to lull the lake’s denizens into an unsuspecting laxity.  A crab in the water noticed this, and asked the crane why he did not feed himself very often.

“I have had a premonition that all of us here at the lake are going to experience a severe disaster,” the crane told the crab.  “I don’t know precisely what form this disaster will take, but I am sure it is coming.  For this reason, I find it difficult to raise my spirits.”

Now the crab’s interest was ignited.  He demanded to know what sort of calamity was coming.  “Don’t you know something specific you can share with me?” he asked the crane.  The crane responded as follows.  He said he had overhead some fishermen talking recently, and that these fishermen intended to undertake a comprehensive fishing program in the lake.  Soon the fishes and crabs in the lake would be depleted, said the crane, and once that happened, the crane knew that he himself would expire.  This was what the crane told the crab.

Of course, the crane’s words were lies.  He had heard nothing of the sort.  But, gossip being what it is, very soon the crane’s dire predictions spread throughout the lake.  Everyone wanted to leave before disaster hit.  Everyone asked the crane what could be done to avert the looming disaster.  Finally the crane hit up on a solution.

“What I can do is this,” said the crane.  “I can transport each of you to a very large and deep lake that is close to this one.  If you allow me to do this, you will all certainly be saved.”  Of course, the fishes and crabs of the lake were very excited to learn about this solution to all their problems.  And of course the crane secretly laughed to himself at how gullible and stupid the fishes and crabs were.  Soon the crane began “transporting” the lake’s inhabitants to the supposed new lake.  Instead of doing what he had promised to do, he would take the crabs and fishes in his beak, fly at high altitude, and then drop the unsuspecting passengers on to the rocks below him.  He would then fly down and eat the crabs and fishes that he had just released.  Soon crab skeletons and fish bones began to pile up on the rocks.  The crane became fat and happy with all this food he was consuming.

Finally the crane was approached again by his original crab friend.  “Can you take me to safety now?” asked the crab.  “Almost everyone else is gone.  I think it’s now my time to fly out of here.”

So the crane took the crab in his beak and flew off, planning to drop the crab to his death, as he had done to so many others.  As they were flying, the crab began to notice that they were flying by large bodies of water without stopping.  The crab began to feel uneasy, and suspected that something was wrong.  “Look down there!” said the crane.  “See all your friends, whose bones are now bleaching white in the sun!”  He could not resist gloating about what he was about to do to the crab.  The crab thought of the following verses:

Friends appear foes; foes appear friends;

And all to gain their own ends;

A few are farsighted enough to tell the difference.

Better take a walk with a snake;

Or share your home with rogues or foes;

Never put your trust in evil friends,

False, fickle, and foolish.

[Trans. by Chandra Rajan]

Knowing he would die a miserable death if he did not do something, the crab acted to save his life.  He grabbed the crane’s neck with both of his pincers, and squeezed as hard as he could.  He throttled the crane to death, and they both fell, crashing in a heap on the ground.  The crab survived; he decapitated the crane, and brought the head as a trophy back to the lake, where he displayed it to the remaining inhabitants of the lake as a cautionary object.

This is the tale of The Crab and the Crane.  It was greed that was the crane’s undoing; he could not satisfy himself with a reasonable amount of food; he had to eat everything, and he had to have it all.  And eventually, he encountered someone who knew how to defend himself.  His death was a fitting end.

In some ways this tale reminds us of the legendary fate of Marcus Licinius Crassus, who lived from about 115 B.C. to 53 B.C.  He was a greedy Roman politician and general, whom folklore has dubbed “the richest man in Rome.”  He certainly treasured physical wealth, and believed it would insulate him from all harm; he was ambitious, and sought to glorify himself with the garlands of military, as well as financial, victory.  Late in his life, he set off to the Near East with the objective of conquering the Parthians, a people occupying most of what is now Iran.  After various misadventures, Crassus was slain by the Parthians in the Battle of Carrhae, fought where the town of Harran, Turkey is today.  There was absolutely no reason for him to have attempted an attack against Parthia.  They had done nothing to the Roman state; the purpose of the campaign was purely about control and domination.  Crassus would not listen to reason; he was deaf and blind to the dictates of prudence, and the normative rules of civilized behavior.  He had led himself, his son, and his army to utter disaster.

It is said by the historian Dio Cassius (XL.27) that Crassus was decapitated, and that the Parthians mockingly poured molten gold into his mouth.  “See how much good all your riches will do you now!” was their message.  “You love gold so much?  Eat and drink of it now, in death.”  We do not know if this legend is literally true, but its appearance in the pages of an ancient historian at least indicates that observers had drawn sharp moral lessons from Crassus’s ignominious demise.  Plutarch (Crassus 32) says that Crassus was killed by a Parthian named Pomaxathres, and that his head and hand were removed from his corpse and paraded around for amusement.

Such is the fate of those who are driven by avarice and heedless arrogance.



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