Saturday, August 08, 2009

The Monkey & the Croc / Turtle

Illustration of “The Talking Cave” episode,
by an unknown Tibetan artist in Gyantse at
the very beginning of the 20th century.

The Monkey & the Crocodile Turtle...
Dear children, if you're looking for the Story of the Monkey and the Crocodile, this may not be what you were expecting exactly. Go to Buddhanet instead (when you go there, click your mouse on the picture to go to the next comic book page) and you'll probably be happier. And say "Thank you!"

Fool me once? Shame on you!
Fool me twice? Shame on me!

Long ago when the good king Brahmadatta was ruling Varanasi, a monkey was born and, fed by the plentiful figs, grew to maturity in the forest inside a huge bend in the holy river Gangga.

A certain crocodile also lived in that section of the river together with his wife. One day his wife happened to see the monkey swinging its powerful limbs through the tops of the fig trees on the opposite side of the river and she thought to herself. ‘Just imagine, of all the most sweet and exotic fruits in the world, the sun-ripened fig is the most tasty. But imagine just how much sweeter would be the heart of a monkey who had fed on nothing but figs. I simply must taste that monkey’s heart.’

She told her husband of her secret longing, so he hatched a plan how he might get the monkey down from the trees and bring its heart to his dear wife.

Crossing the river, he was lucky enough to find the monkey taking a drink at the edge of the river. He addressed the monkey in a kind tone of voice, “My dear fellow, king of all monkeys, are you not somewhat tired of having figs for breakfast, lunch and dinner? On the other side of the river we have the most wonderful fruits. Have you even heard about jackfruits, mangos or papayas? What about rose-apples? No? Oh, good gracious, you don’t know what you are missing.”

“Sir crocodile,” the monkey said with genuine respect and a tiny bit of doubt, “the Gangga is the widest river in the whole country, as deep as the sea and, they say, just as difficult to cross. Aw well, I suppose I shall have to stick with my figs.”

“You seem to forget that we crocodiles are the most excellent swimmers. Why, you could just hop on my back and we would be there in no time.”

Remembering a thing or two he had heard about crocodiles, he thought once about how they could be true, then twice about the colorful and tasty fruits awaiting them, and decided he was game for a little adventure. “Alright! I’m ready. Where do I sit?”

“Just over my shoulders. And hold on tight!”

Half way across the river and the crocodile suddenly went under the waves carrying the poor monkey with him. When at last they surfaced again, the thoroughly soaked simian said in a shivering voice, “What the hell was that? You could have drowned the both of us! Are you crazy or what?”

“Well, you know, I’m really quite a mellow laid-back sort of fellow, all my friends tell me so, and normally I wouldn’t be doing this kind of thing, but my wife told me I shouldn’t come back home without bringing her a monkey heart. Anyway, she’s my wife and I love her very much. But you seem like a nice enough sort, so I was having second thoughts.”

Temporarily at a loss for words, and sailing quickly toward the far bank of the holiest of rivers, the monkey thought of something. He said, “Good thing you told me this, because as you probably know we monkeys don’t travel around with our hearts inside. While swinging through the trees there is far too much danger of them getting snagged by thorns, and when we bathe in the river we fear they might get scraped by a rock. So for their own safety we hang them up in the highest branches of the tree. But if it’s monkey hearts that you need, I know where there are plenty of them. Just take me back home and you’ll get all you want.”

In truth, as the crocodile was swishing its powerful tail back toward the monkey’s side of the Gangga in the evening dusk, the distant figs looked like nothing so much as little monkey hearts hanging there ripe for the plucking.

The monkey jumped off and raced up his own fig tree, laughing all the way. “Silly croc! You truly thought monkey hearts grow on trees? You pitiful fool! The bigness and clumsiness of your body are more than compensated for by the smallness of your lizard brain. Take this home to your hungry wife!” he taunted, throwing a shriveled-up over-ripe fig, making a bullseye out of the crocodile’s cold, but nonetheless for that, sensitive nose.

Rose-apple, jack-fruit, mangoes too 

across the water there I see;

Enough of them, I want them not; 

my figs are good enough for me.

Great is your body, verily, 

but how much smaller is your wit!

Now go your way, Sir Crocodile, 

for I have had the best of it.

I retold the story to suit myself, as people have been doing for thousands of years. I based myself on translations of the Pali Jataka version, and since this is the word of Buddha, I didn’t feel free to introduce anachronisms or very substantial innovations — well, maybe a few small ones. The ending verses — each Jataka story in the Pali collection has them — are copied word-for-word from the old translation of Cowell.

Now that you’ve heard my own version of the story, I thought you might like to try this alternative version, which I translate directly, and I hope faithfully, from the 13th-century Tibetan version by Lorepa:

Deceived by bonds of friendship.

Like the Monkey and the Turtle...

In ancient times in the first eon, there was a monkey of the forest and a turtle of the ocean who became friends. They even took an oath of friendship, promising to never do anything bad to one another. On one particular occasion, the Naga King became ill, and it emerged that the one medicine most necessary for his recovery was the heart of a monkey. The turtle came up with a wicked idea. He went and called to the monkey at the edge of the forest. “There is a wonderful show going on in our Naga country. Let’s go see it. You and I have become the best of friends, but if you haven’t at least once seen my country, then, they say, the friendship cannot be finalized.”

He took the monkey to Naga Country and, upon their arrival, the turtle said, “The king of we Nagas is sick, so they said, ‘A monkey heart is needed for medicine,’ so I must beg you as a friend.”

The monkey replied, “We monkeys are quick-tempered creatures, easily angered, so we have to leave our hearts at the top of the deodar — ‘Tree of the Gods’ — for protection. It needs to be picked up. I have one, we just need to go and take it.”

Together with the turtle he returned to the forest. There, the monkey said, “You stay here and keep your mouth opened wide. I’ll toss the heart down to you.”

The monkey climbed up to the tip of the deodar tree. The turtle shouted up at him, “Did you find the heart?”
The monkey answered with this verse.

Keeping the friendship of the evildoer spells defeat.
For no good reason he takes you down into the sea, into the depths of it.
He separates you from your most precious thing, your life.
If it’s monkey heart you wanted, Here! Take this monkey shit.

Then into the turtle’s open mouth the monkey squeezed off a big fresh turd.

So the turtle, not getting the heart he was looking for, went to the cave where the two of them had been staying. He was thinking that the monkey would return there, so he stayed there quietly, lying in ambush.

The monkey came down from the tip of the deodar tree and was thinking to himself, ‘Maybe he’s in the cave?’ So he shouted out, “Brave Mister Cave! Brave Mister Cave!” Then after he started destroying the cave he shouted the same thing again.

The turtle thought, ‘He is expecting to get an answering ‘Ah’ from the cave.’ So the turtle said “Ah!”

The monkey said,

The one who destroys first is the wise one.
He who regrets later is the more foolish by far.
A rock cave with a human voice? What an evil omen!
Monkey, don’t stay here. Get to the top of that deodar!

He climbed the tree.

So, you know, even close friends are not to be trusted.

* * *

Let’s just call it “misplaced trust”! Still, I hope you're in a mood to trust me when I tell you that there have been thousands of versions of the story told all over the world. One of the most interesting transformations took place in Korea ("Sorry, my good sir the turtle, but I'm sorry to have to tell you I've left my liver behind, drying on a rock" — see Grayson's article), where the monkey's heart became a rabbit's liver, and among African slaves in the American South, where the monkey also became a rabbit, the internal organ in question the gizzard. I just wanted to say something about the rabbit, since I know there are other bloggers lurking around here who are very fond of rabbit stories. Well, here you go.

I don't feel like pounding in the point too vigorously, since I like to think of the remaining readers of Tibeto-logic blog, both of you, as sensitive people, able to come to conclusions on your own without coaching or coaxing. Put bluntly, the story is all about desires — thirsts or addictions if you prefer — coming in tandem with delusions, as they do.

In some versions we get a different motive that sets the plot in motion, something all cultures know about, but most unlike Sanskrit don't have a particular term for it. The Sanskrit (or is it Prakrit) word is dohada (see Bloomfield's article), which is explained as probably being a Prakritic reduction of an original Sanskrit term *dauhd, which has been further interpreted a ‘sickness at heart.’ I’m not sure my Indo-logical friends will agree, but I think the initial do- stands for dva, meaning ‘two’ (as in the word doha, which means ‘couplet’). The pregnant woman is believed to have two hearts — hence two wills, two ways of thinking — within her body. This doubles the craving levels, and perhaps could go toward explaining her urge for strange combinations of two things that don't normally go together. In the U.S., women are said to crave pickles and ice-cream. The point here is just that, in some versions of our story at least, dohada explains the crocodile/turtle wife's craving for monkey heart.* And as everybody knows, the husband is responsible for going out, overcoming all obstacles, and getting whatever it is she wants. As Bloomfield says (p. 4):

“All the young woman has to do is to express longing for some rare article of food, or a fruit out of season, and the deluded husband, as he is in duty bound, sets out to procure it.”

In some Indian stories, the pregnant woman wants badly to consume her husband's intestines. Or his favorite pet peacock. In another she feels she simply must drink the moon. Sometimes, omens are divined in the items the expectant mother craves for. There is a sense of ambiguity about the source of the craving. Is it really something the mother is wanting, or is she being influenced by the will and the wants of the child? Sometimes, too, the husband is forced to trick his own wife into thinking her desire is, or will be, fulfilled before the spell of the dohada can be lifted.

*(In other tellings of the story the turtle wife believes her husband is spending too much time in the company of female monkeys, making jealousy the prime motive.)

So, to close up shop for today, we may conclude that the story of the monkey and the turtle is one about cravings and desires... and that those cravings lead both ourselves and our loved ones into situations in which we are left wide open to deception. The paw next time, I promise. Have I ever let you down before? Do rabbits have gizzards? Would getting one for you convince you of my love?


More to Tell —

Samuel  Beal, “The Story of the Foolish Dragon,” contained in: The Romantic Legend of Śākya Buddha: A Translation of the Chinese Version of the Abhiniṣkramaṇasūtra (London 1875), pp. 231-234. Here the Buddha recognizes His past incarnation as the monkey. Try downloading this internet archive version.

Maurice Bloomfield, The Dohada or Craving of Pregnant Women: A Motif of Hindu Fiction, Journal of the American Oriental Society, vol. 40 (1920), pp. 1-24. Two versions of the monkey and crocodile story are told on pp. 11-13 as examples of the pregnancy craving motif.

James Huntley Grayson, Rabbit Visits the Dragon Palace: A Korea-Adapted Buddhist Tale from India, Fabula, vol. 45, nos. 1-2 (2004) 69-92. If you don’t have any way to get the article from JSTOR, you might try the same author’s book, Myths & Legends from Korea, at Googlebooks here.
(But, I am sorry to say, you will probably not be able to read the complete story there, and the book is terribly expensive. The article is important for tracing the East Asian versions of the story, which reached China by 251 CE, in which the monkey's liver, not his heart, is the desired organ. In the earliest written Korean version, of the early 12th century, the monkey has already become a rabbit. The monkey remains a monkey in Japanese versions, and the organ is the liver, although a modern version does replace the turtle with the dog. A modern Tibetan version is also told (p. 84), but on the basis of a Chinese translation that apparently turns the turtle into a frog. This last version has ‘The Talking Cave’ episode including the monkey turd incident, just like Lorepa’s. And the Mongolian version also largely agrees with it, even if the monkey becomes a female, and the jealousy motive comes into play.)
Lorepa Dragpa Wangchug (1187-1250 CE), ’Brel-ba’i Gnyen-gyis Bslus-pa, Spre’u dang Rus-sbal Lta-bu, contained at p. 21 in: Dam-chos Thub-pa Lnga’i Sngon-’gro’i Skabs-kyi Gtam-rgyud Rgyu-’bras-la Yid-ches Bskyed-byed, in its turn contained in: Smad ’Brug Bstan-pa’i Mnga’-bdag Rgyal-ba Lo-ras-pa Grags-pa-dbang-phyug Mchog-gi Gsung-’bum Rin-po-che, Ven Khenpo Shedup Tenzin & Lama Thinley Namgyal, Shri Gautam Buddha Vihar, Manjushri Bazar, Kathmandu, Nepal (2002), vol. 3, pp. 1-292. If you are interested in my listing of the titles in Lorepa's collected works, look here.

W.F. O’Connor, collector and translator, Folk Tales from Tibet, with Illustrations by a Tibetan Artist and Some Verses from Tibetan Love-Songs, Ratna Pustak Bhandar (Kathmandu 1977), reprint of 1906 edition. The 20th story is the one we care most about right now, at pp. 141-146. It tells the story of ‘The Tortoise and the Monkey’ in two episodes, the ‘monkey heart’ and ‘talking cave’ episodes. In this it resembles our Lorepa version. The book has been archived here, but I recommend ordering a reprint from your favorite New Delhi book wallah anyway.

Patrick Olivelle, translator, The Pañcatantra: The Book of India’s Folk Wisdom, Oxford University Press (Oxford 1997). The first few pages of chapter 4, “On Losing What You Have Gained.” A book worth having for its very worldly wisdom.

José Rizal (1861-1896), The Tale of the Tortoise and the Monkey. The author is one of the most famous national figures in the Philippines. He argued, in his 1889 essay Two Eastern Fables, that the story as widely told in the Philippines served as source of the Japanese folktale, The Battle of the Monkey and the Crab (this archived version is the most charming).

John Alexander Stewart, Talaing Folklore, Journal of the Burma Research Society, vol. 3, no. 1 (1913), pp. 54-64. I haven’t seen it. If you have access to this rather rare old journal issue, I’d love to know what it says about the Mon version of the story of “The Monkey and the Turtle,” which ought to be part five of the article, to judge from the outline.  (Thanks to J.S. for sending me the article.)

Herman W. Tull, The Tale of ‘The Bride and the Monkey’: Female Insatiability, Male Impotence, and Simian Virility in Indian Literature, Journal of the History of Sexuality, vol. 3, no. 4 (April 1993), pp. 574-589. I didn't go into this especially obscene but related monkey story. Hey, be my guest, have a look at it if you so desire.

From the Fables of Bidpai


Online stuff:

The younger kids might like the comic-book version hung up on the web by Buddhanet. Illustrated by Jeffrey Fowler. I put this link up front, since I imagine it will suit them better.

For several stories corresponding to no. 91 in Aarne-Thompson folktale typology, see D.L. Ashliman’s The Monkey’s Heart here or here if you prefer. This includes Swahili and southern U.S. versions.

Can you see the monkey on that crocodile’s back in this relief from Borobudur?* Where does that phrase “monkey on my back,” as a way of alluding to drug addiction, come from? Reminds me of that Beatles’ song, the one with the line “Everybody’s got something to hide, ’cept for me & my monkey.” Have you heard the story that the original line said something about the Maharshi before they changed it to ‘my monkey’?
(*I apologize for the broken link.)

“The Curious Jew” blog entry for January 15, 2007, is entitled “Literary Fun with the Apocrypha.” It’s literally fun finding a version of our story in The Alphabet of Ben-Sira, in which Leviathan gets a fish to bring him a fox so he can eat its heart to become wise. You know ahead of time that it is just •because• the fox is wise that it won’t prove possible to cheat him out of his heart. Try here.

Or try the entry by Crawford Howell Toy & Louis Ginzberg at, here, where you will also find a discussion of the story’s debt to India.

t the creation of the world God consigned a male and a female of every kind of animal to the sea. When the Angel of Death (“Malak ha-Mawet”), who was charged with the duty of sinking them in the water, was about to take the fox, that animal began to cry. The Angel of Death asked him why he did this. The fox answered that he wept because his friend had been condemned to live in the water; and going to the shore, he pointed to his own image in the water. The Angel of Death, believing that a fox had already been sunk, allowed him to go. Leviathan, the ruler of the sea, now tried to lure the fox into its depths, because he believed that if he could eat the heart of so cunning an animal he would gain in wisdom.

One day, while the fox was walking by the sea, some fishes came and spoke to him. They told him that Leviathan was nearing his end and wanted the craftiest of animals to be his successor. They promised the fox to carry him to a rock in the sea where he could erect his throne without fear of the surrounding waters. When he reached the high seas the fox knew that for once he had been tricked; but he did not lose his self-possession. “What!” said he, “It is my heart you want, is it? Well, why did you not say so before? I would then have brought it here; for usually, you know, I do not carry it with me.”

The fish quickly conveyed him back to the shore, and in exultation he leaped about. The fish called to him to fetch his heart and come with him; but the fox replied: “To be sure, I went with you when I had no heart” (the ancients considered the heart the seat of wisdom); “but now I have my heart, I’ll stay here. I got the better of the Angel of Death; how much easier, then, to fool stupid fish!”

For the older version in Bidpai’s Kalila and Dimna (Fables of Bidpai, if you prefer) I couldn’t yet find a good online resource.  Wait, perhaps this one will do.  This story collection arrived in Europe more or less at the same time Padampa arrived in Tibet.

Delusions are nothing if not dissolvable, I'd say.

That's Buddhist optimism for you.


  1. Oh Professor,

    I perceive recurring themes of monkey and turtle these last many posts (chuckle, smile). Is this intentional chuckle), unconscious (chuckle, chuckle), or inspired (hmm ....)?

    I bet Padampa has something to do with this.


  2. What a nice read.
    Ancient books have many pearls of wisdom hidden in them. Thanks for bringing them to the forefront for all to benefit from the moral of the story.


  3. Dear Short,

    You might be on to something (cluck, cluck). I'll bet Padampa does have something to do with it (wink, wink). We'll get there (wait, wait).

    And Dear Kiran-ji,

    Thanks for writing. I'd rather to use the word 'consequence' rather than 'moral' since we can't say that word without thinking about (socially sanctioned or endorsed or enforced) morality. We have to draw the consequences. All karma/action has consequences. Correct?

    Sometimes very immoral consequences may be drawn from stories such as this. Here's what Patrick Olivelle says in his introduction to the book I mentioned;

    "The Pañcatantra and its stories depict human life with all its ambivalences and contradictions, and that is its beauty and the reason for its popularity" (p. xxxii)

    and, he says, the book conveys the basic message

    "that craft and deception constitute the major art of government." (p. xxxv)

    This is stuff I suppose we ought to learn about, in stories like those in the Pañcatantra as in life, in order to be worldly-wise. But I wouldn't say that it was moral. Only moral people can draw moral consequences from them. Politicians find justification for the immoral 'moral' they want to hear here.

    And Dear Third Reader:

    I just wanted to add that I just now bothered to check in Eric Honeywood Partridge's infamous 1949 or '50 "Dictionary of the Underworld" — there's a wiki entry on the author — where I found that the expression "have a monkey on [my] back" is indeed attested, with meaning of 'addiction' in an earlier dictionary of American slang dating to 1942. But the variant expression might seem surprising: "have a Chinaman on [my] back." I suppose this is a reference to opium and opiates, which were once often associated with China. I wonder which of the two expressions came first. Was the Chinaman version considered by some to be an ethnic slur, so they substituted the less offensive monkey? I wonder. Still wondering.


  4. PS

    Oh, look what I just found! I found it here:

    ""To have a monkey on one's back "be addicted" is 1930s narcotics slang, though the same phrase in the 1860s meant "to be angry." There is a story in the Sinbad cycle about a tormenting ape-like creature that mounts a man's shoulders and won't get off, which may be the root of the term.""

    So maybe it originally meant 'irksome burden'? I wonder if the Sinbad story belongs to our monkey-turtle type of story no. 91? Should look into this.

  5. OK, I just found the Sinbad story, the account of the Fifth Voyage, here:

    It's not an ape, but a decrepit old wrinkled man "with skin like a cow," who demands to be carried across the brook on Sinbad's back in order to pick some fruit (hear any bells ringing?)

    Anyway, instead of going to pick fruit himself, the old man stays on his back strangling his neck with his legs and refuses to get off. He makes Sinbad pick the fruits for him.

    It's true that apes appear later in this same story segment, and Sinbad tricks them into throwing down coconuts for him. (He and his friends throw rocks at the apes, and the apes fight back with coconuts from the palm tree... Finally Sinbad collects enough coconuts to pay for his next trip out to sea...)


  6. Rabbits do not have gizzards, but they do have a caecum. Does that count?

    By the way, I would like to see more rabbit stories.

  7. You had better tell me if caecums count. Perhaps they can also spell? I'd like to oblige you on the rabbit stories, but sometimes I think there really is something of the rabbit in the monkey, or the monkey in the rabbit... Let's try to finish up this monkey business, or there will be ends of threads left dangling all over the blog like the byssus of the Pinna nobilis. Not that I'm suggesting you'll find any sea silk. Sow's purses if anything. And even those may not make sense.

  8. Just wanted to make a note of a more recent study of Indian pregnancy cravings or dohada. This one is on a set of five pregnancy cravings experienced by Mâyâ, the mother of Shâkyamuni —

    Hubert Durt, The Pregnancy of Māyā: 1. The Five Uncontrollable Longings (dohada), Journal of the International College for Advanced Buddhist Studies, vol. 5 (March 2002), pp. 43-66.

    It's possible to access this article as A free PDF download (try a schmoogle... It's available at the CiNii site).

  9. Uncontrollable craving is an irksome burden, that's for sure.

  10. Oh, I just found •THIS• nice one-page bit about dohada - Dohada (Pregnancy Cravings) - by Jerome Bauer. I recommend it especially for people who imagine I make this stuff up.

    (And sorry Viagra guy, no covert commercials will go up on Tibeto-logic blog if I have anything to say about it. And, well, I do. Trying to make a living off other people's cravings are we? Let's see, how new is that?)

  11. Hi Dan,

    Late discovery of your article (thanks to a link in your latest one).
    For those who are interested, I scanned a Tibetan edition of the story of the monkey and the crocodile in a children's book published with the support of Unesco in 1979. I didn't succeed to find new copies of the book and there is no mention of a copyright, hence the scanning. I use it for my Tibetan students. Here's the link :



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