The Crow and the Swan

This fable is taken from the Indian epic, the Mahabharata.

Once there lived a farmer who was generous and kind to all animals. He had many children, and these children often put out scraps of food for a large crow. The crow became very proud and grew up to despise other birds who had to find their own food. One day a flock of swans alighted close to the farmer’s house. The farmer’s little son saw them, and said to the crow "O crow, you are better than all other birds."

Hearing these words, the crow believed them to be true, and grew more conceited than ever. He flew to where the flock of swans were living, and asked to speak to their leader.

"O swan," he said, "let us see who is better at flying."

The swan looked at the crow and began to laugh.

"O crow," it said. "Do you know who I am? I am a swan, and we are renowned for the strength of our wings. We can traverse vast oceans, and travel wherever we please. How can you, O fool, challenge a swan? How will you fly with me?"

Blinded by pride, the crow mocked the words of the swan, and replied: "I shall fly in a hundred and one different styles. I shall fly in one style for a hundred leagues and I will fly in another beautiful style for the next hundred leagues. I shall rise up and swoop down, and whirl around, and fly straight and travel slowly, and travel steadily and go forwards, and go backwards, and soar upwards, and dart forward, and soar downwards at a great speed, and once more travel slowly, and then at a terrifying speed, and then swoop down and whirl around and advance steadily and fly up in jerks and soar straight upwards, and fall down again, and wheel about in a circle, and rush forward proudly, and many, many different styles. Then, O swans, you shall see my strength. This is how I shall race against you."

Then the swan said: "I have no doubt – O crow – that you will fly in a hundred and one different styles. I, however, will fly in that style that is known to all birds, for I do not know any other."

When the crows who had gathered there heard this, they laughed, and cawed loudly.

"How," they cried, "will a swan, who knows only one kind of flight, get the better of the crow, who knows a hundred and one different kinds?"

Then the crow and the swan rose into the sky, and the crow began to fly in a hundred and one different ways. Seeing him, the crows on the ground were filled with joy and began to caw even louder. The swans laughed at them in scorn, and they all flew about and made a great commotion.

Meanwhile, the swan continued to beat his wings steadily up and down, flying in the slow style that was known to him. The crow was far ahead, and seeing this, the watching crows exclaimed:

"See, the swan is giving way!"

The swan heard these words and flew westwards towards the ocean. The crow followed close behind, but when he saw the land disappear, he became very afraid. Where could he alight if he grew tired? There were no islands, and no trees, only the bottomless, tossing ocean.

The swan looked back at the crow and, in his kindness, could not leave him behind. He waited for the other bird to catch up with him, but by the time the crow came to his side he was so weary that he was about to fall into the ocean. Seeing this, the swan decided to rescue him.

"O crow," he said, "what motion is this? You did not describe it to us before. You repeatedly touch the water with your wings and beak – what is the name of this kind of flight?"

Weak with exhaustion, and seeing no end to the vast expanse of water the crow replied:

"O swan – I am only a crow, who flies about crying caw-caw. Please protect me – my life-breaths are in your hands. Carry me to the shores of the ocean."

So saying he suddenly fell down into the water, and the swan saw that he was close to death.

"Have you forgotten what you said, O crow?" he enquired. "You said that you would fly through the sky in a hundred and one different ways. You said that you were superior to me. If this is so, why have you fallen into the ocean?"

With a great effort, the crow raised his eyes towards the swan.

"O swan," he murmured, "I was filled with pride, because I was fed upon the remains of others’ dishes – I thought myself superior to all crows, and many other birds. Now, however, I ask you to protect me, and I place my life-breaths in your hands. Please, take me to the shores of some island. If I am ever again safely home in my own land, I will never again insult anybody. Please – save me."

The swan looked at the crow who was weeping, and numb with fear, and sinking down into the ocean. Without a word, he picked him up and helped him to mount upon his back. Then the swan flew swiftly homeward with the unconscious crow, and placed him on the shore. He comforted him with kind words, and then rose up into the air, and flew away to the distant lands from whence he had come.

Real History Home Page        Home