In Mahabharata there are numerous didactic tales advising Kings on the rules of engagement in a political scenario. The tale of Lomasha and Palita from the Shanti Parvan (138) explains why a wise enemy is better than a foolish friend.
Deep inside a thick forest there stood a huge banyan tree. It was home to various species of wild animals and snakes. Inside a hole near the roots of this huge banyan tree lived a rat by name Palita and on one of its branches lived a cat by the name Lomasha. Lomasha subsisted entirely on the birds that would visit the tree. However, Palita always lived in fear of being killed by Lomasha and hardly ventured out his hole.
One day a hunter came to the forest and noticed the gigantic tree and the birds and animals that lived on it. At sunset, he would spread his net on the tree and in the morning he would come and collect all the animals that got trapped into it.
One day Lomasha, the cat too got trapped in the hunter’s net. Seeing the cat trapped in the net, Palita felt it was now safe to venture out for some food. He noticed a piece of meat thrown by the hunter, and blissfully attacked the food, pointedly ignoring the angry Lomasha. But Palita’s joy was short lived. Another of his foes- Harina the mongoose tumbled out of his hiding place smelling rat meat.
“Oh no!” cursed Palita knowing his life was in danger. He thought he would climb the tree to escape the mongoose. But there on the tree sat the Owl-Chandraka watching his moves carefully. Palita knew he was in a fix, on the one hand there was the mongoose baying for his blood and on the other sat the owl licking its chops.
His mind scrambled through the solutions at his disposal. And then he remembered the advice by Shukra the guru of the Asuras: “A wise foe is better than a foolish friend”.
Palita turned his head away from the mongoose towards Lomasha, and said- “Oh my brother cat how are you feeling today? I see you are in great trouble.”
Lomasha who was struggling to free himself paused. “Today, I speak to you as my friend. I can help you save your life in return I seek protection from you to save mine,” Palita added. And when he saw that he had Lomasha’s full attention he continued, “ Of course my brother, this is possible only if you promise me that you will not kill me.” Palita had opened the first round of negotiation.
Lomasha, thought to himself that he had little choice but to accept the terms. Palita then proposed that he gnaw the net and release Lomasha from hunter’s clutches, but before that Lomasha should allow him to hide under his furry coat, so that he could save himself from the mongoose and the owl.
His terms accepted, Palita quietly climbed through the net and concealed himself under Lomasha’s furry coat. Not being able to trace the rat, the disappointed mongoose and the owl retreated back into their homes.
Now, Palita had only one enemy to deal with, Lomasha the cat! But Palita began to while away his time instead of releasing the cat. Impatient Lomasha reminded him to fulfil the deal before the hunter returned. But Palita was wise. He told him he will safeguard his life first and release Lomasha at the right time. Time went by, and in the morning hunter appeared and approached the net to collect his catch of the day. “Now is the time”- shouted Palita and began gnawing the net ferociously. As the hunter came close Palita cut the last bit of the net and Lomasha dashed out on to the tree and to safety in the nick of time. Palita too darted into his hole with a smile, as he had cleverly managed to save his life from three enemies. Had he missed the sequence or the timing of his plan, he would have not lived another day to tell the tale.
But tomorrow is another day!
Story collected by: Vidya Kamat
Text Source: Mahabharata, Shanti Parva (138), see Dange, S. A. Myths from the Mahabharata, Vol-III
Location: Pan India
Image Source: Egyptian cat sculpture, Wikimedia images