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Treasure-Lore in India's Great and Little Traditions

October, 1970

by Paul G. Hiebert

(I found this article among some of Phyllis' papers, and thought it would be great to share on our web page. We need to know some of the folklore of India, a country that has greatly influenced our family heritage. -Jo)

Part 1

Through the rich tapestry of India's folklore run certain repeated themes. The perils of gambling, the sufferings and ultimate triumph of the innocent, the selfless devotion of saints, marriages by the choice of the bride (svayamvara), battles between good kings and evil which end as cosmic struggles when gods and demons enter the arena, transformations of men into other forms of nature, and the humanized world of talking animals, these are hallmarks of Indian tales from ancient times to the present.

One theme which finds widespread distribution throughout India and indeed throughout the world is that of hidden treasures. In India it is buried gold and gems, in the West the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Similar tales have been reported from Mexico, Brazil and Italy. In India these tales are common in the ancient lore of India's great tradition. They persist today in the villages amidst the widespread belief that such treasure can still be unearthed if one knows the proper sites and techniques for their extraction. But throughout the tales, whether from India's great or little traditions, run certain recognizable themes which place their unique stamp upon Indian treasure tales.

I. Hidden Treasure in India's Great Tradition

The Jatakas are among the oldest collections of Indian tales. Adapted to Buddhist purposes and incorporated into the Pali canon, this collection of dry, terse stories is a commentary on morals and prudence in everyday life. Hidden treasures appear in a dozen of these stories but one or two examples will suffice to illustrate the theme.

Saccamkira-Jataka No. 73
One day when the wicked prince and heir to the throne of Benares was bathing in a flood-swollen river, the servants, thinking to rid themselves of an evil king, threw him into the torrent. Returning home with a display of grief, they claimed that the prince had disappeared in the storm. A thorough search was made, but no sign of the body was to be found.

The prince, however, had caught hold of a log floating by and there he took refuge with a snake, a rat and a parrot. Now the snake had been a rich merchant in his previous life and because of his cravings for money, he had been reborn to dwell amongst his buried treasure. Likewise the rat, who had hidden thirty crores of rupees in his previous existence, returned to grovel amidst the gold.

At this time the Bodhisatta was living as a hermit in the forest. Hearing the cries of the stranded prince, he came to the rescue. Warming and feeding first the animals, for they were weaker, and then the prince, he soon nurtured them back to health. As they departed, each promised to aid the hermit when he called upon them. The snake and rat promised him their treasures, and the parrot the assistance of his many relatives in gathering rice from the far corners of the land. But the wicked prince, who resented the preference which the Bodhisatta had shown the animals, vowed within himself to kill the godly man.

One day the hermit visited Benares. The prince, now king of the land, spied him and ordered the servants to behead him on the spot. When the people heard the commotion and listened to the hermit's story, they killed the ungrateful king and enthroned the hermit. He gathered together the treasures and lived happily with the animals to a ripe old age, doing good to all.

Another tale which points out other characteristics of the Indian treasure stories runs as follows:

Kundakapuva-Jataka No. 109
Once upon a time the Bodhisatta appeared as a tree sprite. On a certain festival day when the villagers brought offerings of garlands, oil and sweet cakes to their respective sprites, the poor man, in whose tree the Bodhisatta dwelt, arrived with only a cake of husks and a cocoanut shell full of water--all he owned. Fearing that the sprite would despise so menial an offering, he turned to leave. But the Bodhisatta, in compassion, called him back. After receiving the offering, the sprite ordered the worthy man to dig around the tree for the pots of gold which lay buried there. As instructed, the poor man took these to the king who appointed him Lord Treasurer of the empire.

In Hindu lore, the Panchatantra ("Five Treatises)" occupies a role similar to that of the Jatakas for Buddhism, unfolding the principles of right conduct (niti) by means of a series of enfolding tales. These stories told by a wise sage to instruct the five foolish sons of a king entrusted to his care make repeated references to hidden treasures. In the story of Right-mind and Wrong-mind the corrupting nature of such treasure becomes apparent. In brief the story goes as follows:

Once upon a time two friends, Right-mind and Wrong-mind, set out to seek their fortunes. In a distant land they found a pot of coins which had been buried years before by a saint. Taking the coins, the youths returned home to display their good fortunes. Nearing their city, the two began to argue over the disposition of the treasure. Right-mind suggested they divide it equally and take the coins home, but Wrong-mind, with an eye to getting a larger portion, suggested each take a small share and the balance be hidden until some later time of need. Wrong-mind prevailed and the two returned home.

After some years Wrong-mind, having used up his share in hand, devised a plan to get hold of all of the remaining money. After secretly removing the buried coins, he summoned Right-mind to dig up and divide the treasure. Finding the pot empty, Wrong-mind loudly accused Right-mind of the theft and dragged him to court. As proof for his charges, Wrong-mind appealed to the spirit which lived in an old tree beside the hiding place.

The following day the judge went to hear the testimony of the tree. To his astonishment, a voice from within the tree testified to the guilt of Right-mind. While the perplexed judge pondered over a suitable punishment for the culprit, Right-mind gathered up brushwood, heaped it around the tree and set it aflame. The anguished cries of Wrong-mind's aged father hiding in the hollow trunk betrayed the ruse and Wrong-mind was hanged.

Such stories are not completely unfounded for kings and wealthy folk did bury treasures for safekeeping, or when their cities were besieged. Salim, son of the great Mughal ruler Akbar, and himself later the Emperor Jahangir, wrote concerning his father:

"Notwithstanding his kingship, his treasures and his buried wealth past computation, his fighting elephants and Arab horses, he never by a hair's breadth placed his foot beyond the base of humility before the Throne of God, and never for one moment forgot Him."

Patrons were thought to have buried large treasures during construction of dams and temples, the wealthy to have hidden gold in their fields or homes.

(Check again next month for Part 2)