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Tale of the Dove

K. Sadagopa Iyengar, Chennai

Whenever the word Peace is mentioned, you tend to think of the Dove, which has over
the years come to be considered as the personification of Peace. The world over, this
bird is regarded as being synonymous with harmony and tranquility. We do not know
exactly what has given this aura of peacefulness to this rather commonplace bird. It
could perhaps be its non-aggressive and cohabiting nature.

I am hardly an ornithologist to hold forth expertly on the Dove. However, a perusal of

our Scriptures convinces me that the Dove is not only a Bird of Peace– it is also a
Symbol of Saranagati. Just as peace and harmony bring the Dove to our mind, so too,
for Sri Vaishnavas, the mere mention of Saranaagati or Prapatti is enough to conjure up
a vision of the beautiful bird. If you find this hard to believe, then do read on and find
out for yourself.

Sri Rama is generally not regarded as a story-teller of any repute. You are able to picture
the ebullient and enthralling Sri Krishna regaling His friends and Gopis with amusing
tales, but somehow your imagination baulks at the prospect of the serious, straight-
forward and sombre Sri Rama resorting to story-telling. However, Sri Valmiki does
portray Sri Rama as telling tales to His friends of the monkey kingdom, not for
entertaining them, but for their education and enlightenment. And one such is the Tale
of the Dove – the celebrated Kapotha Upaakhyaanam.
Most of the Vaanara veeraas are against admitting Vibhishana into their camp despite
his abject surrender at the lotus feet of Sri Raghava. They point out that one who has
forsaken his dear brother at a time of crisis would not hesitate to betray his friends
anytime. They advance many other arguments against Vibhishana being absorbed into
their fold. However, Sri Rama, after affording everyone a patient hearing, comes out
with His glorious formulation– whatever be the shortcomings in the Saranagata,
apparent or latent, and however serious they were, it was His (Rama’s) sworn mission
to extend succour and protection to anyone who surrendered. And to buttress His view
point, He recounts the Tale of the Dove with telling effect:

Shrooyate hi kapotena shatru: sharanam aagata:

Architascha yathaa nyaayam svaischa maamsai: nimantrita:

Here, we may observe that Sri Rama doesn’t recount the story in detail, but tells his
listeners “You have of course heard of the tale of the Dove”. Shrooyate hi says Sri
Rama, referring to what must have been a very popular tale. For instance, when
referring to the story of the hare and the tortoise, we refer merely to the title of the tale
without going into details, for the story is too well-known for recounting. So too, the
Tale of the Dove must have been quite famous and commonplace among people, so that
Sri Rama had no need to go into details. This is no ordinary old wives’ tale, but one
capable of destroying all our sins, says the Itihaasa Samucchayam, attributing the story
to Bhaargava Rishi, as told to Muchukunda Maharaja. Swami Desikan too has deemed
it fit to comment on this tale, in his Abhaya Pradaana Saaram. Well, here is the story
which you must definitely have heard before and which Srimad Mukkur Azhagiasingar
used to recount with such moving words in his own inimitable fashion.

This happened in Krita Yugam. There was once a cruel man, who had made sadism and
torture a way of life. He used to hunt down innocent animals just for the fun of it,
incidentally feeding himself on their flesh and selling whatever he could not consume.
He was shunned by all his relatives and lived the life of an outcast, intent on his own
bestial pursuits. This man was caught one evening in a flood in the woods he lived in,
with rains pouring down in sheets and inundating all available land space and the flood
waters rising menacingly to neck height. Even at this time of misery, his sharp eyes
espied a beautiful female dove on a tree, apparently searching for food for its loved
ones. Immediately, he felled the bird with a stone and carried it with him for later use.
Drenched to the skin, shivering with cold, terrified of the rising waters and the all-
encompassing darkness, he made his way somehow to a small bit of dry land beneath a
broad tree on a hillock and took shelter thereunder. In a short while, the rain stopped,
the floods receded, the clouds dispersed and the moon and stars peeked out. His body
racked by fever and discomfort, hunger gnawing at his insides, the hunter feared he
would pass away there and then. At this moment of crisis, it struck to him to appeal to
the deities of the woods (Vana Devata) for protection and succour and he did so in
desperation, prompted by fear for his life.

The tree under which the man had sheltered happened to be the home of the fallen
female dove, whose mate had been anxiously awaiting its return. The male dove atop
the tree suffered in pain when it saw its beloved wife in the hunter’s net. The captive
dove, however, consoled its husband and pointed out to the priority of protecting the
hunter, who had sought out their tree home as a refuge. Admiring the thought processes
of its wife which were rooted in righteousness despite its being in mortal danger, the
male dove flew near the hunter and asked him what he needed. Too cold even to reply,
the hunter, through his shivering gestures, indicated that he was extremely cold and in
need of warming up. The male dove flew away in search of dry twigs and leaves, found
them after considerable difficulty, gathered them near the hunter, flew again to where a
camp fire was burning and brought a lighted twig, with which it made a fire. Having
relieved the hunter of his numbing cold, the dove asked him what more he needed. The
hunter replied that he was being consumed by hunger. The male dove regretted its
inability to feed the man who had sought succour from it. Had it been a human being,
it would have had the requisite ingredients for cooking a meal for the refugee. Then a
thought struck the dove, which realized that the hunter was a meat-eater. Immediately,
it circled the fire thrice and fell in it voluntarily, so that its cooked flesh could satisfy
the hunter’s hunger.

Put to shame by this extreme sacrifice on the part of a mere bird, the hunter could not
bring himself to eat the dove’s flesh. Instantaneously, he gave up all his cruelty and
bestiality and turned into a real human being, inspired by the conduct of the principled
dove. As a mark of his having turned over a new leaf, he immediately set free the
captured female dove, seeking its pardon. The freed dove thanked the hunter; however,
too devoted to its mate to survive its death, the female dove too jumped into the fire and
gave up its life. Immediately, there materialized from nowhere an air-borne vehicle,
fully decorated, in which the male dove was already ensconced. The female dove joined
its partner with a divine body and both ascended to heaven as the direct result of the
supreme sacrifice they had performed in protecting one who had sought refuge.

This, then, is the Tale of the Dove recounted by Sri Rama to His listeners on the shores
of Tiruppullaani, putting an end to the debate on whether or not to admit Vibheeshana
into their camp. “When a mere bird could give up its life for protecting a Saranagata,
could a Prince of the exalted Ikshvaaku dynasty refuse to provide refuge to one who
has surrendered?” enquired Sri Raghava, reiterating that it was His life’s mission to
offer succour to Saranagatas Abhayam sarva bhootebhya: dadaami, etat vratam mama.

The Tale of the Dove is so famous that it is narrated in detail in Sri Mahabharatam too,
in the Shanti Parva, with Bhishma recounting the legend to Yudhishttira. There too, the
popularity of the tale is emphasized with the words, Shrooyate hi. And, coincidentally,
the tale begins with the same sloka as in Srimad Ramayanam, with not a word different

Shrooyate hi kapothena shatru: sharanam aagata:

Poojitascha yathaa nyaayam svaischa maamsai: nimantrita:

It is indeed surprising that the same sloka appears in both the Epics, with absolutely no
change whatsoever. Just as the Purusha Suktam (which establishes the identity of the
Ultimate) is found in all the four Vedas, the Tale of the Dove too is so significant in
laying down the inviolable code of protecting those who surrender, that it appears in
both the Epics, with verbatim repetitions as to letter and spirit.

We saw how a Dove afforded refuge to a Saranaagata. The Mahabharata tells us a story,
in which the roles are reversed and a Dove dons the role of a Saranaagata, seeking
protection. The great Lomasa Maharshi narrates this tale to Yudhishttira.

Emperor Shibi was renowned for his righteousness. He ruled over his empire with
Dharma as the guiding factor, toeing the straight but narrow path of Satyam and
Dharmam. Such was his sense of fairness and justice that his fame spread not only on
earth, but in the heavens too.

Once, when the Emperor was performing a sacrifice in the midst of the rivers Jala and
Upajala near Yamuna, a dove flew in from the skies, landing on his lap and seeking
protection from a pursuing vulture. As would any right-thinking person conversant with
Dharma, the Emperor immediately provided refuge to the beleaguered dove. As
testimony to the fact that even birds of those days were conscious of right conduct, the
vulture told the Emperor that he was acting contrary to justice by denying it of its
rightful food. The vulture had identified the dove as its food for the day, pursued it
across the skies and just when it was closing in for the kill, the Emperor had afforded it
protection. The vulture hence appealed to the Emperor that by saving the dove, he was
not treading the path of Dharma, but actually straying from

it. The Emperor responded by pointing out that

Saranaagata Rakshanam was the paramount duty of every one, so much so that
abandoning a Saranaagata was a cardinal sin, equal to the killing of a cow or a Brahmin.
After a protracted argument with the Emperor, the vulture challenged him thus: “If you
are so firm on saving the dove, if you consider yourself so right-minded, are you
prepared to cut off your own flesh and let me feed on it? I would be satisfied with your
flesh to the extent of the dove’s weight. That way, I would not be denied of my food,
you would have the satisfaction of having saved the so-called Saranagata and the dove
too would be spared its life. This is an eminently just solution, fair to all parties

Having said this, the vulture stood facing the Emperor with a cynical smile, confident
that the Emperor would definitely not consider sacrificing his own flesh for saving a
mere dove. However, Shibi did not hesitate even a second and ordered a pair of scales

to be brought. On one side of the scales, he placed

the dove: he cut off flesh from his thigh and placed it on the other side. Even after two
or three such installments of meat from his body, the Emperor found to his surprise that
the dove outweighed the parcels of flesh. Ultimately, when the bleeding Emperor found
that the bits and pieces of meat from his body could not equal the dove’s weight, he put
himself on the scales, offering his entire body as food for the vulture, in a gesture of
supreme sacrifice in the cause of Saranaagata Rakshanam.
It was then that the vulture and dove took their real forms, the former becoming Indra
and the latter, Agni. The gods told Emperor Shibi that they had enacted the drama to
test his devotion to Dharma. They praised him for his righteousness and left after
granting him several boons.
The Bhaagavata Puranam too has a place for the Dove, not a complimentary tale as
aforesaid, but one which demonstrates the need to avoid excessive attachment, be it to
one’s wife or children. Emperor Yadu approached a Brahmin for spiritual
enlightenment. The preceptor told Yadu to learn from the conduct of 24 entities, among
which is a Dove. In this instance, the Dove is a model of how not to conduct oneself.

A pair of doves was living happily in a tree nest, so engrossed in each other that they
could not stay separate. They were always to be found together, in activity and at rest.
In course of time, the birds were blessed with young ones and the doves’ cup of
happiness was full. Their attachment to each other and to their children increased
multifold by the day and became an obsession. Fate entered the scene in the form of a
hunter, who conveniently captured the young doves in his net, when the parents had
gone in search of food. Upon its return, the female dove was beside itself in sorrow,
finding the children in the hunter’s net. Unable to stand the separation from the
offspring, the mother dove voluntarily entered the net, while the male dove, driven to
despair by the loss of its young ones and its beloved wife too, gave up its life and fell
to the ground. Thanking his stars, the hunter made his way home with the rich catch.

The moral of the tale is this– having taken birth in this world, which is indeed the
gateway to the worlds above, if we get ourselves bound hand and foot by the shackles
of Samsaram, getting caught in the quagmire of human relationships which only serve
to drag us deeper and deeper into the mundane morass, we would be wasting our birth.
The trick is not to develop too much attachment to anything or anyone, while
performing the duties enjoined on us by our birth and station in life, thinking all the
while of the Paramatma and praying to Him to deliver us from this world of suffering
and sorrow.

Na ati sneha: prasango vaa kartavya: kvaapi kenachit

Kurvan vindeta santaapam Kapotaa iva deena dhee:

If we insist on developing excessive attachment to people and things, we would meet

the same fate as the weak-minded doves, says the Bhaagavata Puraanam.
Doves signify a bad omen too, according to the Epics. We hear of these birds haunting
the houses of Vrishnis and the Andhakas, flapping about their houses, prior to their
perishing in battle, we are told by the Mahabharata-

Paanduraa rapaadaascha vihagaa kaala choditaa:

Vrishni andhakaanaaam geheshu Kapotaa vyacharans tadaa

In another instance of verbatim reproduction of Ramayana slokas in Mahabharatam, we

find the first half of the aforesaid slokam in Ramayanam too, describing the flight of
doves over the heads of rakshasas, as harbingers of death

Paanduraa rapaadaascha vihagaa kaala choditaa:

Raakshasaanaam vinaasaaya Kapotaa vicharanti cha

To Dharmaputra, a lot of bad omens appear when Sri Krishna leaves His mortal coils.
One of them is the Dove, which Yudhishttitra considers to be a messenger of death,
making his heart tremble--Mrityu doota: kapota: ayam ulooka: kampayan mana:

Compared to the human birth, the Dove’s is indeed low on the totem pole of the Lord’s
creation. In fact, birth as a Dove may well be the result of sin, says the Mahabharata.
Brihaspati, while narrating to Dharmaputra the various lowly births attained by sinners,
says that those who steal silver articles are born as Doves

Kaansyam hritvaa tu durbuddhi: haarito jaayate nara:

Raajatam bhaajanam hritvaa Kapota: samprajaayate
The Dove, Vulture, Bees and similar creatures come in for adverse mention, again in
Mahabharatam, as bearers of bad news and ill luck:

Uddeepakaascha gridhraascha kapotaa bhramaraa: tathaa

Niviseyu: yadaa tatra shaantimeva tadaacharet
Amangalyaani cha etaani tathaakroso mahaatmanaam
We shall conclude the Tale of the Dove on a positive note. By sacrificing its own life
for saving that of the hunter, the Dove earned immortality and fame. Not only did its
exemplary conduct serve as inspiration for such exalted entities like Sri Rama and
Yudhishttira; the hunter who was saved by the Dove gave up all his beastly traits, turned
over a new leaf and attained higher worlds by adhering to Dharma, taking a leaf out of
the Dove’s book. Here is Srimad Bhaagavatam, eulogizing not only the Dove but also
the hunter, placing them in the exalted company of mahatmas like Harischandra, Ranti
Deva, Emperors Shibi and Mahabali, for having used their perishable bodies effectively
to earn everlasting fame:

Harischandra: Ranti deva: Uncchavritti: Shibi: Bali:

Vyaadha: Kapota: bahava: adhruvena druvam gataa: