It was the middle of spring. In a beautiful garden, the cherry blossoms splashed the trees with pink so soft that all the birds were enchanted. They sat on the branches and sang the sweetest of melodies.
Prince Siddhartha was in the garden. He had come to be with his little friends. On that very day, he had brought with him delicious nuts that would surely delight all the little animals that lived in the garden. He sat himself on a marble bench under a tree and gave a little whistle. The sparrows were there first. The rabbits and the deer soon all crowded around Siddhartha. They ate right from the Prince’s hand. They loved this very kind and gentle boy just as he loved them.
A flock of swans flew overhead. One of them let out a loud shriek and dropped to the ground just a few steps away from where Siddhartha was sitting. Startled, he quickly stepped up and found a large white swan lying there. Clearly, an arrow had pierced right through its left wing. Blood was dripping from the wound. Without the slightest hesitation, the boy pressed his right hand firmly around the shaft of the arrow. He took in a deep breath and pulled the arrow straight out of the swan’s wing. The swan struggled a little obviously in pain but did not resist the help. Siddhartha kept his fingers firmly pressed against the wound to stop the bleeding.
“Siddhartha, have you seen a swan around here?” a boy carrying a bow and two arrows came running in the Prince’s direction. When he saw the big white swan in the arms of his cousin, he was visibly relieved.
“Great, you’ve got it. I shot him right out of the sky.” But when Devadatta saw the somber expression on his cousin’s face, he quickly realized that it was not such a good thing after all. He knew well his cousin’s soft heart for all living things. He thought he should assert his right before Siddhartha could say no.
“Chandro and the rest of the gang saw me shoot it down. They are all my witnesses so hand it over. It’s mine. You cannot take what was brought down by me!” stated Devadatta emphatically.
By then, the Prince’s attendants had come out to see what was all the commotion. Siddhartha motioned for one of his attendants to take the swan.
“Take it inside and ask Sushana to apply some herb medicine to the wound and keep it covered,” ordered Siddhartha in a calm but firm voice.
Devadatta charged forward to grab the bird when Siddhartha blocked him with his own body, his two arms outstretched. He looked into Devadatta’s eyes and he said with conviction,
“You cannot take the bird. It is wounded and it needs time to heal. I found it and I have a responsibility to see that it is safe.”
“It’s not fair! Just because your father is King, you can’t do whatever you want. You wouldn’t even have him had I not shot it down first.” Anger was mounting in Devadatta. He felt surely, this time, logic and reason was on his side.
Siddhartha knew his cousin well and it was obvious that neither one of them would give up the swan.
“Very well, I will ask the Grand Minister Shadu to decide.” He turned and walked quickly inside. Devadatta was furious.
“That swan belongs to me and you are a thief. You will be laughed at in court.” He shouted after his cousin and yet, he had to go along because Siddhartha was, after all, the Prince of the land.
That evening, King Suddhodana called Siddhartha to his chamber.
“My son, I heard that you and Devadatta are fighting over a swan. Grand Minister Shadu just came to tell me that in response to your request, he would settle the dispute in the Assembly of the Ministers. Both Devadatta’s father and I have agreed to stay out of the debate to ensure complete impartiality. The court will be held tomorrow morning.”
Siddhartha listened attentively to his father whom he respected not only as a caring father but most of all because he was a just king.
“Thank you, my father, for letting me know.” He bowed to his father and returned to his quarters.
The next morning in the Great Hall, all the ministers were assembled. Everyone was expressing an opinion. Some were on Siddhartha’s side, but most were of the view that the swan should go to the hunter who brought it down. Finally, when the Grand Minister Shadu entered the Hall, all the discussions stopped. There was complete silence when Devadatta and Prince Siddhartha arrived. They stood in the middle of the hall facing each other.
Grand Minister Shadu stood up and explained, “We are all here today to decide on the fate of a white swan shot down by Devadatta yesterday. First, Devadatta will state his case and the reasons why he should have the swan. Then it will be our honorable Prince Siddhartha’s turn to state his side of the case. Afterwards, all we ministers will have an in house debate. The final judgment will be determined by voting.” Minister Shadu then looked at Devadatta and signaled for him to begin his arguments.
Proud and confident that he was in the right, Devadatta presented in detail what had happened the day before. He emphasized the fact that there were many witnesses to his shooting down the swan. He took out a list of their names and read them out loud. There were some stirrings among the ministers recognizing that indeed there was no doubt that the swan was shot down by Devadatta.
Then Devadatta asked the ministers to put themselves in his shoes. He asked them, “My most honorable ministers, think of the time when you may go hunting, your servants would retrieve the hunted prey shot down by you, right? Now, would they then take the animal back home with them or would they bring it to you?”
Well, the question triggered quite a rumbling in the Hall. Everyone thought the question ridiculous. Devadatta pleased with himself for having struck such a response closed his arguments and stepped aside.
Now it was Prince Siddhartha’s turn to speak. “I do not dispute Devadatta’s claim of having shot down the swan. When I know in my heart what is right, I must stand up for it. I felt the swan’s pain. I felt its fear for not knowing where it is. I felt its anguish for being separated from its family and its flock. I found it helplessly shot down. All I wanted was to save its life and make it better and to stop its suffering. I see it as my responsibility to protect it. Devadatta’s argument seemed logical perhaps. But something in my heart tells me it’s terribly wrong. A thousand men may stand up and accept a wrong, but that does not make the wrong right. The world may think me wrong. The least I can do is to speak up for what I think is right. I cannot force my view on others. I have asked for your help and I am prepared to accept your decision.”
What the Prince said struck a chord in the hearts of many ministers. Of course, there were always those who were full of their own pride and confidence. These ministers had already decided in Devadatta’s favor. During the open debate that followed, they argued eloquently without allowing the slightest doubt. Yet others wanted to leave the swan in their Prince’s care. They did not voice their views as loudly but tried to appeal to the natural compassion that is in everyone. Then there were those who really did not care to hold any opinions at all about a swan. They followed the supporters of Devadatta simply because they did not want to appear “soft in the belly”.
After some time had passed, Grand Minister Shadu concluded the debate session and motioned for the votes to be taken. The result was an equal split down the middle. Whenever there was a tie, the King would vote to break it. Grand Minister Shadu sent a note to the King to request his presence in the Great Hall.
When the King entered, everyone bowed in respect. Walking behind the King into the Hall was a very old man. He had a wondrous serenity about him that everyone immediately thought him special. The King sat down at his throne and addressed the assembly.
“This man I met just this morning during my stroll in the park. We had a nice conversation. I found his views very interesting so I invited him back for tea. I understand from Minister Shadu that you are in a deadlock. As I want to remain impartial, I have asked this man to take my place. He does not know the two boys. Now Minister Shadu, please relate the two sides of the dispute to him leaving out the titles of the boys.”
At his King’s bidding, Minister Shadu related both sides of the argument as clearly and as impartially as he could. After listening attentively, the old man spoke, “What everyone values most of all is life itself. The swan belongs to the boy who saved its life not to the one who tried to end it.”
That night, Prince Siddhartha slept soundly and so did the white swan.
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