The story of Elephant & Tortoise – Supratika and Vibhavasu

Posted on May 12, 2010


Once there lived two brothers Vibhāvasu and Supraťika, who were both sages engaged in ascetic penances. Vibhāvasu, the elder one was susceptible to anger. Supraťika, the younger among the two, was keen to partition their family wealth, and he made repeated attempts attempts to achieve this.

One day Vibhāvasu called his brother and said, “Men deluded by greed are keen to partition wealth, and once this the partition is effected they fight with each other. When this happens, even enemies approach them under the guise of friends and cause further estrangement. And soon the separated ones find themselves in ruins. It is for this reason that the wise do not speak highly of those who caused separation among themselves in the first place. It is also because the very act of separation violates scriptural injunctions. Those who are thus separated remain ever suspicious of each other”.

Vibhāvasu then cursed his brother, saying “Since you are ever intent on partitioning wealth, may you take birth as an elephant in the your next life”. Hearing this, Supraťika cursed his brother back, “And you will be born as a tortoise roaming the waters”.

Garuda carrying elephant and tortoise

Garuda flying with Vibhāvasu and Supraťika captured in his claws, and bearing a huge branch of a banyan tree in his beak. The branch is supporting the Valakhilya rishis who are meditating (A Sculpture from: Thirukkurungudi temple, one of the 108 Divya Desa sthalas, near Tirunelveli, Tamilnadu)

Anger and greed thus caused them to be born in the form of animals in their next birth. Driven by pride, they continued to exhibit hostility towards each other. When the elephant would approach the water with a loud blare, the tortoise residing in the lake would come out with a great force, causing huge turbulence. The elephant would then respond by agitating the lake with its tusks, trunk, tail and legs.

These two creatures ultimately were seized by Garuda who then carried them in his claws to a remote mountain and ate them. He did this as per the advice of his father Kashyapa, as until then snakes were not sanctioned (yet) as appropriate  food for the bird.

Source: Mbh. Adi Parva, Chapter 29 (Mbh 1.29)

Blogger’s notes:

  • The above narration highlights how anger (of Vibhāvasu) is as destructive as greed (exibited by Supraťika). And aided by pride, it leads to annihilation. This story, appearing in the early part of Bharata, serves as a prelude to the greed that would be exihibited by Duryodhana. Pandavas too would get angry (especially Bhima and Draupadi), but it would be tempered to some extent by the presence of Yudhishtira. However this still led to the war resulting in internecine destruction. In fact, Bhima never forgave Dhritarashtra, even after the Kurukshetra war)
  • Garuda is also shown carrying a group of rishis known as Vālakhilyas, who are doing a penance by hanging upside down from a banyan tree (more on this probably at a later time)