Once in India there were two generous kings. But one was more generous than the other.
The first king was named Karna. Every morning, he gave to the poor a hundred pounds of gold. In fact, he had vowed not to eat on any day before doing this. But where he got so much gold was a great mystery.
The second king was named Vikram. So big-hearted was Vikram, he would give anybody anything they asked for—a jewel, a horse, even a palace. His time and help too were free for the asking. Vikram’s fame spread far and wide, and even the animals asked him favors.
One day, while Vikram was strolling through his palace garden, two snow-white geese landed at his feet.
“Good King Vikram, we are starving!” cried the gander. “We beg you to feed us!”
“Certainly,” said Vikram. “I will send for seed at once.”
“We cannot eat seed,” said the female. “We come from a sacred lake, high in the mountains of the north. There, we eat only fresh pearls.”
“Then pearls it shall be,” said Vikram. He sent for a basket of his finest pearls and fed the geese from his hand.
Each morning, Vikram fed the geese. But one morning, the gander noticed that one of the pearls was pierced.
“Look!” he cried to his mate. “These pearls are not fresh!”
“Not even King Vikram can feed us forever,” she said. “Let us fly elsewhere.”
Before Vikram could protest, the geese rose into the air. But as they soared, they cried, “Thanks, thanks to Vikram, the most generous king of all!”
The geese flew on, singing Vikram’s praises. On their way, they passed over the palace of King Karna.
When the king heard their song, he said, “Why is Vikram praised even by the birds? Surely he’s no more generous than I!” And he sent his royal hunter to trap the geese where they landed.
The geese were brought in a cage before King Karna. He asked them, “Why do you call Vikram the most generous king of all?”
“He fed us pearls from his hand,” said the gander.
“But I give away a hundred pounds of gold each day!” said the king. “Am I not as generous as Vikram?”
The female said, “King Vikram would never imprison the innocent.”
King Karna took a handful of pearls and opened the cage door to reach in. But the female pushed past and flew out the window.
Swiftly the goose flew back to Vikram and landed breathless at his feet. “Good King Vikram,” she said, “you must help us! My husband is a prisoner!”
Vikram listened to her story. “Rest easy, dear friend,” he said. “I will rescue your mate.”
Disguised in ragged clothes, Vikram made his way to the court of King Karna.
“Your Majesty,” said Vikram, “allow me to be your servant. I hear you are the most generous king of all.”
“It’s true!” chortled the king. “Tomorrow you can help carry the gold.”
The next day, Vikram helped carry the baskets of gold coins to the palace steps. He watched as the king handed out all the gold before going in to his huge breakfast.
Vikram said to himself, “Truly, Karna is a generous king. But how does he have so much gold?” He decided to keep a careful eye on the king.
So it was, the next morning before dawn, Vikram spied the king sneaking from the palace. He followed secretly as Karna hurried up a mountain path and came to a lonely hut.
Vikram watched through an open window as King Karna was greeted by a scrawny, squinty-eyed hermit. A huge pan hung over a crackling fire.
All at once, Karna undressed and climbed in the pan! He sizzled and frizzled and fried to a crispy golden brown. Then the hermit, moaning and groaning with delight, munched and crunched and gobbled him down.
When the hermit was done, he set the bones on the floor, waved his arms over them, and chanted,
“Bones are good, but flesh is best.
Give him life, while I digest!”
And there was King Karna, as good as ever!
“Thank you so much,” said the hermit. “As usual, you were a very tasty meal. And now I will keep my part of the bargain.”
The hermit pulled a tattered coat from a peg and shook out the pockets. A hundred pounds of gold coins tumbled onto the floor from the magic coat.
“Thank you!” said King Karna. “Now I must give away this gold so I can have my breakfast!” He gathered up the gold and started down the mountain.
“Now I see!” muttered Vikram. “And now I know how to rescue the goose!”
Next morning, Vikram got up even earlier than King Karna and went to the palace kitchen. He made a paste of curry spices and rubbed it all over himself. Then he hurried to the hermit’s hut.
The hermit was so near-sighted and so hungry, he didn’t even see it wasn’t King Karna. “Why, King, you’re early today!” he said, as he welcomed Vikram in.
Vikram undressed and climbed in the pan. He sizzled and frizzled and fried to a crispy golden brown.
When the hermit caught a whiff of the curry spices, he said, “What is that marvelous aroma? The King has never smelled better!”
Moaning and groaning with greater delight than ever, he munched and crunched and gobbled Vikram down. Then he set the bones on the floor, waved his arms over them, and chanted the magic words.
“Bones are good, but flesh is best.
Give him life, while I digest!”
Vikram opened his eyes and heaved a sigh of relief.
“My, my, King,” said the hermit, who still thought Vikram was King Karna, “you must tell me how you tasted so delicious this morning!”
Vikram told the hermit about the curry spices. Then he said, “I will curry myself every morning, if you do me a favor.”
“Anything, anything!” said the hermit.
“I am tired of carrying a hundred pounds of gold down the mountain each day,” said Vikram. “Give me the magic coat, so I can keep it at the palace and shake it out down there.”
“Agreed!” said the hermit, and he handed over the coat.
Vikram took his leave, but hid outside the window. Before long, King Karna arrived. When the king found out what had happened, he screamed at the hermit.
“How could you give him the coat?”
The hermit yelled back, “I thought he was you!”
“You should have known better!” roared the king.
“You’re right!” howled the hermit. “You could never taste so good, you old goat!”
King Karna stormed down the mountain.
Later that morning, there was no hundred pounds of gold to carry to the palace steps. Just as he had vowed, King Karna ate not a thing. He went to bed and stayed there all day, growing hungrier and hungrier.
Finally, Vikram came to the king’s bedside. “Friend,” he said, “you need not starve any longer.”
He shook out the hermit’s coat. King Karna cried out for joy as the gold coins tumbled to the floor.
Then Vikram told the king his story. “And if you free the goose,” he said, “and promise to curry yourself for the hermit, I will gladly give you the coat.”
The king hung his head. “The geese were right,” he said. “I am generous to be nibbled for the needy. But more generous are you to be gobbled for a gander!”
Together they went to the goose’s cage, and King Karna opened the door.
Out flew the goose, through the window and over the palace, joining its mate in the air. And as the two turned homeward, they cried, “Thanks, thanks to Vikram, the most generous king of all!”
About the Story
This tale brings together two famous kings from India’s distant past, each a model of generosity. Of course, they lived in two different times—but why let historical accuracy stand in the way of a good story? By setting them face to face, the legend can at last answer the age-old question: Which of these two kings was the most generous?
Vikram—short for Vikramaditya (“VIK-rum-OD-it-ya”)—is a legendary king of Ujjain in central India in the first century B.C. He appears in countless folktales, as well as in classical literature. Like King Arthur of Britain, Vikram embodies the princely virtues most honored in his culture: bravery, wisdom, and above all, generosity.
Karna lived perhaps a millenium earlier and figures prominently in one of India’s great epics, the Mahabharata (“MAH-hah-BAR-a-ta”). Many legends are told of his generosity, which extended even to giving up his life. When he became king, he vowed never to refuse a request made of him while at midday prayers. The god Indra took advantage of this by requesting Karna’s magical golden armor and earrings. Karna gave them up willingly, knowing this would lead to his death—which it did, during the great battle at the climax of the epic.
The geese in the story are wild geese of the type called hamsa (“HOM-sa”)—known in English as the bar-headed goose—which breeds in Tibet and winters in India. Because of its beauty and its grace in flight, it has long held a revered place in the Indian imagination.
My retelling is based on “The King Who Was Fried” in Tales of the Punjab, by Flora Annie Steel, Macmillan, London, 1894. That version is said to have been recorded by R. C. Temple in the late 1800s in northwest India—now Pakistan—at Murree, close to modern-day Islamabad. It was told by a Brahmin priest at a temple shrine where the hermit’s hut was said to have stood.
The roots of the story, though, are much older. Two of its major motifs are found in tales #15 and #17 of the Vikramacarita (Adventures of King Vikram), a popular 11th-century text in Sanskrit.
How to Say the Names
Karna ~ KAR-na
Vikram ~ VIK-rum