Predator or Prey : Where do your sympathies lay?

Mythology Resources for Children

Recently, we were watching the wonderful Netflix series Our Planet in which David Attenborough once again presents awe-inspiring footage of wilderness from across the world in his inimitable and endearing style.

One of my sons, who loves geography and who is particularly sensitive, loves the show immensely but bursts into tears each time a predator-prey scene is played out on screen.

Whether it is the wolves chasing the caribou or the threat to the gentoo penguins by the killer whales, each chase and kill scene pushes him to tears and he insists that we switch the TV off.

Sympathy for the prey, particularly when they look as endearing as penguins, seems to be a very natural phenomena. (Incidentally, my son doesn’t react when the penguins devour the krill!!) I’m quite certain we all have been through those emotions.

And yet, it ought not to be so. For the predator needs to survive and feed its young too!

However, it is not easy to drive that point home. Particularly with children.

And when the going gets tough – that’s precisely when a story comes in handy!

Here’s an endearing story from Indian Mythology that explains the phenomenon – The Story of King Shibi.

The Story of King Shibi

There once lived a King named Shibi who was known to be an extremely generous monarch.

Legends about King Shibi’s generosity were known to all. He never refused anybody who sought his help.

He never turned down anybody who came to him seeking alms.

Having heard about the King’s generosity, a dove that was being chased by a hawk in his kingdom made way to the king’s palace. Falling at his feet, the Dove pleaded “Help me! The Hawk is chasing me. It will kill me. Please protect me.”

The King looked up at the skies and saw the hawk swooping down and took the little dove in his hands.

“Most certainly!” King Shibi replied, shielding the Dove gently in his hands. “I shall make sure no harm comes to you.”

The Hawk flew around them in a rage and then settled down on the parapet of the King’s Assembly Hall.

“Well,” said the Hawk eyeing the Dove in the King’s hands, “Your generosity is going to kill me! What will I eat now? My children will starve to death!”

The King thought about the Hawk’s situation for a moment and said. “Perhaps you can eat something else?”

King Shibi.jpg
King Shibi asked the Hawk to go eat something other than the Dove that had sought his protection.

“If I chase another Dove, she too will come pleading to you. If I find myself a squirrel or a rat, what are the chances they won’t come running to you? I am certain you will protect them all. What will I eat then? My children will starve to death!,” the hawk shrieked.

King Shibi felt sorry for the Hawk. Having taken a vow that he would never turn down anybody who approached him for help, he had even pledged to give away a part of himself if he had to. Recollecting his vow, King Shibi offered the hawk his own flesh.

“You can eat my flesh,” he said to the Hawk. “Let’s weigh the Dove and I shall chip off the same weight of flesh from my body. You can have that.”

The ministers and courtiers were shocked by the King’s action. How could he give off his flesh to save a little Dove? Surely, their king was the epitome of generosity!

The King’s ministers and courtiers were shocked by his offer to the Hawk

The Hawk was pleased and settled down as the King’s attendants brought in a weighing scale and placed the Dove on it.

To everyone’s complete shock , the Dove appeared to weigh far more than an ordinary dove.

king shibi balance.jpg
To everyone’s shock, the dove weighed more than the King

“This cannot be!” the King exclaimed as he watched the scales before him. “The Dove weighs more than me!”

The King stared at the Dove and then at the Hawk.

His ministers and others in attendance at his court were equally dismayed.

When his shock subsided and he regained control of the senses, King Shibi began to understand. It was as if Nature was trying to teach him a lesson.

Interference in Nature based on human emotions was not desirable. It would only result in an imbalance.

And this is a lesson that we could do well to remember not only when we set foot into a jungle but also in our daily life.

My grandmothers never ate their daily meal without first feeding the crow. I know several people who feed birds, dogs, cows and believe they are doing the right thing. In fact, the question of feeding stray dogs appears to be a hot subject of debate in cities across India, including in my very own building.

Feeding birds, crows in particular, is built into Indian customs, beliefs and rituals. But that comes with it’s own flip side.

I once put this question to a wildlife biologist I know and thereafter to an ornithologist. They both gave me an answer which syncs into the lesson in this story.

They both told me that when humans protect the prey out of sympathy, they alter the natural ecological balance. When they feed animals that should be feeding themselves, they tamper with that frail thread of ecological balance. Further, by feeding strays and birds, humans turn independent creatures into dependent ones. That can hardly be a good thing.

That then results in an overpopulation of certain species (no prizes for guessing why cities have huge numbers of crows and dogs!) and the marginalization of certain other species.

feeding stray dogs.jpg
Feeding stray dogs is often a hotly-contested topic of debate in building societies in Indian cities.

Now try telling that to people who believe the crow is a representative of one’s dead ancestors!

Well, that is way out of my agenda. My energies here are focused on the next generation.

So, here I am, sharing this story to encourage children to think about their point of view.

The swiftest predator and the slowest prey – they both are equipped with the strength, stamina and skill to survive on any given day. Sympathy is the one thing that does not figure in this equation.


For more Stories and Snippets to help you discover India

Pictures – courtesy Wikipedia Commons and Good King Shivi by Ladybird


  • Ramanjit Garewal
    May 4, 2019 - 3:00 pm ·

    Dear Mallika…?
    Very interesting…
    From the story telling style of you…
    Could learn a thing or two…
    A predator as to…
    How and when to go in for the kill…
    And a prey…
    When it is time to accept and pray…
    Keep it up…

  • Samidha Dhongade
    May 4, 2019 - 3:38 pm ·

    जिवो जीवस्य जीवन- each being is a part of this eco system… I always joke with my friends who ridicule me for being a fierce non vegetarian..I say, “if people like me donot eat chicken and fish, you will not be able to drive cars n drink water, as the roads would be full of hens and the water will have abundant fish in it”…
    Loved this article by Mallika and would urge her to write about such thought provoking things each time..

  • PG
    March 29, 2020 - 10:41 am ·

    Hey Mallika,

    Wonderful article indeed. Completely agree that we shouldn’t be interfering in the predator-pray food cycle. Nice ending.

    Here is my take about the ending part

    – Sudha Murthy Ji in her book “Magic of the lost temple” very beautifully mentions in a that we should be feeding insects like ants (for example) because we have been continuously encroaching into their habitat and destroying it to make ours. So its only fair if we do our bit to feed them.

    Overall, as you mentioned feeding animals and birds have been customary to many. I have seen that in my family too.
    The primary reason which I have seen in my family is the simple feeling of “co-existence” and humility. Feeding a bit to animals and birds makes minimal difference logistically but makes bigger difference subtly. It imparts the feeling of mutual coexistence and compassion. You feel for the nature around you including the animals, birds, trees and so on.
    Elders used to say feed them a bit…just enough to get them going and then let them fend for themselves.

    Having said that, its important to balance things out. We need to rethink and re-calibrate as times and world change.

    • mallikaravikumar
      March 30, 2020 - 10:48 pm ·

      Thanks for leaving this comment Pankaj. Yes…absolutely. Relationships must evolve as the situation changes. And mutual respect and co-existence is a good overall mantra to follow. I agree.