I read/heard this story a few months ago. However, I cannot recall the context where I came across it. It goes something like this:
Long ago, there was a king named Bhartrhari who ruled his kingdom in a just and an able manner. The king was also a proficient poet and had composed famous works such as the nIti SaTaka and the SRingAra SaTaka. One day, when a saint paid a visit to his kingdom, Bhartrhari treated him with the due respect. Pleased with the king’s hospitality, the saint gave him a mango fruit and told him that it was a special mango fruit whose sweetness surpassed the sweetness of any other. So it should only be given to the person whom the giver loved the most. The king gave the fruit to his wife telling her that this wasn’t any ordinary fruit, but a special one which was being given to her because he loved her the most. The king however was unaware of the fact that his wife was having an affair with the commander of the army. She secretly gave the fruit to the commander, while telling him about the speciality of the fruit. The commander didn’t really love the queen. He had the hots for a famous courtesan whom the king was patronizing at that time. So, he visited her and gave her the fruit, without failing to impress upon her the fact about the specialty of the fruit and the significance of his gifting her the same. The courtesan who was used to receiving gifts from the connoisseurs of her art accepted the gift without making a big deal out of it. That evening she performed for the king who was with his queen and the other prominent members of the kingdom including the commander of the army. After her performance, she requested the king to kindly accept a rare fruit that she had come across earlier that day. She told him that the fruit must be given to the person who is most dear to the giver. She couldn’t think of any person who deserved to be gifted this fruit other than her patron. When the king heard that, he realized that it was the same fruit which he had given to his wife. Guessing what might have transpired, the king burst into the following verse:
yAM cintayAmi satatam mayi sA viraktA
sApyanyamicchati janam sa jano’nyasaktaH
asmatkrte ca pariSuShyati kAcidanyA
dhik tAm ca tam ca madanam ca imAm ca mAm ca
The one of whom I think all the time-
that one ain’t interested in me.
She likes another, a fool I gather-
since loves some other doth he.
Desires of ours have wrecked the life
of one other person you see,
Fie on her, and on him, and on the cupid,
on all these and fie on me!
[Translation is my own. Doesn’t do justice to the brilliance of the original]
And it seems that’s how Bhartrhari realized the pointlessness of love and began composing the vairagya SaTakaM.
This story and verse interests me for a several reasons. The last line in the original verse has a nice alliterative quality that makes you feel as if some cymbals were clanking in the background as the king was denouncing everyone (including himself). I remembered only the last line of this verse and had to use google to find the verse itself. The verse lends itself nicely to the description of a linked list, which one gets to see in real life as well! Coming to the story, the fruit was supposed to be sweetest fruit on the earth. But the common knowledge generated by the fruit soured the minds of everyone involved. Now you see why God prohibited Adam and Eve from seeking the fruit of knowledge! Because He was quite sure, like Col. Nathan Jessup, that they won’t be able to handle the truth! However, if you think of it a bit more, you’ll also realize that the sourness produced by this little knowledge was sufficient to help Bhartrhari curdle the milk that was his sensual love and churn out from it the butter which was the essence of all love – his own Self! The fact that after changing several hands, the fruit finally ended up with him emphasises at some level the fact that the entity whom we really love the most is our own Self. So in the view of this knowledge, the fruit was indeed sweet!
The other thing that interests me about this story is the states of knowledge of different people involved in the story at different times. Before the dancer offers the fruit to the king, everyone apart from the dancer was pretty much on the same boat. They all think that their respective beloveds have eaten the fruit. The moment the dancer makes the announcement about her possession of the fruit in the open court where everyone of interest was present, it makes each one of those people suspect the faithfulness of their beloveds. The king knows that the path traversed by the fruit is a cycle and that apart from him, there was at least one other male involved in this cycle. He has no way of knowing that the commander of the army was involved. The queen also knows that the fruit travelled in a cycle. She knows that king is involved, she herself is involved, the commander is involved and the courtesan is involved. She cannot ascertain that these were the only people involved. The commander knows that the fruit has travelled from the queen to the king through him and the courtesan. He doesn’t know that the path traversed by the fruit was cyclic. Nor does he know the exact number of people who had a hand in this transfer of fruit. The courtesan knows even less. She just knew that the fruit travelled from the commander to the king via her. She doesn’t know that it was a cycle. At this point, the only person who could have guessed the exact number of people who had handled the fruit at some point in time was the queen, since she needed only one bit of information – that the commander liked the dancer and not her. Every other person would require some more information than to arrive at the exact number of people who were involved.
Now, when the king bursts into the verse mentioned above, everyone comes to know that fruit was originally with the king and it came back to him. So, at this point, the fact that the path traversed by the fruit was a cycle becomes common knowledge. Thus, at this point, the commander and the queen both require exactly one extra bit of information to figure out who were the people involved in this cycle. If the queen somehow comes to know that the commander liked the courtesan then she would have the complete knowledge about the cycle. On the other hand, if the commander came to know that the person whom the king loved the most was the queen, then he would also possess complete knowledge about the cycle. The king and the courtesan, at this point need more than one bit of information to deduce the number of people involved.
I shall leave it to you guys to speculate if it’s easier for the queen to obtain the information about the commander’s infidelity or is it easier for the commander to obtain the information about the king’s fidelity.
The only other story that I can recall where the knowledge generated by some object changing hands moves the story forward and seals the fate of the people involved is Othello where the object is Desdemona’s handkerchief which was gifted to her by Othello. For the one’s who don’t know about Othello, Vishal Bharadwaj has successfully adapted the story in his hindi film Omkara. The “shared-object” of interest in this case was Dolly’s kamarband.