Many years ago, a gang of four thieves lived in a dense forest. They hid their stolen money in an innocent-looking vessel which they guarded carefully. After a while, they grew fed up with their thieving activities.
“I am tired of this lifestyle. We have to be alert constantly in case we are caught!” one of them complained.
“Yes, I wish we could lead a peaceful and honest life!” agreed the second thief.
“A good idea! We will leave the forest and go to a town where nobody knows us. Perhaps we will be able to find an honest trade to follow,” said the third thief.
Three thieves of the gang liked the suggestion and decided to leave the forest. The fourth thief, however, did not like the idea of honest work. He did not say anything for he planned to steal the money in the vessel somehow and escape with it. He waited for the right time to strike.
The four thieves reached a town and lodged in a chhatram (dharmashala). Two of them ventured out to learn more about the place. They soon came upon an old woman whose house seemed to be both comfortable and suitable for their needs. The two of them returned to the chhatram and told their friends about the old woman’s house where they could stay. They too agreed and the four thieves set out at once.
“We are four merchants,” said one of them, “and want to start a business in this town. We like your house and want to rent some rooms.”
“We will pay you a good rent till we decide to leave,” added the second thief.
The old woman was happy and entertained her visitors most hospitably.
“You are welcome to stay here as long as you want,” the old woman smiled. She was glad that she would have good tenants.
The four thieves had learned that she was a very honest soul and was not coveteous of others’ wealth. So they trusted her with their precious vessel of money.
“Please keep this vessel safely with you. There is one condition: you must give it only if all four of us together ask for it,” they said.
“All right!” the old woman took the vessel. She went out to her backyard and looked around to see if anyone was watching. Finding the coast clear, she dug a hole, put the vessel in it and covered it up again.
The four thieves left in search of work in town. They soon felt very tired and rested in the shade of a banyan tree some distance away from the old woman’s house.
Just then a woman selling buttermilk passed by. The thieves decided to buy some buttermilk. They found it very tasty and planned to buy some for their lunch too.
Three of them felt too tired to go to the old woman’s house to fetch a vessel. The fourth thief, who was waiting for such an opportunity, was most willing to go.
He went to the old woman’s house and said, “The others have sent me to fetch the vessel.”
“I can give it only if the four of you come together,” she shook her head.
A thought occurred to the thief.
“My friends are sitting under the banyan tree some distance away. Ask them yourself,” he suggested.
The old woman went out of the house. She saw the three men under the banyan tree.
“Did you send your friend for the vessel?” she shouted. “Yes! Please give it to him!” the others shouted back.
The old woman thought that they needed their vessel for business purposes and had sent their trusted friend. So she gave the thief a spade and told him to dig for it in the backyard. She then went to attend to her household chores.
The thief dug out the vessel and ran out quietly by the back gate.
In the meantime, his friends became worried as time passed and there was no sign of their friend. So they went to the old woman’s house.
“Where is our friend we sent to collect a vessel?” they asked. “I gave him a spade to dig up the vessel quite some time back. Did he not give it to you?” the old woman was surprised.
The three thieves realized that they had been tricked by their friend.
“We told you to give the vessel only if all four of us came together. You have disobeyed us. We suspect that you and our friend hatched this plot to cheat us!” they said.
The old woman was very upset.
The three thieves took her to the judge in town and complained about her. He ruled that she should bear the full responsibility for the loss as she had been careless in the matter and that she should pay for the loss incurred. The old woman returned home weeping.
Unknown to anyone, the king and his minister were touring the town incognito to learn about people’s problems. They stopped and asked the old woman why she was crying. At the same time, some youngsters were playing on the road and their leader was a boy called Raman. He too listened as the old woman narrated her tale of woe.
“I hope those men are punished for treating you shabbily,” Raman exclaimed.
The king and his minister asked in surprise if he could pass a judgement in the case.
Raman nodded his head confidently and declared that he would do so only in the king’s court.
The next day, the court assembled at the palace. Raman sat in the judge’s chair. He listened to the story of the three thieves.
“This old lady had to give you the vessel only if all four of you came together and asked for it. Wasn’t that the condition?” Raman asked and the three thieves nodded.
“Good! She is ready to abide by the agreement. But there are only three of you. Call the fourth man so that the terms of your agreement are fulfilled!” Raman ordered.
“Sabash (Well done)! What wonderful judgement!” the king exclaimed in praise. “You have a wise head on young shoulders! From today you will be know as `Maryada Raman’ and will judge such cases at the court.”