This is the story of Bahula the cow, one of many thousands who roamed freely across the lush pastures, mountains and valleys of Vraj*. She was strong and robust, with a well-groomed coat. Every day she grazed to her heart’s content and produced sweet and nourishing milk. She was much-loved by the Vraj inhabitants who cherished their cows and reared them with the utmost care.
One bright day Bahula was grazing in the meadows under the watch of the cowherd boys when unwittingly she strayed from the herd into a forest. No one noticed as she followed a grass trail and nudged her way into the cold shade of some tall trees. Even Bahula didn’t realise where she was until she raised her head and started with shock as she met the fierce gaze of a tiger before her.
“Well, this is a pleasant surprise,” growled the tiger. “I was feeling ravenous and wondering how to satisfy my rumbling stomach.”
The tiger raised his sharp claws as he prowled a step closer towards Bahula. She shuddered backward. Her mouth dry, she faltered, “Please don’t kill me. I just became a mother and my little calf needs me so much. If I die, she’ll be all alone.”
The tiger sniggered.
“Ha, you think I care about your silly calf. I just want a delicious lunch that I am not about to let go.”
Bahula felt a desperate panic. She loved her calf Tara so much and couldn’t bear for it to become an orphan. Tears streaming, she pleaded the best barter she could think of.
“Please give me one day, just one day. I’ll go home, feed my baby to my fullest satisfaction and then return before sunrise tomorrow, I promise. Then you can make a hearty meal of me.”
Something in Bahula’s appeal touched the tiger who, despite his predatory instincts, reluctantly agreed.
“You better return or otherwise I will eat you and your tender calf,” he threatened.
Meanwhile the worried villagers searching for Bahula were relieved to see her return to her shed. But only Tara and the old cowherd who took care of them both noticed her slow gait and sad eyes. Bahula was silent while Tara suckled and only spoke to encourage the calf to keep drinking.
When Tara had had enough, Bahula’s eyes filled with more tears. She began licking Tara all over.
“What’s wrong mother, you’ve lost all your cheeriness. What’s happened?”
Unable to lie, the mother told her story to Tara and the old man, who in his concern had hovered about the shed the whole time. They listened with horror to the bargain their beloved Bahula had made.
The night hours were a torment for them all. Bahula was determined to return to the forest before dawn. Little Tara and the weak old farmer wept in sorrow.
At the fateful moment when Bahula started her journey, Tara and the old man were suddenly inspired. They insisted they would accompany Bahula. Tara had privately decided she would convince the tiger to eat her instead of her mother, while the farmer planned to urge the tiger to eat him and spare both the animals. Despite Bahula’s loud protests, the party of three moved cautiously towards the dark woods.
The tiger was overjoyed to see so many visitors.
“Who should I start with?” he growled, “the well-fed and succulent cow or the tender calf or the frail old man who previously ganged up with the villagers to scare me away. If I eat him then all the villagers will be frightened enough to leave me alone.”
“No, no, please eat me and leave my calf, she has her whole life ahead,” shrieked Bahula.
“No, eat me instead. I will taste tenderer,” cried out Tara.
“Don’t be a fool tiger, eat me and protect yourself,” urged the cowherd.
Hearing such noble and moving sentiments, Krishna, the Lord of all lords and best-loved cowherd boy in all of Vraj, instantly entered the scene. He smiled over the assembly of whimpering animals.
“Dear tiger, surely you can’t eat Bahula, after she has shown such honesty and bravery by returning here,” Krishna said.
“Should I eat Tara then?”
“How can you? Tara has shown such loyalty; you should reward her with her life.”
“Then I should eat this old man?” concluded the tiger.
“I heard that tigers are incredibly courageous and strong. Wouldn’t you look like a coward if you attacked this defenceless old man?” reasoned Krishna.
The tiger was dumbfounded. Krishna only smiled more kindly and touched the tiger’s forehead. Like magic, the tiger bowed his head and strode away.
“Bahula, you are truly wonderful!” said Krishna, stroking and nuzzling the cow. “I am so impressed with you that henceforth we will call this forest Bahulavan, in honour of your truthfulness and bravery.”
*Vraj is the pastoral region where Lord Krishna lives and performs his childhood pastimes. It comprises many areas such as Gokul, Vrindavan, Nandagaon, Varsana, Govardhan.