Friday, September 30, 2011

Tom's Fairy Tales #3: The Elephant and the Sparrow

(Click to Enlarge)
So for my third instalment in my Fairy Tales series, I've gone way back to what many consider the oldest collection of fairy tales in the world. I've chosen a story from the Panchatantra, a medieval Indian collection of mostly animal stories in Sanskrit. It is one of the oldest works of literature in the world.

In this Sanskrit tale from the Panchatantra called "The Duel Between Elephant and Sparrow," a woodpecker and a sparrow, with the help of their friends, a tiny gnat and a frog, take revenge on a huge elephant, who in a fit of spring fever destroyed the sparrow's nest and crushed her eggs. The four friends devise the following plan to kill the elephant: first, the tiny gnat buzzes in the elephant's ear, so that he shuts his eyes in delight at the sweet sound. At that point, the woodpecker swoops in and pecks out the elephant's eyes, leaving him to stumble to where the frog croaks by the edge of a deep pit (sometimes a bog of quicksand, depending on the version of the story). Thinking that water is near, the elephant goes to where the croaking sound is and falls in the pit to his death. In my picture, the little gnat has just started buzzing and the elephant is lulled into a pleasant state, his eyes fluttering. The woodpecker is taking off to peck out his eyes and the sparrow watches attentively on a leaf…

Like all good stories, the tales of the Panchatantra leave you thinking. "Panchatantra" literally means "five principles" or "five strategies," referring to five groups of lessons on how to live wisely and properly, and be successful in life. These lessons correspond to the five sections of the book: 1. Loss of Friends; 2. Gaining Friends; 3. Of Crows and Owls; 4. Loss of Gains; 5. Imprudence. The story of the elephant and the sparrow is from Book 1: Loss of Friends. There certainly seems to be no clear "moral" to this story. On one level it's a story of pretty gruesome revenge. The fact is the woodpecker at first tries to dissuade the sparrow from acting in haste, appealing to sage Hindu philosophical advice that "a wise man mourns not for those that have passed" because he understands that the true self inside all beings never dies but rather lives on through countless reincarnations. But such rarified advice is hard to live by, and the sparrow attacks him for being unfeeling. "That's good doctrine," she says, "but what of it? This elephant - curse his spring fever! - killed my babies. So if you are my friend, think of some plan to kill this big elephant." And she reminds him in turn of another belief from Hindu philosophy: that inaction, too, is a type of action that gathers karma. Whether you utter sweet words of comfort or laugh at another's pain, both actions will only serve to further bind you to the cycle of rebirths. Hearing this, the woodpecker agrees to recruit his friends the gnat and the frog, who help him hatch a plan to kill the elephant.

This simple animal story presents a serious ethical dilemma: when a violent deed is done, is it right to take revenge by further violence, or is it right to suffer in silence? In both cases, how do we justify our actions? Do wider considerations justify further violence (after all, the elephant could become enraged again), and do these make the action "just"? As with most Indian stories (such those in the famous epic Mahabharata), there are more questions than answers to such moral dilemmas. There are certainly no quick prescriptions of "thou shalt do this…" Rather, the reader is left to contemplate the rather uncomfortable ambiguity of the story.

The Panchatantra as a whole was meant to impart practical wisdom about life. As many scholars point out, ethics in medieval India was taught primarily (if not entirely) through stories and fables. I think most stories in the West used to function in the same way but this has largely changed now. What seems likely is that the authors of the Panchatantra, following on the Indian tradition of epic storytelling, believed that stories like the Elephant and the Sparrow could make listeners reflect on the ethics of a particular dilemma - not by reinforcing a set of universal rules applicable in all cases but rather by teaching how to remain open to ethical ambiguities and the unique demands of each new scenario.

If you'd like to read more of these Sanskrit tales, here are links to academic and non-academic versions of the Panchatantra. For general information about the Panchatantra, here's the Wiki link.

Detail 1: Gnat (he's there - by the ear!)
Detail 2: Foliage
Detail 3: Sparrow


Bella said...

That is a good series of drawings you have done with a real sense of feeling in each section.

With regard to the story, I have learnt the best form of revenge is to live your life well. Revenge is a small payment and means the hurt is still there and not overcome, but I understand many need it as a compensation.

Tom said...

Thanks Bella for the compliment and for your comment! Good words to live by. They remind me of something else from Indian culture: Gandhi's famous quote, "an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind."