Indian Folklore - 1
Social Categories and Their Transformation
in Indian Folktales

At our first meeting we solicited from one another a body of folktales on which we could then concentrate analysis and interpretation. This initial collection of tales exhibited a variety of traditional folkloristic themes: the ogress queen, cruel in-laws, contests between spouses, rivalry between wives, the folklore of objects like mirrors, the capture of women, pursuit, forgetfulness, and substitution. The problem was to find a focus. Each story we told suggested new themes and new avenues to explore. Eventually we settled on a single idea: certain key positions or social categories depicted in folktales, along with their transformations, we then agreed to explore exchanges or movements of characters between any two of the following positions: Brahman, Ks?atriya, low caste, and outsider/sage. We considered each of the logical possibilities, in turn. The details are described below.

Brahman> Low Caste, and Low Caste >Brahman

The first topic discussed concerned Brahmans who become transformed through a folktale, into a low caste character. One Shaivite story, told both in Kashmir and in South India (Telugu, Tamil, Kannada) speaks of a Brahman names Cirutton?t?ar, who is put through an ordeal by Shiva. This great god is described visiting his devotee in disguise. Cirutton?t?ar, suspecting that his guest might be a god, offers to serve him anything he requests. The god then asks that he slaughter his own son, cook him, and serve up a dish of human flesh. Carrying out this horrible request makes the devotee into a kind of outcaste, because of his involvement with a bloody (and terrifying) sacrifice. In another Shaivite story Shiva uses a similar disguise, making a faithful follower slice up a dead buffalo to serve his guest. The worshipper then suffers a loss of status due to his work as a butcher. In one Tamil villupat?t?u (bow song) a Brahman named Muttuppat?t?an, is said to fall in love with the daughters of a low caste cobbler chieftan; the latter makes the suitor prove his eligibility by his willingness to take up an untouchable cobbler's tasks; he has to cut up a dead cow, skin it, and tan the hide. In all these stories, a Brahman willingly becomes an untouchable by his own deeds, either done to show his love of god or his love of a woman.

The reverse transformation, low caste >Brahman is illustrated by several South Indian goddess stories where an untouchable marries a Brahman girl by trickery. He takes on all the outward ways of a Brahman, but in the end does not get away with this ruse. When such a deception is discovered by the man's Brahman wife, she feels violated or defiled. Fury possesses her and she becomes a powerful goddess.

Another example of the low caste >Brahman transformation is found in a story of Bangaladesh. This folktale describes a bad Brahman who has a low caste servant named Ghughu. Ghughu was staved, overworked and beaten until he died. On his deathbed he prayed that he be reborn transformed into a Brahman. In his new life he becomes Farid, a poor Brahman boy. In this condition he sought out his former master and became his servant, insisting on the condition that he never be dismissed. One day, the one-year-old son of this Brahman dirtied himself. The master therefore asked his servant to wash the child in the river. Farid literally followed his master's orders: he washed the child on a wooden platform as he would a piece of cloth. Then he brought back a well-washed but dead infant to his master.

Another time the Brahman master asked this servant to escort his wife to another village. He gave Farid orders to protect her if the two were attacked by thieves, using a Bengali word which could be mistaken for 'rape'. Sure enough, they were attacked on the way, and the servant first saved the woman but then raped her in the jute filed. The Brahman was bound by contract not to dismiss his servant. So he complained instead to the king. The king sentenced the servant to be burned on the riverbank. Just before the funeral pyre was lit Shiva appeared and asked the Brahman master to show mercy and take his servant back. The Brahman did. One day, tormented by this man, the master used a desperate Bengali phrase: "Farid, why don't you take my ears (literally 'find my ears and cut them off') and leave me along?" Farid, as usual, followed his master's instructions literally and brutally. He at once cut off the ears of the Brahman, and while leaving said to him, "ghughu dekhechoo kintu farid dakoni." From these words one gets a proverb which says: "You've seen the dove, but you haven't seen the snare." In the above story, a low caste man's rage at oppression finds revenge in a second birth, where he becomes a Brahman.

In the story of the Transposed Heads (e.g., Yellamma in North Karnataka), both halves of the above cycle can be seen together. Here a sage suspects his Brahman wife of infidelity, if only in thought, and asks his son to behead her. In her distress this woman embraces an untouchable female, and both their heads are cut off simultaneously by the angry boy. Then the sage relents, grants both women new life, and asks his son to put their heads back on their bodies. In the confusion, however, these two heads become transposed. Now two goddesses are created, one with a Brahman boy and untouchable head, the other with an untouchable body and Brahman head. In this folktale, then, Brahman and untouchable bodies become merged, each trunk led by a head of the opposite social category.

King >Low Caste, and Low Caste >King

The story of Hariscandra who becomes an attendant at the cremation ground as a can?d?ala, or of Draupadi becoming a chambermaid in the mahabharata are good examples of kings who become transformed into low status persons much as Brahmans sometimes are. Similarly, low caste persons sometimes become kings in Indic folktales. In a story form Bangaladesh a barber boy eats the magic heart of a bull (variant of the magic bird heart motif), and is reborn as a Brahman. He subsequently arrives in a kingdom where a king has just died. According to custom in that area, an elephant is sent out with a garland to seek a new ruler. The elephant garlands the Brahman youth and he becomes the next monarch. Here the sequence Low Casteè (Brahman) èKing is seen.

Brahman >King, and King >Brahman

In a tale from Kashmir, a cruel king falls ill and dies. But the soul of a sage then enters his body and he is soon revived. Sri Bhat, a wise minister, sees that this transformation involved the change from a cruel king into a good one. he therefore burns the body of the sage so as to prevent the sage's soul from returning to its original container. By this strategy he forces it to stay on in the (now good) king's body. In this story then a Brahman (or sage) becomes a king. Several epic characters like Dron?a, born as Brahmans, similarly take on the marital qualities and duties of Ks?atriyas. In Vis?vamitra, we have the opposite transformation. Here a Ks?atriya becomes a Brahman sage (brahmars?i). Now it is an uphill struggle, both in terms of effort and in terms of social categories.

In all of these examples there is an implicit cycle characterized by movement along the path high à low à high, never lowà high à low. A half cycle, either high à low, or low à high, could perhaps be called a module or part of this larger sequence which returns to its initial, high, starting point as a fitting conclusion. The strong oppositions are thus Brahman low caste, and Brahman/ Ks?atriya; they account for most of the transformations, and the most dramatic ones.

The sage / Brahman opposition is weak by comparison and so is sage / low caste. A sage resembles a Brahman, both in common folk stereotypes and according to philosophical theory. Yet the transformation from sage to a low caste man does not discomfort a sage as it does a Brahman. Instead, as in the case of both Siva and Gandi, the sage may seek a service or outcaste status gladly. Hence the "weak" quality of this final type. It holds within it little tension or surprise.

So the basic structure of transformations in Indic folktales resembles the outline for Hindu social organization more generally:

The sage could be said to reside outside the system, which could equally be described as its still center, especially where the traditional metaphor of the wheel of life is brought into play.

Finally, one can find stories where all these major possibilities operate in sequential fashion, so as to produce the extended cycle of Brahman è low caste è Brahman (memory) è Ks?atriya è low caste è Brahman. The following folktale from Kashmir illustrates this well. A Brahman's soul once left his while he was at the river saying his morning prayers. This soul then entered the body of an infant cobbler. The cobbler grew up among cobblers, married, and had children. But one day he suddenly became aware of his previous high caste origins and therefore abandoned his cobbler life and family. He then wandered off and arrived in another country. There he was chosen king by an elephant who chose to garland him in the traditional fashion. Afterwards the king ruled this country for some years. However, his cobbler wife came to recognize him and eventually rejoined him. The king's subjects were horrified when they discovered his low birth. They then began to leave his court and country in disgust. The king responded by immolating himself in a fire. His soul next reentered the Brahman body that was still worshipping at the river bank. This Brahman then returned home, as if he had woken up form a strange dream. His wife asked him, "Why did you came back from the river so soon?" he was baffled by his wife's question and wondered whether his life as cobbler and king has been a dream. Just as he became lost in wonder, a beggar arrived at his door and told him he had just come from the kingdom where the king was disgraced when identified as a cobbler.

The above story is fascinating for its interweaving of hallucination and reality, and because of its parallels with classical traditions. No sage is mentioned, but the play on memory and mirage make the sense of illusion and of meditation central to all six transformation described.


Our workshop discussions attempted to move away from earlier folktale classification schemes that rest on concepts of type, motif, function and genre. Instead we tried to move towards patterns that might be found to be special to Indian materials. We also ignored the conventional distinctions between legend, myth and tale. And we did not concern ourselves with a separation of classical and local materials. While oppositions and transformations exist in all folk traditions, we argued that the following three might be particularly important keys to the study of Indic examples:

high / low
power / purity
inside / outside

These basic themes and transformations transcend genres and distinctions like myths / folklore and can best be identified by comparative or complementary studies. This workshop provided a starting point in the search for newer, more culture-specific models.
Brenda E.F. Beck
University of British Columbia
A.K. Ramanujan
University of Chicago  

1. This paper was generated from the discussions at the Workshop on Myth and Folktale held during the Indo-American Seminar on Indian Folklore at the Central Institute of Indian Languages, Mysore. The participants at the workshop were: Brenda E.F. Beck and A.K. Ramanujan (coordinators and editors), Jan Brouwer, Jawaharlal Handoo, Lalita Handoo, A. Hiriyanna, Mazharul Islam, Raghavan Payyanad, Ramachandra Gowda, and David Shulman.