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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
>King, and King >Brahman
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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
power / purity
inside / outside
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
University of British Columbia
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.