Throughout the ages, parents have grappled with the question of how best to raise well-behaved children. Of all the styles of parenting, perhaps the most painless is the way our Indian grandmothers imparted values and virtue onto the future generations — by telling folktales with moral lessons.
Laying out the rules only goes so far in establishing upright behavior, since “rules are meant to be broken.” Even when we are aware that most rules and restrictions are for our own benefit, we often see them as a bitter pill that takes the fun out of life. Like Mary Poppins says, however, “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.”
The traditional art of storytelling can be as satisfying as a lollipop to a child. Many lessons can be learned through colorful tales that will be remembered for a lifetime, and thus always be there to help one discern right from wrong and good from bad.
Through narrating a story, our grandmothers compelled us to alter our conduct and comply amicably and courteously with their rules. Rather than setting strict constraints, they demonstrated the value of good behavior and the consequences of bad behavior with metaphorical fables and fairy tales. Vivid scenes appeared in our imagination to drive the point home.
Unlike a list of rules, people of all ages love to listen to a story. If it has a moral, it is quickly adopted since it’s easy to recognize how it will benefit us. Moreover, rather than feeling like a nag for reminding others of their responsibilities, the story may be so well received that you’ll be asked to repeat it.
You are now signed up for our newsletter
Check your email to complete sign up
If you want to teach your children good habits and moral concepts, try spinning a yarn. In this series, we will retell some traditional Indian folktales with moral lessons. The first two are from the well-known collection of Jataka Tales, and focus on avarice, or greed.
Once upon a time, a poor woman lived with her two beautiful daughters in town. Suffering from poverty, they were always hungry and had very little comfort.
In a pond near the town there dwelt a virtuous swan with magnificent golden feathers. Upon hearing about the plight of the woman and her two daughters, it took pity on them.
Inspired to ease their suffering, the swan vowed to sacrifice some golden feathers to the family. If the mother sold them in town, they would bring in enough money to keep the daughters and herself comfortable and well-fed.
With this thought, the golden swan flew to the poor woman’s home. When the mother saw the swan, thinking it wanted food, she told it regretfully that she had nothing to offer.
The compassionate swan answered, “I want to help you. I will drop one of my golden feathers so that you can sell it on the market and enjoy a life free of poverty.”
The impoverished woman consented, and the transaction became commonplace. It was like an answer to her prayers, with the swan regularly dropping a feather at their home to keep the family healthy and happy. Selling the golden feathers for good money, they were able to lead carefree lives, and this went on for a while.
One day, however, the mother became greedy, and wondered why they should wait for the swan to drop one feather at a time. She imagined how wealthy they would become if they acquired all of the golden feathers at once.
When she told her daughters about her selfish wish, they told her that they would never harm the golden swan. Heedless of their concerns, the mother replied, “What would happen if the golden swan vanished? That would put us back in poverty.” So she resolved to snatch all the swan’s golden feathers the next time it appeared.
Sure enough, the next time the golden swan entered her home, the greedy woman seized the swan and plucked out all of its feathers. Much to her dismay, the feathers transformed instantly into dull, gray chicken feathers.
Vexed by her selfishness and impatience, the swan told her, “Poor woman, I came here to help you out of compassion, and freed you from poverty with my feathers. Instead of being grateful for my gift, you have harmed me to satisfy your greed. Now I will go away, and you will never receive another golden feather.”
The woman apologized tearfully, but it was too late for regrets. The swan said, “Greed is always destructive. A greedy person and a pauper will lead the same life. Give up your avarice.” With this warning, the golden swan soared away, never to be seen again.
Greed is a vice that stems from not being satisfied with what you have. Just like the poor woman in the story above who wanted more than she was already blessed with, animals are also often looking for “greener pastures,” only to find that they end up having less than they started with.
The following story is a sort of fable within a fable, as the lesson is learned not only by the foolish character, but also by a wise observer… Observe:
There was once a king of a rich and beautiful land. This king loved to travel, and frequently took his entourage to visit foreign countries, yet he seldom stayed at home.
During his travels, one time the king and his men had walked all morning through a forest on their way to a distant country. Tired, they stopped for a rest and a small meal. Dried peas had been brought for the horses, and the horses were fed as well.
In this forest, there lived an inquisitive monkey, who had been watching the men and their activities. The horse feed looked like an easy meal for him to grab, so he dropped down from his tree and quickly filled his mouth and hands with peas.
He scrambled back up into the tree to eat them at his leisure. As he sat down to enjoy his snack, however, a single pea dropped from his stash, falling all the way to the ground. Without thinking, the foolish monkey hurried back down after the fallen pea, spilling all the others in doing so. By then, the horses had eaten all their feed and there was nothing to gain, since he couldn’t even find the dropped pea.
Sadly he climbed back up the tree to consider his foolishness. The king, who had seen the monkey’s antics, wisely took the lesson for himself. He realized how foolhardy he had been, traveling back and forth to foreign countries without even enjoying his own.
The king resolved to value what he had, turned his horses and men around, and marched straight back to his beautiful homeland.
Although there is nothing wrong with enjoying new things and experiences, anything in excess can turn bad. Even the magical Indian drink of immortality called “Amrit” is said to turn poisonous in excess.