Questioning the morals of moral tales from Panchatantra
A quick google search suggests that Panchatantra — popular animal fables children grow up hearing in India — originated to discuss policy amongst the ruling class and nobility and to pass on that knowledge through to their offspring.
Similar to its western counterpart, Panchatantra has some problematic themes of sexism, elitism, classism, casteism and much more discriminatory intentions. The problem starts when Lion is deemed to be the king of the jungle — the only animal that has the ultimate, supreme, unchallenged power by birth. The tasks or the roles the animals play in these narratives are also strictly defined. For instance, the wolf is always projected as a cunning creature — and one could not find a kind, altruistic wolf character in any of the Panchatantra stories.
Even though some stories might end with the moral that each animal is unique in its own stature, most stories are written in such a way that the animals are expected to accept that system and are shown their place in the hierarchy if they try to break free from it. For example, the blue jackal in one of the stories, who deceives the jungle animals with his blue dye and gets royal treatment in return for his unusual appearance is soon punished and thrown away from his special position once the truth that he is in no way different than other jackals becomes apparent.
Hunting and eating other animals — a natural process of the food chain is demonised as a cruel act, suggesting that the carnivores choose to kill for the pleasure of food while there might have been other animal-cruelty free alternatives. This ideology is extremely discriminatory in the Indian context as food choices are linked closely to caste hierarchies. Hunters who typically might be lower in the caste hierarchy are the villains for the animals, while sages and priests who occupy a higher position on the hierarchy and play the role of the helper or healer in these stories are projected as the saviour and heroes. Children growing up listening to these stories might hold up the stereotypes or even perpetuate gruesome acts against meat-eaters.
Furthermore, the pronouns of the animals are based on a very predictable pattern that the mighty ones are always males whereas the softer, humble animals are ultimately females. While it’s rare to find a female fox, lion or monkey, animals which have a calm temperament and are perceived as subordinates such as deer, hares etc. are almost exclusively female characters. There is no space for other genders of course! Speaking animals are possible but a gender non-conforming person — that is not a real thing suggests Panchatantra.
Additionally reflecting the gendered parental roles in monogamous relationships — mothers within a bird couple are narrated as the weaker parent, glorified to take up all the domestic work merrily and romanticised to sacrifice even their own life for their offspring.
It’s high time we realise what messages we pass on to the upcoming generation. It’s time to revisit the ways we pass on values to the younger generation. Are these outdated stories the only way for enculturation?