Indira Bagchi


In recent times, the inter-linkages between religion and morality are mired in controversy. Emile Durkheim, the French philosopher and the father of modern sociology, believed that religion was the first human attempt to logically explain the universe and is a codified set of beliefs and practices, often centred upon specific moral claims about the reality and human nature.

The code of ethics or moral principles is at the heart of every religion. The moral values evolved from religious beliefs, tradition and practices that emerged with the progress of human social order. These values influence the individual’s pattern of thinking and action. Human society has survived the buffeting by the winds of change through the millennia because of this strong bulwark of moral values within the over-arching religious beliefs. Thus, there is not only a close relationship between religion and morality but also a synergy between the two. Arthur C Clarke, the British author and futurist, spoke tongue-in-cheek when he said that “religion and morality go together like boiled beef and carrots”.

My presentation focuses not on the dichotomy or otherwise of religion and morality but on the texture of children’s literature from the perspectives of religion and morality.  

There are ten major religions in the world and they are Baha’i Faith, Buddhism, Christianity Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Judaism Sikhism and Zoroastrianism. Though every religion has diverse interpretations, rituals and practices but each one focuses on a god-figure who is personification of morals. He leads an exemplary life making him worthy of worship by his followers. He also teaches them how to lead a virtuous life. Thus, every religion is a source of morality and a common thread of moral lessons runs through the scriptures of every religion. 

These moral lessons reach out to children through stories and fables that teach them a code of moral conduct. Because of time constraint, instead of elaborating on the children’s literature of all the major religions, I will limit myself to two major religions – Hinduism and Buddhism - with brief references to Christianity and Islam.

Hinduism is the world’s oldest living religion. Some trace its foundations back to circa 6,500 BC. In Sanskrit it is called Sanatana Dharma, which can be best translated into English as the ‘eternal path of spiritual discipline’. In contrast to the Abrahamic tradition, the Hindu or Indic religious tradition speaks of one ‘Supreme Being’ but with multiple manifestations. Its spiritual base is not a single set of scriptures but an accumulated treasury of spiritual laws enunciated by diverse sages in different times.

The four Vedas, the twelve Upanishads, the eighteen Puranas and many other scriptures comprise this treasury. Rigveda, the first of the four Vedas, is considered to be the oldest written religious text. They are suffused with a moral code, which when followed faithfully leads to the ultimate goal of every religion, the spiritual bliss through the union with God.

Mahabharata and Ramayana, India’s two ancient epic poems in Sanskrit,  form a canon of Hinduism. The Hindus treasure them as their civilizational inheritance. Both are at the core of India’s oral tradition of moral teaching through storytelling and have been favourites with young people through the ages. Mahabharata, the older of the two classics, is the narrative of the righteous Pandavas and the iniquitous Kauravas, the two clans of Bharata (as ancient India was known then).

Lord Krishna is the god-figure in Mahabharata. On the battlefield of Kurukshetra, he is the charioteer of the Pandava warrior Arjuna and teaches him the moral lesson of an individual’s right only to performing his duty and not aspiring for the fruits of his actions. Besides preaching, the god-figures also, on occasions, demonstrate the moral. In a story of Narada, the divine sage from the Hindu tradition, Lord Krishna, instead of explaining the complexities of ‘maya’ or worldly illusion, made his devotee Narada experience it. Bhagwat Gita, Lord Krishna’s gospel, is Hinduism’s core sacred text. Both the gospel and the epic are replete with moral philosophy.  

Ramayana chronicles the life and the times of Lord Rama, the heir apparent and later the king of Ayodhya. He is the god-figure in it and his crusade against, and ultimate victory over, the dark forces of human nature epitomised by Ravana, the king of Lanka, forms the crux of the epic.  Lord Rama’s entire life is a lesson in morality and demonstrates to his followers the path of virtuous life. Down the ages, every Hindu has upheld Lord Rama as the quintessence of virtues and worshipped him. Every mother wants her child to learn of human virtues from his conduct.

Ramayana also presents other examples of morality. The stories of the dutiful son, Shravana Kumar carrying around his blind old parents in baskets, Lakshmana’s devotion to his brother, Lord Rama, etc. are shimmering examples of morality. Even the fable of the great eagle Jatayu, sacrificing its life in trying to free Sita from the clutches of evil Ravana, is a lesson in morality. A moving lesson in the power of faith is the story of monkeys making the stones inscribed with the word “Rama” float while building the bridge across the sea to Lanka for Lord Rama to rescue Sita.

Panchatantra is the oldest written collection of Indian fables; it is the most popular of many such anthologies. Its stories illustrate that religion is not the only source of morality and Nature also has moral lessons for humans.  Its fables focusing on animals teach us the qualities that form the basis of happiness in life. The story of “Four Friends” is about the virtues of friendship. The story of doves caught in a hunter’s snare tells of a leader’s responsibility towards its flock and also of the importance of unity. These tales teach us how to understand people, how to choose trustworthy friends, how to overcome difficulties with tact and wisdom, and how to live in peace and harmony in the face of life’s pitfalls. It is basically a part of niti shastra, which, in Sanskrit, means ‘book of wise conduct in life’. Panchatantra fables spread to Persia, Arabia, Greece and thence to Europe where they considerably influenced the local literature.

The scriptures also tell us that, on occasions, even god-figures found it difficult to make a moral decision. In Ramayana, the act of Lord Rama helping Sugreeva, his devotee, by deceptively slaying King Bali from behind a tree cannot be considered a moral act. In Mahabharata, there is the story of sage Dronachrya, the Kauravas’ teacher, dying of shock on hearing Lord Krishna announcing, on the battlefield, the death of Ashwathama. Dronacharya believed his son Ashwathama had died while Lord Krishna was alluding to an elephant of the same name. It was an act of deception that is hard to justify morally.

 Buddhism is based on the teachings of Prince Siddhartha Gautama of Kapilavastu. Once he attained ‘enlightenment’, he was called the “Awakened One” or the ‘Buddha’. Like other religions, Buddhism is also divided into a number of traditions. However, they share a common set of fundamental beliefs and practices. Of its three major ‘practices’, one relates to ‘Sila’ meaning virtue, good conduct and morality. Thus, Buddhism also propagates moral values and uses the medium of storytelling for moral teaching.  

Jataka Tales were used as the medium by the Buddha for explaining to his devotees the various spiritual concepts and inculcating a better understanding of moral values. These tales are a voluminous body of folk-lore like literature on the previous births of the Buddha. They are high on moral content and aim to promote moral values and good behaviour in people. A very popular Jataka tale is of the ‘Swan with Golden Feathers’ and a mother with two daughters. Moved by the mother’s poverty, the swan shed one of its golden feathers at a time for her to sell in order to live comfortably. The mother and daughters started living a good life. But soon the mother became avaricious and wanted to get rich at once by selling all the golden feathers. One day she caught the swan and plucked all its golden feathers. But they turned into chicken feathers. The swan said, “You miserable woman, I used to shed golden feathers because I wanted to help you out of your poverty.  Instead of being grateful, you became greedy. I will no longer help you and will go away never to return”. Before flying away, the swan said, “Never be greedy”. The moral of the story is clear.  

Christianity centres on the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Christians worship Jesus as the Son of God and also as the Messiah or the Christ. They believe that Jesus is the Teacher, the model of virtuous life, the One who revealed God and, most importantly, the Saviour who was crucified and resurrected in order to deliver humanity from sin. The Resurrection of Jesus is a core event within the body of Christian beliefs and underlines much of its doctrines and theology.

Parable is a story designed to teach a moral. Jesus Christ often spoke in parables.  These symbolic writings were used to give comfort to some, yet warnings and judgements to others. The parables help us to understand the deep truths about life. Depending upon the level of understanding, a parable can be a simple story. It can also be a complex one that reveals the presence of God in persons and events or an elaborate display of God’s love for humankind. The Old Testament, common to Christianity and Judaism, contains Jewish folktales and Biblical parables. Among the numerous parables of Jesus Christ, there are some like “A Friend in Need”, “The Good Samaritan”, “New Wine in Old Wineskin”, etc., that have been extremely popular through the ages with people of all ages and all cultures.

Folklore, as a genre, is a part of every culture’s oral tradition and was the medium for passing on cultural values from one generation to another. Fairytale evolved as its sub-genre and is, usually, a story with super-natural flavour either orally narrated or dramatically enacted. Mostly, it helps in imparting moral education. The oldest known written fairytales are from ancient Egypt circa 1300 BC. The other well known ones are the Panchatantra tales of India, Aesop’s Fables from Greece, Arabian Nights, the magical tales from West Asia, etc.

Hans Christian Andersen, the iconic storyteller of Denmark, is the most renowned and widely read amongst the numerous authors of fairy tales. His fairy tales are favourites of children of all ages from around the world. He frequently used colloquial style that disguised the sophisticated moral teachings of his tales. He broke new ground both in style and content by employing the idioms and constructions of spoken language in a way that was new to Danish writing of his times. The fairytales of his time were didactic but he brought into them a degree of ambiguity. As children generally speak the truth, Andersen sometimes chose them as mouthpiece to answer a moral question. The story of ‘The Emperor’s New Suit’ is a case in point where a child tells that the emperor is without his clothes. Hans Christian Andersen is considered as the father of modern fairytale. His most intimate works are ‘The Ugly Duckling’ and ‘The Little Mermaid’.

The world of Western fables remains incomplete if mention is not made of the Aesop’s Fables. It is a collection of fables credited to ‘Aesop’, a slave and a storyteller who lived in ancient Greece around 6th century BC. Today, the term ‘Aesop’s Fables’ is a generic for collections of fables having animals in human forms as central characters. These fables have been the accepted medium for moral education of children through the ages. Many stories in the Fables, such as  ‘The Fox and the Grapes’, ‘The Tortoise and the Hare’, ‘The North Wind and the South Wind’ and ‘The Boy Who cried Wolf’,  are extremely  popular around the world. Aesop used simple incidents to teach great truths. A charming feature of his fables is the depiction of animals in a pleasing light which make them favourites of children.

Islam originated with the teachings of Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be upon Him), a 7th century Arab religious figure. Islam’s followers, the Muslims believe that God revealed His Holy Scripture, Quran, to Muhammad (pbuh) and regard it and the ‘Sunnah’, Prophet Muhammad’s words and deeds, as Islam’s fundamental sources.  Both the Quran and Islamic tradition have interesting fables. For instance, the fable of youths and their dog sleeping for over 300 years, Solomon speaking to animals, the wind and Jinn being under Solomon’s control, etc. There are also fables regarding animals and trees speaking to Muhammad, trees moving from their places and returning, etc. The better known ones are the fables of ‘Muhammad and his Donkey’ and ‘Conversation of the Deer’.

In Islam, the prophets have a special status. Muslims believe that Allah sent prophets to earth to teach people about His nature and give His guidance to them. Their lives and their struggles are a part of the Islamic tradition and contain many moral lessons. In the story of Prophet Nuh (Noah), the Prophet tells people to have faith in Allah. When his Ark was caught in a severe storm, he prayed to Allah.  At Allah’s command the rain stopped, the clouds parted and the Ark came to rest on Mount Judi. The moral is that submission to God is the only way.

Today’s younger generation is poised at a critical juncture in human history when the certitudes of the past are crumbling and the values of the future are still indeterminate. Today’s children have rising aspirations but are caught in a fiercely competitive world where everyone is obsessed with material success and is heedless of moral consequences. A disturbing outcome of growing but inevitable urbanization is the proliferating phenomenon of nuclear family without the social support base of an extended family. In such families, the comforting figure of grandmother is no longer there to narrate fables and parables to children while putting them to sleep or to sooth them with fairytales in times of distress. Today’s urban children are left to themselves, growing up bereft of moral underpinnings on a diet of violence and other negative traits that they learn from their peers or from entertainment media like television.

In today’s world of social turmoil we tend to ask ourselves “Do these stories and their morals still hold good in today’s materialistic world?” The answer is “Yes! They do. But only if we instil these values in children from early childhood.” The fables and tales with moral lessons implicit in various religious traditions are just as relevant for children in our times as they were in the past. They are needed much more today because the basic unit of a society, the family, appears to be under grave threat of disintegration. In those cultures where extended family system is still robust, the children appear well endowed with moral foundation and emotional strength. It has a lesson for us.

The epics like the Ramayana, the Jataka tales, the Biblical fables and those from the Islamic tradition, Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales and others have been favourites through the ages. They will continue to entertain and educate children as long as storytelling remains an integral part of our lives.  With the changing times more innovative methods need to be adopted for storytelling to hold the younger generation’s attention. While the media of storytelling may develop and change, the moral values remain constant at the core of children’s literature for all times to come.

Indira Bagchi, India

31st IBBY World Congress, Denmark, September 2008