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Maithil Women's TalesStorytelling on the Nepal-India Border$

Coralynn V. Davis

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9780252038426

Published to Illinois Scholarship Online: April 2017

DOI: 10.5406/illinois/9780252038426.001.0001

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Virtue, Truth, and the Motherline of Morality

Virtue, Truth, and the Motherline of Morality

Chapter 3 Virtue, Truth, and the Motherline of Morality
Maithil Women's Tales

Coralynn V. Davis

University of Illinois Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the universe of virtue as it is displayed in Maithil women's taleworlds—such virtues as devoutness, compassion, and generosity. One striking characteristic of Maithil women's narratives is that they generally portray very little gendering in regard to basic tenets of virtue. In other words, the same virtuous qualities are appreciated in men and women; virtues are gender specific only in the particulars of their enactment. The chapter also shows that, in Maithil women's narrative hands, differences in fortune are correlated with the measure of women's virtuousness, and, further, such virtue in women is portrayed as a heritable trait passed on to offspring through maternal substance.

Keywords:   virtue, Maithil women, women's narratives, gender, women's virtuousness


Virtue, Truth, and the Motherline of Morality

THe eAGLe AND JACKAL TALe: painting depicts a tree with an eagle in the upper branches and a jackal in its lair down below.

The Eagle and Jackal Tale, retold here, was the very first Maithil folktale I ever heard. Indeed, it was in stumbling upon this tale that I was first alerted to the fact that Maithil women circulate folktales as a regular part of their lives. In the mid-1990s, while undertaking my doctoral dissertation field research, I began thinking about the multiple and conflicting ways that the term “sister” was being employed at the women’s development center that was, at that time, the institutional focus of my study. While those at the helm of the development center were interested in creating a feeling of “sisterhood”—in the classic Western feminist sense—among the members and managers of the development project there, I wanted to know how this kin term resonated for the local Maithil women who made up that membership. So one day I asked a group of members whether they knew any tales about sisterhood. Right away one of the women launched into a telling of the Eagle and the Jackal Tale, retold later for my recording by Indu Misra, also a member of the development project. The tale makes clear that “sisterhood” among Maithil women is not an easy metaphor for egalitarian and supportive relations (Davis 1997). Indeed, sisterhood in the Maithil cultural context may just as readily be employed as a device to illustrate contrastive sides of the same moral coin. The Eagle and the Jackal Tale describes a world in which the qualities of virtue and vice, morality and sin, are clearly distinguished through the embodiment of two sisters who, in the course of the tale, are subject to judgment, reward, and retribution.

The present chapter surveys the universe of virtue as it is displayed in Maithil women’s taleworlds—such virtues as devoutness, compassion, and generosity. In the Western tradition, virtue is most often treated as akin to moral excellence and righteousness. Personal virtues are characteristics valued as promoting individual and collective well-being and are thus good by definition. The opposite of virtue in English terminology is vice, a category of acts characterized by immorality and sometimes criminality. This straightforward dichotomous terminology maps imperfectly onto Maithil (and other South Asian) conceptual categories, in part due to differences in cosmological frameworks, including, in the South Asian case, the transmigration of souls (reincarnation), the pantheistic and interventionist nature of (p.68) divinity, and the “periodized” understanding of truth (degree of truthfulness being correlated with particular epochs), all of which are discussed in this chapter and the next. As we will see in the present chapter, an examination of questions of virtue in Maithil women’s tales must include but also go beyond cultural contextualization to further specify the gendered and situational quality of moral understanding.

One striking characteristic of Maithil women’s narratives is that they generally portray very little gendering in regard to basic tenets of virtue. In other words, the same virtuous qualities are appreciated in men and women. With one exception explained later in the chapter, virtues are gender specific only in the particulars of their enactment. For example, female characters may express the virtue of generosity through the sharing or serving of good food, since this culinary domain is one of the few under their control. In comparison, male characters are more likely to enact generosity by sharing their wealth in gold or land, since these items are at their disposal as male inheritors of wealth. In parallel fashion, women in Maithil women’s taleworlds more often enact the virtue of devoutness by fasting, whereas male characters do so more often through sponsorship of (male) priest-led rituals or through meditation and asceticism, practices generally not available to women due to household responsibilities and restrictions on mobility.

In deliberations regarding virtue in Maithil women’s tales, the key terms are dharma (adj. dharmik, dharmatā, opp. adharmik), sat (adj. satī), pāp (adj. pāpi), dushṭatā (adj. dushṭa, dushṭman), and mamatā, each of which appears in many of the tales included in this book and each of which, in turn, is explicated in this chapter. (Mamatā is also the subject of the chapter following this one.) While much ink has already been spilled on some of these terms and concepts, the present discussion is limited to their meaning as found in Maithil women’s tales. What follows, by way of the presentation and analysis of four tales told by three different storytellers, is an exploration of the expanse and contours of virtue and vice in Maithil women’s tales. The four tales are presented in deliberate order, each illustrating a particular kind of virtue, leading from the most directly cosmological to the more social and, finally, gender specific. As we will see, in Maithil women’s narrative hands, differences in fortune are correlated with the measure of women’s virtuousness, and, further, such virtue (or lack thereof) in women is portrayed as a heritable trait passed on to offspring through maternal substance. Maithil women’s tales also “argue” that poverty well endured is preferable to wealth poorly utilized. Further, Maithil women portray truthfulness as a cosmological as well as complex interactional principle that illustrates, as well as results from, virtue.

Righteousness and Sin

Indu Misra’s Eagle and Jackal Tale provides a fine entry into discussion of the paired and opposed concepts of dharma and pāp, as they appear in Maithil women’s tales. The Eagle and Jackal Tale demonstrates that when dharma and pāp are coupled in such stories, this brings out the connotation in dharma of “religious righteousness” (p.69) and “devoutness/piousness” and in pāp of “sin,” “immorality,” and “corruption.” Dharmik qualities and behaviors in a person are an indication of her or his social and spiritual awareness and understanding and also support that person’s path toward favorable outcomes in the present and next incarnation. Persons in the taleworld who are subjected to trials (for instance, poverty or desertion) but remain devout throughout their hardships tend to fare well later in life (for instance, obtaining wealth or a good spouse or children) or to have an advantageous rebirth (transforming from one life to the next, say, from a jackal to a human, or from an impoverished human to a princess).

In order to explore fundamental questions of morality and virtue, the Eagle and Jackal Tale deliberately makes use of the fact that inequality frequently exists among married sisters in South Asian patrilineal cultures characterized by arranged marriage of daughters to the sons of different families living in distant villages. Further, this tale demonstrates that virtuous and sinful behaviors and attitudes result in different consequences in terms of karma and divine favor.

The backdrop for the Eagle and Jackal Tale is the Jītiya Vrat (Jītiya Fast) also called Jīvitputrika Vrat, literally the “living son fast.” Generally, vrat (fasts) are viewed as an aspect of women’s domestic dharma or, in this case, duty, during which they are able to harness divine power (śakti) for the well-being of their loved ones (Pearson 1996; Pintchman 2007). Jītiya Vrat is undertaken by mothers to ensure the well-being of their sons in particular. It is observed on the eighth day in the waning moon phase of the month of Ashwin (September/October). Jītiya Vrat involves giving offerings in prayer to the deity or deities who a particular woman believes will intervene to ensure a long and auspicious life for her son(s). The fast thus is considered a demonstration of the deep love mothers have for their sons and is also a manifestation of mothers’ profound dependency, in their waning years and particularly following the death of their husbands, on their sons. After an early morning bath and prayers of intention, women begin the fast, foregoing food and water, often singing songs and telling stories of praise to the gods. The next morning, they bathe and make offerings again, after which a Brahman woman whose husband is living, and who herself has sons, gives other fasting women jiutya, red and yellow threads to be worn around their necks symbolizing that they have performed the ritual and fast. The women continue fasting until after their bath the following morning.

This chapter on virtue and vice, then, opens with the Eagle and Jackal Tale, a story about two very different sisters. Their story highlights some of the basic principles whereby the moral landscape is charted as a series of paired, opposing qualities: devoutness/sinfulness, truth/deceit, wisdom/foolishness, compassion/cruelty, creation/destruction, fruitfulness/childlessness, generosity/greed, purity/pollution, knowledge/ignorance, and highness/lowness. This last opposition, standing in metaphorically for the others, is represented in the painting made by a Maithil woman to illustrate the tale (see page 66). Here we see the virtuous eagle perched high in a fig tree and the sinful jackal resting in her lair at the base of the same tree.

(p.70) The Eagle and Jackal Tale

There once were an eagle and a jackal. The eagle had built its nest at the top a fig tree situated on the bank of the Siraur River, and the jackal had built its shelter at the foot of the same tree. [See the illustration on page 66.] It was at this very place that all the women who were holding the fast for Jītiya came to bathe. They had brought with them mustard oil, dried mustard patties, dried peas, rice mixed with sandal paste, and vermilion—everything required to worship Jīt. They performed the ceremony and gave offerings to all the copper gods.1

Meanwhile, the eagle and the jackal were watching the women from the tree and were talking to each other. “Oh Sister Eagle!” said the jackal. The eagle answered from above, “What is it, Sister Jackal?” “Look, all the women are assembled to listen to the story of Jītiya and to fast.2 They are offering oil and mustard patties. Let us, like them, wash our hair and undertake fasting.” The eagle gave her consent. So whatever the women had given as offering these two picked up and likewise offered. Then, similarly, they bathed and washed their hair, doing exactly as they had seen the women do. The whole day the two fasted. When night fell, the eagle tucked her beak into her wings and, still fasting, fell asleep. Down below, however, the jackal remained awake. She was too hungry to sleep. She was a greedy person [lobhi ādmī].

In a nearby village a woman of the oil presser caste [tēliya] had died. After she died, the villagers brought the body to the river to cremate it. But a storm rose up, and it started to rain, so they could not fully burn the body. It got singed but did not completely burn up. The rain was very heavy, and the people ran for shelter.

Now the jackal who had her den at the foot of the fig tree could hardly contain her hunger anymore. She was a meat eater, this jackal. She got up, lapped up some water, and sprinkled it, drop by drop, over the fire. When the fire had been extinguished, the jackal pulled out the charred meat and dragged it into her den, where she proceeded to enjoy it as she liked. By eating the meat, the jackal had broken her fast before it was completed.

From up above, though she had tucked her beak into her wings, the eagle still saw everything; yet at first she said nothing as the jackal munched and crunched and moved about. Finally, the eagle called down, “Oh Sister Jackal!” “What is it, Sister Eagle?” came the reply. “Your mouth looks very heavy.” “I am fasting, that is why,” answered the jackal. “And why do you get up so often? I can hear your bones rattling,” the eagle continued to query. “Oh, that is because as I twist and turn my body, my bones rattle.” But the jackal had eaten meat, and the eagle knew that her sister had broken her fast.

The following morning, when the two sisters awoke, they went to the river, took a bath, and did everything the women celebrating Jītiya had done with the dried peas and holy rice. They picked up the peas and rice offered by the women, and the eagle completed her fast. Although the jackal had already eaten that prior night, she too put on a show of performing all the ceremonies. Life went on, and after some days both sisters died.

Now in another village there lived a king. The souls of the two sisters entered the womb of the king’s wife and were reborn as human girls. The king named one (p.71) daughter Silabati (stupid, blind) and the other Lilabati (frolicking).3 The sisters were given similar-sounding names. When it came time for them to be wed—after they were old enough and had been raised well—their royal father married them off to the sons of the king of another village. The eagle was married into the home of one son, an educated and devout but impoverished pundit. And the jackal was married into a very rich family, but her husband, the king’s other son, was an uneducated fool. That is, the one who had broken the fast was wed to a fool, while the one who had completed the fast found an intelligent, educated husband. So the two began to live in the same village. When it came to having children, all the children of the one who had broken her fast died. It was because of the sin of having broken the fast that all her children kept dying. And the one who had truly completed the fast had seven sons. All her children survived; not even a single one died.

Now the sister whose children kept dying would blame her sister, calling her Chulhiya [one who eats stealthily and greedily].4 “Chulhiya is a witch! She kills all my sons and keeps all her own sons alive!” In this manner Silabati accused and cursed her sister. “I will kill her too; somehow I will find a way to kill her. Why should she play with seven sons, while none of mine survive?! If she kills my sons, then I will kill hers!” She was very angry and had forgotten her own sin of having broken the fast [in her previous life]. The one who had completed the fast, however, understood everything. She remembered that her sister had eaten meat and knew that it was for that reason that her sons kept dying. “But I myself did not eat meat,” she reflected to herself, “so mine are alive. I acted virtuously (dharm kaine chhi) in my previous life.” Finally, to rule on the allegations, the village council (panchayat) was summoned. “She kills all my sons and keeps all seven of hers alive,” alleged Silabati. “This woman is a witch and should be punished accordingly.” But the panchayat responded, “We cannot take any action on this matter. Who can tell what lies behind these deaths and accusations?”

After some days, it was once again time for the festival of Jītiya. At that point, the one who had been an eagle had seven sons, seven daughters-in-law, and seven horses. They were all very well. But the one who had not completed the fast had no one; all had died. She regarded her sister with envy. The one who in her earlier life had kept the fast dressed her seven daughters-in-law, saying, “All of you wash and oil your hair and tie it up; apply some sindūr [vermilion powder signaling their auspicious, married status] to the part of your hair, because today is the start of the festival.” And to her seven sons she instructed, “My children, go to see your aunt. She has no sons or daughters of her own, so if the seven of you go to visit your aunt, she will feel happy and forget her grief.” She still did not think badly of her sister, yet her sister only wanted her to die.

Filled with rage, Silabati said to her husband, “I will eat again only after her seven sons are killed; only then will I take food and water.” So the husband conceded, “OK. If this is what you want, then I will have all seven of them killed.” And so he engaged a Muslim butcher to kill them. The butcher tied the seven horses to a post and cut off the heads of all seven sons.

(p.72) Meanwhile, Lilabati said to her seven daughters-in-law, “Don’t open the sanes [ceremonial gift] that your aunt will send.5 I am going to go bathe because I have kept the fast. When I return, then we will open the sanes. Until then, put it carefully aside.” Meanwhile, the jackal sister had put the heads in seven baskets and tied the baskets with red cloth [as is the custom with special gifts]. Seven heads and seven bundles. She sent them all to her sister, thinking with delight, “Oh how she will wail when she sees the severed heads of her sons! None of mine lived, and I cried all this time while she was happy. Now I will be happy too when I listen to her cries!”

Subsequently, when the mother-in-law, the eagle, returned after her fast, the daughters-in-law said, “Mother, Auntie has sent a ceremonial gift, and we have put it on the terrace.” Their mother-in-law said, “OK, let it be. We will open it tomorrow, and when the fast is over we will all eat the gift. By then, my babies [sons] will be back too.” But her sons were dead. Silabati had sent the severed heads of her seven sons, who had been on seven horses. Lilabati’s heart was pure. The next day, after the fast was over, she requested, “Bring the gift Auntie sent. I will open it and give some of the contents to everyone to eat.” But there were seven heads in the baskets.

Lord Brahma said to himself, “Oh dear! This sister has fasted for me on Jītiya, and her sister has cut off the heads of all her sons. I must do something to bring them back to life again!” So he slit open the seven sons’ little fingers and sprinkled an elixir (amrit) on them. All seven sat up saying, “Rām, Rām [giving thanks to the divine].” The seven horses were made ready. Once the sons reached home, the gift that the aunt had sent was opened. Their mother did not know that they had died, but when the seven horses arrived carrying the seven sons, she advised her seven daughters-in-law, “Take the gift that has come from Auntie, and give some to everyone to eat. Now the children too have come.” When she opened the baskets, each held a tar fruit [a fruit resembling a coconut]. That is what she found in the baskets! There were no heads. Bidh and Bidhātā [the birds of destiny first encountered in chapter 1] had conjured such a spectacle that all the heads had become tar fruits! Lilabati peeled the tar fruit and gave some to each of her sons and daughters-in-law.

Sometime later Silabati arrived, thinking, “Chulhiya must be wailing! Today I have killed her sons and sent their heads to her.” She had come to hear her sister cry but instead found her looking very happy. All her sons and daughters-in-law were also present and without a care. Silabati said to her husband, “Do you see? When I tell you my sister is a witch, you don’t believe me. But look, I cut off the heads of her seven sons. If she’s not a witch, then how did they come back to life again?” “Look here,” replied her husband, “you are sinful (pāpi), and she is devout (dharmatma). If not, then, given that you had them slain at the hands of a butcher, how could they have come to life again?” “No, I will not believe this!” declared Silabati. “Call the council again to deliberate about Chulhiya!” Her husband conceded, saying, “OK, if you insist, then I will ask the council to convene.”

When the council had assembled, Silabati declared, “I arranged for this one’s seven sons to be killed. So how did they all come back to life? She is a witch. There should be some punishment for her. She killed my children.” Next, Lilabati was called before (p.73) the council, which interrogated her. “Are you a witch? Have you brought your sons back to life and killed all your sister’s sons? Is this what happened? Your sons were killed, so how did you bring them back to life?”

Now in her previous life, when she was an eagle, Lilabati had asked for a blessing. She had fulfilled the requirements of her fast and had asked Mother Earth (Dharti Mātā) to tear herself open and keep in her womb evidence of all that Lilabati had done during the time of the fast. “Oh Mother Earth, I am putting this evidence into the earth. When I ask you for it, tear open and give it forth,” she had implored. The jackal sister had also asked for a blessing, and the dead woman’s meat she had eaten had been preserved in this manner as well. The eagle was very devout, so she knew everything. And the other forgot everything, because she was a sinner. The eagle went before the council, saying, “I did not kill her sons, nor do I know who killed my own. In our previous lives, we sisters were an eagle and a jackal. Yet if I tell the story of that life, my sister will beat her chest and die [from shame], and again all of you will accuse me of being a witch. So instead, with your permission, I will show you proof.” The council consented: “If you show us proof, then we will grant that you are telling the truth.”

So she requested of them, “Go to the bank of that river near the fig tree.” They went to the tree. Both dwellings were still there, above and below. Remaining in her nest was some holy rice [permissible for eating during fasts], and in the other sister’s den were the remains of the dead woman’s bones. They removed each dwelling and shook each out. From the two shelters came two very different sorts of things. Seeing this, Silabati’s heart was broken; she no longer felt the way she had before. “I wish I could die!” she thought. Lilabati again addressed the council, “If you still don’t believe me, then ask my sister and me to pick our teeth. From my teeth will fall what I have eaten and from her teeth will fall what she has eaten.” From the teeth of the one who had held her fast with meat came pieces of meat and blood. And from the teeth of the one who had completed her fast fell holy rice. “Look,” she declared. “What each of us ate has come out. She broke her fast, but I kept mine. Because of my virtue, I have seven sons and daughters-in-law. Due to the sin of not completing her own fast, all her sons kept dying. I am not a witch.” In that very place, the jackal sister tore open her chest, took her last breath, and died. And that is all; the story is over.

The Eagle and Jackal Tale is a study in moral contrasts. The dominant opposition between the protagonist sisters is that one is devout (dharmatma) and the other is sinful (pāpi). Onto this distinction is mapped the physically high and low positions of the two sisters in their fig-tree habitats.6 The eagle’s piety is signaled most pointedly by her completed fast-keeping, while the jackal’s sinful behavior begins when she breaks her fast by eating meat and is then compounded by the fact that she lies about having done so.7 The jackal’s deceitfulness is contrasted with her reborn sister’s truth telling about their past, which she is able to prove using evidence secured in her prior life by Mother Earth, who has rewarded the eagle for her devoutness.8

(p.74) The most serious consequence of the moral distinction between the behavior of the eagle and that of the jackal is, however, the quality of their rebirths. While both are reborn as human royalty—they both did, after all, participate in the Jītiya festival—they are married off to contrastive brothers. The husband of the one who kept the fast is himself religiously learned and devout, and his karma, paired with that of his wife, brings them success in fertility and child survival. In contrast, the fast-breaking sister is married to an ignorant fool, and together they are able to produce only offspring that die. One notes that the wealth of Silabati’s husband is not treated as a symbol of high moral status; indeed, it is the poverty of her fast-keeping sister’s husband that is emblematic of their moral standing in this case. Their more valuable “wealth” comes in the form of sons, whereas the other sister’s husband’s material wealth proves valueless in the face of their childlessness.

Additional contrasting vices and virtues include Silabati’s envy (of her sister having sons) and greediness (regarding food), two qualities that are contrasted with Lilabati’s compassion (demonstrated when she sends her sons to visit their aunt) and generosity in distributing the food of her sister’s “gift” among her sons and daughters-in-law. This true magnanimity is contrasted with Silabati’s false generosity in sending her sister the “gift” of her slain sons’ heads. Lilabati is a life creator, first in birthing her sons and second in the fact that her virtuous nature compels the birds of destiny to bring her sons back to life. In contrast, Silabati is a life taker: not only do her own sons die, but she orders the slaying of her sister’s sons as well. A final contrast is the consequence of the two sisters’ differing karmic destinies. As a result of her sin, Silabati is ignorant of the cause of her misfortunes (final enlightenment about which induces her death by humiliation), while Lilabati’s karma, resulting from her virtuous behavior and nature, enables her to comprehend the cosmic forces at play and to know the past and the future.9 Such clairvoyance is but one consequence of religious devotion made evident in the Eagle and Jackal Tale; divine assistance and positive rebirth are two other crucial results. The qualities of generosity, truthfulness, and even fertility (resulting in the reproduction of the lineage), furthermore, complement devoutness in this tale as fundamental virtues propelling the improvement of this life and the next.

Filial Piety, Social Chaos, and the Motherline of Morality

Except for the virtue of religious devotion itself, expressed variously through a commitment to meditation, worship, and fasting, the main virtuous qualities highlighted in Maithil women’s stories are all pro-social and relationally proximate, that is, they are about how a person behaves toward others with whom he or she personally engages. (Of course, as the tales in this chapter show, religious practice and worshipfulness may be enacted in pursuit of pro-social goals, such as the long life of one’s husband or children or the provisioning of food to guests.) The virtues of filial piety, generosity, hospitality, and compassion take such forms, respectively, as the correct completion of death rites for one’s parents, sharing one’s riches with those in need, feeding strangers who appear on one’s doorstep, and saving lives of innocent (p.75) and vulnerable others, be they humans or other sentient beings. It is important to note that such behaviors are virtuous only when accompanied by right intention; for instance, a person offering another a gift is deemed virtuous only if her or his intentionality is characterized by generosity or affection. As we saw in the case of Silabati, gift giving with a self-serving or deceptive motivation is treated as malevolent rather than righteous.

Numerous morality tales told by Maithil women take no notice of the question of devoutness itself, focusing instead on those behaviors that promote social order versus those causing social chaos and destruction. Such pro-social and antisocial behaviors also fall, in the tales, under the aegis of dharma. Prem Misra’s Cow Ears (Gaukarṇ) Tale, presented next, illustrates well the consequences of this sort of dharmik and adharmik behavior. Whereas in the Eagle and Jackal Tale, the demeanor and state of mind of two sisters are contrasted, in the Cow Ears Tale it is two brothers who represent each moral pole. Notably, their differing character types are represented as deriving from the quality of their respective mothers. Indeed, the tale goes so far as to suggest that such virtuous and destructive tendencies are heritable through birth mothers.

The Cow Ears Tale

There once was a king who had no children. He and the queen had everything else they could possibly want, but they were childless.

One day, a beggar came to the king’s door asking for alms. “Please give me something to eat,” he begged. “I am hungry and have nothing to wear.” The king replied, “I have an abundance of grain and clothing. I have plenty of food but no one [no children] to eat it. I don’t have anyone to feed. What to do? Take whatever you wish from me, no matter how much. But oh how I wish a holy man (sādhu), a Brahman, might come, so that I could find some way to have children.”

That beggar, who was himself a holy man, planted an imaginary fruit in his own mind. The king and his wife cried to him about their dilemma. “Sage, we don’t have any children. If we could have one, it would be worth our entire estate to us. There would be someone to look after us in the future.” That is why everyone wants to have children, so that in old age there is someone to take care of them.

The sage seated himself at the king’s door. “All right,” he said. “What you have to do is take some barley, some mango wood, and seven other types of things. Bring them, and I will perform a fire sacrifice (hawan) here. Afterward, I will tell you whether you are destined to have a child.” So the king sat down. All the necessary materials for the sacrifice were brought in front of the fire, and the Brahman was summoned to begin the ritual. Once the ritual had been completed and the prayers had been said, a red-colored fruit emerged from the fire. The Brahman sage extracted the fruit and gave it to the king. “Go and tell your queen to eat this fruit,” he instructed, and the king did just that.

It so happened that the queen’s sister lived in the very same village as did the queen and the king.10 She came and asked the queen, “What is this, sister? What is this fruit for?” She proceeded to scare the queen, saying, “Sister, you are so pretty. You have (p.76) already passed many years of your life. If you were to give birth to a baby, who knows if you would survive? You would surely die. You are beautiful, but once you get pregnant, blood and water will come out of your body. Many bad things will happen to you. You will have to feed the baby your milk. You will have to clean up its poop. So why would you want to eat that fruit?” The queen’s sister had her own children, while the queen had none. Filled with malice, the queen’s sister thought that if the queen failed to beget children of her own, all the queen’s property would be inherited by the sister’s children [i.e., the children of the king’s brother]; whereas if the queen did have children of her own, then the queen’s sister’s children would not get any of the king’s wealth.

Upon hearing her sister’s warning, the queen, being vain by nature (ghamanḍi “type”), thought, “Yes, during pregnancy, blood and water will come out of my body. My stomach will grow big. I am beautiful now, but I would likely die. So no, I am not going to eat this fruit.”11 The king had given the fruit to his wife and had left the room thinking that she would eat it. But the queen took her sister’s advice and did not eat the fruit. Instead, she fed it to her cow. She gave the juicy pulp and seed of the fruit to the cow, while her sister licked the peeled skin. The sister had made the queen so scared that the queen did not taste even a little bit of the fruit or its skin.

A few days later, both the cow and the queen’s sister became pregnant. The sister counseled the queen that when the Brahman sage inquired whether she, the queen, had eaten the fruit and whether she had conceived, she should stay seated and explain that because of her pregnancy she could not stand up. “You simply sit like that, and once I have delivered the baby, I will call for you and give it to you.” The queen consented to her sister’s plan.

When the time came for the queen’s sister to deliver the baby, he issued forth as a demon in the form of a human being. He had a very naughty and destructive nature. After a few days, the cow also delivered a baby. The queen kept both the babies [as her own, as if she had birthed them]. The baby birthed by the cow looked just like a human being except that his ears looked like those of a cow. Although his son’s ears were those of a cow, the king was still very happy. “So what?” he said. “I have two sons. The priest gave me only one fruit, but I got two boys!” The king thought that his queen had delivered the babies. He called for a priest to do an astrological reading for the children. The priest advised him to give his one son the name Gaukarṇ (Cow Ears) and told him that this son’s future looked bright. The king called the other son Dhundhkali (Dimly Lit), and the priest likewise looked into his future. Since his mother had a wicked spirit (dusṭ ke ātmā), Dhundhkali too was born with a wicked heart (dusṭ san). He did not have a pure spirit (suddh ātmā), since his mother was malicious and deceitful (chhal kapaṭ).12 The queen’s sister thought, “I will have a son, and though I don’t have any property, my son will grow up to be king and will rule the kingdom.” The cow had eaten the entire pulp of the fruit, so the baby she birthed was very good looking and very gentle. And because the queen’s sister had eaten the skin portion and because she was deceitful and cruel, she had conceived Dhundhkali.

When both the children were three or four years old, the king sent them to Kashi for their studies. Back in those days, people used to send their children to Kashi for (p.77) studies and meditation.13 Astrologers (jyotiṣ) and learned men (pandit) abounded in Kashi. The two children began studying there. Gaukarṇ was bright in his studies, very quiet and very well behaved. His future was promising. People believe that feeding cow’s milk to babies will make their brains sharp. Gaukarṇ had cow’s milk throughout [his gestation], so he was intelligent and well mannered. On the other hand, Dhundhkali behaved like a demon. He would cut down trees [for spite], hit some people, and kick others. He acted in an aggressive and violent way. And while Gaukarṇ engaged exclusively in study for twelve straight years, during this period Dhundhkali would run back home now and again, where he would hit his mother and father and sell off their belongings. Being the wicked son of a wicked mother, he behaved like a rogue and a tyrant. The king and queen had a tough time with him and regretted having such a child. Only the queen knew the truth about the babies’ births, and she did not tell anyone. How could she? Yet the queen became worried about Dhundhkali’s violent, greedy, and mischievous manner, with which he continued to plague his mother and father. Eventually, the queen became so distraught about her son’s behavior that she died.

Dhundhkali only created trouble for them. Instead of studying, he stole, snatched things, and stood in the way of others; all he did was create trouble for other people. He was the son of a king, so he never lacked for anything, and no one dared say anything to him to correct his behavior. A few days after the queen died from distress, the king did as well. Meanwhile, after his twelve years of study and having himself become an astrologer priest, Gaukarṇ returned to his village. But there he was distressed to discover that he could locate neither his parents nor his family property. Dhundhkali had beaten and banished the cow who was Gaukarṇ’s mother, and his [royal] mother and father had died.

As it so happened, the cow in question was special in that she passed diamonds and pearls in her stool, and her urine was made of pearls. The king and queen’s prosperity had come from that cow who was Gaukarṇ’s mother. She was their main source of wealth.

When Dhundhkali banished Gaukarṇ’s mother, she had headed toward the jungle, where she meditated and ate grass, leaves, and husks. Gaukarṇ, having himself become a priest, performed the death ritual for his departed [royal] father and mother. Once the ceremony was complete, he went in search of his cow mother. As he searched for her, he thought, “Being an astrologer priest, I don’t own anything, so where can I stay? How can I pay homage to my ancestors, to my mother and father?”

Walking into the jungle, Gaukarṇ came across a great ascetic [muni mahātmā] who had been lying there in meditation for six months. He had been meditating for twelve years.14 During the day, in a nearby pasture, his mother, the cow, would graze. And in the evening she would lie behind the ascetic’s hut. At first Gaukarṇ did not see her, yet he sat down, thinking to himself, “As long as the ascetic continues to meditate, I will stay here. After all, where else can I go?” Being an astrologer priest, Gaukarṇ was able to divine when the great ascetic’s meditation period would come to an end; he knew about everything. He thought, “This ascetic’s meditation period will soon be (p.78) over. I should clean off the grasses that have grown over his body.” Grass was growing out of his eyes, ears, hands, and such, since he had been meditating for twelve years. Gaukarṇ began to clean the ascetic’s body. He did not notice his mother, who had come and lay down in a nearby corner. He kept wondering where he might find her. All he had [left for a family] was that cow.

When the great ascetic’s meditation time had come to an end, he awoke saying, “Rām, Rām,” and noticed that his whole body had been cleaned off. He questioned, “Who are you and how did you come to know that my time was coming to an end? My body and the area around me are clean!” But Gaukarṇ was hiding somewhere in the corner and thinking, “If his time is not over and I have awakened him, then he will immediately curse me!” In those days, when such great devotees cursed someone, that person would burn to ashes. “I will only go to him if he calls out to me; otherwise, I will continue to hide in the corner.” As he hid there, he suddenly saw his mother, the cow, lying in the jungle. And the cow saw her son. Tears rolled down Gaukarṇ’s mother’s face. He asked her, “Why have you come here into the jungle?” To which she replied, “My baby, a few days after you were sent to Kashi for study, Dhundhkali returned and destroyed everything, killing his mother and father. He even sold their entire property and gobbled up everything. No one knows his whereabouts or whether he is alive or dead. I came to this jungle because he kept hitting me. I have been here for twelve years.”

Gaukarṇ knew about everything in his future, every detail. “How can I bring honor to my ancestors? How can I pay homage to them? How shall I do their death ritual, thereby enabling them to reach salvation?” he wondered. Delighted to find the cow, Gaukarṇ was with her when the great devotee called to him. “Whoever you are, come before me; otherwise, I will curse you and burn you to ashes!” he continued. “You have served me well, so ask me for whatever you want.” Gaukarṇ replied, “I took care of you. I ask you for just one thing: to bless me with the knowledge and mindset to do good deeds, so that my family will be proud of me. I will go back to my house and see to the rites for my father, mother, grandfather, grandmother, brother (wherever he may be), and all the rest, that they all should attain salvation.”15

“Your wish will be granted. Go back and attend to the rites, and all will attain salvation.” Taking the cow with him, Gaukarṇ returned home, where he performed the rites for all his ancestors who had died, his father, mother, brother, and all the rest. Because of Gaukarṇ, his kingdom was still there. His parents had been killed by Dhundhkali. Dhundhkali’s mother was cruel and died from her own wickedness. She had nothing but ill will and a jealous heart. The end.

As is evident, Cow Ears is a tale about virtue and vice and the consequences thereof. As with the Eagle and Jackal Tale, here we have two sisters whose contrasting moral qualities and behaviors result in different fortunes for themselves and their sons. In the Cow Ears Tale, however, the acts of virtue and vice go beyond questions of devoutness and piety per se. The first act of virtue in the Cow Ears Tale is the (p.79) king’s giving of alms. The king’s generosity is unbounded; he is willing to give away whatever the supplicant desires and everything he has. The holy man, having accumulated wisdom and clairvoyance through his own spiritual practice, rewards the king’s good deed by himself performing a good turn, assisting the king in having children by conducting a sacrificial ceremony that produces a pregnancy-inducing red fruit (originally a product of his imagination).16 This is the first indication in the tale that dharma (in the sense of doing good deeds) begets dharma, a conceptual construct mirrored later in the story, when the queen’s sister’s vice literally begets more vice in the form of her son, Dhundhkali.

In a common narrative pairing also present in the Eagle and Jackal Tale, in Cow Ears two sisters with contrasting qualities have married into likewise contrasting situations—one has wealth and no children and the other children without wealth. In the Eagle and Jackal Tale, it is the wealthy but childless sister who is wicked and sets out to destroy the male children of her virtuous but less affluent sister. The first sister is “rewarded” in the Eagle and Jackal Tale with death by humiliation and the second sister with an elixir that brings her slain sons back to life.17 In comparison, in the Cow Ears Tale the queen’s sister exhibits the vices of jealousy and greed; indeed, she is characterized as wicked [dusṭ], the very opposite of virtuous or dharmik. The queen herself is not awful enough to be deemed wicked, duplicitous, or conniving like her sister, but she does have the one foible of vanity (ghamanḍi) that enables her sister to take advantage of her. Two of the queen’s characteristics, on the other hand, associate her more strongly with virtue than vice. One is her beauty, often itself a sign of virtue in female characters, and the other is the fact that she does, in the end, acquire a son who performs the death rites for her, enabling her to attain salvation. The narrative sets up the two women, as with the two sons (and likewise the cow and the queen’s sister), as moral contrasts.

Thus, one surrogate mother gives birth to an antisocial, vindictive, and destructive son who creates social disorder and is clearly immoral, adharmik; “all he did was create trouble for other people.” The other child is a pro-social, generous, filial, and religiously learned son, who seeks to reestablish social and cosmological order by honoring his ancestors in their death. He does so by serving a holy man, notably through the ordering of the holy man’s physical world, and then by bringing his own exiled cow mother home.

The narrative entails two additional significant contrasts: The greedy, antisocial, antifilial behavior of Dhundhkali is counterposed to the generous, pro-family nature of the king (as well as, more obviously, to that of Gaukarṇ).18 And the qualities of the queen’s sister as a mother—self-serving, manipulative—are contrasted with the qualities of the other female who gets pregnant and gives birth, namely, the cow.

As is well known, cows in South Asia are strongly associated with purification and sanctity. In the Cow Ears Tale, the linkages among cow-ness, motherliness, and virtue are signified through the cow’s various secretions. Prem, the storyteller, explains: “People believe that feeding cows’ milk to babies will make their brains sharp. Gaukarṇ had cow’s milk throughout [his gestation], so he was intelligent (p.80) and well mannered.” Further, whereas the excrement of other animals is generally considered polluting, cow dung, in contrast, is smeared by women in rural South Asia on the walls and floors of their homes in order to purify those spaces prior to ritual practice. The excrement of this particular cow, Gaukarṇ’s mother, is especially pure and, further, valuable, in that it is excreted as diamonds and pearls; indeed, it constitutes the wealth of the entire kingdom. Further evidence of the cow’s pure and virtuous nature is that when she is banished to the forest by Dhundhkali, she uses the opportunity to meditate. What is more, an additional type of bodily secretion, namely tears, signifies the depth of love that this mother has for her son.

In a parallel food-related fashion, what the birth mothers themselves imbibe—in this case different parts of a red fruit—affect the nature of their offspring. In the Hindu cultural complex regarding food purity and caste purity, people’s food choices are believed to reflect their own nature, just as here children’s moral qualities may be seen as a reflection of the moral qualities of their mothers. As the storyteller notes, “Since his mother had a wicked spirit, Dhundhkali too was born with a wicked heart. He did not have a pure spirit, since his mother was malicious and deceitful.” In tale after tale, the selfless, caring behavior of mothers positively affects the well-being of their offspring. Thus, through spirit and substance, children inherit their mothers’ essences. In Maithil women’s tales, this is not the case for fathers, who are more often described as having children of varying natures, as is the case with the king in Cow Ears, who has one virtuous and one wicked son. In another common formulation, a man has seven offspring, all except one of whom have the same qualities, for example, six are smart and one is stupid, or six are acquisitive and the other generous. The exceptional son or daughter invariably becomes the protagonist of the story (as exemplified by the Karma-Fate Tale retold in chapter 2).19

Generosity is another pro-social virtue frequently highlighted in Maithil women’s tales. It is to generosity and its related virtue, hospitality, that we now turn.

The Twin Virtues of Generosity and Hospitality

In Maithil women’s tales, two important and related themes emerge regarding the virtues of generosity and hospitality: (1) acts of generosity and hospitality are most virtuous when the giver/host has limited material resources and/or is low status and are especially demanded when the giver/host is wealthy and/or high status; and (2) one is impelled to treat unfortunate strangers with generosity and hospitality, especially because one never knows whether the stranger may actually be a blood relation or a god who is unrecognizable as such in his or her presenting form. By way of illustration, in one tale, a woman of a wealthy household refuses hospitality to a beggar who unbeknown to her is her brother. When she discovers the visitor’s true identity, she dies of humiliation and shame. In another tale, a Brahman receives merit for keeping his promise to marry his (adopted) daughter to the next person who happens by, despite the fact that the person appears to be a man of the lowest of castes. (Generally, when a daughter is married below caste, her own caste status is (p.81) diminished, a great shame on her family.) In actuality, however, this low-caste man is a god in disguise. Offering one’s daughter in marriage, called kaniyādān, or “gift of a maiden/virgin,” is itself understood to bring religious merit to the parents. The honoring of his promise brings additional merit to the father.

The second of the two principles delineated here—that one should treat strangers as well as one would gods or kin—resonates with the concept of mamatā, which also arises repeatedly in the tales. Mamatā denotes tender attachment, affection, and compassion due to a feeling of close relation (Jha 1999, 508). In Maithil women’s taleworlds, one is rewarded for compassionate behavior toward even more distant others, an attitude of mamatā entailing the treatment of those others as well as one would one’s own evident kin. Conversely, those in the taleworld who exhibit mamatā’s opposing qualities—stinginess, cruelty, and greed—are often punished through a process of divine intervention or cosmic justice. Prem Mishra’s Poor Brahman Tale, presented next, grapples directly with the twin virtues of generosity and hospitality.

The Poor Brahman Tale

There once was a poor Brahman couple. They got by on alms; the wife cooked and served what the husband could bring home from begging each day. The husband had no sense of how comfortable it might be to have either more or fewer things. Women tend to be especially concerned about such matters, but generally men do not bother with them.

After managing life this way for some time, the Brahman husband thought to himself, “What is going on? No matter how much I bring home from begging each day, it is gone by evening. Nothing is left for the next day. How am I to go on living like this? No, better than to live hand to mouth, I will go to live in the jungle. My wife can do whatever she herself wants to do. I will leave my wife and go to the jungle to become a sādhu.”20

The Brahman embarked on his journey. After he’d gone some distance, it began to get dark. He approached a house in the jungle where a man and a woman lived. They had but one room and no garden; no stove, no pots, nothing. They invited him, nonetheless, to stay overnight and then just sat there doing nothing. Doubt entered the Brahman’s mind, and he wondered, “Why are they just sitting there? They gave me a jug of water [as one would when serving a meal], but now they are not bothering to cook. What are they going to serve me, and what will they themselves eat? What shall I do?” For several hours the host couple continued to simply sit there and chat with the Brahman.

Suddenly the Brahman noticed three stools in a corner, along with three water-filled jugs and three plates of food. The couple got up and encouraged the Brahman to come eat with them. They were supplied with food by God [bhagavān] from heaven. The Brahman was surprised and thought to himself, “How delicious! I have begged in many villages, but never before have I had such tasty food! There are neither children nor brides [to cook] here, no water source and nothing but jungle surrounding this one-room house. Where did they get this food?” But he did not ask this question of (p.82) his hosts. He stayed for two nights, and at each meal the same thing happened. His hosts simply sat, and the delicious food and water appeared.

On the third day, he bid his hosts good-bye. Again he walked for a whole day and arrived at dusk at the house of a rich Suri [businessman]. The Suri took the Brahman in, showing him respect and good hospitality. Scrumptious food was prepared for the Brahman: deep-fried vegetables [taruā], lentils, rice, vegetables—all those foods that are specialties among us Maithils. But the Suri took only one chapati [piece of fried bread] for himself and sat in the corner. For his guest, however, he provided a comfortable place to sit and everything he could possibly want to eat. The Brahman thought to himself, “Why should I have so many varieties of food to eat, while he is eating only chapati with salt and oil? Why should two people eat two different levels of food together?” He offered some of his food to the Suri, but his host refused it politely. “No, it shouldn’t be this way; I cannot eat like this,” protested the Brahman. He placed a bit of each kind of food on the Suri’s chapati, ate his own food, and went off to sleep, covering his face with a sheet.

At midnight, the goddess Lakshmi [the goddess of wealth, good fortune, and generosity] arrived and shook the Suri roughly. She beat and thrashed him, saying, “Was the wealth I gave you for looking at or for eating? Why did you eat it? I have given you wealth so that somebody else can eat it, not you!” Now when the Brahman heard this from under the sheet, he became frightened. He thought, “Even though he ate so little, he has been beaten severely! Now how much more might she beat me [who ate so much more good food]?! What will happen to me now?” But Goddess Lakshmi only gave him a few good kicks before she went away. The rest of the night, the Brahman kept promising himself, “I will eat no more. The meal I had was a mistake that I will not repeat!”

At four in the morning, the Brahman ran away from the Suri’s home. He made an excuse about having to go toward the pond to relieve himself and took off from there, thinking, “I won’t wander in the jungle anymore. First I met such nice people. Where did all the delicious food come from? And then I met a different kind of person. Now I will return to my wife. I will beg and eat as before. I don’t need such wealth [as the Suri has]. Oh God, such wealth is not worth the trouble! The Suri was beaten all over for it!” In this manner the Brahman assured himself as he headed home.

On his way home, God, disguised as a priest, appeared in front of him and queried, “Hey, Brahman, where have you been?” “I left my house and was traveling,” he replied. “I am in a perplexing situation. My wife and I are the only ones in our family, but we still don’t have sufficient food. I beg and bring home lots of things, but the next day when some guest arrives at our place we have nothing to serve him, and my reputation suffers. For that reason I left my house and ran away.” “So where are you coming from now?” the priest wanted to know. “I reached one Brahman’s place and had very delicious food there. He had only one room, but he had every comfort. I stayed there for two days. But by the third day, I didn’t want to overstay my welcome, so I moved on. I arrived that night at a village where a very rich Suri lived. I came to (p.83) his veranda, where he treated me with great respect, serving me delicious food. But he himself sat down with only a chapati, salt, and oil to eat, while he served me fifty-six varieties of food. I thought, ‘How can I eat all fifty-six varieties while he eats only this?’ So I gave him a little bit of each kind of food to eat. On account of this, Goddess Lakshmi beat him severely. I got up at four in the morning and ran away from there and back toward my own house. I don’t want to go to the jungle anymore.”

Then that God who had disguised himself as a priest asked him, “So were you tired of your own home?” “Yes, I was. But now I will go home. We will see what God does.” The priest asked the Brahman, “Tell me, what type of wealth do you desire—that of the Suri or that of the other Brahman?” “Sir,” said the Brahman, “I do not wish for that Suri’s wealth. I will rather take the Brahman’s wealth.” And God blessed him with the Brahman’s wealth as he arrived at his house.

Two salient elements of this tale are also present in many other folktales told by Maithil women, as well as by storytellers in many other parts of the world. One such feature is a journey during which the protagonist has the opportunity to gain wisdom and well-being. The second is that the narration of the tale of that journey to a third party firmly solidifies that wisdom. (In other instances, the narration brings insight to an otherwise ignorant listening character.) Visitation by a divine figure in disguise as well as tests of generosity and hospitality by divine figures and others are also common plot features evident in the Poor Brahman Tale.

In this tale, one encounters the ubiquitous expectation that strangers be offered hospitality. Indeed, as the protagonist points out, to be unable to offer a visitor appropriate hospitality—physical comfort and good food—is a black mark on one’s reputation and a blow to one’s honor. While high-status guests require high-quality hospitality in order to preserve and expand their honor, low-status visitors, particularly those begging for alms, must also be given hospitality and generosity, for such treatment brings merit to the giver. In a number of stories recorded for this project, the gods smile on those whose offerings, however meager, require great effort and/or are generous disproportionately to their giver’s means. In this story, however, the protagonist is so poor that he has nothing at all to offer a guest. (Thus his inability to provide hospitality has consequences for his honor but not his merit.)

Correspondingly, Maithil women’s tales instruct that wealth should be paired with generosity rather than used for self-serving purposes. For this reason, the goddess of wealth, Lakshmi, punishes the wealthy Suri for deigning to eat his own food rather than serve it to others. Still worse, the Suri accepts back for himself the food he has already offered to his guest. Perhaps it is this aspect of his behavior that most cultivates a desire for retribution on the part of the goddess. The “aside” that Prem makes when she explains that women (in contrast to men) are acquisitive and inclined to compare their material well-being to that of others is worth remarking upon. At that moment in the telling, my field associate, Dollie, broke into Prem’s (p.84) narrative to concur with her sentiment, saying, “Right, men don’t pay attention to such matters.” In point of fact, Maithil women’s tales tend to ascribe such qualities more often to women than to men, a reality most probably attributable to women’s material dependency on men, paired with their responsibility for performing class markers of respectability, such as serving guests, keeping an orderly, clean house, and dressing appropriately.

Finally, in the taleworld, when the poor abide their fate with patience and faith, they are divinely rewarded. The resourceless Brahman couple (in contrast to the Suri) simply wait in full confidence for divine intervention, knowing not only that they will be provided for but also that they will be given the means to provision their guest.21 This is the key lesson that the protagonist learns in the end. As he says, having decided to return to his householder’s life, “We will see what God does.” He has learned that real “wealth” is to be measured in the virtues of faith and patience, and their resulting merit (signaled by a divinely bestowed boon) and honor.

Of course, vices are opposed to virtues, so antisocial behaviors are deemed immoral. Those antisocial acts highlighted in Maithil women’s tales are cruelty to people and to animals, greediness/covetousness and stinginess, envy, and deceitfulness. The terms used to describe the resultant behaviors and attitudes are pāpi (sinful) and dushṭmani (evil-minded). Such qualities and behaviors are considered adharmik (immoral). Most notably, they have implications for the quality of one’s present and future lives.

As for cruelty, in Maithil women’s tales it is frequently meted out by mothers-in-law to daughters-in-law, co-wives to one another, and humans to other animals. These are all hierarchical, interdependent relations. For instance, more powerful women cruelly withhold food, information, and the means of fertility from less powerful women who are their rivals in gaining the attention and resources of men. Those exhibiting such vices invariably come to negative ends, usually death. Sometimes they die from remorse or their own fatal mistakes, but more often they die at the hands of a more powerful other who learns of their ill behavior. Men banish or kill their cruel or deceitful wives, even sometimes their own mothers. They do so either because the woman has tricked them into thinking poorly of her rival or as a righteous way of meting out punishment, from their manly positions of authority, to those they deem deserving. Nearly all malicious women are cruel to other women or the children of other women who are dependent on the same man for their material well-being. Such patterns of cruelty, of course, reflect the structural configurations of Maithil families that set women against one another for access to resources ultimately controlled by men.

As for the vices of greed and covetousness (lobh), these are closely related to envy, the desire for that which is not one’s own. Greed manifests itself in regard to food or riches and also, on a man’s part, for a woman who is not his own wife. (Lobh sometimes carries the connotation of sexual lust.) Greedy behaviors in Maithil women’s tales inevitably lead to disastrous ends; as a matter of fact, avarice can be used by other characters to distract the greedy character from carrying out his or (p.85) her malevolent designs. For instance, in one tale, a snake that keeps killing people is captured under a pot by a woman who furnishes some milk curd to lure it near. Greed-driven harmful behavior can result in loss, harm, or death to its perpetrator, sometimes at the hands of another person, sometimes through divine intervention, and yet other times in the form of a lower rebirth. The perpetrator’s own eventual remorse, once he or she has been made to realize his or her misdeeds, can also, on occasion, be strong enough to cause the shamed perpetrator to expire. (As we have seen, this happens, for instance, in the Eagle and Jackal Tale.)

Strikingly, in Maithil women’s tales, women exhibit envy exclusively in relation to other women whose fortune in material wealth or children is greater. Notably, it is precisely these two fundamental kinds of assets—material and human—whose degree of presence is so little in Maithil women’s control, given that Maithil women neither choose the families into which they marry (and therefore their wealth) nor control their own sexuality and fecundity (nor that of their husbands). Maithil women are meant, nonetheless, to accept their lot. Virtuous and long-suffering women are characterized by such acceptance, and bad women are not. And ironically, those virtuous women are often rewarded for their pains with an improvement in their situations—either pregnancy leading to having children or sudden (often divinely inspired) wealth.22 What is remarkable is that despite the imperative for women to accept their lot in marriage, Maithil women’s life narratives describe their valiant efforts to improve their lots in myriad ways, as discussed in the previous chapter. They must carefully navigate among forms of agency deemed legitimate and illegitimate in a variety of contexts and themselves have a hand in (re)constructing, through their narratives, the interpretations of the degree of virtue exhibited by such behaviors.

Finally, just as truth divining (clairvoyance) and truth telling are qualities accruing to the pious, deceitfulness is a quality of the wicked ones. Deceit is often used by wicked characters in their attempts to acquire what they covet. As an example, in the Witch Tale told by Pukari Mallik, a witch who is angry at her sister-in-law for wearing one of her blouses tricks her husband into killing his sister. Yet the ignorance of those who have wicked hearts may also be used against them in the form of deceitful tricks. For example, in one tale, a woman is tricked into thinking that her husband is actually her illicit lover, and in another tale a would-be murderer is fooled into believing that a coconut floating in a pond is the head of his human prey attempting to swim to safety.

The Virtue of Staying True

The next section of the chapter delves more deeply into questions of truth, shifting from an examination of tales engaging the concept of dharma to those whose key moral frame employs the concept and terminology of sat. When analyzing as a group the stories that form the basis for this study, one finds that dharma is mentioned exclusively in tales told by high-caste and more specifically Brahman women. On the other hand, the virtue-related concept of sat does arise in the tales of several women (p.86) of various castes. It is this concept, and its use in Maithil women’s tales, that we turn to next. In order to do so, we must address briefly some semantic questions of gender, as well as the “problem” of truth, in relation to understandings of virtue.

The Latin root for virtue, virtut-, virtus, carries the meanings of strength and manliness.23 There appears to be an etymological connection with the Sanskrit vīra, meaning “bold,” “valorous,” “manly.” While the contemporary English term “virtue” is applied to both men and women (though what is virtuous for men and women varies somewhat; for instance, chastity is a virtue much more strongly held for women), vīra (in modern Sanskrit-derived languages) is not generally applied to women at all. For women, a parallel term, likewise inflected in its connotations with gender, is satī.

In Maithili (as with other Sanskrit-based languages), satī derives from sat, “true” or “truth,” denoting “chaste, pious, honest” and also the more specific meaning of a woman who devotes herself to her husband and upon his death burns herself on his funeral pyre. Strikingly, in Maithil women’s tales, satī is most often used to describe female characters who are devotedly (i.e., “truly”) maternal characters, but the concept of sat may also be applied to men, as is the case in the tale that follows.

This next tale is named after its male protagonist, Satnā (“one who is chaste” or “one who is true”). The darkly humorous but also brutal Satnā Tale, told by Sikiliya Devi Sah (the midcaste woman first mentioned in chapter 2), introduces the conceptual pairing of truth and chastity in Maithil women’s tales.24 It also provides insights into what, on first impression, appears to be the curious fact that in Maithil women’s tales—both personal and folk—lying and deceiving are not always treated as immoral behaviors.

The Satnā Tale

There once was a king and also a cowherd (Gaur) by the name of Satnā. Satnā earned a daily wage by working for the king, and his wife was very beautiful. Satnā’s wife used to go to the king’s abode to collect her husband’s wages. The king lusted after her. Satnā’s wife and the king fell in love. One day, one of these lovers said to the other, “Hey, we should go to the temple of the goddess Sonasatī [“golden truth” or “pure as gold”] and beseech her, “Oh Mother Sonasatī, if this leper Satnā dies, then we two might live together.”25 The other replied, “Yes, let us go together to the temple.”

Satnā overheard their conversation. Later he told his wife, “Hey, I am going to visit my in-laws.” His wife went running to inform the king: “Today my husband is going to see his in-laws, so let’s go to the temple of Sonasatī Goddess and ask her to grant our wish.” But instead of going to his in-laws, Satnā went ahead of the two lovers to Sonasatī’s temple. Once there, he washed his hands and feet and bathed and then went inside the temple, where he hid behind the curtain of the goddess’s inner sanctum and waited.

Shortly thereafter, the king and Satnā’s wife arrived. The king prayed, “Oh Sonasatī Goddess, I bow before you. If our love for each other is real [sãchī] and if Satnā dies, then I will sacrifice to you a pair of buffalo.” Satnā’s wife too offered to sacrifice two (p.87) buffalo for the death of her husband. From behind the curtain Satnā responded, “All right, if you offer me two pairs of buffalo, then Satnā will die of his own accord either in the evening or in the morning. You don’t have to give him any kind of [fatal] medicine. Feed him with plenty of yogurt, milk, butter, and basmati rice and make him eat a lot. Let him get very rotund and muscular. Once he has gotten fat, he will say, ‘Hey, I am no longer able to see anything; I am blind.’ He will become blind, and his soul will fly away.”

Sonasatī appeared to be saying this, but it was really Satnā. Upon hearing Sonasatī’s response, the two lovers became very happy, and Satnā’s wife said, “Goddess Sonasatī does not [normally] speak to anyone, but since we are true, Sonasatī speaks to us from her sanctuary. So now what to do? Where will we get so much butter?” “I am the king,” her lover replied, “so there will be no scarcity. Let us go. I will pay for one month of his expenses, give him basmati rice and lentils, and tell him not to plough the fields. I will make him sit and will feed him, bringing him a liter of milk every day.” Satnā slipped out and returned home before the other two did.

Upon her return, Satnā’s wife asked him if he had just gotten back from his in-laws. “Yes,” he replied. “Is the king ready for me to plow his fields?” “You needn’t do so, as he has already engaged a day laborer. Why don’t you just have a rest and eat your food.” A liter of milk was given to him. At the morning and evening meals, much butter was spread on his chapatis. During the day, lentils and rice and four varieties of vegetables were served along with milk and yogurt. And so the cowherd became very muscular and plump. After a month of this, Satnā’s wife remarked to the king, “Hey, my husband has become very fat. He is all flush and chubby. Now it appears he is going to die.”

What Satnā did then was go to the blacksmith colony, where he asked the blacksmith to make him a very good stick from the branch of a sal tree.26 He brought the stick back and hid it in the house. When his wife returned later that day, Satnā said to her, “Hey, today I am feeling rather strange. It seems as if the light is dim, as when it is late evening, and I cannot see anything.” She put a plate in front of him, and he tried to get hold of it. “Where is the plate? Where will I eat?” he feigned. His wife took his hands and put them around the plate. After he ate, she helped him wash his hands and put him to bed. Then she ran to the king, exclaiming, “Hey, starting today, my husband is unable to see! Goddess Sonasatī’s power is definitely great. Look, today the month has come to an end, and he is not able to see. I took him to urinate and wash his hands, and then I guided him to bed. Today you can come worry free to my house.” The king replied, “OK, you go ahead, and I will come along later without concern [for being found out].”

But Satnā was just pretending. When the king came, the no-good woman lay down between the two men. Satnā said to her, “Hey, woman, if only two people are lying here, there should be only four legs. So whose is this fifth leg crossing over us?” “Tsk,” she responded. “You cannot see, so it just feels like that to you.” “That’s true; I cannot see.” Again he felt around with his hands. “Hey, why are there three pillows?” (p.88) “Tsk, you cannot see, so just be quiet and go to sleep. This head is mine and that one is yours. This hand is mine, and that one is yours. You cannot see, so you are getting confused.” “You are right, I cannot see, so let’s go to sleep.” The king fell asleep with Satnā’s wife wrapped in his arms. Satnā, who had gotten very fat and muscular, swiftly got up, grabbed the sal stick that he had hidden under his pillow, pounced on the king’s chest, and thrust the stick into his throat, killing him.

Now Satnā’s wife shook with fear. “Oh God, what has my husband done!? He said that he could not see, so how has this happened?” “Understand,” answered her husband, “it is from Goddess Sonasatī’s power that this has come to pass.” “Oh God,” his wife went on to exclaim. “He has murdered the king in this village, but the king’s body can’t be kept here!”27 “Just you watch how I don’t keep him here,” her husband replied.

Satnā hoisted the king onto his muscular back and started walking. After a while, he came upon a father and son keeping watch over a garden full of eggplants. The garden belonged to the king, for whom the two worked as caretakers [kavariya]. Quietly, Satnā put down the king’s body, placing it in a seated position by the side of an eggplant, and then swiftly moved away from that spot. Later, from his post, the father saw the king’s body. “Hey, son, on this full-moon night, someone is picking and stealing eggplants!” He went over, struck what he thought to be the thief, and that “thief” fell down dead. Satnā quickly came out from his hiding place and said, “Holy shit [rau sār]! I just arrived here at the king’s garden. If the king was picking some eggplants to eat or placing some sticks in the ground, why shouldn’t he have? It is, after all, his own garden. But you have killed the king!”

“Oh Brother Satnā,” replied the caretaker, “I bow at your feet. Take whatever you want, but please spare my life!” Satnā answered, “Pay me whatever income you have made by selling these eggplants, and I will discard of the king’s body in some other location.” “Please take him away right now, and all my income from this year will be yours,” replied the caretaker. And so Satnā again hoisted the king’s body onto his back and walked onward. He came across a vegetable farmer and his son-in-law sleeping up high on a platform in a cornfield. This field also belonged to the king, and this vegetable farmer and son were also sharecroppers [bāṭīya] on his land. Satnā took two leaves of a corn plant and rubbed them together so that they made a swishing sound. Near that corn plant, he placed the king’s body. He picked two ears of corn, put one in each of the king’s hands, and quickly went to hide behind a bush.

The sharecropper’s son-in-law saw the king and called out, “Father, Father, get up and look!” “What is it, son-in-law?” he replied. “Look, someone is picking all the corn. Listen to that swishing noise.” Satnā kept on shaking other corn plants. The sharecropper got up and looked around. “Let’s go. Run, son-in-law! You come at him from that angle, and I’ll come at him from the other direction.” Each of them ran, approaching from opposite directions and striking the king from either side. The king was already dead and fell to the ground. Satnā appeared, yelling, “Sister-fucker!28 Scoundrel! In the king’s own garden, you have killed the king! Come with (p.89) me. Today you will go to jail. Let’s go to the ward of the king. Today you will face murder charges for sure!” “Hey, Brother Satnā,” the sharecropper pleaded. “If we both face murder charges, we will both grow old in jail. So please do something to save us.” “Look,” replied Satnā. “We are the only ones who know about this. So I will save you, but what will you give me in exchange?” “I’ll give you whatever you want,” replied the sharecropper. “Why pay a lot?” he answered. “Just give me one lākh [one hundred thousand] rupees tomorrow. For now, provide me with a promissory note. If you don’t pay up tomorrow, I will call for the village council to assemble, bring you before them, put you behind bars, and make a charge of murder against you.” This frightened the sharecropper, who therefore immediately wrote the promissory note to the requested specification.

What Satnā did next was put on the wooden slippers that the king had been wearing when he had come to Satnā’s house. Again he hoisted the king’s body onto his back, walked through the night, and arrived at the king’s ward by the morning. Wearing the slippers, he walked toward the king’s balcony.

The queen approached him [thinking he was her husband]. “Hey, you sloth! You are the king. No matter what she is like, that woman is a laborer’s wife! Why are you so concerned about that wage laborer’s wife that you spent the whole night with her!? If you have any self-respect left, you will go drown yourself, you sloth! Get out of here, sloth! If you have any self-respect left, put your head in the oven and die!” So what Satnā did was take the wooden slippers and go to the kitchen, where he placed the slippers on the floor and stuck the head of the king in the opening of the oven. Then he ran off to his own home.

In the morning, when the maidservant went to wipe down the stove, she saw the king’s body there. “Madam, madam, come quickly; something serious has happened!” “What is wrong?” the queen asked. “Oh God, look! The king has put his head in the oven!” When the queen saw that her own words had come true, she exclaimed, “Oh king, my rant made you lose your self-respect so much that you put your head in the oven, just as I suggested, and died. Now who will rule this kingdom? Who will take over?” She cried miserably and loudly, and all the villagers gathered around to see what had happened. “What is the matter, madam?” “What shall I say,” she replied, “It is because of my abusive words. In the mornings I used to feel so aggrieved. I didn’t know where he used to go each night.” How could she say that he used to go to be with Satnā’s wife? “I don’t know where he used to go. I told him again and again, you are a king but you keep on roaming around, so if you have any self-respect then put your head in the oven and die. … And that is what he did!”

The people of the land consoled her and calmed her down. She completed the death rites for the king. Satnā became the minister of that kingdom, while she remained the queen. Thus the kingdom came to be ruled by Satnā, while his own wife remained where she was. And for Satnā, all had become bright.

(p.90) The Satnā Tale is the story of two adulterers and a husband faithful to his householder duties who outsmarts them both. Two characters in the story carry the term sat in their names. The first, of course, is Satnā himself, the chaste or “true” one, who is contrasted with his unfaithful, “untrue” wife. The second is the goddess Sonasatī, whose sat nature is as pure as gold, gold being treated in the South Asian context as the purest of substances. Satnā can impersonate Mother Sonasatī because their natures are essentially the same.

The narrative abounds with ironies of “truth” and virtue, which is part of what brings humor to the tale. One such irony is that Satnā’s wife calls him a leper (kōṛhī). Lepers are sometimes believed to have caused their current suffering by having transgressed in past lives. Here the real sinner, the wife, fingers her faithful husband as a sinner. A second irony is that Satnā’s wife and her king lover are convinced that Goddess Sonasatī has deigned to speak to them (when, as they point out, she is normally silent) because their love is “true.” Of course, in reality the opposite is the case: Sonasatī is not really speaking, and there is nothing pure or pious about their love that would inspire the goddess to intervene on their behalf. Indeed, while apparently impersonating Sonasatī, Satnā is, on another level, channeling her.

A third irony is that while trying to weaken and kill Satnā (or, more abstractly, trying to kill “Truth”), the illicit lovers in fact strengthen Satnā (or Truth), enabling him to kill one of them. (In fact, the king is “killed” three additional times!) Further, his newfound physical strength enables Satnā to carry the king’s body (which had been used to violate Satnā’s exclusive rights to his wife’s sexuality) back to the palace, where Satnā uses the body to make it appear that the king has “admitted” to his philandering by sticking his head in the oven and killing himself. In a final ironic twist, it is Satnā, thought to have gone blind, who can “see” the truth of the situation and envisage a way out of it that will work to his own advantage. And that method depends precisely on the misperception not only by his wife and the king but by those who were guarding the eggplant and cornfields. In the end, Satnā is cosmically rewarded by effectively replacing the king as the ruler of the land. Truth prevails, while deception and betrayal are doomed.

One may wonder why all the lying and deception that Satnā himself perpetrates should not also have been identified in the tale as wicked. As noted earlier, when it comes to virtues and vices, behaviors are only half of the equation. Intention or the “spirit” in which the behavior is done is the other half. As indicated, in Maithil tales “virtuous” deeds such as generosity or even worship are only virtuous if they are matched with righteous intention. The reverse is also true: “sinful” behaviors are wicked if combined with malintent.

Many tomes have been devoted to explicating the meaning of dharma, and my intent here was not to rehearse that literature. Rather, it has been to discover what Maithil women mean when they bring up questions of dharma, and sat, in their narratives. (p.91) In the context of Maithil women’s tales, as we have seen, dharmik behavior includes but goes well beyond religious devoutness and steadfast worship to include such pro-social qualities and behaviors as generosity and kindness. As one might predict, the former virtue (devoutness and worshipfulness) tends to bring positive karmic results, that is, better rebirths, while the latter (acts of generosity and kindness done in good faith) tend to result in improvements in the protagonist’s current life (wealth, wives, children). The link between dharma and rebirth may help us understand why, as mentioned earlier, the terminology of dharma appears exclusively in the stories in my collection that were told by Brahman women. Such a notion legitimates their high-caste status, whereas it implies an association between low-caste status and low moral status that low-caste women might well want to avoid legitimating through their stories. On the other hand, the connotations of sat—maternal devotion, honesty, piety, and chastity—are potentially available to all women, regardless of caste.

We have seen that in order to understand the semantics of virtue in Maithil women’s tales, one must understand the ways in which Maithil culture is organizationally stratified based on gender as well as caste, and how this shapes women’s perspectives, including moral perspectives on their society. We find, for instance, that in the hands of Maithil women storytellers, the opposing qualities of truth and deceit, devoutness and sinfulness, compassion and cruelty, and knowledge and ignorance become interwoven with gendered meanings and consequences. It is further evident that the trope of motherhood looms large in Maithil women’s tales. The next chapter extends the discussion of virtue and vice by concentrating on the topic of maternal devotion, perhaps the highest and most comprehensive form of virtue, and one encompassing many other recognized virtues, in Maithil women’s tales. (p.92)


(1.) I am unsure what the reference to copper gods signifies. It may simply reference the material of which the idols of the gods used in worship are made.

(p.190) (2.) According to Pearson, the most popular Jītiya story is about the “noble King Jimutavahan and his self-sacrifice to Garuda, the half-man, half-vulture king of the birds, for the sake of Nāg (snake) and his mother” (1996, 164).

(3.) Līlā can also refer to the dramatic display of wonders and other exploits of Lord Krishna and Lord Rama.

(4.) The irony, of course, is that the one who accuses her sister of being greedy and stealthy turns out herself to be so.

(5.) Silabati is actually her daughter-in-laws’ husbands’ maternal aunt. Similarly, the daughters-in-law call their mother-in-law “mother” later in the story. It is not uncommon for daughters-in-law, as a sign of closeness and affection, to call their female in-laws by natal kin terms corresponding to those their husbands would use to address those relations.

(6.) This relative vertical positioning resonates with Hindu notions of purity. The human body is least pure at the soles of the feet and most pure at the top of the head.

(7.) Many Hindus are vegetarian because they adhere to the concept of ahiṃsā, nonviolence as applied to foods (particularly the infliction of pain on animals). Animal flesh is especially avoided at times of spiritual practice. Foods understood to stimulate the senses, such as garlic and onions, may also be avoided at such times. Some foods are considered inherently pure, such as products from cows (specifically milk, yogurt, and ghee [clarified butter]); thus foods that aren’t as pure can be improved by preparation with these pure foods, such as frying in ghee. Other foods are considered inherently polluted (such as alcohol and beef) and can never be made pure. Holy rice (acchat) is considered pure and spiritually appropriate for most fasting days.

(8.) In chapter 6, I discuss how in Maithil women’s tales wombs and ponds serve as a locus for women’s knowledge and wisdom. Mother Earth may be an extension of this metaphor. See also Davis 2008.

(9.) Indeed, the pairing of virtue with the ability to know one’s own and others’ karmic pasts and future destinies is a common theme in Maithil women’s tales. One also finds this, for example, in the Cow Ears Tale (also in this chapter), where, as a result of the service that the protagonist provides to a meditating ascetic, he receives clairvoyant knowledge (gyān) enabling him to ritually prepare his ancestors for salvation. The Barsait Tale, retold in chapter 6, also demonstrates this principle. Both male and female dharmik figures in Maithil women’s tales gain spiritual clairvoyance (as well as more-practical wisdom) because of their pious behaviors and mind-sets.

(10.) The reference to questions of inheritance in the subsequent story line makes evident that this sister is married to the king’s brother.

(11.) Nepal has one of the highest rates in the world of women dying in childbirth.

(12.) Apparently, Dhundhkali’s name, meaning “hazy” or “dimly lit,” refers metaphorically to the quality of this son’s mind and heart.

(13.) Kashi is another name for Varanasi (Benares), a city on the Ganges River in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh that is renowned for religious learning and ceremonial practice.

(14.) This six month/twelve year calculation makes sense insofar as such devotees are commonly described as sleeping for six months and being awake for six months cyclically across a twelve-year period of austerities.

(15.) It seems odd that Gaukarṇ’s brother is among those for whom he wishes to do the proper rites so that they can attain salvation. It is implied by the phrase “wherever he may be” that he is referring to his brother, Dhundhkali. Yet it is not clear that Dhundhkali has already died. Nor is it likely that, given his awful behavior, he would qualify for salvation. I would (p.191) surmise that “brother” is listed along with all the other kin names simply as an extension of the list of ancestors, rather than as an indication that Dhundhkali had died and was therefore among those for whom Gaunkarṇ undertook death rites.

(16.) Usually identified as mangoes, such fruits show up repeatedly in Maithil women’s tales, where they consistently result in pregnancy for those women who eat them. Likewise, the pulp is the most positively fertile part of the fruit, whereas licking or eating the skin can produce negative results. Note too that another part of the mango tree, the wood, is burned in the sacrificial ritual.

(17.) It is unclear whether death by humiliation provides atonement for sins with attendant improvement in karmic lot, or whether it functions only as an illustration of the depth of Silabati’s distress at recognizing the truth.

(18.) Dhundhkali is identified in the narrative as a demon. In Maithil women’s tales, demons are known particularly for their sociopathic behavior.

(19.) The trope of the youngest son (sometimes the seventh son or the seventh son of the seventh son) is common to folklore of numerous cultures. In the case of the Cow Ears Tale, this trope takes on an extra inflection regarding the inheritance of the mother’s nature. Thanks to Margaret Mills for bringing this to my attention (personal communication, December 2012).

(20.) The ascetic lifestyle of a sādhu is deemed appropriate for men whose sons have established themselves as adults and thereby can look after their mothers, if living. Although not perfectly clear, the implication in this story seems to be that this man leaves his wife utterly alone, without sons. In such a case the abandonment would not be condoned.

(21.) It is perhaps no coincidence that this story was told by a Brahman (Prem Mishra), in that the qualities of Brahmans are shown to be better than those of the business caste, who are generally more materially well off. Although Brahmans, as a caste, enjoy high status in regard to hierarchies of purity, they are not always wealthy or socially influential. While not all Brahman men work as priests, they are the only caste (and gender) that can fulfill this role. And those who do work as priests depend on the generosity of those who employ their services, for (traditionally) they do not charge a fixed fee but rather must take what they are given after their work is done.

(22.) It is exactly such envy that is often, in Maithil villages, deemed to be the impulse behind women’s witchery. Women accused of being witches (ḍāin) are said to envy the greater wealth in sons or material assets of other women in the same village. Envious women’s witchcraft is said to cause their fellow villagers illness, childlessness, and asset-related troubles (for instance, failure of crops or business ventures).

(23.) Oxford English Dictionary, http://www.oed.com, accessed February 2, 2011.

(24.) Another manifestation of the virtue of truthfulness is promise or oath keeping. Sat karab (“to do” sat in Maithili) means “to promise” or “to swear” (an oath). In Maithil women’s tales, characters are deemed virtuous and accrue merit for keeping their sworn oaths through thick and thin. As an example, in the Jackal Tale, the high-caste (Brahman) protagonist makes an oath to marry his daughter to the next person who comes down the road. That next person is of the very lowest caste status, and he marries her to him nonetheless. A character’s pursuit of the means, despite the odds, to keep her or his oath is a common device driving plots forward.

(25.) The reference to Satnā as a leper is probably merely an insult. There is no further indication that he is actually a leper (kōṛhī).

(26.) The sal tree is worshipped among Buddhists and Hindus in South Asia. The Lumbini forest where Lord Buddha is understood to have attained salvation is said to have been comprised of sal trees.

(p.192) (27.) The implication is that if the king’s body is found in the village, the queen and all the people of the kingdom will realize that he was having an affair with her.

(28.) “Sister-fucker” is a common but serious epithet in South Asia. It makes cultural sense as an epithet insofar as the brother-sister relation is highly ritualized and idealized as extremely close in South Asian cultures, such that sexual relations would be strictly taboo. (For more on brother-sister relations in South Asia, see Davis 2005 and 2009a.)