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The Order of Nature in Liangmais Myth

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by Lachman K. Khubchandani


This chapter consists of a few remarks about the man-animal-nature continuum in the collective awareness of the Liangmais, a small Naga tribe living in Manipur. The remarks are based exclusively on consideration of two folk stories of the tribe. The first of these stories is entitled, "The Deal Between Man and the Rat", and goes as follows:


    There was a time when the Liangmais were in desperate need of food. The men, in their greed, had eaten up all the fruit of the fruit-bearing trees, thus depriving them of their basic function of serving the earth. As is usual for him, at times of crisis, man, then, thought of God. The strong men of the tribe went to the house of God and begged Him to find a way of feeding man for all time to come. God told the men to pick a grain of paddy each and eat it, from his fields rich in vegetables and rice-paddy. The men did as they were told, and lo and behold, all the extra hair which used to be part of man’s body fell away from them. As they were leaving God’s house, He gave them two bags of paddy, but warned them to go home directly with the paddy without stopping anywhere on the way. The men however felt tired along the way and decided to rest for a while on the banks of a river. They went down to the river to quench their thirst leaving the bags of paddy on the bank. On their return, they found, to their horror, that the bags had disappeared. They looked everywhere, but in vain. Suddenly they saw their bags walking into the river, and, then, being carried by its currents to the deep blue sea.

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    Trying desperately to find a way of recovering the bags, they sighted pretty birds of many colours, Mazaima-na, Kinmana and Ake, and pleaded them for help. The birds wanted to help, but their beaks were not strong enough. The men could not turn to the birds with strong beaks for fear that they might eat up all the grains themselves.

    At last a small creature named Tazamakhepui (queen of the rats), feeling sorry for the helpless men, offered to bring back the floating bags of paddy, on the condition that the men gave half of the paddy to her. The men rejected this condition outright. Then the rat became more reasonable and demanded that man and his descendants share their life with her descendants for all time to come. They should give any spare paddy they had to her and her descendants. This condition was accepted. Accordingly, a boat of sixteen leaves of the Phemananyu tree was made; the rat rowed down to the bags of paddy, and brought them back safely to the men. It is because of the rat’s help in recovering the bags and the agreement between her and man that they are allowed to live with man today.

The first thing to be noted about this story is that man, in his foolishness and greed, can precipitate a crisis for himself and the world. By eating up all the fruit of the fruit-bearing trees, man deprived the earth of its source of renewal, and thus ran out of food. But god ensures that man survives such a crisis, though he brings it on himself by his thoughtlessness. In this case, god saves man once again, but punishes him by making him hairless thus marking him as the violator of the natural order — the only animal without hair.

Man is not only thoughtless, but is also forgetful. On his way back home from god’s house, he forgets god’s warning which brings another crisis. The saviour this time is a tiny female animal, a rat. The bargaining between the rat and man illustrates the relationship between man and other creatures for survival. The story also shows how all the creatures on earth, including man, are responsible not only for themselves and their present, but for the world around and the future generations to come. The concern for future is a recurring theme in many Liangmai legends and stories. Life, in all its forms, is the supreme gift of god. It is therefore every creature’s sacred duty to preserve it and flourish in it and make the future safe for it. This duty can be fulfilled only by harmony and goodwill between all creatures, big and small, animate and inanimate.

The other story, "How an Elephant Made a Poor Boy King", goes as follows:

    Once upon a time there lived a family of eight sons and their parents in a village. The family was so poor that the parents frequently had to eat all the food themselves, leaving nothing for the children. Consequently, the children starved and became very weak. The parents would cook food at night when the children were asleep. One day while the parents were handling the pots, one of the children woke up. He was asked by the parents to stay quiet. They promised to give him a share of whatever they were going to eat. However, the commotion disturbed the other children and all of them woke up. The parents tried to distract them by asking questions. They asked them what they would do for their parents when they grew up. All the sons, except the youngest who had only just learnt to speak, replied that they would help their parents in all possible ways. The parents wanted the youngest son also to respond. The child replied that he would live off the left overs of his elder brothers all his life. The parents were so annoyed by this reply that they ordered the elder brothers to kill him. The eldest brother felt sorry for the child and took him to the forest where he sealed his eyes with some adhesive and left him there. From where the boy stood he could go in any one of eight different directions. The elder brother also left him a knife.

    The child sat there the whole night and became extremely tired. As dawn came an elephant appeared and asked him about his problem. The boy told the elephant all that had transpired during the night. The elephant felt sorry for the child. "You are the most honest among all your father’s children", said he. He unsealed the child’s eyes so that he could see again. Then the elephant gave the child a reed and told him to chop it into small pieces of meat. These pieces of meat were to be Hung on the reeds and the boy was to take shelter under the remains of the elephant. The boy did as he was told, and slept under the skeleton that night.

    The next morning the boy found himself inside a big palace. The skeleton of the elephant had been transformed into the palace during the night. Where the boy had kept the pieces of meat, there was an annexe to the palace. Thus the little boy found himself the king of a beautiful rich city.

    News spread far and wide of the sudden emergence of the new city. The cruel parents meanwhile had become poorer than ever and lived by begging. One day they, along with their other sons, came upon their youngest son, now a king. He recognized his parents and without any illwill towards them ordered a feast in their honour. However, during the feast his mother and father were to receive severe punishment from God for their misdeeds. They were made to confess their crimes against their own children. The moment they finished with their confession they were struck down by chuk-kiubo (a strange disease causing the tongue to fall out of the mouth). the mother’s eyes too fell out of their sockets, and they both died. The brothers however stayed happily with the king for many years.

Man’s inability to control his selfishness in difficult circumstances leads to his moral degeneration and destruction. The parents not only forget their natural duty to their progeny, but arrogantly expect their children to serve them in return in spite of the most unnatural and unpardonable neglect of duty. The natural moral order is thus reversed by them. It requires a tremendous sacrifice on the part of the elephant, the wisest and largest and most powerful of all animals, to restore the moral order. The elephant lays down his life to save the child of man, and, consequently, innocence and honesty triumphs over selfishness, deceit and arrogance. The elephant willingly lays down his life so the reversal of the natural order at the hands of the parents is effectively opposed. The parents must die because there comes a point when moral degeneration becomes irredeemable and death alone can restore the natural order. Renewal of life requires sacrificial nurturing and ruthless elimination of nature-negating forces.

These stories may have several more layers of meanings, with all kinds of unsuspected structural depths. Here, I have gone by what is the most obvious. However, it is very important to note that the animal characters in these stories are not just dramatic devices used for the plot and to illustrate the relationship of man with other men, as, for instance, in the Pancatantra stories or Kafka’s Metamorphosis and the Autobiography of a Dog, but they stand for themselves and are not dramatic substitutes for human characters. Man, animal and nature form, in the Liangmai imagination, a continuum — they are the variegated embodiments of life on earth and it is in their mutually enhancing togetherness that life flourishes. This togetherness is most delicately balanced — disturb this balance and life is bound to degenerate and may even be destroyed.