The Elephant, the King and Silly Mama

The Elephant, the King and Silly Mama (Adapted from The Story of Ribhu[1])

One day, a young child named Rinku was going with his mother to a mela when they saw a king’s procession passing by. The king was sitting on an elephant. Playfully, the mother asked him: “What is happening here, Rinku?”
“That is the king”, the child replied.
The mother persisted, “Which one is the king, beta?” 
“The one who is on the elephant”, he answered quickly.
Deliberately wanting to provoke Rinku, the mother persisted, “But which one is the king and which one the elephant?” A
visibly annoyed Rinku replied “Silly mama[2]! You don’t even know this? The one on top is the king and the one underneath the elephant!”  “Beta, I don’t understand you, what is ‘top’ and what is ‘underneath’?” the mother continued.

By then Rinku was really irritated by the mother’s questions and decided to teach her a lesson“Okay mama, now I will show you. You bend down and I will sit on you. Then I will be on top and you will be underneath. I will be the king and you, the elephant!” 

Note: Please notice the segments in bold font for later reference.


Childhood (94)This story was used in a doctoral dissertation, ‘Children’s Understanding of Self and Others’[3], where it was told/given[4] to mothers, with instructions to repeat it to their child. The purpose of this task was to identify how adults mediate content when they talk to children, thereby constraining their meaning-making through social guidance. In the above story, the most commonly transformed portions have been marked above in bold font. We will provide examples of how these words were changed for children to demonstrate the shifts in meaning through which values are communicated.

The re-telling of the story held no serious surprises. Indian families are known for the importance placed on socially appropriate behaviour and how a child presents herself before others is a particularly important concern. Blunt statements like “Silly mama, you don’t even know this” would be instantly censored for being inappropriate if not outright rude. Also, the intention of “teaching the mother a lesson” and “instructing her to bend down” because he was “irritated” are potentially unacceptable. Sometimes, very young children may be forgiven for such errors because they are believed to be naïve, but the tolerance level for ‘misbehaviour’ towards others is particularly low in most Indian homes. Conduct like this is usually nipped in the bud, and in this instance even the seeds were thrown away, in a manner of speaking.

Mothers changed the stories in innovative ways, some examples:

  1. Switching the characters: Some mothers retained the storyline and switched the characters (Mother became Rinku and vice versa). After all, it is quite common for a child to persist in asking ‘silly’ questions, and for mothers to teach their child a “lesson” and get “irritated”!
  2. Another change some mothers made was to turn the task of identifying the elephant and the king into a “game” between mother and child so as to take the sting out of the rude comments: “So Rinku said, ‘let’s play a game mama, so you can understand….’”.
  3. Some mothers simply edited out the words, for instance “Then Rinku said “Silly mama” while retaining the procession, king and elephant portions, which were followed by a pleasant conversation between mother and child.

Although we were expecting some changes, the extent and efficiency of censorship was illuminating. From the perspective of the learner, the process does not end there. In fact, there is (fortunately) a constant and parallel process of reviewing, reimagining and reinventing meanings, and this prevents the collapse of the human mind into a culturally defined automaton. Despite the tremendous influence shared beliefs have on the way in which attention is managed from a very early age, individuality is preserved through the active participation of a person who learns very early on, to make his or her own versions of their experiences. What we may label as peculiarity, defiance or stubbornness in people is in fact, the expression of their uniqueness. Whether these departures will be tolerated, ignored or encouraged also bears influence, and so the dance continues. Throughout our lives, we balance between these complex forces to constantly recreate the manifest image[5] of the world around us.

Why do we do this?

Childhood (93) (1)To dig a bit deeper into why adults control content, we spoke to some young parents. Apart from teaching social appropriateness, another important concern was ‘age-appropriateness’, yet another was limiting viewership of what was labelled as ‘gross’ content: blood, sex, violence. Some parents even mentioned that many classical Indian stories with moral lessons (Jataka tales, Panchatantra, Mahabharat, Ramayan) were considered inappropriate because of the graphic content! Snakes biting babies, animals killing each other, men tearing off the heads of an enemy, Krishna suckling out the life out of Putna[6] while feeding at her breast, were not considered particularly suitable for children. Despite the great appeal, some Krishna stories can be particularly graphic, one parent said.

Such manipulations are the medium for transmission of culture, and facilitate the formation of cultural identity. Mediation is not limited only to story-telling and neither is it used only for what is considered graphic content. Adults push children towards favouring some relationships while deliberately shifting them away from others, thereby determining the ways in which children will learn to approach other people. In ordinary conversations, content and meaning are moderated, providing a customized version of the world and our memories. In one research study on autobiographical memory of childhood among teenagers[7], we found that Indian adolescents tended to remember events and objects along with who was linked with these memories (who I used to ride the cycle with, who bought me the doll), whereas German adolescents were inclined to remembering personal accomplishments, like singing independently before an audience. Memory construction and reconstruction is an exciting field of study and the recent issue of Culture and Psychology[8] is dedicated to the shaping of personal and collective memory.

Restricting the flow of information can also be paternalistic, patronising or pernicious and it is important to be judicious in our interventions in other people’s lives. The celebration of diversity and uniqueness, of individual differences and autonomy are also important goals along with the transmission of values and beliefs. We need to recognise both aspects of our psyche, especially when we are in a position of authority in deciding what should or should not be experienced. We do hope this post has facilitated an inner dialogue about when and how and why and in what direction we constrain the people around us, especially little people!

Postscript: More about the original story in case you’re interested

Sri Ramana Maharishi (1879-1950) was a Hindu Sage regarded as an outstanding and enlightened person who was dedicated to the spiritual study of Self and Advaita[9] philosophy. He was well-known for teaching through few words, simple stories and silent congregations. According to him, the sense of individuality (thoughts about the Self), the Self itself (I), and the Ego (I am this or that) are different dimensions of self-knowledge and important to distinguish between, for the journey towards self-realisation. The story of Ribhu from the Puranas, was his favourite one for initiating debates about constructed boundaries between self and other, and the notion of collective Self. In the story, a Sage disguises himself as an ignorant passer-by and irks a young man (in fact his favourite student) with naïve questioning about the passing king and elephant, and pushes him to confront the concepts of self and other. The annoyed student says to the teacher (in disguise):

“Top? Underneath? You ignorant man! Now I will show you what these words mean. Bend over, now I am on top and you are underneath!” to which yet another plain question is added by the guru: “You and I, pray tell me what these words mean?” This marks the moment of realisation for the student.


[1] Also see postscript

[2] This was Buddhu mummy in Hindi

[3] By Pooja Bhargava, Supervisor: Nandita Chaudhary

[4] Depending on literacy levels

[5] The framework in terms of which man came to be aware of himself as man-in-the-world, Sellars. Source:





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