Home » Subjects » Philosophy & Ethics

Philosophy & Ethics


The Ponnivala story provides excellent material for introducing the topic of philosophy. Many action alternatives, each in story form. This leaves room for lively debate. The legend is not judgemental or moralizing. Like a good teacher, it instructs by example and by employing a memorable chain of events. It also poses many more questions than it answers.

Cause and Effect:

What causes a particular character to act, or to suffer? The answer may seem simple at first, but the more one looks into the matter the more complex the answer becomes. Actions on one plane recede back to prior events on other planes or in past generations. Why does the artisan try to trick the farmer out of a gold vessel in his storeroom? Is it greed? Maybe, but it is also a response to the farmer having been given his land to plough, many years back. Why was he given the land? Well the king at the time thought this was a fair solution to a larger problem, and so on. There are causal chains that recede back into the distant past. Such a discussion will help students become more sensitive to how difficult questions of cause and effect really can be.

Moral and Immoral:

The sister of the heroes has the ability to “see” into the future. She knows that her brothers are going to die in a great war against the hunters once they leave the palace. So she touches their swords but does not actually bless them, as she should do. Her blessings are magical and will give her brothers a supernatural strength. Is she wrong not to do this for them, or is she right to withhold the blessing when she knows they are bound to fail in their warlike efforts? There are many points in the Ponnivala story where one can ask questions like this. Discussing them in the classroom will help students understand the depth of most moral dilemmas. What example or what moral criteria should the sister bring to bear in making her decision?

Life and Death:

The characters generally do not decide the moment of their deaths. Even in the case of the twin heroes’ suicides they first receive a symbolic message from Lord Vishnu. Their willful deaths are a response to seeing this “sign post.” But do they really die? Later the sister revives them (briefly) to talk about life. In the ceremonies conducted at the annual festival for the heroes actual devotees go into a deathlike trance and are then later revived by the same chants; sung by a bard; said to have been used by the little sister to accomplish the same near the end of the story. In both situations life and death appear to fuse. What, then, does death mean in this worldview? And how similar is it to Christian concepts of life beyond death?

Human or Divine Will?

Another similar topic for classroom debate concerns free will. To what extent do the characters in the story define their own life paths, and to what extent are their actions and life outcomes predetermined by the gods? Is a character able to extend his or her lifetime on earth through hard work and good deeds? The story is indeterminate on such fundamental points, preparing the ground for thoughtful student observation and debate.