MORAL DUTY AND LEGAL OBLIGATION IN THAI FOLKTALES*
Moral duty is an imperative to do what is right and good and to avoid
what is wrong and evil. Moral duty can be expressed in the terms of
obligation if the obligor experiences the condition of being forced
to do or abstain from something by his or her conscience. Legal obligation
can also be forced by one's conscience. But it is not necessarily a
constant element of legal obligation. Legal obligation is forced by
law, and may not necessarily be forced by conscience. Legal and moral
obligations co-exist often without conflicting with each other. In fact,
many legal obligations are moral obligations and otherwise. A moral
duty not to harm one's neighbour is also a legal obligation. Lawgivers
when setting legal rules are often guided by their moral obligations.
A judge who applies rule is also guided by a moral obligation to be
faithful in fulfilling his official duties. Not only moral obligations
result in legal obligations, but legal obligations themselves can give
rise to corresponding moral obligations, since the obedience to law
can be upheld by conscience.
Moral and legal obligations can conflict with each other. This particular
aspect of relationship between legal and moral obligations is the theme
of this article. Thai folktales often present conflict between moral
and legal duties in the form of conflict between the family interests
and the interests of an unjust ruler, as could be seen in the story
of "Four Trees" and other stories considered above. In the
stories commented on in this article the conflict between moral and
legal obligations is not explicit, but the important characteristic
of these folktales is that they display the whole force or invincibility
of moral obligation in the light of which all other obligations including
legal ones become but poor shadows.
There were two white crows who had five eggs eagerly expected their
children to be born very soon. The nest was next to the river, and when
one day a heavy storm came, the eggs were washed away by the rising
waters. The suffering of the birds at the loss of the eggs was so great
that they died. In the next life they were reborn in Heaven. Meanwhile
the eggs did not perish but each egg found its different way to the
houses of a hen, dragon, turtle, cow and lion, who adopted them. Instead
of crows, five boys - human beings were born. When the boys were grown
up in different houses it happened that they all met at one place accidentally.
They realized that their adoptive parents were not their true parents,
and they made a commitment to find their true mother and father. The
five boys offered a prayer sacrifice and made a grathong - a small decorated
basket with flowers and burning candles to float along the river, hoping
that this would be noticed by their true parents who would see it and
remember the sad event of the past. The parents indeed saw from Heaven
and being overwhelmed revealed themselves to their children. Since that
time it became customary to honour parents by floating grathongs.
Interpretation: This story is about one of the most famous festivals
in Thailand called Loygrathong. It is apparent that there are several
explanations of the meaning of the festival. (2) The
most accepted explanations are that by sending a grathong (a decorated basket) along the river, one gets rid
of all bad luck which may happen to him or to her during the coming
year, or that this is a mere act of reverence to the goddess of the
river. The time of the festival falls at the end of the rainy season,
and that may be an indication of the reverence of the past generations
towards the mighty powers of nature. It is widely known that one of
the most common disasters in Thailand is flooding as it is expressed
in the given story. Therefore, it is possible to see an organic unity
between different explanations of the festival: getting rid of had luck,
worshiping the river which can bring bad luck, and sending the grathong
to find the lost parents - all those explanations spring from encountering
the powers which are stronger than humans.
are several moral principles which can be deduced from this folktale.
The first is that the children have a duty of honoring parents independently
from whether or not the real parents effectively contributed to their
growing up. The story, when describing the meaning of the festival,
uses the word boochaakhunbidaamaandaa which can be translated into English
as. worshipping the goodness of parents. The Thai word khun can mean
different things in different contexts and word combinations. For example,
the word phrakhun means grace. But it is clear that this khun of the
parents creates a bond between them and the children which cannot be
broken even by the mighty powers of nature. This fidelity to the parents
is not something freely chosen, but a natural law. It has an absolute
binding force and is so strong that it outweighs the duties of children
before the adoptive parents.
The principle of fidelity toward one's parents is not separated from
the principle of love toward one's children. Attachment of the white
crows to their still unborn children is commended in the story. The
description of their suffering arouses compassion among the listeners
of the tale. It was considered in the previous chapters that every suffering
in Thai folktales by no means is a consequence of bad karma. In the
story, the white crows are special beings. They are believed to be sacred.
The fact that they were reborn in Heaven stresses their goodness. Suffering
is a natural consequence of encountering evil.
The evil in this story takes the form of separation or breaking a natural
relationship between the parents and the children. The separation is
overcome through self-realization, or understanding of one's true identity.
Being born and brought up among hens, dragons, turtles, cows and lions,
the boys who were human beings were naturally kept in a lower status
then they deserved. Their parents had a status of Heavenly beings, but
they had to be mere animals. Self-realization is the first step of overcoming
the consequences of evil. The boys are not animals. The second step
is an act of prayer and giving a clear signal to their parents calling
for their compassion to respond to the search of their children. There
is a mutual longing to each other. In other words love and compassion
restores the lost relationship.
are certain parallels with Christian teaching. Human beings are separated
from their true Father who is in Heaven through the original sin conspired
by the devil. Adam was the man, and in the Christian Scriptures he was
called a son of God.(3) Adam was made in the image
and likeness of God, but his high status was lost because of the sin.
Since the times of Adam all humankind which descended from Adam bears
the cost of separation from the true Father of all. In His mercy God
sent Jesus Christ, the Son of God to wash away the sin of humankind,
and those who believe in Jesus, which means to recognize in Jesus their
true identity, are saved from sin and restored in the relationship with
the Heavenly Father. In other words, believing in Jesus is self-realization
exactly in the way the boys in the Thai folktale realized that they
are not the children of animals, but of Heavenly beings. This self--realization
or understanding of one's true identity as the way to overcome evil
is not the only common feature between Thai folk wisdom and Christian
wisdom. The place of prayer and sacrifice as a call for compassion of
the Heavenly parents is another common idea. The boys did not rely on
their ability and efforts to restore the lost relationship, but they
relied on the grace of Heaven. This reliance does not mean moral passivity.
The boys were searching and they found. They asked, and they received.
*Originally Published in Thai Folktales
and Law, ACTSCO. Ltd, Chang Mai, Thailand.
** The author is a law lecturer at School of Law, Faculty
of Social Sciences, Chiang Mai University, Chiang Mai 50200 Thailand.
(1)'Phayaagaaphyak' in: Nithaanphynbaan. - Ed. By Wichian
Getpratum. - Bangkok: Samnakphimpattanaasygsaa, 2000. - P.68.
(2) There were reports that some explanations of the
festival of the were invented for commercial interests (boosting tourism),
see: Reynolds C. 'Globalization and Cultural Nationalism in Modern Thailand.'
In: Southeast Asian Identities. - Ed. By J. Kahn. - Singapore: Institute
of Southeast Asian Studies, 1998.- P.136.
(3) Luke 3:37.