Are the rumours true? Look it up!
Updated: Apr 14
Reaching back 2,500 years, the Jataka tales of India shine ancient wisdom on our uncertain times. When half-truths spread fastest and farthest it's up to us to double-check the details before we claim them as facts and pass them on.
It's really amazing how fast a half-truth fueled by strong emotional reaction can spread. In our current reality of social media, easy accessibility, short attention spans, love of memes, and passionate immediacy, it's easy even for those of us who do our best to check our facts to pass along occasional misinformation.
This story may well be two-and-a-half millennia old and yet it's a perfect fit for this lesson today. Before we hit the "angry" button, or stand in awe at a photoshopped picture of something that never was, we need to dig into its source a little deeper to be sure of what we're being shown or told. Calm investigation and critical judgment will serve us well in this time of short burst, rapid-fire, click-bait news.
Gossip blazes into flame and is often forgotten, but the kernel of it can be passed along to influence future judgments. Unacknowledged prejudice thrives on this. So quickly the rumours we repeat to one another can multiply.
Our source of folklore magic today comes from an Indian Jataka tale retold for children in The Rumor by author and artist Jan Thornhill. I used to love to read it to the kids when I taught Montessori kindergarten years ago. What I love best about this version are its illustrations. Thornhill chose to paint specific species of endangered animals whose habitats are being threatened in India: the Bristly Hare; the Pygmy Hog; the Swamp Deer; the Bengal Tiger; the Indian Rhinoceros; and the Asiatic Lion.
This is a real "Henny Penny" kind of tale, if you're familiar with the type.
We begin with a worrywort hare who, as she's lying down for a nap in a mango and palm grove, wonders what would happen if the world were to break up and what would happen to her if it did. While she's sleeping she hears a loud crash when a mango falls to the ground and she wakes with a start thinking the end of the world has indeed come.
Up she jumps and races through the grove, telling all the hares she sees that the world is breaking up until there are a thousand hares racing from the danger they believe to be behind them. They run through a thicket and meet a boar, telling him to run for his life, which he does, and soon there are a thousand boars and a thousand hares crashing through the thicket.
Running out into the marshland the hares and boars come across the deer and pass along the rumour that the world is ending. One by one the deer join the stampede and now a thousand hares, a thousand boars, and a thousand deer are splashing through the marshland to get away from the danger behind them.
Next they come to the forest and meet a tiger. When the tiger hears the rumour he joins them at a run, telling all the other tigers he meets that the world is breaking up. Eventually there are a thousand hares, a thousand boars, a thousand deer, and a thousand tigers pounding through the forest.
Into the brushland they run where they find a rhinoceros and tell her the world is at an end. Scared to be left to face it alone, she joins them and passes the rumour along to all her friends until there are a thousand hares, a thousand boars, a thousand deer, a thousand tigers, and a thousand rhinoceroses thundering through the brushland.
When they spill out onto the grassy plain, a lion wonders what's going on and runs to the head of the stampede to intercept them. He roars and all the animals stop and listen. Trying to get to the bottom of it, the lion asks each animal in turn where they heard that the world was breaking up. Finally it comes to the worrywort hare who admits she heard a crash and didn't stop to investigate.
So the lion runs all the way back with the worrywort hare to see if the rumour is true. What they find instead is a fallen mango on a pile of dry palm fronds. Admonishing the hare to think first before acting, the lion runs back to the waiting animals to tell them the truth of what happened. Everyone feels pretty foolish, including the worrywort hare, and the lion sends them all home.
Lesson learned: get the facts before reacting out of fear and sounding the alarm. It's amazing how quickly misinformation goes viral.
The Rumor: A Jataka Tale from India, retold and illustrated by Jan Thornhill (Toronto: Maple Tree Press, 2002; 2005).
From Thornhill's notes: Jataka tales have been used for more than 2,500 years to teach about sharing, compassion, and the difference between good and bad. In many Jataka tales, the Buddha appears as an animal.
The Rumor is based on "The Timid Hare and the Flight of the Beasts" from The Jataka; or, Stories of the Buddha's Former Births, edited by E. B. Cowell (Cambridge University Press, 1897).