Tales from #Panchatantra

Panchatantra stories1

Panchatantra (पन्चतन्त्रम् / panchatantram in original Sanskrit) is a collection of pearls of wisdom, from ancient Indian civilization, passed on orally from one generation to another, and it has survived the tests of time. Centuries have passed but it has not lost the relevance or the attraction. It would be hard to find any kid in India who have not heard these stories.

The stories are based on moral values which are universal in nature.  As it is common in India, the history and stories are passed from one generation to another verbally rather than in written form. Once the stories were compiled in a written Sanskrit text by Vishnu Sharma in 200BC, then they traveled from India to Persia, Greece and then Europe. the stories have been translated into many languages across the world, over the centuries! Many of these stories would be so deeply ingrained in other cultures now that it would be difficult for them to acknowledge the source. But there are many unique attributes in these stories which make them quintessentially Indian in nature, no matter which language they get translated into.

Panch means five and Tantra means scripture by which the light of knowledge is spread; so Panchatantra literaly means a set of five scriptures which help in spreading light of knowledge.

There are  five broad theme, each Tantra starts with a main root story with other stories inside the story. The characters in the story tell other stories, based on different situations or contexts, as a demonstrator of point they are making or advice they are giving. The thread of stories completes one principle or tantra. Each story gives valuable insight into politics and practical wisdom as the essence or moral of the story is always close to what a we face in our day-to-day life. Each story deals with specific insight into practical aspects of life like – choosing reliable friends; coming out of difficult situations wisely;

Each section or tantra in Panchatantra covers a major branch of Neeti Shashtra. The five Principles or tantras in Panchatantra are:

Panchatantra : The Origin 

The story of Panchatantra starts of with the story of the Origin of Panchatantra itself. Once upon a time, Amarasakti ruled the city-state of Mahilaropyam in the south of India. He had three witless sons who became a matter of endless worry for him. Realizing that his sons had no interest in learning, the king summoned his ministers and asks for their advice .

His Prime Minister Sumati, suggested the name of Vishnu Sharman, a great scholar enjoying the respect of hundreds of his disciples and requests the the king to entrust his sons in his care and see the change. The king summoned Vishnu Sharman and requests him to train his sons into great scholars, he offers huge amount of wealth to Vishnu Sharma if he’s able to do that. Vishnu Sharma refuses to accept any wealth, but agrees to teach his sons for the next six months.  The king immediately called his sons and handed them to the care of the learned man. Vishnu Sharma takes them to his monastery and starts teaching them the five Principles of ethical behavior through Panchatantra stories. Keeping his word, he finishes the task the king entrusted him in the next six months.

Panchatantra : India and beyond

The Panchatantra shares many stories in common with the Buddhist Jataka tales, purportedly told by the historical Buddha before his death around 400 BCE. Scholar Patrick Olivelle was of the view that it was not the  Buddhists monks who invented these stories. These stories have been a part of Indian culture for a long time now. Many scholars believe the tales were based on earlier oral folk traditions, which were finally written down much later.

There has been scholarly debates on the intent and purpose of the ‘Pañcatantra’ – whether it supports unscrupulous Machiavellian politics or demands ethical conduct from those holding high office – underscores the rich ambiguity of the text.

An early Western scholar who studied The Panchatantra was Dr. Johannes Hertel, who thought the book had a Machiavellian character.  Other scholars dismiss this assessment as one-sided, and view the stories as teaching dharma, or proper moral conduct. On the surface, the Pañcatantra presents stories and sayings which favor the outwitting of rogues, greedy and evil through practical intelligence. From this viewpoint the tales of the Pañcatantra are eminently ethical, the themes and storyline across all the stories promotes an earthy, moral, rational, and unsentimental ability to learn from repeated experience.

In first set of stories collected as the Principle 1, the scheming brother Damanaka wins, even though the win is also beneficial his good brother Karataka who mostly gives him contrary point of view. The persistent theme in these stories is of frequently outraged readers among Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious leaders who encountered the work in translation. Some scholars believe that Ibn al-Muqaffa inserted a chapter at the end of Part One, which puts Damanaka  in jail, on trial and eventually to death, in an effort to assuage religious opponents of the work. The pre-Islamic original, The Panchatantra, contains no such dogmatic moralising. Joseph Jacobs noted that if one thinks of it, the very raison d’être of these stories is to  imply its moral without mentioning it

The Panchatantra approximated its current literary form within the 4th–6th centuries CE, though originally written around 200 BCE.  Buddhist monks on pilgrimage took the influential Sanskrit text north to Tibet and China and East to South East Asia. These led to versions in all Southeast Asian countries, including Tibetan, Chinese, Mongolian, Javanese and Lao derivatives. But unfortunately, no Sanskrit texts before 1000 CE survived, due to regular attacks and plundering of India by forces from middle-east and west.

The work has gone through many different versions and translations from the sixth century to the present day. The original Indian version was first translated into a foreign language (Pahlavi) by Borzūya in 570CE. During the Sassanid reign of Khosru I Anushiravan.Around 570 CE his notable physician Borzuy translated the work from Sanskrit into the Middle Persian language (Pahlavi), and transliterated the main characters as Karirak ud Damanak. This became the source of versions in European languages, until the English translation by Charles Wilkins in 1787.

Borzuy sought his king’s permission to make a trip to Hindustan in search of a mountain herb he had read about that is “mingled into a compound and, when sprinkled over a corpse, it is immediately restored to life.” He did not find the herb, but was told by a wise sage of “a different interpretation. The herb is the scientist; science is the mountain, everlastingly out of reach of the multitude. The corpse is the man without knowledge, for the uninstructed man is everywhere lifeless. Through knowledge human mind can be revitalized. The sage pointed to the book Kalila, and Borzuy obtained the king’s permission to read and translate the book, with the help of some Pandits. Borzuy’s 570 CE Pahlavi translation (Kalile va Demne, now lost) was translated into Syriac.

Nearly two centuries later, the Persian Ibn al-Muqaffa’ translated the Panchatantra (in Middle Persian:Kalilag-o Demnag) from Middle Persian to Arabic as Kalīla wa Dimna. This “is considered the first masterpiece of Arabic literary prose.After the Arab invasion of Persia (Iran), Ibn al-Muqaffa’s version (two languages removed from the pre-Islamic Sanskrit original) emerged as the pivotal surviving text that enriched world literature. Ibn al-Muqqaffa’s work is considered a model of the finest Arabic prose style, and is considered the first masterpiece of Arabic literary prose.

The introduction and the frame story of the first book changed. The two jackals’ names transmogrified into Kalila and Dimna. Perhaps because the first section constituted most of the work, or because translators could find no simple equivalent in Zoroastrian Pahlavi for the concept expressed by the Sanskrit word ‘Panchatantra’, the jackals’ names, Kalila and Dimna, became the generic name for the entire work in classical times. After the first chapter, Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ inserted a new one, telling of Dimna’s trial. The jackal is suspected of instigating the death of the bull “Shanzabeh”, a key character in the first chapter. The trial lasts for two days without conclusion, until a tiger and leopard appear to bear witness against Dimna. He is found guilty and put to death. Ibn al-Muqaffa’ inserted other additions and interpretations into his 750CE “re-telling” (see Francois de Blois’ Burzōy’s voyage to India and the origin of the book Kalīlah wa Dimnah).

Al-Muqaffa’ also changed the characterization of some animals, perhaps to have local types which his readers would recognize. For instance, the crocodile in the fourth chapter is changed to a tortoise, and the mongoose into a weasel. The Brahman is described as a hermit. He begins each chapter of Kalila wa Dimna with a guiding frame-story theme that suggests key aspects of leadership:

  1. One should always be wary if one friend accuses another of crime
  2. Truth will be revealed, sooner or later (Added chapter)
  3. Cooperation among friends is vital to their survival.
  4. Mental strength and deceit are stronger in warfare than brute force
  5. One must be careful not to betray friends, especially guarding against one’s own tendencies towards foolishness
  6. One should be wary of hasty judgement

Al-Muqaffa’ was murdered within a few years of completing his manuscript.

Almost all pre-modern European translations of the Panchatantra arise from this Arabic version. From Arabic it was re-translated into Syriac in the 10th or 11th century, into Greek in 1080, into ‘modern’ Persian by Abu’l Ma’ali Nasr Allah Munshi in 1121, and in 1252 into Spain (old Castilian, Calyla e Dymna).

It was translated into Hebrew by Rabbi Joel in the 12th century. This Hebrew version was translated into Latin by John of Capua as Directorium Humanae Vitae, or “Directory of Human Life”, and printed in 1480, and became the source of most European versions. A German translation, Das Der Buch Beyspiele, of the Panchatantra was printed in 1483, making this one of the earliest books to be printed by Gutenberg’s press after the Bible.  The Latin version was translated into Italian by Antonfrancesco Doni in 1552. This translation became the basis for the first English translation, in 1570: Sir Thomas North translated it into Elizabethan English as The Fables of Bidpai: The Morall Philosophie of Doni (reprinted by Joseph Jacobs, 1888). La Fontaine published The Fables of Bidpai in 1679, based on “the Indian sage Pilpay”. It was the Panchatantra that served as the basis for the studies of Theodor Benfey, the pioneer in the field of comparative literature. His efforts began to clear up some confusion surrounding the history of the Panchatantra, culminating in the work of Hertel  and Edgerton (1924). Hertel discovered several recensions in India, in particular the oldest available Sanskrit recension, the Tantrakhyayika in Kashmir, and the so-called North Western Family Sanskrit text by the Jain monk Purnabhadra in 1199 CE that blends and rearranges at least three earlier versions.

Edgerton undertook a minute study of all texts which seemed to provide useful evidence on the lost Sanskrit text to which, it must be assumed, they all go back, and believed he had reconstructed the original Sanskrit Panchatantra; this version is known as the Southern Family text.

Among modern translations, Arthur W. Ryder’s translation (Ryder 1925), translating prose for prose and verse for rhyming verse, remains popular.

In the 1990s two English versions of the Panchatantra were published, Chandra Rajan’s translation (based on the Northwestern text) by Penguin (1993), and Patrick Olivelle’s translation (based on the Southern text) by Oxford University Press (1997). Olivelle’s translation was republished in 2006 by the Clay Sanskrit Library.


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