KathaVarta.com: for Short and Moral stories

What is Panchatantra?

Posted by kathavarta on July 11, 2008

For more than two and a half millennia, the Panchatantra tales have regaled children and adults alike with a moral at the end of every story. Some believe that they are as old as the Rig Veda. There is also another story about these fables. According to it, these are stories Shiva told his consort Parvati. The present series is based on the Sanskrit original.

The Panchatantra (also spelled Pancatantra, in Sanskrit: ‘Five Principles’) or Kalileh o Demneh (in Persian: Anvar-e Soheyii (another title in Persian: ‘The Lights of Canopus‘) or Kalilag and Damnag (in Syriac) or Kalilah wa Dimnah (in Arabic: Kalila and Dimna (English, 2008) or The Fables of Bidpai (or Pilpai, in various European languages) or The Morall Philosophie of Doni (English, 1570) was originally a canonical collection of Sanskrit (Hindu) as well as Pali (Buddhist) animal fables in verse and prose. The original Sanskrit text, now long lost, and which some scholars believe was composed in the 3rd century BCE, is attributed to Vishnu Sharma. However, based as it is on older oral traditions, its antecedents among storytellers probably hark back to the origins of language and the subcontinent’s earliest social groupings of hunting and fishing folk gathered around campfires.

Origins and function
The work is an ancient and vigorous multicultural hybrid that to this day continues an erratic process of cross-border mutation and adaptation as modern writers and publishers struggle to fathom, simplify and re-brand its complex origins. It illustrates, for the benefit of princes who may succeed to a throne, the central Hindu principles of Raja Niti (political science) through an inter-woven series of colorful animal tales. These operate like a succession of Russian dolls, one narrative opening within another, sometimes three or four deep, and then unexpectedly snapping shut in irregular rhythms to sustain attention (Story within a story).

A king, worried that his three sons are without the wisdom to live in a world of wile and guile, asks a learned man called Vishnu Sharma to teach them the ways of the world.

Since his wards are dimwits, Vishnu Sharma decides to pass on wisdom to them in the form of stories. In these stories, he makes animals speak like human beings. Panchatantra is a collection of attractively told stories about the five ways that help the human being succeed in life. Pancha means five and Tantra means ways or strategies or principles. Addressed to the king’s children, the stories are primarily about statecraft and are popular throughout the world. The five strategies are:

(1) Mitra Bhedha (The Loss of Friends)
(2) Mitra Laabha (Gaining Friends)
(3) Suhrudbheda (Causing Dissension Between Friends)
(4) Vigraha (Separation)
(5) Sandhi (Union)

Early cross-cultural migrations
The Panchatantra approximated its current literary form within the 4th — 6th centuries CE. No Sanskrit texts before 1000 CE have survived. According to Indian tradition, it was written around 200 BCE by Pandit Vishnu Sharma, a sage. One of the most influential Sanskrit contributions to world literature, it was exported (probably both in oral and literary formats) north to Tibet and China and east to South East Asia by Buddhist monks on pilgrimage.

According to the Shahnameh (The Book of the Kings, Persia‘s late 10th century national epic by Ferdowsi) the Panchatantra also migrated westwards, during the Sassanid reign of Nushirvan around 570 CE when his famous physician Borzuy translated it from Sanskrit into the middle Persian language of Pahlavi, transliterated for Europeans as Karirak ud Damanak or Kalile va Demne.

How two jackals (in Part One) branded this (five part) book

Karataka (‘Horribly Howling’) and Damanaka (‘Victor’) are the Sanskrit names of two jackals in the first section of the Panchatantra. They are retainers to a lion king and their lively adventures as well as the stories they and other characters tell one another make up roughly 45% of the book’s length. By the time the Sanskrit version has migrated several hundred years through Pahlavi into Arabic, the two jackals’ names have transmogrified into Kalila and Dimna, and — probably because of a combination of first-mover advantage, Dimna’s charming villainy and that dominant 45% bulk — their single part/section/chapter has become the generic, classical name for the whole book. It is possible, too, that the Sanskrit word ‘Panchatantra’ as a Hindu concept could find no easy equivalent in Zoroastrian Pahlavi.

Be that as it may, each distinct part of the book contains (as Professor Edgerton noted in 1924) “at least one story, and usually more, which are ’emboxed’ in the main story, called the ‘frame-story’. Sometimes there is a double emboxment; another story is inserted in an ’emboxed’ story. Moreover, the [whole] work begins with a brief introduction, which as in a frame all five . . . [parts] are regarded as ’emboxed'”. Vishnu Sharma’s idea was that humans can assimilate more about their own habitually unflattering behavior if it is disguised in terms of entertainingly configured stories about supposedly less illustrious beasts than themselves.

Another observation that Professor Edgerton makes challenges our persistent assumption that animal fables function mainly as adjuncts to religious dogma, acting as indoctrination devices to condition the moral behaviour of small children and obedient adults. Not the Machiavellian Panchatantra: “Vishnu Sharma undertakes,” Edgerton notes, “to instruct three dull and ignorant princes in the principles of polity, by means of stories . . . .[This is] a textbook of artha, ‘worldly wisdom’, or niti, polity, which the Hindus regard as one of the three objects of human desire, the other being dharma, ‘religion or morally proper conduct’ and kama ‘love’ . . . . The so-called ‘morals’ of the stories have no bearing on morality; they are unmoral, and often immoral. They glorify shrewdness, practical wisdom, in the affairs of life, and especially of politics, of government.”

This realistic practicality explains why the original Sanskrit villain jackal, the decidedly jealous, sneaky and evil vizier-like Damanaka (‘Victor’) is his frame-story’s winner, and not his goody-goody brother Karataka who is presumably left ‘Horribly Howling’ at the vile injustice of Part One’s final murderous events. In fact, in its steady migration westward the persistent theme of evil-triumphant in Kalila and Dimna, Part One frequently outraged Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious leaders — so much so, indeed, that ibn al-Muqaffa carefully inserts (no doubt hoping to pacifiy the powerful religious zealots of his own turbulent times) an entire extra chapter at the end of Part One of his Arabic masterpiece, putting Dimna in jail, on trial and eventually to death. So much for naughty jackals!

Needless to say there is no vestige of such dogmatic moralising in the collations that remain to us of the pre-Islamic original — The Panchatantra. Technically, from the perspective of a more subtle and flexible functionality, Joseph Jacobs in 1888[31] offers a less coercive interpretation of how the Panchatantra/Kalila and Dimna stories might work more effectively to modify human behaviour: … if one thinks of it, the very raison d’être of the Fable is to imply its moral without mentioning it.

In short the learning opportunity is interactive, voluntary, dynamic, reflective, open, frustrating and risky — compared to the simplified, fixed and often terrifyingly authoritative lessons delivered from priestly heights that briefly excite and amuse, then are soon forgotten, like electric shocks. In such circumstance (which is the norm) the human animal is conditioned to respond to the approved socialising, tagline ‘message’ of a local time-and-culture-bound ‘moral’, and prevented from glimpsing anything objective beyond it at an individual pace.

The Shah Nama, Chapter XXXI (iii):
How Borzuy brought the Kalila from Hindustan

Initially 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.” The Shah gave his permission, equipped Borzuy fully for the journey and handed over to him a number of gifts, together with a letter for the Rãy of India, whom he requested to assist the physician in his search. On his arrival in Hindustan he was received with high honor and granted all facility for his task, including a retinue of local physicians to guide him on his way.

But when Borzuy locates and prepares the miraculous mountain herb and sprinkles it over various corpses provided for his experiments, alas — the magic potion does not work. He is sore distressed at his failure and angry at the false information that has led him so far astray, not to mention the shame which will descend upon him when he returns empty-handed to Persia and faces his king’s displeasure. In desperation he asks the Indian physicians accompanying him what to do. Do they know anyone who can help him?

With one voice they replied: ‘There is an ancient sage here who surpasses us in years and wisdom and who in his science is superior to any of the great.’

They guided Borzuy to this man, whose mind was filled with contemplation and whose lips were ever ready for speech. Borzuy laid all his trials before him, speaking of the book which he had discovered and the words which he had heard from men expert in knowledge. When the ancient sage began to speak he discoursed on every branch of science.

‘Kalila is the herb you seek’

‘I too have found this thing in books,’ he said, ‘and have moved eagerly, led by the same hopes. When nothing came to light after my travails, I had perforce to listen to 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 man becomes revivified. Happy is he who submits himself steadfastly to labor. In the king’s treasury there is a book which the well-qualified call Kalila. When people become weary of their ignorance, the herb for them is Kalila, knowledge being the mountain. If you seek this book in the king’s treasury you will find it, and it will be your guide to knowledge.’

Borzuy rejoiced to hear this and all his past toil appeared in his eyes as empty wind. He blessed the sage and departed for the king’s court, and, traversing the road like fire, he arrived in the Rãy’s presence and lavished compliments upon him.

‘May you occupy your throne as long as India exists!’ he said. ‘Ray, you whose triumphs are widespread, there exists a certain book whose title in Hindu is Kalila. In your majesty’s treasury it is sealed as precious and it contains guidance mingled with discernment and wisdom. That herb is a metaphor for this Kalila, nought else. I beg that your majesty, lord of India, may bid your treasurer consign the book to me, if you will not hold that to be irksome.

The Ray’s spirit was rendered unhappy by this request and his body was agitated where he sat.

‘Borzuy,’ he said, ‘no one has ever sought this of me, either recently or in times past. Yet were the emperor Nushirvān to demand my body and soul I would not withhold them from him, nor anything else. I have not any person noble or humble here. But read it in my presence here, lest some malevolent person hostile to me should claim that the book was written by a mortal. Read, understand and investigate it from every point of view.’

The book’s cultural migration after Borzuy’s Pahlavi translation.

Borzuy’s 570 AD Pahlavi translation (Kalile va Demne) was translated nearly two centuries later into Syriac and Arabic — the latter by Ibn al-Muqaffa around 750 CE under the Arabic title, Kalila wa Dimma.

The Brethren of Purity and part 2 of the Kalila wa Dimna
Scholars aver that the second section of Ibn al-Muqaffa’s translation, illustrating the Sanskrit principle of Mitra Laabha (Gaining Friends), became the unifying basis for the Brethren of Purity — the anonymous 9th century CE Arab encyclopedists whose prodigious literary effort, Encyclopedia of the Brethren of Sincerity, codified Indian, Persian and Greek knowledge.

A suggestion made by Goldziher, and later written on by Philip K. Hitti in his History of the Arabs, proposes that:

“The appellation is presumably taken from the story of the ringdove in Kalilah wa-Dimnah in which it is related that a group of animals by acting as faithful friends (ikhwan al-safa) to one another escaped the snares of the hunter. The story concerns a ring-dove and its companions who have become entangled in the net of a hunter seeking birds. Together, they left themselves and the ensnaring net to a nearby rat, who is gracious enough to gnaw the birds free of the net; impressed by the rat’s altruistic deed, a crow becomes the rat’s friend. Soon a tortoise and gazelle also join the company of animals. After some time, the gazelle is trapped by another net; with the aid of the others and the good rat, the gazelle is soon freed, but the tortoise fails to leave swiftly enough and is himself captured by the hunter. In the final turn of events, the gazelle repays the tortoise by serving as a decoy and distracting the hunter while the rat and the others free the tortoise. After this, the animals are designated as the Ikwhan al-Safa.”

This story is mentioned as an exemplum when the Brethren speak of mutual aid in one rasa’il (treatise), a crucial part of their system of ethics that has been summarized thus:

“And their virtues, equally, are not the virtues of Islam, not so much righteousness and the due quittance of obligations, as mildness and gentleness towards all men, forgiveness, long-suffering, and compassion, the yielding up of self for others’ sake. In this Brotherhood, self is forgotten; all act by the help of each, all rely upon each for succour and advice, and if a Brother sees it will be good for another that he should sacrifice his life for him, he willingly gives it. No place is found in the Brotherhood for the vices of the outside world; envy, hatred, pride, avarice, hypocrisy, and deceit, do not fit into their scheme, — they only hinder the worship of truth.”

The crucial Abbasid classic by Ibn al-Muqaffa’
After the Muslim invasion of Persia (Iran) Ibn al-Muqaffa’s 750 CE Arabic version (by now two languages removed from its pre-Islamic Sanskrit original) emerges as the pivotal surviving text that enriches world literature.

From Arabic it was transmitted in 1080 to Greece and in 1252 into Spain (old Castilian, Calyla e Dymna) and thence to the rest of Europe. However it was the circa 1250 Hebrew translation attributed to Rabbi Joel that became the source (via a subsequent Latin version done by one John of Capua around 1270 CE, Directorium Humanae Vitae, or “Directory of Human Life”) of most European versions. Furthermore in 1121 a complete ‘modern’ Persian translation from Ibn al-Muqaffa’s version flows from the pen of Abu’l Ma’ali Nasr Allah Munshi.

It seems that any pre-Arabic or post-Arabic format the Kalila and Dimna animal fables take is relative. This loose collection is an oral and literary oddity that flows on, forward and yet also backward into the mists before anything was written down. One simply cannot pin these stories down like butterflies under glass in a tidy Victorian museum display drawer. They exist cross-culturally virtually in perpetual flux, like the 1001 Nights, adapting even now to current conditions to remain fresh and employable, freighting some vestige of an ancient message to new generations. They are alive as conduits of traditional wisdom, of a durable and vital survivalist psychology that requires no formal schooling or even, as remains true to vasts swaths of humanity, literacy.

Modern adaptions and difficulties in establishing a fixed attribution
Recently Ibn al-Muqaffa’s historical milieu itself, when composing his masterpiece in Baghdad during the bloody Abbasid overthrow of the Umayyad dynasty, has become the subject (and rather confusingly, also the title) of a gritty Shakespearean drama by the multicultural Kuwaiti playwright Sulayman Al-Bassam. Ibn al-Muqqafa’s biographical background serves as an illustrative metaphor for today’s escalating bloodthirstiness in Iraq — once again a historical vortex for clashing civilizations on a multiplicity of levels, including the obvious tribal, religious and political parallels.

Al-Bassam’s imaginative modern work entitled Kalila wa Dimna, while provocative and educational, is technically a misnomer. There is only one brief play-within-a-play tableau that genuflects towards the actual telling any of the animal fables found in the Arabic original. Understandably this contradictory nuance (where are al-Muqaffa’s classic fables?), obvious and even irritatingly puzzling to any literate Middle Easterner, appears to have been intellectualized away by some Eurocentric commentators. The English literary equivalent would be attending a play called Hard Times expecting to see something of the characters Grandgrind and Bounderby only to find yourself immersed in an imaginary biography of Charles Dickens and the social turmoil of his day, with only a three minute confrontational drawing-room scene alluding to a certain Mr Grandgrind and his part in the horrors of Victorian factory conditions and child labour.

Yet in the prevailing belief system of the Western post-modernist world, anything goes. Every expression achieves legitimacy. This tolerant climate is ideally suited to the book’s sui generis flexibility. Any attempt to re-brand the Panchatantra or Kalila and Dimna or The Fables of Bidpai for the utilitarian Western consciousness, while at the same time avoiding cultural chauvinism, proves elusive and fanciful.

The persistent trend, for more than a hundred years and often encouraged by scholars defending their fields of literary expertise, is to select and promote a single ancient ‘source text’ as the ‘true classic material’, whether it be in Sanskrit, Syriac, Arabic or Persian, and ignore, even denigrate, the other three sources. Such behaviour can reach the extreme of one expert within a single language seemingly dismissing the contribution of another, as occurred in the 1990s when two English versions of the Panchatantra translated from separate Sanskrit manuscripts (both, incidentally, dated significantly after al-Muqaffa’s 750 AD Arabic version) were published independently as ‘classics’ of Indian Wisdom by (a) Penguin (1993) and (b) Oxford University Press (1997). To literate outsiders such prejudicing of texts can appear absurd, even deliberately confusing. “So which translated Sanskrit manuscript,” one might ask, “offers the true Panchatantra classic?” And the answer, entering the purest realm of literary quantum reality, must be “Both!”. And if we include the many Arabic, Syriac and Persian versions known under the various guises of Kalila and Dimna or Fables of Bidpai and the derivatives thereof, then we can immediately add a couple hundred more versions, all of them also ‘classics’, yet each with an individual treatment and arrangement in the voice of a different “singer of the song”, delivering the goods somewhere in the last 2000 years.

The regional difficulty, as the novelist Doris Lessing says at the start of her introduction to Ramsay Wood‘s 1980 “retelling” of only the first two (Mitra Bhedha—The Loss of Friends & Mitra Laabha—Gaining Friends) of the five Panchatantra principles, is that “…. it is safe to say that most people in the West these days will not have heard of it, while they will certainly at the very least have heard of the Upanishads and the Vedas. Until comparatively recently, it was the other way around. Anyone with any claim to a literary education knew that the Fables of Bidpai or the Tales of Kalila and Dimna — these being the most commonly used titles with us — was a great Eastern classic. There were at least twenty English translations in the hundred years before 1888. Pondering on these facts leads to reflection on the fate of books, as chancy and unpredictable as that of people or nations.”

Ibn al-Muqaffa’s influence
Professor James Kritzeck, in his 1964 Anthology of Islamic Literature, confronts the book’s matrix of conundra:

“On the surface of the matter it may seem strange that the oldest work of Arabic prose which is regarded as a model of style is a translation from the Pahlavi (Middle Persian) of the Sanskrit work Panchatantra, or The Fables of Bidpai, by Ruzbih, a convert from Zoroastrianism, who took the name Abdullah ibn al-Muqaffa. It is not quite so strange, however, when one recalls that the Arabs had much preferred the poetic art and were at first suspicious of and untrained to appreciate, let alone imitate, current higher forms of prose literature in the lands they occupied.

Leaving aside the great skill of its translation (which was to serve as the basis for later translations into some forty languages), the work itself is far from primitive, having benefited already at that time 750 CE from a lengthy history of stylistic revision. Kalilah and Dimnah is in fact the patriarchal form of the Indic fable in which animals behave as humans — as distinct from the Aesopic fable in which they behave as animals. Its philosophical heroes through the initial interconnected episodes illustrating The Loss of Friends, the first Hindu principle of polity are the two jackals, Kalilah and Dimnah.

It seems unjust, in the light of posterity’s appreciation of his work, that Ibn al-Muqaffa was put to death after charges of heresy about 755 CE.

La Fontaine’s debt
The French fabulist Jean de La Fontaine famously acknowledged his indebtedness to the work in the introduction to his Second Fables:

“This is a second book of fables that I present to the public… I have to acknowledge that the greatest part is inspired from Pilpay, an Indian Sage”

Two links with Aesop
A strong similarity exists between two stories (‘Ass in Panther’s Skin’ and ‘Ass without Heart and Ears’) in The Panchatantra and Aesop’s fables. Similar animal fables are found in most cultures of the world, although some folklorists view India as the prime source.
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One Response to “What is Panchatantra?”

  1. Dear Madam / sir

    I am really so happy about such a wonderful information of our ancient culture and arts.
    A stupendous effort in focussing this culture as refreshing knowledge of immense value which can neither be measured or counted.

    My full compliments for sharing the knowledge

    Blessings to you

    Uma Maheswar Nakka

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