Panchatantra: India’s Gift To The World

by Vijender Sharma - Aug 19, 2018 12:43 PM +05:30 IST
Panchatantra: India’s Gift To The World A prehistoric cave painting of Bhimbetka (Wikimedia Commons)
Snapshot
  • Panchatantra is one of India’s greatest contributions to the art of storytelling. A world heritage, it has become the most widely read Indian text between Java and Iceland.

The art of storytelling is, perhaps, as old as time. The prehistoric cave paintings of Bhimbetka can be safely assumed to be the first attempt at a graphic novel in India. The scenes of hunting and warfare are still preserved, deep in the niches of the caves. Estimates suggest that the oldest paintings in Bhimbetka caves can be as old as 15,000 years.

When we talk about Indian storytelling, we cannot ignore, Panchatantra, one of India’s greatest contributions to the art of storytelling. It is perhaps the only secular literary work that can truly claim to be a world heritage. Widely accepted to have been composed few centuries before Common Era, Panchatantra has become the most widely read Indian text between Java and Iceland. The original Sanskrit text has been translated into Persian, Arabic, Hebrew, Syriac, Latin, Greek, German, English, Spanish, etc. The text travelled from India to Europe much like all Indian knowledge did, through West Asia.

Panchatantra: India’s Gift To The World

Panchatantra uses metaphors and substitutes to tell a story. The use of animals, who talk, think and act like humans is a clever play to relate the acts and nature of humans to that of animals. The anthropomorphism of Panchatantra strikes a chord of similarity with many modern works. The talking lion in The Chronicles of Narnia, an entire jungle full of talking animals in the Ice Age and of course the talking pigs of Animal Farm.

Not many people might know, but the Panchatantra was compiled as a teaching manual for young princes by Vishnu Sharma, at the age of 80 years. Not much is known about the place of origin of the book. Indologist Johannes Hertel, in his work The Panchatantra – Text of Purnabhadra (1912), traces the origins of the text to Kashmir.

Arthur William Ryder, a Sanskrit professor at University of California, Berkeley also translated Panchatantra in English from the 12th century manuscript of Purnabhadra. In the introduction of his work (The Panchatantra: Purnabhadra’s Recension of 1199 CE) he said, “The Panchatantra is a niti-shastra, or textbook of niti”. He also laments about the lack of vocabulary in western languages for Sanskrit words like niti. In the introduction section he further writes, “The word niti means roughly “the wise conduct of life”. Western civilisation must endure a certain shame in realising that no precise equivalent of the term is found in English, French, Latin or Greek. Many words are therefore necessary to explain what niti is, though the idea, once grasped, is clear, important, and satisfying.”

The stories of Panchatantra are widely read to children as stories with a moral. However, Ryder describes Panchatantra as Niti Shastra, which makes it equally interesting for adults. It was perhaps its universal appeal that led to its translation into multiple languages across the world.

Long before the work was translated into foreign languages, it was widely borrowed by people within India. The Jataka Tales, which are the stories of Buddha’s previous lives, is heavily influenced by Panchatantra. So influential were the Jataka tales that many Buddhist sects (Mahasamghika Chaitika) accepted them as Buddhist canonical literature. The Jataka tales travelled to Central Asia, Tibet, China and Japan with the spread of Buddhism. The Jataka Tales and Panchatantra hold immense sacred value in modern day Japan. So much so that the Christian missionaries in Japan used them to convert people to Christianity. They used the translations of the Jataka tales to convince potential recruits that Buddha himself was originally a Christian.

The first West Asian translation of Panchatantra was made in Pahlavi, or Middle Persian in the 6th Century (550 CE). Borzuy, a Persian physician visited India and took a copy back with him. The episode of Borzuy coming to India and his chance encounter with Panchatantra is mentioned in Shah Nama. According to Shah Nama (English translation by Professor Reuben Levy), Borzuy went to India in search of a resurrecting herb (he probably heard about the Sanjivani herb). He obviously did not find the herb. However, he met a sage who explained to him the metaphor of the herb. According to Shah Nama the sage said, “The herb is the scientist; science is the mountain, everlastingly out of reach of the multitude. The corpse is a man without knowledge, for uninstructed man is everywhere lifeless. Through knowledge man becomes revived.” The sage then introduced him to Panchatantra and the wisdom within.

Francois de Blois (professor and research fellow at University College London) in his work, Burzoy's Voyage to India and the Origin of the Book of Kalilah wa Dimna, has carried out a detailed research on how the Panchatantra and other Indian stories like Mahabharata influenced the Kalilah wa Dimna (Arabic translation of Borzuy’s work). Blois comes across two versions of how Borzuy came to know about Panchatantra. One is the story of Shah Nama and the resurrecting herb and the other is a version where the book itself is well known in Persia and the king orders Borzuy to travel to India and bring the book.

We are not sure about the actual circumstances under which Borzuy came to India and translated Panchatantra. What we know is that it was translated into Pehlavi. The original Pehlavi work is now lost, an Arabic translation, by Ibn al-Muqaffa, did survive. The translation of Panchatantra in Arabic (Kalilah wa Dimna) is counted among the earliest classical works in Arabic prose.

The 8th Century Arabic translation proved to be the base text for all future translations. The German translation, Das Buch der Beispiele, of the Arabic work was one of the first to be printed at the Gutenberg’s press along with the Bible. Not only did Panchatantra travel to Europe and Southeast Asia as translated text and retelling, it also had a profound impact on the way literature developed in the Middle East and to some extent in Europe.

The Panchatantra stories are not standalone episodes with a set plot. They are stories with multiple sub-stories. This format of having sub-stories within the main story is not new to Indian literature. The ancient epics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata have a similar format where the main story is supplemented by many, smaller sub-stories. The concept of introducing questioning as the basis of a story is another Indian concept that we see both in Panchatantra and in later work like the Betal Pachhisi. The story within a story has been borrowed in Arabic works like the One Thousand and One Nights where sub-stories are introduced or one long story is broken down into smaller parts (Sindbad the Sailor).

Modern literature of Europe too saw Panchatantra’s influence in the works of writers like Jean de La Fontaine, in 17th century France. His collection of stories known as La Fontaine’s Fables is considered to be classics of French literature. For his oriental stories he drew heavily from Panchatantra and used animals as characters. In the introduction of his second book, Fontaine writes, “I think that it is not necessary to mention the sources from where I took this last part of these stories, but I say as the recognition of gratitude: "Mostly I owe the Indian wise "Bulba" (a reference to the imagined author of Panchatantra), that his book has been translated into all the languages".

The use of animals to convey stories of morals, satire, political messages has not really ceased since Panchatantra. The famous cartoon character Mickey Mouse, first created in 1928 falls in the long line of animal characters used to tell stories. Today the Panchatantra has been translated or adapted in more than 50 foreign languages and has more than two hundred versions. In India alone it has been translated into every Indian language, which has its own version of the stories. Panchatantra is truly a gift to the world from India.

Vijender Sharma is an aviation business consultant by profession, with a deep interest in Indian history. He tweets at @indichistory.

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