Many of you may wonder, with the galaxy of Classical Indic Literature at our tips, why the Panchatantra, a story of animal fables, may be the first work of Literature we cover in-depth at ICP.
Given the constant drumbeat about Indian culture being “life-negating” and Hindu literature being “other-worldly”, many forget that our civilization was once highly shrewd and rooted in material wisdom.
The most striking feature of ancient Indian civilization has been the element of humanity combined with a sense of duty and practicality. [1, xvi]
Fair enough, you may say, but still why study the Panchatantra? Why should a work composed for kids be studied by children and adults alike? How is this ancient book of “fables” relevant to “modern” Indians today?
The truth of the matter is, child or adult, Bharatiyas today are very much like the dullard students of Acharya Vishnusarman. “Over-opinionated, under-informed”, stupid beyond belief, and arrogant without justification. Good for nothing—unless forced to by immediate circumstance. Supercilious, selfish, stubborn, stupid. It is precisely this royal recipe for disaster that faced King Amarasakti and his sons. For this reason, his kingdom was (and now Bharatavarsha is) at the precipice.
As we discussed in our preceding article, more than anything else, more than even Dharma, it is Niti which is the aspect of our culture which is unmitigatingly absent among Indians today. The only Niti they know or need is a mutant form of “Rajniti!” practiced by dushtamatyas, but other than that, it’s gullibility to the extreme. This gullibility of Bharatiyas has been exploited time and again, not only by foreigners, but by Indians in foreign employ. Truth is expected to be spoken among those who practice Dharma; but there is no such obligation to those who practice deceit. It is because there are such persons in the world, that Niti was given to protect the innocent.
Not all individuals are inclined to study, let alone study deeply. Whatever lessons they learn in primary school or secondary school, we must therefore supplement with the blessing of Niti. A good soul is not spoiled if he is taught 1. Dharma, 2. Niti, 3. Studies, in that progression. Evil persons do not care for Dharma, and Niti is frequently in their nature, due to natural deceitful ways. Since not everyone becomes a vidvan or Ph.D., let the innocent or illiterate learn Niti.
Niti can be grasped most readily by works by aphorisms and maxims such as Saamethas or similar traditions in other languages. In fact, a famous one involving a son named Somalingam clearly took its inspiration from a Panchatantra tale. “Dhobi ka kutta, na ghar ka na ghat ka” is one such celebrated example in Hindi. This is because a single saying offers many layers of wisdom that can be peeled off as a child grows older. The individual is exhorted to not be a Dhobi ka kutta, and so in the process, learns to pick and stick with a side, instead of having no place of his own. Works of pure Niti, such as the Niti Satakam, are indeed useful, but tend to be for older students. Hence, the Panchatantra becomes most useful to the younger student.
Tales of Animals capture their attention, and stories within a story allow individual lessons to be teased out and separated. So too can basic Niti be separated from more sophisticated Statecraft. That is the Brilliance of the Panchatantra, for while it affords basic behavioural lessons to children, useful for later in life for citizens, it also incorporates the lessons of Politics and Statecraft, to be studied in sum, a second time by the civic-minded.
The author of this work, Vishnusarman, was 80 years old when he gave his lecture on the Panchatantra. The manuscript itself tells us that this set of five books emanated from the distress of King Amarasakti “from the southern city of Mahilaropya“. It is not known exactly where this city was, other than it was presumably south of the Vindhyas. The ruler of this fair city had 3 stupid, selfish, stubborn, supercilious sons named Bahusakti, Ugrasakti and Anantasakti. They too, like modern Bharatiyas were “devoid of reasoning” and “destitute of discretion” and “impertinent“. [1, 2] He was so upset and feared for the future of the kingdom to such an extent, that he convened his ministers and promised a reward for the one who could reform them.
His Mantri, Sumati, suggested the brahmana Vishnusarman as one who had extracted the great elixir from the various branches of knowledge . Vishnusarman himself saluted Manu, Brhaspati, Sukracharya, Paraasara, Vyaasa, and Chanakya in his treatise. The influence of the latter shows in later discussions of mandala theory. Nevertheless, more than politics, this is a work of practical principles for all persons, and the wise conduct of life.
A person’s character is not something that one is born with. Ancient sages were of the view that the character could be built, and by moulding the characters of the citizens, a just and fair society would come into being where each individual may take note of the interests and concerns of others without being influenced by vested interest, personal priorities, egocentricities or prejudices [1, xli]
Visnusharman was so confident of the value of his teachings that he stated”If I am not able to render your sons well-versed in the science of politics within six months, you are all-empowered to hang me til death”. [1, lxx] What’s more, he famously claimed in the Prologue that one using the Panchatantra could not be defeated even by Sakra (Indra) [1, lxx]:
Above all, however, was the uniqueness of Vishnusarman’s approach that truly stands out. Tradition ascribes this fabulous work to one Visnu Sarma. But we know nothing about this gifted author who, judging from the artistry displayed in the text he is credited with having composed, brought storytelling to such heights of sophistication; who in fact created a literary genre of storytelling; who had many imitators over the centuries, none of them his equal. [2, xi]
The Panchatantra is a Sanskrit work written in the form known as Champu (a mixture of verse and prose). “Verse is employed for articulating maxims, proverbs and precepts, sententiaea, generally, and for conveying heightened emotion; prose for the narrative and dialogue” [2,liii]. This makes the composition useful as a work of “instruction and correction“. [2, xlii] The Panchatantra is often connected with the Jataka Tales. Indeed, there are many commonalities. But it is not yet clear which drew from which. After all, didactic stories were not unique to the Jataka Tales, and are also found in the Brihat Katha, and there are similarities even with some stories from the collectively more ancient Mahabharata. [1, xxi] There are even verses descending directly from the Niti Satakam of the famous King of Ujjain, Bhartrhari.
Not only Bauddhas (Buddhists) but even Jainas are also mentioned. Jain literature also passed on the Panchatantra through traditions and names like Panchakhyaana. The Buddhist narratives from the Jataka focused more on the past, while the Jaina tradition was focused on the present, “instructing in an ironic and suggestive manner“. [1, xxx]
In many ways, this makes the magnum opus of Acharya Vishnusarman a snapshot of our literary and cultural heritage, thereby making it an ideal starting point. We see elements of the past woven into the culture’s future. Above all, we see a tradition of combining entertainment with education, and moral with practical living. This is the Panchatantra’s greatest greatest achievement of all. It is not for nothing it is termed ‘The crest-jewel of Fables’. [1,xxxv]
“That branch of didactic literature is called ‘fable’ which comprises of little, cheerful and sententious stories and whose characters are often animals. The word fable comes from the latin word fabula which once was employed to mean any kind of story. But, gradually, it came to mean a very special kind of story…which is ruled by an intellectual and moral impulse and it tends towards brevity. It is a narration intended to enforce a useful truth, especially one in which animals speak and act like human beings.” [1,xvi-xvii]
“The characters teach lessons which can be used in every one’s daily life, since their actions are so much like those of human beings, the reader of the fable usually does not have to figure out for himself what the lesson is. It is often given at the end of the fable under the title of ‘Moral’. So, unlike a folk-tale, it has a moral that is woven into the story and often explicitly formulated at the end“. [1, xvii}
But in an era which rejects ‘morality’, what value can the Panchatantra have? That why the term Niti here is best translated not as moral or policy, but ‘lesson’. The Panchatantra in fact is amoral, and is focused on giving lessons in practical principles for the wise conduct of life. True, it does discuss Dharmasastra and the importance of living a righteous life, but it is nevertheless, highly practical and even cynical on the intentions of everyone…even saints!
The great genius of this work is that, while it is a great expository on the importance of Niti (Practical Principles and Wisdom) over Vidya (knowledge), it also inculcates and creates curiosity in various branches of knowledge. Beyond Dharmasastra and Dhanurveda, there are even brief discussions of Saastriya Sangeeta, Classical Music. [1, 666]
It is no wonder this work has stood the test of time. The man armed with Niti is superior to the man armed with Vidya. But who can face the man armed with both? That is the value of Sanskriti. The Panchatantra is an excellent work not only emanating and expounding our culture, but giving a glance at its history.
Panchatantra has transcended cultures and literary as well as linguistic barriers. It is among the greatest classics of all time. [1, xvii]
There are four main rescensions of the Panchatantra. The Southern Version is basis for the Nepalese Panchatantra and the Hitopadesa. This is the largest version and is said to contain 96 stories. [1, xlvi] A second is found in the manuscripts of the Brhatkathamanjari of Kshemendra, which descends from the lost Brhat Katha of Gunadhya. A third is the Pehlavi (Persian version). The Tantraakhayaayika represents fourth manuscript lineage, and is considered the oldest form of the Panchatantra. It was found in Kashmir. It has two sub-recensions and is said to demonstrate the original form.
‘It is the only version which contains the unabbreviated and not intentionally alterated language of the author, which no other Indian Pancatantra version has presented, while the Pehlavi translation distorts it by numerous misunderstandings’ [1, xliii]
The the Persian version was the source material of the subsequent Arabic Translation of this original Sanskrit work, which was called the Kalia wa Dimnah.
Perhaps nothing underscores the global impact of the Panchatantra than Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent official visit to Iran. Per historical accounts, Barzawayh the physician, of the Persian King Khusrau Anushirvan’s court (6th century CE) was said to have been tasked with finding the Indian elixir that raises the dead back to life. On failing to do so, Barzawayh in dire straits asked an Indian for help. He was introduced to the Panchatantra, which was translated into Persian. Per the Shahnameh of Firdausi, the elixir was the wisdom extracted from the trees and herbs (writings) of Indian sages who raised the corpse (ignorant men) back to the living (wise conduct of life).  Khusrau was said to have been wonderstruck by the wisdom, and rewarded his minister. The text was used to groom Persian princes. How easily modern Indians discard or deride wisdom valued by others.
Such was the impact of this work of Bharatiya Nitisastra, that this lost Pehlavi version was subsequently translated into Arabic as Kalilah wa Dimneh (Karataka and Damanaka), and later spread to Europe. “Dr. Benfey has proved the specific debt of the medieval European literature to the Panchatantra”. [1, x, li] Aesop’s Fables is said to have been a product of its influence, and even the Arabian Nights are thought to be rooted in these Indic origin stories. [1, liii] Many also know these as the Fables of Bidpai (Stories of Vidyapati). In the last thousand years, the stories of the Panchatantra have made their way into the Greek, Latin, German, Spanish, French, English, Armenian and Slavonic languages, along with even Hebrew and Malay. [2, xvi]
“Few books have enjoyed such popularity as the Panchatrantra of Sri Visnusarman. This masterpiece is remarkable for the beauty and simplicity of its language, the vividness and reality of its objective and the author’s sense of humour. The extra-ordinary appeal which it makes to the human mind is evident from the fact that it has been translated into no fewer than fifty languages, and 200 versions around the world.” [1, i]
Whether you are 6 or 66, the Panchatantra is a work that must be studied by all. It is composed in such a way so as to educate young and old alike. More innocent stories can be separated for individual children’s lessons, while the collective work and more mature stories can be studied again as an adolescent or adult. The composition itself is divided into five books, hence the name Pancha Tantra. These are as follows:
I. Mitrabheda (Dissension of Friends)
This deals with the story of the Lion King Pingala, the Bull Sanjeevaka, and how their friendship was divided by the knave Jackal Minister Damanaka. It is a cautionary tale of how friends and family can be divided by selfish people who put their interests above the common good. That a jackal was selected for a minister is in itself telling, as it is a caveat against dushtamatyas who prioritise private political gain over national interest. It also has a lesson valuable for royal and common Indians alike: “The first lesson, to be learnt, by the kings and especially the emerging and nascent princes, is how to differentiate between a selfless friend and a latent enemy.” [1, lxxvii] In short, it is an didactic tale on the value of Discretion.
II. Mitrasampraaptih (Acquisition of Friends)
This tale deals with the benefits of true friends. The unlikely friendship of a mouse, a deer, a crow, and a tortoise ends up being collectively and individually beneficial. Not only do they enjoy each other’s company and find purpose in helping each other, but they are able to save each other’s life by working together and collaborating. That is the value of gaining and keeping friends.
“Thus, an analysis of the second book evinces that much stress is laid upon winning of intelligent friends. Contrary to the Mitrabheda, Mitrasampraapti proceeds to explain the nature of true friendship and the undoubted worth of companions in getting out of tricky situations in life”. [1, 277]
III. Kaakollukeeyam (On the Crows and Owls)
This is the famous story of the war between the Crows and the Owls. It is an exegesis not only on statecraft, but also on strategy. It helps understand that the noble exhortations of Dharma are in fact in concordance with the exegencies of strategy. When the enemy is wicked and breaks the rules of war, use of Kutaniti is justified in ensuring the survival of one’s clan, kingdom, or civilization. If it’s us or them that has to go, better it’s them. That is the overarching lesson of this tale.
IV. Labdhapranaasam (Loss of what was Procured)
This story is also a riposte and a rebuke to those who misuse “atithi devo bhava” as a means to destroy the host. Guest should be respected, yes, but not when they put one’s own survival at stake. Even the monkey new that, and told that to his guest, whose wife literally shed “crocodile tears”. Do no be gullible, and when in distress, keep your wits about you. That is the true purpose of intellect–not poodle tricks. When a monkey was able to do that, why can’t you?
V. Apareekshitakaarakam (The Ill-considered Action)
This more than any other book, is applicable to Indians today. “Under heightened sentimental impulses or emotional states, human beings tend to or are more inclined to engage in ill-considered or rash actions. Consequences of taking action in a hurry, without knowing the details or the truth, are mostly dangerous.” This book stands out as it has no framing story, but is simply critique after critique of rash and ill-considered action. This has serious lessons for Hyperactive Hindus of today.Nevertheless, each story sets the stage for the subsequent one. Independent Niti is united by the “inter-connectedness” of the stories.[1,617]
But perhaps no lesson is more crucial for today than the stories of the magic wicks, and more famously, the four brahmanas. The moral there is clear when the one brahmana berates another saying “despite the scholarship, he lacks practical intellect and also that good sense is superior to learning“. [1, 622] That is the essence of this fifth Tantra, perhaps the most valuable of all.
Apariksitakaraka is prescribed in the curriculum just to instil the core universal human values in the minds of the young generation and make youths good human beings with all-round success and joy in their lives. [1, 625]
At first sight, one might befuddled at why Mitra-Bheda might come before Mitra-Sampraapti. Seemingly out of order to fresh eyes, we realise later the true genius of Acharya Vishnusarman: preservation of true friends and loyal family members is of highest priority. This is because wealth and weapons and warp and weft can all be lost, but nothing is more precious than a true friend. A friend in need is a friend indeed. And a wise person sees to it that real friends are treated with respect and kept in good humour rather than neglected or alienated.
There is nothing more dangerous than a former friend or antagonistic relative—they know our back story, strengths, and weaknesses. It is why even the wise Vidura sought to conciliate the Pandavas and Kauravas…he knew the price of internal/internecine war. That is why one of the wider lessons of the Mahabharata War was on the dangers of fratricide.
Modern Bharatiyas today have the opposite tendency. Many, especially those with the dog mentality, kick those who lick them and lick those who kick them—all in contravention of the Sastras. Conciliation doesn’t mean groveling. There is a difference between bowing when forced to and crawling cause you want to…it is self-respect. As such, the wise and prudent person returns good for good and bad for bad. It is not only courageous, but ensures that the opposing party, even if he doesn’t like you, is forced to respect you.
It is true that common interests often divide friends and family. But that is why we have Dharma to guide us on the use of Niti. Vidura was skilled at Niti, but used Dharma to stanch any ambitions to the throne he may ever have had. So should Dharma dictate succession: Seniority, Competence, and Character being the three deciding factors in that order.
The Panchatantra is not meant to be memorised for show, but understood & applied. While it does exhort committing wise verses to memory, it is again for later meditation, rather than braggadocio. That a single Sanskrit verse can have many meanings is best embodied by the story of “Praapthavyamartham labhate manusya“. When we understand this story, when we understand the Panchatantra, we understand that Acharyas—real Acharyas—try to equip their students with Niti, so that they may become self-reliant, shrewd, and societally responsible citizens.
Suguptam rakshyamaano’pi| T.4, sl. 49
“Silence is Golden”
“48. Parrots and starlings (minas) are encaged due to the fault of their mouth (speech), herons there, are not confined (due to not speaking; silence leads to the accomplishment of all objects.
49. That donkey, even though properly concealed and being guarded, manifestly showing his dreadful body and covered with the skin of tiger was killed due to his speaking” [1, 591]
That silence is golden is the most important lesson for modern Bharatiyas is a concept we have stressed time and again. What story better exemplifies it than this. Not only the donkey that couldn’t shut up, but the crocodile who told his intentions to the monkey in advance. The net result is much like the name of the very Tantra that covers this: Labdhapranaasam (Loss of what was Procured).
Anya prathaapamaasaadhya yo drdatvam na gacchathi|
Jathujaa’bharanasyeva rupenaapi hi tasya kim|| T.1, sl 117
Of what advantage is the physique and appearance of him who does not stand firm against the prowess of others, like an ornament, made of lac, which does not maintain its stiffness when pitched against fire. [1, 44]
Essence: Every Dog has its Day, so have both patience and courage. This is the lead in sloka for the famous Tale of the Jackal and the war-drum. The key takeaway of the story is the nature of life having ups and downs. The fearful jackal took courage after hearing the sound of the war-drum and upon investigation was happy at his good luck at finding a pot of food making the sound. But upon eating it, he hurt his mouth and realised it was just a strip of leather. So who knows what turns the life of others may take, if they are fortunate, be patient for you may find out they may not be so fortunate after all. Better to wait your turn for good fortune than to be jealous of others.
Na yasya cheshtitham vidhyaanna kulam, na paraakramam|
Na tasya visvaset praajno yadeechhechreya maathmanah|| T.1, sl. 285
A wise man, desirous of his well-being, should never trust a stranger whose demeanour, family-tradition or strength be not known. “[1, 156]
Self explanatory: Don’t be gullible. If you must trust, verify. Be wary of strangers.
Svabhavo nopadeshena sakthye kathurmanyathaa|
Suthaptamapi paaneeyam punargacchathi sheetataam || T1, sl., 281
The nature (of beings) can not be altered through preaching, because, water, even heated properly, regains its coolness again [1, 153]
When we understand the fundamental natures (prakrutti) of people, animals, and even nations, then we are forewarned of whether or not to place trust in them. This encourages caution in dealing with others.
Anaagatham yah kuruthe sa shobhathe, sa shochyethe, yo na karothya naagatham|
Vanethra samsthasya samaagatha jaraa, bilasya vaanee na kadaa’pi me shruthah || T.3., sl.212
One, who takes action after pre-meditation, shines; he, who does the opposite (i.e. acts without pre-meditation), comes to grief. Old age came over me while living here, but I never heard the words of a cave. [1, 506]
Forewarned is forearmed: This is the celebrated story of the jackal, the lion, and the cave. Suspicious of the tracks leading into a cave, the quick-minded jackal concocted a ruse to test whether anyone was there. The lion foolishly fell for it, by calling back to the jackal, who realised the cave was indeed occupied by a dangerous lion. Forewarned is forearmed.
Sa suhrdh vyasane yah syadanya jatyubdhavo’pi san|
Vrddho sarvo’pi mithram syat sarvashaameva dehinaam|| T.1, sl.368
A true friend is he, who, although born in another caste, comes to rescue in distressfull…times, as, in prosperity all behave as friends with all men [1, 203]
A friend in need is a friend indeed. False friends only linger during good times; they show their true face afterwards. A true friend is known by the consistent assistance he renders.
Yo mitraani karotyatra, na kautilyena vartthathe|
Thauh samam na paraabhoothim sampraapnothi kathanchana|| T.2, sl.199
A man, who makes many friends and never behaves with them in a manner filled with duplicacy, always gains victory with their assistance and never gets defeated. [1, 390]
This sloka, and indeed, the entire Mitra-sampraapthi section, discusses the importance of gaining friends. Through collective action and collaboration among friends, even the greatest enemies can be defeated. Therefore, it is important to work together as a team, whether among friends or family. Then, irrespective of individual fortunes being up or down, the good of all is preserved.
It is now long past time for Bharatiyas to wake up and smell the coffee. While they boast about IQ and perform poodle tricks, their enemies—who value wisdom over knowledge—are running circles around them. The truth is, our people have become laughingstocks, and everyone is in on the joke but them. In fact, that is why they ask for your opinion, to laugh at you behind your backs cause they know you can’t shut up.
Api saastroshu kusalaa, lokaachaaravivarjithaah |
Sarva tho haasyathaam yaanthi, yatha the moorkhapandithah || T.5, sl.39
Even though skilled in sastras, if, men are short of knowledge of worldy dealings, they become the laughing-stocks (subject of derision) like those foolish panditas. [1, 652]
What other people could be so stupid as to not support their own and turn to foreigners to educate them…on their own culture? What other people could be so stupid as to promote the same people working to destroy them…out of “friendship!” or rivalry with their own? What other people could be so stupid as to think that they can give gyaan on strategy and statecraft without having the leadership competence and experience to run even a popsicle stand? If our people are stupid today, it is not because of native culture, but despite it! When bollywood garbage and corrupted campy languages are considered “high culture”, what else will you produce besides debauched mimbos and bimbos?
The Panchatantra is no mere story of animal fables. The Panchatantra is a work of concentrated Tapasya by Acharya Vishnusarman to educate even the most stupid, stubborn, selfish, and supercilious of souls on the value of Niti. “Practical worldly wisdom is expressed for human beings, desirous of their well-being”. [1, ] It is to explain how sentiment and hedonism and gullibility cannot guide us and be a way of life. We must be serious people who understand natures and intentions of others, then we know the right course of action. That is how we find the balance between svadharma and Civilizational Survival, because Dharma and Niti themselves are joined at the hip. Dharma itself mandates Civilizational Survival, and Niti is the means to achieve it.
That is the value of the Panchatantra. And that is why it must be studied, first as a child, then as an adult. Start today.
*Translations of these Selections are generally not literal and are meant to convey the equivalent thought or lesson in English.
- Jha, Naveen Kumar & Anjana. Srivisnusarmans’ Pancatantram. Delhi: J.P.Publishing House. 2016
- Rajan, Chandra. The Pancatantra. London: Penguin. 1993