A clever monkey who tricked a gullible crocodile. A wily fox who helped a pair of crows outsmart a snake. A foolish tortoise who couldn’t stop talking. These are some of the wise and wonderful stories from the Panchatantra. These are tales that have been told by grandparents and parents to eager little listeners through the ages, all around the world.
While the exact date of writing remains a mystery (the author would not have liked that!), most historians believe they were probably composed around the 3rd century CE.
The author is presumed to be a scholar named Vidyapati Vishnu Sharma, also known as Visnusarman, though some academics think that it was a nom de plume or pen name. Being a learned scholar, he was in charge of imparting knowledge and wisdom to three young princes in the kingdom of Mahilaropyam. To liven up the lessons, he spun marvellous stories with animal characters to teach them the fundamentals of good governance. These stories had lessons about making friends and allies, strategies to defeat enemies and detect liars, ways and means to overcome problems with diplomacy and other insights that would help the princes become top-notch rulers someday. It became the go-to book for Niti Shastra, the science of wise conduct.
The collection is divided into five (panch) chapters of treaties (tantras), and was written in Sanskrit prose and verse. The five parts are the Mitra-bheda, Mitra-labha, Kakolukiyam, Labdhapranasam and Apariksitakarakam.
The stories didn’t just delight the people in India. Soon, they became a global phenomenon. In the 6th century CE, King Khusrow of Persia sent his best physician Boryuza to India to collect some rare medicinal plants. Along with the miracle cures, he took back the equally precious Panchatantra stories. Boryuza realised these fables were a must-read for everyone back home and so he translated them into Pahlavi, the language spoken at the time, and called it Karirak ud Damanak. He credited the tales to ‘Bidpai’ which could be a corruption of the name ‘Vidyapati.’ The Panchatantra is probably the most translated Indian literary work as it has been interpreted or rewritten in several languages from an old Syriac script to Arabic to Greek and then to Western versions (France, Italy), where it was called Fables of Bidpai. The Germans loved it so much that their version, Das Buch der Beispiele, was one of the first books to printed in the famous Gutenberg Press after the Bible! The stories are the inspiration to other well-known fables too such as the Grimm Brothers Fairy Tales.
The stories are everlasting. They are still read aloud at home and in schools and are used as the basis of plays and movies. Their morals or lessons are even used in corporate offices to teach strategy and management, just like they were used to bring great wisdom to the princes nearly 2000 years ago!
Written by: Pereena Lamba. Pereena is a freelance writer, editor and creative consultant . She is also co-author of Totally Mumbai.