Entertaining and Edifying: The Age-Old Animal Fables of the “Panchatantra”

I can’t remember when was it that I first encountered stories from the Panchatantra, the ancient Indian collection of linked animal fables. Emerging from an oral tradition of storytelling, this set of entertaining ethical narratives is believed to have been first recorded 1500 years ago. It uses the literary technique of the frame story. One story lies within another story like Russian dolls or Chinese boxes.

The exact period of the composition of the Panchatantra is uncertain, and estimates vary from 1200 BCE/BC to 300 CE/AD. The work is attributed to a personality called Vishnu Sharma. Like Ved Vyasa, the “author” of the Mahabharata, Vishnu Sharma is a half-mythical teacher. He is himself a character in the book. Some scholars hold that the real Vishnu Sharma was born in Kashmir. As the Panchatantra has been transmitted over two millennia, additions have been made by multiple contributors. The legend of the author, though, has remained alive.

The Panchatantra by Vishnu Sharma translated by Chandra Rajan (2006, Penguin Classics)

The tales first left India around 570 AD. They were translated into Pehlavi (Middle Persian) by Burzōē – the court physician of the late Sassanid (Zoroastrian) emperor of Iran Khosro Anushirvan (who reigned from AD 550-578). The Panchatantra was later translated into Arabic in 750 AD by Abdullah Ibn al-Muqaffa (a Zoroastrian convert to Islam) as Kalīlah and Dimnah (names of two jackals). This Arabic version became the parent of European versions. By the 1600s, the work was available in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Spanish, Italian, German, French, English, Old Slavonic, Czech, and many other languages, spanning from the Nordic countries to Southeast Asia. Traces of the Panchatantra are found in a wide variety of texts, among them the Arabian Nights, the Canterbury Tales, the Decameron, the Fables of La Fontaine, some stories of the Brothers Grimm and even the Br’er Rabbit tales of the southern US.

The Penguin Classics edition translated by Sanskrit scholar Chandra Rajan (who studied at St Stephen’s College, Delhi and the University of Western Ontario, Canada) comes with a splendid introduction and explanatory notes. I learnt that the project begins when a king called Amara Sakti – ruler of a southern land called Mahilaropya – engages the services of Vishnu Sharma so that the teacher may awaken the intellect of his three idle sons. Sharma comes up with pancha tantra – “Five Devices/Discourses” – that illuminate both the nobility and the baseness, the heights and the depths, the virtues and vices, follies and foibles of the human person.


Scene from Kalīlah and Dimnah. This 15th century Persian manuscript is kept at the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul, Turkey, Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

The fables are supposed to teach the princes how to think, not so much what to think. This project in storytelling is meant to equip them with decision-making skills for their personal lives and also in matters of the polity. It is a work of neeti-shastra (the science of neeti). Neeti, like the concept of dharma in Indian thought, is quite an untranslatable word. Chandra Rajan sheds some light:

The concept of neeti would include carrying out duties and obligations, familial and socio-political, and the exercise of practical wisdom in affairs private and public: the wisdom not of a saint or a sage but the wisdom that has to govern the thinking and conduct of persons who are of the world, and who are in the world. Neeti would entail resolute action taken after careful scrutiny and due deliberation. A discrimination judgement has to be brought to bear on all issues, problems and situations…An all-round and harmonious development of human powers is the basis of neeti; obsessions have no part in it, but good sense and good feeling do. To live wisely and well in the truest sense of these two terms – that is neeti.


“…the wisdom not of a saint or a sage but the wisdom that has to govern the thinking and conduct of persons who are of the world, and who are in the world.” (Photo: Pixabay)


The Panchatantra is divided into the parts – (1) Estrangement of Friends, (2) Winning of Friends, (3) Of Crows and Owls, (4) Loss of Gains and (5) Rash Deeds. It contains three overlapping worlds, a human world, a non-human world and a twilight world of magic and dream-illusion. Through dense forests, deep-blue waters and settlements known and unknown, we meet a diverse cast of characters – monkeys, crows, lions, serpents, elephants, monks, judges, scholars, the uxorious husband, the deceitful wife…No one is above criticism.

It was very hard to choose an excerpt to curate here because there were just so many things to learn in The Panchatantra. In the end, I decided on “The Scholars who brought a Dead Lion to Life” from (5) Rash Deeds as it seems very pertinent to our current fast-paced age of never-ending inventions and discoveries, particularly in the realm of bio-technology. The story is extremely simple and extremely smart. It is about four Brahmin (a high caste Hindu) friends. Three are well-read, highly scholarly. The fourth, not so much; he relies more on his personal logic, reason, wisdom, intuition. The tale carries echoes of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and demonstrates how dangerous the acquisition of mere knowledge can get if it is applied in the real world without a proper understanding of the consequences of one’s acts. By openly criticising the “Brahmins” here, the story points out the limitations of the intellectual elites in any society.

In the text, the story is being told to a certain “Wheelbearer” by one “Goldfinder”. It begins with the following line: “Better common sense than erudition; good sense is superior to book-learning; absence of sense invites destruction; as with the scholars who made a dead lion living.” Read part of “The Scholars who brought a Dead Lion to Life” here:

…the four of them continued their journey. In a forest they chanced upon the bones of a dead lion. And one of them remarked, “Look, here is an opportunity for us to demonstrate the value of our learning and put it to practical use. Here lies a dead creature. Let us bring it back to life using the knowledge we have gained by diligent study.”


Immediately one of them rose to the occasion. “Oh, I know how to assemble the bones and make the skeleton.”


A second added, “And I can provide it with skin and flesh and blood as well.”


The third capped this with, “But I can give it the breath of life.”


So, when one assembled the bones properly, another furnished flesh and blood and covered it with skin. Just as the third Brahmin scholar was going to infuse life into the form, the fourth stopped him, saying, “Look; this is a lion; if you give it life, it is going to kill us all.”


“Look; this is a lion; if you give it life, it is going to kill us all.” (Photo: Pexels)


But the third scholar retorted bristling, “Shame upon you! You wretched fool! What! You think I am the one to make my learning useless and unfruitful, do you?”


The fourth man’s reply came pat, “Well, all right then; go ahead; but just wait one moment while I climb this tree nearby.”


As Commonsense climbed up the tree, the third scholar breathed life into the form which straight away rose up as a lion and killed all three scholars. When the lion went elsewhere the fourth Brahmin, the man of sense, climbed down and went home.


“Therefore I told you,’Better common sense than erudition…’ and the rest of it,” concluded Goldfinder.


Whereupon Wheelbearer retorted, “O, no, not at all; for your reasoning here is faulty. And I tell you that even those with ample good sense may perish if Fate strikes a blow at them. On the other hand, if Fate is kind, even those with meagre wit succeed in living happily…

Another version of The Panchatantra which you can check out: Pañcatantra: The Book of India’s Folk Wisdom (Oxford World’s Classics). Also see related works from ancient India in Penguin Classics: The Jatakas: Birth Stories of Bodhisatta and The Hitopadesa.



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