Panchatantra (The Fables of Bidpai) (Vishnu Sarma)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Panchatantra (The Fables of Bidpai) (Vishnu Sarma)

Panchatantra (The Fables of Bidpai) (Vishnu Sarma) (ca. 200 B.c.)

A collection of the earliest Hindu STORYTELLING compiled during the beginnings of the Mauryan Empire, the five-book Panchatantra (also called The Fables of Bidpai) earned the title of mother of Asian folklore. The anthology was the work of the Brahmin intellectual Vishnu Sarma of Varanasi (present- day Benares in southern India). A minister named Sumati proposed to educate the sons of Amarashakti, king of Mahilaropaya—Anantashakti, Bahushakti, and Ugrashakti—in the arts of logic, diplomacy, and statecraft. Sumati hired Sarma, an aged acharya (professor) of Sanskrit WISDOM to spend six months teaching the princes ethics and practical politics. This undertaking resulted in his compilation of the Panchatantra, a manual of ethics and realpolitik. Translated into Persian, Arabic, Syriac, Greek, Slavic, Turkish, Chinese, Latin, Hebrew, and Spanish, the compendium of five tantras (books)—“The Loss of Friends,” “Gaining Friends,” “Union,” “Separation,” and “Causing Dissension among Friends”—consists of a complex interlinkage of fool tales, beast FABLES, exempla, dialogues, aphorisms, allegories, admonitions, and stories of the Buddha's youth.

The compendium, the first Indian folklore to reach Western readers, comprised the princes' lessons over six months of classroom reading and discussion. The anthropomorphic actions of animal characters—foxes, cats, mice, herons, ducks, doves, owls—resemble the stories of the Greek fabulist AESOP, who depicted animals in their normal settings and behaviors rather than as courtiers in a palace. In one episode, a king troubled by dreams ponders reversals of fortune. He feels compelled to question the cavalier cruelties of empires toward peasants, a motif that appears in the Greek chronicler HERODOTUS'S Histories (440 B.C.) and the Japanese poet Yamanoue no Okura's “Dialogue on Poverty” (ca. 733). At a high point in one story, a victor “lifted his neck on high, exalted his mind heavenwards, trampled on the ground, trod upon things with his foot, set his heel on a lofty rock, and sought to crush both the king and his subjects” (Kalilah 1885, 73), an Indian model of extreme hubris. A piece of advice to rulers states, “A king who is pure in mind and far from iniquity, devoid of impurity and cleansed from lasciviousness, and finally has a soul unsmitten with greed, and far from envy, … this king attains to all things, spends the days of his life with all satisfaction, overcomes all oppositions and subdues all fortified places” (220). The admonition echoes advice to sovereigns contained in “The Last Words of David” (2 Samuel 23:1-3, ca. 900 B.C.), Laozi's DAODEJING (300 B.C.), and Confucius's ANALECTS (ca. 210 B.C.).

A Literary Touchstone

Throughout history, the wise have treasured the Panchatantra for its simple truths. It inspired a Buddhist masterwork, Aryasura's Jatakamala (Garland of Birth Stories, ca. A.D. 350), 34 traditional Sanskrit stories about Gautama Buddha's incarnations and the impact of his ethics on India's peasantry, Brahmins, and royalty. An evangelist living in Bengal in eastern India and present-day

Bangladesh, Aryasura created a popular aphorism: “The fortunes of the world depend on the behavior of its rulers” (Aryasura 1989, 94). A later story advised, “Inspire a love of virtue in all creatures by your own practice of self-discipline” (152).

In A.D. 570, during the Sassanian dynasty, King Khosrow I the Just of Ctesiphon (near present-day Baghdad, Iraq), a patron of culture and star science, commanded his physician Burzoe to travel to India to translate the Indian story cycle into Persian as an example of prudence. The result was Kalilah and Dimnah, an influential version of the Panchatantra. An edition from the Umayyid dynasty around A.D. 750, also named Kalilah and Dimnah, was the work of the Syrian Abdullah Ibn al-Muqaffa of Basra, who translated it from Middle Persian into Arabic. EROTIC LITERATURE in the anonymous Sanskrit suite Seventy Tales of a Parrot (ca. 1100) draws episodes directly from the parent text.

The lessons of the Panchatantra are still with us. Pilgrims have carried the stories of the monkey gardeners, wily jackals, and the lion king Fierce-Heart to Tibet and China; European crusaders brought home episodes of the Panchatantra, the first Indian text of Indian lore to affect to Europe. During a period of plotting and violence in Kashmir, the Brahmin storyteller Somadeva created the 18-book Kathasaritsagara (The Ocean of the Streams of Stories, 1070) as a chapbook for Queen Suryamati. The advice to rulers applied to all castes: “A wise man should not serve fools: he should serve wise men. Discontent also does harm… . Discontent produces in both worlds intolerable and unceasing grief” (Somadeva 1884, 75, 76). In France, the brevity and wit of the Panchatantra influenced the style of the fabulists MARIE DE FRANCE and JEAN DE LA FONTAINE. A German version of the Panchatantra, Reineke Fuchs (Reynard the Fox, 1794), a bestiary by JOHANN WOLFGANG VON GOETHE, predicts the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte to first consul of France. One of the stories of Hans Christian Andersen, “The Princess and the Pea” (1835), features an original Indian theme about an Asian princess whose royalty is obvious in her delicacy and vulnerability to physical pain. One of the original tales served as the basis of an animated children’s film, Manpasand: The Perfect Match (2008), produced by the Children’s Film Society of India.


Aryasura. Once the Buddha Was a Monkey. Translated by Peter Khoroche. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.

Kalilah and Dimnah: or, the Fables of Bidpai. Translated by Ion Grant Neville Keith-Falconer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1885.

Pancatantra. Translated by Visnu Sarma. London: Penguin Classics, 2007.

Somadeva. The Katha Sarit Sagara; or, Ocean of the Streams of Story. Translated by C. H. Tawney. Calcutta: J. W. Thomas, 1884.