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Is the Panchatantra just bed time stories?

Panchatantra stamp

If you are from India, you are more likely to know at least one story from the Panchatantra. We know that the Panchatantra has some great short stories, but to classify this 2300 year old collection as a story book for little children could be a bit hasty. A careful look at it beyond the narrative tells us a different story. A critical view at the Panchatantra brings to light a creative way of life coaching  using a practical and fun way, that too for all age groups.

The Panchatantra, originally written in Sanskrit, remains as one of the most influential contribution to world literature. It has also been the most frequently translated literary product of India. The Panchatantra has over 200 versions in more than 50 languages. Literary critics have even noted a strong similarity between the Panchatantra and Aesop’s fables – and that the Aesop fables has stories from the Panchatantra.

Commenting on the impact of the Panchatantra on the world, Sir William Wilson Hunter , an early Indologist writes:

“The fables of animals, familiar to the Western world from the time of Aesop downwards, had their original home in India…Panchatantra was translated into the ancient Persian in the 6th century A.D. from that rendering all the subsequent versions in Asia Minor and Europe have been derived. The most ancient animal fables of India are at the present day the nursery stories of England and America. This graceful Hindu imagination delighted also in fairy tales, and the Sanskrit compositions of this class are the original source of many of the fairy stories of Persia, Arabia and Christendom.”

Franklin Edgerton – a translator of the Panchatantra in 1924 said

“As early as the eleventh century this work reached Europe, and before 1600 it existed in Greek, Latin, Spanish, Italian, German, English, Old Slavonic, Czech, and perhaps other Slavonic languages. Its range has extended from Java to Iceland. In France, “at least eleven Panchatantra tales are included in the work of La Fontaine” .

Misconceptions about Panchatantra…

When we hear about India’s cultural assets and literary products such as the Panchatantra we tend to dismiss it as old and irrelevant to modern times. We think that the Panchatantra is a story book after all. We hastily declare that it is just a children’s book of fables with animal stories that has morals.

We hardly make an effort to go through the source book to know the real purpose of the core script nor do we bother to find out what the author says in his introduction. It is quite sad when the same sets of Indian stories gets published completely restyled, re-branded and animated in a new avatar in the USA or Japan, we celebrate.

According to the Panchatantra itself, Amarashakti the King of Mahilaropya (perhaps in southern India) was concerned about the governing capabilities of his three princes. Apparently the three princes were not interested in learning and after a suggestion made by his minister, the King decided to engage a wise Pundit Vishnu Sharma for ‘awakening or igniting their intelligence’ of his princes. And it so happened that the Princes became wiser.

So, what is the main theme of the Panchatantra…?

About the Panchatantra, here is what the author Pundit Vishnu Sharma says,

” A man who has studied this Neeti Shaastra or listened to its principles will never be defeated not even by Indra the lord of the Heaven.”

The main theme of the Panchatantra is ‘Neeti’ which is hard to translate in English. ‘Neeti’ roughly means practical worldly conduct or even a “wise conduct of life”. That makes the Panchatantra connected with one of the branches of ancient Indian science known as the ‘Neeti-Shaastra’ which teaches us, how to relate to and understand people, reliable friendships, problem solving through tact and wisdom and how to live in peace and harmony in the face of the many pitfalls in life.

Interesting methodology of the Panchatantra…

It is very interesting to note that Panchatantra is a clever piece of story telling but with a difference and reveals the creative story-telling powers of the author. Panchatantra is not about the five sets of stories but about five tantras or principles. The garland of stories completes one tantra. Each tantra starts with a main story with other stories inside the story. The characters in a story tell other stories, based on different situations or contexts.

The narrative seems suitable to children but the underlying theme can be key knowledge for grown-ups. The author uses a modern day case study method to make a point and validates the teachings with a practical tip to apply in life.

How the Panchatantra transcends time and culture…

As the story characters are mostly animals, many mistake these for pre-school nursery stories or fables. This is a gross misconception. It was the genius of Pundit Vishnu Sharma that the stories using manly animals are created without any cultural bias – because animals are animals in any culture. The Panchatantra can change our perspectives on the many daily challenges that we face in life. The stories relate to everyday life situations and show a moral and realistic approach to successful living. The learning is always close to what a person will face in day-to-day life. Even though the book was written more than two thousand years ago the ideas and wisdom expressed transcend time and culture because it teaches us how to be wiser, how to recognize frauds and cheating, how to make friends and how to live life using our intelligence.

Many things to many people…

All in all, the Panchatantra can be many things to many people – a fun reading for adults, gift for young or old friends, education on ethics, practical approach to life, creative teaching methodology and of course an excellent story book.  There are also a good number of kindle versions of the Panchatantra these days and quite cheap as well.

The Panchatantra are designed as bed time stories but daytime constructs of wisdom where life is understood by constructing meaning and intellectual stimulation. The Panchatantra is one such shining jewel from ancient India that has stood the test of time and that provides life coaching and mentoring to everybody – be it kids or even adults. Let’s not dismiss the Panchatantra as a set of animal stories only for children. In fact, Panchatantra is Neeti-Shaastra.

Ram Lingam blogs his insights on India and Indian culture at www.indiasutra.co.nz

2 Responses to Is the Panchatantra just bed time stories?

  1. Shrinivas Tilak says:

    (1)In my article “Vinayak niti” (see http://www.sookta-sumana.com) I have discussed Veer Savarkar’s thought on the Hindu understanding of state polity and policy in terms of his notion of Hindutva. Savarkar’s niti, I have argued, is based, in part, on the Panchatantra.

    (2)Presently, I am examining the connection and continuity (if any) between the “niti” espoused in the Panchatantra of Vishnusharman and the formation of the Rashtrakuta, Vijayanagara, and the Maratha empires in Southern India and the evolution of their state polity and policy. Such continuity is likely to be discernible in the narrative sculptures and literary traditions of South India (the Ajnapatra of Ramchandra Amatya; prime minister of Shivaji for instance). This is what brought me (through sheer serendipity) to this blog, which, I am very glad to say, includes many areas of common interests.

    (3)I understand that late Dr C.S. Patil (a renowned archaeologist from Bengaluru) contributed an article “Panchatantra Sculptures and Literary Traditions in India and Indonesia” to “Narrative Sculpture and Literary Traditions” edited by Marijke J. Klokke (Leiden 2000: 73-95).

    (4)Unfortunately, Dr Patil passed away in 2001 and our local university library here in Montreal does not have the above monograph. I am therefore wondering if you or other readers might have relevant material that could be made available to me by e-mail. Thanks,

    S.Tilak

  2. Thank you for an eye opening article on Panchatantra. Recently I was checking for videos in youtube on Panchatantra to tell stories to children. I found few animation vidoes. They are really amazing.

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