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PAÑCATANTRA . The Pañcatantra is a collection of animal stories, in Sanskrit, compiled by an unknown author some time prior to the sixth (possibly as early as the fourth) century ce. Many of the stories were doubtless drawn from the great mass of Indian oral tradition, and part at least are of Buddhist origin, as may be seen from their close affinities to the Jātakas, or stories of the prior births of the Buddha. The Pañcatantra belongs in part to a class of works known as nītiśāstra ("science of right conduct") and partly also to the closely allied arthaśāstra ("science of polity"), which involves the practical and shrewd knowledge needed by an Indian king to rule his kingdom and conduct its internal and extermal affairs efficiently. Because of their practical and worldly purpose, the Pañcatantra fables are often amoral in tone, in contrast to the fables of the Greek storyteller Aesop, the connection with which, though much discussed, seems most unlikely on a number of grounds.

The stories of the Pañcatantra are set in a frame story in which a learned brahman named Viuśarman undertakes to impart political and social propriety to the ignorant and dissolute sons of King Amaraśakti of Mahilaropya. The Pañcatantra consists of five (pañca ) books (tantra ) of varying length. Its characters are, for the most part, animals, birds, and fish whose behavior is like that of human beings. So contrived as to lead from one to the other in a continuous series, the stories are emboxed in one another, each being introduced by a character in the foregoing story who recites a verse of general wisdom or one about a situation similar to the matter at hand. This leads to a request by one of the other characters for an explanation, which then follows in the form of an illustrative story.

Typical of the fables of the Pañcatantra is that of the two geese and their friend the tortoise. Because there is a scarcity of water in the lake where the three have been living happily, the geese are about to leave for another lake. The tortoise begs them to take him along. They agree to transport him if he grasps with his mouth a stick they will hold in their beaks, and warn him not to say anything if he hears people below expressing wonder at the sight. In spite of his promise, the tortoise opens his mouth to reply to the comments of the people on the ground and falls to his death. The moral of this tale is that he who fails to heed the exhortation of his friends and well-wishers comes to grief.

Because of its widespread popularity the Pañcatantra has been endlessly recopied and recast over the centuries, leading to many recensions. Its fables were also variously abbreviated or condensed for incorporation into other works, as for example the Kathasāritsāgara of Somadeva and the Bhatkathāmañjarī of Kemendra, both of the eleventh century. One of the most famous abridgments is that contained in the Hitopadeśa (Instruction in What Is Salutary), whose author states that he drew his work "from the Pañcatantra and another book." Many of the fables are common parlance among Indians of all classes today, who are often unaware of a particular story's connection with the Sanskrit Pañcatantra, because one version or another will have been translated into almost every vernacular of India. The original Pañcatantra has, of course, long since perished, superseded by these countless variations and metamorphoses, whose mutual interrelations are often difficult, if not impossible, to establish with certitude.

At an early time fame of the Pañcatantra began to extend far beyond the borders of India, and scarcely a land can be named to which a translation of all or part of it has not come, whether centuries ago or in recent times. The oldest translation outside India is that into Pahlavi (c. 550) made, according to the traditional account, by a physician named Burzūye, who had been sent from Persia by the Sasanid king Khusrū Anūshīrvān for the purpose of translating the Pañcatantra and other works of Indian wisdom. Although this translation, like the original Pañcatantra, has long since disappeared, two translations from it have survived. By far the more important of the two is that made into Arabic around 750 by ʿAbd Allāh ibn al-Muqaffaʿ; its title, Kitāb Kalīlah wa-Dimnah (The Book of Kalilah and Dimnah), contains the arabicized names of the two jackals called Karataka and Damanaka in the Pañcatantra. The Kalīlah wa-Dimnah quickly became diffused everywhere in the Arab world from Spain to India through translations into its principal languages. Of all these translations the Hebrew by Rabbi Jōʿēl has an especially significant place in the westward migration of the fables, as it was from this Hebrew version that they were finally brought into Latin and so made accessible to Europeans. The Latin translation, by a converted Jew named John of Capua, entitled Liber Kelile et Dimne, Directorium Vite Humane, about two centuries later became one of the earliest books printed in Europe, for its first edition appeared in 1480, barely three decades after the invention of movable types by Gutenberg. An Italian translation of the Latin Directorium by Antonio Francesco Doni, La moral Filosophia del Doni, in turn was rendered into English in 1570 as The Morall Philosophie of Doni by Sir Thomas North. Thus did the Pañcatantra fables come into English more than a thousand years after their composition, in a version standing in the seventh degree from the original.

See Also

Śāstra Literature.


Complete and selective translations of the Pañcatantra have been made by Arthur W. Ryder under the titles The Panchatantra, Translated from the Sanskrit and Gold's Gloom: Tales from the Panchatantra (both Chicago, 1925). An attempt was made by Franklin Edgerton in The Panchatantra Reconstructed, 2 vols. (New Haven, Conn., 1924), to restore the lost original Pañcatantra by a painstaking comparison of the oldest surviving derivatives. The first volume contains a detailed discussion of his method and the interrelationships of the various derivatives in addition to an English translation of the reconstructed Pañcatantra ; the second volume has the reconstructed Sanskrit text and critical apparatus. The English translation has been separately published as The Panchatantra, Translated from the Sanskrit by Franklin Edgerton (London, 1965). In Quellen des Pañcatantra (Wiesbaden, 1978), Harry Falk compares the Pañcatantra fables with parallel versions in the Buddhist Jātakas and the Mahābhārata. This work is much influenced by Ruprecht Geib's Zur Frage nach der Urfassung des Pañcatantra (Wiesbaden, 1969).

A translation that is antiquated in a number of respects yet remains of great intrinsic value to the student of the Pañcatantra and its diffusion is Theodor Benfey's Pantschatantra: Fünf Bücher indischer Fabeln, Märchen und Erzählungen, aus dem Sanskrit übersetzt mit Einleitung und Anmerkungen, 2 vols. (1859; reprint, Hildesheim, 1966). A convenient and readable discussion of the fables and their progression from language to language outside India is contained in Kalīlah and Dimnah, or the Fables of Bidpai: Being an Account of Their Literary History, with an English Translation of the Later Syriac Version of the Same, and Notes by I. G. N. Keith-Falconer (Cambridge, 1885). Following the introduction there is a genealogical table of the principal translations that have descended from the Sanskrit original outside India. A much more detailed and accurate table, prepared by Franklin Edgerton, is to be found in The Ocean of Story, Being C. H. Tauney's Translation of Somadeva's Kathā Sarit Sāgara, edited by N. M. Penzer, vol. 5 (1926; reprint, Delhi, 1968), app. 2, pp. 232242. Another general account of the migration of the fables, though much less detailed, is given by Joseph Jacobs in The Earliest English Version of the Fables of Bidpai (London, 1888), which reproduces Sir Thomas North's English translation, The Morall Philosophie of Doni (1570).

New Sources

Olivelle, Patrick, trans. Pañcatantra: The Book of India's Folk Wisdom. New York, 1997.

Sternback, L. Hindu Legends of Justice: Panchantantra & Smrti. Delhi, 2002.

Walter Harding Maurer (1987)

Revised Bibliography