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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Children's Literature in India-The Panchatantra

The best ideas always come while having my bath. So many middles and poems were written 'underwater'. This morning the thought process went: friends on Facebook-libraries-librarians-children's literature in India-my great research project courtesy a fellowship from the Ministry of Culture currently languishing on a shelf...

A query from an interested librarian sparked off the thought--why not put it up on my blog? So here goes:

The Panchatantra and its Versions

The Story as Good Counsel

The Panchatantra, a collection of stories said to be more than two thousand years old is considered the oldest example of a work written specifically for children or rather, young adults, in India. Its influence on children’s literature throughout the world cannot be overestimated, since the stories have traveled far and wide and entered the folklore of many countries. There are said to be 200 versions of these stories in about 60 languages. In fact it is acknowledged that it has been disseminated even more widely than the Bible.

The Panchatantra or ‘five books’ is a work of niti, translated by Arthur Ryder as the ‘wise conduct of life’.[i] Attributed to Vishnusharma, a learned brahmin, it is said to have been written to teach three dull princes the art of living wisely and well. It is a collection of eighty odd animal and human fables interspersed with verse. Numerous versions of these stories exist in India itself. Their universality can be gauged from the fact that they soon traveled through the world and were readily adopted into the lore of other countries.

While it is hard to say exactly when this great work was written, it is generally accepted that it belongs to the third century B.C. It was translated into Pahlavi by the physician Burzueh in the sixth century A.D. who, it is said, had heard of a great treasure that existed in India and came to search for it under the patronage of the Persian ruler Chosrau Anosharwan. In 570 AD it was translated into Syriac, and into Arabic (under the name Kalilah wa Dimnah) around 750 AD Hebrew, Greek, Latin and all the European languages. It is said that with the exception of the Bible no other work has been so widely translated and circulated. It has been the source for and influenced many other classics like Aesop’s Fables, The Arabian Nights, the Fables of La Fontaine, the Decameron of Boccaccio and the Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. These stories were also known in Japan, Korea, Burma and Africa and have passed into the folklore of many countries albeit in slightly altered forms.

According to the great Indologist Johannes Hertel the true version of the original Panchatantra is the Tantrakhyayika discovered in Kashmir and said to have been written between 275 B.C. and 275 AD (there are conflicting opinions about the dates). A salutation to Chankaya or Kautilya the famous minister of Chandragupta Maurya by the writer Vishnusharma is taken as proof that the stories were composed after 275 AD when Chankaya died. There is also a request by the king to teach his sons the Arthshastra of Kautilya. It is also said, though, that some of the stories had been in existence before this date.

In the course of time many recensions of the Panchatantra came into being, the best known being the Hitopdesa of Narayana. In these recensions, stories were added, removed or rearranged. It was also used as a text to teach Sanskrit to beginners. An extract was included in the Kashmiri Brihatkatha which has been lost now but some stories have been reproduced in the Brihatkathamanjari and the Kathasaritasagar. The text which is most widely used is the one attributed to the Jain monk Purnabhadra, written about 1199 AD under the patronage of King Soma. He added many new stories including the one about Gangadatta and Prithudatta who are supposed to be the famous Rajput ruler Prithiviraja and his treacherous father-in-law Jayachandra.

The story of the writing of the Panchatantra is that the king of Mahilaropya (Mylapore in South India or Pataliputra in Bihar, according to another version) had three sons who lacked both knowledge and virtue. Distressed, the king summoned five hundred learned brahmins and asked them to suggest a way to educate them in politics and worldly wisdom. One of them said, “Let them study grammar for twelve years, then the Dharmshashtra of Manu for twelve years, the Arthashastra of Chanakya and the Kamashastra of Vatsyayana and other great works of knowledge. Then only will they be complete in knowledge and wisdom. However, a wise pundit Sumati said, “Life is short and fleeting. These studies will take a long time. Let the cream of these works be churned and taught to the princes as the swan separated milk from water and drinks milk alone. There is a learned brahmin Vishnusharma who has mastered the art of conveying the essence of knowledge to his students. If you put your sons in his charge, your majesty, he will surely teach them the arts and sciences in the shortest time.” The king summoned Vishnusharma and offered him a hundred villages as payment for teaching the princes. But the teacher replied, “My knowledge is not for sale. But I guarantee to make the princes proficient in politics and worldly wisdom in six months and swear to abandon my profession if I do not.”

Vishnusharma took the princes to his home and began to impart wisdom to them in the form of stories. These stories were divided into five tantras (literally threads of a weaver) or five books. In five months the dull, ignorant princes were transformed and became masters of the art of successful and intelligent living.

This story demonstrates the power of the story as a learning tool and the importance attached to it in ancient times.

The five books of the Panchatantra are ‘Mitrabheda’ or the loss of friends, ‘Mitrasamprapti ’ or the winning of friends, ‘Kakolukeeyam’ or the war between the crows and the owls, ‘Lubdhpranasam’ or the loss of gains and ‘Aparikshitakarakam’ or the fruit of ill-considered action. The device of a story within a story, widely used in several other ancient works has been employed in the Panchatantra. In the first book the two jackals Kartaka and Damanaka, jealous of the friendship of the lion Pingalaka with the bull Sanjeevika create a rift between them which results in the death of the bull. They narrate stories to each other to further their plot and later justify their action. The other four books use a similar method though the first three are much longer and the last two appear to have more additions by other writers. The stories are interspersed with verses which are mostly quotations from sacred or authoritative texts. Most of the characters are animals and have certain stock characteristics, like the lion is portrayed as being strong but deficient in wisdom, the jackals crafty and cats as hypocrites.

The Panchatantra is a literary masterpiece for many reasons. It displays a profound knowledge of human nature and worldly wisdom along with humour and subtle caricature. It also has a pragmatic theory of politics and depicts the weaknesses and strengths of people in power like kings and priests and gives us deep insight into the life of the times. Among its most popular stories which have been been retold for children are ‘The Lion and the Rabbit’, ‘The Singing Donkey,’ ‘The Blue Jackal,’ ‘The Monkey and the Crocodile.’ These stories like many others not mentioned here have a special appeal for children because they demonstrate the strength of wit over brute strength. Powerful animals like lions and crocodiles are easily outwitted by physically weaker rabbits and monkeys. At the same time one can see why they were told to future rulers because they delineate the desirable qualities of a leader and the essential nature of power and the danger of being led astray by sycophants etc. Some, of course, are brutally realistic, and are not usually included in collections meant for children.

[i] Arthur W. Ryder The Panchatantra, Mumbai : Jaico Publishing House, 1949) Intro. p. 4
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