Google+ Followers

Monday, December 28, 2009

Favourite Stories for Children in India

The Brihatkatha and its Versions

The Story as Entertainment


The Panchatantra and Hitopdesa were meant to be instructive. However, the Brihatkatha of Gunaddhya and its various versions which include the Brihatkathamanjari of Kshemendra, and Kathasaritsagar of Somdeva amongst others and the Dasakumarcharita of Dandin were stories written more for entertainment and amusement. Many of them cannot really be considered suitable for children though some have been adapted for them while others have been retold more or less as they are.

The oldest, the Brihatkatha of Gunaddhya is considered the source work for the writings of Kshemendra and Somdeva. It was written in Paisachi which has been identified as a kind of Prakrit and is perhaps the only work in that language which had an influence on Sanskrit literature second only to the great epics. No original version survives, though several Sanskrit and Prakrit versions are said to have been made, not all of which are still in existence. It is the only work in Prakrit of which so many Sanskrit versions were made. The oldest Sanskrit version is said to have been made by Raja Purvardha in the 6th century A.D. but it is no longer in existence. Gunaddhya is said to have lived in the time of the Satavahana ruler of the Deccan in the first century A.D. (Some say 4th or 5th) who ruled over Pratishthanapur on the banks of the Godavari. The Satavahanas were a dynasty which was trying to Aryanise and the scholar J.A.van Buitenen believes Paisachi was a dialect of the North-West.

Vasudevhindi, a Prakrit version is considered the oldest amongst the available versions of the Brihatakatha. It was begun by a Jain monk Sanghdasgani and completed two centuries later by Dharmdasgani another Jain monk and is said to date not later than 604 A.D. They changed the original story by making Krishna’s father Vasudeva the main protagonist and narrator. Among the available Sanskrit versions, Buddhaswami’s Brihatkthashlokasangraha is considered the oldest. It was written during the reign of the Gupta dynasty. J.A.B. van Buitenen considers it ‘lively, observant, irreverent and colloquial’, in comparison with the better known Kathasaritasagar by Somdeva which he finds pedestrian at times.

According to legend these stories were told by Shiva to entertain his consort Parvati who begged him to tell her a story which no one had ever heard. He said that he would tell her stories about vidyadhars or aerial spirits since gods were invincible and humans lived in misery. Gunnaddhya (rich in virtue) was actually Malyavana, one of the members of the god’s retinue. His friend Pushpadant had made himself invisible and bypassed Shiva’s guard Nandi to enter the god’s cave and heard the stories secretly. He told the stories to his wife and in turn she passed them on. This led to his being discovered and cursed by a furious Parvati to become a mortal. When Malyavana pleaded his friend’s case he received a similar curse. But his wife was able to soften the goddess’stance. She finally said that if Pushpadant told these stories to a pishach Kanabhuti and Kanabhuti narrated them to Malyavana who in turn told them to human beings they would be able to free themselves from the curse. This little tale again illustrates the value attached to stories in ancient times.

It is said that Gunnadhya wrote these stories in secret in the forest because he was afraid the vidyadhars would steal them. Since he had no ink he wrote the 700,000 couplets in his own blood on bark. The manuscript consisting of seven books was presented to the Satavahana ruler who rejected it with disgust because it was written in blood. Gunaddhya burned six of the seven volumes after reading them to the birds and beasts of the forest but one was salvaged, that of Narvahandatta, the skeleton story which consisted of 16 parts and the kathapith added. Gunaddhya appears to have been a man who had traveled widely and in his stories the lives of gods and humans, fantastical beings like the vidyadhars who are semi divine—something between gandharvas and siddhas intertwine. Curses and boons and accounts of previous lives are used as plot devices. Scholars have commented on the fact that these are basically stories about merchants not kings and gods. The four major cities of Ujjaini, Tamralipti, Madura and Takshshila, which were major centres of trade and commerce play an important role.

The best known versions of Gunaddhya’s work are those of Kshmendra and Somadeva. Kshemendra compiled his Brihadkathamanjari some thirty years before Somadeva but the Kathasaritasagar is one third larger larger and is the better known work. It is the largest collection of tales, containing twice the number included in the Iliad and the Odyssey. However, Kshemendra’s work is considered more poetic by some.

Somadeva was a Kashmiri brahmin who composed this work some time between 1063 to 1081 A.D. to entertain Queen Suryamati, the wife of his ruler Anantdev.

Many people consider this vast work the foremost example of the Indian storytelling tradition. It combines history and myth, reality and fantasy with amazing effect and contains an extraordinary variety of characters and situations. Not only does it contain stories about actual historical figures like the grammarians, Vyadi, Vararuchi, Indradutt and Panini but also weaves in those about legendary supernatural beings like the gandharvas, kinnars and vidyadhars. There are extraordinary female characters as well. This work also provides amazing insights into human psychology and a vivid glimpse of the social structure, lifestyle, even the geography of the subcontinent. Neighbouring countries like Srilanka, Malaysia and Indonesia also figure in the narrative.

Many individual collections of stories are woven into the Kathasaritasagar. Among these the ones that have been most popular amongst children are the King Vikram stories. While the whole of the Kathasaritasagar consists of stories within stories bound together by the Shiva-Parvati story, both these collections use the device of the narration of the adventures of the king to link them together. They are the Vetalpanchvishanti or Vetalpachisi (Twenty-five Stories of the Vampire) and Singhasandwatrinshika or Singhasan Battisi (Thirty-two Stories of the Lion Throne). The legendary king Vikramaditya was an actual historical figure, the founder of the Vikrami era which is 56 years in advance of the Christian era. He vanquished the Huns and was the ruler of the Malwa region in central India and had his capital in Ujjaini. Some scholars, however, feel Vikramaditya could be a title of the great Chandragupta Maurya.

The Vetal stories are told to King Vikramaditya by Vetal, a ghost or vampire. The framing story says that a mendicant comes to the king’s court and asks him to help him in an important ritual. It entails bringing a corpse which hangs from a tree to the burning ground where the ritual was to be performed. When the king removes the corpse he finds that a Vetal resides in it. While he is transporting it, the Vampire tells him a story at the end of which he poses a question seeking a moral judgement or a definition of a social relationship, based on the action of the story which the king has to answer correctly or die. Each time the king gives his answer, the corpse immediately flies back to the tree and the king sets off to fetch it again, so the cycle is repeated. After twenty-four stories have been told the king is unable to answer the twenty-fifth question. The Vetal then exposes the mendicant as one who is seeking to destroy the king and after helping him to worst the man tells him to ask for a boon. The king asks that these twenty-five stories always be famous on the earth.

These stories are the most famous of our ‘riddle tales’ and like other popular literature travelled well beyond our borders. Van Buitenen states that some of them have influenced European literature and mentions the great German writer Thomas Mann’s novella Die Vertauschten Kopfe which is said to be inspired by the story “The Transposed Heads”. Similarly, he says the story of “The Three Fastidious Brahmins” traveled through Central Asia and Siberia and Jutland and became the basis for Hans Christian Andersen’s famous fairy tale The Princess and the Pea. [ii]

The Singhasan stories are told by thirty-two statuettes to another king, Raja Bhoja who has discovered the throne of King Vikramaditya and is trying to ascend it. As the framing story narrates, the king is astonished to hear that an ignorant cowherd is transformed into an ideal judge, better than him, when he sits upon a mound on the outskirts of his capital Ujjain and resolves disputes. Upon investigating the rumours he finds that they are true and has the mound excavated. He finds a magnificent throne buried below and prepares to ascend it with great ceremony. But each time he attempts to, he is stopped by one of the statuettes which line its base, which says only one who is worthy of it can sit on the throne and then tells him a story about the king who once occupied it--Vikramaditya. These thirty-two stories do not follow a specific pattern like the Vetal riddle tales. They do have a certain focus-- to project an exemplary ruler—Vikramaditya, who has taken a vow guaranteeing the happiness of his subjects and is prepared to go to great lengths to fulfill it. In the course of discharging his duties he has many exciting adventures. The Singhasan stories expound the virtues of valour, ethical action and the duty of the king towards his subjects while providing entertainment through fantasy and suspense. In the Singhasan Battisi the Vetal is shown to be a powerful vampire in the control of the king who helps him to fulfill his vow.

The Shukasaptika or Kissa Tota-Mynah is another set of stories found in this work. These are stories of two birds, a parrot and a mynah who are lovers or consorts. However, since they focus on sexual escapades, their content does not make them very suitable for children though some have been retold as such.

The stories of the Kathsaritasagar show the world as a many splendoured place and on the whole, do not display any specific moral purpose. The magic and mystery of story telling works here and stories are told to divert, amuse and astonish. But while full of fantasy, they remain rooted in the ordinary life of men and for this reason they provide a vivid glimpse into the life and social structure, manners and morals of the times. As is common with much of traditional literature, stories from other narrative works like the Panchatantra, the Puranas and the Jataka tales have been woven into the narrative. Though attributed to Somadeva, the original text appears to be the work of several authors. These stories apparently traveled far too because apart from the two instances mentioned above Ramanujan mentions that some have been found in The Arabian Nights, in Boccacio and Shakespeare, he cites the stories of All’s Well that Ends Well and Cymbeline. In recent times the Kathasaritasagar has been the inspiration behind Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories.

The Kathasaritasagar has been translated into many other languages. H.H. Wilson published a summary of the first five chapters in English in1824. Brockhaus edited it in 1839 and published a compilation from six manuscripts in 1862. Another version was published by the Asiatic Society of Bengal between 1880 and 1884, translated by Charles Tawney in English and based on the Brockhaus edition. In 1889 the Mumbai based Nirnayasagar Press brought out a Sanskrit version by Durgadas which was compiled from the Brockhaus and other versions. Since then many versions have appeared in Hindi and other Indian languages.

J.A.B. Van Buitenen Tales of Ancient India (Chicago & London: Phoenix Books, The University of Chicago Press, 1959) p.2

Ibid., XIII, p. 9.

II Intro. p.xxiii

Children's Literature in India-The Hitopdesa

The Story as Good Counsel

The Hitopdesa



The Hitopdesa is another work of niti like the Panchatantra, written in Sanskrit by Narayana. The author was a poet or preceptor in the court of Dhawal Chandra, a prince or satrap of eastern India who is said to have commissioned it. It is believed to be a thousand years old, written between the ninth and fourteenth century AD. The earliest known manuscript discovered in Nepal bears a date corresponding to 1373 A.D. It has a structure similar to the Panchatantra and contains four books, which have stories from the Panchatantra with others added to them. Before the discovery of that manuscript this work was attributed to Vishnusharma who is the narrator of the work. But when it was being studied the names of Narayana and his patron were discovered in the last two verses. Some of the matter and quotations used establish it as having been composed in the eastern part of the country.
While Narayana mentions the Panchatantra as his source he has drawn from other works as well. The order of the first book of the Panchatantra has been reversed and the third divided into two. The fourth book has mostly been omitted and a large number of verses exist within the stories. These have been sourced mostly from the verse composition Nitisara of Kamandaki. Some have been taken from the play Venisamhara by Bhattanarayana which, like the other work, dates to the eighth century. Niti verses from other important works have been included like the Vrdhha or Laghu Chanakya, the Chanakya Sara Sangraha and the Chankaya Raja Niti Shastra, the Garuda Purana and the Nitisataka of Bharatrihari. It has used the two epics as sources apart from the Puranas, the poetic, dramatic work of Magha Sisupalavadha, the Kiratarjun of Bhandavi and Mrichhakatika of Sudraka. Some stories overlap with the Sukasaptati and the Vetal Panchvimsaptika. However, Narayana has added his own lively touch to his source material and heightened its impact by the manner in which he rearranged it.
It is worth noting that the Hitopdesa was the second Sanskrit work to be translated directly into English after the Bhagavat Gita. Charles Wilkins of the East India Company translated it in 1787. It was first published in Serampore in 1804. Many other translations were made including one by Sir Edwin Arnold in 1861 that appeared under the title The Book of Good Counsels. In India it has been translated into Bangla, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Malayalam, Marathi, Newari, Oriya, Tamil, Telugu and Urdu, according to Indologist Johannes Hertel. Contemporary translations listed by the US Library of Congress include Burmese, Dutch, English, French, German, Greek, Khmer, Russian, Spanish and Thai.

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

Friday, December 11, 2009

Friends Forever...

What can one say for a day which begins with a cab driver calling to tell you that you wanted to go to Gurgaon? Was it a bad dream? A hangover? Something I'd eaten?

There are nights when the worst insomniac has to resist a sleeping pill, but after dozing off in the wee hours the phone will surely ring half an hour later to remind you that the one above has parceled out your sleep quota like everything else in your life. Joy and sorrow, stumbles and hands reaching out...

The groggy day offered more surrealistic but thankfully happily realistic encounters as well. By the evening, I had to proclaim: 'Friends Forever!' The spell check tells me Freudians. Perhaps a Freudian slip--the wheel coming Full Turtle. For those unaware of this term (I just coined it) it means turning turtle but coming back Full Circle--in other words landing on your feet after an ungainly somersault.

Yes, buddies, Friends Forever was the title of the book (published by Hachette India) we did at the last session of the Habitat Children's Book Forum on December 5th. And we did come Full Turtle as one always will when celebrating friendship.

First Vatsala, the editor of the anthology, helped the kids to find friends through similar coloured badges and identify matching interests to make groups. Composing Tee-Hee telegrams washed away whatever slivers of ice that may have remained floating around. How's this for an example--Tanya (the friend's name)--The alligator (k)new yoga aerobics?!! Then a reading, by yours truly--the story: "A Caterpillar called Matthew", my contribution to the anthology. Some nostalgia here--there was a girl in my school who had a caterpillar named Matthew. She also loved toothpaste sandwiches but that's another story. Then a discussion on the parameters of friendship--one of the points discussed: how far does one go for a friend, who for example, is stealing. Most of the kids talked about advising and reforming or reporting the friend to teach her/him a lesson. Couldn't help thinking of my naive and silly youth--risking expulsion in a rather ridiculous cause. Today I can laugh it off as fate, the Great Anarch's hand and contrast my dumbness with today's savvy youngsters.

Bio-poems about friends ended the session.

Yup, it was a major celebration of friendship and I do hope we continue to have such wonderful sessions at the Book Forum.

PS. Maybe I should have gone to Gurgaon. Perhaps a friend was waiting somewhere...