Panchatantra: The World’s Timeless Classic

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    It can be said, without exaggeration, that India’s greatest contribution to world literature and bedtime stories is none other than the still popular collection of ancient Indian fables, the Panchatantra. First records of it found in 3rd century BCE, over millennia, spread from one region to another, transcending political and religious boundaries. Even today, the Arabic version of Panchatantra, ‘Kalila wa Dimna' is one of the most popular books in the Arab world. That’s not all, historians point out that 10% of all European folktales, including those by the famous Grimm brothers, can be traced to fables of Panchatantra!

    While the date of exact origins of Panchatantra is a topic of much debate within history circles, the general consensus is that these tales may have originated as folk stories passed down orally from one generation to another before being compiled together in a text in 3rd century BCE, around the same time as the Buddhist Jataka tales.

    Noted Indologist from Oxford University, Patrick Olivelle in his book ‘Panchatantra: The Book of India’s Folk Wisdom’ points out that the original title of this text was ‘Niti-Pancha-Tantrakhayika’ or ‘The little storybook on the five topics of Government’. The title was later shortened to ‘Panchatantra’. The fables, which have been so popular with children for centuries, were a treatise of ‘Niti’ roughly translated as ‘wise conduct’ or statecraft, narrated through allegorical stories of animals. The prelude to the Panchatantra mentions someone called Viṣṇuśarman or Vishnu Sharma as the author, but it is not known whether he was a real person or just a literary invention.

    The Panchatantra’s global journey began in the reign of King Khusrow of Persia who ruled between 531-579 CE. The King had established a large hospital in the city of Gundeshapur in Iran and he sent his court physician, Borzuya to India to bring back rare medicinal plants. On his return from India, Borzuya also brought back copies of the Panchatantra, several astrological texts as well as the game of Chess to Persia. Around 570 CE, Borzuya translated the Panchatantra into Pahlavi, an old Persian language and called it ‘Karīrak ud Damanak’, after Kalilaka and Damanaka, the two jackals in the story which appears at the beginning of the text. In Borzuya’s translation, the name of the author was given as Bidpai, a corruption of the name ‘Vidyapati’.

    Around the same time, the Panchatantra was also translated into Old Syriac language in Mosul in present-day Iraq, from where it spread to the Byzantine Empire. Sadly, the original Sanskrit text, as well as the Pahlavi translation of Borzuya, is now believed to be lost. However, thankfully the Syriac translation survives and is currently in Paris making it the oldest surviving translation of the Panchatantra in the world!

    In the middle of the 7th century, Persia became a part of the Arab empire. It was a scholar named Abdullah Ibn al-Muqaffa (720-757 CE) who translated Borzuya’s Pahlavi translation into Arabic as ‘Kalila wa Dimna’. It was one of the earliest known translations of a foreign work into Arabic and is even today considered to be a masterpiece of Arabic prose. The stories with moral lessons found great resonance within Arab society and this work came to be considered a must-read for civil servants and princes.

    In fact so popular did it become in the Arab world that it is said that kings and commoners alike, vied to get copies of the book for themselves, a status it retains to this day! ‘The Kalila wa Dimna’ spread across the Arab empire from Moorish Spain and Morocco to Central Asia. Over time, it became a must-have for every king across the Islamic world and each owned their own illustrated copy, often sporting different titles. Take the ‘Humayun Nama’ which was the version that the Ottoman Sultan of Turkey, Suleiman I owned. Or the 'Anwar-i-Suhaili’ owned by the Mughal Emperor Akbar in India.

    About the same time, the Panchatantra had also spread across the Byzantine Empire. Syemon Seth, a Greek Physician from Constantinople translated the text into Greek in 1080 CE and called it ‘Stephanites Kai Ichnilates’. From Constantinople, the text travelled across the Slavic countries like Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Romania as ‘Stefanit i Ixnilat’, with the oldest known copy kept in a cathedral in Kiev in Ukraine.

    After being ingrained in Hindu, Islamic, and Eastern Orthodox Christian folklore, it would then enter Jewish folklore and spread across the Jewish communities across the world. A Jewish Rabbi named Joel translated the work into Hebrew in the 12th century. This version spread to Jewish communities across Europe and the conquest of Moorish Spain by the Kingdom of Castile, led to the emergence of a version in old Castilian (Spanish) language which was called ‘Calila e Dimna’.

    In Western Europe such as Italy, France, and Germany, these tales were soon popular as ‘Fables of Bidpai’ after Vidyapati, the author of Panchatantra named by Borzuya in his Pahlavi translation. These were based on Latin versions of the tales done in 1263-74 CE by a monk by the name of John of Capua. The German version of ‘Fables of Bidpai’ was printed in Germany in 1483 CE, making it one of the earliest books to be printed by the Gutenberg press, after the Bible.

    From India, the Panchatantra spread not only to the West but also to the East. It is amazing how the spread of different cultural influences can be studied based on different versions of this one text and its journey. A great example of this interconnect is how the Malay version called the ‘Hikayat Kalila dan Damina’, which combines the Tamil version of the Panchatantra, brought by the Tamil traders from India, during the Chola era around 1000 CE and the Arabic ‘Kalima wa Dimna’ introduced by the Arab merchants later. Similarly, the Panchatantra was introduced and translated in Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand by Buddhist monks and these versions show a strong similarity with the Buddhist Jataka tales.

    Today, there are more than 200 versions of the Panchatantra across 50 countries across the globe. From Ethiopia to Russia, and from Morocco to Laos, each version incorporates its own cultural influence. It is remarkable how this collection of ‘stories with a moral’ has transcended across religions, cultures, and societies to become an integral part of world literature. This underlines just how similar we all are and have been.

    Today, 2300 years after it was first put together, every copy and version of the original Panchatantra continues to enthrall its readers, making this simple and yet deep work, a timeless classic!


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