Panchatantra – world’s oldest written tale

A couple of years back I had suffered mitrabheda– there was some misunderstanding with a friend and we parted ways. It was somewhat compensated by the mitralabha or the gain of friends that happened due to the flurry of online activities during the lockdown last year. What added to the Corona woes were skirmishes with our neighboring countries who tried to catch us off guard. It was like the fights between the thoughtful crows and the devilish owls (kakaullukiyam). Due to lockdown many people suffered from potential financial loss and also labdhapranasha i.e. the loss of what they had already gained. As mankind was facing a new threat , many causalities last year due to Covid Pandemic could be due to aprikshitakaraka – the result of unexamined actions.

The fans of Panchatantra must have already guessed that the italicized words are the names of five books of Panchatantra compiled by Vishnu Sharma (1200 BC to 300 CE). Even though majority of the contents of each book follow the theme as indicated by the name of the section, there are a number of stories in each book which are not related to the theme. Panchatantra has been widely translated to different languages and made available all over the world.

But coming to its global influence over children’s literature, as usual there is a controversy. One school is of the opinion that Panchatantra influenced the animal fables and children’s literature of the world. The other group of scholars argue that though there are similarities in animal fables of different regions, these might have developed independently. But, on one thing the scholars agree – Panchatantra is the first composed fictional work for children.

So during my childhood, Panchatantra was a staple diet for the mind. It was delivered via the most popular children’s magazine of those days – Chandamama. It is disheartening to note that this magazine that provided so many Indian tales to Indian Children in Hindi, English, Sanskrit and their mother tongues has been discontinued. At the same time it was a pleasant surprise to come across their website where they have put many old issues in different languages. I am not sure if any Indian magazine is published these days for children with exclusive desi content.

There is also controversy as to whether the Panchatantra stories are ethical or not. Well it is rare that there will be no disagreement among a bunch of scholars who come from different backgrounds. First of all why do the scholars from different parts of the globe debate whether the Panchatantra stories are ethical. Ethical standards vary from place to place. Panchatantra stories are basically wisdom stories. Of course wisdom teaches us to be clever when needed but not at the cost of disloyalty to friends or closed ones or indulge in illegal acts.

Wisdom teaches us to be careful when people come and talk negatively about our friends. They may be planting seeds for discord which may lead to mitrabheda. Our ancient seers included ‘friends’ while defining Artha. Friends are assets. Mitralabha is the real gain which may even compensate for the labdhapranasha due to out stupidities. The loss of what had been previously gained is mostly due to greed or stupidity. Whenever there is conflict it is wise to use force only as the last option. This perfectly fits in with the ethos of Indian culture. Lord Krishna forgave the misadventures of Shisupala ninety nine times. Mahabharat war happened after all options at peace had been exhausted. The wise crows of kakullukiyam are better examples than the devilish and shortsighted owls. Finally, many disasters can be avoided by being aware of the consequences of aparikshitakaraka, by rushing into action without due deliberation to examine the issue from various angles.

I am repeating the names of original Sanskrit names of sections to drive home the point that Indians will be better able to connect better. For example mitrabheda is translated into English as ‘loss of friends’. But the word actually indicates that there has been a fissure among friends being influenced by a devilish third party. Bheda means entry through a strong structure. Same way some translated versions have funny titles for section-2 like achievement of friends which may also mean ‘what the friends achieved’ in stead of ‘making new friends’.

Hitopadesha is another work of fables written in Sanskrit. Its content and themes have lots of similarity with Panchatantra. Another fable series which is very very large is Kathasaritsagara. Coincidentally, Kathasaritsagara includes the whole of Panchatantra in one of its books. Its eighteen books indicate that the compiler Somadeva wanted to include all the available legends up to that period and give it an epic proportion to match Mahabharata that too has eighteen books.

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This is the alphabet P post of Blogchatter AtoZ Challenge 2021. My theme this year is ‘The beauty of Sanskrit and Sanskrit texts’, where in I explore selected compositions in Sanskrit and also some unique aspects of Sanskrit language and texts. Join with me in my journey to understand India’s spiritual and intellectual heritage. All the posts of AtoZ Challenge 2021 can be accessed here.

28 thoughts on “Panchatantra – world’s oldest written tale

  1. You made me go down memory lane. The name “Chandamama” refreshed many childhood memories. Good to know they have apps and pdf versions from where we can get access to some of their content. The translated versions, obviously, tend to lose the essence of the message. The real emotions of the author can only be conveyed in his /her own language. How would any other language put “Mitrabheda” into words that convey its actual meaning?

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  2. Panchatantra the bookish friend we all grew up with. Loved the way you started your post with the story names like itralabha, aprikshitakaraka and connect with the pandemic. I still have a few Chandamama magazines kept somewhere deep down in my library which I had shown to my kids too. I didn’t know this was the first fictional work for children.

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  3. Absolutely loved this piece. Resonates with what i am writing tales for children and the argument over some if them being ethically correct or not. And panchtantra being all animal fable or not. I had mentioned Somdev too in one of my posts. Beautiful writing
    Deepika Sharma

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  4. These books have favourite stories served with morals.
    Did you know that Vishnu Sharma belonged to Odisha?
    Our temple architecture too has his famous story- Monkey & the Crocodile.

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  5. I can relate to your views on Panchatantra, the wisdom stories told to three princes by a sage about two thousand years ago. These stories were an important part of our growing up because our parents chose Panchatantra for us. I too made my children read the Panchatantra and they did enjoy:) A must for children to learn certain moral lessons.

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  6. Panchatantra, Chandamama, Hitopadesh, KathaSaritaSagar… arent these the jewels of Indian storytelling and an indispensable part of our growing up days! Glad to know that Chandamama is available online at our disposal. enlightened that you highlighted this fable and its prospered roots! Its a heritage now!

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  7. I have been out of the circuit for a while (call it blogbheda). But I am back. And I plan to read your posts that I have missed.

    As a child I was forced to cram tomes of Sanskrit by my zealot of a father who obviously was trying to make up for his unrequited childhood dreams. I turned to despising Sanskrit as a defence mechanism of sorts, but there was no escaping the classrooms. Only respite I could have was books like Panchatantra and Hitopadesh who were true entertainers and worth their weight in gold. I don’t dislike Sanskrit anymore, and I wish my patron was more subtle about introducing the language to me. Incidentally, Panchatantra reminds me of an interesting anecdote from my past which I plan to write about soon.

    This is an amazing service you are rendering through your blogposts by reintroducing innate richness of literature available in Sanskrit.

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  8. Chandamama is a synonym for fond childhood memories:)

    Although, I feel fortunate that I can understand the nuances of words like Mitralabha and Mitrabdheda, translating such wonderful works only helps in creating a more inclusive world. What better way is there for people to understand different cultures, other than through stories?

    I figure it’s the aptitude and talent of a translator that can circumvent the issue of limited vocabulary of the English language.

    Since I love reading Rumi’s poetry, I wondered, after reading your post, how much of his meaning in lost in translation when I read his work in English!

    Thank you for this wonderful post. It made me stop and think and ruminate.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What you have said is absolutely true. While a lot of things are lost in translation, unless it is translated it will not reach a larger audience. Translating Sanskrit to a non Indian language is difficult. Translating poetry is difficult. Rabindranath Tagore himself translated his Bengali ‘Geetanjali’ to English. Then he realised that it has become a different work all together. So if the author himself finds it difficult to translate his own work, imagine how much more difficult will it be for another. But, it is better that we at least read a translated version of a great work than not reading it at all.

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  9. I used to love Panchatantra stories as a kid. I have even bought one book for my Son to read when he grows up a bit. I wonder why on Earth there would be debates with regard to its ethical standards…. That’s really surprising! Yes, Chandamama was my childhood favourite too… I wish it had not discontinued. But I didn’t know they have book issues on their site… Thanks for sharing that… Will definitely check it out.

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