Panchatantra Story of India’s Greatest Book

All-time tales
By Sarla Sharma

THE oldest fables and folktales of the world that have survived the centuries and delighted millions over the ages belong to India and Greece. The earliest Indian collections of these tales were thePanchatantra, the Kathasarit-sagar and the Buddhist Jataka. They epitomised the wisdom of ancient India. They gradually travelled to the West through oral and literary channels. Alexander’s invasion, the wandering gypsies, the travellers and the trades all helped to disseminate them to all parts of the known world.

Mass migration of people in those troubled and trying times due to the cruelty of the tyrants and the proselytising of Islam and Christianity, helped to spread these Indian tales far and wide. In West Asia, these Indian stories were often adapted and re-told to suit different civilisations, temperaments and faiths. They were also employed as moral stories and parables or allegories to drive home a point in an entertaining manner, mostly to illiterate audiences.

European collections of tales in medieval times included many Indian and other Eastern tales. Some such collections were The Seven Sages of Rome, Barlaam and Jos Haphat, Discipline Clericalis, and the Gesta Romanorum.

The system of relating a basic story running as a thread through innumerable other stories is native to the Indian story-telling genius. This frame so adroitly employed in the Panchatantra, appears to have been assiduously copied by Boccaccio in his Decameron. ThePanchatantra was also the moving force behind The Fables of Bidpai in England and the Fables de Pilpai in France.

According to the eminent folklorist Joseph Jacobs (1854-1916), many of the folktales of Europe have been traced, even in their adapted and garbled versions, to their origins in India via Persia and Asia Minor.

The Panchatantra is believed to have been written by one Vishnu Sharma, some time between 100 and 500 A.D. who apart from his own fables, incorporated the choicest extant tales of antiquity too. A verse at the beginning of Panchatantra runs:

One Vishnusharman, shrewdly gleaning
All wordly wisdom’s inner meaning;
In those five books the charms compresses,
Of all such books the world possesses.

The Panchatantra was first translated from Sanskrit into Persian (Pehalvi) in the sixth century AD at the behest of King Sassanid of Persia. In the eighth century, this Pahalvi text was translated into Arabic by Abdullah Ibn-al-Muqafa. In the 11th century, a Greek version was also prepared. Thereafter, the Panchatantra also found its way into Latin, Italian and other European languages.

The Panchatantra tales have thus survived the vagaries of time, clime and language with added vigour, in adapted and imitated form, in translations and translations of translations. As Joseph Jacobs said in 1888, “I have edited Sir Thomas North’s English version of an Italian adaption of a Spanish translation of a Latin version of a Hebrew translation of a Arabic adaption of the Pehalvi version of the Indian originals.”

It has been estimated that the Panchatantra has over 200 versions in more than 50 languages. This is, indeed, a tribute to their imperishable nature.

The 19th century European scholars held the view that India owed so much to the Samian slave Aesop. This stands thoroughly disproved. In fact, it has been proved the other way round; at least one-fourth of Aesop’s, especially the animal tales popular with children all over the world, have been traced to Indian origin. Some of these tales are: The Wolf and the Lamb, Jhe Fox and the Crow, The Ass in the Lion’s Skinand The Cat Turned Into Maiden.

The German scholar Theodr Benfey (1809-1881) propounded in 1859 the theory of ‘Indianistic origin of folktales’, and their migration to Europe. This covered the master tales of Grimm Brothers of Germany. It was Benfey who removed all doubts and said that a majority of the tales going the rounds in Europe were derived from Eastern and mainly Indian sources. As regards fairy tales, it has been demonstrated by the Finnish folklorist Kaarle Krohn and his school that at least 50 tale types known in Europe are definite of Indian origin.

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