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Panchtantra – A Storehouse of Wisdom

Through the jungle of the speaking animals Vishnusharman has created a storehouse of wisdom in the form of short stories for children. These stories written as far back as 2000 years came to be known as Panchatantra. The influence of Vishnusharman’s stories has been vast. By the 3rd and 4th centuries Panchatantra had already been translated into Syriac and Arabic from the original version in Sanskrit written in the 1st and 2nd century A.D. Subsequently there were versions in Paisachi, Pahlavi and Prakrit (other Indian languages). Panchatantra has been translated into 50 different languages with 200 different versions. What is more interesting is that even Grimms fairy tales and Aesops fables can be t raced back to this treasure-house of animal tales created by Vishnusharman.

There is however a lesser known version which as a school of thought claims to be the original and credits the authorship to Vashubhagabhatta. The genesis of this version lies in mythology – that Lord Shiva told the stories to Parvati, his consort which were overheard by Pashpadatta, who was born on earth as Gunadya and was appointed as a noble laureate in the court of an emperor named Salivahara. Gundaya then retold these stories in Paisachi and the compilation of his stories is called Brahatkatham (ocean of stories). Vasubhaga drew a few stories from them and compiled them into what is known as Panchatantra. Vasubhaga’s Panchatantra has found mention in the Javanese, Laotian and Siamese versions in addition to a few Indian versions too.

How Vishnusharman wrote these stories is a story by itself. The preface of the Panchatantra tells us that there was once a king called Amarashakti. He had three sons, all dullards. Amrshakti despaired. “Show me a way to educate them”, he told his courtiers. One among them was a wise man named Sumati. He came up with the idea that the princes should not be taught the scriptures but only the wisdom in them. There is a man called Vishnusharman, he said, who could do just this. Vishnusharman was summoned. He asked for just six months to make the princes wise. Disbelievingly Amarshakti watched as the miracle began.

Galloping on the steed of imagination Vishnusharman held the reins to guide them into a world where myth was reality. Weaving one story into another, the aspect under consideration was amply illustrated and elaborated. The princes were exposed to life with the lessons or morals that each situation taught.

The Panchatantra means the five devices – (pancha =five, tantra =devices). The stories under five different heads cover all aspects of administration, personal life and cunning that one has to combat in life. The first of Panchatantra deals with Mitrabhedha (loss of friends), which illustrates a situation where friends are separated by a cunning third person.

Mitrabedha begins with the story of a bull named Sanjivak. Stranded in a forest Sanjivak lives in constant fear of wild animals. But Pingalik, the lion king of the forest is in awe of Sanjivak’s voice and figure. The two are brought together by Damanak. Damanak and Kartak are the two foxes attending on the king. Sanjivak and pingalik become friends. Sanjivak is wise and learned and soon Pigalik too acquires a lot of knowledge. Sanjivak teachers him the laws of city life as opposed to the jungle laws. Soon Pingalik stops hunting.

This grieves Damanak and Kartak, for they fed on Pignalik’s hunt. So Damanak starts driving a wedge between the two friends. He tells Sanjivak that Pingalik is after all a carnivore and that he is planning to kill Sanjivak the next day. He tells Pingalik that he has heeded the herbivore for too long and now that he has forgotten how to hunt Sanjivak is planning to kill him. Damanak tells many stories to illustrate his point and the friends slowly begin to fall into his trap. Finally Pingalik kills Sanjivak.

As subsidiary to this theme are stories underlining the different ways of reducing the enemy’s strength. What if the enemy is very strong, then the intellect should take over, which is illustrated in the story of the lion and the rabbit. And also that if the enemy is mighty then a clever plan has to be worked out first. The enemy could be anybody – a poisonous snake, a mighty king or even the invincible ocean.

Friends and their acquisition is the section called Mitrasamprapti. The well known story of the pigeons caught in a net, is illustrative of Mitrasamprapti. Together the pigeons fly off with the net to Hiranyaka, the mouse. The mouse bites off the net and sets the birds free. In addition there are stories which stress the need for courage. A coward, says Vishnusharman would not be able to enjoy himself even when good fortune smiles upon him. It is courage and amity which saved the life of the four friends, the raven, the mouse, the tortoise and the deer. The raven, the mouse and the tortoise vowed to stand together at all times. Suddenly they heard some noise and found it was a deer, looking scared and nervous. The three friends took the deer into the fold and together they pledged unity. One day the deer was caught in a hunter’s net. Traveling on the raven’s back the mouse bit off the net and just when the three of them began to run away they; found their friend, the tortoise coming “Oh why did you come”? They asked “you move so slow and what if the hunter comes now”. Sure enough he did. The wise raven then outlined a plan of action. The deer pretended to be lame and unaware of the hunter. The tortoise drew his body into his shell and the mouse began attracting the hunter’s attention towards the tortoise. Predictably the hunter tied up the tortoise in a bag and then moved towards the deer. The deer led him a wild chase. The mouse meanwhile bit open the deer and the tortoise.

Progmatism is however important to emerge a survivor as the Panchatantra wishes you to be. So the section entitled Kakolookiyam on worldly wisdom described the ways of the world. Trust not everybody warns Vishnusharman, especially those who having been enemies, now pretend friendship. Nip it in the bud; all is fair in war; a king should never run away from war; are some of the other lessons. The morals, therefore, in Panchatantra are in sharp contrast to our conventional understanding of the word ‘mortal’. They are not comforting stories of the victory of good over evil. Nor are they preachers of ethics. They are a manual of administration – of all aspects of one’s life, in the complex and varied world of ours. The lessons learnt are applicable equally to the common man’s life as to the princes for whom the Panchatantra was originally devised. They try to expose the reader to various occurrences that he could come across in his daily life and prepare him to face them with courage and prudence.

Dropping names can be beneficial says Vishnusharman. Thee was once a forest in which all the lakes had dried up due to drought. A herd of elephants living in the forest started dying of thirst. Their king then led them to a faraway lake which was on a lower level. The elephants were happy. But around the lake was a colony of rabbits. Each time the elephants visited the lake many young ones got trampled over. Distressed, the rabbits hit on a plant. A representative from them went to the elephants and said the moon was unhappy that the elephants were drinking water form the moon’s own lake. Paying their obeisance to the reflection they went back never to return to that lake!

Labdhapranasha or the ‘slip betwixt the cup and lip’ this is illustrated by the well known story of the crocodile and the monkey. They become friends and the monkey gives the crocodile some blackberries everyday. One day the crocodile takes some for his wife. The wife is thrilled. If the blackberry is so sweet, the heart of the monkey who feeds on them should be sweeter, she says. She wants to eat the monkey’s heart or else she says she’ll lay down her life. The crocodile is in a fix but eventually invites the monkey home for a meal. Carrying him on his back he reaches the middle of the ocean and then tells him his wife’s intentions. The monkey immediately responds saying he’d left his heart on the tree “Let us go back and get it”. When they reach the shore the monkey jumps off the crocodile’s back and saves his life.

Other stories relate how that which is underservingly acquired is bound to be lost; how acquired is bound to be lost; how a beautiful woman can rob a man of his sense; how believing flattery can harm; and how inconsistent behaviour should always be watched as in the story of the old Brahmin whose young wife suddenly turned over-affectionate towards him. Later he discovered he’d lost her to her young lover. Throughout the book, there is no flattering reference to women. Women, says Vishnusharman, are always infidel, and a beautiful women? - She cannot be satiated by any number of lovers. A woman who does not please her husband is no woman at all and a man who is always trying to please a woman is sure to face doom. Does this give a clue as to why male chauvinism is buried in time!

The concluding section is called Aprikshitakaraka or that which has not yet been tried. Any new situation demands that it is fully considered for its pros and cons before any action is taken. What happened to the four friends, three of whom were well versed in scriptures? In an attempt to put to use their knowledge they brought to life a dead lion not heeding the fourth man’s advice which was based on sound common sense. The lion ate up the three learned men while the fourth watched sorrowfully form a tree-top. Book knowledge alone is not enough, application is essential.

Vishnusharman’s tales are universal in their sentiments. Though much of the conversation is put into the mouths of the beasts, it is genuine human feeling that prompts the utterances. The original has page after page of shrewd observations, proverbs and well-worn maxims. Vishnusharman aimed at nothing more than teaching worldly wisdom and to be obtained by the exercise of intelligence in securing a moderate fortune, personal safety, learning and a wide circle of friends.

This faraway land where fantasy dissolves into the factual has entertained children all over the world. The crescendo is reached with Vishnusharman’s claim that the readers of helpless in any situation, not even when faced by Lord Indra, the King of the Heavens. What else does one need, anyway?

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