Author of “Timeless Tales of a Wise Sage: Vishnu Sharma’s Panchatantra Retold”, U. Mahesh Prabhu, explains why he chose to retranslate Panchatantra – a Sanskrit classic believed to be at least 3,000 year old – yet again.
Storytelling is one of the oldest art forms known to mankind. It has stimulated imaginations and even built communities of tellers and listeners. Oral storytelling, particularly, is an ancient and intimate tradition between storytellers and listeners. Storytelling is also a social and cultural activity with substantial improvisation, theatrics and embellishment. Narratives have been shared in every culture as a means of entertainment, cultural preservation besides instilling moral values. However, very few stories have survived tradition and even fewer have made sense with passing time.
Panchatantra, translated to “five strategies” in English, has always been an exception. It has not just entertained and hailed the importance of morality, besides defining it, but has also educated people about the intricacies of life – relationships, particularly. The fact that these stories have survived at least 3,000 years speaks substantially about the timeless wisdom embedded in it. When Panchatantra was first told by its author Vishnu Sharma, there was no solid material medium of record-keeping. Papyrus often failed the test of time and required constant rewriting.
The Vedic era, therefore, emphasised the importance of Smriti or “memorization”. Not just because printing technology was unavailable, but also because “knowledge in books and wealth in other’s hands had little or no meaning in time of need.” For the sake of easy memorization, they preferred the medium of poems or padya in Sanskrit. These poems also contained substantial wisdom. Many translations failed to carry these forward. But it’s important to note the stress the author of Panchatantra laid on these padya – better known as Neetis or Maxims on Moral Conduct. I’ve laid substantial stress on these Neetis and would highly recommend substantially contemplating over them.
Like all Vedic texts, not much is known about Vishnu Sharma. While some Sanskrit prints available mention Vishnu Sharma, others mention the author as Vasubhaga. Vedic authors seem to have preferred to keep a low profile. For them, transmission and continuation of their knowledge is vital; they were uninterested in fame. Most of the seers of the Vedic era—that we know of—were accomplished people.
Bhartrihari was a king, Kautilya or Chanakya was the key brain behind the Mauryan Empire, rishis like Vasistha and Bharadwaja nurtured revered kings like King Rama and King Bharata, respectively. Yet, they kept a low profile. We know about Vasistha from Ramayan and Bharata from Vyasa’s Mahabharata. Kautilya of Arthashastra fame is believed to be known as Vishnu Gupta. I’ve personally found strange commonality in style and approach between Arthashastra and Panchatantra. Could they have been the same people? We’d never know, but there do exist substantial possibilities. All these sages lived as hermits – away from the seat of power. Yet, men of royalty and affluence always cherished them and sought to visit their hermitages for consultations and consoling from time to time.
According to Edgerton, “Panchatantra is certainly the most frequently translated literary product of India”. It also goes by many names in many cultures. There’s a version of Panchatantra in nearly every major language of India. Additionally, there are 200 versions of the text in more than 50 languages around the world. One version of this revered work reached Europe in as early as the 11th century.
The earliest known translation into a non-Indian language is in Middle Persian (Pahlavi, 550 CE) by Burzoe. This became the basis for a Syriac translation as Kalilag and Damang and a translation into Arabic in 750 CE by Persian scholar Abdullah Ibn al-Muqaffa as Kalilah wa Dimnah.
The prelude section of the Panchatantra identifies an octogenarian Brahmin named Vishnu Sharma as its author. He is stated to have taught the principles of government to the three sons of a king named Amar Shakti.
The Pahalvi translation was made available in 550 CE forming the latest limit of the text’s existence. The earliest limit is still uncertain. It quotes identical verses from Arthashastra, which is broadly accepted to have been completed by the early centuries of the common era. Olivelle places Panchatantra around 300 BCE. Gillian Adams has claimed Panchatantra to be of the Vedic period, but its age cannot be ascertained with confidence because “the original Sanskrit version has been lost.”
Whatever the origins of Panchatantra might have been, I’ve personally found great knowledge and commensurate wisdom in it. But my learning was in Sanskrit – a language most people cannot read and those who read don’t necessarily understand. I’ve tried to rejuvenate this Vedic classic in English to the best of my abilities in my second book – Timeless Tales of a Wise Sage. If there are any shortcomings, they are mine. All the wisdom in it belongs to the countless sages of the Vedic era.