When Stories Travel the World

Few books have been narrated, written, re-written, translated and adapted as much as Panchatantra, the collection of tales of wisdom. PHOTO: Scroll

Few books have been narrated, written, re-written, translated and adapted as much as Panchatantra, the collection of tales of wisdom. PHOTO: Scroll

For more than two and a half millennia, the Panchatantra tales have regaled children and adults alike with a moral at the end of every story. Some believe that they are as old as the Rig Veda. There is also another story about these fables. According to it, these are stories Shiva told his consort Parvati. The present series is based on the Sanskrit original.

A king, worried that his three sons are without the wisdom to live in a world of wile and guile, asks a learned man called Vishnu Sharman to teach them the ways of the world. Since his wards are dimwits, Vishnu Sharman decides to pass on wisdom to them in the form of stories. In these stories, he makes animals speak like human beings. Panchatantra is a collection of attractively told stories about the five ways that help the human being succeed in life. Pancha means five and tantra means ways or strategies or principles. Addressed to the king’s children, the stories are primarily about statecraft and are popular throughout the world. The five strategies are: First Strategy: The Loss of FriendsSecond Strategy: Gaining FriendsThird Strategy: Of Crows and OwlsFourth Strategy: Loss of Gains and Fifth Strategy: Imprudence.

Scroll brings you the history of how these stories traveled from Indian shores to seas across:

In the year 570 CE, a Persian physician named Burzoy or Burzoya (Burzawayh in Arabic) living in the Sassanid kingdom of Persia travelled to India in search of a book of wisdom: a book greatly sought by then King of Persian Khusroy  I (Anoshagruwa or “the immortal”) who ruled from 531 to 579 CE. Burzoy succeeded in his endeavours, returning to Persia with the knowledge he had gained. His book was in turn written down by the king’s wazir, Wuzurgmihr and included, at Burzoy’s own request, the story of his journey to India.

The object of his search: the Panchatantra (Sanskrit for five principles) and even the versions of it then existent (the early centuries of the first millennium CE) are now lost, as is Burzoy’s book, with its suggested title, Karirak ud Damanak, written in Middle Persian (Pahlavi, part of the Indo Iranian language family). The title is derived from the two jackals who appear in the first sections of the Panchatantra.

More than animal fables, the stories were narratives in how to live a wise, good life, and were meant especially for princes born to rule.  The similarities of stories found in the Panchatantra with those in the Aesop’s Fables and the Jatakas attest to how these stories travelled widely and orally in the ancient world. The Panchatantra is among the most widely travelled of literary texts and different versions of it exist in most of the world’s languages.

Thanks to scholarly investigations of the last century, we do know of the existence of both books, as also their various recensions and versions over the centuries. It was Burzoy’s book that formed the basis of the Arabic work written two centuries later (750 CE) titled Khalil wa Dimnah. This latter book was in turn copied several times, and formed the basic text from which later versions in New Persian, and in the various European languages were written – and which exist today.

More here.

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