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22nd May 2004
THE PANCHATANTRA
WORLD’S OLDEST COLLECTION OF STORIES FOR CHILDREN
Manorama Jafa
Her Majesty, the Empress, Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am very thankful to Ms Mikiko Tomita, Director General of
The International Library of Children’s Literature, and Mr Takao Kurosawa,
Librarian of the National Diet Library, for inviting me for this Lecture. I feel
greatly privileged for the invitation to speak before this august audience. I also feel
greatly honoured that Her Majesty has found it possible to grace this occasion.
The subject of this Lecture is the Panchatantra. As is well known, Panchatantra is
the oldest collection of stories for children in the world. It is also the first
anthology of animal stories. The Panchatantra stories contain the wisdom of ages.
It is also unique contribution of India to the world of literature. The Panchatantra
was originally written in Sanskrit language and it constitutes five books. There are
84 stories and also many interpolated fables in it. In olden days this was the typical
Indian way of story telling to keep the interest alive.
The first book in the Panchatntra is Loss of Friends (Mitrabhed) and it contains 34
stories. The second book is The Winning of Friends (Mitra Sampraptau) and it
contains 10 stories. The third book is Crows and Owls (Kakolikeye) and it has 18
tales, the fourth book is Loss of Gains (Labdha Parashe) which contains 12 tales
and the fifth book Rash Action (Aparikshit Karke) contains 10 tales, making 84
tales altogether.
The central theme of the Panchatantra is the harmonious and integrated
development of man, a life in which security, prosperity, friendship and learning
are combined as to produce a lasting joy. It exemplifies and upholds ethical values,
social order, customary law and yet is an important medium through which protest,
dissent and reform are articulated.
The Panchatantra stories are not moral stories. The Panchatantra stories are there
to teach the Niti – the sensible way of living. Different points of view are
expressed through dialogues in the stories accompanied by maxims. These maxims
1
are thought provoking and offer an exercise for the brain that sharpen the mind. It
suggests that there is no place for a fool in the world. At one place, for
example, it is said, “Shun him who is rogue and fool”. In another story, it is said,
“Scholarship is less than good sense, therefore seek intelligence”. Some of the
other maxims are:
“Nothing is impossible if one has intelligence”
“For lost and dead and past
The wise have not laments
Between the wise and fools
Is just this difference”
“ A man to thrive, must keep alive”
“Wrong doings will always be wrongful
A wise man will not direct his mind towards it
However tormented by thirst one is
None drink the water of puddles
That lie on well trodden highway”
About friendship
“ Six things are done by friends
To take and give again
To listen and to talk
To dine and entertain.”
The Panchatantra is also a part of India’s ancient story telling tradition which goes
back to the earliest times of Indian civilization and the development of which has
been nurtured over the centuries. No one knows exactly the dates and the authors
of the Sanskrit original and there are at least 25 versions of the Panchatantra in
India alone. In a few versions the name of Vishnu Sharma is mentioned as the
author and therefore it is believed that he first compiled the stories, as it is said,
“One Vishnusharman, shrewdly gleaning
All worldly wisdom’s inner meaning,
In these five books the charm compresses
Of all such books the world possesses.”
2
How the Panchatantra was created , is an interesting story by itself. The story goes
like this. Thousands of years ago, there lived a king in India. He had three foolish
sons. The king wanted them to lead a happy life. He also knew, ‘A fool cannot
lead a happy life.’
One day, he called his ministers and said to them, “Please suggest some way by
which my three sons can become wise.” One of the ministers stood up and said,
“My Lord, I know of a renowned teacher. His name is Vishnu Sharma. He is
eighty years old. He alone can help to make sensible young men out of the
princes.”
The king invited Vishnu Sharma to his court. When Vishnu Sharma arrived, the
king requested him, “Revered sir, please do something so that my sons can lead
sensible lives. I will give you whatever you want.
Vishnu Sharma was a proud old teacher. He took it as a challenge and declared,
“Oh, king, I pledge today that I will make your sons wise and intelligent within six
months. I will not accept anything in return. Let them come with me right now.”
The king sent for his sons. The three princes accompanied Vishnu Sharma to his
hermitage. They lived with him and he instructed them by telling stories with
maxims every day. After six months, Vishnu Sharma brought the princes back to
the king’s court. The king was surprised to see that his sons had become intelligent,
practical and worldly wise.
The king was delighted and he asked Vishnu Sharma, “What did you do, sir?”
Vishnu Sharma, the great teacher just smiled and replied, “I merely told them some
stories.”
The king thanked Vishnu Sharma. Vishnu Sharma did not accept any reward. The
king’s three sons led a very happy and successful life thereafter. This story
concludes with a saying,
Whoever always reads this work;
Whoever listens to it told;
He will never face defeat, no
Not even from the Lord of Gods, Himself.
(Chandra Rajan’s translation from the original in Sanskrit.)
3
In the ancient times in India, anonymity of creative persons, including writers
and artists, was an important characteristic of their psyche. Their creative
activity was an expression of their total dedication to the cause. They did not
seek any personal fame, but only served a cause dear to them. In the Vedas also,