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— Kalīlah wa-Dimnah (BnF Bibliothèque nationale de France)

Sacred Texts and Epics

This may seem strange, but our fundamental texts are not limited to sacred texts, such as the Bible and the Quran. The Talmud and the Torah are also to be taken into consideration as are the great Epic poems or Epics: the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, Homer’s Odyssey, the Iliad, also attributed to Homer (Greek), Virgil’s (Latin) Greco-Latin Aeneid and so many other texts. Rome borrowed Greece’s mythology, just as Christianity situated its feasts according to the seasons or to the varying degree of light and darkness the days possessed, which had been the case from time immemorial in a “pagan” world. Interestingly, Christians entered into a ritualistic darkness yesterday, but will burn candles beginning late Saturday night. Easter is a feast of lights, among Christians, as is Hanukka, in Rabbinic Judaism. Last week, Jews celebrated Passover, a feast closely related to the Christian Easter: Pâques. The First Council of Nicæa (325 CE) established the date of Easter as the first Sunday after the full moon (the Paschal Full Moon) following the March equinox. (See Easter, Wikipedia)

Kalīlah wa-Dimnah, MS. Pococke 400, fol. 75b (Bodleian libraries, Oxford)

Kalīlah wa-Dimnah, MS. Pococke 400, fol. 75b (Bodleian libraries, Oxford)

The Panchatantra and Kalīlah wa-Dimnah

Fables and fairy tales are also fundamental texts, but belong to another strand, a worldly strand.  India is the birthplace of the PanchatantraPañcatantra, which features animals. It is a text we cannot ignore. Nor can we sweep away its Persian version, Kalīlah wa-Dimnah There is a Middle Persian version of the Panchatantra, written in 570 CE, by Borzūya.That version has been lost, but Abdullah Ibn al-Muqaffa was ordered to write the Persian and ultimately Arabic version of the Panchatantra, entitled Kalīlah wa-Dimnah and written in 750 CE. This version has come down to us.

As well, many genres are its progeny or developed at the same time as the Panchatantra. The most notable are the Buddhist Jātaka tales. Buddhism advocates moral wisdom and asceticism, but its Jātaka tales teach a wordly form of wisdom. Personally, I do not think that one precludes the other. They are simply different of a multilayered reality.  

Jātaka tales are about the former lives of Buddha and could be compared to the formulaicOnce upon a time” of fairy tales, an hypnotizing magic carpet that takes the reader or listener to the past. Most, if not all, cultures have a Golden Age, a Paradise, a Promised Land…  Humans give themselves a glorious past and look upon themselves as the descendants of giants. This glorious past is mostly fictional, but it has shaped, to a lesser or greater extent, the collective mind of various civilizations and has therefore attained a form of permanence and truth, a poetical truth. In a sense, we are the authors of these texts.

The Panchatantra as nītiśāstra

The Panchatantra is a nītiśāstra.[ii] In other words, it contains advice for the “wise” conduct of a prince’s life. In his 1924 translation, from the Sanskrit, of the Panchatantra stories, Franklin Edgerton writes that:

The so-called ‘morals’ of the stories have no bearing on morality; they are unmoral, and often immoral.  They glorify shrewdness and practical wisdom, in the affairs of life, and especially of politics, of government.[iii]

Shrewdness and practical wisdom are not necessarily Machiavellian. In Machiavelli‘s world, the end may justify the means, but the third son of the miller (Puss in Boots) is unlikely to find himself ruling a corrupt city-state. Moreover, all humans have to deal with other humans, beginning with members of their family, and may find excellent advice in such books as the Panchatantra and Kalīlah wa-Dimnah, its Arabic version.

A nītiśāstra could be described as a political science textbook and, as we know, Machiavelli is on that reading list. Baldassare Castiglione‘s Il Cortegiano (1528, begun in 1508) would be its courtly counterpart and very civilized. It is salon literature. However Reynard the Fox is a beast counterpart of Nicolló Machiavelli‘s Prince, distributed in 1513 and published in 1532. In short, we have salons, but we also have parliaments, or other forms of government and we have the religious and the secular. For a list of books and treatises on the education of the prince, see Wikipedia’s Mirrors for Princes.

The Fabliaux

With respect to secularism, I should mention the fabliaux, brought to France from the Orient by returning crusaders. These “fables” and characterized by their frequently scatological obscenity. And the same is true, to a lesser extent, of certain Reynard stories.  Yet, the Roman de Renart and fabliaux are available as children’s literature. As for the Panchatantra, it may advocate worldly wisdom, but it is not offensiveNor is Ramsay Wood‘s translation of Kalīlah wa-Dimnah. My readers who know French may wish to visit the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF), Roman de Renart  Earlier versions of Puss in Boots would not have been acceptable to précieuses, no more than fabliaux, but Perrault‘s Puss in Boots and other fairy tales were extremely popular in salons and have become the reference.

(Please click on the images to enlarge them.)
— Kalīlah wa-Dimna

At any rate, the Panchatantra was extremely popular. It was, in fact, a medieval bestseller, which points to a significant degree of moral acceptability, a secular acceptability  Edgerton writes that:

“…there are recorded over two hundred different versions known to exist in more than fifty languages, and three-fourths of these languages are extra-Indian. As early as the eleventh century this work reached Europe, and before 1600 it existed in Greek, Latin, Spanish, Italian, German, English, Old Slavonic, Czech, and perhaps other Slavonic languages. Its range has extended from Java to Iceland… [In India,] it has been worked over and over again, expanded, abstracted, turned into verse, retold in prose, translated into medieval and modern vernaculars, and retranslated into Sanskrit. And most of the stories contained in it have “gone down” into the folklore of the story-loving Hindus, whence they reappear in the collections of oral tales gathered by modern students of folk-stories.” (Quoted in Wikipedia’s Panchatantra entry.)

In the Introduction to his first volume of Fables (1668), La Fontaine compares fables to parables. Given their worldliness, the lessons of fables are not the lessons of parables, but both are stories illustrating a moral. Fables inform or/and delight, in which they are consistent with the Horatian ideals.

“The aim of the poet is to inform or delight, or to combine together, in what he says, both pleasure and applicability to life. In instructing, be brief in what you say in order that your readers may grasp it quickly and retain it faithfully. Superfluous words simply spill out when the mind is already full. Fiction invented in order to please should remain close to reality.”


I marvel at the degree to which East meets West on so many levels, i.e. from the lofty spiritual down to a cruder reality and I am enormously thankful to the scholars who have translated and/or studied the masterpieces of the East, scholars such as Sir William Jones (philologist), Sir Charles Wilkins KH, FRS, and, in particular, Sir James George Frazer  FRSFRSEFBAOM (1 January 1854 – 7 May 1941) whose Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion (1906 – 1915) has often guided me. I also marvel at the many ways in which the past informs the present. The fables of antiquity are the exempla (plural of exemplum) of the Middle Ages, its proverbs, its sermons, and we still read animal stories rooted in the Panchatantra.       

(Please click on the image to enlarge it.)

   — Kalīlah wa-Dimnah (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

© Micheline Walker
28 March 2013

[i] Vishnu Sharma is considered the author of the Panchatantra, but there are doubts as to the authorship of Panchatantra. Doubts also linger as to the year of its publication.  According to some scholars, it dates back to c 300 BC, but other scholars claim otherwise.  It could date back to 1200 BC.

[ii] Nītiśāstra: Nīti can be roughly translated as “the wise conduct of life.” A śāstra is a “technical or scientific treatise.” (See Panchatantra, Wikipedia.)

[iii] (George Allen and Unwin, London 1965 [1924]) p. 13.  Edgerton’s edition and translation of the Panchatantra is an “Edition for the General Reader.” (Quoted in Wikipedia’s Panchatantra entry.)

The Dalai Lama reads and tells a Jātaka tale (March 2011)

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