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World Folklore And Indian Connections
<!--QuoteBegin-->QUOTE<!--QuoteEBegin-->HISTORY OF MIGRATION OF PANCHATANTRA AND WHAT IT CAN TEACH US - Speech by Prof Vijay Bedekar


There is hardly any other secular work in the World which has penetrated so deeply in many cultures encompassing practically every continent of the World. During the last 1500 years there are at least 200 translations of Panchatantra in about 60 languages of the World. Aesop fables (2), Arabian Nights(3), Sindbad(4) and more than 30 to 50% of Western nursery rhymes and Ballads have their origin in Panchatantra and Jataka stories(5). In European countries there is so much of migration and borrowing of stories from one another over many centuries, making it difficult to finalize their origin at one location in Europe. However, most of the times their Indian origin is not in dispute (6). Much of the confusion started settling(7)after the works of Theodor Benfey in 1859(8), Johannes Hertel’s various articles and his seminal work Panchatantra- text of Purnabhadra in 1912(9), and finally Franklin Edgerton’s two volumes of The Panchatantra reconstructed in 1924(10).   Traditionally in India it is believed that Panchatantra was composed around 3rd century BC (11). Modern scholars depending on references to earlier Sanskrit works in Panchatantra assign the period of 3rd to 5th Century CE. for it's composition in today's form (12). The author of Panchatantra is not known.

Panchatantra migrated to Iran in the 6th century CE (13). The story is well known. Burzoe, a physician (Figure 1) at the court of Sassanian king Anushirvan (531-571 c.CA), was sent to India in search of Sanjivani herb. In search of this medicine he traveled a lot in India and brought Panchatantra to Iran, which he translated into Pahlavi, titled Kalilah wa Dimnah, with the help of some Pundits (14). This is the first known translation of Panchatantra into any foreign language. It is not available now but translation done into old Syrian language in 570CE by a Nestorian Christian called Bud, was discovered in a monastery in Mardin, Turkey in 1870CA (15). The title of this book is Kalilag and Damanag, which is the Syrian version of Karataka and Damanaka, of the two jackals in the first Tantra of Sanskrit Panchatantra. This Syrian version was edited and translated into German in 1876 CE by Bickell and then again by Schulthess in 1911CE. Syrian translation is very close to Tantrakhyayika in many respects. The third important translation of Panchatantra was done after two centuries in Baghdad in 750 CE. Abdallah ibn al-Moquaffa a Zoroastrian converted to Islam; working in the court of Abbasid Caliph al-Mansur translated it from Pahlavi. Moquaffa is credited with intellectual and literary development of Arabic prose. His Panchatantra translation enjoyed great popularity and is considered as master piece of Arabic narrative literature (16). Almost all pre-modern translations of Panchatantra in Europe have their roots in his Arabic translation. From Arabic it got again translated to Syrian language in 10th/11th century CE (17) and into Greek in the 11th century CE. 12th century CE Hebrew translation by Rabbi Joel further got translated into Latin by John of Capua around 1263-1278 CE which got printed in 1480 CE. From this Latin translation Doni translated it into Italian which got printed in 1552 CE. La Fontaine’s collection of fables titled ‘Fables of Bidpai’ in French got published in 1678-9 CE in four volumes. In the introduction of his second volume he has acknowledged his indebtedness to Indian Sage Pilpay for inspiration (18). Many Subhashitas and Jataka stories have migrated to West and have formed an inseparable part of European secular and religious literature including Bible (19). Panchatantra in its German translation was the first Indian and probably second book after Bible published by Gutenberg press in 1483 CE. Panchatantra had earlier migrated to Tibet, China and Mongolia and almost all South Eastern countries. In Java there are versions available in old Javanese language known as Tantri Kamandaka, composed in 1031 CE (20). In the reign of Photisarath (1500-1550) and Sai Setthathirat (1550-1571) Lao version of Panchatantra was composed along with Jataka tales, most of them unique to Laos. Relatively less work and critical study is available on these works.


Panchatantra has inspired many artists and there are many Persian and Arabic miniatures, wall paintings and Vases decorated with stories from Panchatantra or various versions of Kalilah wa Dimnah. In Sri-Lanka, a fragment of second or third century CE Indian red polished ware exhibiting crocodile-monkey story has been unearthed. Seventh century CE Mamallapuram rock relief has Panchatantra stories and tenth century Bengal Temple has them on molded terra cotta plaques. A 12th century CE Vishnu temple ceiling at Mandapur also is decorated with Panchatantra stories. In Central Asia, at Panjikent 7th and 8th century CE Soghdian artists have decorated walls of their houses with Panchatantra and Aesop’s fables. The artistic penetration of Jataka/Panchatantra tales and their translated versions is fascinating and textual and artistic expressions should be studied together. It may surprise many that in the preface of Kalila wa Dimnah, Ibn al Muqaffa mentions the reasons for paintings in his text i.e. to provide pleasure to the reader and also to make the reader more mindful of the book’s value. We do not have these early copies now (21). Another work of art which became very popular was created by Husain bin ‘Ali-al-Waiz al Kashifi, titled Anwar-i-suhaili at Herat in 1504 CE. This work was very popular in Persian intellectuals then. For some time this Text was taught to British officials of the East India Company at the East India College, Haileybury during the second half of the 19th century. Abul Fazl in 1588 CE under the instructions of Mughal Emperor Akabar produced another Persian version titled, Iyar-i-Danish (Criterion of Knowledge).Miniatures based on these works are very popular (22). 12th century CE Shuka Saptati, another Katha literature, of classical Sanskrit was adapted into Persian in 1329 CE. Author Ziya al-din Nakhshabi titled his translation as Tutinamah. It was translated into German in 1822 CE and subsequently into many other European languages including English by F.Gladwin at the end of the last century (23). Cleveland Museum of Art has some of the best paintings of Tutinama manuscript (24). In India, Panchatantra stories have become the part of temple architecture along with Ramayana and Mahabharata stories (25). 


In the Colonial period it obviously began with Sir William Jones. He used the Sanskrit text of Hitopadesha for learning Sanskrit and translation practice, as he was familiar with the Turkish version which was translated into French language also (26). He mentions Panchatantra and Niti Shastra in his address given to Asiatic society of Bengal in the year 1786 CE which was founded by him in the year 1784 CE. His translation of Hitopadesha was published posthumously in his Works (27). However, Wilkins’ English translation of Hitopadesha got published earlier in the year 1787 CE (28). H.H. Wilson wrote on Hindu Fiction but not on Panchatantra or Hitopadesha specifically (29). We owe our debt to Max Muller (30), Buhler (31), and Kielhorn (32) for their valuable contribution to some facets of this literature and also to Sternbach (33) for his valuable contributions to Subhashitas. Many Indian, German, English and American scholars have critically edited and helped to preserve this voluminous literature for posterity.

However, Panchatantra was translated into English by Sir Thomas North in 1570 CE from an Italian translation done by Doni in 1552 CE. Joseph Jacobs in his introduction to North’s English translation mentions about twenty translations of various versions of Panchatantra in Europe (34). British Library catalog lists about nine popular editions of the Fables of Pilpay published during seventeenth and eighteenth centuries CE and only three in the nineteenth century CE indicating decline in its popularity (35).


Some issues like its name, time of composition, name of the author, its unique structure of frame story and embedded stories(36) etc has been addressed and studied at length, though we do not have final answers yet.

Its probable relation to early folk and oral tradition of story telling in India has been suggested by many. Rather, it is fashionable to make such statements that Panchatantra and allied Katha literature in India had their origin in early folk stories. However, not a single credible evidence has been produced till this date, other than lengthy discussions on hypothetical assumptions. Norman Brown has very elaborately discussed this issue at length taking into consideration almost all documented Folk story literature available to him then. While not denying this possibility in early times, he says

It is doubtless true that in the remote past many stories had their origin among the illiterate folk, often in pre-literary times, and were later taken into literature. It is also just as true that many stories that appear in literature existed there first and are not indebted to the folklore for their origin. But leaving aside questions concerning the early history of Hindu stories and dealing strictly with modern Indian fiction, we find that folklore has frequently taken its material from literature. This process has been so extensive that of the 3000 tales so far reported, all of which have been collected during the past fifty years, at least half can be shown to be derived from literary sources….

Norman Brown, after analyzing and comparing many stories of Panchatantra and folklore, comes to the conclusion,

This table affords considerable evidence in support of the theory that it is the folk tales and not the literary tales that are borrowed. (37)


Study of Panchatantra is multi layered i.e. cultural, social, anthropological, didactical, comparative literature, moralistic, polity and administration and last but not the least, artistic. Scholars during last 1500 years have worked on almost all facets of   Panchatantra. Still there are many areas not explored adequately .M.R. Kale in the preface of his Panchatantra book states,

Vishnusarman, as the quotations show, was well acquainted with politics, the aphorisms of Vatsyayana, ancient history and the science of astronomy (38).

We know about Kautilya’s writings in Panchatantra, little of Vatsyayana, through Ludwik Sternbach about Dharmashastra (39), but nothing about science of astronomy is known. Panchatantra was composed prior to 5th Century CE. That is the period around which Siddhanta writers and Aryabhata wrote their texts of mathematical astronomy. We know the story of two fishes and the frog in the 5th tantra, and their names are Shatabuddhi, Sahasrabuddhi and Ekabuddhi respectively, indicating definitely the knowledge of decimal system in the society then. Study of astronomical references in Panchatantra may throw light on many dark corners of the history of mathematics.

Characterizing animal behavior and making it popular in our gnomic literature will have to be credited to Panchatantra. We know very recently about self recognition ability of some animals, like humans. Self recognition is the understanding that one’s own mirror reflection does not represent another individual but oneself. Very few animals like apes, dolphins and Asian elephants are capable of this ability. Recently Gallup published his seminal article in the issue of science (1970, Vol.167:86-87) on Chimpanzees: self recognition. In a very recent article in PLoS (Biol 6(8), August 19, 2008) this ability is confirmed with Magpie, a songbird species from the crow family. Mirror and the mark is the standard test used now to know this ability in animals.  Lions do not have this ability. The story of lion (tantra I) getting misled by his image in water is a classic example of lack of this ability in lions. Selection of animals for particular story is not accidental but seems to be an outcome of keen observation of surrounding, especially animal kingdom.


Panchatantra was not the only text translated in the sixth century CE. It was the beginning of the translation era. Chess (40), medical, toxicological (41) and literally many mathematical Sanskrit texts were translated to Persian and Arabic languages (42). This knowledge enrichment movement lasted till 12th to 13th Century CE. It started in 5th & 6th Century CE at Jundishapur (Figure 2), Iran in pre-Islamic times, continued in Umayyadi Damascus, Syria and further in Abbasid Baghdad in Iraq in 8th to10th Century CE with the formation of Bait al-Hikma (House of Wisdom). Along with Sanskrit texts many Greek texts were also translated into Persian and Arabic. This was a golden period of Islamic civilization while Europe was in dark period. In 14th Century CE at Toledo, Spain started latinization of this knowledge, which helped Europe for her scientific revolution in 16th Century CE and also laid the foundation of Renaissance. This was also the beginning of Westernization and Hellenization of Sciences (43) and further of Orientalism in history writing (44). This transfer of knowledge to Europe from India via Persia/Syria/ Iraq route is known, documented but not well communicated or reflected satisfactorily in today’s encyclopedias and knowledge books of all sciences. These translations and borrowings were not without additions, deletions and cultural corrections. Today’s insistence on universality or unity of science may be politically correct but such assumptions or presuppositions numb our inquiry apparatus towards earlier non European civilizations. It also blinds us towards cultural moorings of science on which was founded the epistemology of science of those respective cultures (45). Study of Subhashitas and Panchatantra is no exception to this.


The Message of Panchatantra is loud, clear and universal. For Arabs and Europeans, its moralistic tone was appealing. They made alterations when they found shrewdness of Panchatantra unpalatable. However, the message of Panchatantra is explicitly visible in its Kathamukha. Even a stupid or idiot can be made into an adept, only and only if he submits or is lucky to get a creative Guru (Master). Today we talk of knowledge society. There are no better justifications known to us today for the value of knowledge to a sustainable society than the preamble of Panchatantra.  The message is simple, practical and down to earth.

The material available on Panchatantra is in many languages and is so vast that it is practically impossible to review and grasp this for one individual, and a team of scholars, expert in many languages is required for this purpose. This justifies, at least in India, a special chair for the study of Panchatantra and Katha literature. It also must be included in sciences and humanities curricula of schools and colleges.

Thank You.
Vijay Bedekar
Institute for Oriental Study, Thane.
E-mail: vbedekar@yahoo.com 

1)      Visit institutes web site: http://www.orientalthane.com  (Appeal)

2)      Joseph Jacobs is of the opinion that many of Aesop’s fables have striking similarity with Jataka tales, which he has discussed in considerable length in the introductory volume of Caxton’s Esope, edited by him. (London, D.Nutt, Bibliotheque de Carabas, 1889). However, Edgerton is not of this opinion. He could trace very few stories to Indian origin (The Panchatantra published by George Allan & Unwin Ltd, 1965. Introduction, pp.13.)

3)      MacDonald, D.B. 1924. The Early History of the Arabian Nights, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society. pp:371-376; Abbott, N. 1949. A Ninth Century Fragment of the ‘Thousand and One Nights’: New Light on the Early History of the Arabian Nights, Journal of Near Eastern Studies, viii, pp. 157-178.

4)       Sindbad stories are known to Europe as Seven Sages of Rome and again Joseph Jacobs is of the opinion that they have Indian origin.

5)      For Indic origin of Ballads see Dundes, Alan. Indic Parallels to the Ballad of the “Walled-up Wife” Reveal the Pitfalls of Parochial Nationalistic Folkloristics. The Journal of American Folklore 1995; Vol.108, No. 427, pp. 38-53.

6)      McKenzie, Kenneth. An Italian Fable, Its Sources and Its History. Modern Philology 1904; Vol.1, No.4, pp. 497-524.

7)      Edgerton, Franklin. The Hindu Beast Fable in the light of Recent Studies. The American Journal of Philology 1915; Vol. 36, No.1, pp. 44-69.

8)      Benfey, Theodor S. 1859; Pantschatantra. 2 Volumes. Leipzig, F.W. Brockhaus.

9)      Hertel, Johannes. 1912. The Panchatantra-Text of Purnabhadra. Cambridge, Harvard University.

10)  Edgerton, Franklin. 1924. The Panchatantra Reconstructed 2 Volumes. New Haven, American Oriental society.

11)  Jacobs, Joseph. 1888. The earliest English Version of the Fables of Bidpai, Introduction, pp. xv: “The latest date at which the stories were thus connected is fixed by the fact that some of them have been sculpted round the sacred Buddhist shrines of Sachi, Amaravati, and the Bharhut, in the last case with the titles of the Jatakas inscribed above them. These have been dated by Indian archaeologist as before 200BCE, and Mr. Rhys-Davis produces evidence which would place the stories as early as 4oo BCE and 200 BCE, many of our tales were put together in a frame formed of the life and experience of the Buddha.’

12)  Olivelle, Patrick. 1997. The Panchatantra The Book of India’s Folk Vision, Introduction xii, Oxford world’s Classics, OUP.

13)   de Blois, Francois. 1990. Burzoy’s Voyage to India and the Origin of the Book of Kalilah Wa Dimnah. Prize Publication Fund volume. XXIII. London; Royal Asiatic Society.

14)  The details of this story we get in: The Shah Nama, The Epic of the Kings, translated by Reuben Levy, revised by Amin Banani, Published by Routledge & Keegan Paul, London 1985. Chapter xxxi (iii): How Burzoe brought the Kalila of Demna from Hindustan, pp. 330-334.

15)  Yuka, Iwase. 1999. Development of Selected Stories from Panchatantra/Kalilah we Dimnah: Genealogical Problems Reconsidered On the Basis of Sanskrit and Semitic Texts, Introduction P.8. A Doctoral Dissertation, Graduate School of Integrated Studies in Language and Society. Osaka University of Foreign Studies. See also: The Fall of the Idigo Jackal: the Discourse of Division and Purnabhandra’s Panchatantra by McComas Taylor, Introduction, p. 10

16)   Irwin, Rober. 2006. The Penguin Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature, Penguin books, London has 14 entries to Kalila wa Dimna under Ibn al-Muqaffa in the index; See also: The Fables of Kalilah and Dimnah, translated from the Arabic by, Saleh Sa’adeh Jallad. 2004. Rimal/Melisende, Cyprus/UK; Chandra Rajan in her translation of Panchatantra published by Penguin Books informs us: ‘It is conjectured that al-Muqaffa who rendered Burzoe’s Pehlavi version of the Panchatantra into Arabic (Kalilah wa Dimnah) in AD 750, also used an earlier Arabic version of the work by a Jew who knew both Sanskrit and Arabic’.

17)  Keith-Falconer,Ion G.N., 1885 tr. Kalilah and Dimnah or the Fables of Bidpai: an English Translation of the Latter Syriac Version after the text Originally edited by William Wright, with Critical notes and Variant Readings Preceded by an Introduction, Being an Account of their literary and Philological History. Cambridge (Repr. Amsterdam: Philo Pres 1970.)

18)   For extensive details on La Fontaine and Bidpai see: Till, A. 1939 La Fontaine and Bidpai, The Modern Language Review, Vol.34, No.1, pp. 29-39

19)  Sternbach, Ludwik. 1981. Indian Wisdom and Its Spread beyond India, Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 101, No. 1. pp. 120-123

20)  Venkatasubbiah, A. 1966, A Javanese Version of the Panchatantra, Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Vol. XLVII.

21)  Robinson, B.W. 1958. The Tehran Manuscript of Kalila Wa Dimna a reconsideration, Reprinted from Oriental Art, New Series Vol. IV.No.3, The Oriental Art Magazine Ltd. See also Cowen, Sanchia Jill. 1989. Kalila Wa Dimna, An animal Allegory of the Mongol Court, The Istanbul University Album. OUP

22)  Qaisar, A.Jan; S.P. Verma, edt. Art and Culture Painting and Perspective pp. 35

23)  Haksar A.N.D., 2000. Shuka Saptati Seventy Tales of the Parrot. Harper Collins, India. Introduction: xvi & xvii.

24)  Seyller, John, 1992. Overpainting in the Cleveland Tutinama. Artibus Asiae, Vol.52 No.3/4 pp.283-318

25)  Patil, Channabasappa S. 1995. Panchatantra in Karnataka Sculptures. Karnataka State Directorate of Archaeology and Museums, Mysore.

26)  Murray, Alexander. Ed. With Introduction by Richard Gombrich. 1998. Sir William Jones 1746-1794 a Commemoration, pp. 132. OUP.

27)  Ibid. 132

28)  Wilkins, Charles. 1787. tr. Fables and Proverbs from Sanskrit Being the Hitopadesa. George Routledge and Sons Ltd, London.

29)  Wilson, H.H. 1864. Works by the Late Horace Hayman Wilson. Vol. III. ( Hindu Fiction Vol. II pp. 156-268).

30)  Muller, F. Max. 1895. On the Migration of Fables. Chips from the German Workshop. New edn. Vol.IV: Essays on Mythology and Folk-lore.pp.412-489. London.

31)  Buhler, G., 1891 a&b resp. ed. Panchatantra II,III IV & V. Bombay Sanskrit Series No.1&3. Bombay.

32)  Kielhorn, F., 1896.ed. Panchatantra I. Bombay Sanskrit Series No.4. Bombay.

33)  Sternbach, Ludwik.1974. Subhashita, Gnomic and Didactic Literature. A History of Indian Literature (Part of Vol.IV).edited By Jan Gonda. Otto Harrassowitz. Wiesbanden. Also see; Sternbach, Ludwik. 1960. The Hitopadesha and its Sources. American Oriental Society, New Haven.

34)  Jacobs, Joseph. 1888. edt. The Earliest English Version of the Fables of Bidpai; the Morall Philosophie of Doni, By Sir Thomas North. D.Nutt. London

35)  McComas, Taylor. The Fall of the Idigo Jackal: the Discourse of Division and Purnabhandra’s Panchatantra by, Introduction, p.5.

36)  Gittes, Katharine Slater. 1983. The Canterbury Tales and the Arabic Frame Tradition, PMLA, Vol, 98.No.2 pp.237-251. Reply to her conclusions was given by Ibrahim Dawood of Yarmouk University of Jordan and Julie Scott Meisami of Berkeley, California in the next volume 99 of PMLA, pp. 109-112. Also see: Witzel, M. 1987. On the Origin of the History Device of the ‘Frame Story’ in Old Indian Literature. Hinduism and Buddhism. Freiburg. Pp.380-414.

37)  Brown, Norman W. 1919. The Panchatantra in Modern Indian Folklore. Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 39, pp. 1&17.(1-54). Incidentally, subject of Norman Brown’s Doctoral Dissertation (1916) was Modern Indian folklore and its relation to literature.Part I: The Panchatantra in modern Indian folklore….

38)  Kale, M.R. 2005(first printed in 1912 at Bombay)) Panchatantra of Visnusarman , Motilal Banarasidas, Delhi.

39)  Sternbach, Ludwik. Indian Tales Interpreted from the point of View of the Smritis: Panchatantra 1.13, Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol.68, No.2, pp. 84-91

40)   Murray, H.J. 1913, A history of Chess. Oxford; Gamer, Helena M. 1954. The Earliest Evidence of Chess in Western Literature: The Einsiedeln verses, Speculum, Vol.29 No. 4 pp. 734-750; Wilkinson, Charles K. 1943. Chessman and Chess, The Metropolitan Museum of Art bulletin, New series, Vol.1 No.9. pp. 271-279; Antin, David. 1968 Caxton’s the game and Playe of the Chess, Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol.29, No.2, pp. 269-278; Topsfield, Andrew. 1985. The Indian game of Snakes and Ladders, Artbus Asiae, Vol.46, No.3. pp.203-226.

41)  Levey, Martin. 1966.  Medieval Arabic Toxicology: The book on Poisons of ibn Wahshiya and Its Relation to Early Indian and Greek Texts, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, New Ser., Vol 56, No.7, pp 1-130.

42)  Ernst, Carl W. 2003. Muslim Studies of Hinduism? A Reconsideration of Arabic and Persian Translations from Indian Languages, Iranian Studies, Vol. 36, No.2 pp. 173-195. A list of all known titles and manuscripts of Indian texts translated into Arabic is found in Fuat Sezgin. 1969 Geschichte des arabischen Schrifttums, Leiden. E.J.Brill.

43)  Bernel, Martin. 1991. Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, Vol. 1: The Fabrication of Ancient Greece 1785-1985, Vintage.

44)  Said, Edward W. 1978, Orientalism Western Concept of The Orient, Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd; Inden, Ronal B, 1990. Imagining India. Cambridge, Ma: Blackwell; Joseph, George Gheverghese. 2000 (2nd Edition). The Crest Of The Peacock-Non European roots of Mathematics, Penguin Books, London.

45)  Raju C.K. 2007. Cultural Foundation of Mathematics The Nature of Mathematical Proof and the Transmission of the Calculus from India to Europe in the 16th c. CE, History of Science, Philosophy and Culture in Indian Civilization Gen.Edt.D.P. Chattopadhyaya Vol.10 part 4. Published by PEARSON Longman.<!--QuoteEnd--><!--QuoteEEnd-->

<!--QuoteBegin-ramana+Jul 17 2009, 09:08 PM-->QUOTE(ramana @ Jul 17 2009, 09:08 PM)<!--QuoteEBegin-->Here is Joseph Jacobs book on Indian Fairy tales.

Read in particular his Preface and the Notes section where he discusses the origins of the folklore literature of Europe and Africa.

So not only the Chinese but the "West" owes a great debt of imagination to the Indics.<!--QuoteEnd--><!--QuoteEEnd-->

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World Folklore And Indian Connections - by ramana - 04-21-2007, 04:52 AM
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