The Pancatantra is a collection of fables, composed in Sanskrit and dating from perhaps the third century ad. It is not great literature, nor is it a religious masterwork (the two qualities that most commonly confer classic status on Sanskrit texts), and yet in one form or another it retains enormous popularity to the present day. Versions of it exist in almost every present-day Indian language, as well as retellings of various sorts in Sanskrit; translated into Arabic under the title Kalilah and Dimnah, it was then retranslated into a variety of European languages, and its influence can be seen in La Fontaine's 17th-century collection; one of its stories ("The Brahmin, the mongoose and the snake") undoubtedly forms the original source for the Welsh tale of the knight, the dog and the wolf.
Much of the reason for the long-lasting appeal of The Pa$catantra's fables must lie in their sheer quality as stories, in which talking animals act out tiny, schematic human dramas.
Take the case of the lion-king and his three servants, a crow, a jackal and a leopard. At a time of near-starvation they begin to look hungrily at their new-found friend, a camel named Kathanaka; but he cannot be harmed, as the lion has sworn to protect him.
So the three servants approach the lion along with Kathanaka. "The crow went first: 'Your Majesty, we have not found any food, and as you are enfeebled by not having eaten for so long, you must eat my flesh.' The lion replied, 'You have a very small body. Even if I were to eat you, it would not satisfy me at all.'" Now the jackal and the leopard in turn make the same offer, and the lion makes the same response to each of them.
"When he heard all this Kathanaka thought to himself: 'No one is going to get killed here. So why don't I also do the same thing?' He got up, went up to the lion, and said: 'Your Majesty, my body is far superior to theirs. Save your life with my body.' Before the words were out of his mouth the leopard and the jackal tore apart his two sides. He died immediately and was eaten."
The interplay of cunning and foolishness, greed and its reward, quick wit in escaping from danger - these and other human traits are illustrated in the narratives; they are also the subject of the numerous "moral" verses interspersed throughout.
Western readers may be surprised at the extent to which these favour realpolitik over rectitude. "Discord well planted divides men,/ Even with the most loyal hearts;/ As a current of water cleaves/ Large mountains made of solid rock." "When he's stripped of power, a wise man bears it;/ Acting like a friend, hiding his feelings,/ He bides his time, covering his weakness/ with outward affection." As Olivelle makes clear in his introduction, The Pa$catantra has a serious purpose behind its light-hearted facade: it offers instruction in how to govern, and does not shrink from advocating deception where necessary.
Patrick Olivelle's translation is accurate and reads well, sensibly using idiomatic English to capture the flavour of the original. Explanatory notes are provided when needed, and there is a glossary of the names occurring in the text (which are often "significant", eg an ascetic named "Big bum"). It is pleasing to see Oxford University Press commissioning translations of works such as The Pa$catantra for its World's Classics series (Olivelle's translation of The Upanishads was published in 1996), and this volume should introduce an engaging text to a wider audience than has previously been unable to enjoy it. One very minor complaint: in the bold typeface used for story titles, the apostrophe is uniformly replaced by the character o.
John D. Smith is lecturer in Sanskrit, University of Cambridge.
The Pancatantra: The Book of India's Folk Wisdom
ISBN - 0 19 283299 9
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £6.99
Pages - 195
Translator - Patrick Olivelle