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The Book

Brief book history

The Panchatantra (from Sanskrit, meaning "five-books") is a collection of fables and quite similar stories from ancient India - five books in one. Some parts are in prose, others in verse. Animals act and talk in some of them, and suggest Indian living, tricks of survival, cunning and idiocy and adaptations. Even though many of the story parts are played by animals, not all of them are suited to teenagers, due to the crooked, corrupting dealings of villains described in detail.

Some of the stories in the book can be traced to the Rigveda from around 1500 BC. It is estimated, however, that the tales were gathered into a separate book somewhere between 200 BC and 500 AD. Some of the stories travelled westward to Persia and further very early. The particular way of weaving stories into one another according to "box within box within box" and so on, came to influence the way of story-telling in many other works. The use of a frame story with other stories within it, is well used in Oriental works. In the West the technique is seen in Arabian Nights, with its roots in Egyptian, Persian and Indian story-telling arts. Individual stories of the Arabian Nights can be traced to alle of these traditions. Besides, many ancient Persian stories have originated in India. [Wikipedia, s.v. "One Thousand and One Nights"]

The Panchatantra stories are among the most famous in the world. The work is one of the most translated Indian works. The Indian sage Vishnu Sharma (with the alternative spellings of Vishnusharman and Visnu Sarma in translation) is among those crediting with forming the text. Some of the stories are derived from stories of older, oral traditions. These fables have had great influence on literature in the West, in particular in the Middle Ages. Doris Lessing writes that the book has been translated into English at least twenty times, for example. Folk tale motifs in the Panchatantra are found in Boccaccio, La Fontaine and the works of Grimm Brothers. Many post-medieval era authors explicitly credit their inspirations to texts that are known to be based on the Panchatantra. Scholars have noted the strong similarity between a few of the stories in The Panchatantra and Aesop's Fables and of many Western nursery rhymes and ballads. (WP, "Panchatantra")

Contents in short

The Panchatantra's content is in short:

  1. In the first book about losing friends, the framing story is about a lion and bull who become friends and remain so until a jealous jackal destroys their friendship. The first book contains about 30 stories and comprises nearly half the work. Most of the fables in the first part are told by two jackals.
  2. In the second book, on winning friends, a crow determines to make friends with a rat or mouse. Their friendship grows and eventually incorporates a turtle (terrapin) and a deer (fawn). When the fawn is captured by a hunter, his animal friends cooperate to free him.
  3. The third book is about crows and owls and a war between these two kinds of birds. A crow pretends to be driven away from the other crows, and is therefore accepted among the owls. She sees and hears what makes owls vulnerable and later call the other crows together to set fire to all the entrances to the cave where the owls live, so that they are choked to death.
  4. The fourth book is about unnatural companionship between a monkey and a crocodile. The crocodile in time comes to discard their friendship for the sake of getting the monkey's heart, foolishly believing it can save the life of his crocodile wife. However, the monkey finds out of the scheme and avoids being killed.
  5. In the fifth book a priest (brahmin) leaves his infant in a house with a friendly mongoose. When the brahmin or his wife (depending on versions of the tale) later see blood around the mongoose snout, they wrongly believe that the mongoose has killed their baby, and kill the animal in anger. Later they find out that the mongoose was blood stained because he had killed a snake and thereby probably saved the life of the little child while his parents were away.

[Wikipedia s.v. "Panchatantra"]

The way of telling

The Panchatantra fables are interwoven according to "fables within fables". The first three books in it are well formed. The last two differ slightly - partly because the frame story in the beginning of book 4 probably is not as interesting as the initial frame stories in the first three books, and partly by the fact that book 5 can hardly be said to have a frame story at all, and contains somewhat different tales than the first four books, says the translator Arthur W. Ryder.

The first story in each book (part) serves as a kind of narrative frame. Various fables are inserted into it until the book is brought to an end. Then the next book begins with another framing story with stories inside stories till the end of it. The fables or stories contain quotations, sayings, references to Scripture and many short and succinct poems (epigrams). The stories are charming tales, but the short sayings and poems lift the work even higher," in the opinion of Arthur Ryder (see further down). Old fable works with pages of life's lengthy diplomacy.

Animals are described somewhat by their given names, and animals are stereotyped otherise too. For example, the lion is considered strong but not so wise. That "king of animals" is also cruel. The jackal is described as vileful and cunning, the crane as stupid, and so forth. Names of towns, people and animals are given to allude to qualities ascribed to them, in part stereotyped descriptions.

Titles of the stories are added by the translators, the original text does not contain any titles.

What it is about

In Indian tradition, Panchatantra is a work about politics and human behaviour - life's diplomacy and strategies, then. How to conduct oneself well in life is summarized by the word niti, which covers the two ancient Hindu ideals of justice and prosperity: dharma (law, justice, righteousness, also religion) and artha (wealth, prosperity). Going forth wisely and morally in the world brings steadily prosperity, it is held. The aim of its claimed author in antiquity, Vishnu Sharma, was to educated three uninstructed and wayward princes in politics by way of stories and proverbs - in part in poetic form. He succeeded too, it is written.

The work begins with a brief introduction where we meet Vishnu Sharma. He tells the rest of the work to the princes. Security, prosperity, resolute action, friendship, and good teachings should be combined so well that deep pleasure results, ideally.

There are those who say that this book is particularly useful for those who have diplomatic relations with Indians. Maybe, maybe not.

This online edition

This is a British English version of Arthur Ryder's English translation of the complete Panchatantra, first published in 1925 by the University of Chicago Press. There are few works like it. Errors of spelling in the American edition have been corrected, American spelling of words have been changed, and some outdated words are freshed up and several poetic abridgements - like o'er for over - are dropped. 'Ass' is here 'donkey', as 'ass' fairly often is strongly associated with a body part. Besides, in several places longer passages have been broken up to make conversations easier to survey.

Also, Roman numerals, like III, IV, are replaced by the far better Hindu numerals (also called Arabic numerals) throughout. Small typographic changes are made: the em dash is made into - .

These and a few other small changes have been made from Ryder's translation of 1925. Numbers in these brackets - [ } - refer to pages in that original translation, where the page numbers for most part are put on top of the pages. Words that are split up at the end and start of pages, are made whole here, that is, the full word is put after the page brackets. It makes for easier reading and works well in the case of quoting the text too.

About the translator, Arthur W. Ryder

Arthur William Ryder (1877-1938) was a professor of Sanskrit at the University of California, Berkeley. He is best known for translating the complete Panchatantra, the Bhagavad Gita and other Sanskrit works into English. Ryder's "accurate and charming" translation of the Panchatantra remains popular and highly regarded.

Ryder was known for his love of the language, preferring to publish whatever most delighted him, rather than scholarly articles, holding the view that Sanskrit ought to be studied not for philological reasons, but for the great literature it opened.

His translations were noted for their high fidelity to the originals despite his practice of translating into lively and natural conversational language using rhyme and modern English idiom:

George R. Noyes wrote in 1939: "Ryder's work . . . is also probably the finest body of translation from the Sanskrit ever accomplished by one man, if translation be regarded as a branch of literary art, not merely as a faithful rendering of the meaning of the original text."

One of Ryder's devoted Sanskrit students was Julius Robert Oppenheimer, who was then a young physics professor at Berkeley. He is best known for his role as the scientific director of the Manhattan Project, the World War II project that developed the first nuclear weapons. He mentioned: "Ryder knew that a man could commit irretrievable error, and that in the face of this fact, all others were secondary."

"The genius of Einstein leads to Hiroshima," Pablo Picasso once commented. After co-fathering the atomic bomb, Oppenheimer got increasingly concerned about the potential danger to humanity arising from scientific discoveries, and joined with Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell, Joseph Rotblat, and others to establish what would eventually become the World Academy of Art and Science in 1960 - but that is another story.

A fit culture is good for solid thriving. Good fables tell of many sides to that.


1. Wikipedia, s.v. "Arthur W. Ryder".

2. Arthur W. Ryder ◦biography by George R. Noyes.


Translator Words


One Vishnusharman, shrewdly gleaning

All worldly wisdom's inner meaning,

In these five books the charm compresses

Of all such books the world possesses.

- Panchatantra introduction

The Panchatantra contains the most widely known stories in the world. If it were further declared that the Panchatantra is the best collection of stories in the world, the assertion could hardly be disproved, and would probably command the assent of those possessing the knowledge for a judgment. Assuming varied forms in their native India, then travelling in translations, and translations of translations, through Persia, Arabia, Syria, and the civilized countries of Europe, these stories have, for more than twenty centuries, brought delight to hundreds of millions.

Since the stories gathered in the Panchatantra are very ancient, and since they can no longer be ascribed to their respective authors, it is not possible to give an accurate report of their genesis, while much in their subsequent history will always remain obscure. Dr. Hertel, the learnèd and painstaking editor of the text used by the present translator, believes that the original work was composed in Kashmir, about 200 [4} BC. At this date, however, many of the individual stories were already ancient. He then enumerates no less than twenty-five recensions of the work in India. The text here translated is late, dating from the year 1199 AD.

It is not here intended to summarize the history of these stories in India, nor their travels through the Near East and through Europe. The story is attractive - whose interest is not awakened by learning, for example, that in this work he makes the acquaintance of one of La Fontaine's important sources? Yet here, as elsewhere, the work of the "scholars" has been of somewhat doubtful value, diverting attention from the primary to the secondary, from literature itself to facts, more or less important, about literature. The present version has not been made by a scholar, but by the opposite of a scholar, a lover of good books, eager, so far as his powers permit, to extend an accurate and joyful acquaintance with the world's masterpieces. He will therefore not endeavour to tell the history of the Panchatantra, but to tell what the Panchatantra is.


Whoever learns the work by heart,

Or through the story-teller's art

Becomes acquainted,

His life by sad defeat - although

The king of heaven be his foe -

Is never tainted.

- Introduction to the Panchatantra [ 5}

The Panchatantra is a niti-shastra, or textbook of niti. The word niti means roughly "the wise conduct of life." Western civilization must endure a certain shame in realizing that no precise equivalent of the term is found in English, French, Latin, or Greek. Many words are therefore necessary to explain what niti is, though the idea, once grasped, is clear, important, and satisfying. First of all, niti presupposes that one has considered, and rejected, the possibility of living as a saint. It can be practiced only by a social being, and represents an admirable attempt to answer the insistent question how to win the utmost possible joy from life in the world of men. The negative foundation is security. For example, if one is a mouse, his dwelling must contain recesses beyond the reach of a cat's paw. Pleasant stanzas concerning the necessity of security are scattered throughout the work. Thus:

The poor are in peculiar need

Of being secret when they feed;

The lion killed the ram who could

Not check his appetite for food.

or again:

In houses where no snakes are found,

One sleeps; or where the snakes are bound:

But perfect rest is hard to win

With serpents bobbing out and in.

The mere negative foundation of security requires a considerable exercise of intelligence, since the world [6 } swarms with rascals, and no sensible man can imagine them capable of reformation.

Caress a rascal as you will,

He was and is a rascal still:

All salve- and sweating-treatments fail

To take the kink from doggy's tail.

Yet roguery can be defeated; for by its nature it is stupid.

Since scamp and sneak and snake

So often undertake

A plan that does not thrive,

The world wags on, alive.

Having made provision for security, in the realization that

A man to thrive

Must keep alive,

one faces the necessity of having money. The Panchatantra being very wise, never falls into the vulgar error of supposing money to be important. Money must be there, in reasonable amount, because it is unimportant, and what wise man permits things unimportant to occupy his mind? Time and again the Panchatantra insists on the misery of poverty, with greatest detail in the story of "Gold's Gloom" in the second book, never perhaps with more point than in the stanza:

A beggar to the graveyard hied

And there "Friend corpse, arise," he cried;

"One moment lift my heavy weight

Of poverty; for I of late [ 7}

Grow weary, and desire instead

Your comfort; you are good and dead."

The corpse was silent. He was sure

It was better to be dead than poor.

Needless to say, worldly property need not be, indeed should not be, too extensive, since it has no value in possession, but only in use:

In case of horse or book or sword,

Of woman, man or lute or word,

The use or uselessness depends

On qualities the user lends.

Now for the positive content of niti. Granted security and freedom from degrading worry, then joy results from three occupations - from resolute, yet circumspect, use of the active powers; from intercourse with like-minded friends; and above all, from worthy exercise of the intelligence.

Necessary, to begin with, for the experience of true joy in the world of men, is resolute action. The difficulties are not blinked:

There is no toy

Called easy joy;

But man must strain

To body's pain.

Time and again this note is struck - the difficulty and the inestimable reward of sturdy action. Perhaps the most splendid expression of this essential part of niti is found in the third book, in the words which the crow, Live-Strong, addresses to his king, Cloudy: [8}

A noble purpose to attain

Desiderates extended pain,

Asks man's full greatness, pluck, and care,

And loved ones aiding with a prayer.

Yet if it climb to heart's desire,

What man of pride and fighting fire,

Of passion and of self-esteem

Can bear the unaccomplished dream?

His heart indignantly is bent

(Through its achievement) on content.

Equal stress is laid upon the winning and holding of intelligent friends. The very name of the second book is "The Winning of Friends"; the name of the first book is "The Loss of Friends." Throughout the whole work, we are never permitted to be long oblivious of the rarity, the necessity, and the pricelessness of friendship with the excellent. For, indeed,

The days when meetings do not fail

With wise and good

Are lovely clearings on the trail

Through life's wild wood.

So speaks Slow, the turtle; and Swift, the crow, expresses it thus:

They taste the best of bliss, are good,

And find life's truest ends,

Who, glad and gladdening, rejoice

In love, with loving friends.

Last of all, and in a sense including all else, is the use of the intelligence. Without it, no human joy is possible, nothing beyond animal happiness. [9}

For if there be no mind

Debating good and ill,

And if religion send

No challenge to the will,

If only greed be there

For some material feast,

How draw a line between

The man-beast and the beast?

One must have at disposal all valid results of scholarship, yet one must not be a scholar. For

Scholarship is less than sense;

Therefore seek intelligence.

One must command a wealth of detailed fact, ever alert to the deceptiveness of seeming fact, since oftentimes

The firefly seems a fire, the sky looks flat;

Yet sky and fly are neither this nor that.

One must understand that there is no substitute for judgement, and no end to the reward of discriminating judgement:

To know oneself is hard, to know

Wise effort, effort vain;

But accurate self-critics are

Secure in times of strain.

One must be ever conscious of the past, yet only as it offers material for wisdom, never as an object of brooding regret:

For lost and dead and past

The wise have no laments:

Between the wise and fools

Is just this difference. [10}

This is the lofty consolation offered by a woodpecker to a hen-sparrow whose eggs have been crushed by an elephant with the spring fever. And the whole matter finds its most admirable expression in the noble words of Cheek, the jackal:

What is learning whose attaining

Sees no passion wane, no reigning

Love and self-control?

Does not make the mind a menial,

Finds in virtue no congenial

Path and final goal?

Whose attaining is but straining

For a name, and never gaining

Fame or peace of soul?

This is niti, the harmonious development of the powers of man, a life in which security, prosperity, resolute action, friendship, and good learning are so combined as to produce joy. It is a noble ideal, shaming many tawdry ambitions, many vulgar catchwords of our day. And this noble ideal is presented in an artistic form of perfect fitness, in five books of wise and witty stories, in most of which the actors are animals.


Better with the learnèd dwell,

Even though it be in hell

Than with vulgar spirits roam;

Palaces that gods call home.

- Panchatantra, Book 2

The word Panchatantra means the "Five Books," the Pentateuch. Each of the five books is [11} independent, consisting of a framing story with numerous inserted stories, told, as fit circumstances arise, by one or another of the characters in the main narrative. Thus, the first book relates the broken friendship of the lion Rusty and the bull Lively, with some thirty inserted stories, told for the most part by the two jackals, Victor and Cheek. The second book has as its framing story the tale of the friendship of the crow, the mouse, the turtle, and the deer, whose names are Swift, Gold, Slow, and Spot. The third book has as framing story the war between crows and owls.

These three books are of considerable length and show great skill in construction. A somewhat different impression is left by Books 4 and 5. The framing story of Book 4, the tale of the monkey and the crocodile, has less interest than the inserted stories, while Book 5 can hardly be said to have a framing story, and it ends with a couple of grotesque tales, somewhat different in character from the others. These two shorter books, in spite of the charm of their contents, have the appearance of being addenda, and in some of the older recensions are reduced in bulk to the verge of extinction.

The device of the framing story is familiar in oriental works, the instance best known to Europeans being that of the Arabian Nights. Equally characteristic is the use of epigrammatic verses by the actors in the various tales. These verses are for the most part quoted from sacred writings or other sources of [12} dignity and authority. It is as if the animals in some English beast-fable were to justify their actions by quotations from Shakespeare and the Bible. These wise verses it is which make the real character of the Panchatantra. The stories, indeed, are charming when regarded as pure narrative; but it is the beauty, wisdom, and wit of the verses which lift the Panchatantra far above the level of the best story-books. It hardly needs to be added that in the present version, verse is always rendered by verse, prose by prose. The titles of the individual stories, however, have been supplied by the translator, since the original has none.

The large majority of the actors are animals, who have, of course, a fairly constant character. Thus, the lion is strong but dull of wit, the jackal crafty, the heron stupid, the cat a hypocrite. The animal actors present, far more vividly and more urbanely than men could do, the view of life here recommended - a view shrewd, undeceived, and free of all sentimentality; a view that, piercing the humbug of every false ideal, reveals with incomparable wit the sources of lasting joy.



July, 1925


Main Introduction

One Vishnusharman, shrewdly gleaning

All worldly wisdom's inner meaning,

In these five books the charm compresses

Of all such books the world possesses.

And this is how it happened. In the southern country is a city called Maidens' Delight. There lived a king named Immortal-Power. He was familiar with all the works treating of the wise conduct of life. His feet were made dazzling by the tangle of rays of light from jewels in the diadems of mighty kings who knelt before him. He had reached the far shore of all the arts that embellish life. This king had three sons. Their names were Rich-Power, Fierce-Power, Endless-Power, and they were supreme blockheads.

Now when the king perceived that they were hostile to education, he summoned his counsellors and said: "Gentlemen, it is known to you that these sons of mine, being hostile to education, are lacking in discernment. So when I behold them, my kingdom brings me no happiness, though all external thorns are drawn. For there is wisdom in the proverb:

Of sons unborn, or dead, or fools,

Unborn or dead will do: [14}

They cause a little grief, no doubt;

But fools, a long life through.

And again:

To what good purpose can a cow

That brings no calf nor milk, be bent?

Or why beget a son who proves

A dunce and disobedient?

Some means must therefore be devised to awaken their intelligence."

And they, one after another, replied: "O King, first one learns grammar, in twelve years. If this subject has somehow been mastered, then one masters the books on religion and practical life. Then the intelligence awakens."

But one of their number, a counsellor named Keen, said: "O King, the duration of life is limited, and the verbal sciences require much time for mastery. Therefore let some kind of epitome be devised to wake their intelligence. There is a proverb that says:

Since verbal science has no final end,

Since life is short, and obstacles impend,

Let central facts be picked and firmly fixed,

As swans extract the milk with water mixed.

"Now there is a Brahman here named Vishnusharman, with a reputation for competence in numerous sciences. Entrust the princes to him. He will certainly make them intelligent in a twinkling."

When the king had listened to this, he summoned Vishnusharman and said: "Holy sir, as a favour to me [15} you must make these princes incomparable masters of the art of practical life. In return, I will bestow upon you a hundred land-grants."

And Vishnusharman made answer to the king: "O King, listen. Here is the plain truth. I am not the man to sell good learning for a hundred land-grants. But if I do not, in six months' time, make the boys acquainted with the art of intelligent living, I will give up my own name. Let us cut the matter short. Listen to my lion-roar. My boasting arises from no greed for cash. Besides, I have no use for money; I am eighty years old, and all the objects of sensual desire have lost their charm. But in order that your request may be granted, I will show a sporting spirit in reference to artistic matters. Make a note of the date. If I fail to render your sons, in six months' time, incomparable masters of the art of intelligent living, then His Majesty is at liberty to show me His Majestic bare bottom."

When the king, surrounded by his counsellors, had listened to the Brahman's highly unconventional promise, he was penetrated with wonder, entrusted the princes to him, and experienced supreme content.

Meanwhile, Vishnusharman took the boys, went home, and made them learn by heart five books which he composed and called: (1) "The Loss of Friends," (2) "The Winning of Friends," (3) "Crows and Owls," (4) "Loss of Gains," (5) "Ill-considered Action." [16}

These the princes learned, and in six months' time they answered the prescription. Since that day this work on the art of intelligent living, called Panchatantra, or the "Five Books," has travelled the world, aiming at the awakening of intelligence in the young. To sum the matter up:

Whoever learns the work by heart,

Or through the story-teller's art

Becomes acquainted,

His life by sad defeat - although

The king of heaven be his foe -

Is never tainted.


Panchatantra, in English translation by Arthur W. Ryder, Literature  

There are over 200 versions of the Panchatantra, in more than 60 languages. The English translations below by Edgerton, Olivelle and Ryder are good. Many others are abridged or partial.


Edgerton, Franklin. 1965. The Panchatantra: Translated from the Sanskrit. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1965. ⍽▢⍽ Unesco-approved. The first edition is from 1924. The verses in the original are rendered into prose, each stanza forming a paragraph. Recommended.

Govindan, Santhini. 2007. 71 Golden Tales of Panchatantra. New Delhi: Unicorn Books, 2007. ⍽▢⍽ Abridged, yet more complete than many other Panchatantra fables for children and young adults.

Olivelle, Patrick, tr. 1999. Pancatantra: The Book of India's Folk Wisdom. New York: Oxford World Classics /Oxford University Press, 1999. ⍽▢⍽ A modern translation from Sanskrit, with an introduction and notes by dr Olivelle. Since 1991 he has been a Professor of Sanskrit and Indian Religions in the Department of Asian Studies at the University of Texas, Austin.

Olivelle, Patrick, tr. 2006. The Five Discourses on Worldy Wisdom by Vishnu-sharman New York: New York University Press and the JJC Foundation. ⍽▢⍽ In this edition of the Panchatantra, Olivelle has given us the Sanskrit text too, and many notes.

Ryder, Arthur William. 1925. The Panchatantra. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. ⍽▢⍽ Ryder translates prose for prose and verse for rhyming verse. The translation remains popular. (WP, "Panchatantra")

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