The work is an ancient and vigorous multicultural hybrid that to this day continues an erratic process of cross-border mutation and adaptation as modern writers and publishers struggle to fathom, simplify and re-brand its complex origins. It illustrates, for the benefit of princes who may succeed to a throne, the central Hindu principles of Raja niti (political science) through an inter-woven series of colorful animal tales. These operate like a succession of Russian dolls, one narrative opening within another, sometimes three or four deep, and then unexpectedly snapping shut in irregular rhythms to sustain attention (Story within a story). The five principles illustrated are:
According to the Shahnameh (The Book of the Kings, Persia's late 10th century national epic by Ferdowsi) the Panchatantra also migrated westwards, during the Sassanid reign of Khosru I Anushiravan around 570 CE when his famous physician Borzuy translated it from Sanskrit into the Middle Persian language or Pahlavi, transliterated for Europeans as Karirak ud Damanak or Kalile va Demne.
Be that as it may, each distinct part of the book contains (as Professor Edgerton noted in 1924) "at least one story, and usually more, which are 'emboxed' in the main story, called the 'frame-story'. Sometimes there is a double emboxment; another story is inserted in an 'emboxed' story. Moreover, the [whole] work begins with a brief introduction, which as in a frame all five . . . [parts] are regarded as 'emboxed'". Vishnu Sarma's idea was that humans can assimilate more about their own habitually unflattering behavior if it is disguised in terms of entertainingly configured stories about supposedly less illustrious beasts than themselves.
Another observation that Professor Edgerton makes challenges our persistent assumption that animal fables function mainly as adjuncts to religious dogma, acting as indoctrination devices to condition the moral behaviour of small children and obedient adults. Not the Machiavellian Panchatantra: "Vishnu Sarma undertakes," Edgerton notes, "to instruct three dull and ignorant princes in the principles of polity, by means of stories . . . .[This is] a textbook of artha, 'worldly wisdom', or niti, polity, which the Hindus regard as one of the three objects of human desire, the other being dharma, 'religion or morally proper conduct' and kama 'love' . . . . The so-called 'morals' of the stories have no bearing on morality; they are unmoral, and often immoral. They glorify shrewdness, practical wisdom, in the affairs of life, and especially of politics, of government."
This realistic practicality explains why the original Sanskrit villain jackal, the decidedly jealous, sneaky and evil vizier-like Damanaka ('Victor') is his frame-story's winner, and not his goody-goody brother Karataka who is presumably left 'Horribly Howling' at the vile injustice of Part One's final murderous events. In fact, in its steady migration westward the persistent theme of evil-triumphant in Kalila and Dimna, Part One frequently outraged Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious leaders — so much so, indeed, that ibn al-Muqaffa carefully inserts (no doubt hoping to pacifiy the powerful religious zealots of his own turbulent times) an entire extra chapter at the end of Part One of his Arabic masterpiece, putting Dimna in jail, on trial and eventually to death. So much for naughty jackals!
Needless to say there is no vestige of such dogmatic moralising in the collations that remain to us of the pre-Islamic original — The Panchatantra. Technically, from the perspective of a more subtle and flexible functionality, Joseph Jacobs in 1888 offers a less coercive interpretation of how the Panchatantra/Kalila and Dimna stories might work more effectively to modify human behaviour: ... if one thinks of it, the very raison d'être of the Fable is to imply its moral without mentioning it.
In short the learning opportunity is interactive, voluntary, dynamic, reflective, open, frustrating and risky — compared to the simplified, fixed and often terrifyingly authoritative lessons delivered from priestly heights that briefly excite and amuse, then are soon forgotten, like electric shocks. In such circumstance (which is the norm) the human animal is conditioned to respond to the approved socialising, tagline 'message' of a local time-and-culture-bound 'moral', and prevented from glimpsing anything objective beyond it at an individual pace.
But when Borzuy locates and prepares the miraculous mountain herb and sprinkles it over various corpses provided for his experiments, alas — the magic potion does not work. He is distressed at his failure and angry at the false information that has led him so far astray, not to mention afraid of the shame which will descend upon him if he returns empty-handed to Persia and faces his king's displeasure. In desperation he asks the Indian physicians accompanying him what to do. Do they know anyone who can help him?
"With one voice they replied: 'There is an ancient sage here who surpasses us in years and wisdom and who in his science is superior to any of the great.'
"They guided Borzuy to this man, whose mind was filled with contemplation and whose lips were ever ready for speech. Borzuy laid all his trials before him, speaking of the book which he had discovered and the words which he had heard from men expert in knowledge. When the ancient sage began to speak he discoursed on every branch of science.
"Borzuy rejoiced to hear this and all his past toil appeared in his eyes as empty wind. He blessed the sage and departed for the king's court, and, traversing the road like fire, he arrived in the Rãy's presence and lavished compliments upon him.
'May you occupy your throne as long as India exists!' he said. 'Rāy, you whose triumphs are widespread, there exists a certain book whose title in Hindu is Kalila. In your majesty's treasury it is sealed as precious and it contains guidance mingled with discernment and wisdom. That herb is a metaphor for this Kalila, nought else. I beg that your majesty, lord of India, may bid your treasurer consign the book to me, if you will not hold that to be irksome.
"The Rāy's spirit was rendered unhappy by this request and his body was agitated where he sat.
'Borzuy,' he said, 'no one has ever sought this of me, either recently or in times past. Yet were the emperor Nushirvān to demand my body and soul I would not withhold them from him, nor anything else. I have not any person noble or humble here. But read it in my presence here, lest some malevolent person hostile to me should claim that the book was written by a mortal. Read, understand and investigate it from every point of view.'
From Arabic it was transmitted in 1080 to Greece and in 1252 into Spain (old Castilian, Calyla e Dymna) and thence to the rest of Europe. However it was the circa 1250 Hebrew translation attributed to Rabbi Joel that became the source (via a subsequent Latin version done by one John of Capua around 1270 CE, Directorium Humanae Vitae, or "Directory of Human Life") of most European versions. Furthermore in 1121 a complete 'modern' Persian translation from Ibn al-Muqaffa's version flows from the pen of Abu'l Ma'ali Nasr Allah Munshi.
It seems that any pre-Arabic or post-Arabic format the Kalila and Dimna animal fables take is relative. This loose collection is an oral and literary oddity that flows on, forward and yet also backward into the mists before anything was written down. One simply cannot pin these stories down like butterflies under glass in a tidy Victorian museum display drawer. They exist cross-culturally virtually in perpetual flux, like the 1001 Nights, adapting even now to current conditions to remain fresh and employable, freighting some vestige of an ancient message to new generations. They are alive as conduits of traditional wisdom, of a durable and vital survivalist psychology that requires no formal schooling or even, as remains true to vasts swaths of humanity, literacy.
Al-Bassam's imaginative modern work entitled Kalila wa Dimna, while provocative and educational, is technically a misnomer. There is only one brief play-within-a-play tableau that genuflects towards the actual telling any of the animal fables found in the Arabic original. Understandably this contradictory nuance (where are al-Muqaffa's classic fables?), obvious and even irritatingly puzzling to any literate Middle Easterner, appears to have been intellectualized away by some Eurocentric commentators. The English literary equivalent would be attending a play called Hard Times expecting to see something of the characters Grandgrind and Bounderby only to find yourself immersed in an imaginary biography of Charles Dickens and the social turmoil of his day, with only a three minute confrontational drawing-room scene alluding to a certain Mr Grandgrind and his part in the horrors of Victorian factory conditions and child labor.
Yet in the prevailing belief system of the Western post-modernist world, anything goes. Every expression achieves legitimacy. This tolerant climate is ideally suited to the book's sui generis flexibility. Any attempt to re-brand the Panchatantra or Kalila and Dimna or The Fables of Bidpai for the utilitarian Western consciousness, while at the same time avoiding cultural chauvinism, proves elusive and fanciful.
The persistent trend, for more than a hundred years and often encouraged by scholars defending their fields of literary expertise, is to select and promote a single ancient 'source text' as the 'true classic material', whether it be in Sanskrit, Syriac, Arabic or Persian, and ignore, even denigrate, the other three sources. Such behaviour can reach the extreme of one expert within a single language seemingly dismissing the contribution of another, as occurred in the 1990s when two English versions of the Panchatantra translated from separate Sanskrit manuscripts (both, incidentally, dated significantly after al-Muqaffa's 750 AD Arabic version) were published independently as 'classics' of Indian Wisdom by (a) Penguin (1993) and (b) Oxford University Press (1997). To literate outsiders such prejudicing of texts can appear absurd, even deliberately confusing. "So which translated Sanskrit manuscript," one might ask, "offers the true Panchatantra classic?" And the answer, entering the purest realm of literary quantum reality, must be "Both!". And if we include the many Arabic, Syriac and Persian versions known under the various guises of Kalila and Dimna or Fables of Bidpai and the derivatives thereof, then we can immediately add a couple hundred more versions, all of them also 'classics', yet each with an individual treatment and arrangement in the voice of a different "singer of the song", delivering the goods somewhere in the last 2000 years.
The regional difficulty, as the novelist Doris Lessing says at the start of her introduction to Ramsay Wood's 1980 "retelling" of only the first two (Mitra Bhedha—The Loss of Friends & Mitra Laabha—Gaining Friends) of the five Panchatantra principles, is that ".... it is safe to say that most people in the West these days will not have heard of it, while they will certainly at the very least have heard of the Upanishads and the Vedas. Until comparatively recently, it was the other way around. Anyone with any claim to a literary education knew that the Fables of Bidpai or the Tales of Kalila and Dimna — these being the most commonly used titles with us — was a great Eastern classic. There were at least twenty English translations in the hundred years before 1888. Pondering on these facts leads to reflection on the fate of books, as chancy and unpredictable as that of people or nations."