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India 's Ancient Fables: The Five Principles of the Panchatantra

Mythology is a wonderful world that Phyllis can escape to when her mind needs a break from daily life.

"The Lion and the Jackal"

"The Lion and the Jackal"

The Five Principles of the Panchatantra

The Panchatantra of ancient India is a collection of fables, originally written in Sanskrit. It has five distinct sections, each of which is focused on a specific principle, and is believed to have been written by Vishnu Sharma.

Fables are a much-loved part of folklore and one of the most enduring forms of folk literature. Almost every country has its own collection of fables that have become an important part of their literary history.

Vishnu Sharma

Vishnu Sharma was an Indian scholar and author whose dates of birth and death are not known for certain. Some scholars believe he lived in the 3rd century BCE—the beginning of the Gupta era—which was considered the Golden Age of India.

From about 320 to 550 CE, this era, founded by Maharaja Sri Gupta, was marked by peace and prosperity. Gupta and his descendants encouraged scientific and artistic pursuits. The Panchatantra was written during this era, and these works became some of the most widely translated non-religious writings in history.

Versions in more than fifty languages ~

. . . 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.

— Franklin Edgerton, 1924

The Legend of the Creation of Panchatantra

The introduction to the Panchatantra tells of how Vishnu Sharma created the collection of fables. There was a ruler of a kingdom who had three sons. The king, named Sudarshan, was apparently quite intelligent and powerful, yet his sons were not a source of pride to him. The sons had no inclination or ability to learn anything. In fact, they were quite unimaginative, slow, and rather stupid. In desperation, the king turned to his counselors for advice.

Only one of the ministers, Sumati, seemed to make sense to Sudarshan. Sumati told the king that the things the princes needed to learn—namely politics, diplomacy, and the sciences—were difficult and would take a lifetime of hard study and dedication. Now, you see, both Sudarshan and Sumati knew that the princes were incapable of such strict discipline.

Sumati gave the suggestion that rather than having the princes learn scriptures and texts, it would be better to directly teach them the essential attributes conveyed by those scriptures and texts.

Sumati said the most likely man to take on that task was Vishnu Sharma, an aged scholar. The king wasted no time in inviting Vishnu to court and offered him a hundred land grants if he could turn the princes into learned scholars. Vishnu refused the gift, saying he did not sell knowledge and that he would take on the task and within six months make the princes wise so they would be able to rule as wisely as their father.

Now, the method Vishnu devised was to gather and adapt ancient stories that had been told in India. He then created an interesting, entertaining work of five parts which he called the Five Principles and that became the Panchatantra. Pancha means "five," and tantra means "treatises." The five parts were titled as follows.

The Five Sections of the Panchatantra

  1. "Mitra-bheda: The Separation of Friends (The Lion and the Bull)"
  2. "Mitra-labha or Mitra-samprapti: The Gaining of Friends (The Dove, Crow, Mouse, Tortoise, and Deer)"
  3. "Kakolukiyam: Of Crows and Owls (War and Peace)"
  4. "Labdhapranasam: Loss Of Gains (The Monkey and the Crocodile)"
  5. "Apariksitakarakam: Ill-Considered Action/Rash Deeds (The Brahman and the Mongoose)

These five principles (or five books) are a succession of animal fables. Each fable is woven into the next fable in the order given above. The princes learned and became wise, and the king was very pleased.

"The Lion and the Bull "

"The Lion and the Bull "

What Are Fables?

Animal fables are presented in a short-story or poetic format in which animals talk. Fables are a traditional form of allegorical writing. Allegory in literature is used to give to the reader an idea, principle, or meaning, such as a moral. It has a metaphorical meaning with symbolic representation. This is usually presented in rhetorical allegory, which conveys a meaning other than the words that are spoken in the fable.

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Read More From Owlcation

The Panchatantra represents important traditions in animal fables. The Panchatantra in the Indian tradition was written by Vishnu Sharma, who presented it as a nitisastra. Niti basically means "the wise conduct of life", and sastra is seen as a treatise on political science and human conduct. Therefore, it combines the traditions of folk tales with the expertise of political science, which seems to be quite technical, yet it does produce some endearing fables that teach wisdom for living life in the best way possible.

Many slightly different versions of the Panchatantra developed as it was spread from country to country. In the Indian version, there are five principles (books), each containing a main story and others in succession to reinforce the message or lesson. Some scholars note the strong similarity between the Panchatantra and the fables of Aesop.

"Of Crows and Owls"

"Of Crows and Owls"

"The Rabbit and the Elephant "

One great example of how to deal with an opponent without causing yourself or your group additional harm is shown in the fable of "The Rabbit and the Elephant" in the third principle titled "Of Crows and Owls," which teaches how to get along with opponents. This particular story is from the Hitopadesha collection.

In this fable, there is an elephant king who cares for his large herd in the jungle. When the source of their water dries up, the king sends out scouts to find water. One scout finds a large lake far off in the jungle, so the herd travels there.

Living near this lake is a colony of rabbits. As the elephants sense the water they rush to it, charging through the rabbit colony and killing thousands of rabbits in their hurry to get to the water.

The rabbit king addresses all of his colony in an emergency meeting, saying there must be urgent action taken in order to prevent more deaths and damage. He asks all of them to find a way to save the colony.

As they all hold discussions, one little rabbit comes forth and addresses the king, saying, "Your majesty, please send me as your messenger to the leader of the elephants and I will find a solution to the problem." So the king sends him off with blessings.

When the rabbit finds the elephant herd, he stands atop a rock and addresses the elephant king. "O great leader of elephants, please hear me, I am a messenger of the Mighty Moon. He sends you an urgent message. But before I deliver the message, I want you to remember that I am only a messenger and you must not be angry with me or harm me. I am only doing my duty."

Being very impressed with the courage of the little rabbit, the elephant king asks him to speak his message. "The Moon says that you are a mighty and wise leader and you brought your herd safely here to drink water and saved their lives. But you killed thousands of rabbits on your way to the lake and soiled the waters of the holy lake that belongs to me. The rabbits are under my special protection. The king of rabbits lives with me. So I ask you not to kill any more rabbits or something terrible will happen to you and your herd."

The elephant king is shocked and says, "O Rabbit, you are right. We have unknowingly killed many rabbits on our way to the lake. I shall see to it that you do not suffer any more. I shall request the Moon to forgive me for the sins of my herd. Please tell me what to do."

The rabbit took the king to the lake to meet the Moon, where it was reflected within the waters. The king bowed to Moon and dipped his trunk into the water. As the water was disturbed, the reflection of Moon moved to and fro.

The rabbit says the Moon is angrier because the elephant touched the holy waters. The elephant king bows his head and begs the Moon to forgive him. He then promises never to touch the waters of the holy lake again, and his herd never again harm the rabbits who are so dear to the Moon. The elephants leave the area and go away. Soon the rains come, and all live happily.

"The Rabbit and the Elephant"

"The Rabbit and the Elephant"

The Moral

The lesson to be learned is that when your opponent causes you harm, retaliating with anger and brawn may bring about more harm. Approaching them instead with the right words, techniques, and suggestions may be of greater advantage. This lesson is valuable even today in such places as forums where each person has their own purposes or beliefs. To approach each other with the right words, techniques, and suggestions is beneficial for all.

© 2015 Phyllis Doyle Burns


Phyllis Doyle Burns (author) from High desert of Nevada. on April 23, 2015:

I will take Hub-sister. Ain't nothing better than that.

Suzie from Carson City on April 23, 2015:

Actually Phyllis, I meant that Sharma is as common in India as Smith here in the U.S. LOL However, My Uncle married a Smith, my son married a Smith & my niece married a Smith(.none of the Smith's related.) If all the Smiths were related, that would be one enormous, massive family!! I'm already your Hub-sister.....what's better than that??

Phyllis Doyle Burns (author) from High desert of Nevada. on April 23, 2015:

LMAO, TOO! Just show to go ya what happens when I am being myself. We are Smiths, you say? Wow, we must be cousins!

Suzie from Carson City on April 23, 2015:

Yes Phyllis my's like "Smith" is for us. (I mentioned how common it is, above) It's cool honey....we're about the same age. I relate!! LMAO!

Phyllis Doyle Burns (author) from High desert of Nevada. on April 23, 2015:

Hi Paula. It would be nice if we could print hubs. That is really cool about your Eye Doctor's name. I wonder if the name Sharma is common in India? I never heard it till I did research on the Panchatantra. Very interesting. Things like this interest me, too.

Suzie from Carson City on April 23, 2015:

I meant to tell you....My Eye Dr. is an American-born Indian and his name is "Vishal Sharma!" Believe that? We used to be able to print out hubs, but I no longer see a way to do it. I wanted to bring it to my Dr....I know Sharma is a common name in India, but who knows, might be his ancestor!.....His wife, Nisha Sharma is my PCP. (she's from India and I love her accent) They are a young beautiful couple. ALSO, the daughter of a friend of mine married a young Man from India whose last name is Sharma......The simplest things interest me I guess!! LOL

Phyllis Doyle Burns (author) from High desert of Nevada. on April 22, 2015:

Hi Alllagesvacations. Yes, I did see lots of the fables on youtube.

Wendy from Leicestershire on April 22, 2015:

Loads about this on you tube. Fascinating.

Phyllis Doyle Burns (author) from High desert of Nevada. on April 12, 2015:

Ahh ! Rudyard Kipling stories. Yes, I read some of those, too.

poetryman6969 on April 12, 2015:

Just So stories were stories about how the world came to be. Things like "How the Leopard Got His Spots".

I like fanciful, imaginative explanations on how things came to be.

I vaguely remember a crazy science fiction story that tried to explain things like: How it is you end up with one sock in the wash or why you sometimes see one shoe by side of the road.

Phyllis Doyle Burns (author) from High desert of Nevada. on April 12, 2015:

Hi poetryman. Fables are very interesting and a good, enjoyable way to teach. I never heard of "Just So" stories. I will have to look that up. Thanks for reading and commenting.

poetryman6969 on April 12, 2015:

Certainly an interesting way to look at world. I used to read some fables called Just So stories.

Phyllis Doyle Burns (author) from High desert of Nevada. on April 12, 2015:

Thanks, Peachy. Glad you enjoyed it.

peachy from Home Sweet Home on April 12, 2015:

wow, I didn't know India fables are different from the locals, fascinating hub

Phyllis Doyle Burns (author) from High desert of Nevada. on April 11, 2015:

OMGosh, Faith - thank you so much. I love researching things like this for my own learning and to share with others. I love those drawings, too - they are so whimsical..

I so appreciate you, your comment and votes / sharing - what a Gal !

Faith Reaper from southern USA on April 11, 2015:

Oh, I love fables and these here of ancient India are fascinating! I learned a lot here in your interesting hub. The drawings are amazing too.

Wonderful morals for all no doubt.

Up ++++ tweeting, pinning, G+ and sharing

Peace and blessings

Phyllis Doyle Burns (author) from High desert of Nevada. on April 11, 2015:

Awww! thank you, Paula, that is so sweet of you. When my son and I have one of our long conversations, I notice that he often explains some issue with a fable - so, I guess they are not so old-fashioned as I thought. My favorite fables are the ones that teach about friendship and the importance of it.

Thanks so much, Paula, for the read and comment, and the votes.

Suzie from Carson City on April 11, 2015:

Phyllis.....Fables and the wonderful lessons they teach will never be "old-fashioned,".....nor are YOU! In fact, you got it "going on, GF!"...LOL Your story-telling is simply awesome! Love your style . UP+++

Phyllis Doyle Burns (author) from High desert of Nevada. on April 11, 2015:

Hi Rachel. So happy you found this interesting. Yes, not what you say but how you say it - that is so true. Catching more flies with honey than vinegar is a standard phrase in my family and true, it does work. Fables are fun to read.

Thank you so much, Rachel, for the comment and votes. Blessings to you, too.

Phyllis Doyle Burns (author) from High desert of Nevada. on April 11, 2015:

Thank you, Jackie for such a nice comment. I agree about using fables to teach students of today - what a great concept. I do believe it would help a lot.

I am doing much better, thank you. It was pretty tough going for awhile, but I am almost back to normal. My physical therapists have helped me so much. It has been two months now since surgery, I still have to use a cane or walker, but am feeling great. I am so happy to know you are doing well, Jackie. Hope and determination and faith will see us through.

Thanks again, and have a wonderful day.

Phyllis Doyle Burns (author) from High desert of Nevada. on April 11, 2015:

Hi Michael. So glad you found it interesting and educational. You are most welcome and thank you for the visit and comment.

Rachel L Alba from Every Day Cooking and Baking on April 11, 2015:

Hi Phyllis, very interesting indeed. I have heard many times, it's not what you way but the way you say it. Your story reminded me of that. Also you catch more flies with honey then vinegar. I don't know if that makes sense to you, but for some reason your story reminded me of that also. I love to read fables. I voted up and awesome.

Blessings to you.

Jackie Lynnley from the beautiful south on April 11, 2015:

Another work of art Phyllis! This was so interesting and what a way to increase knowledge! If it was done with students today I am sure all the basics could be worked right in there, don't you?

How are you doing? I am a month out of my surgery and doing great; have high hopes! Oops my comment doubled so I deleted one.


Michael Higgins from Michigan on April 11, 2015:

Very interesting hub, Phyllis! As usual, I learned something from your writing. Thanks for sharing.

Phyllis Doyle Burns (author) from High desert of Nevada. on April 11, 2015:

You are most welcome, Mary. Thank you for the comment and votes. You are so right, it is good we still have the fables to read and use in a good way. My kids thought I was old-fashioned when I told them fables or made up my own for them - but, they did enjoy them and I found that they passed on the stories to their kids to help teach lessons, morals. Kids are smarter than we give them credit for and a well told fable is often better understood than common logic or modern examples.

Thanks, again, Mary, for your support and interest. Have a great day.

Phyllis Doyle Burns (author) from High desert of Nevada. on April 11, 2015:

Hi Pollyanna. It is good to hear from you - hope all is well with you. Thank you very much for the visit, reading and commenting. Glad you found the hub interesting.

Mary Craig from New York on April 11, 2015:

This hub proves man shares the same morality world wide. Wisdom must be passed along to future generations and what better way than fables. How sad it is that we gave list those old ways. The good news is we still have the fables of old.

Thank you for sharing.

Voted up, useful, awesome, and interesting.

Pollyanna Jones from United Kingdom on April 11, 2015:

What a lovely article! I really enjoy mythology and folklore, but have not studied the stories of the east so much. Thank you for writing this up, I found it very interesting.

Phyllis Doyle Burns (author) from High desert of Nevada. on April 11, 2015:

You are most welcome, Jodah. So glad you enjoyed it. I love fables, too. It is really something how similar these fables and Vishnu Sharma are to Aesop. Thanks, Jodah, for the visit and comment. As always, I so appreciate you and your support.

Phyllis Doyle Burns (author) from High desert of Nevada. on April 11, 2015:

Hi Shil1978 - nice to meet you. You are most welcome. Glad to know you learned from my hub. Thank you so much for stopping by, reading and commenting - I appreciate it.

John Hansen from Gondwana Land on April 10, 2015:

Another very interesting hub from you Phyllis. I love fables and as you say most countries have their own and many seem to be based on the same stories or promote the same morals. I enjoyed the read. Thanks.

Shil1978 on April 10, 2015:

Thanks for sharing this - very interesting. I've known of the Panchatantra, but the background and context to it is new to me. Glad to learn about it from your hub.

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