What is the point of the Panchatantra?


udīrito ‘rthaḥ paśunāpi gṛhate hayāś ca nāgāś ca vahanti coditāḥ |
anuktam apy ūhati paṇḍito janaḥ pareṅgita-jñāna-phjalā hi buddhayaḥ || 44 ||

Even animals can sort of make out the meanings of the words uttered. Horses and elephants do as directed. Learned men can even understand the meaning of words not spoken aloud. True intelligence lies in understanding the subtle indications made by others.

Mitra-Bheda – the betrayal of friendship, is the first book of the Panchatantra, and the longest. Well woven, with stories within stories, Mitra-Bheda addresses the first of the five treatises of politics and administration – deceit.

The story starts in the human world – a merchant who sets out to a faraway land in the quest of making money. His bull Sanjeevaka, is injured during the trip and is abandoned near a forest. And from here the tale moves into the fantasy world – which is governed much like the human world – with kings and ministers, laws and rules, and various characters, good and bad.

The protagonist of the story is not King Pingalaka, the lion, but Damanaka, the jackal, who aspires to serve as his minister. The dialogues between Karataka and Damanaka set the stage for the conspiracy, which comes about when Damanaka senses an opening. Sanjeevaka is shown to be innocent, yet very intelligent, quoting scriptures and philosophy, a quality that draws the powerful but foolish Pingalaka to him.

Damanaka also quotes philosophy and the scriptures, but as a means to further his deceitful methods. Pingalaka, on the other hand, foolishly believes that he is in control of the forest and all the situations that he encounters, when it is indeed Damanaka who is pulling the strings. This lapse of judgement leads Damanaka into manipulating Pingalaka twice – once when accepting Sanjeevaka into the tribe and the second time when Pingalaka is turned against Sanjeevaka. And if you have read the story, you will know how it ends.

A lot of people waited for the ending, and some of them were disappointed. We read through more than 50 posts (54 to be exact), and over 50,000 words to come to an ending that was not as satisfying. Why was Damanaka able to get away? Why didn’t Pingalaka realise his folly?

To them, I say – this is the point of the Panchatantra. A story about animals enacting human emotions and having a simple ending would have died in a few years, much less survived for thousands of years and flourished by being retold not just in 50+ Indian languages, but in all major languages of the world.

The Panchatantra is a complex story, woven in a way that there is something for everyone. A ten-year old child can read it and enjoy the interplay between the animal characters, and a sixty-year old can also enjoy it reminiscing about the experiences of his own life that reflect in these stories.

If you read through my posts, skipping the Sanskrit verses in color, and their meanings in bold, the story still makes sense, and is enjoyable.

But I compare it to having mango juice from a carton, as opposed to having the fruit.

You get the taste, but miss the experience – of biting into a succulent mango, tasting the pulp, juice dripping from the sides of your mouth – the smell, the taste, the joy cannot be compared. So is it with the Panchatantra.

The point of the exercise is the journey, not the destination. The stories weaved inside stories, bring out the depth of the learning contained within – the slokas present the essence of thought in a manner that would not be possible in any other language. You may have noticed it – the richness yet brevity of conveying a thought in Sanskrit cannot be matched by it’s translation into English. The characters present human nature as it is – with flaws, with insecurities, and a certain fakery that we all have within us. No one is purely good or purely evil – even the best of men has flaws , and the worst of men have something good in them.

Karataka, who sticks with Damanaka throughout the conspiracy, finally leaves his side once he realises the implications of what Damanaka has done. Sanjeevaka, who I suspect, knows that Damanaka is the one who poisoned Pingalaka’s mind, yet does not attack him but boldly goes to face the lion in his den, Pingalaka who doesn’t realise how he is being manipulated, Damanaka who wins though deceit and does not give up till the very end – these characters present different facets of our own personalities that we tend to not realise sometimes.

Even when we do, we pretend that these flaws do not exist. The stories of the Panchatantra bring these to the fore, and in an entertaining way, show us the mirror, but stay clear from preaching a resolution.

The bad person wins in the story, and it happens in real life as well. Acceptance of this fact lays the grounds for recognising the Damanakas among us, but also can lead to some people employing the cunning methods that Damanaka uses, in order to further their agendas.

The Panchatantra does not claim to be right or wrong, good or bad. That, my dear, is something that you have to work out on your own. After all, it is said…

स्वभावॊ नॊपदॆशॆन शक्यतॆ कर्तुम् अंयथा। 
सुतप्तम् अपि पानीयम्पुनर् गच्छति शीतताम्॥२८० ||

svabhavo nopadeshena shakyate kartum anyatha |
sutaptam api pāniamupnar gacchati shētatam 
|| 280 ||

You cannot change the nature of a person merely by advising him. No matter how much you boil water, it becomes cold again, once removed from the flame.

And also,

असाधना अपि प्राज्ञा बुद्धिमनोत् बहु-श्रुताः ।
साधयन्त्य् आशु कार्याणि काकाखु-मृग-कूर्मवत् ॥ १ ॥

asādhanā api prājñā buddhimanot bahu-śrutāḥ |
sādhayanty āśu kāryāṇi kākākhu-mṛga-kūrmavat || 1 ||

The wise and the intelligent can accomplish their goals even in the absence of guidance, much like the crow, the mouse the deer and the tortoise who got together and were able to accomplish their goal.

You ask me “How did that happen?”

I reply…

to be continued…

PS: Mitra-Praapti – the gaining of friends and friendship, will start as a series after a month. See you then!

Click here to read the Panchatantra – Mitra Bheda series…