The fable as a literary form, finds it's most charming,
and perhaps, it's most ancient expression, in the Panchatantra Tales from
India. Many scholars believe they were composed by Vishnuvarman in the Second
Century B.C. in Kashmir.
Many rescensions of this work are available, of varied content. The original
work is believed to have contained 84 stories presented in a sequence of
five books. The following verse makes a beautiful introduction in Arthur
Ryder's English translation :
One Vishnuvarman, shrewdly gleaning
All worldly wisdom's inner meaning,
In these five books the charm compresses,
Of all such books the world possesses.
Similar stories, and sometimes the same stories, are
found in many different cultural traditions of the world, suggesting the
universal appeal the fable as a vehicle of comment on the human foible. The
Panchatantra, of course, adds a context and a flavour that is uniquely Indian.
In it's structure, story is embedded in story, poetry is embedded in prose
and the proverbs and wise sayings of the Indian millenia are embedded in
both. And these narratives, coming from the cat and the fox, the mouse and
the rabbit, the owl and the crow and other animals, big and small, have
an ineffable charm all their own.
To capture this unique local flavour into an English
translation, is of course quite difficult, and without doubt, Arthur Ryder's
is among the best. Two of the Panchatantra stories are retold here in a free
translation along with the original text in Sanskrit, essentially to attract
new readers to the charms of the language, literary quality and wisdom that
are to be found in the pages of the Panchatantra.