A History of Sanskrit Literature/Chapter 14
FAIRY TALES AND FABLES
(Circa 400-1100 A.D.)
The didactic and sententious note which prevails in classical Sanskrit literature cannot fail to strike the student. It is, however, specially pronounced in the fairy tales and fables, where the abundant introduction of ethical reflections and proverbial philosophy is characteristic. The apologue with its moral is peculiarly subject to this method of treatment.
A distinguishing feature of the Sanskrit collections of fairy tales and fables, which are to a considerable extent found mixed together, is the insertion of a number of different stories within the framework of a single narrative. The characters of the main story in turn relate various tales to edify one another or to prove the correctness of their own special views. As within the limits of a minor story a second one can be similarly introduced and the process further repeated, the construction of the whole work comes to resemble that of a set of Chinese boxes. This style of narration was borrowed from India by the neighbouring Oriental peoples of Persia and Arabia, who employed it in composing independent works. The most notable instance is, of course, the Arabian Nights.
The Panchatantra, so called because it is divided into five books, is, from the literary point of view, the most important and interesting work in this branch of Indian literature. It consists for the most part of fables, which are written in prose with an admixture of illustrative aphoristic verse. At what time this collection first assumed definite shape, it is impossible to say. We know, however, that it existed in the first half of the sixth century A.D., since it was translated by order of King Khosru Anushīrvan (531-79) into Pehlevi, the literary language of Persia at that time. We may, indeed, assume that it was known in the fifth century; for a considerable time must have elapsed before it became so famous that a foreign king desired its translation.
If not actually a Buddhistic work, the Panchatantra must be derived from Buddhistic sources. This follows from the fact that a number of its fables can be traced to Buddhistic writings, and from the internal evidence of the book itself. Apologues and fables were current among the Buddhists from the earliest times. They were ascribed to Buddha, and their sanctity increased by identifying the best character in any story with Buddha himself in a previous birth. Hence such tales were called Jātakas, or "Birth Stories." There is evidence that a collection of stories under that name existed as early as the Council of Vesālī, about 380 B.C.; and in the fifth century A.D. they assumed the shape they now have in the Pāli Sutta-piṭaka. Moreover, two Chinese encylopædias, the older of which was completed in 668 A.D., contain a large number of Indian fables translated into Chinese, and cite no fewer than 202 Buddhist works as their sources. In its present form, however, the Panchatantra is the production of Brahmans, who, though they transformed or omitted such parts as betrayed animus against Brahmanism, have nevertheless left uneffaced many traces of the Buddhistic origin of the collection. Though now divided into only five books, it is shown by the evidence of the oldest translation to have at one time embraced twelve. What its original name was we cannot say, but it may not improbably have been called after the two jackals, Karaṭaka and Damanaka, who play a prominent part in the first book; for the title of the old Syriac version is Kalilag and Damnag, and that of the Arabic translation Kalīlah and Dimnah.
Originally the Panchatantra was probably intended to be a manual for the instruction of the sons of kings in the principles of conduct (nīti), a kind of "Mirror of Princes." For it is introduced with the story of King Amaraçakti of Mahilāropya, a city of the south, who wishes to discover a scholar capable of training his three stupid and idle sons. He at last finds a Brahman who undertakes to teach the princes in six months enough to make them surpass all others in knowledge of moral science. This object he duly accomplishes by composing the Panchatantra and reciting it to the young princes.
The framework of the first book, entitled "Separation of Friends," is the story of a bull and a lion, who are introduced to one another in the forest by two jackals and become fast friends. One of the jackals, feeling himself neglected, starts an intrigue by telling both the lion and the bull that each is plotting against the other. As a result the bull is killed in battle with the lion, and the jackal, as prime minister of the latter, enjoys the fruits of his machinations. The main story of the second book, which is called "Acquisition of Friends," deals with the adventures of a tortoise, a deer, a crow, and a mouse. It is meant to illustrate the advantages of judicious friendships. The third book, or "The War of the Crows and the Owls," points out the danger of friendship concluded between those who are old enemies. The fourth book, entitled "Loss of what has been Acquired," illustrates, by the main story of the monkey and the crocodile, how fools can be made by flattery to part with their possessions. The fifth book, entitled "Inconsiderate Action," contains a number of stories connected with the experiences of a barber, who came to grief through failing to take all the circumstances of the case into consideration.The book is pervaded by a quaint humour which transfers to the animal kingdom all sorts of human action. Thus animals devote themselves to the study of the Vedas and to the practice of religious rites; they engage in disquisitions about gods, saints, and heroes; or exchange views regarding subtle rules of ethics; but suddenly their fierce animal nature breaks out. A pious cat, for instance, called upon to act as umpire in a dispute between a sparrow and a monkey, inspires such confidence in the litigants, by a long discourse on the vanity of life and the supreme importance of virtue, that they come close up in order to hear better the words of wisdom. In an instant he seizes one of the disputants with his claws, the other with his teeth, and devours them both. Very humorous is the story of the conceited musical donkey. Trespassing one moonlight night in a cucumber field, he feels impelled to sing, and answers the objections of his friend the jackal by a lecture on the charms of music. He then begins to bray, arouses the watchmen, and receives a sound drubbing.
With abundant irony and satire the most various human vices are exposed, among others the hypocrisy and avarice of Brahmans, the intriguing character of courtiers, and the faithlessness of women. A vigorous popular spirit of reaction against Brahman pretensions here finds expression, and altogether a sound and healthy view of life prevails, forming a refreshing contrast to the exaggeration found in many branches of Indian literature.
The following translation of a short fable from the first book may serve as a specimen of the style of the Panchatantra.
"There was in a certain forest region a herd of monkeys. Once in the winter season, when their bodies were shivering from contact with the cold wind, and were buffeted with torrents of rain, they could find no rest. So some of the monkeys, collecting gunja berries, which are like sparks, stood round blowing in order to obtain a fire. Now a bird named Needlebeak, seeing this vain endeavour of theirs, exclaimed, ʽHo, you are all great fools; these are not sparks of fire, they are gunja berries. Why, therefore, this vain endeavour? You will never protect yourselves against the cold in this way. You had better look for a spot in the forest which is sheltered from the wind, or a cave, or a cleft in the mountains. Even now mighty rain clouds are appearing.ʼ Thereupon an old monkey among them said, ʽHo, what business of yours is this? Be off. There is a saying—
- A man of judgment who desires
- His own success should not accost
- One constantly disturbed in work
- Or gamblers who have lost at play. And another—
- Who joins in conversation with
- A hunter who has chased in vain,
- Or with a fool who has become
- Involved in ruin, comes to grief.
"The bird, however, without paying any attention to him, continually said to the monkeys, ʽHo, why this vain endeavour?ʼ So, as he did not for a moment cease to chatter, one of the monkeys, enraged at their futile efforts, seized him by the wings and dashed him against a stone. And so he (de)ceased.
"Hence I say—
- Unbending wood cannot be bent,
- A razor cannot cut a stone:
- Mark this, O Needlebeak! Try not
- To lecture him who will not learn."
A similar collection of fables is the celebrated Hitopadeça, or "Salutary Advice," which, owing to its intrinsic merit, is one of the best known and most popular works of Sanskrit literature in India, and which, because of its suitability for teaching purposes, is read by nearly all beginners of Sanskrit in England. It is based chiefly on the Panchatantra, in which twenty-five of its forty-three fables are found. The first three books of the older collection have been, in the main, drawn upon; for there is but one story, that of the ass in the tiger's skin, taken from Book IV., and only three from Book V. The introduction is similar to that of the Panchatantra, but the father of the ignorant and vicious princes is here called Sudarçana of Pāṭaliputra (Patna). The Hitopadeça is divided into four books. The framework and titles of the first two agree with the first two of the Panchatantra, but in inverted order. The third and fourth books are called "War" and "Peace" respectively, the main story describing the conflict and reconciliation of the Geese and the Peacocks.
The sententious element is here much more prominent than in the Panchatantra, and the number of verses introduced is often so great as to seriously impede the progress of the prose narrative. These verses, however, abound in wise maxims and fine thoughts. The stanzas dealing with the transitoriness of human life near the end of Book IV. have a peculiarly pensive beauty of their own. The following two may serve as specimens:—
- As on the mighty ocean's waves
- Two floating logs together come.
- And, having met, for ever part:
- So briefly joined are living things.
- As streams of rivers onward flow,
- And never more return again:
- So day and night still bear away
- The life of every mortal man.
It is uncertain who was the author of the Hitopadeça; nor can anything more definite be said about the date of this compilation than that it is more than 500 years old, as the earliest known MS. of it was written in 1373 A.D.As both the Panchatantra and the Hitopadeça were originally intended as manuals for the instruction of kings in domestic and foreign policy, they belong to the class of literature which the Hindus call nīti-çāstra, or "Science of Political Ethics." A purely metrical treatise, dealing directly with the principles of policy, is the Nīti-sāra, or "Essence of Conduct," of Kāmandaka, which is one of the sources of the maxims introduced by the author of the Hitopadeça.
A collection of pretty and ingenious fairy tales, with a highly Oriental colouring, is the Vetāla-panchaviṃçati, or "Twenty-five Tales of the Vetāla" (a demon supposed to occupy corpses). The framework of this collection is briefly as follows. King Vikrama of Ujjayinī is directed by an ascetic (yogin) to take down from a tree and convey a corpse, without uttering a single word, to a spot in a graveyard where certain rites for the attainment of high magical powers are to take place. As the king is carrying the corpse along on his shoulders, a Vetāla, which has entered it, begins to speak and tells him a fairy tale. On the king inadvertently replying to a question, the corpse at once disappears and is found hanging on the tree again. The king goes back to fetch it, and the same process is repeated till the Vetāla has told twenty-five tales. Each of these is so constructed as to end in a subtle problem, on which the king is asked to express his opinion. The stories contained in this work are known to many English readers under the title of Vikram and the Vampire.
Another collection of fairy tales is the Siṃhāsana-dvātriṃçikā or "Thirty-two Stories of the Lion-seat" (i.e. throne), which also goes by the name of Vikrama-charita, or "Adventures of Vikrama." Here it is the throne of King Vikrama that tells the tales. Both this and the preceding collection are of Buddhistic origin.
A third work of the same kind is the Çuka-saptati, or "Seventy Stories of a Parrot." Here a wife, whose husband is travelling abroad, and who is inclined to run after other men, turns to her husband's clever parrot for advice. The bird, while seeming to approve of her plans, warns her of the risks she runs, and makes her promise not to go and meet any paramour unless she can extricate herself from difficulties as So-and-so did. Requested to tell the story, he does so, but only as far as the dilemma, when he asks the woman what course the person concerned should take. As she cannot guess, the parrot promises to tell her if she stays at home that night. Seventy days pass in the same way, till the husband returns.
These three collections of fairy tales are all written in prose and are comparatively short. There is, however, another of special importance, which is composed in verse and is of very considerable length. For it contains no less than 22,000 çlokas, equal to nearly one-fourth of the Mahābhārata, or to almost twice as much as the Iliad and Odyssey put together. This is the Kathā-sarit-sāgara, or "Ocean of Rivers of Stories." It is divided into 124 chapters, called tarangas, or "waves," to be in keeping with the title of the work. Independent of these is another division into eighteen books called lambakas.
The author was Somadeva, a Kashmirian poet, who composed his work about 1070 A.D. Though he himself was a Brahman, his work contains not only many traces of the Buddhistic character of his sources, but even direct allusions to Buddhist Birth Stories. He states the real basis of his work to have been the Bṛihat-kathā, or "Great Narration," which Bāṇa mentions, by the poet Guṇādhya, who is quoted by Daṇḍin. This original must, in the opinion of Bühler, go back to the first or second century A.D.
A somewhat earlier recast of this work was made about A.D. 1037 by a contemporary of Somadeva's named Kshemendra Vyāsadāsa. It is entitled Bṛihat-kathā-manjarī, and is only about one-third as long as the Kathā-sarit-sāgara. Kshemendra and Somadeva worked independently of each other, and both state that the original from which they translated was written in the paiçāchī bhāshā or "Goblin language," a term applied to a number of Low Prākrit dialects spoken by the most ignorant and degraded classes. The Kathā-sarit-sāgara also contains (Tarangas 60-64) a recast of the first three books of the Panchatantra, which books, it is interesting to find, had the same form in Somadeva's time as when they were translated into Pehlevi (about 570 A.D.).
Somadeva's work contains many most entertaining stories; for instance, that of the king who, through ignorance of the phonetic rules of Sanskrit grammar, misunderstood a remark made by his wife, and overcome with shame, determined to become a good Sanskrit scholar or die in the attempt. One of the most famous tales it contains is that of King Çibi, who offered up his life to save a pigeon from a hawk. It is a Jātaka, and is often represented on Buddhist sculptures; for example, on the tope of Amarāvatī, which dates from about the beginning of our era. It also occurs in a Chinese as well as a Muhammadan form.
The proneness of the Indian mind to reflection not only produced important results in religion, philosophy, and science; it also found a more abundant expression in poetry than the literature of any other nation can boast. Scattered throughout the most various departments of Sanskrit literature are innumerable apophthegms in which wise and noble, striking and original thoughts often appear in a highly finished and poetical garb. These are plentiful in the law-books; in the epic and the drama they are frequently on the lips of heroes, sages, and gods; and in fables are constantly uttered by tigers, jackals, cats, and other animals. Above all, the Mahābhārata, which, to the pious Hindu, constitutes a moral encyclopædia, is an inexhaustible mine of proverbial philosophy. It is, however, natural that ethical maxims should be introduced in greatest abundance into works which, like the Panchatantra and Hitopadeça, were intended to be handbooks of practical moral philosophy.Owing to the universality of this mode of expression in Sanskrit literature, there are but few works consisting exclusively of poetical aphorisms. The most important are the two collections by the highly-gifted Bhartṛihari, entitled respectively Nītiçataka, or "Century of Conduct," and Vairāgya-çataka, or "Century of Renunciation." Others are the Çānti-çataka, or "Century of Tranquillity," by a Kashmirian poet named Çilhaṇa; the Moha-mudgara, or "Hammer of Folly," a short poem commending the relinquishment of worldly desires, and wrongly attributed to Çankarāchārya; and the Chāṇakya-çataka, the "Centuries of Chāṇakya," the reputed author of which was famous in India as a master of diplomacy, and is the leading character in the political drama Mudrā-rākshasa. The Nīti-manjarī, or "Cluster of Blossoms of Conduct," which has not yet been published, is a collection of a peculiar kind. The moral maxims which it contains are illustrated by stories, and these are taken exclusively from the Rigveda. It consists of about 200 çlokas, and was composed by an author named Dyā Dviveda who accompanied his work with a commentary. In the latter he quotes largely from the Bṛihaddevatā, Sāyaṇa on the Rigveda, and other authors.
There are also some modern anthologies of Sanskrit gnomic poetry. One of these is Çrīdharadāsa's Sadukti-karṇāmṛita, or "Ear-nectar of Good Maxims," containing quotations from 446 poets, mostly of Bengal, and compiled in 1205 A.D. The Çārngadhara-paddhati, or "Anthology of Çārngadhara," dating from the fourteenth century, comprises about 6000 stanzas culled from 264 authors. The Subhāshitāvalī, or "Series of Fine Sayings," compiled by Vallabhadeva, contains some 3500 stanzas taken from about 350 poets. All that is best in Sanskrit sententious poetry has been collected by Dr. Böhtlingk, the Nestor of Indianists, in his Indische Sprüche. This work contains the text, critically edited and accompanied by a prose German translation, of nearly 8000 stanzas, which are culled from the whole field of classical Sanskrit literature and arranged according to the alphabetical order of the initial word.
Though composed in Pāli, the Dhammapada may perhaps be mentioned here. It is a collection of aphorisms representing the most beautiful, profound, and poetical thoughts in Buddhist literature.
The keynote prevailing in all this poetry is the doctrine of the vanity of human life, which was developed before the rise of Buddhism in the sixth century B.C., and has dominated Indian thought ever since. There is no true happiness, we are here taught, but in the abandonment of desire and retirement from the world. The poet sees the luxuriant beauties of nature spread before his eyes, and feels their charm; but he turns from them sad and disappointed to seek mental calm and lasting happiness in the solitude of the forest. Hence the picture of a pious anchorite living in contemplation is often painted with enthusiasm. Free from all desires, he is as happy as a king, when the earth is his couch, his arms his pillow, the sky his tent, the moon his lamp, when renunciation is his spouse, and the cardinal points are the maidens that fan him with winds. No Indian poet inculcates renunciation more forcibly than Bhartṛihari; the humorous and ironical touches which he occasionally introduces are doubtless due to the character of this remarkable man, who wavered between the spiritual and the worldly life throughout his career.
Renunciation is not, however, the only goal to which the transitoriness of worldly goods leads the gnomic poets of India. The necessity of pursuing virtue is the practical lesson which they also draw from the vanity of mundane existence, and which finds expression in many noble admonitions:—
- Transient indeed is human life,
- Like the moon's disc in waters seen:
- Knowing how true this is, a man
- Should ever practise what is good (Hit. iv. 133).
It is often said that when a man dies and leaves all his loved ones behind, his good works alone can accompany him on his journey to his next life. Nor should sin ever be committed in this life when there is none to see, for it is always witnessed by the "old hermit dwelling in the heart," as the conscience is picturesquely called.
That spirit of universal tolerance and love of mankind which enabled Buddhism to overstep the bounds not only of caste but of nationality, and thus to become the earliest world-religion, breathes throughout this poetry. Even the Mahābhārata, though a work of the Brahmans, contains such liberal sentiments as this:—
- Men of high rank win no esteem
- If lacking in good qualities;
- A Çūdra even deserves respect
- Who knows and does his duty well (xiii. 2610).
The following stanza shows how cosmopolitan Bhartṛihari was in his views:—
- "This man's our own, a stranger that":
- Thus narrow-minded people think.
- However, noble-minded men
- Regard the whole world as their kin.
But these poets go even beyond the limits of humanity and inculcate sympathy with the joys and sorrows of all creatures:—
- To harm no living thing in deed,
- In thought or word, to exercise
- Benevolence and charity:
- Virtue's eternal law is this (Mahābh. xii. 5997).
Gentleness and forbearance towards good and bad alike are thus recommended in the Hitopadeça:—
- Even to beings destitute,
- Of virtue good men pity show:
- The moon does not her light withdraw
- Even from the pariah's abode (i. 63).
The Panchatantra, again, dissuades thus from thoughts of revenge:—
- Devise no ill at any time
- To injure those that do thee harm:
- They of themselves will some day fall,
- Like trees that grow on river banks.
The good qualities of the virtuous are often described and contrasted with the characteristics of evil-doers. This, for instance, is how Bhartṛihari illustrates the humility of the benevolent:—
- The trees bend downward with the burden of their fruit,
- The clouds bow low, heavy with waters they will shed:
- The noble hold not high their heads through pride of wealth;
- Thus those behave who are on others' good intent (i. 71).
Many fine thoughts about true friendship and the value of intercourse with good men are found here, often exemplified in a truly poetical spirit. This, for instance, is from the Panchatantra:—
- Who is not made a better man
- By contact with a noble friend?
- A water-drop on lotus-leaves
- Assumes the splendour of a pearl (iii. 61).
It is perhaps natural that poetry with a strong pessimistic colouring should contain many bitter sayings about women and their character. Here is an example of how they are often described:—
- The love of women but a moment lasts,
- Like colours of the dawn or evening red;
- Their aims are crooked like a river's course;
- Inconstant are they as the lightning flash;
- Like serpents, they deserve no confidence (Kathās. xxxvii. 143).
At the same time there are several passages in which female character is represented in a more favourable light, and others sing the praise of faithful wives.
Here, too, we meet with many pithy sayings about the misery of poverty and the degradation of servitude; while the power of money to invest the worthless man with the appearance of every talent and virtue is described with bitter irony and scathing sarcasm.
As might be expected, true knowledge receives frequent frequent and high appreciation in Sanskrit ethical poetry. It is compared with a rich treasure which cannot be divided among relations, which no thief can steal, and which is never diminished by being imparted to others. Contempt, on the other hand, is poured on pedantry and spurious learning. Those who have read many books, without understanding their sense, are likened to an ass laden with sandal wood, who feels only the weight, but knows nothing of the value of his burden.
As the belief in transmigration has cast its shadow over Indian thought from pre-Buddhistic times, it is only natural that the conception of fate should be prominent in Sanskrit moral poetry. Here, indeed, we often read that no one can escape from the operation of destiny, but at the same time we find constant admonitions not to let this fact paralyse human effort. For, as is shown in the Hitopadeça and elsewhere, fate is nothing else than the result of action done in a former birth. Hence every man can by right conduct shape his future fate, just as a potter can mould a lump of clay into whatever form he desires. Human action is thus a necessary complement to fate; the latter cannot proceed without the former any more than a cart, as the Hitopadeça expresses it, can move with only one wheel. This doctrine is inculcated with many apt illustrations. Thus in one stanza of the Hitopadeça it is pointed out that "antelopes do not enter into the mouth of the sleeping lion"; in another the question is asked, "Who without work could obtain oil from sesamum seeds?" Or, as the Mahābhārata once puts it, fate without human action cannot be fulfilled, just as seed sown outside the field bears no fruit.
For those who are suffering from the assaults of adverse fate there are many exhortations to firmness and constancy. The following is a stanza of this kind from the Panchatantra:—
- In fortune and calamity
- The great ever remain the same:
- The sun is at its rising red,
- Red also when about to set.
Collected in the ethico-didactic works which have been described in this chapter, and scattered throughout the rest of the literature, the notions held by the Brahmans in the sphere of moral philosophy have never received a methodical treatment, as in the Pāli literature of Buddhism. In the orthodox systems of Hindu philosophy, to which we now turn, they find no place.