The Panchatantra: A Life Kit

My brother is trying to teach me to drive a manual car; we go around and around the empty lot down at the local high school. When I was younger, my band teacher taught us a trick on the snare drum, where you throw the drumstick in the air and catch it again without interrupting the drumbeat. He said if you have the coordination to do this, you have the coordination to drive a manual car.


Originally published in Farrago Edition Two (2022). 


“The firefly seems a fire, the sky looks flat;

Yet sky and fly are neither this nor that.”

—The Panchatantra (as translated by Arthur W. Ryder, 1925, page 209)


Deep in the woods, a lively monkey’s curiosity has bloody results when he proudly sits on a log that snaps, cutting his tail off. A fox mistakes a drum for a predator, and a crocodile’s wife yearns for the heart of a monkey. Those that appear friends may be foes, taking too much may leave you with nothing at all, and talking to caves could save your life. Ancient Indian culture was permeated with such stories, passed from one generation to the next as prized life codes. According to legend, in the 3rd century BCE King Amarashakti of Mahilaropyam in southern India called upon a sage, Pandit Vishnu Sharma, to instruct his three dim-witted sons and make them worthy of ruling the kingdom. The sage vowed to perform the miracle of transforming the sons in six months or else change his name. Upon realising the dull, listless nature of his disciples, Vishnu Sharma composed a textbook of engaging animal stories of friendship, desire, betrayal and deceit which concealed deeper learnings. Remarkably, in six months the princes conquered intelligence. Thus, the Panchatantra (Sanskrit: “five treatises'') was born.

The text comprises five sections, each with narratives of prose and verse embedded within a frame story, a textual unravelling described by the Times of India in 2008 as “a succession of Russian dolls-within-dolls”. The aim: to instil niti, or the wisdom of life, through tales of animals with human vices and virtues. In Vishnu Sharma’s eyes, the use of beasts less illustrious than humans added a playful tone to profound truths and created a sense of distance to enable the reader to truly understand the stories’ learnings. Lessons lurk on every page, teaching survival (artha, “worldly knowledge”), the danger of greed (kaama, “desire”), and the importance of abiding by a moral code, or dharma. Every detail is significant: characters’ names (e.g. Paapabuddhi from Paap, “sin”, and Dharmabuddhi from “dharma”) hint at their personalities, while the setting of the forest, tumultuous and vast, is a metaphor for the human world.

These pearls of wisdom retold throughout history have not lost their relevance today. The world is growing in complexity, each one of us in a web of relationships, a sea of choices battling between the convenient and the necessary. In this forest, only the fittest shall survive the battle of the mind. The lessons of the Panchatantra value intellect over honesty: tricking the lion may be the only way for the rabbit to escape alive. When the lion is deceived into fighting his own reflection in a well, we realise the animals are not fighting each other, but themselves. The Panchatantra also presents moral conundrums: the rabbit is revered by all the animals for his wit, yet the jackal who lies to become king is killed by the same animals. Every situation warrants a unique response.

The Panchatantra calls us to persist despite the forest’s challenging conditions. Sometimes, the view is beautiful: as a gentle breeze lulls you to sleep, you can hear a symphony of birds and feel sunlight kissing your face. At others, you awaken to snapping branches, slithering tails and poisonous berries. This is the natural balance. The five sections of the Panchatantra contain principles essential for navigating these maze-like trails. They are a portal for seeing ourselves as who we are and recognising that truth resides within:

i)                 Mitra-bheda (“The loss of friends”): This section, the longest of the Panchatantra’s five treatises, is coloured with stories of betrayal, lies and conflict in which friends of strong bonds fall out. Our hearts are pierced when the cunning jackal named Damanaka and his wise brother Karataka convince the Lion King to slaughter his best friend the Bull so they can feast on his carcass. As young adults, during a time of formative friendships, even the closest friends may fall out and cliques may become political. It’s important at these times to think for oneself and not be led astray by ill-intentioned advice.


That said, missteps are part of our journey. In another tale, three fishes in a lake hold different beliefs: the first is wise, the second a problem solver and the third believes in the inevitability of fate. While swimming, the wise fish overhears fishermen planning to fish the next day. The fish warns his friends to join him in leaving the lake, but the second fish does not want to leave and declares he will find a way to be saved. The third remarks that whatever will be will be and that he shall remain in the lake, his home. When the fishermen catch the second and third fishes in their nets, the second plays dead and is thrown back into the sea, but the third flaps violently to escape and is immediately killed. Change is the only constant, and one needs to adapt to it. When starting university as a small fish in a big pond knowing how to navigate a new environment proves crucial. While it can be easy to shield yourself from new people and situations out of fear, we must acknowledge but not be bound by these instincts. You could be a fish on the outside, but a lion at heart.


ii)               Mitra-labha (“The winning of friends”): Friends are an integral support system at university. They stand with you throughout good, bad, and ugly. In the city of Mahilaropyam, the king of doves becomes ensnared in a hunter’s net with a flock of a thousand of his subjects. Together, the thousand doves fly in perfect balance to a trusted old rat that gnaws through the ropes. Such is the power of alliance, that even the weakest of animals can overcome threats through collaboration. There is strength in unity: remember that everyone in university is going through a similar phase in life and can be a source of light and companionship.


iii)              Kakolukiyam (“On Crows and Owls”): This section elucidates the origins of the rivalry between crows and owls. When a parliament of owls prepares to attack the crows, the Crow King hatches a plan to outsmart them, telling the rest of the crows to fly away. When the Owl King arrives, the Crow King exclaims that the entire crow kingdom abandoned him. Despite warnings, the Owl King shows the Crow King mercy. Later that night, the crows set fire to the owls’ nest killing them all. A deceitful enemy must never be trusted. This could apply to something as simple as waking up in the morning—if you know you will snooze your alarm, put it far away from your bed!


iv)             Labdhapra?asam (“Loss of gains”): You may take a course of action thinking it is the right one when it is not. In this treatise, a Frog King insulted by his relatives vows revenge and invites a snake into his family’s well to devour them. When the snake finally eats the Frog’s very own son, he himself is forced to flee. Do not blindly subscribe to the majority but make informed decisions. You may only realise something’s worth once it has been lost.


v)               Aparik?itakaraka? (“Ill-Considered Action”): The digital age enables efficiency and instantaneous transaction. These snap judgements and implicit biases can be very harmful. In this treatise, a mongoose fights a snake to protect a sleeping baby, but is killed by its mother who, seeing the blood on the mongoose’s lips, assumes the friendly animal murdered her child. When she finds the child alive she is flooded with remorse for her hasty actions. Be cautious of connecting the dots without the full picture.

Around 800 years after Vishnu Sharma’s legendary work, Borzuy, physician to the Emperor of Persia, came to India in search of the elixir of life, the mritasanjeevani (“reviver of the dead''). Instead, he found the Panchatantra. He soon realised this text was the elixir itself, dispelling ignorance and bringing knowledge to life. Borzuy‘s translations of the Panchatantra into Pahlavi enabled its dissemination in Persia and eventually westwards to Europe. Now, according to BBC Culture in 2018, “the Panchatantra has had more than 200 retellings in at least 50 non-Indian languages”. The Panchatantra is also part of a global history of collections of profound stories including Aesop's Fables, The Thousand and One Nights, and the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, and is one of the oldest of such texts. Through its teachings we come to understand that while there are trials and tribulations in the forest, the open starry sky bestows limitless possibilities.


“The earth has a limit,

The mountains, the sea;

The deep thoughts of kings are

Without boundary.”

— “The Loss of Friends,” the Panchatantra (as translated by Arthur W. Ryder, 1925, page 46)


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