Illustration of all the animals featured in the Panchatantra fables.

The Panchatantra: The Ancient Indian Book of Fables

The Panchatantra is an ancient Indian collection of interrelated animal fables. It’s believed to have been composed by Vishnu Sharma around the 3rd century BCE, although some scholars argue for an even earlier date.

It’s considered one of the most significant works of Indian literature and has been translated into numerous languages over the centuries. The stories have influenced storytelling traditions in India, the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. For example, the Panchatantra’s influence can be seen in Aesop’s Fables, the Arabian Nights, and La Fontaine’s Fables.

What is the Panchatantra About?

The fables in the Panchatantra are designed to impart moral, ethical, and practical life lessons to young readers in an engaging way. Each story features animals as the main characters and uses their interactions and adventures to teach valuable lessons on friendship, deceit, leadership, betrayal, wisdom, and strategy.

Keep in mind that these stories are at least 2,500 years old. They’re archaic and often brutal. There is blood, death, and gore, and many stories are littered with poems that don’t always translate well into modern English.

The Five Books of the Panchatantra

The Panchatantra is organized into five books, each focusing on a central theme:

  1. Mitra-bheda (The Loss of Friends)
  2. Mitra-laabha (Gaining Friends)
  3. Kaakoluukeyam (Crows and Owls)
  4. Labdhapranasam (Loss of Gains)
  5. Aparikshita-karakam (Ill-Considered Action)

The first three books are quite long, with each fable going into great depth. The fourth and fifth books are much shorter, more similar to modern fables.

Book 1: The Mitra-Bheda (The Loss of Friends)

Mitra-bheda (The Loss of Friends) is the first book in the Panchatantra. It focuses on how friendships can be manipulated and ruptured. The fables in this book caution readers about the dangers of deception, betrayal, and selfishness, as well as the importance of loyalty and trust.

One of the most well-known stories from this book is The Lion and the Bull. The story begins with two friends, the lion and the bull. A clever jackal sows seeds of doubt and jealousy between them, leading them to believe the other is plotting against them. Eventually, the lion and the bull engage in a fierce battle, and both end up severely injured. The cunning jackal takes advantage of their weakened state to kill them and feast on their remains.

Book 2: Mitra-laabha (Gaining Friends)

After you have betrayed and eaten your friends, you need new ones. That is where the book of Mitra-laabha (Gaining Friends) comes in. It deals with forming new friendships and alliances, dealing with themes of mutual support and cooperation.

One of the most famous tales from this book is The Dove, the Crow, the Mouse, the Tortoise, and the Deer. The story begins with five animals who tend to be enemies of one another. When the Deer gets caught in a hunter’s trap, the other animals work together, using their unique abilities to save him. The story emphasizes the importance of teamwork, unity, and the value of unlikely alliances.

Book 3: Kaakoluukeyam (to War!)

Once alliances are formed, power coalesces and fractures. War emerges like a sea serpent rising from a placid lake. That brings us to the third book of the Panchatantra: Kaakoluukeyam (Crows and Owls). It deals with the great war between the crows and owls. The stories in this book impart lessons about strategy, diplomacy, and the art of deception.

The central story in Kaakoluukeyam is The Weaver Birds and the Owls. The weaver birds, led by a wise and resourceful chief, outsmart a group of fierce owls. The owls are much stronger, allowing them to win any fair fight. The weavers have no interest in fighting fair. They set the owls’ dwelling on fire during the day while they are sleeping. All of the owls perish in the fire.

Book 4: Labdhapranasam (Loss of Gains)

As you destroy and pillage your enemies, you accumulate wealth, which must now be managed. This brings us to the fourth book: Labdhapranasam (Loss of Gains). It deals with the theme of managing acquired wealth and resources. The stories in this book serve as cautionary tales that teach readers the importance of prudence, diligence, and restraint in the face of potential loss.

The most well-known fable from this book is The Monkey and the Crocodile, which is one of my favourites. It is about a monkey who accidentally befriends a crocodile. When the crocodile’s wife learns of this friendship, she grows jealous. Why is her husband spending so much time with this “monkey”? She asks her husband to bring her the monkey’s heart to prove his loyalty. You can read the full story here.

Book 5: Aparikshita-karakam (Ill-Considered Action)

Aparikshita-karakam (Ill-Considered Action) is the fifth and final book in the Panchatantra, which centers on the consequences of impulsive and thoughtless actions. The stories in this book serve as cautionary tales that emphasize the importance of critical thinking, patience, and foresight.

One of the most famous stories from this book is “The Mongoose and the Farmer’s Wife.” It tells the tale of a family who adopts a mongoose to protect their child from snakes. But the wife is suspicious of the mongoose, incorrectly interpreting his heroic deeds. You can read the full story here.

The Most Influential Fables from the Panchatantra

The Panchatantra is one of the oldest and most influential books of fables. The best stories and lessons have been incorporated into the folklore of many different cultures. You might recognize some of these stories:

Juan Artola Miranda

I am Juan Artola Miranda, a fabulist living in the Mexican Caribbean. My friends know me by the name of my father's father, but that name grew into something bigger, my writing reaching tens of millions of readers. It was too strong for me to control. Artola Miranda is the name of my mother's mother. It's a better name for a fabulist.

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