Literary Merits of Panchtantra. By Anuradha Sharma


Panchtantra is a literary work per excellence. It has the framework that encompasses fable narrative to prove its premise. It is an art of narrative fiction which leaves its mark even on the literary styles of contemporary writers as on Gautam Bhattia’s Panchtantra: A Twenty First Century Parable. The traces of story telling in the similar style are also found in Mahabharata, Ramayana. From the time of Rigveda , storytelling has emerged as a feasible form of knowledge diffusion. Panchtantra is a literary composition because it promotes Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksha which is the merit of a literary composition. It is another truth that women are kept out of this circle of knowledge.
Literary works according to Indian poetics are known to produce an aesthetic whole. The vitalization of prose with verse as used in Jataka Kathas and Panhctantra also stamps its literary qualities by delighting readers with wonderful fusion of prose and verse in literary style.
Symbolism is an important element of a literary work. The Panchtantra, a collection of fables makes symbolic use of animals as characters in the language suitable to literary and instructive goals. A fable has been a favorable genre of literature. Walter De La Mare observes in Animal Stories that even Plato prefers raconteur to Homer and says that Plato excluded Homer from his Republic and gave Aesop a place of honor, hoping that the young would absorb fables along with their mother's milk ... since one cannot at too early an age acquire a love for wisdom and virtue.
This statement puts the Panchtantra in literary work. Fantasisation is a primary requisite for a literary work. It is said that the Vedas, the Puranas, the fairy tales and folk tales: all these are primarily perceptions of the imagination. Indian critics and aestheticians have recognized this imaginative fecundity very early in the Panchtantra. For a work of literature imagination and its use to produce an aesthetic whole is undisputable. In Romantic Age Coleridge has given his theory of Imagination in which he says that Imagination is essential to produce a work of art.
It shows that creative works need not only observation but also secondary Imagination to produce a work of value. On reading the stories of Panchtantra one easily can recognize that Visnu sarma has employed his primary and secondary both imaginations to produce the work of great value. Imaginative faculty also validates its literary stature in the wide world of languages and literatures. Norman Brown has documented Folk story literature while not denying their even early existence. He says there are many stories which first appeared in literature and are not indebted to the folklore for their origin.
Presentation of animal characters for particular stories is the result of devoted observation of animal realm. An Indian critic K Ayyappa Paniker gives narrative models to stamp literary value of a book in his book Indian Narratology. He writes about the different models of writing literary works. This view matches the view of Longinus who says that the style of the work should be according to the subject being dealt in the book. K. Ayyappa has given ten literary models of narration and Panchtantra fits into Allegorical narrative model. Panchtantra follows Anyapdesa or Allegorical narrative. Panchtantra presents allegory of human nature and life. At many places even the names of the characters suggest the quality they carry. Names rendered in English like Godly, Cheek, Victor, Lively, Strong Tooth, Numskull, Ugly, Shell Neck, Slim, Grim, Forethought, Ready- Wit, Fatalist, Right- Mind, Wrong- Mind, Mister Duly, Soft-The Weaver, Greedy, Gullible carpenter, King Joy, Hundred Wit, Thousand Wit and Single Wit all carry the characteristics according to the names given to them.
William Jones says that their (The Hindoo’s) Neeti Shastra, or System of Ethics, is yet preserved and the fables of Vishnu Sharma, are the most beautiful, if not the most ancient collection of parables in the world.
According to many Eastern and Western critics the ultimate aim of the literature is to delight while instructs. Panchtantra fits well into this domain of literary requisites. Sonti observes that Panchtantra the earliest literary work to reach the West can also be classified under Nitishastra.
Panchtantra exercised its influences not only on the Indian literary world but it has shaped the literary thinking of many countries and cultures. Its translations in different languages of the world gave those civilizations a fecundity of thinking and composition. It is well established that Panchtantra is one of the India’s most influential contributions to world literature. Reinu Bhanot says that Panchtantra has been accepted as the most liked literary work after the Bible over the centuries.
Panchtantra undoubtedly attracts the attention of critics to its structure and style. It has acquired stature of not only as fable literature but also as the classic instructional book. In the tradition of fables it has something common with Mahabharata. It is the work of an unparalleled genius of creative mind and art. The intertextuality of the work also gives the impression of its literary merits. It is said that literary works get inspired by other literary works of the same country or from outside. Panchtantra gets influenced by Manusmriti, Mahabharata, and Jatak tales. It also has impressions of folk literature. Tales truly are the part of the unwritten literature and culture of the country. Panchtantra is the most influential work of Indian origin. Many scholars are of the view that Indian Fable tradition has enriched the literary sensibility of other cultures also.
To prove its literary recognition here are a few measures to be considered. Literary works make use of Anthropomorphism by attributing human like qualities and behavior to the beasts to exploit them for author’s purpose and to prove his point of view. The compiler uses the inhabitants of the animal kingdom for his lessons. In the frame story of the First Tantra of Panchtantra two Jackals are introduced named as Cheek and Victor by Ryder in his translation of the book. Visnu Sarma could have voiced his views about the unreliability of kings without mentioning women’s infidelity in general but purposely his lessons embedded women and his ideas are told by Cheek who tells:
The things that claw, and the things that gore
Are unreliable things;
And so is a man with sword in his hand,
And rivers, and women, and kings. (Ryder, 34)
The characters become author’s mouth piece like the characters of G.B. Shaw and Bunyan to advance their philosophy. In the case of the Panchtantra the same method is used by Visnu Sarma. He makes his characters his speaker to voice his philosophy of life. Through his characters he gives vent to his thinking about women. His biased and discriminatory remarks are apparent in the book of Niti. His views that women are incarnated infidelity are expressed below:
The wench cares not
A straw to miss
The covered couch,
The husband’s kiss;
The pleasant bed;
In place of this
She ever seeks
A stolen wish. (Ryder, 63)
A literary work is a product of imagination so is in the case of Panchtantra. With the help of the unreal events it makes readers believe in his words. It again exposes the power of the literary style which presents a slice of life in powerful words which leave indelible marks on general thinking. In a story, Godly thinks after visiting weaver’s house:
Behold the faults with woman born:
Impurity, and heartless scorn,
Untruth, and folly, reckless heat,
Excessive greediness, deceit. (Ryder, 68)
Readers take the ideas of the writer as the reality. They believe in the illusionary world created by the writer and take his words for the real representation. They find the projection of the whole society in the words of the writer and tend to believe his genius and truth of his projection. This is again the literary quality of Panchtantra. Forgiveness should be the primary teaching of the religion. Visnu Sarma for women advocates disfigurement as proper punishment. For women every thing if she does for herself is negligence of her duties. The court orders:
In case of major dereliction,
Disfigurement is the infliction. (Ryder, 71)
Panchtantra gives boost to literary works and pave their style and themes. The projection of women in Arabian Nights is the same as in Panchtantra. In a story The Husband and the Parrot in Arabian Nights the wife is projected as femme fatale. Arabian Nights has acquired the status of old literary classic of Arabia. It proves that Panchtantra is also a literary work. In the story, Anthropomorphism is deployed as parrot speaks like human beings. Critics also have noted strong similarities between the Panchtantra and Aesop’s Fables.

(Anuradha Sharma is a lecturer at Navjivan Arts and Commerce College, Dahod in Gujarat and writes poetry in English and Hindi both. Her poems and research papers have appeared in many journals, anthologies and news papers in India and abroad. At present she is working on a Minor Research Project funded by UGC and has been selected for Associateship by IIAS, Shimla. She is editing a book on Stephen Gill and also translating his epical poem The Flame into Hindi. E-mail:,

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