One of the best-known Sanskrit classics, Narayana’s Hitopades’a is fascinating collection of animal and human fables augmented with polished verse epigrams and gnomic stanzas, many of which have become proverbial. This satirical, often irreverent and sometimes ribald text has been popular for centuries as a compendium of worldly advice on matters ranging from statesmanship and detailed battle plans to personal conduct and marital fidelity, as also a model of grammatical and metaphorical excellence.
In this ‘garden of pleasing stories’, as Narayana himself describes it, birds, beasts, men and women scheme, suffer, lust, err, grieve and rejoice, acting as perceptive social critics astute commentators on absurd of human folly.
Combining his own literary genius with skilful selections and modifications of material from the Pancatantra and other traditional sources, Narayana has created a refreshingly original masterpiece.
As with many ancient Sanskrit authors, little is known of Narayana beyond his name. He was evidently a devotee of the god Siva, who is invoked in both the opening and concluding verses of the Hitopadesa. Contemporary scholars suggest that Narayana was a poet or a preceptor at the court if his patron Dhavala Candra, a prince or viceroy or provincial satrap of eastern India, who commissioned the work. This densely layered and textured masterpiece was composed between 800 and 950 AD. Narayana was an erudite grammarian and philosopher as well as consummate stylist with a full command of epigrammatic, lyrical, satiric and rhetorical modes. He interspersed his own stanzas with skilful selections and arrangements of extracts from traditional sources. These include the immortal Pancatantra, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the Puranas, the Manusmrti, manuals on economics and statecraft insipired by Canakya’s Atrhasastra, and famous literary and dramatic compositions.
Aditya Narayana Dhairyasheel Haksar was born in Gawalior and educated at the Doon School and the universities of Allahabad and Oxford. A well-known translator of Sanskrit classics, he has also had a distinguished career as a diplomat, serving as Indian high commissioner to Kenya and the Seychelles, minister to the United States, and ambassador to Portugal and Yugoslavia.
He has translated various classics from the Sanskrit, including the stories of Pancatanta, the plays of Bhasa and Dandin’s Dasa Kumara Charitam. The last two translations were published by Penguin as the Shattered Thigh and Other Plays, and Tales of the Ten Prince.
The Hitopadesa is one of the best known and most widely translated works of Sanskrit literature. It is a collection of animal and human fables in prose, illustrated with numerous maxims and sayings in verse, both intended to impart instruction in worldly wisdom and the conduct of political affairs. Couched in simple and elegant language, it was also meant to provide a model for composition and rhetoric. These features made it a poplar ‘reader’ for students of Sanskrit in India from ancient to recent times.
The Hitopadesa’s appeal as a compendium of sage advice in an attractive story from extended its currency beyond the confined of the original language. At the beginning of this century, the Indologist Johannes Hertel noted that its translations already existed in Bangla, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Malayalam, Marathi, Newari, Oriya, Tamil, Telugu and Urdu. The United States Library of Congress list additional contemporary translations of the Hitopadesa into Burmese, Dutch, English, French, German, Greek, Khmer, Russian, Spanish and Thai. Translations in Malay, Persian and Sinhala have also been recorded. The work has been described as one of the most often translated from Sanskrit into European languages. This was doubtless also because it was among the first Sanskrit texts encountered and studied by Europeans after the establishment of British rule in India.
The Hitopadesa was the second work to have been translated directly from Sanskrit into English. This took places as early as 1787. The first work so translated was the Bhagavad Gita, three years earlier. The translator in both cases was Charles Wilkins (1749-1836), a merchant employed by the East India Company in Bengal. Wilkins also collaborated with the more celebrated scholar Sir William Jones (1746-94), who founded the Asiatic Society in Calcutta, and himself subsequently translates other Sanskrit classics. The first printed edition of the Hitopadesa was published in Serampore along with some other Sanskrit texts in 1804 by Henry Colebroooke (1765-1837). It is appropriate here to pay tribute to these pioneers whose work first aroused modern interest in Sanskrit and helped to lay the foundation of Indological studies.
The Date, The Author, and The Locale
The Hitopadesa contains quotations from the political treatise Nitisara of Kamandaki, and the play Venisamhara of Bhattanarayana, which date back to the eighth centuary AD. The earliest Hitopadesa manuscript, found in Nepal, bears a date corresponding to 1373 AD. Between these two outer limits present scholarly opinions places its compositions in the period 800 to 950 AD, or just over a thousand years ago.
For almost a hundred years after its first rendition into English, contemporary scholars considered the author of the Hitopadesa to be Visnu Sarma, who is also the principal character and narrator in the work. It was only when the Nepal manuscript was discovered and a new critical edition of the text prepared, that its two concluding verses came to light. The first of these names the author as Narayana. The second names his patron Dhavala Chandra, who commissioned the book.
As with many ancient Sanskrit authors, little is known about Narayana beyond his name. From the text of the Hitopadesa it is obvious that he was a person of considerable erudition, perhaps a court poet or preceptor, and evidently a devotee of the great god Siva, whom he invokes both in Candra by the titles ‘Srimat’ and ‘Mandalika’ which have been rendered in the present translation as ‘illustrious satrap. The territorial and other details regarding the life and rule of this dignitary have still to be discovered.
It has been conjectured that the Hitopadesa was composed in eastern India. Its manuscripts have been in Nagari, Newari and Bengali scripts. One of the tale refers to tantric rituals and sexual practices which were prevalent in that part of the country. Two of its verse quotations from the Ramayana are available only in the Bengali recension of the epic. Of the thirty-five geographical locations mentioned in the Hitopadesa stories, at least nine can be placed definitely in eastern India, if Ayodhya and Varanasi are included in that region. By comparison, those which can be identified in the northern, western and peninsular regions are fewer. The totality of this data relevant to dating and location, taken together with the fact of the text’s continued popularity in the east at the time of the British arrival, points to its origin during the last phase of the Pala empire, which dominated eastern India at the turn of the millennium.
The Nature of the Work
The nature of the Hitopadesa is clearly defined in its prologue. The second verse names the work and asserts that its study gives knowledge of ‘niti’, apart from proficiency in language. Subsequent verses extol the merits of learning and knowledge. The work is a manual of niti. This Sanskrit word, derived from a root which means to lead or to guide, carries the connotations of worldly wisdom, prudence and propriety, as well as appropriate policy and conduct or, by extension, politics and statesmanship. A portion of Sanskrit literature is entirely devoted to the subject of niti. The Hitopadesa expounds it in a popular from through fables and gnomic stanzas.
The work has also been placed in the Sanskrit literary genre of the nidarsana katha or exemplum, a story which aims to teach by examples and is often satirical. The pattern is the familiar one of a frame tale emboxing others turn. The nasic narrative describes a king, worried that his sons lack learning and are becoming wayward. He summons an assembly of wise men and asks who among them can causes his sons to be ‘born again’ by teaching them niti. The challenge is accepted by a great pandit named Visnu Sarma, whose expertise in niti parallels that of Brhaspati, the guru and he instructs them by narrating the four books of the Hitopadesa, each with its own mix of stories within stories illustrated with epigrammatic verses.
Relationship with the Pancatantra
The structure of the Hitopadesa is remarkably similar to that more ancient collection of tales, the Pancatantra. Both works have an almost identical frame story, and the principal narrator has the same name. Their relationship has been described variously by modern scholars. Basham considered the Hitopadesa to be a ‘version’ of the Pancatantra, Keith a ‘descendant’, Winternize a recast, while Dasgupta and De described it as ‘practically an independent work’. A detailed study made more recently by Ludwig Sternbach demonstrated that the Pancatantra provides the chief source of material for the Hitopadesa. Nearly three quarters of the latter, including almost one third of its verses, were traced to the older work.
Narayana has specifically acknowledged this source. In the ninth verse of his prologue, he names his four books and states that they have been composed by drawing from the Pancatrantra from which he drew his material is, however, unknown a present. In some instances the Hitopadesa text is nearer to the Pancatantra’s southern recension, in others to the Kashmiri, the Nepalese or even the old Syriac version. Compared with the five books of the Pancatantra, the Hitopadesa has only four. In these the order of the older work’s first two books-except as found in the Nepalese text-has been reversed; its third book has been divided into them. The fourth book if the Pancatantra is mostly omitted in the Hitopadesa, and at least ten of the latter’s thirty-eight interpolated stories are not found in any Pancatantra version Pancatantra versions, a majority are found in the first two books of the Hitopadesa. Though mostly scattered, they also include some sequence such as 1.173 to 1.178 and 2.129 to 2.136 in the present translation.
Other Sources of the Hitopadesa
Narayana’s ‘another work’ covers multiple sources. Sternbach’s study categorizes them three board groups: niti, dharmasastra, and other miscellaneous works. The first two are reflected mainly in the verse portions of the Hitopadesa.
Apart for the Pancatantra, Narayana’s single main source is the verse composition Nitisara of Kamandaki. Nearly ninety verses in the Hitopadesa are quotations from this work. Devoted chiefly to the aspects of niti that deal with political theory, most of these verses are contained in the third and fourth books. They discuss the subjects of diplomacy, war and peace. Good examples are verses 4.111 to 4.132, describing sixteen types of peace treaties, which are taken from the Nitisara, 9.1 to 9.22. The majority of verses 3.69 to 3.84 are similarly derived.
The Nitisara is based on a celebrated earlier dissertation on politics, the Arthasastra ascribed to Kautilya, also known as Canakya. Narayana mentions this legendary statesman though, interestingly, he has no quotations from the Arthasastra. The Hitopadesa does feature a large number of stanzas from various niti verse anthologies named after Canakya Sara Samgraha the Canakya Raja Niti Sastra. It also contains niti verses from the Garuda Purana and the well-known Nitisataka of Bhartrhari.
The term dharmasastra here refers to the vast body of literature dealing with legal and juridical precepts which acquired scriptural status in the course of time. Narayana quotes about sixty verse from this category of works, his main sources being the Manu Smrti and Books XII and XIII of the Mahabharata. Others include the juridical works named after lawgivers like Gautama, Apastamba and Baudhayana.
The miscellaneous sources included the two epic, various Puranas, and well-known poetic and dramatic compositions such as the Sisupalavadha of Magha the Kiratarjuniya of Bharavi and the Mrcchakatika of Sudraka . The verse numbers indicated within brackets are sample quotations in the Hitopadesa from the last three works. Some of the Hitopadesa material is also found in other collections of stories. For examples, the tales of the woman with the two lovers, and the faithful servant Viravara also occur respectively in the popular collections, the Sukasaptati and the Vetala Pancavimsatika. In the absence of a clarly established comparative chronology, who borrowed from whom is an open question. A number of Hitopadesa verses are also found in the old Javanese and Pali literature of south-east Asia, and the Tibetan and Mongolian literature of Central Asia. In these cases too the primary sources are still to be determined.
Children’s Books (1723)
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