On a first reading, this might seem to be just the fantastic tale of the adventures of two jackals, talking animals at the court of the lion king. Yet, as Doris Lessing asserts in the introduction to Ramsay Wood’s 1980 edition, one of the most recent, this book has traveled perhaps more than any other in the world; this ancient text of Sanskrit origin exists in versions that range from the Amaric to the Mongolian, such is the variety of the worlds it has managed to reach.
You could also say that, perhaps, there is not one single book but thousands of versions or variants.
Over the centuries it has been translated almost everywhere, even in Ethiopia, China, Malaysia, Turkey, Poland, and Tibet. Although nowadays largely unknown, it was, in the past, familiar to any scholar or man of culture. The story of the book itself is compelling: its sources of inspiration are the Jataka, the cycle of stories about the previous lives of the Buddha, who was incarnated in different animals, and the Arthashastra by Kautilya, written in the fourth century BC, an ancient Indian treatise on political science and military strategy, as well as a handbook to illustrate in detail how to rule a kingdom.
Kalila and Dimna derives from the Panchatantra, a very famous collection of Indian tales about animals and also probably the oldest known. It consists of a frame-tale, from which numerous stories radiate, conveying the precepts of utilitarian morals according to which the right action is the one that leads to higher benefits.
The tale that incorporates the others tells the story of an Indian king who entrusts his sons to the wise Brahmin Vishnu Sharma in order that he educate them, and to this aim he composes five books about:
The Separation of Friends, which tells of the scheming of two jackals, Kalila and Dimna, to break up the friendship between the bull and the lion;
The Gaining of Friends, which tells of the benefits of a wise choice of friends;
War and Peace (of Crows and Owls), which explains how to win a war by deception;
The Loss of Gains, which tells the tale of a monkey who manages to escape from a crocodile; Rash Deeds, which is about the killing of a mongoose at the hands of a Brahmin who had, unjustly, found him guilty.
The king’s sons read the text and within six months become wise and educated, benefiting from the central Hindu principles of nīti or “the wise conduct of life”.
The original Sanskrit work, probably composed in the 3rd century BC, is based on older oral traditions, including very ancient animal fables.
The framework and the concatenation of stories exemplifies the way in which, in life, one experience leads to another, even unexpectedly, showing that it is not always easy to draw a dividing line between the beginning and the end of human affairs.
It is one of the most translated literary works from India, and over two hundred different versions are known, existing in at least fifty languages. As early as the eleventh century it had reached Europe, and before 1600 it already existed in some Slavonic languages and in Greek, Latin, Spanish, Italian, German and English.
It has been worked over again and again, expanded, transformed, translated into medieval and modern languages, and retranslated into Sanskrit. Thus it traveled by many names in many cultures. In India it inspired the Hitopadesha, a collection of short stories in prose and verse, written in Sanskrit, around the twelfth century.
It was translated into Middle Persian in 570 CE by Borzuya and this became the basis for a Syriac translation, Kalilag and Damnag, and a translation into Arabic in 750 CE by Abdullah Ibn al Muqaffa, Kalīlah wa Dimnah.
The 1429 Herat translation into Persian is based on the Arab version of the Indian Panchatantra, Kalila wa Dimna.
Over the centuries, while the Sanskrit version migrated through Pahlavi into Arabic, some important differences arose. The first book was changed: an introduction explained how it was first composed at the time of Alexander the Great’s attempt to reach India. In it an Indian King repents of his misdeeds and requests an Indian sage to compose a work with fables to be passed down for the future generations.
In the second part a Persian emperor hears of a great book in the treasure of the Indian kings. He sends one of his aides and years pass before he can gain access to the book and return to Persia. At last the Persian emperor rewards him and allows him to translate the book to be read by everyone. Ibn Al-Muqaffa then follows this long introduction with the fables.
The two jackals’ names are transformed into Kalila and Dimna and in classical times it became the title of the entire work.
After the first chapter, Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ inserted a new one, about Dimna’s trial, where the jackal, suspected of instigating the death of the bull Shanzabeh, is found guilty and put to death.
Scholars have noted strong similarities between some of the stories in the Panchatantra and Aesop’s fables, and that similar animal fables exist in most cultures in the world. However, some folklore experts consider India to be their primary source.
The Panchatantra has many stories in common with the Buddhist Jataka tales, told by the historical Buddha before his death around 400 BC. It is uncertain whether the author of the Panchatantra borrowed his stories from the Jātakas or the Mahābhārata, or whether he was tapping into a common heritage of tales, oral and literary, of ancient India.
Some scholars have stressed the Machiavellian character of the book and noted that the stories are often quite immoral because they glorify the use of shrewdness in life and politics. However the tales of the Panchatantra promote an earthy and rational ability to learn from repeated experience, and the scholarly debate about the purpose of the Panchatantra underscores the rich ambiguity of the text.
It is thought that because the theme of evil triumphant, repeated in some parts of Kalila and Dimna, might have upset some Jewish, Christian and Muslim readers of the work, Ibn Al-Muqaffa inserted a chapter in which Dimna is put in jail, and eventually to death, in an effort to appease any religious opponents of the work.
The Panchatantra had a long history of migration to the West, and was translated by Borzuya from Sanskrit into Middle Persian around the year 570 C.E. According to the Shah Nama (The Book of the Kings, Persia’s 10th century national epic), Borzuya sought his king’s permission to make a trip to India in search of a herb that, when sprinkled over a corpse, would immediately restore life. He did not find the herb, but a sage told him of a book, and Borzuya obtained the king’s permission to read and translate it.
Borzuya’s Pahlavi translation, now lost, was translated into Syriac, and after the Arab invasion of Persia, Ibn al-Muqaffa’s version emerged as the fundamental surviving text.
From Arabic it was re-translated into Syriac in the 10th or 11th century, into Greek in 1080, into modern Persian in 1121, and in 1252 into Spanish.
Perhaps even more importantly, it was translated into Hebrew by Rabbi Joel in the 12th century. This Hebrew version was translated by Giovanni da Capua, a Jew converted to Christianity, as Directorium Humanae Vitae, printed in 1480, and became the source of most European versions. A German translation was published in 1483, thus making this one of the earliest books to be printed.
The Latin version was translated into Italian by Anton Francesco Doni in 1552 and this became the basis for the first English translation, in 1570: Sir Thomas North translated it as The Fables of Bidpai: The Morall Philosophie of Doni. La Fontaine published The Fables of Bidpai in 1679.
The story of the book is also a testimony to the great movement, flexibility and collaboration among writers of ancient times, who appreciated each other regardless of geographical barriers.
The success of this work is due to the fact that the tales are eternal and contemporary. It’s a book that adapts itself to ever changing contexts and times. It is difficult to say which works it might have influenced in its turn, as it has had great power of suggestion and has been assimilated by many local cultures. There are about 2,000 years of adaptations, accommodations and collections of the ancient material.
These tales can be found in the popular cultures of most European and Eastern countries, from the Thousand and One Nights to the Canterbury Tales and some writers, such as Aesop and La Fontaine, have modified and used them in their own works.
Translation by the author (edited by Roma O’Flaherty)
The Monk and His Guest
Relate to me, said king Dabschelim to Bidpai, the fable of the man who quits a condition of life which suits him, and to which he is accustomed, for the sake of embracing another, and is astonished and perplexed at the ill success which awaits his choice.
There was in the land of Kark, said the philosopher, a monk, who was very devout and zealous in the discharge of his religious duties. One day a visitor arrived, and the monk ordered some dates to be set before him, that he might taste a fruit with which he was not acquainted.
As they were eating together, the guest observed that they were very sweet and good, and that there were none in his own country, which in other respects abounded with fruit of all kinds. But, continued he, I have never longed for dates, with which I can very readily dispense, considering how difficult of digestion they are, and that they are unwholesome for the stomach.
The monk replied, You are very fortunate in being contented with what you have; for there are inconveniences attending all wishes that cannot be satisfied. And this observation the monk made in Hebrew, and his guest found the language so beautiful, that he desired to learn it, and turned his thoughts seriously to it.
Upon which the monk said to him, You deserve to experience what happened to the crow as a punishment for your wishing to quit your own language to learn Hebrew; and his guest expressing a wish to hear the story.
There was a crow, he continued, which saw a partridge moving and strutting about, and was so pleased with his manner of walking which was natural to him: instead of which, he was so puzzled by the little that he had copied from the partridge, and by his attempts to recover his former steps, that in the motion of his feet he became the most graceless of all the birds.
And this story applies directly to your case; for you would quit your own tongue, and endeavor to learn Hebrew, which is by no means calculated for you, and in which you will never make any proficiency; and when you return to your friends, you will be remarkable for your bad pronunciation, and for the inaccuracy with which you speak your own language; and he is justly accounted a fool, who throws away his time and labour on an occupation, in which having received no instruction from his parents, he ought therefore to conclude that it is not suited to his talents.
Kalila and Dimna or the fables of Bidpai
By the Rev. Wyndham Knatchbull