Panchatantra- India’s great product: origin and evolution

What were the origins of the pa~nchatantra (PT) of the great brAhmaNa viShNusharman?
It is said that he composed to these tales to teach nIti to the errant sons of the king amarashakti of the southern janapada of mahilAropya [meaning city of ascendant women]. In his opening verse he salutes the great teachers of politics and declares the pa~nchtantra to be an epitome of the arthashAstra:
manave vAchaspataye shukrAya parAsharAya sa-sutAya |
cANakyAya ca viduShe namo .astu naya-shAstra-kartR^ibhyaH ||

sakalArtha-shAstra-sAraM jagati samAlokya viShNuSharmedam |
tantraiH pa~ncabhir etac cakAra sumanoharaM shAstraM ||
To manu, to bR^ihaspati, shukra, parAshara and his son and chANakya the learned, we salute; these great makers of shAstras. Having examined the essence of all shAstras, viShNusharman too, has composed these five volumes, a delightful text.

Thus, the great viShNusharman considers himself to belong to the line of notable scholars of nIti and artha that include vyAsa and parAshara. Here we shall try to have an overview of the history of this notable text and trace the origins of its devices back to the mahAbhArata (Mbh).

The age of viShNusharman may be bracketed by two major signposts. An Iranian version of the PT in Pahlavan from the Sassanian period is rather confidently dated as being from around 550 CE. This provides the upper limit. The PT in addition to the salutation of chANakya also quotes directly from his arthasAstra. Further, in the list of predecessor chANakya is mentioned as the last authority prior to viShNusharman. Given that the core arthashAstra is a mauryan text of around 300 BC, get the lower bound for the PT. On the tentative ground of the janapadas and pATaliputra being mentioned along with petty rulers we may place the text closer to declining the mauryan period when there was brief revival of the janapadas. The PT is also known by other names such as tantrAkhyAyika (the Kashmirian variant), the pa~nchAkhyAnaka or the tantropAkhyAna, and as suggested by some works the most likely original name was nIti pa~ncha tantrAkhyAyika.

A phylogenetic reconstruction suggests that there are two major divisions of the PT texts: 1) the tantrAkhyAyika branch is associated with Nothern India, principally represented by the Kashmirian recension. From it were derived through rather drastic divergence the pa~nchAkhyAnaka of the Jainas. The pa~nchAkhyAnaka recombining with older versions of the PT seems to have given rise to pUrNabhadra variant, in the hands of the eponymous Jaina achArya. A divergent variant of this appears to have been inserted within the ancestral northern bR^ihatkatha and is preserved in the two descendent variants prepared by the Kashmirian brAhmaNas kShemendra [bR^ihatkatha ma~njari] and somadeva [kathasaritsAgara]
2) The southern pa~nchatantra is the shortest version of the text and its primary descendent was that of the south Indian brAhmaNa vasubhAga, who recombined it with material from the southern recension of the bR^ihatkatha to make his text. The version of vasubhAga was transported to Thailand and Indonesia and gave rise to the local versions there. Another variant of the Southern PT, showing an inversion of volume 1 and 2 was prepared by the medieval smArta brAhmaNas of Tamil Nad from the version of vasubhAga. This version was carried by these brAhmaNas during their northward migration to the region of Pashupatinath in Nepal and degenerated into the Nepali version. A version of this also found its way to Bengal where it was recast by nArAyaNa to constitute the hitopadesha.

The tales also traveled west via the Iranians of the Sassanian empire and was eventually incorporated into many Arabic and European folk tales. Thus, based on the investigations of the early western pa~nchatantra scholars Edgerton and Hertel it may be remarked that it was the most widely circulated piece of literature throughout the ancient world and provides a remarkable material for the evolutionary studies on textual memetics.

When we attempt to pierce the veil and look into the Indic precursors of it we find ourselves drawn to that great fountain of all Indic lore the itihAsa, particularly the mahAbhArata. In a very general sense the PT inherits from the Mbh the great Indo-Aryan innovation of nested structure of stories. Thus these stories resemble certain other structure in existence such as: 1) the modular computer programs- with different FOR, WHILE, IF etc loops closed by some delimiter such as a ‘{}’ pair. 2) The structure of chromosomes, with mobile elements inserted one within another. 3) The ancient multi-domain protein which show nesting of domains one within the other. In a more direct sense precursors of the PT can be seen in that great interminable death-bed lecture of bhIshma to yuddhiSThira. Here the kuru grandsire narrates several animal stories related to nIti. These include the maxims of dharma and artha provided by the following tales: 1) long-necked camel killed by the jackal couple. 2) tale of the wise mouse palita and his rivals the cat lomasha, the owl chandraka and mongoose harita. 3) the jIvAjivaka bird pujani that blinded the pa~nchala prince for killing her son. 4) The pativrata pigeon etc. An examination of these tales makes it clear that it was such a base that inspired that great work of viShNusharman and it is not without reason that he acknowledges the great scion of parAshara, the compiler of the great bhArata epic. Not surprisingly it also inspired stream of Buddhist tales, the jAtakas. Thus one of the greatest exports of the Hindus to the world may be ultimately traced back to the literary innovations when of the first great Indic unification under the kuru and the pa~nchAla.

“Be it a horse, a science, or a sword,
A lute, a voice, a woman or a man;
Whether they become useful or not
Depends on the competence of the man
To whom they belong”

So says viShNusharman
[1.44; critical edition of Edgerton]

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