‘Hitopadesha’ literally means ‘good advice’. The ancient Sanskrit text of that name, which is translated here into English for modern readers, is an epigrammatic text in mixed prose and verse that brings together good advice, drawing on a popular theme or genre of thought and literature in early India known as niti.
Niti is usually translated as ‘principles of polity and/or morality’. But, as readers will see, niti as represented in a collection of stories like the Hitopadesha went well beyond the political and the moral to embrace the simply practical.
Prescribing canny and pragmatic responses to a range of very human situations, ambitions, problems, and dilemmas, niti, as invoked repeatedly in the Hitopadesha, is really the knowledge and art of prudent conduct.
And the text disseminates this knowledge in the form of illustrative stories, fables, and maxims
involving the lives of humans and animals. The Hitopadesha was probably composed in the ninth or
tenth century CE, and scholars conjecture that it may have been produced in some part of eastern India where a number (though not all) of its manuscripts were discovered in the nineteenth century.
As the colophons of the text tell us, it was composed by a scholar called Pandit Narayana and sponsored and promoted by a medieval Indian ruler called Dhavalachandra, whose role the poet acknowledges briefly at the end of his composition. Beyond this, however, as is common for much of Sanskrit literature, we do not know anything about the author and his context.
Initially, in fact, before the particular manuscript carrying Narayana’s name was found, it was not known that any such person was the composer of this work. The Hitopadesha was credited instead by scholars and early translators to Vishnusharma, the sage who figures in the text and narrates all its stories.
Vishnusharma is also known to be the composer of that other world-famous Sanskrit fable, the Panchatantra, and since there was a great deal in common between the Hitopadesha and the
Panchatantra, it was assumed that they had one and the same authorship. Now we know that is not the case.
However, the question of the authorship of the Hitopadesha remains complicated because of the nature of the text. Rather than an original work from start to finish, it is for the most part an anthology or collection of verses, perspectives, and teachings from a host of other seminal Sanskrit texts of the Indic civilization.
Anthologizing in this manner was not unheard of in early India and other examples of texts have come down to us that preserve what were obviously considered in their time important as well as elegantly turned verses—or entire stories—from multiple compositions across ages.
These include the Subhashitaratnakosha in Sanskrit (eleventh century CE) and the much earlier Gathasaptashati in Prakrit (second century CE). In fact, the Hitopadesha itself came to be excerpted in later texts in like fashion.
Another way to understand this is that multiple texts drew on a common reservoir of free-floating iconic tales. Beyond explicit and verbatim borrowings, the phenomenon of intertextual awareness—texts referencing or echoing other introduction texts—was a noticeable feature of Sanskrit literary culture as a whole.
It points to the well-knit circulatory sphere of aesthetics and the composite thought-world these texts inhabited and were constantly dialoguing with. It may also suggest the overarching ethos and ideals that most, if not all, such works in early India upheld even as they had their own unique things to add.
The Hitopadesha accordingly includes verses and voices from the two epics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata, most notably the Bhagavad Gita from the latter work; texts on diplomacy and statecraft like Kamandaka’s Nitisara; socio-legal treatises called the Dharmashastras; a compendium on niti by Bhartrihari called the Nitishataka; and of course the fables of the Panchatantra, which is said to be the source of about three-quarters of the Hitopadesha’s content. The Hitopadesha itself admits its debt to the Panchatantra.
In fact, the frame story of the two texts is identical in so far as the narration of both the Hitopadesha and the Panchatantra is occasioned by a king’s need to educate his lazy and worthless sons in statesmanship and in worldly wisdom more generally.
The way this proceeds is also the same in the two compositions, namely, a pandit, Vishnusharma, an expert in nitishastra, is assigned the job, and he chooses to bring home to the uninitiated princes the subtle teachings of prudent conduct through a large number of tales, each one emerging from the one before it.
A palimpsest of stories—a frame story with multiple sub-stories which have autonomous, stand-alone plots but loop back to the original from time to time—is, again, a common narrative technique in the world of Sanskrit literature. Bana’s Kadambari (seventh century CE) and the Mahabharata itself are excellent examples of such metanarratives.
The Hitopadesha tales include, for the most part, anthropomorphized birds and animals who speak and are imbued with all too human qualities and frailties; they also serve as narrators for many of the sub-stories. Some tales, however, feature only humans while others have men, women, and animals
play their parts.
The stories revolving around these characters are arranged in four fascinating books or sections: Winning Friends, Losing Friends, Waging War, and Making Peace. The Panchatantra sports these same sections and an additional fifth one (actually the fourth in that text, which the Hitopadesha
does away with).
Now, despite the fact that the Hitopadesha brings together perspectives and maxims from a range of other influential Indic texts, it should not be assumed that these verses are haphazardly thrown together to come up with an unoriginal and incoherent work!
The Hitopadesha does possess at least three dozen new stories of its own, and also reads very cogently and logically, as stories flow in and out of each other and always serve the larger purpose and intent of the text and its narrator, which is to lay out and illustrate in easy, palatable, and digestible form principles of political wisdom and pragmatic living.
It has advice for not only the ruler who is too timid or too haughty to know what is good for him and his subjects, but for the minister or follower who must serve him, as also for the innocent husband with the conniving wife, the beautiful wife with the undeserving husband, owners of pets who don’t understand their loyalty, greedy people, distraught people, friends turned enemies, enemies reconciled, clever people, foolish people, and so on.
In its more recent career, the Hitopadesha, again like the Panchatantra, is among the most widely translated classical texts from India. It was in fact only the second text selected by the British to be rendered into English in 1787 by Charles Wilkins, who had in 1784 brought out no less a work than the Bhagavad Gita in like fashion. Several more editions and English translations followed till as recently as 2007, the one by the veteran Sanskrit scholar M. R. Kale in 1896 with multiple reprints perhaps being the best known of the lot.
The Hitopadesha has also appeared in a large number of Indian regional languages including Hindi, Bengali, Gujarati, Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu, Marathi, and Odia. Moreover, it has been translated into a little more than a dozen foreign languages, including French, German, Dutch, Greek,
Russian, Spanish, Newari, Thai, Malay, Persian, and Sinhala.
What explains the immense popularity of this work within and well beyond its originary culture? One reason would no doubt be the playful, fablesque form of the tales and lessons the Hitopadesha narrates. Fables and folklore have always had a wide cross-cultural provenance and appeal. Further, it is precisely this flexibility to adopt an aesthetic and appealing mode that distinguished Sanskrit literature (kavya) from the rather more sedate requirements of a treatise (shastra).
And a down-to-earth rather than exalted mode of representation would naturally have won a wider audience in the text’s own time, just as today. However, it may also be the case that the high emotional
quotient of the text—the range of human emotions and situations the Hitopadesha presents, and the clever solutions and ‘behaviour management techniques’ it proposes to ensure sheer survival and success in a difficult world—has a decidedly universal resonance.
A guide to surviving life and relationships speaks, perhaps, to the basic psychological needs of most people in societies across the globe. So, even though the imagery, locales, and metaphors in the Hitopadesha are all very much Indic, its appeal transcends the limits of geography.
Indeed, the overt lightness and childlike quality of the literary treatment found in the Hitopadesha—the use of animals as protagonists, humour, satire, pranks, unconventional thought and behaviour, wild desires, and foolish deeds etc.—should not make us lose sight of the fundamental didacticism of literature of this kind.
Moreover, as we will see, its socio-emotional pedagogy as well as, one dare say, its unorthodox and irreverent take on human behaviour, are also what give the Hitopadesha an evergreen flavour—a continuing relevance well into our modern lives. This is contrary to the fairly widespread misconception today that Sanskrit literature is archaic and far removed from modern sensibilities or contexts.
Some special aspects of the text further elucidate the lively and provocative nature of the Hitopadesha, but are rarely discussed in existing translations and studies as anything more than
instances of tongue-in-cheek humour. One such remarkable aspect is that, again unlike all expectations and stereotypes today about Sanskrit literature, which is rather sweepingly regarded as
conservative and geared towards reproducing social hierarchies, a didactic work like the Hitopadesha could simultaneously be antinomian.
In other words, it could and did critique and lampoon figures of power and social ideals. Thus, even in a story commissioned by and addressed to royalty, the king is routinely shown as unwise, clueless, haughty, dependent, or gullible.
In fact the last two books of the Hitopadesha are entirely about a couple of impetuous kings, albeit of the feathered variety, and the easily provoked, needless war between them. It is only through the
wise counsel and strategies of their respective ministers, also birds, that peace is ultimately secured. The satire on kings as rather risky liabilities is a constant in these tales.
Then, the figure of the Brahmin, who stands at the head of the socio-ritual caste hierarchy and represents learning and scriptures, is also satirized in, for example, the parodical story of the old tiger, which we shall discuss further below. Given that both the author and narrator of our text are Brahmin, a sagacious capacity for self-critique appears in relief here.
However, perhaps the most sensational example of the text’s unorthodoxy is the fact that women are occasionally shown indulging in extramarital affairs in the Hitopadesha. They are also represented, with the text’s light touch always, as libidinous and resourceful characters who go after what they want despite social sanctions.
This may be read as misogyny by some but may also reflect considerable female agency in early India, something that is visible in other works of Sanskrit poetry and prose as well. Sample some of
these textual comments:
Women have twice the appetite of men
four times their brains
six times their courage
and eight times their libido! (2.7.119)
Neither modesty, nor decorum,
good sense nor fear
keep women chaste.
It is only the absence of a suitor that does! (1.6.119)
Now, these provocative lines need not be read as relating to a licentious society, far from it, as we will see below. Reflecting layered social critique, the text instead displays—not without some sympathy—the complexity of male and female psyches.
In the process, if didactic literature in early India could shape ethical subjectivity, it could confound it as well. For this reason I propose a new descriptor for the Hitopadesha and allied texts: the antinomian didactic. Consider, for example, the story of a young and sensuous woman who is forced into marriage with an old and lustful merchant. He is shown as not being able to satisfy her, driving her to take a young and vigorous lover. In this context, the text rather unabashedly declares:
Women have no interest in husbands
with old and weathered organs.
Aged men are hardly virile.
Their wives are taken with other men
and regard the husband
as a necessary evil, just like medicine! (1.6.109–10)
While living beings lust for life and wealth,
the aged man desires a young wife more than life itself!
An old man can neither enjoy sense-pleasures
nor renounce them.
He is like an old, toothless dog
who cannot chew the bone
but helplessly licks at it. (1.6.111–12)
The Hitopadesha is thus remarkably observant and candid about behavioural and relationship paradoxes. It is, further, rather unsentimental about social ideals and perhaps inclines towards
representing social reality more, which is always complicated.
Excerpted with permission from ‘The Introduction’ to Hitopadesha, by Narayana, translated by Shonaleeka Kaul, Aleph Book Company.