In the year 570 CE, a Persian physician named Burzoy or Burzoya (Burzawayh in Arabic) living in the Sassanid kingdom of Persia travelled to India in search of a book of wisdom: a book greatly sought by then King of Persian Khusroy  I (Anoshagruwa or “the immortal”) who ruled from 531 to 579 CE. Burzoy succeeded in his endeavours, returning to Persia with the knowledge he had gained. His book was in turn written down by the king’s wazir, Wuzurgmihr and included, at Burzoy’s own request, the story of his journey to India.

The object of his search: the Panchatantra (Sanskrit for five principles) and even the versions of it then existent (the early centuries of the first millennium CE) are now lost, as is Burzoy’s book, with its suggested title, Karirak ud Damanak, written in Middle Persian (Pahlavi, part of the Indo Iranian language family). The title is derived from the two jackals who appear in the first sections of the Panchatantra.

More than animal fables, the stories were narratives in how to live a wise, good life, and were meant especially for princes born to rule.  The similarities of stories found in the Panchatantra with those in the Aesop’s Fables and the Jatakas attest to how these stories travelled widely and orally in the ancient world. The Panchatantra is among the most widely travelled of literary texts and different versions of it exist in most of the world’s languages.

Thanks to scholarly investigations of the last century, we do know of the existence of both books, as also their various recensions and versions over the centuries. It was Burzoy’s book that formed the basis of the Arabic work written two centuries later (750 CE) titled Khalil wa Dimnah. This latter book was in turn copied several times, and formed the basic text from which later versions in New Persian, and in the various European languages were written – and which exist today.

Dating the Panchatantra

In the early 1920s, the German Indologist Johannes Hertel prepared a comprehensive account of the Panchatantra’s antecedents. He used a text written in Sanskrit and dated to sometime before 1200 CE, by a Jain monk of Gujarat called Purnabhadra. But Hertel believed that Purnabhadra relied on an earlier version datable to a couple of centuries before his time, called the Pancakhnayaka (or, in Hertel’s words, the “Textus Simplicior”) and also on a Prakrit version. Hertel also surmised, based on the similarity of tales in recensions that existed before, that the Panchatantra’s origins could date to around 200 BCE, in Kashmir – a version that is lost, as are subsequent versions soon after this, like the Sanskrit Tantrakhyayika of Kashmir from the third century CE.

Oral transmissions meant that whenever new versions appeared, they included new work too, as seen in Somadeva’s Kathasaritasagar (dated 1063-1082), Kshemendra’s Brihatkathamanjari (1044) and also the Hitopadesa (1373 CE). Hertel details the differences between the versions he referenced and also how he came by them. This fact of new additions is true of how the Middle Persian version travelled too, as Francois De Blois (1990) who worked on Burzoy’s work and its subsequent mutations and variations, showed.

De Blois believed that Burzoy’s narrative derived much from the five books of the Panchatantra (especially the Tantrakhyayika of the third century CE) and also some stories from the Mahabharata (its twelfth chapter). Burzoy’s book is lost, but the stories in it as well as his own journey to India (that appears as the frame narrative) make up the core of the later different versions that appeared: a Syriac one titled Kalilag Damnag that came not too long after Burzoy’s; the Arabic Kalila wa Dimnah by Abd-allah ibn al-Muqaffa (around 750 CE), the New Persian versions of the eleventh century, and, for instance, the later Greek one too.

Burzoy’s journey

It is the Arabic version Kalila wa Dimnah – half its contents are based on, De Blois has suggested, on the older works while some are al-Muqaffa’s own additions – that forms the basic version of the text as it was written down later in other languages of West Asia and Europe from the eleventh century CE onwards.

The presence of the frame narrative, which made De Blois’s tracing of the antecedents of the original possible, stresses how stories travelled across regions and languages – in this instance from Indo-European and Semitic languages. The versions are agreed on Burzoy’s journey to India at the king’s behest and his acquiring the book of wisdom – albeit in different ways. In one version, he makes friends with an Indian who steals it from the royal treasury, and Burzoy commits it to memory. In another, it acquires more symbolic allusions, where the magical herbs he goes in search of are actually books of wisdom that he brings back, including the one that will become the Kalila wa Dimnah.

As to the origins of the Panchatantra, Burzoy tells the story of a Chinese king and his adviser; the latter in turn tells him of a wise Indian king Rai Dabshalim. The king had a dream, that directed him to travel eastward, where he finds, in a cave, a box that contains a message from yet another king (that of Syria) who instructs him to travel to an island (Serendib) where a pundit named Bidpah would gladly impart to him the knowledge related to statecraft. Bidpah’s stories then framed the basis of the book. The name is believed to also suggest a Sanskrit origin – Vidyapati, a wise man, or a court pundit (in another allusion to the ancient Vishnu Sharma, the fabled narrator of these stories, in the first place).

The writer and heretic 

Abd-allah ibn al-Muqaffa, who lived most of life in Basra, Iraq, died in 757 CE. He was executed by the Abbasid caliph, al-Mansur, on charges of treason. Basra was then in a time of flux and immense power shifts. Like his father before him, al-Muqaffa first served the Ummayads, rulers of Iraq, and after them, the Abbasids. By then al-Muqaffa had already written several works that had got him attention.

Besides the Kalila wa Dimnah, widely regarded as one of the earliest master works in Arabic prose, he had written other political texts too, one relating to the behaviour of princes and on military strategy. In the Kalila wa Dimnah, it is believed he deliberately used characters from other cultural contexts to suggest the need for political reform in the Abbasid period.

Though his rendering of the fables in his own abstruse, oblique way did not lead to his execution, as historians agree, he was unpopular among the political elite. In later centuries, al-Muqaffa also acquired a reputation for being a heretic. It is believed he translated the sixth century Zoroastrian religious prophet Mazdak, and was also known to be a follower of Manicheanism, named after the prophet Mani of the third century CE, who lived in the time of the early Sassanids and was executed by them.

As the story goes, it was the caliph al-Mansur who was offended by the letter al-Muqaffa penned on behalf of the caliph’s uncles, pleading for leniency after one of them (Abdullah ibn Ali) had rebelled against Al-Mansur’s assumption of the Caliphate in 754 CE. It is believed al-Muqaffa had sneaked in concepts of political understanding and the need for patience (hilm) in dealing with rivals, but these fell on an insecure Al-Mansur’s deaf ears.

One of the stories in the Kalila wa Dimnah, it is believed, formed the basis of a secret brotherhood – the Ikhwan al Safa (Brethren of Purity) that came up in Iraq in the tenth and eleventh centuries. They compiled an medieval encyclopaedia detailing the knowledge of the sciences then known in the Greek and Persian worlds, It was written in epistolary form and its complete Arabic name is Rasâ’il Ikhwân al-Safa’ wa Khullan al-Wafâ’ (Epistles of the Pure Brethren and the Sincere Friends).  The origin and identity of the scholars has always been debated, though it is believed they lived in Basra and also Baghdad.

From Arabic to other versions

Between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries, al-Muqaffa’s version was translated into Greek in 1080 CE by a physician savant in the Byzantine court at Constantinople called Symeon Seth. There were later versions in New Persian too, and then in Hebrew and old Spanish. This older Hebrew version became, via the Latin translation of John of Capua, the source of the early European translations.  The English one by Sir Thomas North, written during the Elizabethan age, was based on the Italian one by Anton Francesco Doni and named The Moral Philosophy of Donipopularly known as the Fables of Bidpai (the wise man who appears in Burzoy’s version). North’s version was described as “the English version of an Italian adaptation of a Spanish translation of a Latin version of a Hebrew translation of an Arabic adaptation of the Pahlavi version of the Indian original”.

The Panchatantra at the Mughal Court

The ‘New Persian’ language, which developed from the eighth century CE onward, saw several versions of the Kalila wa Dimnah. The poet Rudaki’s verses appear in one of these versions, dated to the tenth century CE. Besides one by Nasrullah Mustaufa, in the early sixteenth century (1504), it was Husain bin ‘Ali al Waiz Kashefi who wrote his version titled Anwar i Suhaili (Lights of Canopus), while in the court of the Timurid ruler of Herat, Hussain Mirza Bayaqarah.

It was this version that served as the base for Abul Fazal’s Iyar-i-Danish (Touchstone of Intellect). There was another version of the Panchatantra that was translated in Akbar’s court: a Sanskrit version of Jain origin (perhaps the Pancakhnayaka, ninth century CE) by Mustafa Khaliqdad Abbasi. Akbar’s endeavour was also to have a Persian that was simpler, with the texts shorn of verbosity.

The translation was done in the scriptorium, called the “maktabkhana” where translators worked with their books and writing materials. The translation itself followed an interesting method: Scholars of Sanskrit rendered it orally into a version of Hindi (perhaps HIndawi), which was then rendered into Persian. Among the many other works that were translated were the Mahabharata, as the Razmnamah, and Singhsan Battisi, translated as Nama I Khirad Afza (The Wisdom-Enhancing Book): a kind of translation endeavour that would be replicated by Dara Shikoh later.  The illustrations in the Iyar-i-Danish have some similarities with the older versions in Persia; as is well known, the artists at the Mughal court, especially from Humayun’s time, were from Persia.

While the Persian Anwar i Suhaili was used for some time as a textbook to train students at the East India Company College in Haileybury, the Iyar-i-Danish was translated into Urdu in 1803 by Maulvi Hafizuddin Ahmed and used for students at the Fort William College in Calcutta. This version was titled the Khirad Afroz (The Illuminator of the Understanding).