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The fable as narrative in the Indian tradition.

A fable is a narrative no longer than a short story, so structured as to conclude with a moral. The term derives itself from the Latin fabula and includes the root faber which means maker or artificer. A fable makes symbolic use of animals as characters, and may be rendered in prose or verse, though it is principally narrated in prose; however, the Indian fable mixes prose and verse, for literary and instructive goals. A fable is of ancient origin, but all through the human history it has retained its place as a favorable genre of literature. The earliest preferment for the fable came from Plato himself who preferred a fabulist to Homer: "Plato excluded Homer from his Republic and gave Aesop a place of honor, hoping that the young would absorb fables along with their mother's milk ... since one cannot at too early an age acquire a love for wisdom and virtue." (1)

There has been formidable lineage of fabulists in World literature comprising names like Vishnu Sharma, the Buddha, Valmiki, Aesop, Phaedrus, Hyginus, Jean de La Fontaine, Ivan Krylov and others. Interest in the fable cannot be dismissed as old and outdated as both the contents and forms of literature so written address some of the key questions facing the contemporary humanity. And again some of the most popular works like George Orwell's Animal Farm or Vikram Seth's Frog and the Nightingale show what great use a writer can make of the fable-narrative in different genres, which certainly shows greater adaptability of the fable-genre, in being fused into novel, poetry and drama alike. James Thurber's Fables of Our Time and Walt Disney's Micky Mouse and His Friends put to rest any doubt regarding the continuing relevance of the fable-narrative.

India's fable-narrative tradition invites a searching analysis of the tabular forms along with other important research aspects of contemporary relevance like location and dislocation of the narrative; inter-genre narrative; the construction and reconstruction of a text; fable as a genre of religious, secular or political discourse, with Indian perspectives on these; the inter-textual links among different fable-narratives; the socio-cultural factors that influence alterations of the original story; the fables as autonomous genre as well as a subservient genre within a genre of larger magnitude like the itihasa (the epic); and the like. The principal texts, in the tradition that use the fable as narrative are Panchtantra, (2) Jatakamala, Yogavasistha and also the Mahabharata.

Vishnu Sharma first composed the Panchtantra in Sanskrit in the first century of the Christian era. The title of the text suggests its division into five Tantras or sections. In the beginning of the text, it is stated that the teacher after extracting the essence of all the braches of knowledge composed the Niti Sastra in five Tantras or sections. Niti "as applied to a class of writings, or division of science", would mean "more correctly polity, the art of regal administration, both in peace and war, including the moral as well as the political obligations of a sovereign." (3) Hence, the fables were composed to impart lessons on polity to the three pervert princes, Vasu Shakti, Bhadra Shakti and Ananta Shakti, who were averse to learning.

The original text of the Panchtantra is lost, and the stories have been preserved in form of the many recensions available. This implies a major methodology in the Indian tradition about the modes of the preservation of texts. Of the different recensions, Tantrakhyayika and Hitopadesa present aesthetic integrity of their own, different from the original Panchtantra. There is a freedom of the structure seen in these recensions, with the order of the sections and stories being changed, and new paradigms being created.

Yogavasistha is a collection of discourses imparted by the renowned sage Vasistha to Rama on the occasion of the later assuming the kingship of Ayodhya. It is a discursive text containing enumerations on spirituality, origin of the cosmos and human beings, attainment of Moksa through Yoga and Samadhi, mysteries of creation, decreation and Avataras.

Animals and narratives involving animal characters figure prominently in the Yogavasistha. In the Nirvana-Prakarana, birds appear as figures to illustrate important philosophical questions:
 You croaking crow, that crowest so harshily and treadest the marshy
 lake ... it is difficult to distinguish between a crow, sitting in
 the company of the cuckoo, both being of the like sable plumes and
 feathers; unless one makes itself known as distinct from the other,
 by giving out its own vocal sounds ... for shame that the noisy
 crow, should have a seat on the soft lotus bed in the company with
 silent swans, and play his disgraceful part and tricks among them
 (i.e. It is impudent on the part of the ignorant to open their
 mouths, where the learned hold their silence). (4)

Likewise, the discourses of the Buddha found in the Jatakas use the fable as a social, philosophical and moral narrative. The literature compiled by the various Buddhist councils of the monks "to fix a canon of religion (Dhamma) and of orderly discipline (yinaya)" (5) constitutes the Tipitika, the Pali canon of Buddhist literature. The Tipitika has two sections: Suttapitaka and Vinayapitaka. The fables contained in the Pali canon are a part of the Jataka stories, stories about the former births of the Buddha or the Boddhisatva-stones. In the Jataka literature, the Boddhisatta appears as a hero of the story or a as a character of lesser importance or even as a spectator; he is the human storyteller as well as the animal story-spectator. The Pali canon contains a great collection of sacred texts, rules of the order, speeches, dialogues, stories, and aphorisms, that have passed as the "words of Buddha" memorized and recited by the monks. In order to preserve the knowledge of the doctrine and the rules of the order, the texts had to be memorized, recited and expounded generation after generation.

The Mahabharata has a medley of genres within the genre of the epic, the fable being one of them, as for instance the section in which Bhisma preaches Rajadharma to Yudhisthira, Vidura and Dhrtrastra. He narrates the fable of the Mouse who is able to save his life cleverly from the Cat, the Mongoose and the Owl.

Under the broader framework of the themes of the fable-narratives, the fables can be contextualized within the larger domain of disseminating moral and political knowledge. On the other hand, we might wonder if the long-sustained interest in the fables primarily arises from them being exclusively an art form. In other words, on which side are the fables more prone, the discursive or the aesthetic? Certainly, ever since the Rigveda times, the narrative has evolved as the most viable mode of knowledge dispersion. So, the akhyana or narrative has not been circumscribed within the aesthetic domain; the narrative utilizes strategies to promote the purusarthas--the four ends of life: dharma, artha, kama, andmoksha. "The merit of a literary composition is determined in a significant way by which of the four ends of life it promotes." (6)

The fable-narrative, though apparently highly wondrous, emerges as the most viable epistemological mode for both the Buddha and Vishnusarma and consequently for all other fabulists. As for the Jatakcl tales, "the line of narratives from Upanishads to the epics show a shift of concern from knowledge (jnana) to devotion (bhakti). But somewhere along the line, the Pali Buddhist narratives also foreground action (karma) which then becomes a part of the epic-ethics as well." (7) The Jataka tales postulate a definite break in the relationship between philosophy and narrative and narrative and ethics. The Pali Buddhist narratives, containing the experiences of the Bodhisattva, trace an improvement in the various margas, or paths of living postulated by the Indian thinkers by positing karma as against jnana and Bhakti. The narratives prior to the appearance of the Jataka tales make moksa as their goal. The narratives found in the Upanishads, as for example, in Satyakama of Chandogy'a Upanishad and Naciketa of Kathopanishad, show a concern with personal salvation to be attained through knowledge (jnana). These aspects of Indian philosophy and thought that influenced the narrative performance came for radical overhauling later when the Bodhisattva postulated not jnana but karma as the path of life, not personal salvation (moksa) but nirvana and the welfare of all (lokasamgraha) as the goal of life, and human reason, the atiprasnas, the real experiences of suffering as more important than the metaphysical intuitions. (8)

It is essential, likewise, to establish how other fable-narrative traditions down the ages like those evolving with the Pancatantra and its recension the Hitopadesa contribute yet another important link to the history of the Indian narrative tradition, where niti (policy) evolves as the third important strand influencing the thought, content and style of narration. "The Pancatantra and Hitopadesa are educative manuals; if one considers their declarations of intent, they are obviously manuals for the education." (9) The Pancatantra was translated into Pahlevi by the Iranian emperor Nausharwan for the educative purpose of his administrative officials.

The second sentence of the prologue to Hitopadesa states that the work "inculcates the knowledge of niti-nitividyam dadati." (10) Niti could be roughly translated as "policy". The peacock king, in section three of the Hitopadesa, alludes to poet Magha's definition of niti as "self-aggrandizement and suppression of others." The theme of the fables in the Panchatantra is, therefore, not constricted by morality and ethics, in the religious sense. "The tales glorify clever animal which survives by outwitting the covert enemies. This secular moral--'be wise and live', 'outwit your enemies'--cannot be described as ethical imperative." (11) The story of the Hare that befooled the Elephant in the Hitopadesa (III, 3) begins with a couplet translated as:
 Against a powerful king, one may play a hoax and win,
 As the Hare lived in Peace after playing the Hoax of the Moon.

The Frame story of the first section of the Panchtantra has a cunning Jackal contriving enmity between a Lion and a Bull, who have been close friends. This section is rightly named as Mitrabheda, and bheda was a one of the most crucial methods suggested in the ancient books for defeating the adversary.

In fact the correct theme of the fables here is practical wisdom. So, in the second section of the Panchtantra, Mitraprapti, characters with no common interests are shown as friends. The Crow that flies in air, an eater of rodents is the friend of the Mouse, which crawls on the earth. Another pair is that of the fast-footed Deer and the slow Tortoise. All become friends, and the section ends with the rest of the three saving the Tortoise out of a trouble.

One of the chief interests lies in the typology of the characters in the fables, from the point of view of their pertinence to social and political meanings. Samuel Johnson writes in his biography of John Gay: "A Fable or an Apologue ... seems to be, in its genuine stage, a narrative in which beings irrational and sometimes inanimate ... are for the purpose of moral instruction, feigned to act with human interests and passions." (12)

Stock animal characters, each characterized by a certain human attribute, appear in the narratives. The Fox is cunning, the Hare is timid, the Dog is loyal and the Donkey stupid. There are individualized portraits as well, the significance of which originate from a given situation. The Crocodile is at first clever enough to deceive the Monkey, but loses his control over the situation by talking boastfully. He turns foolish in the later part of the story and takes the Monkey back to the bank, as the usually imitative Monkey shows cleverness here, in making the Crocodile believe that he has left his heart on the branch of the tree. Similarly, the two Cranes make an effort to save a friend Tortoise from a dead lake by taking him off to another lake. The Tortoise hangs from the stick they hold between the beaks. Amazed at the beauty of the aerial scene, the Tortoise begins to sing, falls down and is smashed to death. The Tortoise shows himself a fool in this particular situation. The animals in their human situations indeed enact a human drama.

More obvious as political discourse is the section on war in the Panchtantra. The characters are again individualized. The old Lion tired of hunting, demands that each species must send one member for his daily living, and so symbolizes the character of an oppressive king who lives at the cost of his subjects. Such fables have their origin not only in the political life of the times but also in the Mandala polity on which Kautiliya's Arthasastra is based. At the end of the third section, Vishnu Sharma addresses his disciples and tells them that their enemies should be scattered mtimantrapavanaih, "by the winds of diplomacy." (13)

Valmiki's Yogavasistha makes it possible to construct binaries of characters as Crow/Cuckoo, Crow/Crab, Rook/Owl, Crows/Cranes, Cocks/Vultures, as for instance here:
 It is better for you 0 clamorous crow to rend ears of those--with
 your cracking voice that are not tired with splitting the head of
 others with their wily verbiage.

 The cuckoo associating with the crow, and resembling him in figure
 and colour, is distinguished by his sweet notes from the other; as
 learned man makes himself known by his speech in the society of the
 ignorant. (14)

While establishing the social and political meanings of the narrative it is important that the narratives are not alienated from their immediate cultural ethos in favor of a universalistic claim. The stories indeed, leave behind useful insights into the ordinary lives of the ancient Indians, important from the point of view of the history of culture. The Buddhist monks, for instance, would not have been Indians, if they had not considered the immediate ambience of the story-tellers and listeners which is deeply rooted in the soul of the Indian folk.

The Buddhist monks, who compiled the fables orally narrated by the Buddha, represented all classes. So many of them were quite familiar with the folk and the popular stories and anecdotes of the workmen and merchants and others. They knew well the old ballads and the songs of the legendary warriors. The fables, apart from communicating the Buddhist thought, suggest the culture of that time. Likewise, the Yogavasistha presents an impressive detail of ancient India, its social customs and the rituals popular at that time. It also helps in defining the geographical boundaries of various places.

The wide popularity of the Indian fables down the ages was as much because of its contents as for its novel art form. The Indian fable-narratives evolved in a tradition, which was oral. The Buddha and Vishnu Sharma were both excellent storytellers, and they had before them immediate listeners as the community of disciples and the princes. One wonders to what extent the oral situation of story formation has influenced their writing down when they were eventually recorded.

It is the form of the fables that give the Jataka fables a distinct place in the Pali Canon as different from say Sutta (prose sermons), Udana (pithy sayings), Itivuttaka (short speeches beginning with the words: "Thus spake the Buddha.") and others.

In the Jataka, as in the Panchatantra, the stories are appended by a frame story stating when and on what occasion did the Buddha narrate a particular tale, to teach what particular knowledge. For instance, in order to introduce the rules on the preference accorded to age among the monks, the Buddha narrates the story of the Partridge, the Monkey and the Elephant:
 There stood once upon a time, 0 monks, on a mountain slope of the
 Himalayas, a great fig tree. Under this fig-tree three friends, a
 partridge, a monkey and an elephant. (15)

Every single Jataka consists of the following parts: (a) an introductory story (paccuppannavatthu)--"story of the present time", narrating on what occasion the Buddha related to the monks the story in question, (b) Atitavatthu--"the story of the past"--the core story, the story about one of the experiences about the former births of the Buddha, (c) the Gathas the stanzas "the story of the past" and also a part of "the story of the present time", (d) short commentary in which the Gathas are explained literally, and (e)--Samodhana, in which the personages of "the story of the present" are linked with the those of "the story of the past." (16)

Likewise, each section in Panchtantra and its recensions, including the Hitopadesa, has a "Frame story", in which the characters tell different other stories in that section. And then, quite often, the characters in such stories tell "Sub-stories", and the characters in the "Sub-story" may tell stories of their own. This is what makes "emboxment" of story within story possible.

The majority of the Jatakas, like the Panhctantra, are a mixture of prose and verse. A favorite method in the Indian tradition is to vitalize the narrative prose by the verses. The narrator of the fables gives the moral or the point of view in one or two verses. Prose and verse fuse so wonderfully to produce an aesthetic whole.

There are interesting inter-genre relationships, as for example between the fable and the parable. In the Yogavasistha, for instance, we have the famous Parable of the Elephant. In the parable, there is less interest in the analogy between the animal and human world, while the commonality between the two forms rests in both being representing pre-literate oral cultures, conveying folk wisdom. There is a crucial difference in style though. Unlike the parable, the fable is more important as a political discourse. The fables lay more emphasis on the situations rather than on a series of mere events. On the basis of a close reading of fable-narratives from each major work, one can make a few postulations, which are as follows:

1. The genesis of the fable-narrative in the Indian situation confirms the Indian view of the harmonious existence among different beings.

2. Fables originate out of a culture or ethos, the peculiarities of which favor this genre, and that can be described.

3. As the fables belonged, principally to an oral tradition, the forms of the stories entailed a different structure, and were subjected to major alteration when these stories eventually got disseminated by the use of the written word.

4. The fabulist was neither a narrator, in the sense of the modern short story, nor an allegorist. He was a gifted teacher-philosopher, whose relation to the stories and the audience involved different temporal and spatial dimension. Oral tradition existed before the art and practice of writing was invented. Language is no doubt a common medium but the patterns and structures require different handling. In writing a reader cannot be addressed as if he were a listener. One wonder to what extent do the written narratives preserve the specificities of the oral stories.

5. It is possible to establish inter-textual links in the domain of India's fable-narratives. The earlier section of the Jatakas have fables which recur in other Indian works, as for instance, how the Lion and the Bull, the two friends are separated by the Jackal, and kill each other (Jataka 349) reappear in the first story of the Tantrclkhyayika. The Frame story of the section three of the Panchtantra deals with the War between the Crows and the Owls. In the Mahabharata, there is a brief reference to the Crows attacking and destroying the Owl's nests. This has been elaborated into the Crows getting the worst of it in the first encounter, but finally emerging victorious, not by the strength of arms but by a meticulously planned treachery.


(1.) Quoted in Walter De La Mare, Animal Stories. Faber and Faber Limited, London, 1972, Introduction. pp. 30

(2.) The text of the Panchatantra has been reconstructed in the various recensions including the Arabic Kalila wa Dimma and the most famous one Hitopadesa, the study of which would form an important aspect of the research undertaken. Aesop's Fables would also be referred wherever a comparison with the Greek work would illuminate important aspects of the Indian fable-narratives.

(3.) Pantschatantra Leipzig Benfey, 1859 pp. xv in H. H. Wilson, Essays Analytical, Critical and Philological on Subjects Connected with Sanskrit Literature, Asian Educational Services, New Delhi, 1984, p. 6.

(4.) Yoagvasistha of Valmiki, translated by Viharilal Mitra with an Introduction by Ravi Prakash Arya, Parimal Publications, Delhi, 1998, p.419

(5.) Maurice Wintemitz, A History of Indian Literature, translated by V. Srinivasa Sharma, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1983, p. 6.

(6.) Kapil Kapoor, Buddhism and Literature: Philosophy, Narratives and Jatakamala. Unpublished, p.3

(7.) Ibid.

(8.) Ibid.

(9.) Wagish Shukla, Do You Hear the Story, Indra?

(10.) The Hitopadesa, translated from Sanskrit with an Introduction by V. Balasubrahmanyam, The MP Birla Foundation, Calcutta, 1989, p.22

(11.) C. I. Pawate, The Panchtantra and Aesop's Fables, Amar Prakashan, Delhi, 1986. p.7

(12.) Lives of the Poets, Oxford University Press, London, 1975, p. 14

(13.) Op.cit, p. 26.

(14.) Yogavasistha of Valmiki, translated by Viharilal Mitra and edited by Ravi Prakash Arya, Parimal Publications, Delhi, 1998, p. 419.

(15.) Cullavagge VI, translated by Rhys David and Oldenberg in SEE, Vol. 20, p. 193

(16.) Maurice Wintemitz, A History of Indian Literature, translated by V. Srinivasa Sharma, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1983, p. III



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Author:Singh, Dhananjay
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Date:Jan 1, 2007
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