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“Hitopadesha by Narayana”: This new translation in simple narrative prose and free verse retains the freshness and wit of the original

Shonaleeka Kaul, the translator of the book
  • The book “Hitopadesha by Narayana: A New English Translation” by Shonaleeka Kaul is an idiomatic translation of the original text.


  • The Hitopadesha—which literally means good advice—was composed in Sanskrit sometime between the ninth and tenth centuries CE by Pandit Narayana. Arranged in four fascinating sections—Winning Friends, Losing Friends, Waging War, and Making Peace—the vignettes that comprise the text include tales of anthropomorphized birds and animals who are imbued with all too human qualities and frailties.


  • This new version by historian and Sanskritist Shonaleeka Kaul uses humour, satire, and unconventional methods of narration, and the stories in the collection prescribe canny and pragmatic responses to a range of very human situations, ambitions, problems, and dilemmas.


  • Read an excerpt from the book below.


Editor’s Note: The following excerpt has been taken from the book’s introduction.

‘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.

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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 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.

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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.

Excerpted with permission from Hitopadesha by Narayana: A New English Translation, Shonaleeka Kaul, Aleph Book Company. Read more about the book here and buy it here.

 

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