Week 5: Hitopadesa (Hitopadesha)

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Background Reading

Depending on the week's assignment, you may have several pages of Background Reading. This week, you have TWO PAGES of Background reading.

  1. Indian Story Collections: The Hitopadesa
  2. Terms and Definitions

Hitopadesha and Panchatantra: The Indian Tradition of Niti-Shastra

For the past three weeks, your readings have come from religious sources: the jataka tales of the Buddha, the parables of Jesus, and the stories of the Muslim Sufi saints. This week, we will shift over to a more secular field of literature, rather than reading more religious texts.

The stories you will read this week come from a collection of stories assembled in ancient India, called the Hitopadesha (or: Hitopadesa). The Hitopadesha, in turn, is based on an earlier collection of stories called the Panchatantra. Both the Hitopadesha and the Panchatantra were written in Sanskrit, which is a language of ancient India that is the ancestor of the modern language called Hindi which is spoken by many people in India today.

The Panchatantra was probably put together around the year 300 C.E., although it is difficult to date precisely. The stories that are contained in the Panchatantra and the Hitopadesa belong to an oral storytelling tradition that goes back hundreds of years. In fact, the oral storytelling tradition that finally produced the Panchatantra and the Hitopadesha is the same oral storytelling tradition that led to the Buddhist jataka stories! You will see many similarities between the stories told in the Buddhist jataka tales, and the stories you will be reading this week. For example, there will be many stories involving talking animals, along with the adventures of men and women who are constantly getting into trouble because they are foolish, greedy, and so on.

What is different about the Hitopadesha is that it is the first example we have this semester of an overarching frametale that includes all the stories in the collection, wrapping them up inside one big story. It is a very simple frametale, as you will discover. There is a king named Sudarsana, and he has some sons who have not been educated. The king becomes worried that his sons will turn out to be failures in life because they are uneducated. To solve this problem, he employs a wise man named Vishnu-Sarma who sets out to educate the young princes. And the technique that Vishnu-Sarma decides to use is to tell stories to the princes! By giving them examples of both good and bad behavior, and showing the consequences of that good and bad behavior, he plans to complete the boys' education in a mere six months. Since the purpose of the Hitopadesha is to educate these young boys, it is another example of "didactic" literature, like the Buddhist jataka tales and the parables that you read in previous weeks.

The technical term that Vishnu-Sarma uses to describe his stories is "niti-shastra," which means a technical treatise ("shastra") on the art of acting wisely ("niti"). Vishnu-Sarma uses stories to illustrate the art of acting wisely, and he also uses proverbs. In fact, he uses hundreds and hundreds of proverbs! The version of the Hitopadesha that you will be reading this week has been abridged in order to reduce the number of proverbs. Don't worry: there are still lots of proverbs! In fact, if you like proverbs, you will love this week's reading. The difference is just that where you see two or three proverbs in the readings for this week, there were probably six or seven proverbs included in the original version!

Stories Within Stories Within Stories

In addition to being an educational treatise, the Hitopadesha is also a wonderful work of literary art. There is a frametale, which is the story of the wise man Vishnu-Sarma educating the young princes. Vishnu-Sarma is a storyteller, and the main divisions of the book consist of the stories that Vishnu-Sarma tells. This week you will read two of those stories: The Acquisition of Friends (which is about the friendship of a crow, a mouse, a turtle, and a deer), and The Separation of a Favorite (which is about how a jackal manages to undermine the friendship between a lion and a bull).

Yet you will see that within those stories, there are other stories. For example, Vishnu-Sarma tells the story of the crow and the mouse and the turtle. But inside that story, the mouse becomes a storyteller, when he tells the story of a jackal, a deer, and a crow. And then, inside that story, the crow becomes a storyteller, who tells the story of a cat and a jackal. So you have a story (the story of the jackal and the cat), within a story (the story of the jackal, the deer, and the crow) within a story (the story of the crow and the mouse and the turtle) within a story (the story of Vishnu-Sarma and the princes). It is quite amazing! Getting back "out" of the stories is kind of like finding your way through a maze. You have to hold on to the thread of the story, or else you will get lost and never find your way back to the main story. In the readings, I've tried to label the stories so that you will be able to see how "deep" you are in the stories, and how far back it is to get to the main frametale about Vishnu-Sarma and the princes.

Indian Influence in Islamic and European Literature

This technique, sometimes called "nested" stories, is a very distinctive feature of the literature of ancient India. The Hitopadesa and the Panchatantra both make use of this "nested" story technique, and so do the ancient epics of India, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana.

When Islamic culture came into contact with Indian culture, this technique of "nested" stories was eagerly adopted by both Arabic and Persian writers. There is a famous Arabic version of the stories that you are reading this week which is called Kalilah-wa-Dimnah, or "Kalilah and Dimnah" (Kalilah and Dimnah being the Arabic names for the two jackals you will meet this week, who are called Damanaka and Karattaka in the Hitopadesa). Some of the illustrations for this week's stories are taken from medieval Arabic manuscripts of Kalilah-wa-Dimnah.

The Arabic Kalilah-wa-Dimnah was translated into several European languages during the Middle Ages, including several different versions of the stories in Latin. (If you are interested in looking at a Latin version of this week's stories, there is a medieval Latin version available online.) As a result, the stories that you are reading this week became well-known in Europe during the Middle Ages, with most readers of the stories not being aware that they were Latin translations of Arabic translations of ancient Indian literature written in Sanskrit dating back to around the year 300! As you read the stories, you will see how they have a kind of "timeless" quality about them. They are not about specific religious practices or specific social institutions. Instead, they are about common human situations that are not limited in any sense to the culture of ancient India. The Sanskrit names may seem strange to you, but the characters and the plots of the stories will probably seem very familiar!

  1. Indian Story Collections: The Hitopadesa
  2. Terms and Definitions

Modern Languages MLLL-2003. World Literature: Frametales. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 9, 2004 12:48 PM