Vishnu Sharma, an Indian scholar and author, written the Panchatantra. It is one of the most widely translated non-religious books.

Vishnu Sharma – The Author of Panchatantra

Vishnu Sharma was an Indian scholar and author. He is believed to have written the Panchatantra, a collection of fables. The exact period of the composition of the Panchatantra is uncertain, and estimates vary from 1200 BCE to 300 CE.

His work and its translations

Panchatantra is one of the most widely translated non-religious books in history. In 570 CE, the Panchatantra was translated into Middle Persian/Pahlavi by Borzūya and into Arabic in 750 CE by Persian scholar Abdullah Ibn al-Muqaffa as Kalīlah wa Dimnah. 

In Baghdad, the translation commissioned by Al-Mansur, the second Abbasid Caliph, is claimed to have become “second only to the Qu’ran in popularity.

As early as the eleventh century this work reached Europe, and before 1600 it existed in Greek, Latin, Spanish, Italian, German, English, Old Slavonic, Czech, and possibly other Slavonic languages. Its range has extended from Java to Iceland.” In France, “at least eleven Panchatantra tales are included in the work of Jean de La Fontaine.”

“No other work has played so important a part in the literature of the world as the Panchatantra… (Translated into) Greek, Latin, Spanish, Italian, German, English, Old Slavonic, Czech (and fifty other languages)… its range has extended from Java to Iceland. Indeed, the statement has been made that no book except the Bible has enjoyed such an extensive circulation in the world as a whole…Yet, perhaps it is easier to underestimate than to overestimate the spread of the Panchatantra.”

Franklin Edgerton

Vishnu Sharma – the author of Panchatantra

In the introduction of the Panchatantra, Vishnu Sharma is recognized as the author of the work. Since there is no other independent external evidence about him, “it is impossible to say whether he was the historical author… or is himself a literary invention”.

Based on analysis of various recensions, geographical features, and animals described in the stories, Kashmir is suggested to be his birthplace by various scholars.

He notes, “This is a textbook of artha, “worldly wisdom, or niti, polity, which the Hindus regard as one of the three objects of human desire, the others being dharma, ‘religion or morally proper conduct’ and kama ‘love’. The so-called ‘morals’ of the stories glorify shrewdness and practical wisdom in the affairs of life, and specially politics, of government. Joseph Jacobs said, “If one thinks of it, the very raison d’etre of the Fable is to imply its moral without mentioning it.” It explains “practical wisdom”.

Parts of Panchatantra

The five parts (Tantras) are titled in Sanskrit as;

  • Mitrabhed
  • Mitrasamprapti
  • Sandhi
  • Vigraham
  • Apareekshitkarakam

They are five principles or strategic themes one needs to keep in view for intelligent living. The English equivalents are:

  • Part 1: The Loss of Friends
  • Part 2: The Winning of Friends
  • Part 3: Crows & Owls (Peace and War)
  • Part 4: Loss of Gains
  • Part 5: Ill-Considered Action.

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Why Vishnu Sharma composed Panchatantra?

The introduction describes the story of how Vishnu Sharma probably created the Panchatantra. There was a king called Sudarshan who ruled a kingdom, whose capital was a city called Mahilaropya (महिलारोप्य), whose location on the current map of India is unknown. The king had three sons named Bahushakti, Ugrashakti, and shakti.

Though the king himself was both a scholar and a powerful ruler, his sons were “all dullards.” The king despaired of his three princes’ inability to learn and approached his ministers for counsel. They presented him with contradictory advice, but the words of one, called Sumati, struck true to the king.

He said that the sciences, politics, and diplomacy were boundless disciplines that took life to master formally. Rather than teaching the princes scriptures and texts, they should somehow be taught the wisdom inherent in them, and the aged scholar Vishnu Sharma was the man to do it.

Invitation by King

Vishnu Sharma was invited to the court, where the king offered him a hundred land grants if he could teach the princes. He rejected the promised award, saying he did not sell knowledge for money. But he took the task of making the princes wise to the ways of politics and leadership within six months.

Vishnu Sharma understood that he could never teach these three students through traditional means. He had to use a less orthodox way, and that was to tell a series of animal fables. They are weaved into another that allowed them the wisdom they needed to succeed their father. 

Changing stories that had been told for thousands of years in India, Panchatantra was formed into an interesting five-part work to communicate the essence of diplomacy, relationships, politics, and administration to the princes.

These five discourses — titled “The Loss of Friends”, “The winning of friends”, “Of Crows and Owls”, “Loss of Gains” and “Imprudence” — became the Panchatantra, meaning the five (Pancha) treatises (tantra).

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