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Literature / Panchatantra

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The Panchatantra (five books of knowledge) are a compilation of Indian fables dating back to Vedic times. In form, they are roughly equivalent to Aesop's Fables, but they also bear some resemblance to the Arabian Nights in how the stories are structured together. Like Aesop’s fables, these fables contain a lot of Beast Fable type stories using contemporary Indian animals such as crows, deer, lions and jackals (as opposed to foxes). They do contain a lot of human characters too, as well as deities from Hindu Mythology. However, while Aesop’s fables were intended to instill good moral character in its readers, the Panchatantra was designed to teach young princes a more pragmatic morality as befitting future kings. Many stories are therefore much Darker and Edgier.


The Panchatantra was written by a Brahmin teacher named Vishnu Sharma, who was hired by a king Amarshakti to teach his three young sons morality, ethics, and politics that would prepare them to rule his kingdom one day. When direct instruction appeared to be ineffective, Vishnu Sharma hit upon the idea of imparting lessons to them via fables - stories with a moral lesson in the end. To keep the princes engaged, these fables were interwoven together as part of five larger stories. These five large stories are:


Conflict Among Friends

In this story, a bull traveling with a merchant on a long journey collapses from heat exhaustion and is abandoned for dead. The place he is abandoned in happens to be a lush grassy bank of a stream, which allows the bull to slowly recover. He starts wandering around his surroundings, which happen to be a forest ruled by a lion. This lion hears the bull’s mooing and is scared by it. Two jackals who were once the lion’s trusted advisors but have fallen into disfavor, hatch a cunning plot to have the lion befriend the bull, then drive a wedge between them.


The Making of Friends

This is a story of how a mouse, a pigeon, a turtle, and a deer meet, form strong bonds of friendship, then help each other survive a dire situation.

Crows And Owls

This story describes the long-running conflict between the crows and the owls. The conflict starts because the crows are the only birds to not acknowledge the owls as their superiors. It appears as if the owls have been gaining the upper hand in this war for quite some time. The desperate crows consider all possible strategies - Make Peace, Go to War, Seek Help from a Powerful Ally, Entrench Themselves and Intrigue. They decide to rest all their hopes and their very survival on a crafty old bird who hatches a clever plan.

Loss of Gains

The overarching theme of these stories is to illustrate how things gained can be lost. A crocodile wants to eat the heart of a monkey, so he tries various tricks to get the monkey to jump down from his tree and wade into the crocodile’s pond. The monkey relates these fables to convince the crocodile to leave him alone.

Consequences of Hasty Actions

This is quite possibly the darkest of all the chapters and the overarching theme is that of greed and impulsiveness. The story starts off with the tale of a stupid mass murdering barber, segueing into the story of a young mongoose, which in turn leads to the story of a greedy treasure hunter condemned to live forever in agony. The final stories are told to this unfortunate treasure seeker, convincing him to accept his fate.

Tropes found here are

  • An Aesop: The whole story is meant to teach the five princes about morality. Some important ones include not being impulsive and not being Too Clever by Half.
  • All That Glitters: A different weaver realizes this when he visits a rich but miserly merchant and is treated with scorn, then visits a not so wealthy but magnanimous merchant who enjoys his company.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: A weaver is granted a boon and wishes to have two heads and four arms so he can do twice the work and double his revenue. Problem is, the townsfolk saw a two-headed four-armed creature coming in, immediately believed it was a demon, and killed the weaver.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture / Impaled with Extreme Prejudice: A barber who murders multiple Jain monks is deemed to suffer this fate by a king.
  • Ditzy Genius: Three "learned imbeciles" try to reanimate a long-dead lion to demonstrate mastery of their "knowledge" - upon which that lion eats them all.
  • Fate Worse than Death: A treasure hunter whose greed gets the best of him is doomed to suffer endlessly by a wheel spinning on his head. That wheel will keep him alive for eternity, but only inflict agony.
  • Hard Truth Aesop: Some of the fables teach that people should not easily trust others.
  • Kill It with Fire: The crows defeat the owls by trapping them in a cave and roasting them alive by setting fire to the cave’s mouth.
  • "Leave Your Quest" Test: The story of the four treasure hunters and divine tablets is this. One guy finds a copper lode and leaves the quest. A second guy finds a silver lode and leaves. A third guy strikes gold and leaves. The fourth guy presses on, hoping to find something more valuable than gold. He meets a Fate Worse than Death.
  • Nested Story: The entire story is told by a Vishnu to the sons of Amarshakti, and several characters within Amarshakti's stories tell stories of their own. At one point during "Conflict Among Friends", it reaches five levels of nesting!
  • Surprisingly Realistic Outcome: All over the place.
    • The fatalistic fish believes that divine grace will keep him safe from fishermen. It doesn't, and he gets snared in a net.
    • A jackal dyed in blue passed himself off as a divine creature to usurp power in a forest. However, this only worked until he heard other jackals howling and howled with them. The deposed lion immediately saw through the deception and attacked.
    • A pet mongoose killed a snake that was threatening his owner’s baby. He then ran up to his mistress with blood and viscera dripping from his mouth. Since she was unaware of the snake, she immediately assumed that the mongoose had killed her baby and attacked it.