India’s Storytelling Tradition and its Influence on World Literature
Ancient Indian storytelling disseminated functional genres (religious and scientific) and fictional genres: poetry, drama, and stories.
As on the mighty ocean’s waves
Two floating logs together come.
And, having met, forever part:
So briefly joined are living things.
As streams of rivers onward flow,
And never more return again:
So day and night still bear away
The life of every mortal man.

— Hitopadeśa

Hugh Blair in his Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres wrote that “The genius of the eastern nations, in particular, was from the earliest times much turned towards invention, and the love of fiction. Their divinity, their philosophy, and their politics, were clothed in fables and parables.” The antiquity and pervasiveness of the Indian art of storytelling does not escape notice when contending with the origins and inspiration for some of the world’s most popular literature.

Hindu expansion into South East Asia saw the dissemination of not just more functional genres such as religious and scientific texts but also fictional genres of literature such as poetry, drama, and stories. Apart from these, Indian śāstras such as alaṃkāra-śāstra [poetics and rhetoric], dharma-śāstra [law], vaidya- śāstra [medicine], artha-śāstra [political economy], kāma-śāstra [the erotic sciences], and śilpa-śāstra [sciences of the art of sculpture] were also directly borrowed from. Hindu myth and puranic tales were often the fount of legends from which kings and kingdoms drew their sovereignty and political authority, and lofty concepts of rājadharma were disguised as chronicles, birth-stories and aphoristic tales. Discovering the intellectual history of the composition, dissemination, and use of these texts is both fascinating and instructive, for, translations of aphoristic Sanskrit and Pali tales had practical applications to contemporary society, often in the realms of law and justice through the cloaking of customary and traditional law and morality in ethico-didactic and juristic tales. Sanskrit collections of aphorisms oriented towards politics and ethics (nīti) were widely translated and popularized, not just in South East Asia but also as far as the Arab world and Europe.

In the ancient world, Sanskrit myths transmitted through merchants and travelers into regions where Hindu Gods were unknown and not worshiped, and the stories took more “secular” forms, with some sections, characters, and story-lines altered by storytellers and entertainers that retold them and gave them new life. 19th century German Sanskritist and philologist Theodor Benfey contended that old Indian tale collections were the sources of most later occidental fairy tales — in other words, the folktales that originated among the Buddhists and the Hindus had reached Europe by a later date.

The Latin work of Apuleius, called Metamorphoses or The Golden Ass (Asinus aureus), one of the only Latin works to survive in its entirety, was inspired from the Sanskrit “The Story of Vikrama’s Birth”, found prefixed to manuscripts of the Vikramacaritra, also called Siṃhāsana-dvātriṃśikā or “Thirty-two Stories of the Lion-Throne”, a frame-tale of 32 stories of the adventures and exploits of King Vikramāditya. Although it departs from the original tale in many respects in order to contextualize and incorporate culture-specific elements, Asinariu shares remarkable similarities with the Sanskrit myth of Gandharvasena, both being premised on the marriage of a nobleman in the form of an ass to a princess and the disclosure of the donkey’s true identity only at the conclusion of the plot. The Grimm Brothers then adapted and modified the tale from its Medieval Latin version into its most popular form, suited to their 19th century German audience.

Embedded or Nested Stories

The first known use of the literary device of a “story within a story” can be traced back to the Rāmāyaṇa, the Mahābhārata, Pañcatantra, Jātakaṭṭhavaṇṇanā and the Kathāsaritsāgara, especially the section of Vetālapañcaviṃśati. Some of these texts, such as the Pañcatantra also contain an overarching frame story or frame tale, called the Kathāmukha which is the unifying frame in which all tales in the book are set, a literary device that the Arabian Nights and other subsequent works borrowed. Richard Burton, in the preface to his “Vikram and the Vampire or Tales of Hindu Devilry” traces the origin of fables which formed the basis for European fairy tales, and to an extent the art of storytelling itself, with all its requisite elements, to exchanges between the East and the West such as at the great maritime city of Ionia in ancient Greece.

The Kathāsaritsāgara, the “Sea of the Rivers of Story” is probably the greatest anthology of tales of romance, war, intrigue and adventure in the world; its tales and their sub-plots interweave and flow into an immeasurable ocean as rivers do. Compiled by the Śaivite brahmin Somadeva, the court poet of King Anantadeva in 11th century Kashmir to entertain the Queen Sūryavati, it was based on the earlier now-extinct compendium of Guṇādhya called the Bṛhatkathā, and contains more than twenty thousand verses in which it narrates over three hundred and fifty tales. Its tales have permeated the world’s most famed literary works, including the Arabian Nights, Celtic folklore, and the various collections of fairy tales that were popular across medieval Europe. Its influence on the world’s literature is unparalleled, and evident even in much later works such as Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron. The Kathāsaritsāgara has not failed to hold sway over modern writers as well, with its mark clearly seen in contemporary works such as Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories.

The Facetious Nights of Straparola (1550-1555), also known as The Nights of Straparola, is a collection of 75 stories by Italian fairy-tale collector Giovanni Francesco Straparola. Modeled after Boccaccio’s Decameron which was directly inspired by stories from the Vetālapañcaviṃśati; it is significant as often being called the first European storybook to contain fairytales, and would later influence fairy tale authors like Charles Perrault and Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm.

The Pañcatantra

Who is not made a better man
By contact with a noble friend?
A water-drop on lotus-leaves
Assumes the splendor of a pearl

— Pañcatantra iii. 61

Franklin Edgerton, in his Panchatantra Reconstructed wrote that “No other work of Hindu literature has played so important a part in the literature of the world as the Sanskrit story-collection called the Pañcatantra. Indeed, the statement has been made that no book except the Bible has enjoyed such an extensive circulation in the world as a whole. This may be — I think it probably is — an exaggeration. Yet perhaps it is easier to underestimate than to overestimate the spread of the Pañcatantra.” Professor Johannes Hertel, in his Das Pañcatantra estimated the existence of over two hundred different versions of the text, over three-fourths of these in non-Indian languages.

The Persian physician Burzōē (6th century) is credited with first translating Viṣṇu Śarmā’s Pañcatantra from Sanskrit into Middle Persian (Pahlavi), which is now lost. His Persian text was then translated into Arabic by Ibn al-Muqaffa (d. 755-756) in the early 8th century, retitled Kalīla wa-Dimna; and significantly influenced Arabic literature in the following centuries. It is recounted that the Persian king Khusraw Anūshirawān (r. 531–79) had heard of a fabulous collection of tales in India and assigned Burzōē with the task of acquiring and translating. There are many accounts of Burzōē’s travels to India in search of these marvelous tales. In one of them, he was in pursuit of medicinal herbs that grew in the mountains which, when properly prepared, were said to be capable of reviving the dead. Burzōē fails to obtain the plant despite many attempts. He then chances upon a group of Indian sages, who explain that this legend was but an allegory — the mountains are wise men, the herbs their books, and the dead the ignorant of the earth. Satisfied with this explanation, Burzōē returns to Persia and presents a large number of books he had translated to King Khusraw. In another version, Burzōē, after his voyage to India on his spiritual quest, renounces the world and becomes an ascetic.

The Arabic version was translated into Syriac in the 10th-11th century and into Greek in the 11th century. From the Greek it was adapted into Latin, German, French (La Fontaine’s Fables), Old Slavonic, Persian, Spanish and Hebrew in the subsequent centuries. This Latin rendering, done by John of Capua sometime between 1263 – 1278 was the first version of the Pañcatantra to be printed, and became popular throughout medieval Europe. It was translated into Italian by Doni and printed in 1552, and Doni’ s version was then translated into English by Sir Thomas North in 1570 under the title “The Moral Philosophie of Doni”. It was a text that permeated the globe, from Java to Iceland.

Franklin Edgerton in his work (cited above) traced several individual Pañcatantra stories that found their way, often transmuted, into western folk traditions. One notable example is the popular story of the Brahmin, mongoose, and snake (from Book V), whose characters came to be transformed into a knight, a dog, and a wolf in a Welsh folk tale, specifically of Prince Llewellyn and his dog Gelert as told in William R. Spencer’s ballad ‘Beth-Gellert.’

In 16th century Europe, the Pañcatantra was better known as its translated version, The Fables of Pilpay. Perhaps a corruption of the Sanskrit name Vidyāpati, ‘Lord of Learning’ or of the common brāhmin title Vājapayī. Voltaire is said to have remarked that “when we reflect that almost the entire earth has been infatuated with such tales, and that they have educated the human race, we find the fables of Pilpay, Lokman, and Aesop very reasonable.”

According to Patrick Olivelle, the Pañcatantra, regarded as a nītiśāstra in India, is not a mere book of fables but teaches political theory and strategy through anthropomorphic animal characters, carrying messages of statecraft, governance, legal disputes, politics and knowledge of human behavior and societal structures.  Its stories depict the nature of human life with all its ambivalences and contradictions, and as Olivelle says, “that is its beauty and the reason for its popularity”. According to Hertel, the text has a simple but powerful philosophy and teaches a ‘Machiavellian’ doctrine of deceit, cheating, and ruthlessness to achieve political aims.

The Pañcatantra and Jātaka Tales are also some of the world’s earliest texts to use anthropomorphism as a literary device, which is so pervasive in modern literature and media that it is scarcely given a second thought. However, speaking animals first appear even earlier, in some of India’s most ancient texts, such as the Chāndogya Upaniṣad which opens with a man overhearing a pair of geese talking to each other as they fly over him. J. R. R. Tolkien, whose Lord of the Rings contains a myriad of talking creatures, saw anthropomorphism as closely linked to the emergence of human language and myth: “…The first men to talk of ‘trees and stars’ saw things very differently. To them, the world was alive with mythological beings… To them the whole of creation was ‘myth-woven and elf-patterned’.

The influence of Indian stories and storytelling, masterful narrative techniques, allegories, literary devices and other creative elements, apart from its religion, culture and philosophy in themselves, on both local and the world’s written and oral literature is ubiquitous. India’s rich repository of folk and classical arts have always and will forever embody its timeless stories in one form or another.

By Sai Priya Chodavarapu
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