Somewhere in fourth century CE, or even before (the exact date ranges from 1200 BCE to 300 CE), a king in Kashmir was a worried lot. He had three sons who were more of spoilt brats than obedient students. The king shivered at the thought of handing his kingdom to any of these prince as the doom would be evident due to their behaviours. The princes didn't listen to their father and disregarded lessons from their tutors. They couldn't master even elementary education putting their father in a difficult position. The king consulted his wise Wazir who came up with a brilliant idea to control the princes. Other versions cite the Wazir employed a grand old wise man named Vishnu Sharma for the job. He authored a book Panchatantra meaning Five Discourses or Principles, in which he wrote entertaining stories about animals. Perhaps being the earliest form of play way method of teaching, the stories concealed great practical wisdom in the interesting and attention catching form of animal fables. In questions and answers and plots, something clicked with the youngsters.
The effect on princes was magical as according to history within six months they had been reformed to a large extent and later ruled judiciously. The book became talk of the town and soon legends were woven around it. As the news spread to India and other countries, the story of book was corrupted to a magical herb that brings dead to life.
In the year 570 CE, King of Persian Khusroy I (Anoshagruwa or "the immortal") who ruled from 531 to 579 CE heard about the discovery of magical herb somewhere in east of India. He ordered his wazir physician Burzoy or Burzoya (Burzawayh in Arabic) to travel to the kingdom and get the herb that can infuse life into dead body.
"Burzoya searched for the herb everywhere in the subcontinent and ultimately one Kashmiri pandit told him that the herb he was seeking doesn't have magic potion but it is actually a book with wise words for better life and it is in Kashmir," says Marghoob, who is the first person to translate the book in Kashmiri. "Barzuya came to Kashmir to get the book that was kept in king's treasure. After many futile attempts Barzuya bribed his way to treasure with 40 camels of valuables. Still only a single copy of the original was given to him as Kashmiris immensely valued the book."
The shah of Persia was enchanted with the turn of events when Barzuya told him the entire story. He had Barzuya translate it into Pehlavi, a form of Old Persian, and according to modern historians liked it so much that he enshrined the translation in a special room of his palace.
"Three hundred years later, after the Muslim conquest of Persia and the Near East, a Persian convert to Islam named Ibn al-Mukaffa' chanced upon Barzuya's Pehlavi version and translated it into Arabic in a style so lucid that it is still considered a model of Arabic prose," wrote Paul Linda in a 1972 article tracing the history of the book. "Called Kalila and Dimna, after the two jackals who are the main characters, the book was written mainly for the instruction of civil servants. It was so entertaining, however, that it proved popular with all classes, entered the folklore of the Muslim world, and was carried by the Arabs to Spain. There it was translated into Old Spanish in the 13th century. In Italy it was one of the first books to appear after the invention of printing."
Some authors cite the Ibn al-Muqaffa's translation of Panchatantra to around 750 CE. After the Arab invasion of Persia (Iran), Muqaffa's version emerged as the pivotal surviving text that enriched world literature. According to historian Andrew J. Lane, Muqqaffa's work is a model of the finest Arabic prose style and "is considered the first masterpiece of Arabic literary prose."
There is a theory that Muqaffa's translation of the second section, illustrating the Sanskrit principle of Gaining Friends gave birth to Brethren of Purity (Ikwhan al-Safa) — the anonymous 9th century CE encyclopaedists whose prodigious literary effort, Encyclopaedia of the Brethren of Sincerity, codified Indian, Persian and Greek knowledge.
Ironically some scholars suggest the translation by Muqaffa must have paved way for his death as he was killed within few years of completing the book. It was the time in Baghdad when the bloody Abbasid overthrow of the Umayyad dynasty was underway that Muqaffa completed the composition. Francois de Blois' in his Burzōy's voyage to India and the origin of the book Kalīlah wa Dimnah says Ibn al-Muqaffa' inserted other additions and interpretations into his 750 CE "re-telling". The political theorist Jennifer London says that Muqaffa was expressing risky political views in a metaphorical way he could have used his version to make "frank political expression" at the 'Abbasid court.
After Arabs discovered the book, there was no stopping to its fame. It was translated into Greek, and the Greek version was further translated into Latin, Old Church Slavic, German and other languages. The Arabic version was translated into Ethiopic, Syriac, Persian, Turkish, Malay, Javanese, Laotian and Siamese. In 1975 the book was translated into Kashmiri, lingua franca of present Kashmir, thus symbolically completing the circle that had started almost 1,700 years ago in Kashmir.
The fame of Panchatantra is such that it is regarded as one of the most widely translated non-religious books in history. Jean Johnson and Donald James Johnson wrote in their book Human Drama: World History: From 500 to 1450 C.E. that in Baghdad, the translation commissioned by Al-Mansur, the second Abbasid Caliph, became "second only to the Qu'ran in popularity." The book reached Europe in eleventh century and continued its conquest wherever it went. Even on the eastern side, the book reached China to Indonesia. 17th century French fabulist Jean de La Fontaine included at least eleven Panchatantra tales in his work. A German translation, Das Buch der Beispiele, of the Panchatantra was printed in 1483, making this one of the earliest books to be printed by Gutenberg's press after the Bible.
Olivelle states that there are 200 versions of the book in more than 50 languages around the world, in addition to a version in nearly every major language of India.
The book is known by many names like The Fables of Bidpai in various European languages, or The Morall Philosophie of Doni. Tantri Kamandaka, in Indonesia, Nandaka-prakarana in Laos and Nang Tantrai I Thai. The fables of Panchatantra are found in numerous world languages. It is also considered partly the origin of European secondary works, such as folk tale motifs found in Boccaccio, La Fontaine and the works of Grimm Brothers. For a while, this had led to the hypothesis that popular worldwide animal-based fables had origins in India and the Middle East.
Even today the translation of the book and research is ongoing process. One can find its popularity even on social media. There are numerous episodes on youtube in Arabic and other languages narrating the visually appealing stories.
Those who know about the book are attached to it and those who don't know, read majority in Kashmir, feel fascinated on hearing about the same. "I felt so attached while working on the book. Just imagine that it is the Kashmiri book that reached the land of Arabs that too in Arabic version in mere second Hijri," said Marghoob.
The author of the original Panchatantra book is said to be Vishnu Sharma though many term him fictional owing to presence of any independent record about him. But a number of scholars all around the world place the location of origin of Panchatantra in Kashmir based on analysis of various Indian recensions and the geographical features and animals described in the stories.
According to Luis S.R.Vas and Anita Vas in their book, Secrets of Leadership: Insights from the Pancha Tantra, Sharma had to employ a less orthodox way, and that was to tell a succession of animal fables – one weaving into another – that imparted to them the wisdom they required to succeed their father. Thus Panchatantra was composed into an entertaining 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).
The Panchatantra redefines the origin of world folklore. Like the famous story of Who will bell the cat, the main theme actually comes from a Panchatantra story of a mouse named Mahraz who rules over mice in a city where humans breed cats to get rid of mice. Then there is philosophy and words of wisdom underlying the plots that subtly makes children wiser.
The novelist Doris Lessing notes in her introduction to Ramsay Wood's 1980 "retelling" of the first two of the five Panchatantra books, that "… it is safe to say that most people in the West these days will not have heard of it, while they will certainly at the very least have heard of the Upanishads and the Vedas. Until comparatively recently, it was the other way around. Anyone with any claim to a literary education knew that the Fables of Bidpai or the Tales of Kalila and Dimna — these being the most commonly used titles with us — was a great Eastern classic. There were at least twenty English translations in the hundred years before 1888. Pondering on these facts leads to reflection on the fate of books, as chancy and unpredictable as that of people or nations."
The irony is that the most important book, which Kashmir produced is almost unknown to Kashmir, particularly among the younger generation. Even scholars here seem to show no interest in it despite the fact it has been heavily researched all over the world by renowned scholars. "Yes Panchatantra is a great book and translated in almost every major language in the world. There has been a huge research on this book by outsiders but not in Kashmir that I can think of," said Prof Mehraj HoD department of Sanskrit.
Some scholars says that the book being from Kashmir is a myth. "No there is no evidence that book was written in Kashmir. Its author is Vishnu Sharma and he was not a Kashmiri," said Prof Meraj. When asked in which place was Panchantra written, Prof Meraj said it is not known,, "but it surely is not in Kashmir. For the book like Katha Sarit Sagar which is similar in genre, there is definite proof that it is from Kashmir but not Panchatantra."
There are number of manuscripts in Kashmir which are yet to be deciphered and it is time we look for clues, and research into the subject to further enrich the world literature. Though Kashmir University and other bodies could have led the way, but unfortunately that could never happen. Not even a scholarly conference has been organised in this regard.
Jammu Kashmir Academy of Art Culture and Languages, the body entrusted with promotion of literature and art too agrees on the neglect of this book. "Yes, the book has been a phenomenon in the entire world. In comparison to that I agree that we have not done anything substantial," said Dr Aziz Hajini secretary JKAACL. "But we are definitely going to explore the possibility of celebrating this literary masterpiece in the near future."
At a time when education in Kashmir is in crisis, the old wisdom, like Panchatantra, could show the way. Even in today's Arab world children get to see the fabulous stories of Kalila Va Dimna in animation form to imbibe values, whereas in Kashmir students rarely get past the Thirsty Crow.