Fables in the Indian Narrative Tradition

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Fables in the Indian Narrative Tradition
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The fable is the most metaphorical of all narrative genres. The Indian fable, being both realistic and other-worldly, is recognised as a wonderful integration of the aesthetic and the discursive. Imitating the habits, chores, beliefs of the Indian culture, it is the dominant form in texts like the Pancatantra, the Jatakas, and the Hitopadea. It is included at different places in the long narratives of the Mahabharata and the Yogavasistha, and is disseminated in the form of the various folktales of India. This volume explores the unique tradition of Indian fables to present a theoretical understanding and critical analysis of the various aspects of the Indian fable.

The work studies the Indian fables spread across various compositions in the context of the dominant discourses of the narratives, their form aid structure and their continuing relevance. It develops an overall understanding of the Indian fables, their philosophy, mutual relationships, proliferation and textual scholarship. It also establishes the chronological development of the fables, right from the earliest utterances found in the Vedas to the epics, the Pancatantra and Buddhist texts. It emphasises the significance of the Indian fable as a discourse, often the narrative becoming subservient to the fable’s discursive function.

This interesting study will prove useful to scholars and students of Indology, particularly those concerned with Indian culture and literary tradition, as well as general readers interested in fables and stories of the Indian tradition.

Dhananjay Singh, an academic, translator, and a poet, he is Assistant Professor at the Centre for English Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University New Delhi, teaching courses and supervising research on Indian Aesthetics, comparative aesthetics, philosophy of language, poetry, and Irish literature. Dr Singh is also Assistant Editor, Encyclopedia of Indian Poetics, a project of Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi, sponsored by UNESCO, and Member, Editorial Board, Encyclopaedia of Hinduism, Rupa, 2010-12.

His work in translation studies includes the chapters he wrote in Creative Writing and Translation Studies I, Creative Writing and Translation Studies II, textbooks published by the Central Board of Secondary Education for class Xl and XII in 2007-2008. He has contributed various articles in the areas of Indian aesthetics, philosophy of language, comparative poetics, and Indian literature. His poems have been published in South Asian Ensemble: A Canadian Quarterly of Arts, Literature and Culture of and for South Asian Diaspora, and Muse India.


THE fable is the most metaphorical of all narrative genres. Its conception is governed by the compulsive need to establish a point or to make forceful a line of thinking. The Indian fable is a wonderful integration of the aesthetic and the discursive. It is both other-worldly and realistic. It is ideological. The Indian fable represents a major stream in the Indian narrative tradition. It imitates the social, political, religious, and moral systems of ancient India. It imitates the habits and chores, beliefs and realities of the Indian culture. While it is the dominant form in texts like the Pancatantra, its inclusion at different places in the non-fable long narratives like the Mahabharata and the Yogavasistha is no less significant. In texts like the Jatakas, the fables occupy greater space than the non- fable narratives.

Each fable is a world in itself. The textual history of the Pancatantra is itself no less interesting a narrative. Each fable has a history of conceptualisation and growth. But subsequent to their first enunciation, they become absorbed in the folk, because oral transmission has been the primary mode of narrative performance in India. Once they become part of the folk repertoire, the narratives share a common textual space; there are intertextual connections. A narrative like the one about the Monkey and Crocodile is found in the Jatakas as well as the Pancatantra. But this does not mean they are the same. Each narrative is determined by the overall discursive system of the composition it is part of. For example, once the Jataka fable enters the narrative space of the Pancatantra, its discursivity changes immensely. Not only its discussivity but also its form undergoes a major alteration.

The Pancatantra is governed by the discourses enumerated in Natyasastra. The Jataka, on the other hand, foregrounds the religious and ethical agenda that originates from the Buddhist idea/ideal of the bodhisattva. The Mahabharata, especially the small narratives, posits a political philosophy. Therefore, the fables contained in these compositions endorse the dominant ideology of the composition as a whole.

Indeed, the fables form a unique tradition. From the Jatakas to the modern folk tale, from about 300 BCE to contemporary India, the texts continue to be shared, however not without the changes brought in by the social and cultural life of the specific times. The form has been exploited as a major narrative mode of knowledge dispersion. Evidently, 300 BCE was the time when the fable had become very popular in India. The inscriptions on the reliefs of Bharhut speak for the wide popularity of the Jataka fables. It was around this time that fables from the Jataka started to influence other fables like those in the Pancatantra. From the Jataka to the Pancatantra and Mahabharata, and from Hitopa4ea to the regional folk tales of India, the tradition still thrives.

The present work was originally submitted for the award of the degree of doctor of philosophy to the Centre for English Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, under the supervision of Professor Kapil Kapoor and Professor Santosh K. Sareen. It attempts a theoretical understanding and critical analysis of the various aspects of the classical Indian fable. The objective is to develop a conceptual frame for the Indian fables spread across various compositions. The narratives have been thoroughly studied in the context of their dominant discourses, their form and structure, and their continuing relevance seen in terms of the contemporary theory of narrative and discourse.

The work develops an overall understanding of the Indian fables, their genesis, their philosophy, their mutual relationships, their proliferation, their textual scholarship, and the like. There is an attempt made to establish the chronological development of the fable, right from the earliest fabular utterances found in the Vedas. Though the Mahabharata, as far as the epic proper is concerned, precedes all the other fable- compositions, the fables themselves were a later inclusion in the epic. And hence, in the study, the Jataka is discussed as the composition, which perhaps gave birth to the idea of the fully developed fable in India. The concept of the bodhisattva and the budhisattva is central to the understanding of the genesis of the Jataka fables.

The Mahabharata fables were inserted in the epic along with the other small narratives, legends, and folk tales. In the course of years of narration, the various narrators like the Sutas and the Bhrgus interpolated the fables along with the numerous other forms of small narratives in the text. However, these narratives have been perfectly placed in the text. Where Bhisma or Vidura or Salya narrates a fable to Yudhisthira or Karna, the greater framework of the epic narrative achieves enhancement of meaning.

Indologists like Theodor Benfey, Johannes Hertel, Franklin Edgerton and Ludwik Sternbach have established through their scholarship of the Pancatantra what great influence this work has had globally. From the earliest versions of this work, the Persian version and the Tantrakhyayika to the English and French adaptations, the fables of the Pancatantra have been found everywhere. The history of the Pancatantra reveals important facts about how a popular text might grow over a period of time. The Hitopadesa is a major recension of the Pancatantra. Narayana has not made a blind imitation of the source text, but in his recension is revealed how a text grows cumulatively in the Indian tradition. This is one reason why a text can never become obscure in India; because of its flexibility it remains relevant to each new period.

The most important preoccupation of the study is to analyse the Indian fable as a discourse. The fable-compositions give a clear impression in the beginning itself that they are conceived to serve larger ends. In fact, the narrative is made subservient to its discursive function. The Buddha narrates the fables to put across a particular religious discourse. The bodhisattva represents Buddhist principles like Compassion, Truth, Non- attachment and the like, and on each occasion the fable is committed to endorsing a particular Buddhist ideology. There are discursive passages in the text that are directed at the listeners with a serious intent. The genesis of each fable is determined by the effort of the Buddha to solve a particular problem, a specific ethical question, and throughout its narrativity, the fable is focused on it. The Jatakas, therefore, reveal a connection between ethics and narrative.

The discursive importance of the Pancatantra is equally stressed. The text is, as it were, a compilation of the major texts of the Indian intellectual tradition. Numerous references to the authoritative texts of the different disciplines, Arthasastra, Natyasastra, Dharmasastras, Aramyakas, Upanisads, the Mahabharata, foreground the discursive foundations of the Indian fable. It is amusing to find the Crow quote from Arthasastra, or the Donkey give a lecture on bhavas or the Cat talk about Dharmasastras, but behind the façade of fiction, the discursive texture of the fable is elaborate.

The Pancatantra reveals the different political, legal, and social systems of ancient India, as enumerated in the knowledge texts. It presents situations that validate its dominant discourse of nitti, which is radically opposed to the religious discourse of tolerance, compassion, welfare of all beings, truthfulness and the like found in the Jatakas. The Mahabharata also puts forth a distinct political ideology. The fable of Crow and Swan narrated by Salya or the Jackal and the Tiger narrated by Bhima is committed to endorsing a political thinking. The relationship between the king/state and the subjects is a major issue explored both in the Pancatantra and the Mahabharata.

The ideologies of the Indian fables get expressed through a wonderful sense of form that the narratives adopt. The fable has attained global popularity not only for its content but also for the relationship that exists between the form and the content. The fables are mostly set within a frame- narrative. The frame-narrative, as invented in the Indian fables, became so popular that the writers throughout the world have used it for different narrative genres. The relationship between the frame-narrative and the kernel narrative is explored in this study. The fables grow with a great sense of co-ordination between the narrative units and the discursive units. The story as a narrative and a discourse is discussed with special reference to the Pancatantra, the Jatakas and the Mahabhs7rata. Another formal device invented by the Indian narrative tradition is campu, the mixing of the prose and verse within a single narrative. The Jatakas and the Pancatantra make the best possible use of gathas (verses) in terms of the relations between the narrator and the reader. In gathas, the Buddha speaks directly to his listeners; the fictionality of the narrative is abandoned for that moment in the story when gatha is uttered.

The study brings the Indian fables close to the conceptual frameworks found in the contemporary theory. This exercise is only to explore alternative models of analysis. There is no attempt to say that it is essential to speak of Indian literature in the context of the Western literary theory. However, the Indian fables do encourage a meaningful discussion of such theoretical issues as the author, the text, the story and the narrative, and the like.

This study would not have been possible without the inspiration, instruction, and benevolence of my guru Professor Kapil Kapoor. I will always remain grateful to “sir” for introducing me to Indian aesthetics and Indian literature. I am humbled by his greatness as a teacher and as a human being. I also owe immensely to Professor Santosh K. Sareen for his guidance and support as a supervisor. I would like to express my acknowledgement to JNU Library, Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi, and Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts, New Delhi, for providing the materials needed for my research.

I also owe this work to the support and guidance of my teachers and colleagues at the Centre for English Studies, JNU, Professors Makrand Paranjape, G.J.V. Prasad, Dr Saugata Shaduri, and Dr Navneet Sethi.

To Seema, my wife, and our daughter, I owe all happiness that made this work possible. I wish to express my gratitude to my uncle and aunt, my parents, my brother and sisters, friends, and all my teachers for all that they have done. Finally, I would like to pay my respect to Shri Susheel Mittal and his D.K. Printworld, New Delhi, for accepting to publish this work.


Ever since the first story-telling impulse in Vedas, the narrative as literary form and social practice has best described the — various cultures and traditions of India. As a part of the oral tradition, the narrative developed amidst the Indian people more as performance. Both the stories as well as the occasion of story-telling brought the people together, and so it does now. Different stories are meant for different occasions. Each story was originally performed and received in the oral form, and so, even when they were later written down, like the Jatakas, the relationship between the story, the narrator and the audience, and the occasion of narration has remained an important principle in the organisation of the tales. From the mini narratives in the dialogue-form found in Vedas, and the stories in the Upanisads, the Itihasas, and the Puranas, Kalidasa’s mahakavyas (court epics), the Yogavasista, to the fables of the Jatakas, the Pancatantra (and its various recessions, including the Hitopade4a), the B that katha, and the Kathasaritsagara, the Indian narrative tradition shows a remarkable diversity of form and content, and historico-cultural significance. The Indian narrative has in fact progressed in tandem with the progress of the communities and cultures of India, and vice versa.

Before going to discuss the Indian fable-narratives, which is the subject matter of this work, it would be appropriate to historically trace the development of the Indian narrative traditions, both in terms of form and content. As far as the from of the narratives is concerned, the Indian theorists like Bhamaha (sixth century ce), Bhoja (eleventh century ce) and Visvanatha Kaviraja (fourteenth century ce) have defined the various genres of narrative, along with sub-categories of each genre that might help us to describe the genre of the fable.


  Preface v
  Introduction 1
  1. Fables in India: An Overview 17
  2. Fable as a Discourse in the Indian Narrative Tradition 65
  3. Indian Fables: A Study in Form and Structure 123
  4. Indian Fables: Contemporary Theory 155
  Conclusion 187
  Bibliography 191
  Index 199

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