close logo

The Pancatantra As A Nitishastra


The Pañcatantra does not need an introduction for Indian readers. Most Indians are familiar with its narratives since childhood, having heard it from an elder or having read it in some abridged and lucid form, most commonly in the famous Amar Chitra Katha series. As a result, the Pañcatantra suffers from the problem of atiparicayāt avajñā (familiarity breeds contempt). In the study of the Indian intellectual heritage, it is likely to be dismissed as a collection of children’s tales with a commonsensical moral at the end such as ‘brain is superior to brawn’, ‘silence is golden’, ‘honesty is the best policy’, ‘nothing is impossible for the intelligent’ and so on.

The fact that the Pañcatantra claims itself to be a nītiśāstra ‘political treatise’ does not alter this view because it is precisely such nuggets of worldly wisdom that are held as constituting its nīti (prudence). Moreover, the Pañcatantra itself presents the narratives in a similar form with some practical advice given at the start of the story by one character to another, such as ‘one who meddles in the affairs of another, comes to grief like the monkey who pulled the wedge’. The ‘how was that?’ from the interlocutor provides the cue for the narrator to begin the story. It therefore makes sense that the purpose of a narrative would be simply to illustrate the proverb stated at its beginning.

The narratives in the ‘original’ Sanskrit text are interspersed with copious verses or brief excurses dealing with a range of topics concerned with political science such as the duties of the king and minister, wealth management, fortifications, the six-fold and four-fold policies, the calamities that afflict kingdoms, and so on. These give us the impression that the purpose of the Pañcatantra would be to convey this political knowledge, but because it is so dull and boring, it is taught in the context of stories.


Such was my understanding of the Pañcatantra as a nītiśāstra and it received a rude shock when I read McComas Taylor’s The Fall of the Indigo Jackal. This book consists of an analysis of the Pañcatantra based on post-modern literary theories, with predictable results, namely, that the text promotes caste oppression. Yes, I know that sounds ridiculous but it is a complex issue which I cannot explain within the limits of this essay. For now, I want to concentrate on the fact that Taylor challenged in his book the very identity of the Pañcatantra as a nītiśāstra. Western scholars who have worked on the Pañcatantra, from Benfey to Olivelle, have interpreted its nīti in a variety of ways – as moral, immoral and amoral – but nobody has doubted prior to Taylor that the text was about anything other than nīti.

It is easy to dismiss Taylor as doing a Pollock or a Doniger to the Pañcatantra, and indeed his book reveals his profound admiration for these two personages who adorn the hallowed portals of the Indological branch of Western academia. Rebutting Taylor’s thesis, which is much broader than the mere denial of the status of the Pañcatantra as a nītiśāstra, requires a full-fledged critique and is not the purpose of this essay. What I do want to point out here, however, is the glimmer of sense in the overall nonsense that is contained in his thesis. He argues that ‘the Pañcatantra is a broad collection of generally didactic stories’ and ‘themes of the arthaśāstra/nītiśāstra tradition … form only a small part of the whole.’

This view is not entirely without merit. The Hitopadeśa, a text in the same genre, openly declares at the beginning ‘in the guise of stories, nīti will be explained here.’ It thus appears that the stories were like traps created to lure their young audience, who would then be ambushed with discourses on various topics of political science, in the course of the narration. But did the truant listeners pay attention to them or doze off until the narrator resumed the story?

One cannot be sure if this method of inserting nīti verses within narratives worked as an efficient pedagogical tool though, for if an exposition of the duties of a minister is a tedious read, then it is so whether it is expressed in the form of a lecture by Manu or Cāṇakya, or a dialogue between two jackals. In fact, the former may be preferable, since in that case, one would be undertaking such a study for acquiring this knowledge, while in the latter case, one can just imagine the princes, the alleged audience of these narratives, going: ‘Can we get on with the story, please? I want to know what the jackal did next.’

After all, notwithstanding the multitude of verses encapsulating lessons in political science, the Pañcatantra is not usually read for this kind of knowledge. The Pañcatantra is famous for its narratives – it is the narratives that have been told and retold and handed down from generation to generation – and the question is, bereft of their proverbs, in what sense do the narratives by themselves constitute a nītiśāstra? For Taylor, the narratives by themselves were about social oppression because, in his view, they naturalised distinctions and hierarchy between jātis.


As part of my Honours thesis, I decided to rebut Taylor’s atrocious claims regarding the Pañcatantra. I brought to bear against his allegations all the postmodern artillery I could summon: Orientalist tropes, essentialism, and so on, as well as the disclosure of all his mistranslations, distortions, omissions, misrepresentations, and so on. In the course of my study, however, I felt that I was focusing too much on Taylor’s work and too little on the Pañcatantra itself. I was using Western methods to debunk Western scholarship, but what was I achieving thereby as an Indian? I could make these methods work and build a case that could persuade my Western guides, but frankly they didn’t make any sense to me.

Midway through my study, I adopted a different strategy. I realised that I did not need to dismantle Taylor’s arguments or expose his errors. If Taylor was wrong, as I was sure he was, then it meant that the narratives of the Pañcatantra, by themselves, devoid of their ancillary verses on political science, should constitute a nītiśāstra. If this could be demonstrated, then it would also be true that Taylor’s reading of the Pañcatantra as a medium of social oppression would be entirely his own perspective, the result of his studying the text using the biased lens of Western academia. It is because he could not see the narratives as reflecting the political conditions of ancient India and the ways of participating in it, that he could not assign any effect to them other than as promoting a certain social agenda. The converse is actually more true. It is precisely because contemporary Western literary theories teach scholars to study texts from the point of view of their social effects, to do “good” work by exposing the hegemonic discourse, which regulates the marginalised, oppressed and invisible groups, that these scholars become blind to understanding the text from any other perspective.

My attempt to understand the Pañcatantra narratives as a nītiśāstra led to an epiphany. I realised that the narratives were, indeed, representing political situations and the actions of political agents. The text is a nītiśāstra not on account of some didactic verses conveying political lessons or stories illustrating some prudent advice. It is so because its narratives as a whole embody the political order of its time and bring to fore the complex issues related to it. The ultimate purpose of the text is not to teach children some random principles dealing with political science in a fun and engaging way, but to enliven for the audience a political world and what it means to live in it and what it takes to succeed in it. In the rest of the essay I will elucidate some of the insights that I gained in the course of my research into this wonderful text.


Two kinds of polities are found in ancient India – the monarchy and the gaṇasaṃgha (oligarchy). The monarchy is represented in the Pañcatantra narratives in terms of the lion-king and his retinue consisting of a jackal, a leopard, a crow and so on. They all belong to different jātis (species), but they form a family (kula) with the king as the father or master (kula-svāmin) and the ministers as the sons (mantri-putra or rāja-putra) or servants (bhṛtya). Society in times of the Pañcatantra was (and to some extent even in contemporary India is) based on kinship and everything was modelled along its lines. The gaṇa, on the other hand, is depicted as a mono-jāti kula in which the king and the retinue are members of a common herd. Here, the king is only a first among equals and his authority is easily challenged by his followers.

Thus, the orders of a pigeon-king are easily flouted by his flock and a mouse-king, who loses his powers once his treasury gets confiscated, is promptly deserted by his retainers. However, a jackal cannot even think of abandoning the lion, or challenging his position, even if the latter becomes incapacitated. Unlike the chief of a gaṇa, the power of the monarch is both temporal and symbolic. Yet, the lion is forever suspicious of the jackal and treats him with disdain. The jackal, on the other hand, by his superior intellect wields a strong influence on him. It is a complementary but uneasy relation between de jure and de facto power and often it is not at all clear as to who is controlling whom. The animal narratives of the Pañcatantra can thus be read as describing the internal and external political dynamics of the monarchy and the gaṇas.

The internal dynamics of the monarchical polity, fraught by the tension between king and minister, is further complicated by the entry of an outsider, a representative of the “grass-eating” civilian community, depicted as a bull, a camel or a man, who is unfamiliar or opposed to the “meat-eating” military character of the government run by the lion, the jackal and other carnivores. Having won the lion’s affection, the outsider is granted refuge in the monarchical polity and his counter-influence on the lion pushes over the edge the already frayed relations between the lion and his retinue.

The king as the quintessential kṣatriya was understood in ancient India as sattvopasarjana-rajaḥpradhāna ‘of dominantly rajas (valour) and subordinately sattva (purity) qualities’. In the company of the sāttvika outsider, he is drawn towards the pāramārthika cultivation of the arts, the morals and the higher ends of life. This adversely affects the prosperity of the rājasika insiders, which is dependent on the aggressive and no-nonsense principles of vyavahāra. In Mitrabheda (The Separation of Friends), the first frame-story in the Pañcatantra, the lion is so thoroughly influenced by a bull that he gives up fighting and hunting – to be understood as abandoning war and tax-collection – such that the whole kingdom totters to its doom. In the end, to save the kingdom, the jackal-minister has to break the friendship, leading to the assassination of the bull. The text thus appears to be sending the message that vyavahāra should be governed by the principles of vyavahāra and pāramārthika values have no place in it.

Yet in condemning the actions of the jackal, the text is also urging that in politics one needs to find a balance between power and righteousness. It also makes an appeal for harmony between the groups occupying the two poles of statecraft – the belligerent, close-fisted, realistic and pitiless faction, on the one side, and the peaceable, munificent, idealistic and compassionate mob, on the other, represented in this story by the tropes of meat-eaters and grass-eaters. Hawks versus doves, Right versus Left, conservatives versus liberals, utilitarian realists versus utopian idealists, advocates of development versus champions of environment – the dichotomy takes many forms and pervades all types of government down to this day.

The well-being of the state is perched delicately on a knife’s edge – a bit of excess on either side can bring about its ruin. Bleeding-heart policies lead to bankruptcy, but cold-hearted management causes loss of goodwill. Both are necessary for the state to flourish and so a sensible government must be able to skilfully navigate between these extremes. As the jackal Damanaka, the protagonist of this story, aptly concludes: nṛpanītir anekarūpāḥ ‘state politics takes a variety of forms.’


While Mitrabheda shows that the dispute between people of fundamentally competing political interests can be resolved only by the death of one of the parties, the political theory of ‘natural enmity’ is explained in the second frame-story Mitraprāpti (The Acquisition of Friends). Here, a mouse refuses the proposal of friendship offered by the crow explaining that ‘I am the prey, you are the predator; how is friendship possible between us?’ This dialogue, which includes the significant declaration that prāṇadānaṃ vinā sahajaṃ vairaṃ na yāti kṣayam (without loss of life, natural enmity does not cease), is commonly adduced by scholars to point out, favourably or unfavourably depending on their own political inclinations, that in the view of the Pañcatantra, rivalries between human groups can never cease.

This view is, however, incorrect and it is baffling that these scholars do not notice the irony that in this very story, which elucidates the principle of natural enmity, the prey and the predator end up as the best of friends. The Pañcatantra is a vyāvahārika text and it does not make extreme claims of any kind. It does not say that humans are doomed to endless strife and it does not say that permanent peace is possible. Rather, it invites us to reflect on the fact that while both – the bull and the lion, as well as the mouse and the crow – were related to each other as prey and predator, why did friendship between the former fail and that between the latter succeed?

Natural enmity exists between two parties when one requires for its own survival something from the other without which the other cannot survive. Mitraprāpti teaches us that friendship even between natural enemies is possible in case of the following factors, which are apparent in the example of the mouse and the crow, but missing in case of the bull and the lion:

  1. Political alliance should not be based on a sudden impulse of love, but on cold, calculating logic. Nobody is a predator and prey in an absolute sense. A predator is the prey of some other creature, which makes the prey also a potential ally of the predator. Observing the resourcefulness of the mouse in rescuing his pigeon friends, the crow realised that he could be of assistance in saving himself from his own enemies. And he was upfront about this fact in his negotiation with him.
  2. Both were impressed by the wisdom (buddhi) of the other and this characteristic formed a natural bond between them. It is significant not just because it is a shared feature, but in the view of the text, wise people are trustworthy and humane.
  3. Both realised the limitations of their friendship and were willing to work upon it. The mouse warned the crow that his peers may not appreciate the alliance and would instigate him to violate it. On his part, the crow clarified that in such a case he would give higher priority to their friendship over other associations. He was also sympathetic towards the mouse’s fear of him and was willing to remain outside his fort.
  4. They did not rush into the relationship, but let it mature gradually over sessions of gift-giving, feasting together, exchanging stories, and so on.

Thus, it is not all doom and gloom in the Pañcatantra and the most precarious friendships can succeed in its view, provided sufficient care and caution is exercised by the parties involved.


Gaṇa politics has its own issues. The ones which occur prominently in the Pañcatantra are factional infighting due to bheda (divisiveness) and pramāda (distraction), threat of being swallowed by a monarchy and inter-feuding. The first two issues are neatly sketched in two stories involving frogs and a serpent – the frogs representing the gaṇa and the serpent as the monarch, who seeks to conquer them. In one story, a king-frog in a well, who was driven out by his rival jāti-bāndhavas (kinsmen), returned with a serpent, who killed his enemies as promised, but subsequently devoured his supporters as well, including his family. In the other story, the frogs in a pond were invited by a serpent to hop on his body for a joyride. When the serpent complained that he could not move faster due to lack of food, the king-frog permitted him to eat some of his lowly brethren. Over time the rank of the frogs assigned to be eaten by the serpent increased, till finally the king who was riding on the hood was also devoured.

The point of these stories is that a monarch is helpless for as long as the gaṇa is united and secure in its realm. In the first story, the monarch was granted access into the gaṇa-rājya while in the second one, the gaṇa was lured into entering the monarch’s realm by a distraction. In both cases, although they were members of the same jāti, internal divisiveness led to their conquest by the monarch. This principle that the vulnerability of gaṇas lies in bheda (divisiveness) and pramāda (distraction) has been pointed out by Bhīṣma to Yudhiṣṭhira and it has been beautifully portrayed by these two narratives in the Pañcatantra.


The last narrative we will consider in this essay is the third frame-story Crows and Owls. Each of these avian groups represents a gaṇa and a feud lasting over generations ensues between them after a crow slanders an owl in public. Free speech is today a fundamental right, but the ancients knew just how dangerous it could get. The owl explains its reason for declaring its enmity with the crow: a forest pierced by arrows and hewed by hatchets may grow back again, but what has been cut down by unspeakable (durukta) and offensive (bibhatsa) speech will never recover.

The crows keep suffering defeat in the contest until one of them pretends to be a defector and succeeds in infiltrating among the owls. He discovers their mountain hideout and, with the assistance of the other crows, sets fire to it, roasting all the owls to death. Only one of them escapes that fate – a wise owl called Raktākṣa, who had intuitively seen through the deceit and had advised that the crow be immediately slain: ‘Look at the blazing pyre. Look at my shattered hood. Amity (prīti) once broken and later mended does not flourish by sneha (affection).’

Okay, I said Crows and Owls would be the last narrative in this essay but there is just one more that I would like to tell, since it is one of my favourite. Raktākṣa narrated it to explain the aforementioned point. A brāhmaṇa would offer milk to a serpent in his fields and receive a gold coin in return. Once, when he was away, his son offered the milk and having received the gold coin, thought that he could kill the serpent and acquire all the gold in his possession. So he hit the serpent’s head with a stick and the serpent bit him in return. The boy died on the spot and was cremated by his kinsmen. When the brāhmaṇa returned and learnt what had happened, he bereaved his loss, but realised that the serpent was not at fault and so there was no reason to severe his relations with him. But the next day when he offered the milk, the serpent refused to reconcile and declared instead: ‘Look at the blazing pyre …’

While it made logical sense for the man to set aside the bereavement and make amends to the serpent, considering that the latter was not really at fault, in turning down the rapprochement, the serpent was questioning the potency of the man’s reasoning to undo the blow that had lacerated them both. It was as if he was telling the man: ‘Granted that there exists no rational ground for you to hold a grudge against me, but can you genuinely get over the fact that I killed your son? Am I supposed to just forget that your son tried to kill me? Look at the blazing pyre! Look at my shattered hood! Does this really mean nothing to you? Of what good is all this sneha now? The adoration you show me and the gold coins I offer you will not mean the same any more. They can heal neither your wounds nor mine.’

This pathos and desperation in the serpent’s response should be connected not only with Raktākṣa’s refusal to accommodate the deceitful crow, but also with the despair and anguish he suffered when he observed the rest of the owl clan rushing enthusiastically to embrace and appease the infiltrator. In the absence of any evidence to the contrary, the owls gave their treacherous guest the benefit of the doubt that he may have, indeed, undergone a change of heart and had come around to the view of making peace with them. They thought that by showing him kindness and mercy, they could become friends and include him in their clan.

By narrating the foregoing story Raktākṣa was conveying the message that such a situation was inconceivable. Could the crow possibly forgive the owls for having mercilessly slaughtered his kith and kin over many generations? Could the owls forget the humiliation suffered by their ancestor at the hands of a crow? The mere acknowledgment of the greatness of the owls by the crow and the mere appeasement of the crow by the owls was not going to be adequate to overcome the agony that each had suffered at the hands of the other. Just as in case of the serpent and the man, unless the deep, underlying scars were healed, all the sneha expressed in the exchange of adoration and gold coins was pointless; so the crows and owls shared such a traumatic history that mere external gestures of reconciliation were not sufficient to overcome it and move on. Raktākṣa therefore declared the crow a kaṇṭaka ‘a thorn in the political order’ and he advised the owl-king that asmin hate’yatnād eva rājyam akaṇṭakam bhavato bhavati ‘with him killed, your kingdom would become thorn-free without effort.’ But his advice was rejected and Raktākṣa eventually parted ways with his clan, unable to bear the growing appeasement of the crow any longer and saved himself from the fate, which visited his kinsmen.


I would therefore agree with Taylor that the mere inclusion of verses connected with political science does not make the Pañcatantra a nītiśāstra. The nīti lies in its very narratives and it is the rasa evoked by these narratives that makes the nīti leap out of the text and take hold of the reader. By depicting the humanity of all its characters – heroes and villains, perpetrators and victims – their sufferings and their struggles, the poignancy of surviving and flourishing in a dog-eat-dog world marked by relentless and ruthless conflict, the Pañcatantra conveys its nīti not as a theory, but as a lived experience.

What I have included in the foregoing is a summary of the Honours thesis which I wrote as a critique of Taylor’s interpretation of the Pañcatantra.  However, the insights I gained in the process made me realise that a proper commentary needed to be written on the Pañcatantra which would permit a discussion on each of the narratives in details. Before one could write a critique of a Western interpretation of an Indian text, I thought it was more important to first develop one’s own interpretation of that text and demonstrate how it was superior to the one provided by one’s rival.

The author wishes to share that his commentary on the Pañcatantra is now available in the form of the book Natural Enmity on Amazon and the Indian edition would be released on January 23, 2017.

Image credit: (Евгений Ардаев) 1429 Persian manuscript. Sañjīvaka/Schanzabeh, the innocent bull courtier, is murdered unjustly by King Lion.

(This article was published by IndiaFacts in 2017)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article belong to the author. Indic Today is neither responsible nor liable for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information in the article.

Leave a Reply