The Hitopadesa

When it comes to Hindu works of political theory and political statecraft, it can be found in the various treatises throughout Hindu religious literature. Most of these treatises and stories are too difficult to be digested by the masses, especially if look back to times around the 8th century. There are two works of literature that allow for ease of consumption of these ideas. They are the Pancatantra and the Hitopadesa. The Pancatantra is the older of the two dating to around the 3rd century CE, but this is inconclusive as the stories presented are seemingly much older and this is possibly the first instance of them being written down. The Hitopadesa, on the other hand, does not come into existence until between the 8th and 12th century. The Hitopadesa was written by someone named Narayana and it was meant to teach young princes statecraft. This collection of fables sets to explain political statecraft by utilising animal tales. The collection itself is split into four sections, the acquisition of friends, the separation of friends, war, and peace. (Pinncott 1). The way the stories are told within the Hitopadesa is an old sage telling different stories of animal interaction to four young princes. In this way of storytelling, the Hitopadesa shares a lot of similarities with other fable collections, such as Aesop’s Fables. Also, it is considered to be what inspired the fables we see in collections like Aesop’s Fables (Srinivasan 70).

If we look at each of the sections that the Hitopadesa is broken into, we start to notice repeated themes, for example, choose your friends wisely. Each of these themes is easily explained through the stories presented in each section of the Hitopadesa. In the first section of the Hitopadesa, which is referred to as the acquisition of friends, there is a story of a vulture, a cat, and some birds. In this story, the vulture lives in a great tree with the birds and one day a cat approaches the tree and the birds wake the sleeping vulture to deal with the cat. The cat using honeyed words convinced the vulture to allow him to stay within the tree. As the days passed, the cat proceeded to eat the young birds without the vulture ever taking notice. The birds noticed that their young were slowly starting to disappear and they decided to investigate. The cat caught wind of this and snuck its way out of the tree without any notice. Upon discovering the remains of their young ones in the vultures hollow the birds proceeded to peck the vulture to death because they believed that the vulture was the one responsible for this (Pinncott 12-14). There are a few morals to this story, one of which is that one should never treat someone you hardly know as a friend, this is because one can never fully trust anyone upon their first meeting. Another moral that can be taken from this story is that one should trust their instincts. At first, the vulture did not want to take the cat into its hollow because it knew that the cat was a malicious being but because of the cat’s honeyed words the vulture was persuaded and that eventually led to its demise. This story is one of many that take place in the first section of this collection that deal with how to acquire the right friends.

Another story in this first part of the collection that deals with how to choose the right friends is about a deer, a jackal, and a crow. In this story, the jackal approaches the deer with intent to feast on its flesh and asks to be the deer’s friend, the deer accepts. When they return to the deer’s hovel, they are greeted by the deer’s old friend, the crow, who asks why the deer has made friends with the jackal and warns the deer of this decision. Listening to the crow’s advice but not heeding it, the deer continues to be friends with the jackal. The jackal one day convinces the deer to eat from a plentiful field of corn, which the deer does and fattens up. Then one day it becomes caught in a snare set by the farmer of the field. The jackal sees this and decides to wait for the human to return to kill the deer and take some of its flesh, then the jackal will devour what is left behind. Luckily for the deer, the crow comes looking for the deer and finds it caught in the snare and they then proceed to devise and execute a plan that will free the deer and kill the jackal (Pinncott 11-16). The moral of this story is like that of the vulture, the cat, and the birds, that one should never make a friend out of someone you just met and know little about. These two stories, along with the rest of the stories within the first section are highly cynical and seem to eschew the idea that no one is innocent until proven guilty and holds aloft the concept of nature over nurture.

The second section of the Hitopadesa deals with the separation of friends. In this section, there is a story of a washerman’s donkey and dog, in which the house of the washerman is being robbed and the dog refuses to bark to wake the master. The donkey notices this and inquires as to why the dog refused to bark to rouse the master, the dog responds that because the master is neglecting him he will neglect the master. The donkey takes great offence to this and scolds the dog and decides to bray to rouse the master. The donkey accomplishes arousing the master but it also scares away the robber. The master then beats the donkey to death for rousing him for what the master who failed to see the robber saw as nothing (Pinncott 36-37). The moral presented in this story is that it is better to mind one’s own business. This moral is seen in another story about a monkey who perished when it removed a wedge between two beams (Pinncott 36).

Another story in this section deals with monkeys and a bell. In this story, a robber from a certain village steals the temple bell and runs into the forest where he is attacked by a tiger who was curious about the sound. The tiger killed him leaving the bell on the ground. Eventually, a group of monkeys came by and picked up the bell and at night would ring it continuously because they enjoyed the music. When the villagers went in search of the strange bell ringing they found the corpse of the robber and heard the ringing of bells and decided that the forest was haunted by an evil spirit that would kill and then joyously ring a bell. One woman from the village did not believe that this was the case and ventured into the forest, and discover that it was not an evil spirit but a group of monkeys who were ringing the bell. So, with intelligence and courage, she received some gold from the king and used that gold to purchase various fruits and nuts. Then she tricked the monkeys to come down from their trees and eat the food, while they were eating happily the woman retrieved the bell and saved the town from the evil spirit (Pinncott 44). The moral presented in this story is that through intelligence and courage, one can overcome all odds and should not be afraid of small trifles. The morals presented in this section of the Hitopadesa deal with intelligence winning over all else, that one should approach all situations with these abilities least one should end up like the monkey. One should also not interfere with the disputes of another lest they end up like the donkey and one should also have the intelligence and courage to find the truth like the woman and the bell.

The third section of the Hitopadesa deals with war. In this section, there is a story of a herd of elephants whose watering hole has dried up and they fear that they will die of thirst, but they hear of a lake that has yet to dry up in another jungle. It was then decided that the elephants would travel to this lake in this far away jungle as to not perish from thirst. When the herd of elephants saw the lake, they stampeded over to it, crushing hundreds of rabbits under foot. The rabbits who retreated to their king needed a plan that could drive the elephants from their land. So, the rabbit king went to speak with the king of the elephants and unable to reach the king of the elephants the rabbit king decided to climb a nearby hill and proclaimed that he was a messenger sent from the moon god. The rabbit king informed the elephant king that he had angered the moon god by drinking from his sacred lake. This terrified the elephant king so much so that he took his herd and left, leaving the rabbits alone with their lake (Pinncott 60-61). The moral that is presented in this story is that wit can win over might. This moral is an important lesson when it comes to warfare, in that it teaches that any battle can be won with the right strategy.

Another story from this section of the Hitopadesa is about a soldier who offers his services to a king for a hefty sum, the king then decides to pay him for 4 days upfront and observes closely what the man does with the gold. The king finds that the man gave half of the gold to the gods and the Brahmin, a quarter to the poor and less fortunate and kept the last quarter for his own sustenance and pleasure. He did this all while maintaining his position at the gate always unless relieved by royal permission. After a few days, the king received word of weeping coming from the front gate; the king promptly sent the man to investigate and upon approaching what was a weeping woman, he had a vision. In that vision, he learns that the king has but three days to live and to save him, the man must behead his first-born son. The man does this but also takes his own life than his wife proceeds to take hers; the king discovers this and laments offering up his own life to save the three of them. The Goddess appears and lets him know that his sacrifice was not required and she was simply testing him. Upon hearing this, the king asked if the three of them who sacrificed themselves to be revived. Upon their revival, the king asked the man about the source of the weeping and the man replied, that it was just a woman who fled when he approached (Pinncott 72-74). The moral of this story is that the greatest man does not brag about his deeds, but remains quiet and accepts them as a part of himself. This moral also plays nicely with the concept of warfaring in that one who does not boast of his accomplishments will not receive any challenges, and when he is challenged he will have a fortune at his side.

The last section of the Hitopadesa deals with peace. In this section, there is a story of a crane and a crab. In this story, there is a crane that can eat from a pond whenever he needs to but as he grows older, he becomes unable to catch the fish of the pond and begins to starve. The crane then devises a plan to make it seem like the pond is drying up and that he knows of another pond that is further away that is safe. The crane then offers to carry the residences of the lake to the pond but because he is old, he must rest between voyages. On the first voyage, he takes some fish but instead of heading to the pond, he heads to a nearby hill and eats the fish, the crane repeats this for a while until he regains his strength back. One day, a crab wishes to be carried to the pond and the crane becomes excited thinking he can try some new food takes the crab. During the voyage, the crab asks the crane if they are about to reach the pond, but the crane simply replies that he will eat him and that there is no pond. Angered by this, the crab promptly grabs the cranes neck and breaks it, killing the crane. The crab returns to the pond and tells the pond of what was transpiring (Pinncott 84-85). The moral of this story is that greed in excess is harmful. This moral can be used when bartering for peace because sometimes if you are bartering for peace and you have the most to gain from the peace deal, you must not be too greedy because you might also have the most to lose.

The Hitopadesa is one of the most translated works of Hindu literature and is still extremely relevant today. The lessons and teachings held within the Hitopadesa are easily applied to contemporary problems that youth or people, in general, can use. Like the European collection of fables called Aesop’s fables, the Hitopadesa is used to teach Sanskrit literature and writing to young Hindus learning their first language or for a student who seeks to learn Sanskrit, it is an excellent starting point (Pincott iii).

References and Further Recommended Reading

Pincott, Frederic and Francis Johnson (2004) Hitopadesa: A New Literal Translation from the Sanskrit text of F. Johnson for the use of students. New Delhi: Cosmo Publication.

Srinivasian, R. (1995) “When Beasts Teach Humans-Political Wisdom.” New Quest: 69-80. Accessed February 26, 2017.

Shanbhag, D.N. (1974) “Two Conclusion from the Hitopadesa: A Reappraisal” Journal of the Karnatak University: 24-29. Accessed March 30, 2017.

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Article was written by Kurtis Verrier (February 2017) who is solely responsible for its content.