Swati Raje

Speaking Time and Room No.: 2006-9-23 11:00-12:30 Room II

Speaker: Swati Raje(India)







By : Swati Raje




Friends, I have come from a land where the sun always shines bright.. flowers have a beautiful fragrance… fruits ripe golden and sweet… where nights are clear most of the times… and under the star studded skies, one can just lie down… listening to grandmother’s stories. A beautiful picture of my childhood!

Time is changing now… India is changing. There are not many star studded horizons left for our city dwelling children, and in urban nuclear families, not many grandmothers are seen! Still, we have not cut the chord off stories! Stories may acquire a modern look or a disguise ….. but they still are there with us… woven into our lives! Children still enjoy the Sindbad adventures though they take their vacations on seven-star cruises, they love to fly on the magical carpets… well to Disney land; …. And a genie could still be their playmate who would get them a pizza or a CD that their parents have denied.

The times are really changing. The children have to take special tours to national parks or reserve forests to see animals they had heard about in the stories……. the stories that took place around the tropical jungles of India, thousands of years ago… and still enjoy them with every bit.

Why children; and that too from India? In fact we all; adults all over the world still love those tales which have been fascinating us for centuries together! We owe a lot to those two timeless genres : fantasy and animal fables… Arabian Nights and Panchatantra stand like unshaken rocks in the midst of the rumbling ocean of information and entertainment explosion! We still meet these two classics in one form or the other … may it be ballet, theatre, cartoons, films or cds .

I wish to talk about these two classics on this forum, separately and together.

It is a wonderful journey to explore the interiors of these two fascinating collections. Originated in the eastern part of the world, flourished in the Asian continent, traveled as far as Africa, popularized by European scholars and glamorized by American patrons; the tales truly posses a global dimension!

As we all know, Panchatantra, the Sanskrit tales from India that originated almost two millenniums ago enjoy a special position in world literature. These ethical tales started their “triumphal progress” outside their motherland, before AD 570, initially as a version in Pehlvi, then a Syrian one and after that an Arabic version that cherished this treasure for the future generations, with the title of “Kalilah & Dimnah”. In medieval Europe they became popular as “The tales of Bidpai”. By the18th & 19th century, it was translated all over the world in all major languages: Greek, Latin, German, Spanish, French, English, Armenian, Slavonic, also in Hebrew and Malay.

Why and how did the Panchatantra tales achieve so much of popularity beyond the linguistic and geographical boundaries? What was so special about them?

If you look at the nature of the Panchatantra you won’t be surprised. Basically they were animal tales. Since ancient times, animals were the part and parcel of human civilizations. These animals were the actors in these tales.

Actually, they were not animals but human beings wearing animal masks and that too quite transparent! All animals exhibited human tendencies and behaviour…. Naturally, people were drawn to the tales; no matter what color, country or race they belonged to!

Secondly, the tales were woven in a beautiful chain or a frame within a frame structure, where one story originated from the earlier one. And most importantly, the tales were essentially ethical in nature!

The stories spoke about the ethics of behaviour; very indirectly and subtly but very strongly and influentially affecting a human mind!

No they were not like the mythological tales existent before them; all over world, telling people what to do…. what not to do and establishing the rules and norms of behaviour. Rather, they were the stories of niti, i.e. wise conduct!

A very interesting story lies behind the origin of Panchatantra. In the city of Mahilaroupya, in South India ruled a king, called Amarshakti. He was worried about his three ignorant sons. He was desperately searching for a teacher who would make the ignorant sons wise! After many efforts he came across an eighty year old teacher, named Vishnusharma who accepted the challenge to ‘awaken the prince’s intelligence’ in six months time and the tuitions began!

Vishnusharma, unlike any other teacher, started telling the princes stories. The stories of animals : of lions and jackals, of snakes and pigeons, of oxes and tigers, of elephants and monkeys, and rabbits and even donkeys!..... The animals dwelling in the tropical jungles of India, and seen around in the then civilized world! Each story telling a new aspect of a human behaviour through them .

Gradually, the princes started internalizing the stories which very subtly and indirectly teaching them right from wrong, proper from improper, just from unjust… giving them an insight into the wise conduct….

The stories told in five different parts achieved what formal education could not. By the end of the six months the princes emerged to be the most learned, wise individuals, fit to be kings!

So these stories of wise conduct are “Panch-tantra” i.e. “five technique” tales! The treasure’ the genius Vishnusharma left for the world two millenniums ago.

In the five parts, that is

1. Losing a friend

2. Winning a friend

3. War and peace

4. Loss of gains

5. Rash deeds

we meet innumerable animal tales…… like the monkey and the crocodile; or that of the blue jackal; or of the pigeons who unitedly score over a hunter, picking up the net they are trapped in…

The beauty of these stories lies in telling valuable morals like “wit is stronger than might” or “Unity is strength” or “Silence is Golden” without being preachy .

In very simple words or dialogues, the animal actors in Panchatantra give us guidelines to a better living.. for example, one Jackal tells the other one,

“He who pokes his nose,

Where it does not belong;

Surely meets his end;

For that is what happened to the monkey;

Who meddled with the wedge, my friend!”,

and then starts narrating the story of the monkey…. The beautiful blend of moral and ethical values in form of poetry and prose makes Panchatantra, unique in its structure!

The crafty jackal; the mighty but dimwit lion, stupid heron and hypocrite cat…… all these animals have made these “tales for ethics” timeless. And the small pieces of advice; like

“A trouble to acquire;

a trouble of protect;

a trouble if it is lost;

a trouble if it is spent;

money is nothing but trouble;

Alas! From beginning to end!”



A friend in need;

is a friend indeed!

Although a different caste;

The whole world is your eager friend

as long as riches last!

have made these tales immortal. Imparting the “Mantra” or the secret of survival in this world; Panchatantra has achieved enormous following……. Aesop’s Fables, The Gesta Romanorum, Boccacio’s Decamaron, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, The Fables of La Fontaine; some stories of Grim and the Br’er Rabbit Stories owe a lot to the tales of Bidpai or Panchatantra. While Panchantantra tales have acquired the eminent place in the souls of people all over the world, no other eastern stories found to be so popular, except ‘The Arabian Nights.’

The tales of mystery, magic and miracles; The Arabian Nights have survived the web of time, successfully…. So much so; that the King of the Cartoon World Walt Disney, could not ignore the popularity of Arabian Nights ; neither could the much discussed 21st century phenomenon Harry Potter shrug the impact of Arabian Nights off its shoulders!

However, these tales of fantasy; as much eastern as Panchatantra; possessing, the same structure of frame within a frame, were completely different from it.

The stories of genies and fairies of princes and princesses, magical lamps and flying carpets, hidden treasures and adventurous voyages had ‘ entertainment’ at their soul!

The tales on one hand fascinating young minds of children and capturing hearts of adults on the other; hardly had anything to do with ethics. Neither was it originated for teaching ethics to children or young adults! Infact, the story of the birth of Arabian Nights though very interesting had hardly to do anything with children, moreover it was positively beyond children’s comprehension.

One king Shahryar, from the middle-eastern countries is on the spree of killing his newly wed wife everyday, before she could see the sunrise, after losing her virginity by the king. So the Vazir’s daughter Shahrazad takes up a challenge and marries the king. That very night she starts narrating a tale interesting enough to capture the king’s attention to it and very smartly she stops on the verge of dawn on a very interesting, and curious turn, where the Khalifa would not resist the temptation to listen to the full story. So Shahrazad gets a life for one more night. And on that night, the same pattern follows.. opening a new story from the previous.. giving birth to a new one, without concluding the current tale… each and every night.. for 1001 nights!

As you praise the wit of Shahrazad to trick the Khalifah, the king; the inner lining of violence can not go unnoticed. If you look at the birth tale carefully, you can see Shahrazad dreadful run to escape the death for a few more moments.. her desperate struggle to avoid the massacre that’s going to take place if she stops even for a moment…. One can not forget that the pathetic struggle of a young girl for survival is the cause of the stories we enjoy today; as adventurous and entertaining, mysterious and miraculous and full of fantasies!

The violence is seen spilled all over the “Nights”. The protagonists do not think twice to kill anyone - including his own wife; most of the times for not being faithful to him. So along with violence, infidelity is seen almost everywhere in the “Nights”. If one refers to the translation by Richard Burton in 1886; one can find the stories completely studded with juicy descriptions of violence and sex!

Many of the tales possess the element we would say unethical for children as well as for adults.

Pornographic descriptions are detailed and ample. The references of concubines and harems and slaves peep in occasionally. Also racial references occur sporadically. Sometimes, the bad genies and slaves are shown coloured. White translators are criticized for these racial references, and it was said that those references were inserted afterwards at the time of translations.

Male chauvinism is bluntly exhibited. The power of the kings and other rulers seems to be frightening. One of the critics has pointed out that there is not the least suggestion of democratic representation in the tales of the Nights.

With all these and many more negative unethical elements, Arabian Nights or Alf Laylah Wa Laylah acquired the place of a classic, remained a classic! For centuries together they are told and retold in various forms. Many adaptations and translations have been done by European Scholars like Galland, Richard Burton, and John Payne. Essentially as adult material , these stories are said to have originated on the famous Silk Route.. woven by the eastern traders travelling to different countries with silk, spices, paper, pearls and perfumes.. The tales told at night under the clear Asian skies…sharing excerpts from the journey of life,.. thinking of home far away… giving vent to the sexual urges…. speaking out about the oppression of autocratic rulers ..weaving these experiences into fantasies…… dreaming about the escapes through magical carpets… These WERE essentially adult stories. Richard Burton’s translation achieved the record sale next only to the Bible ! It was an instantaneous hit. Sex, Romance, Violence, Pornography, and Adventure created the sensation in the western world. Originated by adults, translated and circulated by adults, essentially for adults !

Still it has acquired its place in the classics not because of the adrenaline pumping violence; not for the most desired drive of sex. It thrived as a children’s classic. Because Arabian Nights shed all the unethical adult elements in the course of time, it survived in the hearts of children, for the magic of lamps.. the miracles of genies…the bravery of Morgiana… the persistence of Alaeddin…. and the adventures of Sindbad ….

The references of violence in these tales in the children’s versions are diluted but are still unethical, for example,. Morgiana, pouring oil on forty thieves and killing them, or stabbing the chief of thieves while dancing.. However they are not registered by children with that dreadful intensity, because the ethical or moral value of the ultimate triumph of good over evil wipes away all those unethical references from young minds!

One might wonder, why the Arabian Nights and Panchatantra be discussed now , once they have proven their existence as classics?

Because I feel viewing them in a contemporary light is very important in today’s world.

Vishnusharma proven technique of awakening young minds will not be in vain even if applied to today’s over exposed diffused young minds… to teach them right from wrong…. proper from improper.. and just from unjust.

Children today are losing out on sensitivities and sensibilities. The need to impart the value of friendship, respect, family ties, relationships , harmony…. and importance of peaceful co-existence is felt like never before. Tales of Panchatantra are needed to impart those values in today’s young adults; though in a contemporary disguise!

Arabian nights on the other hand, speak about adventure, mysteries, magic and of course provide wonderful entertainment; however a lot is ignored. Most of the stories teach about the manners and methods and ethics of survival in a complex, difficult world under a tyrant ruler! In today’s world of unrest, unpredictability and with terrorism at your doorstep; our children need some tales like the Nights, which would give them moral support and solace.

Through these tales, a belief in life and optimism could be strengthened. The tales can assure our young frightened souls that there still is a lot of hope!

Do these tales impart any ethical values for adults? For that we have to read between the lines of the text ..

These tales travelled far off… The travellers on the silk route from China to the middle-east via the Indian subcontinent spun the stories ….. irrespective of their regional identity, geographical locations and political boundaries. They shared their joys and sorrows with the people in far off lands.

They all sang songs of humanity. This was the first step towards globalization. They achieved it before us… much before our glorious telecommunication revolution.

The revolution was started by Panchatantra and the spirit of it was cherished and spread by The Arabian Nights in the hearts , minds and souls of the people.

They have brought the world together by stories.. humane stories !

Friends; its far more important and essential to cherish the Silk Route they spun, centuries ago to make a better world for our children… their children , and their children !



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Swati Raje


27/12 , Sagar Society

Pune - Mumbai Road

Behind Jog centre




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