Monday, March 26, 2012

Tales from the Sanskrit Hitopdesha

Image copyrighted by Recently, I ran across a curious book of fables from India, translated from the original Sanskrit book into English. Tales from Hitopdesha is by Asha Bhalekar and published by Subhash Publishers, Mumbai, India in 1987.

Alternately written in history as Hitopdesa, Hitopdesha, and Hitopdessa in English, this collection of tales is meant to be used as guideposts in daily life, as hita (hee-tuh) means beneficial for welfare and upadesh (oop-deh-sh) means counsel or advice.

The Panchtantra of India is among the most outstanding collections of animal fables existing in the world. Over the centuries, the stories have influenced many different fable collections: Aesop of Greece in Greek, the Arabian Nights from the Middle East in Classical Arabic, Hazār Afsān of Persia in Pahlavi, and Jataka Tales of Buddha in Pali. The Hitopadesha was originally collected by Narayan Pandit under the patronage of King Dhavalachandra in the 12th century, and it follows the pattern of prose, verse, and composition of the Panchatantra.

Image copyrighted by These nested tales-within-tales rip the cover off sneaky, cowardly, and unkind behavior and go straight for the truth as it exists, as is common knowledge, as should be emulated. By giving examples of both good and bad behavior in common human situations and showing the consequences of that good and bad behavior, these tales seek to illuminate and educate the reader. As a 12th century Persian Sufi poet Attār said, "With your whole heart and soul, seek to regain Reality, nay seek Reality within your own heart, for Reality, in truth, is hidden within you." The stories also show that finding clever solutions for problems is something to be admired and desired. For as a 13th century Sufi Persian poet Rumi said, "You have feet; why pretend that you are lame?"

Image copyrighted by The Lake of the Moon God: Once, there was a severe drought in the land, and a herd of elephants traveled far and wide in search of water. Eventually, they found a small lake. Unfortunately, when the elephants went for their daily drink of water, they willy-nilly trampled on many hares who had their homes near the lake. In despair, one wise hare approached the elephant king as an emissary of the Moon God and took the king to the lake to see the reflection of the moon in the water. The ripples on the lake gave the impression that the Moon God was shaking with rage at the wanton destruction of the hares who were his friends. The elephant king repented and took his herd elsewhere to live.

The Hare Who Wasn't Harebrained: A lion was trapped in a cage and was trying unsuccessfully to escape. Seeing a passing holy, but naive, man, he requested to be set free and promised that he wouldn't eat the man as a gesture of goodwill. However, once free, the lion reneged on his word. He gave the man an hour to ask of others whether the lion was justified in his action or being unjust to the man. Everyone the man enquired of, said that there are always injustices in the world, and this one wasn't particularly wrong. However, the hare said that he would have to meet the lion and hear from him the other side of the story, before tendering his verdict. The hare appeared to be constantly puzzled over the details and couldn't seem to follow the sequence of events. So he asked the lion to start from the beginning of the action. When the lion went into the cage to start his story, the hare locked him back in.


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