EP 014: Sanskrit, Stories and Sages

EP 014: SANSKRIT, STORIES AND SAGES Historycal: Words that Shaped the World

What do you get when you go looking for the herbs of eternal life? Not that. But maybe something better. In this episode, we talk the Panchatantra, some really mean jackals, and how to hang on to your friends. 

Today we’re diving back into the realm of myth, magic, and talking animals, and we’re also taking our first steps into Ancient India and stories set down in in Sanskrit.

I’m going to kick of with a confession here – I grew up in Southern Africa, and one of the groups of indigenous people in this part of the world are the San people. They have a long and very rich history, and I hope we’ll be able to talk about some of that really soon.

But as a youngster, I always misheard and thought the grown up were talking about San Script, which I assumed was the written form of the various San dialects and languages. So you can imagine my surprise the first time someone in a Rom Com got an obscure Sanskrit tattoo after a tricky breakup, and I thought my neck of the woods was far more famous than it actually is.

Of course I was completely wrong. As I’m sure everyone who was listening more carefully to their adults than I clearly was knows, its SANSKRIT, not San Script. Sanskrit is one of the classical languages of South Asia, which basically means that it’s a very old independent language with a huge body of written literature. It’s a quite complicated linguistic category which we won’t go too far into, because I’ll probably get completely lost in the nuances. But the interesting thing about ‘classical languages’ is that most of them are dead. They aren’t spoken anymore, because the language in its spoken form has grown and changed and evolved, usually in a whole host of different directions. There are even some English words with Sanskrit influence which might surprise you – bandana, is one, and candy, crimson, and orange. Even narc falls onto that list – my understanding of that word is another embarrassing story that I’ll save for another time, because I don’t come off particularly cool.

But even though spoken languages have changed and evolved from their Sanskrit roots, there’s an enormous body of ancient literature in the original language. And today we’re going to talk about one particular set of stories from India, which has spread all over the world, and been translated into at least 50 different languages, with at least 200 different versions. This is The Panchatantra. It’s a collection of animal fables in verse and prose, which are all interrelated and interconnected, within an overarching frame story. One really beautiful description I’ve heard of this to think about the stories as Russian Nesting Dolls. So there’s the big story- the outside doll – with all these other stories packed inside it, each one leading to the next.

The surviving copy of the Panchatantra dates back to about 200BCE, but the fables themselves are probably far older, because they’re likely to have been part of a long oral tradition of storytelling. For a while people actually thought that this style of animal fable had originated in India, just because these stories were so old, and seemed to have spread so far. But that had way more to do with the tendency of researchers to get overexcited than anything else. Now, most people think these sorts of fables developed independently, and the ones that really survived the long passage of time were the ones that had some moral ideal that was shared by other communities. There’s a very beautiful Iranian story about how the Panchatantra made it to the Middle East. According to the story, in 550 CE, The king’s physician Borzuy was kicking back, relaxing, and looking over his scrolls for a bit of light reading matter. Whether he got quite what he was looking for or not depends entirely on how you feel about reanimated corpses, but I’d say not. Either way, he found a passage that got him very excited, and he went racing off the king. He’d stumbled across something about a mountain herb, that could be ground down and sprinkled over a corpse, instantly bringing it back to life. If you’re thinking that sounds like something that might drastically improve the quality of your Monday morning – I’m afraid you’ll have to stick to coffee. Borzuy, of course, never finds this miracle cure for hangovers, death, and everything in between, leaving us with very little option but to suck it up.

But he does get permission from the king to go looking for it, which is what leads him to India. He dutifully climbs a likely looking mountain, where he meets a sage. The sage points out – we must hope, kindly – that he’s made a completely pointless journey. No such herb exists in India, or, probably, anywhere else. But the sage does give Borzuy a very poetic bit of advice instead.

The herb, he says, is the scientist. Science is the mountain, which Borzuy has just clambered up, but which is always, eternally out of reach of most of the masses. The corpse is the person without knowledge, who dies if he stays that way, but can be revived through knowledge.

The sage then points to a copy of the Panchatantra and Borzuy spends the rest of his life translating it and spreading it around the Ancient Middle East. The sage breathes a sigh of relief at having pulled off an admittedly laboured metaphor, and the king presumably, finds someone else to deal with the everyday matter of coughs and headaches.

The Panchatantra is split into five subsections, which each have a subtitle and a subtheme. Book 1 deals with the Loss of Friends, and, once you’ve been thoroughly briefed on all the ways you might mess it up, Book 2 jumps into the Winning of friends. Book 3 is on War and Peace, or Owls and Crows, book 4 follows up with how you might lose what you’ve gained, and book 5 completes the cycle with a series of cautionary tales about hasty actions. In self help terms: how to lose a friend, how to make a friend, how to fight with a friend, why not to fight with a friend, and don’t be an idiot.

As we’ve already said, the whole text is a series of interconnected fables, much like Arabian Nights, to give a more recent example. We don’t have time today to tell them all, but we’ll definitely circle back to more of them.

Today we’re going to stick to Book one – the losing of friends – and the story of the Lion King and the Bull. You’ll remember me saying that there are about 200 versions of these stories, in a multitude of languages, and of course, the names of the characters are different in all of them. Rather than undergoing the perilous anthropological task of picking which version and names to use, we’re going to tell it in quite broad strokes and get very generic. Which has the added bonus of giving you some interesting things to google once you get to work.

So, the bull belongs to a merchant. Unfortunately for the bull, the merchant is not a particularly nice dude. He’s on the way to market, and he has his two bulls pulling the cart. On of the bulls starts limping and the merchant does what many not-particularly-nice dudes would do, and abandons him on the side of the road. Once freed from the yoke of animal cruelty, the bull – unsurprisingly – gets better, and starts living his best life in the wild. One day, the King of the Lions is roaming around, doing his thing, possibly singing show tunes with a small and improbably coloured hornbill. He hears the bull shnuffling around, and runs away. Which is fair enough, because lion queens are usually the ones doing the heavy lifting, and there aren’t any around. Unfortunately, there are 2 jackals lurking nearby. Not just any jackals, but ex-ministers in the lion king’s government. They see this unhappy situation for exactly what it is – a chance to get ahead. Actually, to be fair, only one of them takes this line. The other one just sort of goes along with it.

(Sidebar, if you’re sensing any disdain for the integrity of government here, I promise its entirely accidental.)

They introduce the Lion King and the Bull, hoping to curry favour, but all that really happens is that the two big animals become besties, the Bull starts hanging around all the time, and the Lion pretty much adopts vegetarianism.

The jackals can’t have this. They go to the King and tell him that he’s looking a bit peaky, and that they hear the bull is about to turn on him. “Watch out” they say “for the moment when he lowers his horns.”

Of course, they then go to the Bull and repeat the same story. This time its “make sure” they say “to keep your horns lowered.”

You can guess what happens next. The Lion and the Bull meet up for lunch, but they both arrive suspicious, and on edge, and untrusting. All hell breaks loose, and the Bull is killed.

Depending on your mood the moral of the story is obviously don’t listen to idle gossip, don’t let outsiders assail your friendships, or never try to befriend a jackal.

All of which is, so to speak, pretty sage advice.

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