Shonaleeka Kaul’s recent, and very readable, translation of the Hitopadesha is a timely addition to this Sanskrit classic’s long and prolific history. The 10th century CE compilation of fablesque animal tales by Narayana was one of the most translated Indian texts in bygone eras from the Mughal to the British. In the British era, it also enjoyed international fame, with iterations in French, German, Dutch, Greek, Russian, Spanish, Newari, Thai, Malay, Persian, and Sinhala.
However, in modern times, this delightful assemblage of stories, full of wisdom and wit, began to lose its appeal, especially for those readers whose preferred language was English. One reason for this dwindling readership was a paucity of new English translations. Most of the earlier ones were done in the 19th or early 20th century, and they have become too outmoded to engage the modern reader. There have been a few more English versions, but the last of these, too, was about two decades ago. Kaul’s fresh English translation amply compensates for the hiatus.
Hitopadesha is a timeless book, as relevant today as it was a millennium or three centuries ago when it was hailed as an exemplary text of both the Sanskrit language and advice literature, and was the subject of translations and scholarly analyses across the world.
However, as Kaul says: “This is contrary to the fairly widespread misconception today that Sanskrit literature is archaic and far removed from modern sensibilities or contexts.”
She rectifies this misconception by sprucing up the stories in a language that is “easy and idiomatic” and with frames of reference that are very modern. Hence, her narration rekindles in the stories a currency that is banked in them. This translation, in fact, comfortably bridges the spaces between Sanskrit and English and the antiquated and the modern.
In giving the text a more modern rendition, Kaul does not forgo its cultural connotations, an essential element that is lacking in many English translations. She is a scholar of history and Sanskritic culture, and her translation clearly reflects her expertise. For instance, she purposefully uses the Sanskrit names of the characters, which, for any serious translator of the Hitopadesha (or the Panchatantra), is a deliberate and calculated choice. These names play a very significant role in the stories because they are nuanced reflections of a character’s particular characteristics and behaviour.
However, the Sanskrit names often pose a challenge of both pronunciation and meaning that can hamper the flow of the narrative. Therefore, many translators choose to either translate the word literally or coin a more creative name based on the character’s demonstrated nature.
But, in doing so, they forgo not only the insight about the character but also the cultural connections that the name encapsulates. For instance, in Book One, “Winning of Friends”, one of the key characters is a crow named Laghupatnaka.
In many English translations, he is simply called Quickflight, which is a literal translation of the Sanskrit word. However, the word has many layers of meaning which add to the character’s portrayal. Etymologically, it also means prompt and nimble. Additionally, in Hindu tradition, it is a reference to a male crow, a bird that is considered wise and with the ability for quick thinking.
All of these elements together define the Laghupatnaka of the Hitopadesha. His quick thinking often saves his friends; his ready wisdom gives them confidence and strengthens their bonds of friendship; and his promptness and quick flight prove useful for his friends in many dangerous situations.
Therefore, calling him by just the literal meaning of his name reduces him to being no more than a fast-flying bird, whereas the Sanskrit appellation makes him a worthy member of his circle of friends.
Sometimes, these names even add to the subtle irony that is woven into the tales, which a literal translation does not elucidate. Thus, by keeping the Sanskrit names of the characters, as well as of the cities and locales, Kaul not only maintains the book’s uterine connection to its cultural contexts, but she is also able to incorporate the tongue-in-cheek humour that is generated through them.
And to facilitate a modern reader’s easy access, she includes the meaning of these words in the story. However, these meanings are not consistently provided throughout the book; some names are explained, others are not.
The Hitopadesha uses the story-within-a-story technique, a literary device that was commonly employed in classical Indian texts such as the Mahabharata and the Panchatantra. Also, just as in the latter work, from which the Hitopadesha borrows about three-quarters of its content, its stories have a multilayered emboxment; in other words, one story contains another, which contains yet another, and so on, until the narrative returns to the original tale.
Additionally, the Hitopadesha employs a genre called champu-kavya that was popular at the time of the text’s composition. This style of writing is a combination of prose and verse in which most of the verse consists of aphorisms, adages, axioms, and practical advice, and, sometimes, even the emotions of the characters, while the story and the dialogue are written in prose.
Of verse and prose
The beauty of this kavya is that it amalgamates verse and prose in such a way that one enhances the other, and together, they advance the narrative. Therefore, any good translator attempting to replicate this style must weld the two adeptly so that the flow of the tale is continuous and unhampered.
Kaul’s writing is commendable in that it creates a seamlessness that makes the reader forget that she is transitioning from prose to verse and vice-versa. In her own modest words: “It is rather an idiomatic translation, in simple narrative prose and free verse that prioritises ease and flow of reading without allowing the awkwardness, stiffness, and obscurity of form that sometimes must accompany verbatim renditions.”
Her “simple narrative prose” is actually quite eloquent and her free verse is poetic without the use of intricate word play. Here is an example of a prose piece flowing into an adage in verse:
“ In any case, it is only people of low intellect who sometimes have no doubts at all and at other times, doubt everything and everyone.
Once bitten, twice shy.
A person once cheated in this world
begins to doubt even the good.
Like the swan who mistakes the reflection of stars in the pond for lotus stalks
and so abjures the white lotus stalk even during the day,
suspecting them to be the reflection of stars again…”
(Book 4, Thirteenth Story)
The Hitopadesha is a collection of animal stories that appear deceptively simple in their delineation of good and bad, and right and wrong. In actuality, these narratives are not concerned with morality; they are a pithy exploration of human behaviour, social norms, and customary laws.
Also, although the main characters in most of the stories are animals, their psyches, their daily concerns, their relationships, their joys and sorrows, their ambitions and societal constraints, their desires and needs, and their emotive responses are all very human.
To ensure that the reader relates to this humanness in the characters, a translator needs to thoroughly understand the text’s undergirding of the human experience. Kaul comprehends this and much more.
Also worthy of note is her appreciation of the complexity of male-female relationships in the text. In the tales of the Hitopadesha, the portrayal of women, at first glance, appears to be misogynistic.
However, when perceived through Kaul’s understanding, the characters take the shape of female agency, sometimes even suggestive of satire about how society absolves men and denigrates women.
Here, for example, is a verse from Book 2, “Losing Friends”, that provides a description of women. On the surface, it appears to be a mockery of a woman’s ambition and desire, but in Kaul’s rendition the evidence of female agency is unmistakable.
Women have twice the appetite of men
four times their brains
six times their courage
and eight times their libido!
In her introduction to the book, she proposes a new “descriptor” of this ancient Sanskrit classic. She calls it the “antinomian didactic” because its “socio-religious satire is […] underwritten […] by an important practical observation about life”.
Thus, this translation, while remaining true to the shastric tradition of the original text, attests to its vibrant practicality and realism. The Hitopadesha is, at its core, a book of practical advice about how to live a happy and fulfilled life. Kaul’s new English translation succeeds in capturing that essence in every way.
Meena Arora Nayak is a writer and scholar of Hindu mythology. Her most recent book is Adbhut: Marvellous Creatures of Indian Myth and Folklore .