Do our sacred books teach us fatalism?: From the window of Panchatantra

pancha4Revisiting Panchatantra as a grown-up is interesting. Growing up with stories from Panchatantra is probably a part of every child’s life in India (I guess), but the stories are meant more for adults.

I am reading the parallel translation of Panchatantra these days. In it, each Shlok (verse) appears with translation and a commentary. I have one version in Hindi and another in my mother tongue, Gujarati. There are so many versions of Panchatantra that variation in the number and sequence of shloks is not surprising.

Remember the story of the two cunning foxes who influence the lion by befriending (and then sacrificing) the ox? (You guessed it right: the story appears in the first collection “Making friends” – or Mitrasamprapti – which illustrates networking)

One shlok in it appears as follows (loosely translated in English by yours faithfully):

उद्योगिनं सततं समैति लक्ष्मी-

र्दैवं हि दैवमितिकापुरुषा वदन्ति

दैवम् निहत्यकुरु पौरुषम् आत्मशक्त्या

यत्नेकृते यदि न सिध्यति कोSत्र दोष: ||

(Prosperity constantly finds the industrious. “It’s the fate all the way!”, say the questionable men. Do what effort is possible in the face of fate. If you fail after all your effort, it is no fault of yours.)

Fear, the immediate reaction to fate should be countered by patience:

त्याज्यं न धैर्यं विधुरेSपि दैवे


याते समुद्रेSपि हि् पोतभंगे

सांयात्रिको वान्छति कर्म एव ॥

(Patience should not be lost when fate is adverse, since patience might help keep stability. In case of a shipwreck at mid-sea, the travelers just want action.)

A couple of words are of interest because their meaning is loaded. Daivam, or  the fate – is all powerful because it is meant to be. Deva is God, and what God’s will is Daiva. So fate should be all-powerful. Yet, the message is to be industrious and not give up just because the all-powerful is going to befall you.

In fact, the ones who do not engage in their effort are called ‘Kapurush’. That is the second loaded word. I translate it is ‘questionable’ men – or whose manhood is in question – because literally the word is, ‘whiter man?’ That implies cowardice, in someone who does not behave like or look like a man. There are several other words that imply such question – consider the flower “Kimshuka” – the red Palash flower that appears like the red beak of a parrot, and derives its name from there.

Panchatantra was written to prepare three sons of  the king of Mahilaropya (some guess it could be Mylapore in Chennai) to rule. Training time available? – six months. In those days it was necessary for rulers to have studied Chanakya’s Neetishastra.

I believe that it would be safe to consider that Vishnusharma, an accomplished guru who was requested to do this, made “case studies”. In the beginning of Panchatantra, he acknowledges the following as crucial influences:

मनवे वाचस्पतये  शुक्राय पराशरायससुताय

चाणक्याय च विदुषे  नमोSस्तु नयशास्त्रकर्तुभ्य: ॥

(I bow before Manu (the author of Manusmriti, the source of Hindu laws), Vachaspati, Shukra (the gurus of the devas and danavas respectively, who guided the two, the subject of Hindu Mythology), Parashar and his son (Parashar rishi and Veda Yyas – Parashar’s son who authored Mahabharat, a major epic and a crucial influence on culture), Chanakya (the author of Arthashastra, the body of knowledge on economic, political and bureaucratic governance) and other scholars who created Nyayashastra.)

So, Panchatantra stories carry an influence of ancient sources of law, literature, governance and business practices. An integrated ‘system’ can be seen here, created by converging norms and beliefs advocated by the major pillars of knowledge and practice in the society. That was also a society whose ‘Ashram’ arrangement required 25 years of education at the gurukul, where one would be away from one’s family to be with other students from all kinds of social backgrounds and learn from the शास्त्र, facilitated by the guru until बुद्धिप्रकाश occurred. And then after coming out of school went to a socio-cultural and eco-political system based on the same set of beliefs. One can see how closely-knit these systems of education and practice were. Fatalism could not have been a dominant attitude in such a society – I believe.

Take an example from literature – Kaalidasa’s वेणीसंहार. Karna says,

सूतो वा सूतपुत्रो वा यो वा को वा भवाम्यहम्

दैवायत्तं कुले जन्म मयायत्तंतु पौरुषम् ॥

(I may be a chariot-driver, a chariot-driver’s son, or anybody else. My birth is a ordained by the fate, but my manhood – who I become – is ordained by me.)

An example from मनुस्मृति:

सर्वकर्ममीदमायत्तं विधाने दैवमानुषे

तयोर्दैवम् अचिन्त्यम् तु मानुषे विध्यते क्रिया ॥

(Of all the undertakings in the world, which are ordained by either the fate and the human beings, the fated ones are not to be fathomed and the action is up to the human being.) [Trivia: the online version of manusmriti I have has 1366 occurrences of the word “man”, while it has only five occurrences of the word “fate” – and its message is the same in all five.]

The question is, if this is how it was, how did we change so much that people from other societies see us as fatalistic?


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