Conservative Interpretation of Indic Past using the Pañcatantra
This is a revised version of a speech I delivered at Indic Academy, Bangalore on 22 January 2017.
We are gathered here for a discussion on my new book called Natural Enmity – Reflections on the Nīti and Rasa of the Pañcatantra. I will be speaking mainly on the context for this book i.e. my approach to studying the Indic past in general and the Pañcatantra in particular.
The Olivelle-Taylor Thesis
It developed as an extension of my Honours thesis which I wrote to critique the analyses of the Pañcatantra written by Western scholars, McComas Taylor and Patrick Olivelle. The Olivelle-Taylor thesis can be understood succinctly as follows.
The forest society of the Pañcatantra narratives is divided into animal jātis (species, kind). All the animals within a jāti share a common innate and immutable svabhāva (essential nature). The jātis are ordered in a fixed hierarchy. Natural enmity exists between some of these jātis and alliances across them are unworkable.
The point of the narratives is to teach that such a situation is not contingent or amenable to modification; rather, it is natural, abiding and inviolable. They demonstrate that an animal’s svabhāva does not alter in spite of changes in outward appearances; that if an animal from an inferior jāti tries to occupy a superior position, it eventually falls; that if animals belonging to fundamentally incompatible jātis try to become friends, the alliance ends in a disaster.
The division of animal jātis in the forest society of the Pañcatantra is analogous to the division of human varṇas in Brahmanical social theory. Thus, human society is divided into varṇas. All humans within a varṇa share a common innate and immutable svabhāva. The varṇas are ordered in a fixed hierarchy. Natural enmity exists between some of these varṇas and alliances across them are unworkable.
The Limitations of Critiquing Indology
One of the objectives of my book is to challenge the Olivelle-Taylor thesis by pointing out the distortions, manipulations, mistranslations, misinterpretations and so on. But by itself such an approach cannot be very effective.
For example, one of the points of Taylor thesis is that ‘if an animal from an inferior jāti tries to occupy a superior position, it eventually falls.’ That is how Taylor has interpreted the blue jackal story. In Sanskrit, it is said that the jackal gets a nila-varṇa and Taylor says that varṇa would have been read as a pun on colour and caste i.e. the jackal acquired a superior varṇa and thus became a king. But as the brahmanical discourse suggests, his svabhāva could not change – that was fixed at his birth and it asserted itself in the end and that is what caused his fall. Taylor claims that in the brahmanical archive the jackal usually represents a person of low birth – a śūdra or a caṇḍāla – and therefore not fit to become king. This is the lesson that is communicated through the blue jackal story.
So I did my research and emailed to him how his thesis was incorrect. I showed that varṇa in this story can only mean colour and not caste. There is a verse in the story that says that blue colour does not wash away easily to explain why the colour stuck to his body. The animals upon seeing the blue jackal say who is this creature of an unprecedented varṇa? In the Hitopadesa, when the jackals plot his downfall they say that the other animals were only varṇa-matra virpalabdha i.e. fooled merely by his varṇa. All this suggest that varṇa can only mean colour. Also that the depiction of the jackal as a sudra or candala is also to be found in the Buddhist Jataka tales. And Taylor’s response to me with regards to all these arguments was ‘agree to disagree’ which I read as code for ‘I don’t have any arguments to refute but I am going to hold on to my position anyway.’
That’s when I realised that we really don’t get anywhere by pointing out the flaws in the theses of Western scholars. These are intelligent people and they are very much aware of what they are doing. What keeps them going this way, in my view, is what Pollock has mentioned in his essay Deep Orientalism as a ‘morally-sensitive scholarship’. They feel that by their scholarship they are giving voice to the voiceless, marginalised, oppressed, invisible section of society and if that involves some distortion or manipulation of data then it is all for a good cause.
We think that as scholars we are committed to the truth, to understand it as objectively as possible but in the view of left-wing scholars who dominate the academia in the West and I suppose in India as well, truth means alignment with the status quo. And therefore they feel no shame or embarrassment with disregarding the truth because in their view it is only a so-called truth, a truth which has been constructed by the upper, dominant section of society to wield power over the lower, dominated section of society; in order to gain their consent in their own oppression. And literature such as the Pañcatantra served that purpose in ancient time and so the purpose of scholarship should be to demonstrate how it contributed to the hegemonic discourse.
Therefore, I don’t think we can get much further by developing critiques of Western scholarship. They are essential but they are not sufficient. We need to develop rather our own scholarly interpretations of our texts and traditions in a manner that is more persuasive and interesting then what Western scholars have done and then use that as a platform for critiquing Indology.
Liberal and Conservative Approaches to Studying Indic Past
Now there are two ways in which this can be done. The problem that most Western scholars have with ancient Indian thought is that they believe in the Enlightenment ideals of social equality, political liberty and universal brotherhood. And the related ideas of human rights, democracy, pluralism, secularism, individual autonomy, and so on. They don’t find these values in ancient Indian texts. In their view, any society that does not conform to these norms must be primitive, barbaric and oppressive.
So one way to deal with this problem is for us to reinterpret our ancient texts and show that they do conform to these ideals. I think this is what some Indian critics of Western scholarship try do. They have accepted the Enlightenment ideals but they also want to retain the Indic past and hence endeavour to show that Indic texts and traditions do conform to the Enlightenment ideals. They get offended by Western scholarship which shows that Indic texts and traditions are contrary to Enlightenment ideals and they read it as an attempt by the West to destroy Indic culture.
However, I do tend to agree with Indologists that Indic texts are to a great extent contrary or at least ignorant of Enlightenment ideals and closer to the counter-Enlightenment ideals of social hierarchy, political despotism and kinship communities. If we are saying that the Indic past was great and that should be evident from all the research that shows how India was a leading economy in the world until the 18th century, then evidently it is because the Indian thinkers had developed ways of working with counter-Enlightenment ideals, of understanding how it is possible to establish a decent society under this framework. So a second way of dealing with the Indic past – what I would call a conservative or reactionary approach – is to understand how the Indic thinkers sought to build a decent society within the constraints of social hierarchy, political despotism and kinship communities.
The Limitations of the so-called Adhyātmika or Dhārmika approaches
Now here again there are Indic critics who would say that we are falling into a trap. This Enlightenment and counter-Enlightenment, the Left and the Right, and so on are false dichotomies imposed upon us by the West. Indian thought must be established in adhyātma or dharma. But this is often not clear. By dharma they usually do not mean dharma as it is found in the dharmaśāstras but dharma that I assume is revealed through adhyātma. Unlike the Abrahamic religions, it is claimed that dharma is not frozen, it is fluid and adapts itself to changing circumstances but it is really not clear how this happens.
I think what has happened here is that there emerged in 19th century India a division of labour with Indian expertise recognised in the spiritual sciences and Western authority recognised in the material sciences. Now social sciences or humanities as such comes under the rubric of material sciences since we are talking about human organisations in the practical world. But Indians claim that their spiritual sciences or adhyātma are holistic i.e. if we take care of adhyātma, if through yoga and vedānta we build adhyātmically advanced human beings then a great society and polity will emerge from that. This is why I think there is so much of emphasis on adhyātma when it comes to socio-political thought in India but frankly I don’t think that it is working and I think this way of thinking is just wrong.
Adhyātma, is undoubtedly important at a personal level, without which it is very difficult to cope with the world. But the socio-political realm is separate from that and requires its own thinking. Thus, even in ancient India there was a clear separation between the trivarga of dharma, artha and kāma, on the one hand, and mokṣa on the other. Adhyātma is mostly concerned with mokṣa, with people who had attained a vairāgya-bhāva (disillusionment) with regards to the world. On the other hand, the gṛhasthas (householders) who were actors in the world, were concerned with the trivarga.
In the Pañcatantra itself in the beginning when the king says that his sons are parama-durmedhas ‘extremely dim-witted’ he says it is because they are śāstra-vimukha ‘not interested in śāstras’. To reform them, some way has to be found to teach them the śabda-śāstras i.e. vyākaraṇa which is the key to understanding śabda, and then śabda itself i.e. the dharmaśāstras, arthaśāstras and kamaśāstras.
Now it is well know that the śabdaśāstras are meaningless when it comes to adhyātma which has to do with brahman, and brahman is such from which all words recoil. So, for example, a mokṣa text like the Bhaja Govindam exhorts us to reflect:
कस्त्वं कोऽहं कुत आयातः का मे जननी को मे तातः।
इति परिभावय सर्वमसारं विश्वं त्यक्त्वा स्वप्नविचारम्॥
भज गोविंदं भज गोविंदं भज गोविंदं मूढमते॥
kastvaṃ ko’haṃ kuta āyātaḥ kā me jananī ko me tātaḥ|
iti paribhāvaya sarvamasāraṃ viśvaṃ tyaktvā svapnavicāram||
bhaja goviṃdaṃ bhaja goviṃdaṃ bhaja goviṃdaṃ mūḍhamate||
Who are you? Who am I? Where has one come from? Who is my mother? Who is my father? Having thus reflected on the insubstantiality of everything and having forsaken this imaginary world, meditate on Govinda, O foolish one!’
But in the first story of the Pañcatantra, the jackal Damanaka exhorts the bull Saṃjīvaka to reflect on:
कः कालः कानि मित्राणि को देशः कौ व्ययागमौ।
कश्चाहं का च मे शक्तिर् इति चिन्त्यं मुहुर्मुहुः॥
kaḥ kālaḥ kāni mitrāṇi ko deśaḥ kau vyayāgamau|
kaścāhaṃ kā ca me śaktir iti cintyaṃ muhurmuhuḥ||
What is the time? What is the place? Who are my friends (and enemies)? What is the income and expenditure? Who am I? How much is my power?
Commenting on this verse I have written, I have contrasted it with the Bhaja Govindam verse and explained:
Both vyavahāra (worldly realm) and paramārtha (cosmic realm) raise the common question of ko’ham (who am I) but the former does it in terms of worldly identities related to various kinds of cultural attributes (for example, what is entailed in being a male, brāhmaṇa minister of a king?) and the latter focuses on the underlying reality of the self (for example, what does it mean to say that the self is brahman or that it is non-existent?).
What Damanaka is suggesting is that people who are operating in the vyāvahārika realm need to reflect persistently on the nature of vyavahāra which basically means learning how to go about in the particular world in which they find themselves. This involves knowing about the customs and manners that are relevant to the time and place. Given the competitive nature of the world, one needs to be able to correctly distinguish between allies and adversaries. Surviving and flourishing in the world involves developing the skill of balancing income and expenditure. Finally, one must contemplate on who one is in the world and what one can accomplish in relation to this identity. This reflection on vyavahāra constitutes, of course, the crux of nīti and not only do we realize that Saṃjīvaka died on account of his failure to engage in such reflection but that Damanaka’s arrangement of his assassination was also prompted by the exigencies of vyavahāra.
My own view at this stage of my research and I need to develop this further is that there is a clear distinction between vyavahāra and paramārtha in ancient Indian thought. Gṛhasthas were required to reflect on vyavahāra and that means on the binaries which constitute the socio-political world. Today these binaries take the form of hawks versus doves, Right versus Left, conservatives versus liberals, utilitarian realists versus utopian idealists, advocates of development versus champions of environment. As worldly thinkers we cannot run away from these dichotomies. To live and participate in the world is precisely to engage in these dichotomies.
If we do not involve ourselves in these debates saying that we are adhyātmikas who believe in rising above dichotomies, then someone else will decide the matter for us. This I think is exactly what has happened – the whole domain of humanities has been ceded to the West. We, on the other hand, have been caught in what I would call the divinisation-demonisation trap i.e. Western scholars demonise the Indic texts because they do not conform to the supreme ideals of the contemporary humanities and we try to divinise them by trying to demonstrate that they do. What I think we should be doing, however, is humanise the Indic texts i.e. try to understand their view of the world, of human nature, and how they were seeking to build a decent society in the context of this knowledge.
And the way in which they understood the world is that it is characterised by social hierarchy, political despotism and kinship communities. It is within such a framework that they sought to build a decent society.
Different ways of being human
There is another statement by Pollock in one of his speeches that intrigued me very much. He said that the reason for studying pre-modern Sanskrit texts was to understand ‘the different ways of being human’. That’s a beautiful sentiment but I am not sure if he really means it. I think he is reiterating the postmodern idea that in the quest for realising the Enlightenment ideals the West developed quite a brutal modernity that gave us colonialism, imperialism, genocide, world wars, nuclear weapons, environmental devastation, cultural ecocides and so on. So we would like to know if there are alternative modernities i.e. what were the ways devised by other cultures in striving for those same ideals.
Now frankly I think this quest for alternative modernities is doomed. People talk about an Indian modernity, a Chinese modernity, and so on, but I don’t understand what they really mean. As far as I can see, there can be only one modernity just as there can be only one natural science because these fields of knowledge are based on the universal faculties of human reason and sense-data and universalism can only be one. You can have multiple traditions but there can only be one modernity for, ideally speaking, all modernists will enter into a dialogue with each other, just like all scientists do, resolve their disagreements through rational debate, and ultimately you will get the ideal modern vision for the whole of humanity.
What I understand as ‘different ways of being human’ is that just as we are striving today to build a decent society based on the Enlightenment ideals so the ancients were striving to build a decent society within the framework of social hierarchy, political despotism and kinship communities. I do not want to call them counter-Enlightenment “ideals” in this context because they are not ideals. In fact, I think the Enlightenment project is itself about setting ideals such as social equality and so on, and then realising them through education, law and policy.
On the other hand, the ancients did not approach social hierarchy and so on, as “ideals”. I think this is the basic flaw in Indological scholarship that when these scholars see social hierarchy, etc. in Indic texts, they regard them as the ancient “ideals” and so they think that these texts were oppressive because as “ideals” such values can easily lead to oppression.
However, I think in the ancient view social hierarchy, etc. are not ideals but factors of existence i.e. for human beings to abide in nature is to live within a framework of social hierarchy, etc. In the modern perspective, nature is blind and humans by their superior faculties, their access to reason in case of philosophy or to the revelation of God in case of religion, dominate and guide nature. In fact, we have now come to point when these scholars say that there is no such thing as nature – that there is only culture and ‘nature’ is conceived within culture. That is why you can see that Olivelle and Taylor are sceptical of the attempt of Indic thinkers to ground their thought in nature.
But from the Indic perspective, culture exists within nature. Here again our Hindu liberals who want modernity in a Hindu idiom, will say that Indic thought is superior because it is grounded in nature, it is about living in harmony with nature, it is about interconnectedness of beings in nature, and so on. But we often forget – and this is what the Pañcatantra in particular reminds us strongly – that beings exist in nature as predator and prey. Left to itself, nature is oppressive. That is precisely why the moderns say that we need to overpower it. To respond to this by saying that Indic thought is superior because it aligns itself with nature is foolish. You need to first make a case that given the oppressiveness of nature, why should we still align with it?
That is what leads us into conservative and reactionary thinking which often takes the form that there is something good in the ways of the ancestors which we need to preserve. But I think it arises from the realisation that we do not truly understand our situation. We really do not know why things are the way they are and how they came to be that way. Nature is powerful and mysterious – we may understand some aspects of her to manipulate her to suit our needs but we really do not understand what all of this is about or where all of this is going. We barely understand our own nature let alone the nature of other things in the world. The conservative assumption is that everything is alive, everything has a will of its own and everything is in motion. It is this humility that guides Indic thinkers into finding ways to adapt to nature, finding ways to build a tolerable society that will mitigate her oppressive character, and this is what Indic culture is all about.
Consider Martin Luther’s famous ‘I have a dream’ speech in which he evokes the Biblical idea ‘every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight.’ I often find that speech very tragic because I think Luther was really articulating the dream of the Enlightenment philosophers – the white man’s dream. This in a sense is what the West has done to us, it has stolen our dreams. In any case, I don’t think the Indic thinkers ever dreamt that way and that is, of course, precisely why Western scholars are critical of them. For the ancient Indian thinkers, it was precisely the vaicitrya (variegated-ness) and vaiṣamya (unevenness) that characterised saṃsāra and it is precisely within such a saṃsāra that they sought to establish a decent society. This is what our śabda-śāstras, including the Pañcatantra, is all about and that is what I have tried to understand in my book Natural Enmity.
So how does the Pañcatantra seek to build a decent society within the framework of social hierarchy, political despotism and kinship communities? This is the question that you must have in mind when you read my commentary because that is the question which it addresses. In the rest of my talk, I will give some pointers on this subject.
Social Hierarchy in the Pañcatantra
Let’s begin with social hierarchy. The Pañcatantra was meant as a leadership guide to young men. A leader in the ancient world was a kula-svāmin, the master of the household, who brings wealth and fame to the kula (family). Thus, he became the āśraya (refuge) of his bandhu-varga (kinsmen) and bhṛtya-varga (servant class). Here servant does not mean like a maid or a cook. A ‘servant’ means one who does service like the employees of a firm are its servants while the stakeholders are the masters.
A bhṛtya of one svāmin in turn could be a svāmin of his own bhṛtyas and a svāmin in turn is a bhṛtya of his own svāmin. The highest svāmin is the king and his bhṛtyas are the ministers. A svāmin and his bhṛtyas constitute the kuṭumba and the whole society is thus conceived as a web of svāmin-bhrtya relations and this in my view is the meaning of vasudhaiva kuṭumbakam.
Today, of course, infatuated by the idea of social equality we interpret vasudhaiva kuṭumbakam as universal brotherhood. But we must realise that such an interpretation implies that differences between human beings can be resolved only be each recognising the equality of the other. In the Indic view, on the other hand, world peace and other good things can come if human beings organise themselves into svāmin-bhrtya relations depending on the differences in their strength – no raising a valley and levelling a mountain, or empowerment of the weak and disempowerment of the strong, but a recognition of the differences and entering into svāmin-bhrtya relations based on that. Having done that, the svāmin must act in accordance with the svāmin-dharma i.e. nurture and protect his bhṛtyas, and bhṛtyas must act in accordance with the bhṛtya-dharma i.e. defer to and obey their svāmin.
This is outlined in the Pañcatantra and the text also deals with what happens when things go wrong i.e. when the strong exploit the weak and the weak resort to deceit to protect themselves. The view generally held by Western scholars that according to the Pañcatantra it is the prerogative of the strong to wield power over the weak and of the weak to suffer their oppression as their karmic fate is nonsense.
We can see this in the responses of the lion when the jackal tells him that the bull is conspiring against him. He says:
उपकारिषु यः साधुः साधुत्वे तस्मै को गुणः।
अपकारिषु यः साधुः स साधुः सद्भिर् उच्यते॥
upakāriṣu yaḥ sādhuḥ sādhutve tasmai ko guṇaḥ|
apakāriṣu yaḥ sādhuḥ sa sādhuḥ sadbhir ucyate||
The saint who does good to those who favour him, what merit accrues to him with regards to saintliness? The wise hold him to be a saint who does good to those who injure him.
I have commented here:
Giving refuge to someone is not just a matter of finding inner happiness but an act of tremendous responsibility. Damanaka thought like a shrewd businessman who hires and fires people according to profit and loss. But Piṅgalaka was a king. He could not stoop to that level. It behoved him to show greater restraint and generosity of spirit.
Piṅgalaka showed himself as a man of magnanimity who considered it more befitting to absorb the evil others did to him rather than simply respond in kind. He thus put his foot down and declared openly that even if Saṃjīvaka was bent on rebellion, he would not take action against him.
On the other hand, in another story, a sparrow’s nest is accidentally destroyed by an elephant. She wants revenge and when her woodpecker friend tries to console using the ideas from the Gītā that the ātman is immortal and one should not grieve over death and so on, she responds:
आपदि येनोपकृतं येन च हसितं दशासु विषमासु।
उपकृदपकृदपि च तयोर् यस् तं पुरुषं परं मन्ये॥
āpadi yenopakṛtaṃ yena ca hasitaṃ daśāsu viṣamāsu|
upakṛdapakṛdapi ca tayor yas taṃ puruṣaṃ paraṃ manye||
By who one has been shown favour in adversity and by who one has been scorned in difficult times, the one who expresses gratitude and does injury to the two of them [respectively], I consider him the best.
I have commented:
In The Separation of Friends, when the lion was goaded by the jackal to kill the bull for having allegedly conspired against him, he expressed the diametrically opposite sentiment that a great person was one who showed kindness even to those who injure him, for everyone treats their benefactors well. This distinction expresses the relative morality which is typical of dharma. Justice and mercy are dependent on the station of the perpetrator and the victim. While the dharma of a strong person, such as the lion, is to show mercy to the weak, the dharma of the weak person, such as the sparrow, is to demand justice from the strong. It behoves the lion to forgive the (alleged) betrayal of the bull. It behoves the sparrow to punish the (inadvertent) aggression of the elephant.
So this is how, in the condition of social hierarchy, the Pañcatantra is seeking to establish a decent society. And when the strong commit atrocities against the weak, the text outlines various options to redress the problem. The Crow and the Serpent is about strategic thinking, the Lion and the Hare is about tactical thinking, The Lapwing and the Sea is about amarsana i.e. intolerance of injustice and putting pressure on the king, by mahājana–virodha i.e. mass-agitation, to do justice.
So it is really a travesty to imagine that the Pañcatantra affirms social hierarchy in order to legitimise the oppression of the weak by the strong. But the point is that it does affirm social hierarchy. It does not envisage social equality as the solution to the problems of social hierarchy. That is the alterity of its vision which should be of interest to us in the study of the Pañcatantra as well as the Indic past in general.
Political Despotism in the Pañcatantra
Moving on to political despotism, again the Pañcatantra does not have a theory of monarchy as an ideal form of governance and I will quote some lines from my commentary which explain the political theory in the Pañcatantra:
(1) Human beings driven by the will to power, seek to dominate each other and whoever wins this contest becomes king and thus a state comes into existence. A state thus arises naturally from the human assertion of the will to power.
(2) Kingship is autochthonous: it arises neither from social contract nor from divine regency but from the imperious and splendid qualities of the person who assumes it. Even the Arthaśāstra refers to such originary narratives as propaganda to be spread by spies to control disaffection among the subjects.
(3) The state, in the Pañcatantra, does not represent the will of civil society – the janapada – which consists of self-governing communities. Such a civil society does not need the overhead of a state. But a state imposes itself upon civil society and civil society needs to contend with it.
(4) Nowhere in these stories is the king portrayed as kind and just, which is the religious view of kingship. Even the rājadharma which we will encounter in The Lion and the Hare is instituted as a compromise by civil society to rein in the unbridled oppression of the state and it is noteworthy that in this narrative the king is ultimately killed.
(5) The government consisting of the king and his retinue is considered as a formidable institution and decent people prefer to keep away from it. If they do seek to enter government service as retainers of the king, as Damanaka does in The Separation of Friends, it is only to collaborate in its exploitative practices and pilfer the wealth of the state for themselves.
(6) However, civil personages sometimes try to influence the magnanimous aspect of the king’s personality and try to persuade him to bring about an enlightened system of governance. This is the role played by Saṃjīvaka in this story with fatal consequences, indicating that it was a dangerous game not only because it encroached upon the interests of the avaricious retainers but because it was contrary to the very nature of the state itself.
(7) Dantila and Gorabha is another story where a reputed civilian gets into trouble with the king on account of the conspiracy of a lowly retainer, from which he saves himself only by bribery. A prosperous merchant, he also assumes the government post of superintendent of the city and we are told that it is only due to his sheer genius that he is able to manage the contradictory expectations of the king and the subjects.
नरपतिहितकर्ता द्वेष्यतां याति लोके जनपदहितकर्ता त्यज्यते पार्थिवेन्द्रैः।
इति महति विरोधे वर्तमाने समाने नृपतिजनपदानां दुर्लभः कार्यकर्ता॥
narapatihitakartā dveṣyatāṃ yāti loke janapadahitakartā tyajyate pārthivendraiḥ|
iti mahati virodhe vartamāne samāne nṛpatijanapadānāṃ durlabhaḥ kāryakartā||
The one who acts in the benefit of the king is hated by the people and the one who acts in the benefit of the people is abandoned by the king. Given this great contradiction, the activist (kāryakartṛ) who is regarded equally by the king and the people is rare.
Such is the theory of state found in the Pañcatantra. It is a natural rather than a political institution formed by the inexorable will to power of one man and while an interdependence of king and subjects is admitted in rājadharma, for the most part an uneasy tension exists between state and civil society.
Kinship communities in the Pañcatantra
Lastly we come to kinship communities, and we will refer here to The Blue Jackal story. Again, a kinship community is a natural institution formed by people connected by birth and marriage. Its opposite is the ideological communities where the social foundation consists of a shared ideology rather than natural kinship ties. I see Christianity as a prototypical ideological community because it brought people together as brothers and sisters who shared their faith in Christ. This is also the basis of our modern society.
When Swami Vivekananda opened his speech with ‘Sisters and Brothers of America’ I suppose he meant vasudhaiva kuṭumbakam in the sense of universal brotherhood but the address ‘Brothers and Sisters’ most probably comes from the Bible where St. Paul addressed the Corinthians, the Galatians, the Romans and others as ‘Brothers and Sisters’ under Christ.
Today, of course, we say ‘bandhu and bhagini’ in our general addresses to refer to anybody and everybody but I don’t think the word bandhu was used so indiscriminately in the ancient world. A bāndhava was a jāti-bāndhava i.e. a kinsman or a very close and reliable friend as put in the subhāṣita that the one who is by one’s side in prosperity and adversity, at the king’s door and the cemetery, etc. is a bāndhava. Today, of course, India is our country and all Indians are our brothers and sisters as our ‘secular’ pledge informs us but it is a thinking that was brought into the world by religion.
Christianity, as the forebear of an ideological community, sought to replace kinship ties i.e. the svāmin-bhrtya hierarchy with a common bhṛtyatva, a common servitude, of all human beings to Christ. This is what I think led to the destruction of the clan system in Europe – which has been mentioned in the book The Rule of the Clan by Mark Weiner. Of course, monotheism would have been one reason, since each clan has its own deity but I think the rivalry had to do with the kinship nature itself and the svāmin-bhṛtya relations between human beings which it entailed. Even when the missionaries came to India they recognised jāti as their number one enemy. This is an area in which I am doing further research and its not included in the commentary so don’t quote me on it, but these were my underlying assumptions in understanding the working of kinship communities in the Pañcatantra.
In order to make sense of its stories we must bear in mind that they were composed in the context of a kinship-based social formation while we are today moving towards an ideology-based social formation and so the meaning of these stories need to be translated from one milieu to the other.
Many narratives in the Pañcatantra deal with intra-jāti and inter-jāti issues. Contrary to the Western view, however, it is not the case that jātis were natural enemies of each other. In The Sparrow and the Elephant for example individuals from different animal jātis collaborate to kill the elephant for destroying the sparrow’s nest. At the same time, members of the jāti can also become rivals of each other as in The Frog and the Serpent stories in the later tantras.
The Blue Jackal story is also about intra-jāti problems. In this case, you have an individual who by some special individual quality becomes a king. He becomes surrounded by the majestic animals like the lion, the elephant and so on, and so he feels embarrassed by his own jackal brethren and expels them from court.
The lajjā (shame) and avajñā (contempt) the jackal felt with regards to his own clansmen was on account of the inferior status connected with their jāti. The jackal thought that he had risen above them and considered it appropriate to maintain contact only with the members of the high-ranking jātis. A common situation in the historical case would be that of families from śūdra jātis who, having gained political muscle, sought to claim kṣatriya status, follow kṣatriya customs, marry into kṣatriya families, and so on, while dissociating themselves from other families of their own jātis.
This story brings out the close-knit relation which exists between a man and his jāti. It is not only the jāti which looks after the welfare of the individual but once the individual prospers and rises above the condition normal for the jāti, then it is expected that he should work for the edification of the other members of his jāti as well. This is not a moral teaching in the context of this story, it is practical advice based on the assumption that one is safe in the company of one’s own people for while the others may appear more estimable, there is no telling when they will turn against oneself.
The general message is that a man is so deeply connected with his jāti that he can never fully extricate himself from the behaviours, the customs, and so on, which are related to it. The fact that the jackal found the howling of his clansmen so irresistible even while he was in the midst of an august assembly whose members had made him their chief, shows how much he subconsciously missed that world even if he consciously despised it and a part of him yet belonged to it and yearned deeply to participate in it. Thus, it is not only practical risks that the story is talking about but the loss of meaning in existence that a man suffers when he is separated from his brethren.
But then what was the jackal supposed to do? If we assume that the noble beasts were more qualified for the prestigious duties, then surely the jackal had done nothing wrong in offering those assignments to them? If he promoted the jackals simply on the basis of shared jāti would that not be nepotism?
This is where we need to bear in mind that in the world of the Pañcatantra, the kinship community also formed a political group. But our society is divided into ideological groups and just as it would be typically expected of an individual from a certain ideological group who lands himself fortuitously in the apex position, to surround himself with his own kind rather than those belonging to other ideological groups, no matter how culturally refined and well-suited for the position they might be, the same is true with regards to jāti in the present narrative. Thus, whenever a liberal or conservative party comes to power, it is natural for the government to populate the major institutions with thinkers who are sympathetic to their own ideology.
Finally, while this particular narrative is about jāti-camaraderie, the Pañcatantra also points out that kinsmen can also be a source of great problem, summed up eloquently in the principle sambhāvyam jñātito bhayam ‘danger from the jñāti (kinfolk) is to be expected’ which is expressed in the story The Monkey and the Crocodile in the fourth tantra.
Thus, the nīti of the Pañcatantra consists of teaching its audience of what it takes to succeed in a world characterised by social hierarchy, political despotism and kinship communities. But we need to also appreciate the rasa or aesthetic emotion of its narratives, the pathos and desperation experienced by all the characters as they struggle to survive and flourish in such a world. That is the humanity of the text and that is what we need to recover.
In this case, Western Indology can be both an ally and an adversary. It is an ally inasmuch as it points to new ways of studying texts or asks interesting questions with regards to the text. But it is an adversary inasmuch as instead of seeking to learn from the text, it tries to align it with some Western literary theory. It is because the Olivelle-Taylor thesis draws out attention to understanding animal species as human jātis that we begin to think differently of these stories. But they cannot carry this thinking further to demonstrate how that can be a different and equal valid approach to build a decent society. This is what we can do and what I have tried to do in Natural Enmity.
The article has been republished from author’s blog with permission.