Hitopadesha is an anthology or collection of stories. The title, Hitopadesha, means ‘the book of good advice.’ As you listen to the tales, you’ll find that they do indeed have good advice for us. Some stories are borrowed from earlier texts, and others are found only here in the Hitopadesha. The author, Narayana wrote the tales during the reign of king Dhavala Chandra. Scholars believe they lived in India’s northeastern region, around west Bengal.
There are a lot of similarities between the Panchatantra and the Hitopadesha. Both these stories begin alike. A king worries that his sons are not responsible enough to learn all the skills necessary to be good rulers. He seeks a knowledgeable Guru who will also be a good teacher for his disinterested sons. The guru in question is Vishnusharma, who educates the princes using stories within stories. In many stories, animals and birds are the main characters alongside humans. Listeners connect with these characters because they think and behave like us.
The tales of the Hitopadesha have a purpose besides entertaining us. As these stories are narrated to educate, the plot involves dilemmas and difficulties that happen in real life. While they aim to teach the listener essential principles, the tales are not preachy. Instead, the author Narayana uses humor to keep us engaged. The stories in the Hitopadesha are grouped into four sections: Gaining friends, losing friends, waging war, and Making peace.
Hitopadesha: The Beginning
The city of Pataliputra lay on the banks of the Ganga. The king of Pataliputra, Sudarshana, was a kind and able ruler. One day, the king overheard a person’s comment about the importance of Wisdom. The man said,
“Wisdom gives us the knowledge to understand things that seem hidden from us. It clears the doubts that trouble us. Wisdom allows us to see the world clearly. A person who has no knowledge goes about life blindly, not understanding how the world works. Youth, riches, power, and selfishness- each of these is a drawback. How much worse it would be if all four came together in one person!“
King Sudarshana was quite disturbed by what he heard. If you are to be a king, you must make many decisions that will affect your people. To make those decisions, you must know a lot about your kingdom-about the security, farming, education, whatever troubles the public, and numerous other details.
Sudarshana had four sons who showed no interest in learning anything about running the kingdom. He thought,
“This man could be talking about my children! My sons show no interest in learning anything or in understanding their roles. They are young and inexperienced. Unfortunately, as my children, they are rich and powerful. This has not served them well because they think they get away with anything and behave selfishly. And because they lack any knowledge, their poor judgment lands them into many scrapes. How will they rule the kingdom after me? How will they keep the people safe and do all that is needed? Parents who ignore their children’s behaviour, laziness, and disinterest are not doing their duty. On the other hand, they are as good as their child’s enemies. Without knowledge, a person is like a flower without fragrance, no matter how rich or high-born. I must do something to change them, and I must do it now before they grow older. Otherwise, it’ll be a disaster all around.”
Of course, being a king meant he had many people to advise him. With a sense of urgency, Sudarshana called a meeting of all the learned men in his court. He asked them,
“Is there a teacher skilled enough to teach my sons among you? They are always getting into trouble. Can any of you reach them, so they learn to make better decisions and change their behaviour?”
The courtiers understood the king’s concerns. After all, they knew the way the princes behaved. In their mind, Sudarshana was a good king and father who wanted the best for his children.
That’s when one learned man spoke up. Vishnusharma was a very wise man, for he understood the principles and morals needed to rule the kingdom. He offered to teach the princes. “Your highness! I believe that the princes have the ability to learn. It is a matter of how we teach them. Please give me six months. In that period, I can teach the princes the art of being a good ruler.”
The king was delighted! Here was someone who felt confident that even his children could learn and change for the better. So, he arranged for Vishnusharman to teach the princes in the palace.
Vishnusharma had not taken such a big step without reason. The guru knew he must get his new students’ interest immediately. So what do you think he did on the first day, as they sat on the palace balcony? He began by telling them stories!
“Listen, my dear princes! Let me tell you a story, a story for you to enjoy. It’s a story with the crow, the tortoise, the deer, and the mouse.”
Whatever the princes were expecting, it wasn’t this. They were intrigued. Wouldn’t you be if you walked into your classroom for the first time and your teacher told you that the day’s lesson was a story? Naturally, the boys chorused, “Sir, please tell us the story!” Not very different from kids nowadays, eh?
Vishnusharma began to recite the story.
“I will begin with the story about the Winning of Friends. You see, even if you are poor and don’t have ways to gain wealth, you can still succeed if you have good friends. Let me tell you the story of the mouse, crow, deer, and tortoise.”
“The mouse…and a crow? How did they succeed?” asked the Princes.
“There stood a large silk cotton tree on the banks of the river Godavari. Every night, birds from all over came to rest and sleep on this tree. One night, a crow called Laghupatnaka, which means one who flies fast, sheltered in the tree. The following morning, the crow woke up just as the moon was about to set in the west. He opened his wings, shook them, and looked around in the gray haze. Should he wait around until dawn, or should he fly away? That’s when a moving figure caught his attention, and he peered closer. A hunter was walking stealthily into the forest. The crow felt a nervous flutter in his stomach.
“Oh, no! What is that hunter doing here? Look at him walk like another Yamaraj! What brings him here, I wonder? I better see what he is up to!” he wondered.
Some people may be sad or scared of many things in life. But it is a fool who prefers to pretend that nothing is the matter. He believes that if he avoids unpleasant things, they’ll go away. There is a difference in how a wise person reacts to the same situation. This person won’t be troubled by their thoughts in the same way as the fool. The wise one is aware that they mustn’t ignore the real dangers that the day may bring. Because an intelligent person knows that if we know what trouble is to come, we can prepare ourselves to handle it.
I’m guessing you have observed crows and know what they are like. They get right in the middle of things and want to know what’s happening, for they are curious birds. And if possible, they’ll invite their family and friends to watch with them. Laghupatnaka was no different. He wasn’t one to be scared and hide. Instead, the crow decided to follow the hunter and see what he was up to that early in the morning. The man had no idea that this intelligent creature was observing him. He strolled, looking this way and that. He stopped and looked up when he reached a wide gap between the trees. The bag on his shoulder slid and dropped to the ground. As the crow watched, the hunter went about spreading a net in the open space, after which he untied his bag and drew out something in his fist.
“Grains! He is scattering grains over the net!” the astonished crow remarked to himself. Soon, there was no sign of the net on the ground, just a blanket of grains in the middle of the forest. That’s when the crow realized what the hunter was doing. He was setting a trap for some unsuspecting birds! Satisfied with his work, the man ducked behind two big rocks and waited.
As luck would have it, a flock of pigeons flew over that part of the forest just then. The king of the pigeons was called Chitragriva, for he had some splotches on his neck. The king and his pigeon court saw the bed of grains on the forest floor and did a double take. All that grain, just lying there! Was this for real?
I bet most of you have encountered flocks of pigeons, especially when you are out and about sightseeing and munching on bhel or chips. What do these birds do? They follow you for some of the snacks, too, don’t they? The flock of pigeons in the story was no different from their modern-day cousins. The sight of all that grain tempted them.
But the pigeon king was suspicious!
“Wait! Something’s not right here. How can rice be scattered on the ground in the middle of a forest? There’s no sight of humans around here… no huts or farms. I don’t think going down there for the rice is a good idea. We’ll end up like the greedy traveller if we are not careful. That man’s greed for gold made him ignore the reality of the dangers of trusting a tiger! No wonder the tiger could entice him into the muddy swamp and maul him! We don’t want to end up like that!“
“What happened to traveller? Tell us! Tell us!” pleaded the Pigeons.
Chitragriva began to narrate.
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