Hitopadesha (Sanskrit: हितोपदेशः Hitopadeśa) is a collection of Sanskrit fables in prose and verse meant as an exposition on statecraft in a format easily digestible for young princes. It is an independent treatment of the Panchatantra, which it resembles in form.
A compendium of good counsel
The only clue to the identity of the author of Hitopadesha is found in the concluding verses of the work, which supply the name Narayana and mention the patronage of a king called Dhavalachandra. As no other work by this author is known, and since the ruler mentioned has not been traced in other sources, we know almost nothing of either of them. Dating the work is therefore problematic. There are quotations within it from 8th century works, but the earliest manuscript dates from 1373. Internal evidence may point to an East Indian origin during the later Pala Empire (8th-12th century).
Narayana says that the purpose of creating the work is to encourage proficiency in Sanskrit expression (samskrita-uktishu) and knowledge of wise behaviour (niti-vidyam). This is done through the telling of moral stories in which birds, beasts and humans interact. Interest is maintained through the device of enclosed narratives in which a story is interrupted by an illustrative tale before resuming. The style is elaborate and there are frequent pithy verse interludes to illustrate the points made by the various speakers. On account of these, which provide by far the greater part of the text, the work has been described as an anthology of (sometimes contradictory) verses from widespread sources relating to statecraft.
In his own introductory verses, Narayana mentions that he is indebted to the Panchatantra 'and another work', although the sources turn out to be much more various. The Hitopadesha has the same frame story as the Panchatantra and many of the same tales are retold, although ten of them appear to come from elsewhere. Furthermore it differs by having only four divisions to the Panchatantra's five. However, the latter furnishes only a third of the verses quoted.
The Emperor Akbar (1542–1605) commended the work of translating the Hitopadesha to his own minister, Abul Fazl, with the suggestion that the poems which often interrupt the narrative should be abridged. He accordingly put the book into a familiar style and published it with explanations under the title of the Criterion of Wisdom.
The Hitopadesha was also a favourite among the scholars of the British Raj. It was the first Sanskrit book to be printed in the Nagari script, when it was published by William Carey in Serampore in 1803–4, with an introduction by Henry Colebrooke. This was followed by several later editions during the 19th century, including Max Müller's of 1884, which contains an interlinear literal translation.
Much earlier, Sir William Jones encountered the work in 1786 and it was translated into English the following year by Charles Wilkins, who had also made the earliest English translation of the Bhagavad Gita. A later translation by Edwin Arnold, then Principal of Puna College, was published in London in 1861 under the title The Book of Good Counsels.
Since then, Hitopadesha has been translated into most of the main languages in northern and southern India, while several more translations have appeared elsewhere in Asia, as well as in Europe.
- A.N.D.Haksar, Hitopadesa, Penguin, 2006
- K. Ayyappa Paniker, Indian Narratology, New Delhi, 2003, pp.78-83
- Judit Törzök, Friendly Advice by Nārāyana and King Vikrama's Adventures, New York University 2007, pp25ff
- C. R. Lanman (1908), "Notes on the Externals of Indian Books", The Panchatantra: a collection of ancient Hindu tales in the recension, called Panchakhyanaka, and dated 1199 A.D., of the Jaina Monk, Purnabhadra; critically edited in the original Sanskrit, by Johannes Hertel (Harvard Oriental Series), pp. xxii,xxxv
- Charles Johnston (November 29, 1925), "In India Too There Lived An Uncle Remus: Ancient Tales of the Panchatantra Now Appear in English", The New York Times, p. BR2
- Hitopadesa translated by E. Arnold on the Net