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Literature of India


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Hindu Philosophy

Sanderson Beck's video on this chapter can be seen below.


The greatest imaginative literature of ancient India can be found in the long epic poems, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Written over many centuries and not completed until sometime between the fourth century BC and the fourth century CE, they probably grew out of the story-telling of the traditional bards (sutas) who acted as charioteers to kings. Since its setting is more ancient, let us begin with the Ramayana.


The Ramayana is considered the first ornate poem and is attributed to the sage Valmiki. Its present form has seven books and about 24,000 slokas or verses, though the last book is an epilog written later as was probably most of the first book. Treatment of Rama as an immortal god, an incarnation of Vishnu, is mostly found in these later books. Nevertheless the entire poem is heroic, and Rama along with his wife Sita are superhuman in their virtue and perfection. For Indian culture they represent models of ideal behavior and attitudes.

The time period of the Ramayana has been estimated as between the twelfth and tenth centuries BC when the Kosalas and Videhas ruled northern India. A legend about the author Valmiki tells how he was a robber chief, who once waylaid two ascetics; they offered him spiritual wisdom in place of gold and silver, which they did not have. Won over by their ideas, Valmiki became a devotee of Rama, the seventh incarnation of Vishnu, and after meditating much on Rama and his virtues he was given a vision of his entire life.

Valmiki asked Narada, who was most heroic and virtuous, and was told of Rama as the most self-controlled, valiant and illustrious, the Lord of all. Narada declared that he is equal to Brahma, a protector of the people, supporter of the universe, subduer of those who violate the moral code, the inspirer of virtue in others, and one who grants grace to his devotees. Having told Valmiki the story of Rama, Narada asked permission to leave and ascended to heaven. Then the poet Valmiki put the story into verse based on the details he perceived in his meditative vision.

The story begins in Ayodhya, where Rama's father ruled as king in the tradition of Manu. The community was prosperous and happy, and the Brahmins understood the six systems of philosophy. Dasaratha's ministers were guided by the moral code and reason; it was a golden age, an age of truth (satya-yuga). According to the first book, Vishnu decided to incarnate in the sons of Dasaratha in order to destroy the cruel leader of the demons, Ravana, who through austerity had gained the boon of being invulnerable to all but man.

Dasaratha had more than one wife, and each of his four sons was born to a different mother, but clearly the greatest was the oldest, Rama, followed by Lakshmana, Bharata, and Shatrughna. Taught by the sage Vishvamitra, Rama slays the demon Takaka and is given celestial weapons. Sita, who was mysteriously born in the furrow of a field, which is what her name means, was to be given in marriage to the one who could bend a certain bow. When Rama bent the bow, it broke in two; so Rama and Sita were married. Rama proves his valor and skill by stringing another bow and defeating Parasurama in combat. Sita communicated all her thoughts to Rama and could clearly read his mind, so dear were they to each other.

The second book begins by describing Rama's many virtues. The elderly King Dasaratha decides to hand over the rule of his kingdom to his illustrious eldest son, Rama; but on the day before his installation, Queen Kaikeyi, the mother of Bharata, is persuaded by her hunchback servant Manthara to ask the king for the two boons he owes her for having saved his life. Her son Bharata must be made regent, and Rama must go into exile in the forest for fourteen years.

While the people of Ayodhya are celebrating the expected coronation of Rama, he goes to the palace only to be commanded into exile by the king. Everyone who loves Rama is stricken with grief, but Rama allows himself no sign of emotion and willingly submits to the royal will. Lakshmana protests and wants to fight for Rama's rightful place, but Rama persuades him that they must obey their father out of duty and not use violence; what is right is more important than a mere kingdom. Rama also urges his mother, Kaushalya, to stay with her husband rather than follow him into the forest.

Sita, however, is able to convince Rama that it is her duty to be with her husband. Unable to persuade her to stay behind, Rama says he cannot abandon his wife. Sita gives away her possessions in preparation, and Rama is acclaimed by the people for his virtues of harmlessness, compassion, obedience, heroism, humility, and self-control. The king believes that he must have deprived countless beings of their offspring to have to suffer this separation from his beloved son.

Lakshmana accompanies Rama and Sita, and the emotional parting is ended by Rama's ordering the chariot-driver to hurry away. They cross the Ganges River and enter the wild forest. Rama sends the chariot-driver back to the court to tell them he will live as an ascetic, and so Kaikeyi should not be suspicious but enjoy supreme authority in the name of her son Bharata. Rama's small group is guided further into the forest by local leaders and sages.

Rama realizes that his mother must have done something in a former life to have her son taken away in this one, and Dasaratha tells how once while hunting he accidentally killed the son of two blind parents as he was getting water for them. Realizing the fruit of that action in his current sorrow, King Dasaratha soon dies of grief. Kaushalya reprimands Kaikeyi, saying that one who is ambitious is unaware like one who eats unripe fruit.

The counselors decide that Bharata should be made king. He has been living in Rajagriha with his grandparents, but a dream reveals the death of his father. Returning to Ayodhya, Bharata reproaches his mother Kaikeyi for her selfish plot to put him in Rama's rightful place, and he suggests that she commit suicide. Bharata consoles Kaushalya, and the funeral ceremonies are held amid much sorrow. Shatrughna wants to punish the hunchback woman, Manthara, but Bharata persuades him that Rama would not approve of such killing, or Bharata would have killed his own mother too.

Bharata decides to refuse the throne and offer it to Rama. Bharata crosses the Ganges and eventually finds Rama in the forest. When Lakshmana sees Bharata's army approaching, he fears the worst and is ready to fight; but Rama explains he only would want the throne to protect his brothers and would never fight against them. He correctly perceives that Bharata is coming to offer him the throne. When the four brothers are reunited, Bharata and Shatrughna allow their tears to fall.

Rama asks Bharata if he is fulfilling his royal duties, but Bharata says that as the oldest Rama ought to be king. However, Rama declares that the royal word of their father must be their law, and therefore Bharata must rule for fourteen years while Rama is in exile. Bharata begs Rama to return to Ayodhya, but Rama steadfastly refuses. Rama explains that morality is the soul of government, and that is how the people are upheld. The essence of duty is truth, and therefore he must keep his word to his father. Rama renounces the so-called duty of the warrior which is violent, saying it is injustice under the name of justice and the practice of the cruel, depraved, and ambitious who do evil. He prefers to live in the forest free of sin in peace, enjoying pure roots, fruit, and flowers.

Bharata asks for the golden sandals of Rama and is given them as a symbol of Rama's absent rule through Bharata. Celestial gifts are conferred on Sita as she declares her loyalty to her husband as her guru and master of her heart. She believes that obedience to one's Lord is the crowning discipline for a noble woman

In the third book Sita is carried off by the demon Viradha, but Rama and his brother get her back again by slaying the demon. In the forest the sages ask Rama for his protection, and he promises to deliver them from the oppression of the Titans. Sita implores her husband, however, not to attack the Titans, for there are three failings born of desire: uttering falsehood, associating with another's wife, and committing violence without provocation, the last of which is now showing itself in Rama. Sita pleads that the bearing of arms alters one's mind the way fire changes a piece of wood. She asks Rama to renounce all thought of slaying the Titans, pointing out that the practice of war and asceticism in the forest are opposed to each other. She begs him to honor the moral code as it relates to peace.

Rama replies that the sages are unable to enjoy a peaceful life in the forest because of the Titans, and he has promised to aid them if they ask for his help. A female demon Shurpanakha tries to seduce Rama and Lakshmana; but when she attacks Sita, Lakshmana cuts off her ears and nose. Shurpanakha complains to her brother Khara, and he sends demons, who are slain by Rama. Then Khara leads his army of demons against Rama, who destroys them and kills Khara.

Ravana, king of the demons, hears of their defeat and is persuaded by Shurpanakha to try to kill Rama so that he can wed Sita. The demon Maricha tries to dissuade Ravana, warning him against the sin of interfering with someone's wife. However, Maricha assumes the form of a fawn and is slain by Rama. Hearing his cry, Sita insists that Lakshmana go to assist him even though it is his duty to guard Sita. In a rare lapse of character in her excessive love for Rama, Sita accuses Lakshmana of caring more for her than his own brother. With Lakshmana out of the way, Ravana approaches Sita, who defies him. Nevertheless he abducts her by force and takes her to the island of Lanka. Ravana tries to make Sita his consort, but she refuses and is given to Titan women to be guarded.

In vain Rama and Lakshmana search for Sita, and Rama's sorrow turns to wrath. Eventually Rama is told what happened and where he can find Ravana. The fourth through the sixth books narrate the war against Ravana and the Titans by Rama and his allies in southern India who are referred to as monkeys. Their king Sugriva sends the powerful Hanuman to aid Rama. The monkeys search everywhere for Sita; only after they refuse to eat, does someone tell them where she is hidden. The monkeys are discouraged when they see the ocean; but Hanuman is able to fly over to Lanka and explore the enemy's territory.

Once again Ravana tries to woo Sita, but she refuses again and prophesies the destruction of the Titans. Hanuman finds Sita; she refuses to be rescued by him, though she gives him her jewel to take to Rama. Hanuman does considerable damage but is captured by the Titans. The Titan Bibishana pleads for Hanuman's life out of respect for messengers. Hanuman escapes and sets fire to Lanka, then returns and urges the monkeys to rescue Sita.

Bibishana advises Ravana to send back Sita to avoid the war, warning that being in the wrong, they are sure to be defeated by Rama. Ravana calls a council of war and is supported by flattering speeches. Bibishana is rebuffed by his brother Ravana and departs to the monkeys, who doubt his loyalty; but Rama accepts him as an ally, saying, "I shall never refuse to receive one who presents himself as a friend."1 Bibishana tells them of the strength and extent of Ravana's army.

The army of monkeys and Rama cross the sea to Lanka. Once again Ravana is advised, this time by his grandfather, the Titan Malyavan, to return Sita and make peace with Rama. Again Ravana closes his ears to this speech, relying on his power to overcome the exiled Rama. In the battle Rama and Lakshmana are struck down by Ravana's son, Indrajita, but they are revived by Garuda. Rama then defeats Ravana in battle but does not kill him. Ravana's brother Kumbhakarna is able to turn the monkeys back, but he is slain by Rama.

Using invisibility, Indrajita puts the monkey army out of action. Hanuman gets herbs from the Lord of the Mountains to heal the wounds of Rama and Lakshmana, and Lanka is set on fire again by the monkeys. Indrajita devises the stratagem of killing an apparition, which seemed to be Sita. When Rama hears the news that Sita has been slain, he falls to the ground like a tree whose roots have been severed. Lakshmana then delivers a despairing speech that virtue must not have its reward if such things could happen to the noble Rama. Bibishana, explaining that he is fighting against his brother because of the wrongs he has committed, helps Lakshmana to kill Indrajita.

Finally Rama and Ravana fight with magical weapons. Ravana flees; but later they fight again, and Ravana is killed. After the funeral and mourning for Ravana, Bibishana is installed as king of Lanka. Hanuman carries the news to Sita, who pleads for mercy toward her former captors now captured themselves. Sita quotes an ancient saying,

A superior being does not render evil for evil;
this is a maxim one should observe;
the ornament of a virtuous person is their conduct.
One should never harm the wicked or the good
or even criminals meriting death.
A noble soul will ever exercise compassion
even towards those who enjoy injuring others
or those of cruel deeds
when they are actually committing them;
who is without fault?2

Rama sends for Sita; but when they meet, he repudiates her because of suspicions based on her having lived in the house of another. He cannot believe that Ravana would not have enjoyed her ravishing beauty; so he tells her she may go where she pleases. Hearing this harsh speech from Rama, Sita weeps bitterly. Sita laments that she was always faithful to her husband in whatever was under her control. She accuses Rama of being worthless and to prove her innocence enters the flames of the sacrificial fire. Then Brahma reprimands Rama for acting like a man when he is really a god. After this divine speech Sita is restored from the extinguished pyre and given back to Rama by the fire god Agni, who declares her innocent. This ordeal by fire had to occur though, so that other people would know Sita's innocence.

Rama and Sita return to Ayodhya, where Rama is installed as king. In the later epilog (seventh book) a dark cloud still hangs over Sita, and people criticize Rama for taking her back. So she goes once more to live in the forest and is taken in by Valmiki, the author of the epic. Sita gives birth to twins, who are taught to recite the poem. Rama recognizes his sons as minstrels and asks Valmiki to return his wife; but unable to remove the people's suspicions, her heart broken, she asks the Earth to take her back, and her end mirrors her beginning. Finally death seeks out Rama, and he ascends to heaven.

This story which justifies the conquest of southern India and the island of Lanka nevertheless acknowledges the virtue of the dark-skinned southern peoples, who though referred to as monkeys are nonetheless on the side of good. The military hero Rama is divinized and becomes an object of worship as an incarnation of the Preserver Vishnu, and Sita is held up as the model of outstanding womanhood, exemplifying beauty, patience, loyalty, kindness, and mercy.


The legendary author of the Mahabharata is Vyasa, who is also given credit for compiling the Vedas and writing the Puranas. The 24,000 couplets of the Bharata were gradually expanded to become over 100,000, making the Mahabharata the longest poem in the world and probably the work of many hands. Vyasa managed to portray himself in the poem as the progenitor of the two kings whose sons fight for the kingdom of Bharata, as his mother asks him to father sons on a widow and the wife of the celibate Bhishma and a third on a low-caste servant maid. Dhritarashtra is born blind because his mother closed her eyes, and Pandu is pale because his mother Ambika was pale with fear. Ironically the third, who is of low caste, Vidura, turns out to be the wisest, resembling the god Dharma (justice, virtue) even more than Yudhishthira, who is the son of Dharma.

Because of Dhritarashtra's blindness, Pandu was made king. One day while hunting Pandu shot a deer that was coupling with its mate and was cursed with the fate that if he ever mated with his wife, he would also die. So Pandu was celibate and practiced austerity in the forest along with his wives Kunti and Madri after they gave away their royal wealth to charity. Pandu asked Kunti to give him sons from a man equal or superior to him. Kunti had been given a mantra by which she could summon any god she desired to father children. She had already given birth to Karna, whose father was the sun; she had put him in a basket, and he, not knowing his parents, was raised by a charioteer. Then through Kunti, Dharma (Justice) became the father of Yudhishthira, Vayu (Wind) the father of Bhima, and the powerful Indra father of Arjuna. She told the mantra to Madri, who gave birth to Nakula and Sahadeva, twin sons of the Ashvins. However, Pandu made love to Madri and died, joined on his funeral pyre by Madri. Kunti raised the five Pandava sons, while the blind Dhritarashtra ruled the kingdom. Meanwhile the latter's wife gave birth to a hundred sons with Duryodhana the oldest. Vidura prophesied that Duryodhana would bring about destruction, but his warnings were ignored.

Duryodhana tried to kill Bhima but failed. Bhishma arranged for the Brahmin Drona to teach all the princes. Arjuna excelled in the martial arts and was given special attention by Drona. Karna was also a great warrior and became a friend and supporter of Duryodhana. For Drona's tutorial fee Karna, Duryodhana and his brothers captured King Drupada. Dhritarashtra declared the oldest and most honest Yudhishthira heir to his throne. So Duryodhana and his brothers planned to burn to death Kunti and her five sons, but the Pandavas discovered the plot and escaped through underground tunnels from the burning house.

Arjuna won a beautiful bride in Draupadi, but when he told his mother he had a gift for her, she said that he must share it with all his brothers. Since the mother's word could not be broken, all five brothers married Draupadi, a practice forbidden by the Vedas. Both Bhishma and Drona advised Dhritarashtra to give the Pandavas a share in the kingdom with his own sons. The Pandavas were given the city of Indraprastha, from where they could rule their half of the kingdom. Accidentally breaking in on his brother Yudhishthira with their wife, Arjuna had to go into exile for twelve years and practice chastity (brahmacharya). But the maiden Ulupi persuaded Arjuna that his celibacy only related to his wife Draupadi, and he eventually married Krishna's sister Subhadra, who gave birth to their son Abhimanyu. Draupadi also had a son by each of her five husbands, while Arjuna's efforts gained him divine weapons from Indra.

Krishna, who later was made into a god, urged Yudhisthira and his brothers to attack Jarasandha, who had captured some kings. Bhima defeated Jarasandha in single combat, and Krishna released the imprisoned kings. Then Yudhishthira sent his four brothers in the four directions to conquer India. Krishna is criticized by Sishupala for killing women and cattle, but Krishna slices off Sishupala's head with a discus.

To win the Pandavas' territory Duryodhana invites Yudhishthira to the palace to play dice with the skilled dice-cheater Shakuni. Yudhishthira's weakness for gambling causes him to lose everything he owns and even his four brothers, himself, and finally their wife. When Draupadi is summoned, she is in retreat because of her monthly period. She is dressed only in a single blood-stained garment, but she is dragged by the hair into the hall by Dushasana. Draupadi questions what right her husband had to stake her when he had already lost his own freedom. Nonetheless she is insulted by Duryodhana and his brothers, who try to disrobe her; a miracle is performed by Krishna so that the cloth pulled from her body never ends. (In the past Draupadi had bandaged the wounded Krishna.) Spared this ultimate humiliation, Draupadi is given three boons by King Dhritarashtra and asks only for the return of Yudhishthira and his four brothers. Finally they decide to play one more dice game for the kingdom, the loser of which will have to go into exile for twelve years and be in hiding without being discovered for one year after that. Once again Yudhishthira loses, and the Pandavas depart for the forest. Vidura pleads with his brother to allow the Pandava sons to return, or else ruin will result; but once again he is ignored.

In the forest Yudhishthira learns the value of forgiveness. Draupadi is a model and devoted wife to the brothers. Of the many stories there is one in which each of the brothers drinks water and dies at a river before answering a question, but Yudhishthira wisely answers all the questions and brings his brothers back to life. Nonviolence is considered the highest duty.

During the thirteenth year they take on disguises and live in Virata's kingdom. A general tries to molest Draupadi, but he is killed by Bhima. After this dangerous year is completed, Krishna is sent as an envoy to ask for the Pandavas' half of the kingdom. When this is refused, everyone prepares for the great war. Krishna offers one side his army and the other himself, though he will not fight. His army fights with Duryodhana, and Krishna becomes the charioteer for Arjuna.

As the war is about to start, Arjuna refuses to fight his cousins; but in the Bhagavad-Gita Krishna encourages him to fight as a warrior and teaches him about yoga and non-attachment to the fruits of action. Arjuna then decides to fight, and Yudhishthira approaches both Bhishma and Drona, asking for their blessings, although they are on the opposite side. After eight days of battles Yudhishthira also wants to stop fighting and retire to the forest; but Krishna tells him to ask Bhishma how he can be killed, because Bhishma has control over his own death. Shikhandin, reincarnation of the woman Amba, who had been rejected by Bhishma and swore to kill him, is able to attack Bhishma because he will not fight a woman. Tired of all the killing, Bhishma wants to die, and he is mortally wounded by Arjuna's arrows.

Drona is given command of Duryodhana's armies. He is practically invincible, but he is discouraged by the lie that his son is dead. Yudhishthira, who is known for his truthfulness, says that Ashvatthaman is dead after Bhima kills an elephant with that name; but the intent is clearly to mislead Drona. Drona lays down his weapons, and his head is cut off by Dhrishtadyumna. In a family quarrel Arjuna is on the verge of killing Yudhishthira, but Krishna intervenes and says that nonviolence (ahimsa) is even more important than truthfulness. Truth is the highest virtue; but when life is in danger, even lying is permitted. Karna has sworn to kill Arjuna; but he is killed by Arjuna after his chariot gets stuck in the mud. The rules of fair fighting are increasingly being ignored.

On the eighteenth day of the war Duryodhana is wounded in the legs by Bhima even though this was also a violation of the rules they agreed on before the war. Krishna responds to Duryodhana's taunts by reminding him that the dice game was crooked, how Draupadi had been insulted, and how Arjuna's son Abhimanyu had been killed. All of Gandhari's sons have been killed, but the five Pandavas have miraculously survived a war that was supposed to have had millions of warriors involved. In revenge Ashvatthaman violates another rule of war by attacking the Pandava camp at night and kills all of Draupadi's sons. In anger Arjuna readies the weapons that could destroy the three worlds of heaven, Earth, and hell; but the sages Narada and Vyasa appear to dissuade him from this use of omnicidal weapons.

Most of the rest of the poem after the great war is probably stories and ideas added later. Vidura explains that the story of the man enjoying a few drops of honey while in a well caught between a carnivore and a monstrous snake, hanging by a vine eaten away by rats is told by the knowers of liberation to suggest serenity in the midst of troubles.

The long twelfth book called Peace (Shanti) has been discussed in relation to Samkhya philosophy. Bhishma, before he dies, gives his teachings. Ironically the nine duties common to the four castes seem to have been much violated by the characters in this poem; they are: controlling anger, truthfulness, justice, forgiveness, having lawful children, purity, avoidance of quarrels, simplicity, and looking after dependents. According to Bhishma the duty of the warrior (Kshatriya) is to protect the people. Truth is the highest duty but must not be spoken if the truth actually covers a lie. From desire comes greed and wrong-doing, wrath, and lust, producing confusion, deception, egoism, showing-off, malice, revenge, shamelessness, pride, mistrust, adultery, lies, gluttony, and violence.

Vidura believes that justice (dharma) is more important than profit (artha) or pleasure (kama) ; but Krishna argues that profit is first because action is what matters in the world. However, Yudhishthira chooses liberation (moksha) as best. Bhishma says that nothing sees like knowledge; nothing purifies like truth; nothing delights like giving; and nothing enslaves like desire. By being poor, one has no enemies, but the rich are in the jaws of death; he chose poverty because it had more virtues. Giving up a little brings happiness, while giving up a lot brings supreme peace. Before Bhishma dies, the preceptor of the gods, Brihaspati, appears and explains that compassion is most virtuous because such a person looks at everyone as if they were one's own self. He teaches them the golden rule that one should never do to another what one would not want another to do to you; for when you hurt others, they turn and hurt you; but when you love others, they turn and love you. Brihaspati ascends to heaven, and Bhishma realizes that ahimsa (not hurting) is the highest religion, discipline, penance, sacrifice, happiness, truth, and merit.

Yudhishthira performs the kingly horse sacrifice and rules over a wide realm his family has subdued before he passes on the kingdom to Arjuna's grandson Parikshit and retires with his brothers to seek heaven. On their divine ascent each of the brothers dies because of his shortcomings, but Yudhishthira will not leave behind his faithful dog, who is allowed into heaven with him as a symbol of dharma. Yudhishthira is thus able to enter heaven alive where he finds Duryodhana. Narada explains that there are no enmities in heaven, but Yudhishthira asks to see his brothers. He is led to a stinky unpleasant place, but he prefers to be in hell with his brothers. This too is a test, and he is reunited with Draupadi, who was an incarnation of Lakshmi, goddess of prosperity. The author concludes that profit and pleasure come from virtue. Pleasure and pain are not eternal; only the soul is eternal.

This poetic story of a great war that probably took place in the late tenth century BC is filled with stories and situations that describe the culture of ancient India and has been an entertaining schoolbook for millions. Along with the virtues it also reveals the vices of the conquering and warlike Aryans and their racist caste system. Even the divine Krishna becomes a spokesperson for the warrior mentality, as a nearly apocalyptic disaster destroys millions and threatens their whole world. Still a heroic epic of military glory like the Ramayana, the Mahabharata contains much more real and well defined characters and portrays many aspects of life. If only humanity could learn from its negative lessons of violence and ambition, perhaps the peace of the sages could be found.


Buddha and Buddhism

Ancient folktales of India come down to us primarily in two collections of stories, many of which are about animals. These are the Buddhist tales of the former lives of the Buddha known as the Jatakas and the Panchatantra. Many of the original stories probably predate the Buddha, but the Jatakas were organized into verses about the Buddha and placed into his biography starting about the fourth century BC, though the whole collection with its prose stories and commentaries was not completed for several centuries.

The Jataka tales always begin with an incident in the life of the Buddha, usually a sermon he is giving which he illustrates with a story from one of his previous lives. After the tale is told he often indicates who were the other characters in the story of their previous existence. In this way the law of karma, or the consequences of actions, is illustrated, and the deep patterns of different souls can be seen. The Buddha, who is referred to as the Bodhisattva in the stories since he is then a future Buddha, is usually the most heroic and wisest character. He is often an animal or a tree spirit and is frequently the leader of his group. He never seems to be a female, and in fact there is a strong bias against women in many stories. The Jatakas are primarily moral tales illustrating the wisdom and goodness of the Bodhisattva figure, and, with the exception of the prejudice against women, the ethical lessons are usually quite good.

The Devadhamma-Jataka (#6) is a good example. This story resembles that of Rama. The Bodhisattva is the eldest prince of Benares followed by Prince Moon and, when their mother died, Prince Sun, whose mother was given a boon by the king. This queen, being naturally wicked, plots against the others and demands that her son be made king for her boon. The Bodhisattva and Prince Moon go off to live in the forest, but they are joined by Prince Sun as well. A water-sprite imprisons Prince Sun and Prince Moon when they answer that what is truly godlike is the sun and moon and the four quarters of heaven; but the Bodhisattva wisely states that the godlike are the white-souled votaries of the Good who shrink from sin. The water-sprite offers him one of his brothers, and he chooses the youngest because the queen had asked for the kingdom for him; if he chose Prince Moon instead, no one would believe that Prince Sun had been devoured by a demon. Impressed by his wisdom, the demon returns both brothers, and the Bodhisattva explains that the demon is suffering the consequences of his evil deeds and is continuing the pattern. However, the demon is converted; when the father dies, the brothers return to Benares with the Bodhisattva as king, Prince Moon as viceroy, and Prince Sun as general. The tale ends with the usual conclusion that he lived correctly until he passed away to fare according to his deeds. Then the Buddha explains that the demon was the monk who had been hoarding extra clothes.

Devadatta is often cast as the villain in the tales. In the Mahilamukha-Jataka (#26) a follower of the Buddha is seduced into eating the luxurious food of Devadatta's schismatic group. The Buddha tells how in a past life he was an elephant named Damsel-face, who heard the evil talk of robbers and went on a rampage, killing everyone in sight until the Bodhisattva, the king's counselor, figures out that it was the influence of bad talk and advises the king to have Brahmins talk of goodness in the elephant's stall. The oldest part of the tale is usually the moral verse, which in this story runs thus:

Through hearing first the burglars wicked talk
Damsel-face ranged abroad to wound and kill;
Through hearing, later, wise men's lofty words
The noble elephant turned good once more.3

The Kulavaka-Jataka (#31) is an elaborate tale that shows the progression of several lives of a woman called in the first Highborn. The Bodhisattva does good and wins over friends, who keep the five commandments; but their good works clearing roads take away the graft of the headman, who accuses them of villainies. Condemned to be trampled by an elephant, the great beast flees from them, making the king think he has a spell. The Bodhisattva explains that their spell is not to destroy life, nor take what is not given, nor commit misconduct, nor lie, nor drink alcohol, and to be loving, show charity, level the roads, dig tanks, build a public hall, and so on. In the Bodhisattva's house are four women - Goodness, Thoughtful, Joy, and Highborn. In their next lives the first three from their good works have pleasant situations with Sakka (the Buddha again), but Highborn, not having performed any act of merit, is reborn as a crane. However, she is taught to keep the commandments and proves her worthiness to Sakka and then is reborn in the family of a potter. Once again she keeps the commandments and is reborn as the beautiful daughter of an Asura king. This story makes the important Buddhist point that it is one's actions not one's birth that determines the future.

The Mahasilava-Jataka (#51) shows how a good king can overcome a violent villain, who is an earlier incarnation of Devadatta. This minister is sent away from Benares for dealing treacherously in the king's harem. He persuades the king of Kosala to attack Benares, knowing that they will be rewarded with gifts and get off free. Sure enough when brought before King Goodness of Benares, he asks them why they made this raid; and hearing that they could not make a living, he gives them presents and warns them not to do it again. To prove the point other raiders are sent, and the result is the same. So the king of Kosala decides to attack Benares, but King Goodness refuses to fight and orders the city gates opened. Captured and buried alive up to the neck, King Goodness teaches his fellow captives to shout in order to frighten away the jackals, who come at night to eat them. No longer scared, the jackals come, but King Goodness bites the neck of the jackal leader and manages to get his hands free. They escape, and King Goodness wins the friendship of two ogres, who are fighting over a corpse by dividing it equally for them. Using their magical powers he miraculously appears in the royal bedchamber and wins over the king of Kosala, ending up with more ministers and a larger kingdom than before.

Often a prince, the Buddha did not always assume the kingship in his previous lives. In the Asadisa-Jataka (#181) Prince Peerless allows his younger brother to rule so that he can renounce the world. When a slander made his brother fear he wanted to take over the kingdom, he secretly returned as a hired archer, proving his skill by severing a mango branch with an arrow on its downward flight, directed by a second arrow that entered heaven and was caught by the deities. When his brother was surrounded by seven attacking kings, he sent for Prince Peerless, who shot an arrow with a message that landed in the golden dish where the seven kings were eating. Frightened he would kill them all, they fled. Thus without shedding even as much blood as a fly might drink, the situation was resolved. Then Prince Peerless renounced his lusts and the world to cultivate the faculties and attainments; when his life ended, he came to Brahma's heaven.

The Daddabha-Jataka (#322) is told against heretics who practice excessive austerities, the Buddha denying the merit of unnecessary suffering. In this story the Bodhisattva as a lion stops a panic started by a hare, who heard the sound of fruit falling and began running away, causing other hares to run in fear and eventually all the animals of the forest. By roaring the lion stops the panic and then investigates to find the harmless source of all the fear.

Jataka #330 compares desire to birds fighting over a piece of meat such that whichever bird picks up the meat suffers attack from other birds. In a second example a female slave anxiously awaits the coming of her lover; but when she gives up hope that he will come, she sleeps peacefully. He concludes that in this world and in the next there is no happiness greater than the bliss of meditation.

In many stories, such as the one in which the Bodhisattva solves nineteen problems (#546), the Buddha-to-be uses his intuitive intelligence to figure out and solve or explain difficult dilemmas, complicated problems, or mysteries. Some of these may be the earliest detective stories, and the message is always that justice and goodness prevail when the Bodhisattva is involved.


Panchatantra means "five formulas" and is divided into five sections of stories illustrating them called "Loss of Friends," "Winning of Friends," "Crows and Owls," "Loss of Gains," and "Ill-considered Action." In these traditional Hindu animal tales the worldly values of wealth and pleasure are more prominent than in the Jatakas. The Panchatantra may have been written down as early as the second century BC, and numerous versions spread to Persia in the sixth century and to Europe during the middle ages. A German version in 1481, for example, was one of the earliest printed books.

The Panchatantra is considered a textbook for wise conduct in this world. The basic struggle for survival underlies the competition between animals, who are personified to portray different human traits, and these primordial instincts are often illustrated dramatically by some animals eating others. Thus the struggle for life is not only to find enough to eat but also to keep from being eaten by others. Nevertheless friendship between different creatures is a way to find peaceful co-existence and mutual benefit amidst the dangers. Finding that his three sons are hostile to the usual education, a king asks the Brahmin Vishnu-Sharman to teach them the art of practical life in a way they will understand. Vishnu-Sharman accomplishes this task by making the boys memorize the stories of the five books.

In the first book on the loss of friends, the king is represented by a lion named Rusty, who befriends a wounded bull called Lively. Most of the tales are told by two jackals named Cheek and Victor, who are the sons of royal counselors and out of a job. Victor persuades Rusty to give a safe conduct for him and Lively, who has been bellowing in the forest because of his wound. Victor sets himself up as a counselor and illustrates his advice to Lively with parables. The lion Rusty protects the bull Lively, and they become close friends, while the two jackals, Victor and Cheek, are suffering hunger along with other animals normally dependent on the king of beasts.

So Victor and Cheek counsel each other with stories how they can regain the lion's favor. They decide that Rusty has fallen into the vice of attachment that can manifest in drinking, women, hunting, scolding, gambling, greed, and cruelty. The other vices are deficiency, corruption, devastation, and mistaken policy. Deficiency can be in the king, counselor, people, fortress, treasure, punitive power, or friends. Corruption comes from restlessness. Devastation can be from fire, water, disease, plague, panic, famine, excessive rain, or an act of God. Mistaken policy occurs when the six political expedients of war, peace, change of base, entrenchment, alliance, and duplicity are not used correctly. By being captivated by Lively, Rusty is accused of falling into the deficiency of a "vegetarian morality" by ignoring his counselors. Victor tells how a crow killed a black snake, a crab killed a heron, and even a rabbit killed a lion by causing it to look down a well at its own image.

Then Victor tells how a weaver won the love of a princess by adopting the power of Vishnu to fly as Garuda. Gaining the king's ear, Victor tells Rusty that the bull Lively is planning to take over his kingdom; he warns him that no king should ever give his power over to a single counselor. Although Lively is not a carnivore, Victor argues that a bull is food, and he may egg on others like worms breeding in his excrement. A louse was living nicely in the king's bed until a flea stirred up trouble and caused a search that found the louse's hiding place. Having made Rusty suspicious of Lively, Victor next tells the bull that Rusty is planning to kill and eat him. Now Lively greatly fears the lion. Lively tells how a swan befriending an owl is shot by a hunter. Fearing he too will be eaten by Rusty, Lively tells the story of how a camel was eaten by a starving lion and a carnivorous leopard, jackal, and crow.

Self-knowledge and self-restraint are lacking when the stupid turtle opened its mouth to talk when being carried on a stick by helpful birds to a new home; falling to the ground the turtle's meat is cut to bits by knives. The approaches of three fishes are contrasted as Forethought and Ready-wit are adaptable and survive, but Fatalist cannot keep alive. An old gander's advice is at first ignored, causing the geese to be captured by a hunter; but when the gander tells them to play dead, they are thrown on the ground and can fly away. The jackals advise people to look to their own advantage; otherwise studying books is merely mental strain.

Finally when Rusty sees the bull approaching so warily, he springs at Lively, and they fight. Cheek reproaches Victor for causing this enmity and threatening the kingdom. Discerning counselors aim for conciliation and postpone harsh deeds. Power with intelligence can lead to peace if it is cultivated. A countermeasure is needed to avoid misfortune. Harsh comment may be needed when flattery can be treason. So Cheek tells some stories that show that cheating and lying eventually backfire. Wrong-mind's schemes for cheating Right-mind are eventually revealed, and he is punished. A pawnbroker claims that mice ate Naduk's iron balance-beam; so Naduk hides the pawnbroker's son, saying that a hawk must have carried him off. Since the boy is fifteen, this is as unbelievable as mice eating iron. So the magistrate orders the return of the balance beam, and Naduk tells them where the boy is hidden. Cheek tells two stories that indicate that an enemy may prove better than a friend, and that therefore right should be done and wrong avoided.

This causes Victor to slink away; but Rusty and Lively renew their battle, and the lion kills the bull. Rusty feels guilty, but Victor advises him to remain resolute, claiming that normal morality does not apply to kings. Cheek reprimands Victor for stirring up strife and causing the master to fight his own servant, for victory is not what the gods command. It is fools who fight; the wise find nonviolent ways. The truth must be spoken, for pleasant lies lead the royal mind astray. Several counselors ought to be consulted separately for independent views. A master should be mindful of human differences and not let his mind be taken astray by others' advice.

The second book on the winning of friends is more positive. These stories are mostly by four friends: Swift the crow, Gold the mouse, Slow the turtle, and Spot the deer. Swift tells how doves escaped from the cruel hunter's snare by flying up all together. The mouse Gold then chewed through the snare to free the doves, showing the value of friendship. Although crows usually eat mice, Gold is won over to friendship by Swift's worldly wisdom. Friendship involves taking and giving, listening and talking, dining and entertaining. Because of a drought the crow wants to visit his friend Slow the turtle, and Gold accompanies him riding on his back. Gold tells several stories to show that the brave and friendly can prosper, but the fatalistic slacker does not. The wealthy who are greedy may be miserable, while the contented beggar is rich.

No treasure equals charity;
Content is perfect wealth;
No gem compares with character;
No wish fulfilled, with health.4

Slow the turtle tells of the money troubles of a weaver. Then the crow, mouse, and turtle are joined by a deer named Spot, and they all become friends. Spot tells how mice, who were being trampled by elephants, persuaded them to stay away from their homes, and in return the mice gnawed the ropes to free the elephants when they were captured. One day Spot is missing, and Swift finds him caught in a trap. The crow flies back to get Gold, who gnaws the trap to free Spot. Slow the turtle made the mistake of joining them and was captured by the hunter. So Spot laid down by the water as though dead, and the crow pretended to peck at him. The hunter put down the turtle, who escaped into the water, while Spot dashed off into the forest, and Swift flew away. Thus free of all injury, the four friends lived in mutual affection and happiness.

The third book tells the story of the war between the crows and owls. The crows resent that the chief owl has been named king by the birds. Cloudy the crow-king consults his advisors, who each recommend one of the six strategies related to war and peace. Live-Again counsels peace with the powerful. Live-Well suggests war or else violence will come again. Live-Along recommends a change of base, a retreat followed by an invasion. Live-On dislikes all three of these approaches and advises entrenchment in a strong fort. Live-Long recommends an alliance. Finally Live-Strong counsels duplicity and plans a clever spy mission in which he appears to have been attacked by his king and is found by the owls. Diplomacy is demonstrated in a story in which a rabbit is a clever envoy to the elephants, but another rabbit and partridge died by confiding in a cat.

When the owls find Live-Strong wounded by the crows, they have to decide what to do with him. The owl-king Foe-Crusher asks his five advisors. Red-Eye says he should be killed as a dangerous enemy. Fierce-Eye says it is wrong to kill a suppliant, and Flame-Eye, Hook-nose, and Wall-Ear agree Live-Strong should not be killed. Live-Strong asks to be burned by fire so that he could be reborn as an owl to get back at Cloudy. Disregarding Red-Eye, the owl-king agrees to feed Live-Strong in his fortress, and the wily crow regains his strength. Red-Eye and his followers leave the fortress, and with Live-Strong's help the crows are able to attack and burn down the owls' refuge. The crafty advice of Live-Strong is victorious, and he declares that kingship requires prudence, self-sacrifice, and courage. Cloudy is amazed at the value of this political skill that leads to wealth, fame, and power.

The last two books are shorter. In "Loss of Gains" the wife of a crocodile talks her husband into killing a monkey, who has shared fruit with them so that she could eat his heart. The crocodile invites the monkey to his home but confesses his purpose on the way so that the monkey can pray. The monkey says he has another heart at home and convinces the crocodile to take him back. Further attempts to capture the monkey are vain, unlike the story where the jackal invites a donkey, who is eaten by a lion. The jackal then eats the heart and ears of the donkey, and the lion is annoyed; but the jackal explains that a donkey, who would return to the forest after being attacked by a lion once, obviously has no heart or ears.

In the last book on ill-considered action a merchant named Jewel dreams that a Jain monk appears, and he hits him on the head with a stick, whereupon the monk turns to gold. The dream actually occurs the next day. A barber witnesses it and tries to attack some Jain monks and is thrown in jail, showing that his action was ill-considered because not guided by a dream. Four treasure seekers find in turn copper, silver, and gold, the fourth expecting to find something better. Instead he must replace a man tortured by a wheel on his head.

The difference between scholarship and sense is revealed in the story of the lion-makers. Finding the carcass of a dead lion, one scholar assembles the skeleton, the second provides flesh and blood, and the third is going to give it life; but the non-scholar, having only sense, says not to bring a dangerous lion to life. So he climbs a tree, and the three scholars are killed by their ill-advised creation.

Greed and revenge are the themes of the tale of the unforgiving monkey, who gets back at the household of a king for using the monkey-fat to cure horses' burns by offering to take them to a lake, where he got a pearl necklace, when he knows they will be killed by the demon in the lake. Everything grows old, but one thing remains young forever - greed.

Although the tales of the Panchatantra emphasize the ambitious goals of wealth and power, their crafty lessons in entertaining stories do give people important lessons in survival and the ways of the fiercely competitive human and natural worlds.

Literature of Medieval India
India 30 BC to 1300


1. The Ramayana of Valmiki 6:18, tr. Hari Prasad Shastri, Vol. 3, p. 40-41.
2. Ibid. 6:115, p. 331-332.
3. The Jatakas tr. Robert Chalmers, Vol. 1, p. 69.
4. Panchatantra tr. Arthur W. Ryder, p. 259.

Copyright © 1998-2004 by Sanderson Beck

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SOUTH ASIA 1800-1950

Vedas and Upanishads
Mahavira and Jainism
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