Indian Culture and Traditions - 1

Indian Culture and Traditions

 The Panchatantra Just Bed Time Stories
By Ram Lingam 

If you are from India, you are more likely to know at least one story from the Panchatantra. We know that the Panchatantra has some great short stories, but to classify this 2300 year old collection as a story book for little children could be a bit hasty. A careful look at it beyond the narrative tells us a different story. A critical view at the Panchatantra brings to light a creative way of life coaching using a practical and fun way, that too for all age groups.
The Panchatantra, originally written in Sanskrit, remains as one of the most influential contribution to world literature. It has also been the most frequently translated literary product of India. The Panchatantra has over 200 versions in more than 50 languages. Literary critics have even noted a strong similarity between the Panchatantra and Aesop's fables - and that the Aesop fables has stories from the Panchatantra.
Commenting on the impact of the Panchatantra on the world, Sir William Wilson Hunter, an early Indologist writes:
"The fables of animals, familiar to the Western world from the time of Aesop downwards, had their original home in India…Panchatantra was translated into the ancient Persian in the 6th century A.D. from that rendering all the subsequent versions in Asia Minor and Europe have been derived. The most ancient animal fables of India are at the present day the nursery stories of England and America. This graceful Hindu imagination delighted also in fairy tales, and the Sanskrit compositions of this class are the original source of many of the fairy stories of Persia, Arabia and Christendom."
Franklin Edgerton - a translator of the Panchatantra in 1924 said
"As early as the eleventh century this work reached Europe, and before 1600 it existed in Greek, Latin, Spanish, Italian, German, English, Old Slavonic, Czech, and perhaps other Slavonic languages. Its range has extended from Java to Iceland. In France, "at least eleven Panchatantra tales are included in the work of La Fontaine".
Misconceptions about Panchatantra...
When we hear about India's cultural assets and literary products such as the Panchatantra we tend to dismiss it as old and irrelevant to modern times. We think that the Panchatantra is a story book after all. We hastily declare that it is just a children's book of fables with animal stories that has morals.
We hardly make an effort to go through the source book to know the real purpose of the core script nor do we bother to find out what the author says in his introduction. It is quite sad when the same sets of Indian stories gets published completely restyled, re-branded and animated in a new avatar in the USA or Japan, we celebrate!
According to the Panchatantra itself, Amarashakti the King of Mahilaropya (perhaps in southern India) was concerned about the governing capabilities of his three princes. Apparently the three princes were not interested in learning and after a suggestion made by his minister, the King decided to engage a wise Pundit Vishnu Sharma for 'awakening or igniting their intelligence' of his princes. And it so happened that the Princes became wiser.
So, what is the main theme of the Panchatantra...?
About the Panchatantra, here is what the author Pundit Vishnu Sharma says,
"A man who has studied this Neeti Shaastra or listened to its principles will never be defeated not even by Indra the lord of the Heaven."
The main theme of the Panchatantra is 'Neeti’ which is hard to translate in English. ‘Neeti’ roughly means practical worldly conduct or even a "wise conduct of life". That makes the Panchatantra connected with one of the branches of ancient Indian science known as the 'Neeti-Shaastra' which teaches us, how to relate to and understand people, reliable friendships, problem solving through tact and wisdom and how to live in peace and harmony in the face of the many pitfalls in life.
Interesting methodology of the Panchatantra...
It is very interesting to note that Panchatantra is a clever piece of story telling but with a difference and reveals the creative story-telling powers of the author. Panchatantra is not about the five sets of stories but about five tantras or principles. The garland of stories completes one tantra. Each tantra starts with a main story with other stories inside the story. The characters in a story tell other stories, based on different situations or contexts.
The narrative seems suitable to children but the underlying theme can be key knowledge for grown-ups. The author uses a modern day case study method to make a point and validates the teachings with a practical tip to apply in life.
How the Panchatantra transcends time and culture…
As the story characters are mostly animals, many mistake these for pre-school nursery stories or fables. This is a gross misconception. It was the genius of Pundit Vishnu Sharma that the stories using manly animals are created without any cultural bias - because animals are animals in any culture. The Panchatantra can change our perspectives on the many daily challenges that we face in life.
The stories relate to everyday life situations and show a moral and realistic approach to successful living. The learning is always close to what a person will face in day-to-day life. Even though the book was written more than two thousand years ago the ideas and wisdom expressed transcend time and culture because it teaches us how to be wiser, recognize frauds and cheating, make friends and live life using our intelligence.
Panchatantra ~ many things to many people…
All in all, the Panchatantra can be many things to many people – a fun reading for adults, gift for young or old friends, education on ethics, practical approach to life, creative teaching methodology and of course an excellent story book.  There are also a good number of kindle versions of the Panchatantra these days and quite cheap as well.
The Panchatantra are designed as bed time stories but daytime constructs of wisdom where life is understood by constructing meaning and intellectual stimulation. The Panchatantra is one such shining jewel from ancient India that has stood the test of time and that provides life coaching and mentoring to everybody - be it kids or even adults. Let's not dismiss the Panchatantra as a set of animal stories only for children. In fact, Panchatantra is a Neeti-Shaastra.

The World's Most Romantic Leaf Is Heart-Shaped
By Vimla Patil  

In India, offering a Paan (betel leaf) or  Beeda to a lover is an invitation to erotica. It is an honor when offered to  welcome guests. It is graceful hospitality when it is served at the end of a  festive meal. It is devotion when offered to the gods. And finally, it is pure  romance when it is used in wedding games between newly-weds!
Go  to any Indian social, festive or religious function and you will certainly see  the heart-shaped betel leaf used in many interesting ways. A fresh-looking,  deep green leaf, the Paan or betel leaf has been an integral part of Indian  erotica, religion and culture for millenniums. The earliest records such as the  Rigveda and the Puranas show that it was considered medicinal with its  bitter-pungent taste and digestive qualities. In several of the ancient texts,  there are references to a Paan bida being offered to deities during the rituals  of worship. During the Mughal and Rajput eras, a large number of miniature  paintings are reminiscent of the romance of Krishna and Radha in which Krishna  offers Paan bida to Radha. All these indicate that offering Paan and betel nut  has been a custom for thousands of years in India and has been an integral part  of religious rites, cultural vignettes and social graces in all communities  that have lived in the sub-continent.
However,  there is no clue in history to solve the puzzle as to why India’s neighbouring  countries like Thailand, Cambodia, Burma, Viet Nam or Malaysia and others have  few such traditions. Paan eating is thus majorly restricted to the Indian  subcontinent and is widely seen in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. It is  sometimes seen in Sri Lanka and increasingly in Western countries where there  are Indian, Pakistani or Bangla Deshi populations.
This  ever-popular leaf, which is as traditional an end to a festive Indian meal as  are many mouth-watering desserts, is grown all over India – especially in  moist, shaded landscapes where the rainfall is abundant. The creepers of Paan  are usually cultivated around betel nut palms in plantations in most states of  India. And naturally, depending on where they are grown, there are varieties of  Paan which taste and look different in shape and colour. For instance, the  famous Paans offered in Uttar Pradesh – especially in Varanasi – are the Maghai  and Jagannath. Maghai is small, delicate and sweet to taste. It is almost  always eaten in pairs. Most connoisseurs choose this gentle variety, stuffed  with mouth-freshening fennel, a touch of mint, betel pieces and fragrant  saffron or dry fruits. The Jagannath variety is for more ardent lovers of the  Paan and is large and dark green. Bengal grows the Mohoba which is thicker and  good for a bite when stuffed with scented betel nut slices. Other than this,  the Madrassi and Ambadi varieties of Paan eaten commonly in peninsular India  are more for habitual eaters of Paan who patronize Paan stalls in cities and  villages in large numbers.
Most  lovers of Paan know the varieties and are particular about the ingredients and  choose their bidas with care just like wine lovers make their choice carefully.  The ingredients also differ depending on the buyer. Many stick to the innocent  fennel, peppermint, rose petals in sugar and a bit of catechu or katha. Others,  who are addicted to tobacco, add a lethal mixture of betel powder, catechu and  tobacco paste to enjoy their treat. The last mentioned is considered dangerous  and carcinogenetic. All other non-tobacco versions are served at religious,  cultural and social functions.
There  is a general belief that eating Paan reddens the lips like lipstick. Indeed,  there are miniature paintings and poetic references to the lips of Radha, red  from chewing Paan in many books. However, it is important to remember that the  Paan itself does not create the redness. It is the catechu and lime mixture  which colours the mouth and lips of the eater.
The  mouth-reddening quality of Paan has an interesting anecdote. There are  references to the Paan eating habit of the Moghul Queen Noor Jehan, the  step-mother of Emperor Shah Jehan. Paintings of the era show her holding a Paan  bida and quote her as being thrilled with the ‘red lips’ effect of this  delicacy. Perhaps as a tradition from this anecdote, the Moghul court was known  for its luxurious Paan bidas and the Nawabi culture of Lucknow and Hyderabad  featured not only Paan parties but also the creation of artistic containers  called Paan Daans to carry the fragrant parcels wherever the courtiers  gathered.
Today,  Paan Daans in silver or other metals, or cloth chanchis or bags with pockets  for different ingredients are used by many Paan lovers. Paan bidas have been  the theme of many folk songs as well as classical literature because they are  considered to be aphrodisiacal or medicinal.
Further,  the Paan, without its ingredients, plays a vital role in the religious rites.  At every havan or pooja, the deities are offered a pair of Paans, with no  trimming, but topped with a whole betel nut and some money. This combination is  also used to complete a gift given to guests or relatives on auspicious  occasions. Giving twin Paans with a betel nut and money is the completion of  the gift and a symbol of goodwill. In many states, the Paan plays a romantic  role in weddings. In Bengal, the bride enters the wedding mandap covering her  eyes with two Paans and takes them away only to see her bridegroom in a Shubh  Drishti ritual which means ‘auspicious glimpse’. In Maharashtra, after the  sacraments of marriage are over, the bride and groom share a meal at the end of  which, the bridegroom holds a bida in his mouth and invites his new bride to  bite off half of it, much to the entertainment of the onlookers. Paan bidas are  also served to all invitees, sometimes with a coconut to take away. Paan is  also an ever-present motif in temples where rituals of worship go on all day.
Finally,  growing Paan and selling to millions across India is truly a big industry.  Daily, the vast train network of India carries basket loads of Paans of all  varieties to different cities for vendors to buy wholesale and then to offer to  their customers. Every village or city in India has literally thousands of  vending stalls which supply all varieties of Paan bidas to their regular  clientele. It is customary for such people to buy the day’s quota from their  favourite Paan maker and carry it with them through the day to eat whenever the  urge to eat one comes upon them.
There  is a belief that Paan eating originated in Malaysia and then went to Africa  too. But today, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are the major consumers of this  exotic parcel of a heart-shaped leaf containing fragrant spice mixtures and  often, a sharp touch of tobacco! The Paan is said to be also a part of  Vietnamese culture. There is a saying that the betel leaf starts off the  conversation in many cultures. It kicks off formal gatherings and breaks the  ice. In South East Asia the groom, as a token of exchange, traditionally offers  the parents of the bride Paan. For example, the phrase ‘subject of betel and  areca’ is synonymous with marriage in Vietnam.
The author was Editor of Femina for 25 years. Vimla Patil is among  India's senior most Journalists-Media persons. She excels in writing lifestyle  pieces, women's concerns, travelogues, celebrity interviews, art-culture pieces  about India.

Om Tat Sat

(My humble salutations to  Sri Ramalingam ji, Vimla Patil ji and hindu samskrit dot com  for the collection)


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