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Indian Stories

Scope: In this lecture we turn from mostly epic literature to one of the themes of our next two
units: narrative strategies. This theme is illustrated in three seminal collections of stories
from India: the Jtaka (Story of a Birth), the Pacatantra (the Five Books or the Five
Strategies), and the Kathsaritsgara (Ocean of the Rivers of Story), each of which is
complexly framed within larger stories so that individual tales are nested or emboxed.
Each of the three collections is briefly characterized: the Jtaka tells of the many earlier
lives of the Buddha, the Five Books gives practical advice to rulers, and Ocean of the
Rivers of Story gathers together an amazingly diverse group of tales organized roughly
around making money and being successful. The sophisticated framing techniques of
each are discussed, as well as the amazing and long-lasting legacies of these books,
ranging from the 1001 Nights, Boccaccio, and Chaucer to Aesops Fables, the animal
fables of La Fontaine, Shakespeare, the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, and
even Uncle Remus. The lecture concludes with an anticipation of some of the many ways
in which these brilliant Indian techniques will be used in future literature across the

I. We move now from essentially epic literature to a subject that will be of primary concern in our
next two units: narrative strategies. We begin with three collections of Indian stories whose
influence is unparalleled by any comparable body of work in the world.
II. Indias reliance on the oral tradition for entertainment and instruction has made its storytelling
an incredibly rich tradition, as folklorists to this day remind us.
A. The simple abundance of stories from that country, however, does not explain the amazing
sophistication of the collections organization.
B. All three of the collections under consideration use the device of framing, which sets
stories inside other stories so that each is nested or emboxed in a larger story.
III. The Jtaka, formally collected around the 4th century B.C.E., frames its hundreds of stories
within the 550 prior incarnations of the Buddha.
A. As in Hinduism, karma is carried over from one lifetime to the next; each life is made up
of actions and remembered knowledge from previous lives. Each individual story in the
Jtaka is set inside this framework.
1. In each story, the Buddha recalls a prior life in order to make a point about Buddhist
doctrine or ethics.
2. In each story, the main point is underscored with an epigram, and the Buddha makes
clear what role he played in the story.
B. The stories were written not in Sanskrit but in Pali, a dialect intended for popular
consumption, and they make use of many older folktales, none of whichprior to their
reworkinghad any connection with Buddhism.
1. Some of the stories seem only tangential to Buddhist truths, and somelike the story
about a hare who thinks that the sky is fallingcarry within them suggestions of
their older meanings and values.
2. These lively stories have simply been adapted to Buddhism, teaching Buddhist values
such as not to destroy life, not to take what is not given, to keep from alcohol, to
love selflessly, and to be usefulwhile keeping at least some of their original focus.
3. The story of the self-sacrificing hare, for example, teaches the Buddhist value of
selfless acts of charity while at the same time explaining how the shape of a hare gets
onto the moon.
C. These stories were translated by the Greeks, Persians, Jews, and Arabs, and they traveled
across the world. Aesops animal fables, for example, are likely primarily Indian in
1. Because the stories are largely optimistic and have happy endings, they also have been
a rich source of fairytales for children.
2. An estimated 50 percent of the tales eventually collected by the Brothers Grimm are
Indian in origin; there is even an early version of Uncle Remuss Brer Rabbit and
the Tar Baby.
D. The stories contain touches of realism which can charm adult readers: for example, the
Monkey Kings failure to factor into his calculations the length of vine he has tied around
his waist and thus his failure to make it all the way to the next tree.
IV. The Pacatantra has as its main frame a sage attempting to teach a kings three dull-witted
sons the fine points of governing.
A. This book, written in Sanskrit, was also translated almost immediately into many
languages and brought to Europe by the Arabs in the 8th century C.E., where its stories
and framing devices inspired such works as the 1001 Nights, the Decameron, and The
Canterbury Tales.
1. Each of the works five books has its own frame, and both in the frame and within the
stories characters tell each other stories which illustrate points of governance.
2. The work is always multi-leveled; many different plots go on simultaneously without
ever losing track of the main plot.
3. The works framing plot also is plotted, so that stories within stories play a part in the
plots in which they are enclosed.
B. Especially notable in this collection are the animal stories, in which various animals teach
useful lessons.
1. A wise old crow teaches how to defeat a stronger enemy.
2. A pigeon king shows the most important quality of one who deserves to rule.
C. There are stories about humans as well.
1. A foolish man with a pot full of rice illustrates the dangers of fantasizing a magnificent
future before one has the means to achieve it.
2. A farmers son shows the extreme dangers of greed and impatience.
D. The stories offer a vision of life that is complex and multi-layered, with complicated
appraisals of social and political life.
E. Some of the same stories appear in different Indian collections; Roy C. Amore and Larry
D. Shinns Lustful Maidens and Ascetic Kings helps us to see the different ways in which
Buddhists and Hindus make use of them.
V. The largest and most famous of the three collections is Somadevas Kathsaritsgara, an 11th-
century C.E. Sanskrit adaptation of an earlier 7th-century work in dialect, The Great
A. This collection has a multi-layered frame.
1. In one frame, the 7th-century author writes the stories as a penance imposed on him by
a goddess who turned him into a troll.
2. His stories rejected by a king (because they were written in trolls tongue), the author
burns all but one volumethis one.
3. The penance is demanded because, in another frame, two heavenly creatures overhear
and repeat stories the god iva tells his consort Prvat while she sits in his lap. Both
creatures are banished to earth and not allowed to return until they have disseminated
all the stories.
4. Stories within stories keep proliferating until we lose the thread of the main narrative.
5. A more immediate frame is provided by the adventures of a prince, within whose story
characters tell each other stories, much as iva told his to Prvat.
6. Individual collections of tales are sometimes themselves framed, as is the famous
collection of 25 riddle stories told by a vampire or ghoul to a king (one of these riddle
stories turns up centuries later in Hans Christian Andersens The Princess and the
B. The theme of most of these stories is success, and most of its protagonists are merchants
and bankers.
1. The prince whose story provides the most immediate frame is named Gift of the God
of Riches, suggesting something of the ambience for the tales.
2. A few rogues and thieves get into the stories as well due to the blurred distinction
between a sharp-dealing merchant and a thief. Harisarmon, whose story eventually
will metamorphose into part of Rumpelstiltskin, is one of these characters.
C. Indian collections of stories from this period tend not to feature women as central
characters, but this book has some notable women characters who match in wit,
resourcefulness, and courage to their male counterparts.
1. The tale of The Red Lotus of Chastity is a good example.
2. It also provided, via many intermediaries, one of the plots for Shakespeares
D. The framing technique is important because it emphasizes the seriousness of stories in
Indian life. Even the gods tell stories, and hearing them can help us overcome our own
demons and discover new selves which can begin to move us toward liberation.
VI. The stories in these collections are good reading in themselves. They provided later writers
with framing techniques that will be put to brilliant uses in the books treated in future
Essential Reading:
The Jtaka.
Somadeva, Kathsaritsgara.
Visnuarman, Pacatantra.
Supplementary Reading:
Roy C. Amore and Larry D. Shinn, Lustful Maidens and Ascetic Kings: Buddhist and Hindu
Stories of Life.
Edward C. Dimock Jr., et al. eds. The Literatures of India: An Introduction.
J. A. B. Van Buitenen, trans. Tales of Ancient India.