Thursday, May 21, 2009

Narayana's Hitopadesa, reviewed by Nagalakshmi Balakrishnan

Close your eyes and open the book. Read the story you find on the page, or find the beginning. This would perhaps be the easiest way to read Narayana's Hitopadesa. Or read one or two at a time, else an entire section in one go.

Most of the stories take you back to the storytellers of your childhood. Who told me a version of this story, or where have I heard it before? We may also remember a story from the panchatantra or a fable from Aesop.

The combination of prose and verse could take a little time to get used to. Remember our oral tradition, and the advantage rhyme has in committing anything to memory.

The verses seem to hide prophesies for the contemporary world.The following stanza brought the Satyam downfall to my mind.

In finance the evils are:
Excesses in expenditure
And lack of proper inspection;
Injustices in tax collection;
Fraud, which is like robbery;
And a remote authority. (93) page 104

Here's a Talibanic view of women in ancient times as well.

The name of 'wife' should be denied
To one who can't her husband please
The latter being satisfied
The gods with women are at ease. (198) page 66

To drink and keep bad company
To roam about excessively
In others' homes to sleep, feel free
From husbands staying separately:
Six blemishes of women be.(115) page 46

Amusing or infuriating? Whoever accused 'westernisation' as a bad influence on women - the multifarious sena(senae?) please take note. Unless these 'evils' existed in our culture, they would not have been mentioned! Now eat your words, protectors of Indian culture!

Read in sequence, it is interesting to find one story woven into another. A parrot or a crane narrate many set in the world of birds, animals and humans.

The translator's introduction and the notes will help understand the nuances of the work. Many students of sanskrit read the original as a textbook. They would be able to use this translation for reference.

Go ahead, grab a copy, and enliven a boring summer day. Better still, read it and charm a listening child.

Discover more about Hitopadesa here.

1 comment:

  1. Evils always existed, in both men and women. That has not been denied by anyone. But what is wrong, especially done in the west nowadays, is the 'rightisation' of wrong acts and attitudes, calling them as natural.