About Hinduism and India

India is the home of literary fiction. Stories of Indian origin have long been told in distant lands of Asia and Europe in a variety of forms often without awareness of their source. Although Europeans had no knowledge of Sanskrit till seventeenth century, folk-lore of India had already inspired people over there. Many of the popular stories had been converted to the local mold and that could be a subject for research in the age of copy right.

The Art of Story Telling

Indians had perfected several styles of story-telling. Some of the most popular formats and folk tales in Sanskrit are mentioned here.

  • Ballad Singing – Ballad singing has been very popular in India. Singers would narrate stories through songs at community gatherings. Their themes were chosen from Ramayana, Mahabharata, Puranas, and also the heroic deeds of Alha-Udal, love stories of Nala-Damyanti and sufferings of Raja Bhartahari.Ballad singing later inspired Europeans also as Ballads have been very popular in English literature.
  • Panchatantra – No other book, except the Bible, has played so important part in the field of World literature as story-collection ofPanchatantra. The name of its author Vishnu Sharma had travelled to Europe and other countries of the world centuries before Kalidasa captured the fascination of Western intellectuals at the end of the eighteenth century.
  • Jataka TalesJataka Tales are another collection of tales intended to illustrate the precepts of righteous living. Hindus believed in rebirth. Jataka Tales narrate various rebirths of Buddha in the form of Bodhisatva. In Jataka tales Lord Buddha is incarnated in human as well as in animal forms like deer, elephant, or monkey to spread the message of justice and wisdom. Many of the tales of Panchtatra and Jatka Tales are identical. Whereas in Panchtantra lord Rama is the narrator, this role is assigned to Bodhisatva in Jatka Tales. It is significant that Rishabhdeva and Rama both are the incarnations of Vishnu. Jatka Tales were written in Pali script.
  • Hitopdesha – Hitopdesha contained interesting incidents from prevailing social life and bring out some moral lessons on varied subjects to stress some ethical aspect of Buddhism, such as choice of friends. The subject matter of stories concerned day-to-day events in the life of common folks. They generate some moral values in life reflecting the spirit of Yama and Niyama.
  • Betal Pachissi – Another collection of stories is Betal Pachchisi that contain twenty-five stories narrated by Betal to virtuous King Vikramadittyawith every tale revealing some subtle truth.
  • Singhasan Battisi – Similarly, another collection from the same period is Singhasan Batteesi. These stories are narrated one by one by thirty-two puppet supporting the throne of King The tales revolve around several facets of Vikramadittyaglorifying him as a just, benevolent, and chivalrous King.
  • Shuka Rambha – In this collection a parrot happens to witness love affairs, debauchery, infidelity, and jealousy between human relations concerning couples, friends and other persons, and exposes the same through narratives.
  • Katha Sarit Sagara – It is another compendium of assorted tales.

Conversion of Folk Literature

Through Arabs and Persian travelers, Indian folk tales were carried to Turkey, Rome, Greece, Spain and other European countries. From Constantinople, Indian stories were transmitted to Venice and Naples through trade contacts and they found their way into the works of Boccaccio, Chaucer, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Le Sage, La Fontaine, Voltaire, and other famous writers.

With each story-teller, the story assumed new looks, eventually reaching a stage that bore only a feeble resemblance with the original. It was much later when Western scholars discovered Sanskrit literature and the Indian contribution to the world’s fiction came to be appreciated. Those folk tales were translated in many languages. Shuka-Rambha is known as Tota-Maina in countries of Middle East.

Many of the immensely popular tales such as the ‘Magic Mirror’ ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ and the ‘Purse of Fortunate’ have been traced to Indian sources. So are the Arabian Nights, which have also been traced to Indian sources. The world-famous story of ‘Sindbad’ is a tale of Indian origin as the Arab historian Al Masudi expressly said that the Kitab el Sindbad was derived from India. Most of travels and voyages of Sindbad are narrated on the backdrop of Indian shores. Some of the tales were given local face lifts that it was impossible to trace their origin. Following is an example:-

Peter of Holland

In Holland, the sea presses in on the land so much that the people built big walls of earth and stone to hold back waters. These were to be watched at all times for breach, as even a small hole was considered to be dangerous. Many years ago, there lived a seven years old boy named Peter. One day his mother sent him to go across dikes to deliver some cakes to a blind man. She warned him to return before dark. On way back home, Peter noticed the sea water beat against the dike. Soon the water started trickling and there was a leak in the dike. He tried all possible means to block the leak but could not. It grew darker and colder at night. No one came to help. With bare hands he tried to stop water for whole night and in the morning countrymen found him exhausted. They plugged the breech and carried the hero Peter home. Since then whenever sea roars like a flood, the children are taught what a child could do. Parents take their children by the hand, and tell them of brave little Peter whose courage had saved the land.

This story is similar to that of child Upmannyu in Hindu scriptures who was the disciple of Rishi Apadyomya. Upmannyu looked after the cows at Gurukul. One day he was sent to collect firewood from forest late in the evening. He noticed a breach in field and when all   attempts made by him to plug the breech single-handedly failed, he lied himself down on the ground to keep that plugged with his bare body for whole night till the Guru and other disciples discovered him on next morning.

In both cases the story motivated sense of commitment to duty.  Events are similar but the background and locations have been changed. That was just one example. Even Shakespeare was inspired by a Mahabharata episode to depict death of Macduff in his play Macbeth.

Indian influence on Global Literature

  • Story Telling Technique – The format of telling one story every day has inspired several ancient writers directly or indirectly.  In 1350 Chaucer used the same technique for his classic Canterbury Tales, where every pilgrim narrated a story every night to fellow pilgrims to cover the journey. Arabian Nights have also followed the same style.
  • Concept of Sutra-dhar –In most of the ancient Indian plays, A Sutra-dhar would link the scene by narration to the viewers that were practically not possible for stage action. In Elizabethan plays including Shakespeare’s, similar technique has been used in the form of Prologue and Epilogue. Christopher Marlowe, a contemporary of Shakespeare, also modeled the Prologue of Dr Faustus inspired by Kalidasa.
  • Comic Character – Another concept from Kalidasa’s period to influence English drama was to add a comic Vidushaks in the play, such as a Fool to accompany the central character. His main role was to provide some comic relief to counter-balance tragedy and also to be a mouth piece of the play writer. Such Vidushaks appeared on the Elizabethan stage in the role of Falstaff in Shakespeare’s historical plays.
  • Opera Performance – Presenting a story through song and dance is old Indian art. Bharat Muni’s Natya Shastra is the oldest and comprehensive treatise on the art of dance and drama written in third century AD. It covered all aspects of stage craft, acting, make-up, stage management, dance and music. Opera presentation was fully mature in seventh century AD, while in Europe people were still living in forest dwellings. Kalidasa, Bhava Bhuti and Banabhatta were renowned names in play writing. Emperors Vikramadittya, Harash Vardhna and others personally patronized the art of dance drama. They wrote and acted in plays. With Kalidasa the foundation of Opera (musical Dance Drama) was laid in Gupta period that later flourished in Europe in sixteenth century.

Influence on Literary Style

All the formats and styles of literature had already been tried in India before the same were adopted abroad.

  • Question-Answers Format: For explaining serious subject matter the format of question-answers has been widely used in Upanishads, Puranas and Gita.
  • Epic Writing: The grand style of embellishments, figures of speech had been used by the epic writers of Ramayana and Mahabharata that contain vivid use of simile, comparison, contrast, metaphor, alliteration and onomatopoeia. Since then no new format or new figure of speech has been added to literature of any language. By no stretch of imagination it can be concluded that Valmiki, Veda Vyas or Tulsidas had been inspired by Homer, Dante or Milton.
  • Heavenly Invoking: Invoking the blessings from Sarsawati, Ganeshaor from some other gods has been an Indian tradition. In Paradise Lost Milton is also seen invoking heavenly Muse to inspire him to write his epic.
  • Ode Format: In all the Vedas, the Rishies first address the subject and seek blessings, be it a god, goddess or an herbal plants before the attributes of the subject are narrated in the form of an address. This format is called ‘ode format’ that Keats and Shelley used later in English literature.

The above fact pertain to the period before which Sanskrit had already completed her golden period. Hindi had also come off her epic period with several epics like Prithvi Raj Raso, Veesal De Raso, Hameer Dev Raso, and Padmavat on book shelf. Hindi was being enriched by host of metaphysical and mystic poets like Khusro and Kabir when English Literature was just born in 1350 AD. It is a pity that we Indians realized the greatness of Kalidasa only after the British honored him with the title of Indian Shakespeare.

Chand K Sharma

(Next: Splashes – 41/72 –Prosperous Social Living)


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