What I am Reading

I am currently reading Kalila and Dimna: Fables of Friendship and Betrayal trans. Ramsay Wood (London: Alfred A Knopf, 2008).  This is a western translation of a very ancient classic, which dates back to a Pali version, c. 250 BCE, known as Jakarta Tales or “Former Lives of the Buddha”.  It is thought to be older than that and is known by many names:the Sanksrit version (Karataka and Damanaka, c. 300 CE) which was translated into the ancient Persian tongue of Pahlevi in 570 BCE , and then nto Arabaic by a Jewish scholar in 750 BCE (Kalilia wa Dimnah). The original Sanskrit version cannot be found. Doris Lessing tells us that “the most famous translation into Arabic was by a Zoroastrian who converted to Islam,” and that the book was loved by Buddhists, Zoroastrians, Christians, Moslems, and Jews.

Famous in the middle ages and the Renaissance, the book is relatively unknown in our time.  It was translated many times; into Sanskrit again as the Pachatantra and the Hitopadesha, as well as into Tibetan and Chinese (Avandas);  and then into Sanskirt again in the 12th century (Kathasarit-sagara).  It was translated into Syrian in the 10th century, Greek in the 9th century, Persian in the 12th century, Spanish, Hebrew and Armenian in the 13th century, Latin in the 12th century, German, Turkish, English, and Italian in the 15th, English again and French in the 17th, and Swedish in the 18th century.

Frequently compared to Machiavelli’s The Prince because it is a book of moral wisdom on statecraft, it seems a good book to be reading during this time of revolution and government-toppling in the Middle East.

Illustration c. 1380. The Rabbit fools the Elephant King by Getting him to Look at the Moon