Of course you know the infamous stories The Tortoise and the Hare, The Ant and the Grasshopper, The Fox and the Grapes  These stories (and several others) are considered a part of Aesop’s Fables and The Panchatantra.  But which collection cames first?  Or rather, which influenced the other?  This topic is more worthy of a doctoral thesis, but since I have yet to read one of those, here’s what I think.

Aesop’s Fables is a collection of stories attributed to Aesop (of course) – a slave and storyteller who lived in ancient Greece during the 5th century BCE.  However, recent theories purport that “Aesop” wasn’t the sole author of the fables – and that some of the stories can be traced back to ancient Mesopotamia – as early as the 3rd millenium BCE.  Much has also been written of the connection between Aesop’s Fables and The Jatakas – the birth stories of the Buddha dated around 400 BCE – which also used anthropomorphism to breathe life into animals, birds and trees.  Present day collections seem to have evolved from a manuscript by another Greek, Babrius, dated in the 1st century CE, who merely capitalized on the Aesop name.

The Panchatantra is a collection of Indian animal fables credited to Vishnu Sharma– – a royal pundit and teacher who lived in Mahilaropya (close to modern-day Chennai) in the 3rd century BCE.  The Raja of Mahilaropya wanted someone to teach his 3 sons about life and governing – so that they would be fit to eventually rule the kingdom.  Sharma thought it would be most effective to teach the princes through animal stories – and so he composed a collection of 5 volumes – (ergo “Pancha-Tantra” – Sanskrit for “Five Principles”).  The 5 volumes teach the central Hindu principles of neeti (“wise conduct of life”) in the following categories:

  • Mitra-bheda:  The Separation of Friends
  • Mitra-lābha or Mitra-samprāpti:  The Gaining of Friends
  • Kākolūkīyam:  Of Crows and Owls (re: War and Peace)
  • Labdhapraṇāśam:  Loss Of Possession
  • Aparīkṣitakārakaṃ:  Consequences of Rash Action

It seems that The Panchatantra is a codification of oral stories which are much older than the actual text – as is the case with almost all other sources of Indian literature – even the Vedas.

So in my humble opinion, based on the dates alone, it seems that Aesop wins this race-back-in-time:  he lived in the 5th century BCE, and Sharma didn’t author The Panchatantra until almost 2 centuries later.  However, since it looks like it is in fact Babrius’s manuscript that is the actual written source for the modern collection of Aesop’s Fables – I’d argue that The Panchatantra wins after all:  Babrius’s collection is dated much, much later – to the 1st century CE.

But of course, the imporant fact is that whichever was “first,” the children of the modern world have some great collections of stories.  India, Greece, Mesopotamia (and most likely even China, Japan, Egypt and others) have all collectively given us the gift of The Fable.


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