The Camel and His Friends

(retold in English by Arundhati Khanwalkar)

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The Panchatantra (Pańca-tantra), which means the "five chapters" in Sanskrit, is a collection of beast fables from India, attributed to its narrator, a sage named Bidpai, who is a legendary figure about whom almost nothing is known for certain.  Based on earlier oral folklore, the Panchatantra was composed at some time between 100 BC and AD 500 in a Sanskrit original now lost.  It is primarily known through an Arabic version of the eighth century and a twelfth-century Hebrew translation, which is the source of most Westerns versions of the tales.  Other translations spread the fables as far as central Europe, Asia, and Indonesia.

Like many collections of fables, the Panchatantra is a frame tale, with an introduction containing verse and aphorisms spoken by an eighty-year-old Brahmin teacher named Vishnusharman, who tells the stories over a period of six months for the edification of three foolish princes named Rich-Power, Fierce-Power, and Endless-Power.  The stories are didactic, teaching niti, the wise conduct of life and artha, practical wisdom which stresses cleverness and self-reliance above more altruistic virtues.  How to win friends, protect property, and wage war are among the most typical subjects.  The Panchatantra's five chapters are titled "The Loss of Friends," "The Winning of Friends," "Crows and Owls," "Loss of Gains," and "Ill-considered Action."  The animal characters recur throughout the stories and represent familiar human qualities:  the lion (strength), the bull (mental dullness), the jackal (craftiness), the heron (stupidity), and the cat (hypocrisy).


     Once a merchant was leading a caravan of heavily-laden camels through a jungle when one of them, overcome by fatigue, collapsed.  The farmer decided to leave the camel in the jungle and go on his way.  Later, when the camel recovered his strength, he realized that he was alone in a strange jungle.  Fortunately there was plenty of grass, and he survived.

     One day the king of the jungle, a lion, arrived along with his three friends -- a leopard, a fox, and a crow.  The king lion wondered what the camel was doing in the jungle!  He came near the camel and asked how he, a creature of the desert, had ended up in the hostile jungle.  The camel tearfully explained what happened.  The lion took pity on him and said, "You have nothing to fear now.  Henceforth, you are under my protection and can stay with us."  The camel began to live happily in the jungle.

     Then one day the lion was wounded in a fight with an elephant.  He retired to his cave and stayed there for several days.  His friends came to offer their sympathy.  They tried to catch prey for the hungry lion but failed.  The camel had no problem as he lived on grass while the others were starving.

     The fox came up with a plan.  He secretly went to the lion and suggested that the camel be sacrificed for the good of the others.  The lion got furious, "I can never kill an animal who is under my protection."

     The fox humbly said, "But Lord, you have provided us food all the time.  If any one of us voluntarily offered himself to save your life, I hope you won't mind!"  The hungry lion did not object to that and agreed to take the offer.

     The fox went back to his companions and said, "Friends, our king is dying of starvation.  Let us go and beg him to eat one of us.  It is the least we can do for such a noble soul."

     So they went to the king and the crow offered his life.  The fox interrupted, and said, "You are a small creature, the master's hunger will hardly be appeased by eating you.  May I humbly offer my life to satisfy my master's hunger."

     The leopard stepped forward and said, "You are no bigger than the crow, it is me whom our master should eat."

     The foolish camel thought, "Everyone has offered to lay down their lives for the king, but he has not hurt any one.  It is now my turn to offer myself."  So he stepped forward and said, "Stand aside friend leopard, the king and you have close family ties.  It is me whom the master must eat."

     An ominous silence greeted the camel's offer.  Then the king gladly said, "I accept your offer, O noble camel."  And in no time he was killed by the three rogues, the false friends."

Moral:  Be careful in choosing your friends.

  There is a Study Guide to this story.

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   The material on this page -- the introductory note as well as the text of the story -- is taken from Dana Gioia and R. S. Gwynn, eds., The Longman Anthology of Short Fiction:  Stories and Authors in Context,  (N.Y.:  Longman, 2001), pp. 17-18).  IT is copyright © 2001by Dana Gioia and R. S. Gwynn, and is reproduced here under fair use doctrine for use in English 320 only.

   This page last updated 15 January 2003 .