Kalileh and Demneh is one of classic Persian literary masterpieces. It
is mainly a translation of an Indian book, Penchatentra (which means
five chapters) written in Sanskrit and published some 1500 years ago.
It also includes chapters form an Indian national epic book,
Mahabahrata. The original translation was done from Sanskrit into
Pahlavi by Barzuyeh. Ibn Moghafa’ translated it from Pahlavi to
Arabic. Finally Abdollah Monshi, among others, translated it into
Persian from Arabic. Each translator has added some text or chapter(s)
of his own.
The Original Sources
Penchatentra is said to have been written by an Indian sage, Bidpai
during the reign of a local ruler, Dabeshlim. Dabeshlim resisted the
army of Alexander of Macadonia, but was defeated. Eventually he rose
up again and established independence for his land, although as a
despot. Bidpai took it upon himself to seek an audience with the king,
during which he tried to warn Dabeshlim about his autocratic behavior.
By doing this he enraged the king and was therefore thrown in jail.
After a while Dabeshlim recognized
the value of Bidpai’s advice, released him form jail and asked him
to compile his advice in the form of a book. Bidpai sugar coated his
advice by presenting it as stories told by animals.
When Anushirvan, the Sasanid king of Persia, heard that there was a
book advising kings he sought someone capable of translating the text.
He therefore ordered his aids to find a person who knew Sanskrit as
well as Pahlavi, the Persian language of the Sasanid era. A young
physician, Barzuyeh, was thus found and was sent to India to obtain a
copy of the book and translate it, along with any other books of
sociology or scientific value that he could find there. Upon
completion of the book Barzuyeh was honored at the palace, and public
readings of the book took place at the court. The translation included
Penchatentra (the first five chapters of Kalileh and Demneh), as well
as parts of the epic book Mahabahrata. It was called Kalileh and
Demneh after two jackals who are the main characters of the first
story of Penchatentra. It also included a preface by Bozorgmehr, the
able prime minister of Anushirvan, and a biography of Barzuyeh.
Anushirvan is a complex historical figure. He had sufficient wisdom to
recognize the value of scientific and sociological books. However, he
also bears the infamy for ordering the massacre of the followers of
Mazdak, a contemporary prophet who was demanding social reform
following a major famine.
3. Arabic Translation
In the eighths century AD Ibn Moghafa’ produced an Arabic
translation of Kalileh and Demneh. This is considered a masterpiece of
the Arabic literature. Arabs had produced many major poets, most of
them before Islam. In fact Moa’laghat, the best poems chosen by
competition for hanging in the Ka’bah, the idol temple at Mecca
before Islam, attest to this tradition. A well known poet of this era
Amara al-Gheis (who died in 565 AD, 80 years before Hejreh) has
composed many beautiful poems about love and other earthly pleasures.
It is ironic that such brilliant creative people have been dismissed
by some Moslems, who have termed the period the Jahilieh (ignorance).
In fact the spurt of Persian poetry that started after Islam when Dari
language became the common language in Iran may have had its
inspiration in the Arabic poetic tradition. Dari had been the language
used in the court of the Sasanids at Tisfun. After the Arab invasion
of Iran it got mixed with Arabic to produce a rich language for
poetry. Many of the early Persian poets seem to have been inspired by
the great Arab poets and most meters used in their poems had been
those of Arabic poetry. The validity of this statement can be verified
by the fact that no major poets
in the Pahlavi language have been known. The majority of these poets
were sufis, who did not accept the stigma that some Moslems had
attached to poetry and music.
However, in spite of an old poetic tradition, no major work of Arabic
prose existed before the eight century AD. For this reason Ibn Moghafa’
is called the founder of the Arabic prose. In fact Kalileh and Demneh
is still used as an exemplary book, and as a textbook in many Arabic
speaking countries. In addition to the translation of the Pahlavi text
Ibn Moghafa’ added some chapters of his own. For example Demneh, who
masterminds the destruction of Cow, and innocent figure in the story,
by making up stories that he tells the Lion (king), is said to have
paid for his mean deed at the end of the story. Ibn Moghafa’ does
not find this sufficient and writes a whole chapter, called Demneh
Revealed, to do justice to the story.
Abdollah Ibn Moghafa’ was born as Behrooz in a
Zoroastrian Persian family. His father, Dazuyeh, was nicknamed Moghafa’
because of his twisted flingers. His fingers had been damaged under
torture ordered by the governor of Iraq because Dazuyeh had been
advocating education for masses, an idea that was considered
subversive.. Ibn Moghafa’ converts to Islam during the reign of
Mansur Abbasid. However, this brilliant writer was murdered soon after
the publication of Kalileh and Demneh, when he was only thirty six
years old. Many reasons have been given for the death of Ibn Moghafa’,
including imitating the Quran, and translating blasphemous material to
mislead the Moslems. He had produced some eight major works, including
translation of the book of Mazdak from Pahlavi into Arabic and Resaleh
Sahabeh. The latter seems to be aimed at Mansur, the Caliph, and is
the blue print of a revolution.
The common story told about Ibn Moghafa’s death is a
letter he wrote on behalf of Abdollah, Mansur’s nephew. Abdollah had
led an unsuccessful rebellion against Mansur. His great uncles (uncles
of Mansur) intervene on his behalf and Mansur agrees to forgive him.
To reassure his uncles Mansur suggests a letter be written, that he
would sign, promising not to harm Abdollah. Ibn Moghafa’, a
well known writer at the time, is chosen for the task. To make the
case fool proof he puts exaggerated phrases such as, “If Mansur ever
harms Abdollah his wives shall be forbidden to him and his subjects
would have no obligation to obey him.” This language infuriates
Mansur, who orders Ibn Moghafa’s arrest
The task of arresting Ibn Moghafa’ falls on Sofyan,
the grand son of Yazid Ummya, and the governor of Basra. There is no
love lost between Sofyan and Ibn Moghafa’. Long before this incident
Ibn Moghafa’ had declared, in public, that he did not think much of
Sofyan, and had called Sofyan a son of a bitch. When Ibn Moghafa’ is
arrested and brought to Sofyan the latter swears that if Ibn Moghafa
leaves the quarters alive he (Sofyan) is indeed a son of bitch. He
further tells Ibn Moghafa’ that he (Sofyan) would not have to answer
for this murder, because Ibn Moghafa’ is Zandaghi and in the next
world a Muslim imposter. Thus, he has him killed in a savage manner,
by having his limbs cut off and burnt before he is finally put to
When Mansur’s uncles complain to Mansur about the arrest and
disappearance of Ibn Moghafa’, he tells them that their own lives
would be in danger should Ibn Moghafa’ appear through the door that
is behind them. With this threat the uncles realize that Mansur had
been in on the arrest and murder of Ibn Moghafa’ and drop the
There have been many translations of Kalileh and Demneh into Persian,
a number of them from Ibn Moghafa’ s Arabic version. The version
commonly used in Iran is a translation by Abdollah Monshi in the
thirteenth century AD. This version includes many insertions, by
Monshi, of Persian and Arabic poems as well as verses from the Quran.
A few years after this translation Mohammad Bokhari produced a
verbatim translation of Ibn Moghafa’s text. There has also been a
translation by Rudaki, the well known Persian poet of the 9th century
AD, in the form of poems. Like most other work of Rudaki unfortunately
this book no longer exists.
Monshi’s fate was no better than that of Ibn
Moghafa’s. He was first appointed as minister of Khosrow Shah
Ghaznavi, and then ordered murdered by the latter. Abdollah Monshi is
another brilliant writer who has produced a master piece by
translating Ibn Moghafa’s text. After Golestan of Sa’di this work
is considered the best piece of Persian literature and has been used
as a model by many writers in different periods and as a text book.
Style of Kalileh and Demneh
Kalileh and Demneh is stories of an animal kingdom with numerous
additional tales told to substantiate a statement (story into story)
or to highlight important points. It also includes an unusual number
of metaphors, parallel construction and numerous words of wisdom.
To present a sample of the writing the writer could not locate an
adequate English translation. The samples provided on the Internet by
Community in the U.S. did not appear to have the elegance of the
Persian text of Monshi. Thus, for the sake of completeness the writer
endeavored the task of translating a passage from Monshi’s text. He
seeks forgiveness of the readers for his lack of ability to convey the
music and beauty of that text. The tricky Demneh comes to his
confident and wise friend Kalileh complaining how his introduction of
the Cow to the Lion has caused his own loss of position near the Lion,
as the Lion is now enjoying the company of the Cow. He is thinking of
a scheme to change the situation. Kalileh tells the following story
which is several examples of how a vicious act can backfire and hurt
the schemer himself.
A Passage of Kalileh and Demneh
A pious man receives a gift of a beautiful robe from a king. A thief
sees it and schemes to get it. He tries to become the man’s friend
till he finds the opportunity to steal the robe. The pious man
realizes what had happened afterwards and goes to the city in search
of the thief. On the way he sees two rams fighting each other. They
had injured one another and a fox is taking advantage of the situation
sucking their blood. The rams charge at each other with their horns.
They miss but one of the horns gets the fox and kills him. By the time
the pious man gets to the city it is night time.
He starts looking for a place to stay. He cannot find
one and in desperation ends up spending the night at a brothel. There
he sees a pretty woman accompanied by a man. She is the madam’s best
girl but is having a good time with the man without paying attention
to other customers. The madam had been mad at her for some time
because of her callousness about business. The present sight makes her
so furious that she decides to get rid of her that very night. She
offers much wine to the girl and her companion till they are
completely drunk and pass out. She then puts a small tube in the
girl’s bottom trying to blow poison into her. As she puts her mouth
to the tube the girl lets out some gas pushing the poison back into
the madam’s mouth, killing her instantly. Thus the pious man
witnesses a proof of the proverb, “The reward of an ass kisser is a
Early morning the man leaves trying to find a better
place to stay. He meets a shoemaker who invites him to his house. He
asks his wife to make a meal for the guest but apologized that he has
an event to attend. The shoemaker’s wife has a lover and a match
maker is their go-between. She asks the match maker to tell her lover
that her husband is away for the night and to have him come over. The
shoemaker comes back drunk and sees the lover at the door. His
suspicion justified, he beats up his wife tying her to a post in the
house. After the shoemaker falls asleep the match maker comes in
complaining to the woman for keeping the lover waiting. “Either go
out or tell him to go home,” she tells the woman. “If you untie me
and agree to replace me at the post,” replies the woman, “I will
go and come back quickly.” The match maker agrees and puts herself
at the post. The shoemaker wakes up and starts calling his wife. The
match maker does not respond for fear of being discovered. Hearing no
response the shoe maker becomes enraged. He takes a knife and cuts off
the match maker’s nose. He then puts it in her hand telling her to
send it to her lover as a present. He then goes back to sleep.
When the shoe maker’s wife returns, she apologized to the match
maker for what had happened. She then releases her and ties herself
back to the post. The pious man witnesses all this. The woman stays
quiet for a while. Then she starts a loud prayer, begging God to cure
her nose if she is innocent. The shoemaker asks her what all this
raucous is about. “Get up cruel man and see for yourself how God has
given me back my nose, because I am innocent,” she replies. The
shoemaker lights a light and sees that his wife is whole. He
apologizes promising to repent and never raise his hand on her again
without solid proof of wrongdoing.
Meanwhile the match maker goes home all the while
trying to come up with an explanation for her situation. She finds the
opportunity when her husband wakes up asking for his toilet objects.
He has to leave quickly for an important appointment. The match maker
hands him his shaving blade only.
The husband gets furious shaking the blade at her for her lack of
concern. The match maker throws herself to the floor screaming. The
neighbors rush in scolding the husband for having cut his wife’s
nose off. The match maker’s relatives arrive later and take the
husband to the judge. The judge asks the man why he has cut off his
wife’s nose for no good reason. The startled husband cannot give a
satisfactory answer. The judge rules to have him punished.
At this point the pious man stands up. “Wait, your honor,” he
says. “This man is innocent, because the thief did not steal
my robe and the rams did not kill the fox, and the poison did not kill
the madam and the match maker’s husband did not cut off her nose.
As I witnessed all this.”
The judge asked the man to explain himself.
“You see your honor,” he said, “if I had not been fooled
by flattery and would not have believed the thief, he would not
have found the opportunity to steal my robe. And if the fox had not
been overcome by greed, and had stopped his blood sucking, he would
not have been killed by the rams. If the prostitute had not fallen for
the young man she would not have lost her life. And if the match maker
had not encouraged lascivious acts she would not have lost her