Kalilah and Dimnah's changing paratexts and communicative relations

exhibit context of Peter Coffin, Colby Design Posters, at Hirshhorn Gallery

Additions and changes to the book Kalilah and Dimnah’s paratexts indicate its compilers, translators, and disseminators changing interests.  The first version of Kalilah and Dimnah was Borzuya’s mid-sixth-century, middle-Persian version.  It included as paratexts an account of Borzuya’s journey to India and Borzuya’s autobiography.[1]  Providing context for Kalilah and Dimnah’s contents, these chapters describe Borzuya’s interest in personal, spiritual goods.

In the mid-eighth century, ibn al-Muqaffa added an introduction to his Arabic version of Kalilah and Dimnah.  Compared to Borzuya’s autobiography and the account of Borzuya’s journey to India, ibn al-Muqaffa’s introduction is much more interested in social and political relations.  Ibn al-Muqaffa vigorously promoted Kalilah and Dimnah along with his own worldly interests.

Over time, the account of Borzuya’s journey became less personal, less factual, longer, and more literary.  A surviving short version of that account, thought to best represent the original, describes acts consistent with Borzuya’s professional position as royal physician.[2]  It also presents a spiritually questing personality consistent with the personality in Borzuya’s autobiography.  Most copies of Kalilah and Dimnah over time acquired longer versions of Borzuya’s journey to India.  The longer versions eliminate much of the professional and personal description of Borzuya.  Longer versions give more prominence to the Persian king, presented in idealized terms.  Longer versions also add abstract wisdom attributed to Indian sages.[3]

About the thirteenth century, Ali ibn al-Shah added a further introduction to Kalilah and DimnahAli ibn al-Shah’s introduction obliquely refers to ibn al-Muqaffa’s introduction.  It also briefly refers to Borzuya’s trip to India.[4]  Most of the introduction is a fantastic narrative of an Indian scholar’s creation of Kalilah and Dimnah.  It emphasizes scholars’ importance for correcting and guiding rulers in governing society.

The interests of Kalilah and Dimnah’s compilers, translators, and disseminators became less personal and more general across nearly a millennium.  The paratexts concerning Borzuya’s journal and autobiograhy were originally a personal testament.  About two centuries later, Kalilah and Dimnah became a fairly specific tool for ibn al-Muqaffa within his introduction.  About five centuries later, Kalilah and Dimnah functioned as a recognized social object in Ali ibn al-Shah’s paratext of scholarly class struggle.  As this paratextual history indicates, alienation occurs not just in the work of material production, but also in the communicative relations of texts.

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[1] Borzuya’s autobiography refers to the first-person account of Borzuya’s life typically included in Kalilah and Dimnah.  How much of that autobiography Borzuya actually wrote is a matter of some scholarly controversy.

[2] Blois (1990) argues convincingly that the short version is original to Borzuya’s text.

[3] Longer versions are given in English translation in Jallad (2002) and Knatchbull (1819).  Blois (1990), Text II, provides a critical edition and English translation of the short version.  Id. Ch. 8 reviews differences among the longer versions.

[4] Following ibn al-Muqaffa, Ali ibn al-Shah declared the wide appeal of Kalilah and Dimnah:

It was a book of fables.  He also put dialogue into the mouths of animals such as beasts, predators, lions and birds, in order to amuse both the cultivated and the common people.  But ultimately it is written to educate the intellectual elite.

Trans. Jallad (2002) p. 55.  Ali ibn al-Shah, following the longer version of the account of Borzuya’s journey, states that King Khusraw Anushirwan sent Borzuya to India to get Kalilah and Dimnah.  Id. p. 57.

[image] My photograph of exhibit context: Peter Coffin, Untitled (Designs for Colby Poster Company), 2007, at Hirshhorn Gallery, July 2013.


Blois, François de. 1990. Burzōy’s voyage to India and the origin of the book of Kalīlah wa Dimnah. London: Royal Asiatic Society.

Jallad, Saleh Saʻadeh, trans. 2002. The fables of Kalilah and Dimnah. London: Melisende.

Knatchbull, Wyndham, trans. 1819. Kalila and Dimna, or, The Fables of Bidpai. Oxford: W. Baxter for J. Parker.

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