Indian-Persian-Arabic-Jewish-Christian wisdom in rotten world

The world has always been rotten. Translating into Middle Persian the ancient Indian wisdom of the Panchatantra, the sixth-century Persian royal physician Borzuya lamented:

We find, O my honored brethren and distinguished teachers, that the world is going backwards in this hard time of ours, in this our evil and vexatious generation. [1]

In the eighth-century Islamic caliphate, ibn al-Muqaffa translated Borzuya’s work into Arabic as the Kalila wa Dimna. In the eleventh century, a Syriac Christian translated Kalila wa Dimna into Syriac. Elaborating upon Borzuya’s claim that he was living among an “evil and vexatious generation,” the Syriac translator about five centuries later interpolated his own despair:

So it is especially in the days in which it has seemed good to your Excellency that this book should be brought to light and translated from Arabic into Syriac. For we find that the truth on which the world has been founded, and on which as if on solid adamant the Church of Christ has been built, is especially hidden by the teachers of the Church and the pastors of God. Yes, they have hidden in the heart of the earth that love which is the perfecter of all virtues, according to the testimony of the wise architect and zealous treasurer and heavenly apostle. Love is utterly taken from the world, especially from the priests and from those who seek the priestly office. Love is laid in the dust of the earth. [2]

The Syriac translator strongly criticized his fellow men of the Church:

Finally, the whole mass of humanity, especially the men of the Church, have put away the remembrance of the end from before their eyes. They have cast the fear of the Judge and of His keen vengeance behind their backs.

The Indian-Persian-Arabic worldly wisdom of Kalila wa Dimna is an alternative to corrupted or ignored Christian ethics. A sense of Christian ethical despair may have motivated the translation of Kalila wa Dimna from Arabic into Syriac in the eleventh century.

One story in Kalila wa Dimna suggests the eminence of Jewish scholars. A traveler met a holy man zealous in following his religious duties. The holy man welcomed the traveler as his guest and served him dates. In the course of their conversation, the holy man spoke Hebrew. The guest found Hebrew to be beautiful and desired to learn it. The holy man then instructed his guest with a story of a crow and a partridge. The crow saw a partridge strutting about and admired its manner of walking. The crow attempted to imitate the partridge, but couldn’t. In attempting to imitate the partridge, the crow corrupted his own manner of walking and became the most graceless of all birds. The holy man thus warned his guest not to attempt to learn Hebrew, for he would fail and moreover spoil his ability to speak his own language well.[3]

The story of the holy man and his guest suggests that, in the time and place of its composition, Hebrew was a prestigious language. That’s consistent with this story being written between roughly 550 GC and 1000 GC in central Mesopotamia. The Pumbedita Yeshiva and Sura Yeshiva then led highly regarded Jewish learning in central Mesopotamia (“Babylonia”). Persians, Christians, and Arabs probably regarded with a mixture of admiration and cultural fear eminent Jewish holy men representing such learning. The story of the holy man and this guest supports cultural insularity and defensiveness.

holy man and his guest in illustration to Kalila wa Dimna

In despair about Christian culture and translating the Indian-Persian-Arabic wisdom of Kalila wa Dimna, the Syriac translator was culturally defensive. He eliminated references to Hebrew in translating the story of the holy man and his guest. In his Syriac translation, the traveling guest refers only to a language that’s pleasant-sounding and that the wise desire to know. The Syriac translator also inserted into his translation many unmarked Biblical quotations as well as references to God coded as “the wise one,” “the chief of the wise,” or “the Witness.” While broadening access to Indian-Persian-Arabic wisdom, the Syriac translator also promoted Christian wisdom.

The Syriac translator’s inserted Christian wisdom makes Kalila wa Dimna more complex. Consider the story of the King of Kashmir and his talking pet bird Fanzah. The King’s boy and Fanzah’s fledgling son became friends. But one day the boy became annoyed at his young avian friend and killed him. Fanzah in retaliation gouged out the boy’s eyes and then flew to safety on a high perch outside the King’s palace. The King urged Fanzah to return. The King said that Fanzah had rightly taken vengeance and promised that he would not seek to harm Fanzah. Fanzah refused to return, even after a long, philosophical argument about dispelling anger, change of heart, and overcoming fear. Fanzah rightly feared that the King wished to do him harm.[4]

Early in his dialogue with the King, Fanzah spoke of punishment for deception. In the Arabic version, Fanzah declared:

The deceitful man is taken in his own snares. If he himself escapes the chastisement which he deserves, his crime is punished upon his children’s children. Now your son has acted treacherously towards mine, and I have lost no time in punishing him as he merited. [5]

The King’s son in anger acted wrongly, but not deceitfully. The King himself was acting deceitfully in claiming that he retained no anger toward Fanzah and didn’t seek to harm him. The Syriac translator ethically elaborated here through the voice of Fanzah:

O master who oppress your servants, know that everyone who does not observe his covenant or keep his oath, who neither fears his Maker nor stands in awe of the judgement of his Creator, has a bad end. And although the just Judge’s punishment may be delayed for a time while the long-suffering God bears with him, yet certainly justice will be required at last. And though justice may not be required of him, it will be required of his children, even to three and four generations. For very wonderful are the works of God, and his doings past finding out. [6]

The Syriac translator implied that the King or his descendants would have a bad end because of the King’s attempt to deceive and harm Fanzah. The story itself ends merely with Fanzah flying away from the King. The reader is left to imagine the King’s fate.

Mughal painting of Indian birds

In the rotten world, responding to violence with violence might be necessary to remain alive. In contrast to immediate, essential self-defense, responding to violence with violence more typically seeks to satisfy anger or prevent future violence. That’s acting in accordance with emotion or reasoned prophecy. An alternative is to believe that the God of Abraham will punish the wicked. Vengeance is mine, said this Lord.[7] Imagining that good will overcome evil might prompt doing good right now. Doing good right now is certainly immediately better than doing evil right now in what has long been the rotten world.

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[1] Excerpt from Borzuya’s autobiography in the eleventh-century Syriac translation of Kalila wa Dimna. English translation (modified insubstantially) from Keith-Falconer (1885) p. 264, based on the Syriac text of Wright (1884). According to Knatchbull’s English translation of the Arabic text of De Sacy (1816), the corresponding Arabic text seems to say only “the age appeared to be going backwards.” Knatchbull (1819) p. 80.

The Syriac translator’s native tongue apparently was Arabic. His Syriac seems to have been learned formally in study of the Bible and biblical commentators. Keith-Falconer (1885) p. lix.

Many other persons at many other times and places have declared that humanity has become rotten. An author in twelfth-century central Europe lamented, “The old ways have passed {Transierunt vetera}.” In the thirteenth century, the Swabian-born wandering poet called The Marner wrote a poem that began, “Hastening towards its end, the world moves toward its setting {Mundus finem properans vergit ad occasum}.” Carmina Burana 9 addition. A Spanish writer in the fifteenth century declared, “Everything is going to hellfire and to evil {todo va a fuego y a mal}.” Lamenting the rottenness of the current world doesn’t imply abstract, general contempt for the world. Such laments remember a past, better world.

[2] Borzuya’s autobiography, English translation (modified for readability) from Keith-Falconer (1885) p. 264. Keith-Falconer explicitly bracketed this text as an addition of the Syriac translator. The subsequent quote above is similarly from id. p. 265.

[3] This story is variously called “The Ascetic and his Guest,” “The Hermit and the Traveler,” “The Monk and his Guest,” and “The Pious man and the Guest.” For freely available English translations, Knatchbull (1819), pp. 343-6, and Keith-Falconer (1885) pp. 217-8.

[4] This story is variously called “The King and the Bird,” “The King and the Bird Pinzih,” and “The Prince and the Bird Fanzah.” For freely available English translations, Knatchbull (1819), pp. 286-97, and Keith-Falconer (1885) pp. 178-85.

The Syriac translator inflected the practical wisdom of animals with Biblical concepts and references. For example, in his Syriac translation a lion says to a crow:

How evil is your counsel, and weak your intellect, and feeble your mind! You are remote from the truth, and devoid of compassion, and stripped of virtue. You were not faithful in being so insolent as to make this speech before me. Why, have you not heard that I made a promise to the camel, and gave him an oath, and made a faithful covenant between myself and him? And have you not heard that a man may distribute many talents to the poor, and not be so profited as a man who saves one soul from slaughter? How are you so insolent as to say to me: “Falsify your promises and be unfaithful to your covenant, and anger your Creator, and provoke your Judge for a little food that perishes, and inherit eternal torment?”

Keith-Falconer (1885) p. 179 (modified insubstantially for readability). In medieval Europe, Christians also wrote bizarre animal tales.

Keith-Falconer called the Syriac Christian translator a bad translator:

the numbers of Scriptural quotations and allusions which embellish almost every page of the book, are amply sufficient to betray the Christian translator. These of course have no place in the Arabic version. … the translator was a bad one. He did not always understand the text before him, as we have seen; and he often gave a different turn to a passage in order to bring out a Christian sentiment.

Keith-Falconer (1885) pp. lix-lx. The Syriac Christian translator wasn’t a faithful translator of his Arabic source. But the Syriac translator created a strange and interesting work.

[5] “The King and the Bird,” English translation from Knatchbull (1819) p. 288.

[6] “The King and the Bird,” English translation from Keith-Falconer (1885) p. 179. Cf. Exodus 20:5, Numbers 14:18, Psalms 40:5, 92:5, Romans 11:33-34.

[7] Deuteronomy 32:35, Romans 12:19, Hebrews 10:30.

[images] (1) Holy man and his guest. Illumination from an instance of Kalila wa Dimna made in the first quarter of the thirteenth century. Excerpt from folio 139v of BnF Arabe 3465. (2) Birds of Hindustan. Illustration (color-enhanced) from a late-sixteenth-century instance of the Baburnama. Folio preserved as accession # W.596.31B in the Walters Art Museum (Baltimore, USA). Also available on Wikimedia Commons.


De Sacy, Silvestre. 1816. Calila et Dimna ou fables de Bidpai, en arabe précédées d’un mémoire sur l’origine de ce livre et sur les diverses traductions qui en ont été faites dans l’orient et suivies de la Moallaka de Lébid en arabe et en français. Paris: De l’Imprimerie Royale.

Keith-Falconer, I. G. N, ed. and trans. 1885.  Kalilah and Dimnah: or, The Fables of Bidpai: being an account of their literary history. Cambridge: University Press.

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

Wright, William. 1884. The Book of Kalilah and Dimnah or the Fables of Bidpai: Translated from Arabic into Syriac, being the later Syriac version (11th century): Syriac text edited from a unique manuscript of Trinity College library, Dublin, with a glossary, additions and corrections to the text. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

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