there are recorded over two hundred different versions known to exist in more than fifty languages, and three-fourths of these languages are extra-Indian. As early as the eleventh century this work reached Europe, and before 1600 it existed in Greek, Latin, Spanish, Italian, German, English, Old Slavonic, Czech, and perhaps other Slavonic languages. Its range has extended from Java to Iceland… [In India,] it has been worked over and over again, expanded, abstracted, turned into verse, retold in prose, translated into medieval and modern vernaculars, and retranslated into Sanskrit. And most of the stories contained in it have "gone down" into the folklore of the story-loving Hindus, whence they reappear in the collections of oral tales gathered by modern students of folk-stories.
The Panchatantra is an inter-woven series of colourful fables, many of which involve animals exhibiting animal stereotypes. According to its own narrative, it illustrates, for the benefit of three ignorant princes, the central Hindu principles of nīti. While nīti is hard to translate, it roughly means prudent worldly conduct, or "the wise conduct of life".
Apart from a short introduction — in which the author, Vishnu Sarma, is introduced as narrating the rest of the work to the princes — it consists of five parts. Each part contains a main story, called the frame story, which in turn contains several stories "emboxed" in it, as one character narrates a story to another. Often these stories contain further emboxed stories. The stories thus operate like a succession of Russian dolls, one narrative opening within another, sometimes three or four deep. Besides the stories, the characters also quote various epigrammatic verses to make their point.
Mitra-bheda: The Separation of Friends (The Lion and the Bull)
Mitra-lābha or Mitra-samprāpti: The Gaining of Friends (The Dove, Crow, Mouse, Tortoise and Deer)
Kākolūkīyam: Of Crows and Owls (War and Peace)
Labdhapraṇāśam: Loss Of Gains (The Monkey and the Crocodile)
Aparīkṣitakārakaṃ: Ill-Considered Action / Rash deeds (The Brahman and the Mongoose)
Mitra-bheda, The Separation of Friends
In the first book, a friendship arises between the lion Piṅgalaka, the king of the forest, and Sañjīvaka, a bull. Karataka ('Horribly Howling') and Damanaka ('Victor') are two jackals that are retainers to the lion king. Damanaka, against Karataka's advice, breaks the friendship between the lion and the bull, out of jealousy. It contains around thirty stories, mostly told by the two jackals, and is the longest of the five books, making up roughly 45% of the work's length.
Mitra-samprāpti, The Gaining of Friends
It tells of the story of the crow who upon seeing the favour the rat performed to free the dove (or pigeon) and her companions, decides to befriend the rat despite the rat's initial objections. The storyline evolves as this friendship grows to include the turtle and the fawn. They collaborate to save the fawn when he is trapped, and later they work together to save the turtle, who herself, falls in the trap. This makes up about 22% of the total length.
Kākolūkīyam, Of Crows and Owls
It deals with a war between crows and owls. One of the crows pretends to be an outcast from his own group to gain entry into the rival owl group, and by doing so gains access to their secrets and learns of their vulnerabilities. He later summons his group of crows to set fire on all entrances to the cave where the owls live and suffocate them to death. This is about 26% of the total length.
Labdhapraṇāśam, Loss Of Gains
It deals with the artificially-constructed symbiotic relationship between the monkey and the crocodile. The crocodile risks the relationship by conspiring to acquire the heart of the monkey to heal his wife; the monkey finds out about this and avoids this grim fate.
Aparīkṣitakārakaṃ, Hasty Action
A Brahman leaves his child with a mongoose friend of his, and upon returning and finding blood on the mongoose's mouth, he kills it. He later finds out that the mongoose actually defended his child from a snake.