The Panchatantra (IAST: Pañcatantra, Sanskrit: पञ्चतन्त्र, "Five Treatises") is an ancient Indian collection of interrelated animal fables in Sanskrit verse and prose, arranged within a frame story. The surviving work is dated to about 300 BCE, but the fables are likely much more ancient. The text's author is unknown, but has been attributed to Vishnu Sharma in some recensions and Vasubhaga in others, both of which may be fictitious pen names. It is likely a Hindu text, and based on older oral traditions with "animal fables that are as old as we are able to imagine".
It is "certainly the most frequently translated literary product of India", and these stories are among the most widely known in the world. It goes by many names in many cultures. There is a version of Panchatantra in nearly every major language of India, and in addition there are 200 versions of the text in more than 50 languages around the world. One version reached Europe in the 11th century. To quote Edgerton (1924):
...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 earliest known translation into a non-Indian language is in Middle Persian (Pahlavi, 550 CE) by Burzoe. This became the basis for a Syriac translation as Kalilag and Damnag and a translation into Arabic in 750 CE by Persian scholar Abdullah Ibn al-Muqaffa as Kalīlah wa Dimnah. A New Persian version by Rudaki in the 12th century became known as Kalīleh o Demneh and this was the basis of Kashefi's 15th-century Anvār-i Suhaylī (The Lights of Canopus), which in turn was translated into Humayun-namah in Turkish. The book is also known as The Fables of Bidpai (or Pilpai in various European languages, Vidyapati in Sanskrit) or The Morall Philosophie of Doni (English, 1570). Most European versions of the text are derivative works of the 12th-century Hebrew version of Panchatantra by Rabbi Joel. In Germany, its translation in 1480 by Anton von Pforr has been widely read. Several versions of the text are also found in Indonesia, where it is titled as Tantri Kamandaka, Tantravakya or Candapingala and consists of 360 fables. In Laos, a version is called Nandaka-prakarana, while in Thailand it has been referred to as Nang Tantrai.
The prelude section of the Panchatantra identifies an octogenarian Brahmin named Vishnu Sharma (IAST: Viṣṇuśarman) as its author. He is stated to be teaching the principles of good government to three princes of Amarasakti. It is unclear, states Patrick Olivelle – a professor of Sanskrit and Indian religions if Vishnu Sharma was a real person or itself a literary invention. Some South Indian recensions of the text, as well as Southeast Asian versions of Panchatantra attribute the text to Vasubhaga, states Olivelle. Based on the content and mention of the same name in other texts dated to ancient and medieval era centuries, most scholars agree that Vishnu Sharma is a fictitious name. Olivelle and other scholars state that regardless of who the author was, it is likely "the author was a Hindu, and not a Buddhist, nor Jain", but it is unlikely that the author was a devotee of Hindu god Vishnu because the text neither expresses any sentiments against other Hindu deities such as Shiva, Indra and others, nor does it avoid invoking them with reverence.
Various locations where the text was composed have been proposed but this has been controversial. Some of the proposed locations include Kashmir, Southwestern or South India. The text's original language was likely Sanskrit. Though the text is now known as Panchatantra, the title found in old manuscript versions varies regionally, and includes names such as Tantrakhyayika, Panchakhyanaka, Panchakhyana and Tantropakhyana. The suffix akhyayika and akhyanaka mean "little story" or "little story book" in Sanskrit.
The text was translated into Pahlavi in 550 CE, which forms the latest limit of the text's existence. The earliest limit is uncertain. It quotes identical verses from Arthasastra, which is broadly accepted to have been completed by the early centuries of the common era. According to Olivelle, "the current scholarly consensus places the Panchatantra around 300 BCE, although we should remind ourselves that this is only an educated guess". The text quotes from older genre of Indian literature, and legends with anthropomorphic animals are found in more ancient texts dated to the early centuries of the 1st millennium BCE such as the chapter 4.1 of the Chandogya Upanishad. According to Gillian Adams, Panchatantra may be a product of the Vedic period, but its age cannot be ascertained with confidence because "the original Sanskrit version has been lost".