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Articles - Books

Teaching The Panchatantra in School

Sonal Panse,

Back in school, I often heard the term 'Intelligence Quotient' (IQ) bandied around, but I never really heard much, if anything, about Emotional Intelligence. I did suspect it existed though. You saw people that were not necessarily the stars in disgorging the Periodic Table or the lineage of the Mughal Emperors, but who, nevertheless, managed very well in getting along with others and in coping with difficult situations.

For quite a long while, I assumed that these traits were something you either inherently possessed or you didn't; that they could be learned was a satisfying discovery that came much later. For, while there is a hereditary component there, Emotional Intelligence can certainly be taught. In fact, it ought to be taught, and it is one – amongst the many – of the drawbacks of the formal educational system that it is, in general, disregarded. Given the many baffling and often overwhelming complexities that modern life presents us with, it is emotional intelligence, much more than mere intellectual intelligence, that you need to get by and get along.

So how does this lead to The Panchatantra being taught in school?

Good education needs to be a guide on navigating your way through life, not just a litany of factual information that, while certainly interesting and even entertaining, may have little or no connection with everyday practicalities. The more I think about it, actually, the more I think that perhaps the time spent in learning certain factual information is time wasted. If I want to know the dates of the Battles of Panipat, for instance, I can easily look them up; it is of no real benefit to me to spend even five minutes memorizing them.

Now, I do understand that everyone's idea of practicality is different, and I'm not even suggesting that everything has to have a practical purpose, but I do think that it might be more to the general social benefit if students are given learning opportunities that are more geared towards helping them become more balanced, considerate, and thoughtful human beings.

Emotional intelligence, the ability to improvise, and the grit to deal with and recover from setbacks are what count more in the long run, what make you better equipped to face the outside world, rather than just the ability to retain and regurgitate canned information.

It is necessary then to foster self-control and clarity in thinking, both concepts that need to be practiced on a daily basis.

And this brings us to The Panchatantra, a collection of folk tales compiled in Ancient India in 3 BCE, purportedly to instill worldly wisdom in the three ignorant and loutish Princes of Mahilaropya. The three Princes were quite positively transformed and present day students will likely benefit as well from reading The Panchatantra. Note the 'likely' – I mention that because I'm rather cynical about human nature and don't believe there is a cure-all panacea for anything – you try one thing, you try another, it may have an effect, it may not, you keep trying, and that's about all you can do. Still, that said, The Panchatantra really is quite a marvelous teaching manual and the basic ideas are too universal to have dated over the centuries.

The stories are instructive in an entertaining way. As the ancient writers knew, it is easier to convey complex bits of information if it is done in a way that the audience can relate to and can easily comprehend. The Panchatantra features a variety of personality types, both human and animal, and situations that readers might have encountered in their own lives, and hearing about these may generally be more acceptable than a moralistic lecture, even if both contain the same essential ideas.