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  • Kalila wa Dimna: Inception, Appropriation, and Transmimesis
  • Marianne Marroum (bio)

In this article I argue that René Girard’s modern anthropological theory of mimetic desire that he put forth in Deceit, Desire, and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure and developed in his subsequent books is key to understanding how Kalila wa Dimna, one of the masterpieces of Arabic and world literature, came to be and how it was culturally transmitted. Girard contends that individuals do not simply mimic reality through philosophical or artistic representations but, more significantly, copy the desire of real or fictional others, who come to serve as models and mediators. Individuals seek to appropriate objects desired by their models-mediators and, in some instances, assimilate their very being, whence the appropriative nature of mimesis.

In my analysis of the origins of this great book of fables I also have recourse to the theory of oppositionality construed by Ross Chambers in Room for Maneuver: Reading the Oppositional in Narrative. Ideas of discourse are the core of politics in advice literature to which this book of fables belongs, as well as the notion of nonviolent social change within an existent structure of power. Still, my analysis will be framed by the Girardian theories of the mobility of desire and its mimetic triangular nature, instabilities of identities, and capabilities of adaptation and evolution. I hope to show how the politics of oppositionality coupled with triangular desire not only generate a mimetic active process of self-fashioning but also become the manifold vectors for the writing of Kalila wa Dimna and the subsequent inception of a cross-cultural encounter and actuation of cultural transmission. Hence, Kalila wa Dimna has come to epitomize what I call transmimesis—a multifarious mimesis coupled with transculturation. [End Page 512]

Historically, this book of fables, also known as the Fables of Bidpai (or Baydabā), originated in India from the Sanskrit classics the Pañcatantra and Mahābhārata between the first century BC and 500 AD. Chandra Rajan in the introduction to his translation of the Pañcatantra explains that this Sanskrit classic traveled from the land of its origin to other lands and peoples, as did many Indian texts during the early centuries AD. Pañcatantra started its itinerary before 750 AD, initially as a version in Pahlavi (Middle Persian) executed under order of Khusraw Anūshīrwan (550–578 AD), emperor of Iran, by his court physician, Burzöe (Barzawayh). Before the original Pahlavi was lost, a priest named Bud rendered a Syriac version in 750 AD, one that he entitled Kalilag wa Dimnag, the names given to two jackal narrators appearing in it. Another rendition in Arabic followed, the Kalila wa Dimna of Abdallāh ibn al-Muqaffaʿ, a Zoroastrian convert to Islam in 750 AD.1 Though the core of Kalila wa Dimna is the five stories that make up the Pañcatantra (the five books of wisdom), three other tales come from the Mahābhārata and one from the Buddhist legend of the king Canda Prodoya. As for some of the remaining stories, scholars conjecture that they are of Indian origin based on internal evidence. Still some other tales were added in the course of transmitting the book from Middle Persian into other languages.2 Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ, in his Arabic rendition, has also woven his own fables into the text and prefaced the book with a fourth introduction; the first chapter of Kalila wa Dimna is preceded by three introductions that have their roots in the Indian and Persian traditions.

The object of my study is three of these introductions: that of Bahnūd ibn Sahwān, known as ʿAli ibn al-Shāh al-Fārisī, that of Barzawayh, the physician of India, and that of Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ. They correspond to the trajectory of the text from its composition at the request of Dabshalīm, the legendary king of India and the contemporary of Alexander the Great, to its manifestation during the Persian kingdom of Anūshīrwan in the sixth century AD and finally to Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ’s version during the Arab caliphate, two centuries later, as presented in the most ancient...