It is difficult to question the validity of any interpretation for, by their very nature, interpretations are supposed to go beyond the text, to uncover meanings that may not be apparent in the text and sometimes may not even be justified by the text. At an objective level, one can raise the issue of non-sequiturs and logical consistencies. However, the only proper antidote to ‘bad’ interpretations are to juxtapose them against ‘good’ alternatives and hope that the discerning reader appreciates the difference and intuitively makes the right choice.

One such ‘bad’ interpretation that came to my attention today is this post by Manasataraṃgiṇi, which reads a warning in the Pañcatantra, issued by the jackal-minister Damanaka to the lion-king Piṅgalaka, as a reference to biological warfare. As I have grappled with the same passage in my study of the Pañcatantra, I thought I should explain my disagreement with this scientistic analysis and make a case for a humanistic approach in the study of ancient Indian texts.

As the post explains, the warning was issued against the bull-minister Saṃjīvaka for allegedly plotting against the king. However, Saṃjīvaka was very much loved and respected by Piṅgalaka, who tried very hard to refute the charges brought against him by Damanaka. Eventually, he succumbed to the brilliant arguments furnished by Damanaka but still hoping to retain his friendship with the bull and refrain from punishing him, he pointed out that even if the bull had turned seditious, he had nothing to fear him since he was a meat-eater and the bull was a grass-eater. Damanaka affirmed this view that, indeed, the bull was food and the lion was the eater of food but then proceeded to show how the bull could harm him. He explained that the lion’s body was mottled with all kinds of wounds and lesions due to his constant battle with the wild beasts while the bull, who was always by his side, dropped urine and faeces in his vicinity. These droppings served as breeding grounds for worms that would enter into the lion’s body and kill him.

This is the passage which Manasataraṃgiṇi has interpreted as a reference to biological warfare. I assume his view is that Viṣṇuśarman was highlighting the occurrence of such events in the natural world and what could be learnt from them in human interaction. Such a view is mistaken. First of all, as the author himself admits that while modern studies suggest the occurrence of parasites transmitted by carnivores affecting herbivores, there is no evidence to the contrary, which is the allegation made by Damanaka. What the author seeks to establish is that Viṣṇuśarman based his views of human conduct on his study of strategic behaviours occurring in the natural world and the problem is that the great ancient scholar comes across as a bad student of nature since the reality, as the author himself tells us, is that transmission of parasites generally occurs from meat-eaters to grass-eaters. Hence, he is at pains to establish the possibility of a reverse transmission, to uphold the credentials of Viṣṇuśarman, but all he does establish, if you wade through the biological jargon in his interpretation, is mere conjecture.

My issue with this interpretation is however much more fundamental. It has to do with this very scientistic way of expostulating on human conduct that appears to be the preference of the author but one that he has superimposed on Viṣṇuśarman, as if the latter was suggesting, through this example, military strategies in accordance with natural processes. This leads to a literalist interpretation of the bull’s droppings as a mode of biological warfare occurring in the wild. But then for consistency we should interpret the whole narrative literally. Indeed, if we can persuade readers of parasite transmission from herbivores to carnivores, why not go the whole hog and suggest the possibility of talking animals in the ancient Indian forests, of kings and ministers learning from the real behaviours of lions and jackals in nature? On the other hand, if these are all political metaphors then, surely, the reference to the bull’s droppings should be a political metaphor as well.

This, in my view, would be the sensible approach which I have used in my own interpretation of the passage in question and explained in my book Natural Enmity as follows:

One reading of the foregoing passage could be that of a king who underestimates the capacity of a rebel to harm him because of his lack of martial resources. But the rebel does not have to engage the king in an open fight. Rather, he observes that the king who is always busy fighting wars for the protection and expansion of his territory causes disaffection among several groups in his own people for various reasons. So instead of fighting the king himself, the rebel provokes these disgruntled subjects to rise against the king. Thus, the scars and lesions on the lion’s body represent the disaffected sections within the kingdom. The faeces and urine dumped by the bull are the belligerent organisations the rebel will sponsor in the form of literary clubs, temple festivals, spy networks, and so on, which will serve as the sites for exercising his agenda. These will become ‘breeding grounds’ for the dissemination of ‘the worms’ i.e. the subversive ideas which will poison the minds of the public against their own king and instigate them to rise against him. In this way, the rebel does not deliver one powerful and fatal blow to the king in combat but bleeds him slowly to death by a thousand cuts inflicted by various anonymous persons.

There is another interpretation I have given in the book but I will not reproduce it here as it is too long and complex for a blogpost. But the aforementioned interpretation, I hope, the reader will find more persuasive and useful in comparison to the idea of biological warfare. I confess that the interpretation appears somewhat presentist for certainly I had in mind the current political situation – NGOs, literary festivals, charity clubs, animal welfare groups and other organisations which are bleeding the Indian nation and culture in a variety ways. However, I see no reason why similar kind of tactics were not in practice in the ancient world and it is more plausible that Viṣṇuśarman was warning kings and ministers against them rather than alluding to the occurrence of biological warfare in nature.