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Wisdom Tradition and the Indian Parallels with specific reference to Telugu Literature

by G. Babu Rao

Rev. G. Babu Rao is the Coordinator for Church-related Programmes of the Canadian Baptist Ministries. He taught Old Testament in Serampore College, Serampore and at the Andhra Christian Theological College, Hyderabad. This essay was presented to the faculty of the Andhra Christian Theological College during the academic year 1988-1989 on Theology and the Mission of the Church, Hyderabad, 1990. Used by permission of the publisher.

The Old Testament books of Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes are known as ‘Wisdom Literature’.  Two books of the Apocrypha, namely, Ben Sirach (or Ecclesiasticus) and Wisdom of Solomon are also considered as wisdom books.  The judeo-christian tradition had associated Wisdom with King Solomon and hence the authorship of some of these books was attributed to him.  One of the pseudepigraphal books – Psalms of Solomon – goes in his name.  However, the modern scholarship has demonstrated that the origin of Wisdom Tradition in Israel goes back to the period much earlier than Solomon and that the OT Wisdom Literature was composed much later than Solomon’s period.


The canonical books of Wisdom Literature portray certain characteristic features :  Some common OT themes such as Promises to the Patriarchs, Exodus, Sinai, Covenant and the divine oracles etc. are almost absent.  The humanitarian concerns appear to be dominant.  Therefore, wisdom literature is identified as anthropocentric, expressing the deepest feelings and aspirations of human[1].  The theological emphases[2] appear to be later developments in its history.


One who is ‘skilled’ is called ‘wise’ (CHAKHAM)[3].  This term is applied to an artisan of the Tabernacle (Exodus 28-36 chs), artificers of idols (Isaiah 40:20; Jeremiah 10:9), professional mourners (II Samuel 14:2; Jeremiah 9:17), navigators (Ezekiel 28:8-9) and Counsellors (II Samuel 13:3).  In its wider sense, it includes from an artisan to an astrologer, and with reference to the handing over of wisdom tradition, it includes from a parent to a philosopher.  Wisdom (CHOKMAH) is used in parallel to other related terms – knowledge, understanding, insight, prudence, instruction, etc.  It was understood as ‘the art of being successful of forming the correct plan to gain the desired results’[4].  The emphasis is more on the practical, rather than on the theoretical side.  Heart is considered as the seat of wisdom.  Therefore the wise are called ‘wise in heart’ (Job 9:4 in RSV).  Sometimes ‘wise’ and ‘heart’ are used interchangeably (cf. I Kings 5:9).


The following FORMS are identified as characteristic of wisdom literature[5]:

Proverb (MASHAL): Proverbs 10:6, 11; cf. Genesis 10:9; I Samuel 10:12, II Samuel 5:8, etc.


Riddle (CHIDAH): Judges 14:10-18; I Kings 10:1-5; Proverbs 30:15-33, etc.


Fable-Allegory: Judges 9:8-15; II Kings 14:9, etc.


Hymn or Prayer: Job 5:9-16; 9:5-12; 12:13-25; 26:5-14; ch.28; Proverbs ch.8; 1:20-33 etc.


Dialogue: Job 4-14 chs; 16-31 chs; 32-37 chs; 38-41 chs.

Confession: Proverbs 4:3-9; Ecclesiastes 1:12 – 2:36 etc.

Lists (Onomastica): Ps. 148; Job 38 etc.

Didactic Poetry & Narrative: Isaiah 14:26-27; Proverbs 7:6-23, Genesis 37 and 39- 50 etc.


It is basically this characteristic tradition in the Old Testament Wisdom Literature and other parts of the OT which we refer to as the ‘Wisdom Tradition’.  R. N. Whybray prefers to use the expression ‘Intellectual Tradition’[6].  The term philosophy is also an attractive one, as the original Greek word would mean ‘love of Wisdom’ (SOPHIA).  But in view of the fluidity of the discussions on proper terminology[7] in this connection, we will confine, for our present study, to the expression ‘Wisdom Tradition’.


With this introduction, we will look at the extent of the Wisdom Tradition in the Biblical books, the renewed interest of the scholars in the wisdom studies, and the Wisdom parallels in the Ancient Near Eastern Cultures.  Then we will attempt to identify parallels of Wisdom Tradition in the Indian Literature especially in the Telugu literature.




Till recent times, the Wisdom Literature had been a relatively neglected area in the biblical research.  As noted above, the absence of the significant OT themes and the lack of revelatory function have led the scholars to consider the Wisdom Tradition as an outsider to the main core of the ‘Salvation History’ scheme of the Old Testament[8].  This kind of situation is reflected, as J. L. Crenshaw refers to Wisdom as ‘an orphan’[9].  This state of affairs continued for quite some time until Johannes Fichtner[10] began to publish his articles on the wisdom-related topics in 1933.  Later on, von Rad’s study[11] on the Joseph story (German original in 1953) has created more interest in this direction.


Afterwards, many studies identifying the wisdom influence on some of the biblical books appeared[12].  The Primeval History[13] (Genesis 1-11 chs), the Joseph Narrative[14] (Genesis 37, 39-59), the Succession Narrative[15] (II Samuel 9-20 and I Kings 1-2) and Esther provide[16] examples of historical narratives where wisdom trends were observed.  It has been interpreted that these portions reflect wisdom thinking as they express the deepest feelings and aspirations of humans.  On the basis of the humanitarian emphasis, Deuteronomy[17] was also considered as having been influenced by the wisdom tradition.  It was further observed that various literary works such as Amos[18], Habakkuk ch. 3, Deuteronomy ch. 32, Exodus ch. 34 and specific texts from Isaiah, Jeremiah and Hosea show the character of wisdom[19].  Some of the Psalms are classified as ‘Wisdom Psalms’[20].  Similar studies have appeared on the Apocryphal and the Pseudepigraphal books as well, and the wisdom trends were identified in several of these books[21].  The New Testament scholars have made their contribution in identifying wisdom influence in the New Testament writings[22].  After closely studying these works, J. L. Crenshaw is right in questioning some of the conclusions drawn by the scholars amplifying the influence of the wisdom literature on the other books of the Bible and inter-testamental literature.  On the other hand, he appreciates the insights into the thematic considerations, the forms, and the vocabulary of the so-called wisdom texts in the books outside the wisdom corpus, which is very remarkable[23].  These studies have helped us to broaden the limits of the wisdom literature, showing that the wisdom tradition could be traced throughout the Bible.


In spite of the growing awareness of the extent of the wisdom tradition, especially in the OT books, wisdom was not accorded its rightful status in the discussions of the Old Testament Theology[24].  Von Rad in his OT Theology, part one, (German 1957) has touched ‘Wisdom’ as one of the aspects of the human response to the divine saving deeds, thus relegating it to a lesser degree[25].  Of course, he has dealt with the wisdom tradition in a greater detail in his separate work, Wisdom in Israel, which was published posthumously in 1972 (German edition in 1970), W. Eichrodt makes a significant contribution by recognizing the importance of ‘Creation’ theme in the wisdom literature[26].  W. Zimmerli improved the situation by recognizing wisdom’s place in the ‘creation theology’[27].  Von Rad (1972) has rightly summed up the situation as he says, ‘the experiences of the world were for Israel always divine experiences as well, and the experiences of God were for her experiences of the World’[28].  The secular, and the more general or universal character of wisdom tradition which had been hitherto considered as a liability, has now been recognized as an asset.  Wisdom moves in the direction of finding its rightful dignity after having suffered an eclipse.


The second major factor that contributed to the growing interest in the study of wisdom literature is the identification of the wisdom parallels among the neighbouring cultures of Israel[29].  The Egyptian and the Mesopotamian parallels have initially suggested that Israel owes a lot to her neighbours for the development of her wisdom tradition.  Some of the sections (or, chapters) of the Egyptian text of Amen-em-opet[30] has exact parallels in Proverbs 22:17-24:22.  It was also claimed that some Egyptian onomastica[31] underlie passages such as Job 28 and Psalms 148.  Other similar parallels were sighted.  On a more detailed and comparative study, some of the conclusions made by earlier scholars were challenged and modified[32].  While the Egyptian wisdom texts portrayed the style of court wisdom, which has parallels in Israel, the Mesopotamian wisdom portrayed that of magic and ritual, for which there is no parallel in Israel[33].  The following forms of wisdom literature are being commonly found in the Egyptian and Mesopotamian parallel texts[34]:  Instruction, Proverbial correction, Scribal literature, Theodicy literature, Pessimistic literature, Discourses and Fables and Debates.


Other smaller neighbours like Edom, Phoenicia and the homeland of Canaan have their own wisdom traditions[35].  Irwin observes that the intellectual activity could not be confined to a few favoured lands[36].  Even civilized peoples ask and answer questions about the meaning of human life, the reality of their existence, the nature of the world and the calamities they undergo.  Some of these exercises are common to the whole humanity.




The main focus in the foregoing study was on the extent and the significance of the Old Testament wisdom tradition, and its Ancient Near Eastern parallels.  With this background, we may attempt to identify some parallels to the wisdom tradition in the Indian Literature.


M. Monier Williams in his book Indian Wisdom (4th edition in 1893) applies the term ‘Wisdom’ in a wider sense, to include the religious, philosophical and ethical aspects of the life of the people in the Indian sub-continent, as reflected in all types of Sanskrit literature[37].  His ‘Indian Wisdom’ includes right from the ancient Vedic Hymns to the Puranas, the didactic literature, etc. of the later period.  He calls his last section with the title ‘The Artificial Poems…’ in which he includes Niti Sastras.  He also indicates that all the didactic portions of the epic poems and other works belong to this section.  The aim of the NITI SASTRAS is to serve as guides to correct conduct (NITI) in all the relations of domestic, social and political life[38].


We may classify some of these traditions under two main categories:

A)    Collections of Sayings, Maxims, Epigrammes, etc

B)     Books of Fables and other stories.


A) Collections of Sayings, Maxims, Epigrammes, etc

Most of the wise saying are in poetical form and are in circulation in the oral tradition.  They are quoted freely at an appropriate occasion by the common people as well as the intellectuals.  They contain universal truths and their object is practical wisdom.  Ludwik Sternbach recognized three types among these collections[39]:


(i) Quotations from literary works:

Some beautifully phrased quotations from literary works are known as SUBHASHITHAS or SUKTHIS.  They were often quoted in a king’s court.  The use of such quotations in conversations indicated that the person who quotes is knowledgeable in literature and that he is learned.  The collections of SUBHASHITHAS are known as SUBHASHITHA SAMGRAHAS, SUBHASHITHA KOSAS.  Subhashithas were used to teach men right behaviour[40].


(ii) Popular Maxims (or SUTHRAS):  Short, simple and ordinary sayings containing some wise observations handed down from antiquity are known as Maxims or SUTHRAS.  They were usually attributed to Brihaspathi, Chanakya, Bhartrahari, etc.  Some of these collections containing 100 poems or stanzas are known as SATHAKAS.  For example, there are three satakas attributed to Bhartrihari.  The first one deals with love, while the second and the third deal with good conduct (NITHI), and renunciation of worldly desires (VAIRAGYA) respectively.  The Chanakya Sataka deals with the political wisdom.  Chanakya, the minister of the king Chandra Gupta is known for his political shrewdness and tact.  This type of poetry may also be called didactic poetry[41].


(iii) The Proverbs (or LOKOKTHIS): Short sentences expressing well-known truths ascertained by experience or observation are known as Proverbs, or LOKOKTHIS, LOKAVAKYAS or PRACHINA VAKYAS.  Proverbs express different moods appropriate to different occasions[42].


(B) Books of Fables and other stories:

Among the books containing Fables and didactic narratives, or stories, the following may be mentioned, that is, PANCHATANTRA, JATHA TALES , and KATHA SARITSAGAR.  The collections of Fables were appreciated by the European scholars as forming a class of composition in which the natives of India wholly unsurpassed[43], Monier Williams had observed that the method of teaching by Fables was unique with Indians.  He goes even to the extent of saying that the Greek fables of Aesop and the Arabian fables of Lokman (or Lukman) owed much to the ancient Indians[44].  The best example of this type is the PANCHATANTRA.


1. It is claimed that PANCHATANTRA is the original source of all the well-known fables current in Europe and Asia for more than 2000 years since the days of Herodotus the Greek Historian[45].  It was either translated or paraphrased into most of the languages in India and also into about ten European and Asian languages[46].  The name PANCHA-TANTRA is derived from the five (pancha) divisions or chapters (tantra) of the book.  They are:


MITHRA-BHEDA (to create dispute among friends),


SANDHI-VIGRAHAM (to become friends and to quarrel)

LABDHA-NASAM (to loose the treasure gained)

And ASAMPREKSHYA-KARITHVAM (to do something without proper enquiry).


It is also known as PANCHO-PAKHYANA (= five collections of stories) and in its abridged form as HITHOPADESA (= a friendly instruction).  The fables contained in the book go back to a period long before the Christian era, although the extent literature is assigned to a date about the end of the 5th century AD[47].  The earlier teachers of Law, for example, Manu and the Buddhist saints and Philosophical systems like Sankhya have used the fables to illustrate their teachings[48].  The narration of the stories of PANCHATHANTRA are attributed to a person named VISHNU SHARMAN who took up the challenge at a royal court to improve the lot of some young princes, whose royal father was grieved by their idle and dissolute habits.  The teacher Vishnu Sharman used the fables merely as a device for instruction on the domestic, social and political dimensions of life.  IN these fables, animals figure as speakers.  The fables are strung together one within another, so that before one is finished, another is commenced and moral verses from all sources are interwoven with the narrative.


Arthur W. Ryder’s PANCHATHANTHRA, translated from the Sanskrit original is now in circulation.  It was first published in 1949 and the 7th Jaico impression was made in 1975 by the Jaico Publishing House, Bombay.


2. KATHA SARIT SAGARA (or Oceans of the Streams of the Story):

This is a larger collection of tales.  Its compilation was attributed to Soma-deva Bhatta of Kashmir, towards the 11th century or beginning of the 12th century A.D.  It consists of 18 books containing altogether 124 chapters.  Some of these chapters, especially chs. 60-63, contain Fables similar to that of Panchathanthra.


C. H. Tawney’s English translation of this work was first published in 1880.  The Second Edition was published by the Oriental Publishers and Booksellers, Delhi by arrangement with the Asiatic Society, Calcutta.  The work is available in two volumjes in 578+682 pages.




In this section, we will consider some literature in Telugu reflecting wisdom characteristics.  They are collections of Sayings or Quotations from ancient classical literature, Sathaka literature, Proverbs, Fables or Panchatanthra and Riddles.



This book is composed by Penumethsa Sathyanarayana Raju and was published by Andhra Pradesh Sahithya Academy (APSA), Hyderabad in 1963.  It is a voluminous book with more than 1000 pages containing a collection of short sayings, and poems from the Telugu classical literature, some of which are translations from the original Sanskrit writings.  The sayings and poems on different topics are arranged according to Telugu alphabetical order.  They are taken from more than 350 classical writings by different authors whose list is appended at the end of the book.  The detailed contents are listed at the beginning.  The topics chosen reflect all walks of life.



Collections containing 100 poems or stanzas are called SATHAKAS.  Such collections are associated with the names of Bhartrihari, Sumathi and even Vemana and others.  IN SUMATHI SATHAKAMU, poems are composed in the KANDHA metre, in four lines, where the second and fourth lines are longer than the other two.  The fourth line ends with the word SUMATHI (which menas “oh, sound mind”).  Some of those small books with the text of the poem, meanings of difficult words and the paraphrase are published by interested publishers from time to time for popular use[49].


3. VERSES OF VEMANA:  (In the Telugu Original with English rendering), by C. P. Brown, 1967, 1977 (2).


The book was published by the APSA, Hyderabad.  The Second edition has about 1220 stanzas in Telugu original along with Brown’s English translation, together with his ‘Preface to Vemana’ written on 23rd November 1824 (pp. i-v).  It was printed using a manuscript preserved in the Government Oriental Manuscripts Library, Madras.  Poems of Vemana have become very popular.  Most of the poems are composed in ATA VELADI metre containing four short lines.  The fourth line is usually a chorus or refrain in the words – VISWADABHIRAMA VINURA VEMA, which means, Oh Abhirama (=perhaps a disciple), always listen to Vema (the master)[50].  The poems are mainly of three classes: moral, satirical and mystic, and they touch all walks of life.


4. VEMANA VADAM by N. Gopi, Hyderabad Book Trust, Hyderabad, 1980.

Gopi’s book was first published in 1980 with a preface by Ch. Rama Rao.  The book was reprinted in 1981 with another preface by Rama Rao.  The author has given two successive introductions.  The prefaces and introductions occupy about 40 pages (numbered separately in Roman numerals).  IN 141 pages, the author discusses mainly the socio-cultural background of Vemana’s period.  He argues that Vemana belonged to the 17th century AD.  He quotes Vemana wherever necessary in portraying the background of Vemana.  At the end of the book he has provided an index of the poems referred in the book.


It has been mentioned in the book that the author has done a detailed study on Vemana in preparation of his Research work entitled PRAJA KAVI VEMANA.




Marupuru Kodanda Rama Reddy has published an extensive work on Vemana.  The book has a total of 548 pages.  The first part deals with the life of Vemana in 126 pages (marked separately in Telugu numerals).  In the second part there are 1305 poems with meanings and explanations where necessary (pp. 2-233 a separate counting in Arabic numerals).  In the third part, appreciations of Vemana’s contribution by the European scholars and the Indians were surveyed.  AT the end of the book, there are many helpful appendices, including an index of the poems used.


This book provides a valuable information on the life and background of Vemana.  It is a scholarly work.  He observes that the Government of India has released a postal stamp commemorating the 3rd birth centenary of Vemana in 1972, fixing 1672 as the year of Vemana’s birth.


II. Collections of Proverbs or Samethalu:

The following Telugu proverb illustrates the popularity and prominence of the proverbs in conversation:




It means, conversation with no proverbs is like a house with no feast or dinner[51].  The Telugu word SAMETHA also means ‘a parallel’.  In this sense, it stands close to the Hebrew word for proverb – MASHAL.


There are a number of collections of Telugu Proverbs published by different publishers at different times.  Some important recent works interpreting the origin, meaning and the significance of the Telugu proverbs have also been published.  The first person who collected the popularly used Telugu proverbs was Captain M. W. Carr (1868).



C. P. Brown used a printed copy of this collection published by Captain M. W. Carr in 1868, containing about 2700 Telugu proverbs together with about 488 Sanskrit proverbs for which Carr provided European parallels in English wherever possible.  Brown had added his own notes and comments on his copy which is now persevered in London in the form of a microfilm[52].  Later it was published in an abridged form with the title TELUGU SAMETHELU by Vavilla (publishers), Madras in 1955, in about 180 pages, containing about 1185 Telugu Proverbs.  It was reprinted and published by Asian Educational Services, New Delhi, in 1986 under the title A Selection of Telugu Proverbs: Translated and Explained.  This book extends upto 123 pages containing 1185 Telugu proverbs as mentioned above, and 32 Sanskrit proverbs arranged in alphabetical order.  AS the title indicates, the Telugu proverbs are given in original with English translation.  Sometimes explanatory notes or paraphrase is given in English and the writer also added English / European parallels.  The proverbs are arranged with a serial number.  The Sanskrit proverbs at the end are given in Telugu transliteration with English rendering.


2. TELUGU SAMETHALU, CLS, Madras, 1915, 32 pages.

It contains a selection of about 200 proverbs published by the Christian Literature Society (CLS) for India, Madras for the use of those preparing for SIMA examinations[53].


3. TELUGU PROVERBS FROM HYDERABAD, CLS, Madras, 1921, 10 pages.


G. J. Bennett[54] of the Medak Divinity School collected about 200 Telugu proverbs and classified them under the following topics:


1. Comparisons, 2. Of Consequences, 3. Of Contrast and Anamalies, 4. Of Devices and Shrewdness, 5. Of Disappointments and Misfortune, 6. Of Domesticities and Marriage, 7. Of Inefficiency, 8. Of Ingratitude and Meanness, 9. Of Injustice and False pretences, and 10. Of various occasions.  Although it is a small book, it is perhaps the first of its king to classify the collected proverbs under various themes.


4. TELUGU SAMETHALU, Third Edition, Hyderabad 1974.


This is a major collection of Telugu proverbs in recent times, and is published by the APSA, Hyderabad.  The first edition (1959) was prepared by Viswanadha Satyanarayana and Sampath RAghavachari, for which the latter wrote an introduction with tht title ‘SAMETHALU’ (in about 30 pages) together with a small collection of Tamil parallels to some of the Telugu proverbs.  The Second edition (1965) was prepared by V. Satyanarayana with his introduction under the same title ‘SAMETHALU’ in 8 pages.  The third edition (1974) was prepared by Abburi Ramakrishna Rao, Mrs. P. Yasoda Reddy and M. Kodandarama.  Reddy as the convenor who wrote a brief introduction to this edition.  The book contains altogether 589 pages.  The first 42 pages containing the introductions to all the three editions are marked with Arabic numerals.  The proverbs beginning from page number 43 are arranged in the alphabetical order, with brief explanatory footnotes where necessary.


5. TELUGU SAMETHALU, Vijayawada 1988.

This is another small collection of proverbs collected by Uppuluri Muralikrishna and was published by Devi Publications, Vijayawada in 1988 in January and July respectively.  It has about 146+viii pages (page numbers are not marked) containing about 2960 Proverbs, arranged alphabetically.


6. P. Narasimha Reddy, TELUGU SAMETHALU – JANA JEEVANAM, Tirupathi, 1983.

Mr. Papireddy Narasimha Reddy, then a Lecturer of the Sri Venkateswara University, Tirupathi has presented to the Telugu speaking people the first research work on Telugu proverbial literature.  For this work he has received the APSA award for 1979-80 and the book was published by Srinivasa Murali Publications, Tirupati in 1983, extended over 360+xiv pages.  It is a scholarly work with footnotes at the end of each chapter.  It has helped appendices containing lists of castes in Andhra Pradesh reflected in various proverbs and lists of different categories of Proverbs.  There is a helpful bibliography (pp.355-359).  In his introduction to the book under the title ‘PRAVESIKA’ (pp. i-xiv) he provides information on the earlier publications of the collections of Proverbs and other important works, articles, etc. which are classified.  He further simplifies this information through his six charts on the following page xiv.


In this wonderful work, Narasimha Reddy has studied altogether 45,550 proverbs and has selected 16000 as basic for his research.  He has classified them under several themes reflecting the various aspects of life.  IN other words, he has been successful in portraying life from different angles on the basis of Telugu proverbs.  The multi-characteristic life style of humans was shown by him on a separate chart.


7. C. Vedavathi, SAAMETHA, Hyderabad 1983, pp.268.


Anotther extensive study by Mrs. C. Vedavathi, published by Spandana Saahithee Samaakhya, Machilipatnam, is a welcome gesture to the growing interest in the proverbial literature.  She has explained the origin, meaning and their implications in our changing patterns and norms of life.  She has classified selected proverbs under 14 different themes related mainly to the family life.  The proverb and its nature, woman, marriage, son-in-law, mother-in-law and the Daughter-in-law, Husband, Children, Relatives, Money (or, Riches), Hunger and Food, Diseases and the treatments, Death, KARMA and fate, God and Rituals.  The author gives an introduction under the title ‘Nanudi – na nudi’ where she discusses the purpose and the methods she has used in handling the proverbs.  Dr. Sanjeevadev gives his introduction under the title ‘VEEKSHANA’ presenting his observations on the proverbial literature and reviewing how the author of this book with skill and insight, penetrating deep into the family situations has handled the proverbs.


The topics ‘Woman’, Mother-in-Law and the Daughter-in-Law’ of the above classification were earlier published in ANDHRA SACHITHRA VARA PATHRIKA as serial in the Women’s section - PRAMADAVANAM in the year 1978, where the writer’s name is printed as VEDAVATHI DEVI.



PANCHA-THANTHRAMU, published by Vaavilla Ramaswamy Sasthrulu & Sons, Madras, 1985, 151 pp.


The present text of Pancha-thanthramu is a reprint of the Telugu rendering form its Sanskrit original.  It is also known under the title NEETHI CHANDRIKA[55].  There are five main stories interwoven with another 32 small stories, in which animals and other creatures are the main figures.


IV. Riddles:

There are a number of riddles known as PODUPU KATHALU (= puzzle stories), or VIPPUDU KATHALU (=un tie stories) most of which are still in oral transmission.  Earlier, some collections have been published for popular use, which are perhaps not available now.  The rural folk still enjoys the fun and the intellectual exercises through the podupu kathalu.


B. Ramaraju gives information on some earlier publications of collections of Telugu riddles, e.g. Kondapalli Publications (1931) contains 116 Riddles;  Venugopal /Book Depot Collection (1953) contains 63.  Tenali Andhra Rathna Book Depot’s collection (1964) entitled “Attha Kodandra Kathalu” contains 137 Riddles (cf. RAmaraju’s book 1978 cited in note 54).




Gerhard von Rad defined wisdom as the ‘practical knowledge of laws of life and of the world, based on experience’[56].  J. L. Crenshaw emphasizes the relational attitude, as he explains that ‘wisdom is the self understanding in terms of relationships with things, people and the creator’[57].  On this basis, he identified four kinds of wisdom – juridical, nature, practical and theological.  Wisdom instruction has its origin at home given by the head of the family or the clan leader at royal court for training a select group for statecraft and at the scribal school with the goal of education for all.  Crenshaw identified the following forms of OT wisdom literature[58]: Proverb (MASHAL), Riddle (CHIDAH), Fable and Allegory, Humn and Prayer, Dialogue (or, STREITGESPRACHE), Confession or Autobiographical Narrative, Lists (or, ONOMASTICA), Didactic Poetry – Didactic Narrative.


These important aspects of the OT wisdom traditions have some parallels among the neighbours of Israel as well as the Indian wisdom traditions.  There is a commonality as far as the nature, function and form of the wisdom traditions and the wisdom instruction.  There is a universal character of wisdom in humans’ quest for their self-understanding in relation to the nature, people and God.  In preserving its own identify, each culture makes its own contribution.  Indians have their lion’s share in this respect.  Indian wisdom traditions have been spread over the centuries in many directions, especially to the South-western Asia[59].  The grand-parents and parents play their role as wisdom teachers at home, as they transmit wisdom to the children at different stages of their life.  Fables, didactic poetry, songs, proverbs, riddles, autobiographical narratives (or confessions), onomastica, etc.are part and parcel of instruction at home as well as at school in India.  The modern book publishers are playing their creative role by including these stories in their comics prepared by the children.


Our study of Old Testament Wisdom traditions will be more interesting and more constructive if we identify as many parallels as we can in the Indian culture and literature[60].  The goal of our digging into our cultural heritage and relating it to the biblical traditions is to promote goodwill towards our fellow humans and to work together for the welfare of the people in relation to the nature and to our Creator, in order that all humans may be successful in achieving mastery of life (cf. Genesis 1:28, which is interpreted from the wisdom point of view that man has the responsibility to master the world).  What Monier Williams said in appreciation of the Indian wisdom and the Indians more than a century ago still challenges us today[61]:


The Knowledge of human nature played by the authors of wisdom tradition in India, the shrewd advice they give, and the censures they pass on human frailities – often in pointed, vigourous, and epigrammatic language – attest an amount of wisdom which, it had been exhibited in practice, must have raised the Indians to a high position among the nations of the earth.



Abbreviations to some of the works referred:


APSA  :            Andhra Pradesh Sahitya Academy, Hyderabad

EE :                  Encyclopedia Britannica, A New Survey of Universal Knowledge, Chicago, London, Toronto, 1956 (reprint)

IB :                   Interpreter’s Bible

IDB :                Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible

IDBS :              Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible Supplement, 1976

JAOS :             Journal of the American Oriental Society, Volume 101/1 (1981) contains essays on Wisdom Literature.

OTFC :            Old Testament and Form Criticism, Edited by J. H. Hayes, Trinity University Press, San Antonio, 1974, TUMSR-2, p. 289

OTT :               Old Testament Theology by Gerhard von Rad, SCM, London 1975 (SCM Paperback), First English Edition, 1962.

SAIW :            Studies in Ancient Israelite Wisdom, selected, with a Prolegomenon by James L. Crenshaw, KTAV Publishing House, Inc., New York 1976.  It contains 27 articles on the subjects related to Wisdom Literature all of them were reprinted from earlier publications (some of which were translated into English from German).

Th DNT :         Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, edited by Kittel.


Th DOT :         Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, Edited by G Johannes Botterweck and Helmer Ringgren.




[1] J. L. Crenshaw, “Studies in Ancient Israelite Wisdom: Prolegomenon” in SAIW, KTAV Publishing House Inc., New York, 1976, p. 1-2; “Wisdom” in OTFC, 1974, p. 226; “Wisdom in the OTD”, IDBS, 1976, pp. 954-955.

[2] W. A. Irwin, “Wisdom Literature” EB-23, p. 684. (Note the biblical passages in Proverbs 1:7 etc. Job 28:28; Ecclesiastes 12:13-14, etc.).

[3] H. P. Muller, “CHAKHAM”, ThDOT,-4, 1980, pp.370-372, also cf. S. H. Blank, “Wisdom”, IDB-4, 1962, pp.852-855.

[4] D. A. Hubbard, “Wisdom”, The Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Part-3, Intervarsity Press, 1930, p. 1650.

[5] J. L. Crenshaw, “Wisdom” in OTFC, pp. 229-262.  “Wisdom in the OT”.  IDBS, 953-954; cf. R. E. Murphy, “Hebrew Wisdom” JAOS (1981), p.26.; G. von Rad, Wisdom in Israel, SCM, London, 1972, 24-50.

[6] R. N. Shybray, The Intellectual Tradition in the Old Testament, Berlin and New York, 1974, BZAW-135.

[7] Cf. W. A. Irwin, loc. Cit.; G. von Rad, op. cit. pp.5-12, 20

[8] B. S. Childs, Biblical Theology in Crisis, 1972; G. E. Wright, God who Acts, SCM, London, 1952, pp. 103-104.  G. von Rad, Old Testament Theology-I, 1962 (German 1957), 418 ff.

[9] J. L. Crenshaw, “Prolegomenon”, SAIW, p.1.

[10] J. Fichtner, “Isaiah among the Wise” (German 1949).  The English rendering in SAIW, pp. 429-438.  for other articles, cf. SAIW, p.49.

[11] Gerhard von Rad, The Joseph Narrative and the Ancient Wisdom in The Problem of the Hexateuch and Other Essays, Edinburgh, 1966, (German 1953), 292-300; also in SAIW, 439-447.

[12] Cf. J. L. Crenshaw, Method in determining Wisdom influence upon ‘Historical’ Literature, JBL 88 (1969) 129-142, (= SAIW, 481-494).

[13] R. H. Pfeiffer, Wisdom and Vision in the Old Testament, ZAW, 52 (1934), 93-101, (=SAIW, 305-313); J. L. McKenzie, “Reflections on Wisdom”, JBL 86 (1967), 1-9.; L. Alonso Schokel, Sapiental and Covenant Themes in Genesis 2-3, SAIW, 468-480.  (Originally published in Theology Digest, 13 (1965), 3-10; also in Modern Biblical Studies; An Anthology from Theology Digest, ed. D. J. McCarthy & W. B. Callen, Milwaukee, 1967, 49-67 from its French original in BIBLICA 43 (1962) 295-316.

[14] Gerhard von Rad, The Joseph Narrative and Ancient Wisdom, The Problem of the Hexateuch and Other Essays, 1966, 292-300, originally published in SVT-1, 1953; also reprinted in SAIW, 439-447.

[15] R. N. Whybray, The Succession Narrative, SCM, London, 1968 SBT, 2nd Series, 9.

[16] S. Talmon, Wisdom in the Book of Esther, VT 13 (1963) 419-455.

[17] M. Weinfeld, The Origin of Humanism in Deuteronomy, JBL 80 (1961), 241-247 and Deuteronomy – The Present State of Inquiry, JBL 86 (1967) 249-262.

[18] S. Terrien, Amos and Wisdom, Israel’s Propertic Heritage, ed. By B. W. Anderson and W. Harrelson, 1962, 108-115 (=SAIW, 448-455); J. L. Crenshaw, The Influence of the Wise upon Amos, ZAW 79 (1967) 42-52, etc.;  D. E. Gowan, Habakkuk and Wisdom, paper read at the 103rd meeting of the SBL 1967, J. R. Boston, The Wisdom Influence upon the Song of Moses, JBL 88 (1968), 196-202; R. C. Dentan, The Literary Affinities of Exodus XXXIV 6 f., VT 13 (1963), 34-51.

[19] J. Fichtner, on Isaiah, see note 10 above;

H. W. Wolff, Hosea: A Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Hosea, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1974, HERMENEIA, p. xxxiv, ETC.;  William McKane, Jeremiah 13:12-14: A Problematic Proverb, Israelite Wisdom, Theological and Literary Essays in Honour of Samuel Terrien, ed. By G. Gammie and others, Scholars Press, Missoula, 1978, 107-120.  J. Lindblom, Wisdom in the Old Testament Prophets, SVT-3 (1960) 192-204; William McKane, Prophets and Wise Men, SCM, London (SBT-44), 1965.

[20] S. Mowinckel, Psalms and Wisdom, SVT-3, 1955, 205-224; R. E. Murphy, A Consideration of the Classification, Wisdom Psalms, SVT-9, 1962, 156-167 (=SAIW, 456-467).

[21] Cf. G. Fohrer, SOPHIA, ThDNT-7, 496-509, S. H. Blank, wisdom IDB-4, 858-861.

[22] H. Conzelman, Wisdom in the New Testament, IDBS, 957-960.

[23] J. L. Crenshaw, Method in Determining…, JBL 88 (1969), 129-142.  Also in SAIW, 481-494 (especially 494); Prolegomenon, pp. 9-13.

[24] J. L. Crenshaw, Prolegomenon, SAIW p.2.

[25] Gerhard von Rad, OTT-I, 418 ff.

[26] W. Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament, Vols. II & III, 1967, 80-117.

[27] W. Zimmerli, The Place and the Limit of Wisdom in the Framework of the Old Testament Theology, SJTh 17 (1963), 146-158, reprinted in SAIW 314-326.

[28] Gerhard von Rad, Wisdom in Israel, SCM, London, 1972, 62; J. L. Crenshaw, Prolegomenon, SAIW, 5-11.

[29] R. J. Williams, Wisdom in the ANE, IDBS 949-952; W. Baumgartner, The Wisdom Literature in Old Testament and Modern Study, ed. H. H. Rowley, Oxford, 1951, 210; H. P. Muller, op. cit., 364-370;  The Sages of Ancient Egypt in the Light of Recent Scholarship, JAOS, 101 (1981) 1-19; J. B. Pritchard, The Ancient Near Eastern Texts relating to Old Testament, Princeton, 1955, 421-425.

[30] J. B. Pritchard, loc. cit.

[31] D. Hillers in his article A Study of the Psalm 148, CBQ 40, 1978 323-334 disputes von Rad’s position.

[32] J. L. Crenshaw, Prolegomenon, SAIW, 7-9; also cf. R. E. Murphy, Hebrew Wisdom, JAOS 101 (1981), 27.

[33] R. J. Williams, IDBS, 949.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Edomites (Jeremiah 49:7; Ob. 8); Phoenicians (Ezekiel 27:8; 28:3-5)

[36] W. A. Irwin, op. cit., 683-684; also cf. IB, vol. I, 1952, 212.

[37] M. Monier Williams, Indian Wisdom: or, Examples of the Religious, Philosophical and Ethical Doctrines of the Hindus, 4th Edition, London, 1893, 526-554; H. J. Eggeling and J. Allan, Sanskrit Language and Literature, EB-19, 954-971 (especially 966ff.).

[38] M. Monier Williams, op. cit. p. 527

[39] L. Sternbach, Indian Wisdom and its Spread beyond India, JAOS 101 (1981), 97-131 (especially 97-102).

[40] Ibid., 99.

[41] M. Monier Williams, op. cit. 528; L. Sternbach, op. cit. 98-99.

[42] L. Sternbach, loc. cit.

[43] M. Monier Williams, op. cit. 529.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Ibid., 530

[48] Ibid., 531.

[49] Note the following publisher: Gollapudi Veeraswamy & Sons, Rajahmundry; Lakshminarayana Book Depot – Akula Suryanarayana & Brothers, Rajahmundry; Venkatrama & Co., Rajahmundry; Vavilla Publications, Madras; J. S. Gupta & Sons, Hyderabad; Siddheswara Publications, Hyderabad.  On the SATHAKA Literature, cf. Telugulo Parishodhana – Essays in Telugu: A Silver Jubilee Souvenir, ed., by D. Ramanuja Rao & Others, APSA, Hyderabad, 1983 122-125; on NITI SATHAKA Literature, cf. D. Venkatavadhani, Andhra Vangmaya Charithamu, Andhra Saraswath Parishad, Hyderabad 1958 (11th impression 1981), 109-115.

[50] For alternate interpretations, cf. M. Kodandaramamurthy, LOKA KAVI VEMANA…, Nellore 1983, First Part p. 74 (marked in Telugu numeral),.  There are some other works on Vemana.  ANDHRA THATHPARYA SAHITHAMU, Madras, 1929 (with a preface by Rallapudi Anantha Krishna Sarma); V. Subba Rao, Life of Vemana, Kamalkutur, Mylapore, Madras, 1922, (Published for Andhra Research Institute, Pithapuram) with 216+6 pages (index).  An Essay by Jwalamukhi on Vemana in TELUGULO THOLI SAMAJA KAVULU, ed. By K. K. Ranganathacharyulu, Andhra Saraswatha Parishad, Hyderabad 1983, 75-119.

[51] D. Venkatavadhani & Others, Telugu Samethalu, 3rd edition, APSA, Hyderabad, 1974-34; C. Vedavathi, SAAMETHA, Hyderabad 1983, 13.

[52] P. Narasimha Reddy, Telugu Saamethalu, Tirupati, 1983, Pravesika (Preface), p. ii.

[53] Ibid, iii.

[54] Ibid.; also cf. B. Rama Raju, Telugu Janapada Geya Sahithyamu, Janapada Vijnana Prachuranalu, Hyderabad 1978, 14, 72 ff; B. S. Ramacharyulu, TELUGU SAMITHELU, MANAVASWABHAVAM, Hyderabad, 1988 (162 pp.); C. Sudarshana Rao, SAAMETHALA SRAVANTHI, Kurnool, 1979, (95 pp.).

[55] Paravasthu Chinnaya Suri originally planned to translate into Telugu all the stories of the PANCHATHANTHRA from its Sanskrit original.  Only the first two parts MITHRA LABHAMand MITHRA BHEDAM were published as NEETHI CHANDRIKA volume I.  The remaining parts never came to light.  Suri’s Neethi Chandrika is in classical Telugu prose, which has been in use as a prescribed text book in the Universities.  Cf. N. Venkata Rao, Chinnaya Suri Jeevitha Charithra-Rachanalu (= The Life and Writings of Chinnaya Suri) in SAHITHYOPANYASAM.  ULU (= The Literary Discourses), APSA, Hyderabad, 1962, pp. 49-88 (especially 54-55).  There is a picture book of Panchathanthram in circulation, cf. R. Suryanarayana Murthy, BOMMALA PANCHATHANTHRAM (in two parts), Mallikarjuna Publications, Hyderabad, 1983 (Award winner in 1963 in competitions of the literature for the children.)

[56] Gerhard von Rad, OTT-I, 418.

[57] J. L. Crenshaw, Method of determining…, JBL 88 (1969) 132 (=SAIW 484), cf. OTFC 227.

[58] Ibid; see section I above and cf. note 5.

[59] L. Sternbach, op. cit., 97-131; M. Monier Williams, op. cit. 529.

[60] Some attempts have been made by some Indian Scholars along these lines in order to find Indian Parallels to Biblical themes.  To my knowledge, John Sadananda did his B.D. thesis in early seventies at the United Theological College, Bangalore, finding parallels between the Book of Proverbs and the proverbial collections in Kannada language.  In Telugu, the following three contributions may be noted in relation to the Wisdom Literature:  E. G. Anandam, AUPADESIKA SAHITHYAM (An Introduction to the Wisdom Literature) in Telugu, TTLB-ACTC Publication, Hyderabad, 1974, 252 pp.;  M. Vidyanandam, SOUNDARYA KALA (Aesthetics), CLS, Madras, 1978, P. Victor Premasagar, Jnana Sahithyam in Telugu Bible Dictionary, TTLB-ACTC, Hyderabad, 1980, 49-51 (Supplement).  R. R. Sundara Rao, Bhakti Theology in the Telugu Hymnal, CISRS-CLS, 1983 (129 pp.) brings to our knowledge, some important types of songs in the Indian (Hindu) Poetry.  E. C. John, Divine Manifestations, Bangalore Theological Forum, III/2 (July 1971) 19.  Dr. John points out parallels for Epiphany and Theophany form Vaishnavism and Saivism respectively.  T. M. Manickam, Dharma According to Manu and Moses, Dharmaram Publications, Bangalore, 1977, 358 pp.;  S. Prabhakara Rao and M. Prakasha Reddy, Job and his Satan Parallels in Indian Scripture, ZAW 91 (1979) 416-422.  A pioneer article on this subject is by Stephen Niel on Wisdom of India and Wisdom of the Hebrews in his book BHAKTI: HINDU AND CHRISTIAN, Madras, CLS 1974, pp. 26-52.  The writer regrets that this last mentioned article came to his notice after the manuscript was handed over for printing.

[61] M. Monier Williams, op. cit. 527.



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