Introduction to the Kathāmṛta – Part 12 - What can we learn from the Kathā-sarit-sāgara?

This article is part 12 of 20 in the series Introduction to the Kathāmṛta

Dhanika quotes a śloka from the Bṛhatkathā and two ślokas from the Brahat-kathā-mañjarī. It seems like he had named his work Kathā-sarit-sāgara by Somadeva’s times. We cannot say this with certainty either! It is quite possible that the Bṛhatkathā kept growing in this manner and finally, in Kashmir, it took the form of the work of eighteen lambakas. It is not unlikely that this is an imitation of the eighteen parvans of the Mahābhārata. It is said that the Mahābhārata did not originally contain eighteen parvans (chapters/ divisions/ segments). With time, some kind of sacredness got associated with the number eighteen and the Mahābhārata too happened to get that many parvans only in the later days. The purāṇas are eighteen in number and so are the upa-purāṇas; the Bhagavad-gītā contains eighteen chapters. There are, thus, several aspects that are ‘eighteen’ in number even today. The presence of short lambakas such as Velā Madirāvatī, confirms our suspicion that they were created to make up to the magic number eighteen. [The Bṛhatkathā that Sātavāhana procured was supposedly about a lakh granthas in size. This only suggests that Bṛhatkathā was not small compared to the ‘śatasāhasrika-samhitās’ such as Mahābhārata and Prajñā-pāramita of the Buddhists].

Thus, the Bṛhatkathā was born in the Vindhyāraṇya, grew like a great grand tree spreading its branches in all the four directions (though its primary growth was in the northern and southern regions). These branches that were spread out grew aerial roots which reached the earth and this led to the growth of newer trees. Though we are not able to locate the original stem of the tree, the newly founded shoots are now grown into large trees themselves. They form their own kingdoms and have kings; there are businessmen, viṭas and cheats; it consist of pious and non-pious women; there are rasikas and riṣis; devatās, nāgas, rākṣasas and gandharvas exist there; in addition, there are different kinds of birds, animals, ghosts and vampires on the tree; this is just as a Christmas tree that has toys from different countries hung on its branches; whatever one needs from all the three worlds can be procured from this Bṛhatkathā-tree; over and above this world, there is an additional layer that is purely a figment of the poet’s imagination – there are many wonders - a museum of strange objects and sights. All these elements are enshrined in the stories of the vidyādharas and Parameśvara narrates them to his favourite wife to entertain her. We can see his influence throughout the story. In every lambaka, either his son or he appears and performs the benediction (maṅgala). At the end of the work, there is also a phala-śruti from the Śaiva-purāṇa.

What can we learn from the Kathā-sarit-sāgara?

The Kathā-sarit-sāgara was narrated for the amusement of a lady – it was recounted by Śiva to his wife. It is but natural that she desired to listen to a story like never before; it is, however, quite strange that she selfishly wished that the story shouldn’t be heard by anyone else and even got angry when it fell on the ears of another person! Whatever be the reason behind this, it indeed came as a blessing to us from the benevolent devī, who cursed the person who narrated these stories to his wife in privacy and declared that the antidote for the curse was to make the story known to the world. Thus, the main purpose of the story is not preaching morals for ‘people to live’, but to lighten their lives by entertaining them. Somadeva too wrote it in this manner for entertaining his lady. This hasn’t, however, stopped him from adding a ‘nīti-vākya’ a moral at the end of each story – this, perhaps is one of the elements of the ‘kāvyāṃśa’ he talks about. These can be found in the ‘Kathāmṛta’ too. I have picked those which can be given in the form of ślokas and provided them in the appendix. The fact that the poet has not overdone the elements of preaching only betrays his sense of aucitya. If preaching of moral principles increases, it turns the story dry.

The Kathā-sarit-sāgara is not a work on dharma and is not an itihāsa; it has not been set out to provide us a vision of dharma and does not claim to be painting the stories of noble heroes (udātta-nāyakas) like Rāma and Kṛṣṇa. The dharma enshrined in the work is clear and plain: we can summarise it in a few sentences: -

1. Meditate upon the supreme with great focus; when intense concentration is achieved, we will be able to get rid of our external allurements and will be able to realise the philosophical principle (tattva). Once the tattva is realised, we will not get caught in karma’s jaw. This is the summary of the principle of mokṣa
2. By their own actions beings are afflicted in saṃsāra and attain freedom from the worship of the supreme (See Vimalabuddhi’s Tale).
3. All beings always experience the auspicious and the inauspicious purely based on the deeds done in former births (See King Ajara’s Story).
4. The world is blind; it is led by its deeds (i.e. karma) towards fruition and fulfilment; human effort is simply a pretext for that (See Piṅgaḻikā’s Story).

The protagonist of the story, Udayana hailed from the vaṃśa of the Pāṇḍavas and yet he was no Dharma-rāja. There's nobody here like Bhīṣma who taught dharma to Yudhiṣṭhira. Although he was the king of the province of Vatsa, Udayana did not burden himself too much with the running of the state; he was extremely fortunate (puṇyavanta). He obtained a divine vīṇā without having to spend any money or struggle for it; without exerting himself, he mastered music; even elephants in rut would be calmed by listening to his vīṇā-playing. A great king like Mahāsena was impressed by him and while he was imprisoned, the divine beauty Vāsavadattā fell in love with him and subsequently they were married. And even when he lost his entire kingdom, the able minister Yaugandharāyaṇa and the commander Rumaṇvanta used several strategies and ultimately he regained his kingdom. What sort of accumulated puṇya he must have had! The only option for us is to read his story and open our mouths wide looking at his puṇya! And as for his son (i.e. Nara-vāhana-datta), he faces not the slightest troubles. Owing to results of the puṇya-karma done by someone else, he received on a platter the title of ‘Vidyādhara-cakravartī.’ Beautiful damsels, one after the other, in groups, in hordes, constantly, fell in love with him and offered themselves to him, as if divinely ordained. At least Udayana and Vāsavadattā invoke Śiva in order that a son (i.e. Nara-vāhana-datta) may be born to them. But he doesn't seem to have said a prayer; even so Śiva arranges for special protection to be given to him and ensures his yoga and kṣema. But such kings, princes, and patriots are found only in the dreams of poets and in the prayers of harangued citizens. Further, there is nothing to be learnt from the Vidyādhara-caritra; they cannot teach us their knowledge or skills.

In these stories, we find Brahmā, Viṣṇu, Maheśvara, Nārada, Kaṇva, Kaśyapa, and so forth; but the primary focus of the story is not the devas or the ṛṣis. Far more than dharma and mokṣa, prominence is given here for artha and kāma; except perhaps the prahasanas of Bāṇa, nowhere else do we find so much of praise for kāma (See the maṅgala-ślokas of lambakas #3, #6, and #12 for instance). In the various sub-stories, the characters we find are middle-class people, common men of various professions, traders, small-time kings and chieftains, etc. Among them we find those who are honest, intelligent, honourable, noble, and wise; we also find liars, thieves, cheats, pimps, gamblers, fools, idiots, tramps, and hooligans. Further, there are bhūtas, vetālas, rākṣasas, piśācas, nāgas, and vidyādharas; as well as donkeys, horses, elephants, camels, tigers, lions, and other animals. Whatever worldly wisdom and principles that the poet could depict through these characters, he has done so: amidst all this, man has to live like the tongue that wags in the midst of thirty-two teeth; and to achieve that, just like the fraudster who attained the king's ear (See The Story of the Fraudster becoming the Prime Minister) one has to use all of one's intelligence, wisdom, tactics, strategies, and tricks. A person lacking in intelligence cannot live in this world (See The Tales of Fools); this in itself is an art. If there is one who plays the game, there are many who are obstinate to destroy his game. If one gets a good hand or makes a good call in the game, it is his luck; to some extent, his expertise counts as well, but if the roll of the dice is favourable and the pawn moves to the right spot, even an idiot can win. This is indeed attainment, this is karma. It is the argument that says if one lives well today there is a hope of attaining comfort tomorrow, a desire of gaining peace in future.

Let that be so; Let us see what sort of problems arise in the minds of the people who read these stories in the present era, what solutions would present themselves, and what is the impact of these.


To be continued...

This is an English translation of Prof. A R Krishna Shastri’s Kannada classic Kathāmṛta by Raghavendra G S, Arjun Bharadwaj,  Srishan Thirumalai, and Hari Ravikumar.

The original Kannada version of Kathāmṛta is available for free online reading here. To read other works of Prof. Krishna Shastri, click here.



Prof. A R Krishna Sastri was a journalist, scholar, polyglot, and a pioneer of the modern Kannada renaissance, who founded the literary journal Prabuddha Karnāṭaka. His Vacana-bhārata and Kathāmṛta are classics of Kannada literature while his Saṃskṛta-nāṭaka and Bankimacandra are of unrivalled scholarship.

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