There is a great city named Ujjayinī. Its fortresses, moats and citadels resemble the colossal mountain peaks and unfathomable oceans surrounding the great earth. People who set their eyes upon this city’s dwellings made of gold and silver, no longer desire to see even the peaks of Meru and Kailāsa. From every house, one hears the majestic renditions of vedas, the twangs of bows and the melodious strains of music from the Vīṇās. Still, these different intonations bore no signs of disharmony. The fact that many attendants of Śiva like Mahākāla even moved from Kailāsa to settle down in Ujjayinī suffices to speak volumes of the glory of this great city.
King Mahāsena, who commanded a great army, reigned here. Like lord Kṛṣṇa, he had sixteen thousand queens. He lived in accordance with the eternal principles of righteousness established since times of yore, and for a long time ruled his subjects well. He had two sons - Gopāla and Pālaka - both imbued with wonderful qualities. Mahāsena had a minister called Bharatarohaka, who was as wise as Bṛhaspati himself. The minister too had two sons - Rohantaka and Suroha, who resembled their father in virtues. These princes and the children of the minister acquired both theoretical and applied knowledge of the four fold streams of learning and grew up to be highly capable, and lived happily.
After Mahāsena, Gopāla was crowned the new king. The younger prince Pālaka was named the heir-apparent. The erstwhile minister’s sons became the new ministers. The whole earth seemed new, under the protection of the new king and ministers.
One day, the king began his tour of the city, seated atop his magnificent royal elephant. People gathered to catch a glimpse of the procession. The crowd and the noise agitated the elephant, and it suddenly began to run amok. It lifted up a young girl with its trunk and began to rush towards a gorge. Fearing that the beast may cast her into it, the girl was shocked and fainted for a moment. Then when she regained consciousness, she looked at the king and shouted angrily: “From someone who apparently killed his own father, what can someone like me hope for? Would he who unhesitatingly kills a brāhmaṇa who has mastered the vedas, ever care about killing helpless deer?”. Listening to such virulent words which would have pierced the ears of even the low born, king Gopāla became distraught. He felt as if an arrow had plunged into his heart. Returning home, he spent the rest of the day pining away, hurt by the spiteful words that had been hurled at him. Later in the evening, shrouding himself with a black blanket, armed with his sheathed sword, he began to slowly walk around the town, listening to the gossip of his subjects.
Near a temple, the king overheard a conversation between a woman and her paramour. The man said ‘I must be really stupid to fall in love with you! I find it as futile as wrestling with the wind. I was waiting all this time, lost in your thoughts! You, on the other hand, are the true paragon of spousal fidelity! You are completely averse to leaving your husband’s abode!
If your charming little husband is so dear to you, then why blame virtuous folk born in illustrious families - like me for instance?’ he said. She replied with a laugh: ‘People like you may have shed all shame, but shouldn’t I aim to please my husband? You should know that the women who deceive their husbands are careful enough to not lose their husband’s trust. Now if you indeed wish to savour nectar sans worries, then why don’t you just kill my husband who, despite being blissfully ignorant, is an obstacle nevertheless! If you are afraid that this will make you a sinner, then it is quite clear to me that you don’t love me. After all, our king himself, blinded by the desire to rule, killed his own father! Isn’t that unrighteousness?’. The king listened to these unspeakable and unbearable words and trudged ahead.
Then he overheard a brāhmaṇa shout, ‘Woman! Aren’t you awake? Can’t you hear our child wail? Give him something to eat or drink! His throat is going dry!’. The wife woke up and cried, ‘Fie upon you, you little brat. Made up your mind to kill your father, have you? Why don’t you die!’, thus berating the poor child. The brāhmaṇa angrily asked her ‘Alas sinful woman! Why do you chide the poor child thus with no rhyme or reason? Why do you call him a father-killer?’. She shouted back, ‘Of what use is a son? Didn’t our king himself kill his own father, despite knowing what the scriptures proclaim?’. Listening to such excoriating words, king Gopāla went to his palace’s inner quarters and went to bed - but was unable to sleep. After it became quite dark, he summoned his ministers Bharataroha and Rohantaka for a secret meeting. He asked them, ‘What is the source of this heinous accusation from my subjects, pray tell!’. The ministers were afraid, but they mustered courage and said, ‘Lord! Before your beloved father died, he had begun to issue terrible punishments for even the smallest transgressions. For instance, when the barber plucked out a black hair by mistake while trimming his white whiskers, the king flew into a rage and ordered that his head be cut off. Then one day, while having lunch, he felt a small piece of gravel grind against his teeth. That was enough for him to have the traditional cook who was with us for years, executed. He began to even torture brāhmaṇas. Thankfully, our father died before seeing the king’s egregious behaviour. Ever since the old king lost his trusted minister, he became depressed and soon came down with leprosy. Thus with the old minister gone, and the king wasting away in this condition, the citizens became frustrated. We didn’t know what to do, and eventually decided to spread the following rumour: The old king had lost his mind and was torturing his own people. Prince Gopāla, out of compassion towards the subjects, took charge of the throne and put the deranged king in prison. The king then lost his mind, and began to act like a chained elephant in rut. He gave up food and sleep, and began to spend each night as if it lasted a hundred years. The prince who was concerned about the subjects remained unmoved, and did not release his father. The old king then died within a short span of time. This is the root cause behind the terrible accusation you face today’.
King Gopāla lowered his head and struck the ground hard with his fist. He then gazed at the sky with tears in his eyes. A few moments later he gathered himself and said, ‘It is only a dear friend like you, whose wisdom rivals that of even Śukra and Bṛhaspati could have tried such a device which is devoid of danger. But such a path is fitting only for the virtuous ones who have nothing and no one to fear. It does not befit men like me who fear both the seen and the unseen in this world. I have made up my mind. May Pālaka become king. Take care of him. I cannot shrug off this accusation!’. By then, the rooster crowed, proclaiming that the sun had risen. The bards took cue and began to sing, ‘O king, your fame’s splendour has spread infinitely beyond the horizons! Rise!’. This was very hard to bear for Gopāla, given what he heard his people say just a few hours ago. He shut his ears in agony and shuddered. He ordered his guard, ‘For heavens’ sake man, tell the bards to stop. They are smearing salt on my wound!’.
The current article is a translation of Prof. A R Krishnasastri’s Kannada classic Kathāmṛta along with additional segments added from the original Kathā-sarit-sāgara (of Soma-deva). Bṛhat-kathā-mañjarī (of Kṣemendra) and Bṛhat-kathā-śloka-saṃgraha (of Budha-svāmin) have also been referred to. The translation has been rendered by Raghavendra G S, Arjun Bharadwaj, Srishan Thirumalai, and Hari Ravikumar.
The original Kannada version of Kathāmṛta is available for free online reading. So are the other works of Prof. Krishna Shastri