The Story of Aśokadatta and Kapālasphoṭaka
Long ago, there lived a brāhmaṇa by name Govindasvāmī in an agrahāra on the banks of the river Kālindī. He had two sons: Aśokadatta and Vijayadatta. Once, that region was afflicted by a great famine. Having gifted away the few possessions he owned to his near and dear ones, he left for Kāśī along with his wife and two sons. On the way, he chanced upon a great ascetic and enquired about the future of his children. The ascetic replied, “In the future, both your sons will live happily. However, you will be separated from your younger son Vijayadatta for some time. Even so, owing to the influence of Aśokadatta, you will be reunited with him.”
After reaching Kāśī, the family went to the Caṇḍikā-devī temple at the outskirts of the town and stayed there that night. They slept in the open, under a tree, along with some kārpaṭikas and various other tourists who had come from all over. At some point in the night, Vijayadatta had a fever and began shivering due to the cold. Unable to bear the cold, he woke his father up and asked him to build a fire to warm him up. The father said, “Son, from where can I procure a fire at this unearthly hour?” The boy said, “Father, if that’s the case, then look there; there’s a fire visible! Hold my hand and take me there!” The father replied, “That’s a cemetery. What you’re seeing is the funeral pyre of a dead body! How can I take you, a young boy, to such a place? Who knows what bhūta or preta might be there?” Vijayadatta said, “What will the piśācis do, Father? I’m not such a coward. I insist you take me there!” He put his foot down and his father was forced to take him to the spot. The young boy stood by the fire and warmed his limbs. He took a stick and thrashed the skull of the corpse that was burning. The fat inside that was burning flew up in the air and fell into his mouth. At once, the boy turned into a rākṣasa. His hair stood up, his canines grew prominently, he held a sword in his hand, and dragging the skull of the corpse towards himself he consumed all the fat, licking it clean. Then he brandished the sword and went to take the life of his father. An incorporeal voice said, “Hey Kapālasphoṭa! Don’t kill your father. Come here!” He disappeared at once.
Govindasvāmī began weeping for his son and slowly walked back to where his family was asleep. Then he narrated the turn of events to his wife and elder son. He then recollected the words of the great ascetic and brought some solace upon himself. He stayed in that city taking shelter with a merchant. Aśokadatta grew up to be educated and also skilled in malla-kāḻaga (art of wrestling). Over the course of time, there was no wrestler to match his abilities.
Once, a famous wrestler by name Pratāpamukuṭa came to Kāśī from the Dakṣiṇa-deśa (southern province) and defeated all the wrestlers of the king of Kāśī. Aśokadatta defeated him and pleased with that, the king of Kāśī offered him royal patronage. One day, the king had gone with him to the Śiva temple just outside the city and had offered worship there. On the way back, near the cemetery, he heard a cry, “Oh no! The daṇḍādhikārī (king, judge) has falsely accused me of murder and had me impaled with a spike. Even after three days, I did not die.
My throat is parched. Please get me some water!” Hearing that, the king was overcome by compassion and instructed Aśokadatta who was beside him to send water. ‘Who would dare enter the crematorium during the night which is so dark! I’ll only go.’, saying so Aśokadatta went towards the crematorium. The king returned to the city. When Aśokadatta reached the stake, he saw a man being impaled on it; An exquisitely beautiful woman was seated crying below. She said, ‘I’m his wife; I’ve decided to immolate myself along my husband on his funeral pyre; but even though being impaled on the stake for three days still he isn’t dead; he is asking for water; I somehow was able to fetch water; but since his mouth is so high I’m not able to reach and make him drink!’ He said, ‘The king has sent me with water. You can climb on my back and shoulders and make him drink it; it is not a sin to touch a man other than your husband during such an emergency.’ She agreed. He stood near the stake bending his head. She climbed on his back. After some time, a few drops of blood fell on the earth and also on him. Curious, he looked up. He saw the woman was cutting up the body on the impaled stake and was eating the flesh. Furious, in a bid to smash her on the ground, he held her leg; she pulled herself away, flew towards the sky, and vanished; the gem studded anklet which she had worn remained in his hand. He was surprised, happy and sad at the same time. He reached the city the next day, met the king, narrated the story and gave him the anklet. He gave that to his wife and narrated the story of Aśokadatta’s adventure. He thought, Aśokadatta, who had no parallel when it comes to lineage, erudition, honesty, courage and handsomeness, would be the ideal groom for his daughter Madanalekhā. The queen too concurred and informed him that Madanalekhā had seen him a few days ago in the garden and was smitten, that night in her dreams some woman had appeared and had informed Madanalekhā that she was the wife of Aśokadatta in her previous birth. Thus the marriage happened. Few days later, the queen said to the king, ‘The anklet which Aśokadatta had brought was single; if one more can be made then it can be used together!’ The king sent for the goldsmiths. They observed that the anklet was a divine creation and it was impossible to replicate it, the gems adorning it were not available in this world, and wherever it was found it would be prudent to search the missing one. The queen was sad hearing this. Hearing that, Aśokadatta vowed that he would search and bring the missing anklet. Ignoring all warnings, he took the anklet and went to the crematorium again on the day before new moon day. In a bid to see that beautiful woman again, he took a corpse which was hanging from a tree, went about shouting, ‘Want to eat human flesh, anyone!’ A minute later he heard a female voice from afar, ‘Bring it to me!’ When he went there he saw the same woman. She was surrounded by more women. She asked him, ‘What is the value of this piece of flesh? He showed her the anklet and said, ‘I want the other one.’
She replied: ‘This is my anklet! I had assumed a different form when I stood next to that impaled man. That is why you don’t recognize me now. Forget the meat now. Just do my bidding and you shall have my other anklet!’ Aśokadatta replied without batting an eyelid: ‘Certainly! I am willing to do whatever you command!’ She said, ‘Listen to me carefully. Atop one of the peaks of the Himalayas is the city of Trighaṇṭa. A rakshasa king named Lambajihvā used to live there. I am his wife Vidyucchikhā. When my beloved husband died in battle, our new king Kapālasphoṭa entrusted the city to my care. That’s where I live, with my only daughter. Now my dear daughter is of marriageable age. While searching for a suitable husband for her, I chanced upon you. Handsome and valorous that you are, I felt like I found in you the perfect match for my daughter. It is exactly to this end that I devised all these plans. Whatever you saw that night when you had brought water, was just an illusion of my making. In fact, I deliberately left that anklet in your hand, with the hope that you will come back. And to my good fortune, you indeed have. Come with me to my city and wed my daughter, O young man! Then the other anklet that goes with the one you already have, will be yours too’. Aśokadatta assented and the happy Vidyucchikhā took him in tow and leapt to the skies. Soon they reached Trighaṇṭa where Aśokadatta lost no time in marrying Vidyutchchika’s daughter Vidyutprabhā. He stayed there for a few days and enjoyed their hospitality. After sometime, Aśokadatta expressed his desire to go back to Vārāṇasī. Then, true to her word, Vidyucchikhā gifted him the other anklet and in addition, a glittering golden lotus and flew him back to the cemetery of Vārāṇasī and left him there. Before they parted ways, she told him, ‘O Aśokadatta, I come here on the fourteenth night of every waning fortnight. Visit me if you need to. You will find me under this banyan tree!’
A proud Aśokadatta went to the palace and presented the anklet and the golden lotus to king Pratāpamukuṭa. When he revealed how it came to his possession, everyone in the king’s court was astonished. Next morning, the king carried the golden lotus to the temple he had built and placed it atop the silver kalaśa. Looking at them shining like his fame and valour, the king was overjoyed and remarked: ‘If only I had another lotus like this! I could have adorned it upon the other kalaśa!’ Listening to this, Aśokadatta vowed: ‘Consider it done, your highness! I shall get it for you’. The king said: ‘No Aśokadatta, I do not want you to embark upon another dangerous mission!’ The resolute Aśokadatta however wouldn’t be dissuaded. True to his word, on the fourteenth night of the very next waning fortnight, he walked to the cemetery and met his mother-in-law Vidyucchikhā. He then travelled with her back to her city Trighaṇṭa and lived there for a few days. One morning he broached the topic of his interest and asked Vidyucchikhā if he could have another golden lotus like the one she had gifted him earlier. Perplexed by his request, she replied: ‘wherefrom could I obtain another one like it? The golden lotuses bloom in the ponds of Kapālasphoṭa, the rakshasa king. He had gifted just one of them to my husband as a mark of friendship, that’s all!’ To this he said: ‘If that is so, pray take me to that pool and I’ll pluck one myself!’ She replied, ‘O Aśokadatta, what you seek to do is impossible, for the pond is constantly guarded by the ferocious rakshasas stationed by Kapālasphoṭa himself!’ Aśokadatta however didn’t give up. Vidyucchikhā eventually relented and led him to the pond of the golden lotuses. An elated Aśokadatta rushed in to pluck one, but was stopped by the rakshasas who stood watch. A bloody battle soon ensued in which many rakshasas were slain. The rest of them fled and reported what had transpired to their king. Kapālasphoṭa flew into a rage and he rushed to the scene. To his astonishment he realized that the man who was after a golden lotus from his pond was none other than his own elder brother Aśokadatta! Kapālasphoṭa cast his weapons aside and tearfully fell at the feet of Aśokadatta and cried: ‘Brother! It’s me, your younger brother Vijayadatta; I was a rakshasa until this very moment. Having seen you today, I remember everything now and I am relieved of my curse!’ Suddenly, a vidyādhara preceptor called Prajñāptikauśika came down like a meteor from the skies and addressed them in a resounding voice: ‘Hear me! Know yourselves to be vidyādharas. All of you were under a curse, which has now been lifted. Here, take hold of your lost powers. Now return to your abode with your companions!” Saying thus, he bestowed their lost divine powers back to them and flew away.
‘You are all Vidyādharas and have turned into this form because of a curse. Now, you have successfully overcome the curse. You may hold on to your vidyās now. Go back to your places with along with your relatives!’ He gave them their vidyās and left.
They picked up several golden lotuses and returned to the Himalayan peaks through an aerial path. By then, the rākṣasī wife of Aśokadatta was also free of her curse and had turned back into her original form of a Vidyādhari. They escorted her too and reached Vārāṇasī in a moment’s time. The parents were thrilled looking at them! Upon hearing the news of their arrival there, Pratāpamukuṭa too came there. Aśokadatta offered all the lotuses that he had brought. He was thrilled that he had gotten so many, while he asked only for one. Govindasvāmī asked with great wonder and curiosity – ‘Dear child! That night, you turned into rakshasa, right? What happened after that?’ He said – ‘As I smashed the skull with the stick, the fat that was within it fell into my mouth and I immediately turned into a rakshasa. The other rākṣasas named me Kapālasphoṭa and made me one among them. I went with them to their leader. He appointed me as his commander-in-chief as soon as he saw me. After some days, he lost his life in a battle with the gandharvas. Thereafter, I became the king and started ruling the place. I chanced upon seeing Aśokadatta there who had come seeking golden lotuses and as soon as I saw him, I overcame my form as a rakshasa!’
Aśokadatta said – “In the past, we were in the form of Vidyādhara and while traveling in the skies, we spotted muni-kanyakās of the Gālavāśrama who were bathing in the river Gaṅgā. We developed desire for them and they too felt attracted to us. Their relatives found this out through their divine vision and cursed us– ‘Be born as humans! You will feel strange pangs of separation. When you see each other in a place that is invisible to the humans, you will realise your true self. The Vidyādhara-guru will give you back your vidyās. You then become vidyādharas once more! All this happened as per his curse and we are now back to our original form as vidyādharas.”
Aśokadatta helped awaken his parents and the princess as well. They too turned into vidyādharas. He then got the king’s consent and went to the emperor of the vidyādharas along with his parents and two wives. He named his brothers Aśokavega and Vāyuvega. He then proceeded to his native town Govindakūṭa and everyone lived happily thereafter. King Pratāpamukuṭa placed a golden lotus over yet another silver kalaśa and performed pūjā to Śiva with the rest of the golden lotuses. He felt gratified that because of his contact with the vidyādharas his family too derived lots of comfort.
Viṣṇudatta narrated this story and added – ‘In this manner, divine beings are born on earth for various reasons. You too probably are a divine person. The very fact that you are enthusiastic in such a challenging task itself reveals that you are a special person. Kanakarekhā, who you desire to have must also be a divine person. If not, would she have said at such a young age that she would marry only a person who has seen Kanakapurī?’ Śaktideva felt reassured. The night passed.
To be continued...
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 GS, 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.