The story of Śrīdatta
In the past, there lived a brāhmaṇa by name Yajñasoma in the Mālava kingdom. He had two sons by name Kālanemī and Vigatabhaya. After the death of their father, they headed to Pāṭalīputra, got educated there under Devaśarmā. Devaśarmā was pleased enough to give away his daughters by marriage to them. A snake swallowed Vigatabhaya’s wife and grief-stricken, he exiled himself desirous of pilgrimage. Kālanemī pleased Lakṣmī by performing many vratas and homas. She appeared before him and said – “You will get immeasurable wealth. Your son will become the king. However, because you worshipped me with a corrupt mind, you will finally be punished like a thief and you will die!” She gave him such a boon and disappeared.
In accordance with the boon, Kālanemī acquired a lot of wealth and also begot a son. He named his son ‘Śrīdatta’. Though he was a brāhmaṇa by birth, Śrīdatta became well versed in the usage of weapons and in physical combat. Once, he got acquainted with Vikramaśakti, the prince of the land, son of the king Vallabhaśakti. They became friends. Once, Vikramaśakti invited him for a wrestling match to settle a petty issue and was defeated. The prince got angry. Therefore, Śrīdatta, along with his friends, Bāhuśālin, Vajramuṣṭi, Mahābala, Vyāghrabala, Upendrabala and Niṣṭhuraka, whom he had made friends during his stay with the prince, escaped from the place fearing danger from the king. As he was walking on the banks of the river Gaṅgā, he saw a lady being washed away in the waters of the river. He jumped into the river to rescue her. As he dived deep into the river, he found a temple of Śiva, neither the waters nor the woman was to be seen. Exhausted, he spent the night there and the next morning the lady came there to offer her worship.
Śrīdatta followed her to her house and when she sat on her bed he also did the same. The lady started crying. When Śrīdatta asked her the reason, she said – “I am the eldest one of the thousand grand-daughters of Bali Cakravartī. My name is Vidyutprabhā. Viṣṇu has permanently imprisoned my grandfather and killed our father in a physical combat. He exiled us all away to this place and has placed a lion at the entrance to this town to make sure that we don’t escape from here. He also told us that if a human comes here and kills the lion, both the animal and all the women here will be set free. That is the reason I lured you here!”
Śrīdatta defeated the lion in a combat. It turned out to be a yakṣa who was cursed by Kubera. He handed over a sword called Mṛgāṅka to him. Vidyutprabhā gifted him a ring that could ward away poison. Śrīdatta desired to possess the lady Vidyutprabhā too. Learning about his intentions, she said – “Take a bath in this pool and come back; have a sword in your hand – there are crocodiles in the pool!’ Accordingly, he took a dip in the pool and when he rose up, he found himself at the banks of the river Ganga. He thought that the rākṣasa girl had cheated him and started heading towards his house. On the way, he came across Niṣṭhuraka who made him aware of the events which had gone by – “When you dived into the river Gaṅgā and was away for so long, we all thought that you were dead and were about to end our lives too by cutting off our heads. A heavenly voice stopped us reassuring that you are safe and will return. While we were going to visit your father we got news. Vallabhaśakti is no more, Vikramaśakti has ascended the throne as the king. He asked your father where you currently were. When your father replied that he did not know where you were, the king declared him a thief! ‘He is a thief and has hidden his son somewhere’, saying so he sentenced him to death by impalement. Your mother was overcome with grief and died out of intense pain. Bāhuśālī and other friends of ours have gone away to Ujjayinī. I was hiding here to give you this message.” Niṣṭhuraka and Śrīdatta set out to Ujjayinī keeping in mind that they had to wait for the right moment to take revenge. On the way, they saw a woman weeping. When they asked her why she was alone and weeping, she replied that she too was heading towards Ujjayinī, but lost her way. They, out of compassion, decided to take her along. They reached a desolate town and decided to spend the night there. While sleeping Śrīdatta was woken up to see that the woman had killed his friend Niṣṭhuraka and was devouring his flesh! He drew his sword Mṛgāṅka to strike her down and she turned herself into a terrible Rākṣasī. As soon as he struck her with the sword she turned into a beautiful woman and told him, “Don’t kill me! Let me go. I am not a Rākṣasī. I was assigned to disturb the penance of Viśvāmitra, when I couldn’t do it using my beauty I resorted to this hideous form in a bid to frighten him. He instead cursed me to stay in the same form and eat men. He also told me that I’ll be released from the curse when you would seize me by my hair to strike me. Now I’m released, ask me for a boon.” Śrīdatta asked her to give his friend’s life back saying nothing else is more valuable to him than that. She happily granted his wish and vanished. Niṣṭhuraka got his life back and they together continued their journey to reach Ujjayinī and finally joined their friends.
Once, they together went to a garden to watch the Vasantotsava that was taking place there. Śrīdatta fell in love with Mṛgāṅkavatī, the daughter of Bimbakarāja who had come there. She too appeared to have been infatuated with him. She disappeared into a grove with her eyes fixed on him. As Śrīdatta and her friends followed her in the same direction, they heard the shout for help – ‘Alas! A snake has bitten the princess!’ Bāhuśālī rushed to the kañcukī and told him – ‘My friend has a ring that can remove poison. He is also well-versed in the art of incantation.’ The Kañcukī immediately came to Śrīdatta and fetched him to the princess who was in pain. Śrīdatta placed the ring in the finger of the princess and chanted the relevant mantras. She regained consciousness immediately. The king too came to know of this incident and escorted her back to the palace.
The following day, the king sent several rewards to Śrīdatta. He offered them to Bāhuśālī’s father and was lost in thoughts about Mṛgāṅkavatī. As he was thinking about her, a dūtī by name Bhāvanikā came from the palace in the pretence of giving the ring back to Śrīdatta. She told him that the princess had lost herself to him and she was going to give her life up, if she did not gain his company. Śrīdatta and his friends decided that they should abduct her and escape to Mathura.
As per their plan, they dressed themselves as traders, went to the palace of Bimbakarāja and with the help of Bhāvanikā, they fled from the place along with Mṛgāṅkavatī. Just before Bhāvanikā left with them, she put the princess’s sleeping chamber on fire. Everyone thought that the two of them died in the fire accident.
The next day, Śrīdatta pretended as though he did not know of all these events and tried following the path that his friends had taken and headed in the direction. However, on the way he saw that they had been beaten up and had fallen helpless on the path. ‘A gang of men on horseback assaulted us and one of them snatched away the princess from us. They would not have travelled far yet. Look after her well-being immediately!’ Accordingly, he spotted the gang on horseback who were riding not very far. He swiftly closed in and saw one of them carrying the princess. As he did not cooperate when Śrīdatta spoke gentle words, he pulled the horse rider down by catching hold of his legs. He crushed him on a stone and killed him. He also killed many of the gangmen, resulting in others fleeing, frightened by his superhuman prowess and skill. In the meantime, the horse too died, being exhausted. Mṛgāṅkavatī was very thirsty due to exhaustion.
To be continued...
The current article is a translation of Prof. A R Krishna Shastri’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.