Introduction to the Kathāmṛta – Part 10 – What is a 'Story'?

This article is part 10 of 20 in the series Introduction to the Kathāmṛta

One end of Udayana’s story takes place in Kauśāmbi, and the other, in Ujjayinī. Furthermore, many of the sub-stories take place in and around Ujjayinī. One wonders as to how many people like Kāṇabhūti and Vararuci, Guṇāḍhya heard these stories from, roaming the regions of the Vindhyās, Ujjayinī and Kauśāmbi, and in which all languages, in order to compile them! It is no surprise if people talk about Guṇāḍhya in the same breath as Vyāsa and Vālmīki, venerating him as the great poet who composed this stupendous work. If it is the faith of the believers, that composing such a colossal and otherworldly work is beyond the ordinary human abilities, and that it is possible only through the grace of Parameśvara and that too only for divine beings who take birth as humans, even such a belief is worthy of respect - for when has any gigantic endeavour been accomplished, without divine blessings?

Guṇāḍhya’s Date

Given that everything we know about Guṇāḍhya is through the legends, it is hard to establish his time. Western scholars place him anywhere between 1st to 6th century CE. [Similarly, scholars such as Vincent Smith places it in the 1st century CE, Bhooler in the 1st or 2nd century CE, Sylveen Levi and Lacote in the 3rd century CE, Keith in the 2nd or 3rd century CE and Weeber - 6th century CE]. A Dutch scholar named G. S. Speyer has discussed the time of Guṇāḍhya at length in his work called ‘Studies about the Kathasaritsagara’ (1908) and has concluded it to be somewhere between 400 and 600 CE. Keith, SK De and other scholars say this is possible. Tawney also accepts this. One must not misconstrue this to mean that Bṛhat-kathā was born sometime during this period. The Kāśmirī Bṛhat-kathā which was the original work for Somadeva, would have possibly taken several centuries to take form. Even Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata grew similarly before they arrived at their current form. In fact, for some time, these three tales and Buddhist literature seem to have grown together by borrowing each other’s’ essence. (Please compare this with the śloka written by Govardhana which is provided at the beginning of this introduction)

Story, retelling

Bhāmaha (6th century CE?) in his Kāvyālaṅkāra, gives us the characteristics of ākhyāyikā and kathā thus (I, 25-29):-

प्रकृतानाकुल-श्रव्य-शब्दार्थ-पद-वृत्तिना |
गद्येन युक्तोदात्तार्था सोच्छ्वासाऽऽख्यायिका मता ||

वृत्तमख्यायते तस्यां नायकेन स्व-चेष्ठितम् |
वक्त्रं चापरवक्त्रं च काले भाव्यर्थ शंसि च ||

कवेरभिप्रायकृतैः कथनैः कैश्चिदङ्किता |
कन्याहरणसङ्ग्रामविप्रलम्भोदयान्विता ||

न वक्त्रापरवक्त्राभ्यां युक्ता नोच्छ्वासवत्यअपि |
संस्कृते (?) संस्कृता चेष्टा कथाsपभ्रंशभाक् तथा ||
[Here we see a disparity among renditions; the meaning is muddled]

अन्यैः स्वचरितं तस्यां नायकेन तु नोच्यते |
स्वगुणाविष्कृतिं कुर्यादभिजातः कथं जनः ||

Meaning: ākhyāyikā is written in prose, and uses words, meanings and style which are in vogue.
It has profound content. The hero narrates his past deeds. It consists of padyas belonging to the family of vaktra and aparavaktra. If the context necessitates it, there can be a hint at the future course of events and there many also be some elements of fiction. There are also segments which describe the abduction of women, warfare, pangs of separation and glory. There are also cases where vaktra, aparavaktra and ucchvāsas are not present. The work is in the Sanskrit language.

Apabhramsha is the language in which the story is composed – it is likely that the language can be Sanskrit as well (This does not have vaktra, aparavaktra and ucchvāsas?). The story of the nāyaka comes through the words of the other characters and he does not narrate it by himself. How would a person who is born in a noble family boast about his own qualities?

Daṇḍin (who belonged to the 6th Century CE delineates their characteristics in the following manner – 1.23-30.

अपादः पदसन्तानो गद्यमाख्यायिका कथे ।
इति तस्य प्रभेदौ द्वौ तयोराख्यायिका किल॥

नायकेनैव वाच्यान्या नायकेनान्तरेण वा।
स्वगुणाविष्क्रियादोषो नात्र भूतार्थशंसिनः।

अपि त्वनियमो दृष्टः तत्राप्यन्यैरुदीरणात्।
अन्यो वक्ता स्वयं वेति कीदृग्वा भेदकारणम्॥

वक्त्रं चापरवक्त्रं च सोच्छासत्वं च भेदकम्।
चिह्नमाख्यायिकायाश्चेत् प्रसङ्गेन कथास्वपि॥ 

आर्यादिवत् प्रवेशः किं न वक्त्रापरवक्त्रयोः।
भेदश्च दृष्टो लम्भादिरुच्छ्वासो वाऽस्तु किं ततः॥

तत् कथाख्यायिकेत्येका जातिः सञ्ज्ञाद्वयाङ्किता।
अत्रैवान्तर्भविष्यन्ति शेषाश्चाख्यानजातयः॥

सर्गबन्धसमा एव नैते वैशेषीका गुणाः॥

कविभावकृतं चिह्नः अन्यत्रापि न दुष्यति।
मुखैष्टार्थसंसिद्धौ किं हि न स्यात् कृतात्मनाम्॥


The group of words which do not form the line (pāda) of a verse constitute gadya. It is of two kinds – ākhyāyikā and kathā. Ākhyāyikā, by definition is the story narrated by the hero and the other kind (kathā) is where the story is narrated either by the hero or by someone else. As the hero recounts the past events, him speaking of his qualities does not amount to an aesthetic flaw. However, it is not a necessary feature, because we see ākhyāyikās which are narrated by a person other than the hero. What difference does it make whether he narrates it by himself or someone else does so? There is no need to make a distinction. If we hold that the presence of vaktra, aparavaktra and ucchvāsa constitute an ākhyāyikā, it might not be an exclusive definition as these features are found even in the kathās as the content might demand. Just as vaktra and apavaktra occur, why shouldn’t Āryās come as a part of an ākhyāyikā as well? There are divisions such as ‘Lambha’ in the Kathās. Ucchvāsa might occur too, but what from it? Thus, we can conclude that ākhyāyikā and kathā are of the same family. They are different only in their names. The other kinds of ākhyānas also fall into this genre. Abduction of women (kanyāpaharaṇa), war (yuddha), pangs of separation (viraha) and glory (abhyudaya) are found in Sarga-bandhas (Mahākāvyas) too. These are not special characteristics. Segments that are purely products of poet’s imagination are not doṣas (defects) in kathās too. What indeed would not be an instrument for a capable person to achieve his heart’s wish?

Looking at this, it appears as though Daṇḍin has criticised Bhāmaha. It is however, not really proven to be so, as he does not explicitly name Bhāmaha. He just does not subscribe to the school of thought that Bhāmaha is agreeable to. He is of the opinion that kathā belongs to the same family - this is what we can say in sum; (‘kath’ and ‘ā-khyā’ both dhātus render the same meaning - ‘to tell’)

In both their opinions, ‘kathā’ is in prose. It is uncertain what parameters for definition they had before them.

The author of the Dhvanyāloka (i.e. Ānandavardhana) lays out varieties such as pari-kathā, khaṇḍa-kathā, sakala-kathā, ākhyāyikā kathā, and so forth; then says that khaṇḍa-kathā and sakala-kathā are popular in Prakrit; and mentions that ākhyāyikā kathās are those specifically composed in prose (Dhvanyāloka 3.7). However, it is similarly unclear what definition parameters and objectives he had.

Rudraṭa, in his Kāvyālaṅkāra (chapter 16, verses 20–30), adds a few more details to this. We need not examine the characteristics laid out by him in our present work because he primarily had in view Bāṇa’s Harṣa-carita and Kādambarī and also because he is from a later period (c. ninth century CE) [1].

We may surmise from the following verse that by Daṇḍin’s period itself the Bṛhat-kathā was lost –

कथा हि सर्वभाषाभिः संस्कृतेन च बध्यते।
भूतभाषामयीं प्राहुरद्भुतार्थां बृहत्कथाम्॥ – Kāvyādarśa 1.38

(Kathās are composed in all languages and also in Sanskrit. The Bṛhat-kathā composed in the bhūta-bhāṣā—‘language of the ghosts’—is said to narrate miraculous episodes.)

Kathās were composed in all (spoken) languages, even in Sanskrit, so we may surmise that stories in Prakrit and other regional languages were far more popular; they were the mainstay and taking their example, a few appeared in Sanskrit. We must remember that in his time, Harṣa-carita, Kādambarī, Vāsavadattā, etc. had not yet been composed and perhaps it was his Daśa-kumāra-carita that was a guiding light.

The Bṛhat-kathā is also a kathā; not a pari-kathā, nor a khaṇḍa-kathā, nor a sakala-kathā, but bṛhat-kathā – a mammoth story that includes all kinds of stories within it. Gunāḍhya’s source treatise (i.e. the Bṛhat-kathā), the kathā treatises that Daṇḍin saw, the source works that Kṣemendra and Somadeva had before them – none of these are extant today and therefore we can say nothing about their form and structure. Perhaps Gunāḍhya’s original treatise was composed in prose. Here and there, an āryā verse or a śloka verse might have been interspersed. The treatise might have been divided into lambakas. But even this is suspect. The Pèruṅkadai is divided into ‘kāṇḍas’ and although further subdivisions exist, no name is given to them. Therefore, it is possible that the naming of the sections might have taken place in two phases. Since we deem Vatsarāja as a historical character (as discussed earlier), we can guess that it contained events that occurred, hearsay, and fictional creations (‘Kathā-kalpita-vṛttānta’ —alaṅkāra-saṅgraha); it might have been predominantly focussed on adbhuta-rasa with its amazing and fantastical tales.

Svārasya, ‘emotional flavour,’ is the very life of a story – ‘kathāyāṃ sarasaṃ vastu.’ That is fundamental; everything else is secondary. It does not enter the realm of character development or description of qualities. Descriptions are merely embellishments. If it distracts us from the events, it is akin to tying a stone to the story, making it carry a heavy burden.

Vatsarāja marrying Vāsavadattā and bringing her to his capital is in itself an astonishing episode; the life of the story lies there and that is perhaps the main reason why the story became so popular among people. The celestial vidyādharas must have been added on at a later stage. Udayana thus became the hero of several Sanskrit and Prakrit literary works but his son Nara-vāhana-datta—hailed as the great Vidyādhara-cakravartī and the husband to many a wife—did not become the hero of a single work of literature!


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.


[1] De, Sushil Kumar. ‘Akhyayika and Katha in Sanskrit Literature.’ Bulletin of the School of Oriental Studies, Vol. 3, pp. 517 ff. The Agni-purāṇa (c. 900 CE?) divides prose-kāvyas into five types – ākhyāyikā, kathā, khaṇḍa-kathā, pari-kathā, and kathānikā; it gives the characteristics of kathā as –

श्लोकैः स्ववंशं सङ्क्षेपात्कविर्यत्र प्रशंसति।
मुख्यार्थस्यावताराय भवेद्यत्र कथान्तरम्॥
परिच्छेदो न यत्र स्यात् भवेद्वा लम्भकैः क्वचित्॥ (Chapter 337)

When the poet praises his own lineage in a summarized manner in śloka verses and where there are sub-stories interspersed between the primary theme, (that is a kathā). There are no divisions (typically) but sometimes there are divisions called lambakas.



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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இந்திய பாரம்பரியத்தின் முப்பெரும் கதாநாயகர்கள்.
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மனித ஒற்றுமை நூற்றாண்டுகால பரிணாம வளர்ச்சியின் பரிமாணம்.
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इदं खण्डकाव्यमान्तं मालिनीछन्दसोपनिबद्धं विलसति। मेनकाविश्वामित्रयोः समागमः, तत्फलतया शकुन्तलाया जननम्, मातापितृभ्यां त्यक्तस्य शिशोः कण्वमहर्षिणा परिपालनं चेति काव्यस्यास्येतिवृत्तसङ्क्षेपः।


इदं खण्डकाव्यमान्तं मालिनीछन्दसोपनिबद्धं विलसति। मेनकाविश्वामित्रयोः समागमः, तत्फलतया शकुन्तलाया जननम्, मातापितृभ्यां त्यक्तस्य शिशोः कण्वमहर्षिणा परिपालनं चेति काव्यस्यास्येतिवृत्तसङ्क्षेपः।


इयं रचना दशसु रूपकेष्वन्यतमस्य भाणस्य निदर्शनतामुपैति। एकाङ्करूपकेऽस्मिन् शेखरकनामा चित्रोद्यमलेखकः केनापि हेतुना वियोगम् अनुभवतोश्चित्रलेखामिलिन्दकयोः समागमं सिसाधयिषुः कथामाकाशभाषणरूपेण निर्वहति।


अस्मिन् स्तोत्रकाव्ये भगवन्तं शिवं कविरभिष्टौति। वसन्ततिलकयोपनिबद्धस्य काव्यस्यास्य कविकृतम् उल्लाघनाभिधं व्याख्यानं च वर्तते।

Karnataka’s celebrated polymath, D V Gundappa brings together in the third volume, some character sketches of great literary savants responsible for Kannada renaissance during the first half of the twentieth century. These remarkable...

Karnataka’s celebrated polymath, D V Gundappa brings together in the second volume, episodes from the lives of remarkable exponents of classical music and dance, traditional storytellers, thespians, and connoisseurs; as well as his...

Karnataka’s celebrated polymath, D V Gundappa brings together in the first volume, episodes from the lives of great writers, poets, literary aficionados, exemplars of public life, literary scholars, noble-hearted common folk, advocates...

Evolution of Mahabharata and Other Writings on the Epic is the English translation of S R Ramaswamy's 1972 Kannada classic 'Mahabharatada Belavanige' along with seven of his essays on the great epic. It tells the riveting...

Shiva-Rama-Krishna is an English adaptation of Śatāvadhāni Dr. R Ganesh's popular lecture series on the three great...


ಮಹಾಮಾಹೇಶ್ವರ ಅಭಿನವಗುಪ್ತ ಜಗತ್ತಿನ ವಿದ್ಯಾವಲಯದಲ್ಲಿ ಮರೆಯಲಾಗದ ಹೆಸರು. ಮುಖ್ಯವಾಗಿ ಶೈವದರ್ಶನ ಮತ್ತು ಸೌಂದರ್ಯಮೀಮಾಂಸೆಗಳ ಪರಮಾಚಾರ್ಯನಾಗಿ  ಸಾವಿರ ವರ್ಷಗಳಿಂದ ಇವನು ಜ್ಞಾನಪ್ರಪಂಚವನ್ನು ಪ್ರಭಾವಿಸುತ್ತಲೇ ಇದ್ದಾನೆ. ಭರತಮುನಿಯ ನಾಟ್ಯಶಾಸ್ತ್ರವನ್ನು ಅರ್ಥಮಾಡಿಕೊಳ್ಳಲು ಇವನೊಬ್ಬನೇ ನಮಗಿರುವ ಆಲಂಬನ. ಇದೇ ರೀತಿ ರಸಧ್ವನಿಸಿದ್ಧಾಂತವನ್ನು...


“वागर्थविस्मयास्वादः” प्रमुखतया साहित्यशास्त्रतत्त्वानि विमृशति । अत्र सौन्दर्यर्यशास्त्रीयमूलतत्त्वानि यथा रस-ध्वनि-वक्रता-औचित्यादीनि सुनिपुणं परामृष्टानि प्रतिनवे चिकित्सकप्रज्ञाप्रकाशे। तदन्तर एव संस्कृतवाङ्मयस्य सामर्थ्यसमाविष्कारोऽपि विहितः। क्वचिदिव च्छन्दोमीमांसा च...

The Best of Hiriyanna

The Best of Hiriyanna is a collection of forty-eight essays by Prof. M. Hiriyanna that sheds new light on Sanskrit Literature, Indian...

Stories Behind Verses

Stories Behind Verses is a remarkable collection of over a hundred anecdotes, each of which captures a story behind the composition of a Sanskrit verse. Collected over several years from...