Introduction to the Kathāmṛta – Part 11 – The evolution of the Bṛhat-kathā

This article is part 11 of 13 in the series Introduction to the Kathāmṛta

The evolution of the Bṛhat-kathā

Overall a story means creation. There will be a canvas for a painting. But on that background which is considered as truth, the foreground which consists of the imagined fantasy is what is more valued. The place, the country, the king, the citizens, even though some of the names are true the overall story may be far from the historical and geographical realities. It does not have the sanctity or immutability of the Vedas. So going from mouth to mouth, changing hands, time to time, its shape, proportion, colour evolves and changes. When it comes down to writing, it becomes well-defined. That definition or restriction becomes stronger when it is in print. Kathā-sarit-sāgara was printed in 1862. Before that from Guṇāḍhya to Somadeva, on how many levels, influenced by how many people’s creativity, it has evolved or changed, we can only imagine.

The root of Bṛhat-kathā is the story of Udayana. The king of Vatsas; Towards the south was the kingdom of Avanti, to the east was Magadha; He strengthened his rule by marrying the princesses of these two kingdoms; probably he was able to defeat and banish Āruṇi only due to these matrimonial alliances. These two weddings are subject to very fascinating stories. Sufficient in themselves to become epic poetry collections brimming with the nine Rasas; the two immortal dramas, Pratijñā-yaugandharāyaṇam and Svapna-vāsava-dattā came into being because these stories only. Even though they appear in summary in Bṛhat-kathā-śloka-saṃgraha, they might have been the main stories before. Hence both are presented in detail in both Kathā-sarit-sāgara and Peruṃgatai. These two might have been presented in detail in the original source of the dramas like Svapna-vāsava-dattā. It is probable that in the recension which Budha-svāmin got, the story of Nara-vāhana-datta might have been expanded to a great extent, focusing on the attainment of the kingdom of Vidyā-dharas, his various weddings and so on, so much that the story of Udayana took a backseat. In the first stage it might not have been influenced by the Jaina and the Bauddha philosophies too. Same can be told about the Śaiva-vaiṣṇava. It can be guessed from the story of Mahā-sena, father-in-law of Udayana that the prominent deities were Vindhya-vāsinī, Caṃḍī and Durgā. There is no need for the presence of any deity for that matter in this story. When it contains fascinating episodes like Udayana capturing elephants by playing his Vīṇā, he in turn getting captured by the soldiers who hid themselves inside the artificial elephant, while teaching Vīṇā to Vāsavadattā, teaching her even the nuances of love and kidnapping her, how wouldn’t these lead to a great story? Even when narrated by commoners it would become a wonderful story. If the Śṛṅgāra in Ujjayinī is of Saṃbhoga (Union), then the Śṛṅgāra in Magadha is of Vipralaṃbha (Separation). Yaugandharāyaṇa’s tactics; no dearth of heroism; who has fought against soldiers like Udayana? Vasantaka might have told stories to Vāsava-dattā for fun; these might have become the source of subplots; or maybe they are the product of the poet’s imagination. We don’t know to what extent he is the cause for the Vidūṣaka who later became a recurring character or part of dramas or he is just another version of the Narma-sacivas who were already part of dramas by then. This story of Udayana, i.e. the main story might have been written for the first time, probably in prose, by Guṇāḍhya in his mother tongue[1]. There might have been few verses here and there either in Sanskrit or Prakrit. That tradition continued for a long time.

He might have heard this story either in Ujjayinī or Kauśāṃbī; even though Udayana hailed from Kauśāṃbī, it is probable that the story was more famous in Ujjayinī; Indeed only People of Ujjayinī were the experts in narrating the story of Udayana i.e. Udayana-kathā-kovida[2]; There is not as much clarity when it comes to events which happened in Kauśāṃbī like we have about the events of Ujjayinī. His childhood stories are full of incidents beyond belief - like a bird carrying away his mother and setting her down on Udaya-parvata, and so on.

After this story gained popularity among the masses, it came to the hands of the Jains and Buddhists and grew further in accordance with their traditions and tastes. Even if it is true that the Buddha indeed went to Kauśāṃbī, it is hard to believe that Udayana, a contemporary of his, also stayed there and converted to Buddhism. Regardless of this, Buddhists seem to be behind this story gaining popularity in Kauśāṃbī. This is evident in both Kashmir and Nepal renditions. In Kathāmṛta, we see plenty of stories of Avadāna and Bodhisattva!

Udayana’s stories appear in both Jain and Buddhist literature. The salient features of their (especially the Jain) lore are: special abilities, precious stones, Yakṣas, Gandharvas and stories from previous births. Such a Jain version must have come to the south, much earlier. We know this through Peruṃgatai (5th century CE?). In Vasudeva-hiṃḍī, Jaina-hari-vaṃśa and other works, Vasudeva, like Nara-vāhana-datta, having lost his kingdom, roams around the land and marries many a maiden. (Please see the 3rd āśvāsa for Karṇapārya’s Kannaḍa-nemi-nātha-purāṇa). In the beginning of Peruṃgatai itself we see Jain myths like Śeṣa-muni and others. It does not, however, develop the story of Nara-vāhana-datta in detail. Similar to the legends from the Mahābhārata and the Rāmāyaṇa, even here, the senior king retires to ascetic life and the heir-apparent is crowned the king. A thing to notice here is that Peruṃgatai has six kāṇḍas. During its early stage of development, it is possible that this story comprised six kāṇḍas, following the pattern of the Rāmāyaṇa. Also, Nara-vāhana-datta, like Rāma, may have been separated from his wife and might have finally found her after wandering the land in search of her. One wonders whether the story was developed to this level by Guṇāḍhya himself! Nonetheless, by around 5th or 6th century CE, when the Mahābhārata and the Rāmāyaṇa, as well as Buddhist Jātaka stories and their religious literature had reached their definitive form, it appears that even Udayana’s story, gradually imbibing the essence of these works, grew in volume and spread all around the land. In Tamil, since this work has been called simply ‘Katai’ at several places, the term ‘Kathe’, originally, could have only meant the enchanting story of Udayana, steeped in Śṛṅgāra and Vīra rasas. We don’t know if Guṇāḍhya made it gargantuan, or if it became so after him - similar to how Bhārata became Mahābhārata. According to the traditional poetic narrative, it was indeed Guṇāḍhya who wrote Bṛhat-kathā. Perhaps he made it huge by including, alongside the story of Udayana, many other stories which he compiled from here and there, and voiced them through the character of Vasantaka. At this point in time, it is not possible to tell which of the stories fall into this category. Any or all of Pañcatantra, Mṛgāṅka-datta-caritā, Vetāla-pañca-viṃśati, stories of fools, the tale of Viśama-śīla and other stories, may have accumulated one by one or as a bunch in due course of time, making the story long. All these, and the legends of the many marriages of Nara-vāhana-datta and the stories of the enchanting powers of Vidyā-dharas may have made the work truly enormous. By the time of Budha-svāmin, it may even have become a necessity to compile the stories in verse-form. Once this story set foot in Kashmir, by the time Somadeva arrived, it must have grown even more[3] to become ‘Bṛhat-kathā-sāra’. Somadeva says that he intends to compose a summary or saṃgraha of Bṛhat-kathā-sāra. However at every stage of its evolution, the prevalent name of the work seems to have been Bṛhat-kathā itself. Kṣemendra’s work has been referred to as ‘Bṛhat-kathā’ from within. As if in keeping with this, all accumulations to the work which happened from time to time, must have been written in Paiśācī, in order to gel seamlessly with the original. This should not have been hard, since, as we have seen earlier, the country folk in and around Kashmir used to speak in this language.

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 In Dharma-pada’s Appamāda-varga we find the story of Udayana, afflicted with Leprosy, Vāsuladattā, a hunchback----H.O.S., 28, pp. 247-272. The original story of love and heroism has been distorted beyond redemption! Mahā-sena is more obsessed with the Mantra which is useful in taming elephants than the wellbeing of his daughter and son-in-law!

2 One has to observe that it isn’t Nara-vāhana-datta-kathā-kovida

3 It is said that even the very expansive, yet incomplete work Yoga-vāsiṣṭha was born in Kashmir. The Ādi-parva of the Mahābhārata too seems to have grown to its current proportion, in the same region.

It ought to be analyzed whether the Kaṇva and Kaśyapa who appear at the end of Kathā-sarit-sāgara have been imported from Śākuntala, or whether it is the other way round. Similarly, the triumphant expeditions of Vatsa-raja (page 114) resemble those of monarch Raghu.




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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