Introduction to the Kathāmṛta – Part 13 – What can we learn from the Kathā-sarit-sāgara? cont.

This article is part 13 of 20 in the series Introduction to the Kathāmṛta

For people who have read ancient works like Mahābhārata it is quite evident that this book is all about worldly affairs; The independence, carefree attitude, villainy, wickedness, gambling, adultery, heroism etc. Since it happens in life so it is in literature, but the problem here is the problem of the Koṇas. Koṇa not only refers to the dirty, slow moving, quadrupedal animal specialty (i.e. Male buffalo); it also refers to a dim-witted, coarse mannered biped too. Called alternatively by names such as Maḍḍi, Maḍeya, Maṃka, Muṭṭhāḻa, Mūrkha, Daḍḍa etc. There are stories about them in Kathāmṛta too. They face ridicule not being able to achieve anything in this world. Their master is tormented due to their behavior. Trouble for themselves, spoilsport for others. They do something stupid; but can’t recover from it. In that situation often stories about other animals and birds far below in intelligence such as fishes, crows, mice, pigeons, deers, owls, monkeys, etc are narrated to ridicule these fools and in contrast show those animals are far better.

Another meaning for the word Koṇa is a corner or an angle. If two straight line segments join at their ends they form an angle or a corner. If three such segments are joined pairwise we get a triangle. Anyone studying geometry would know this. The problems which occur in social and familial situations in literature is also portrayed using such triangles. In recent times (c.1950s) in European literature there have been many dramas, novels and stories involving such triangular problems; this happened in Indian context too and is still happening. It seems to be an eternal problem. The figure on the left can be used to explain this. M1,F1 denotes Male 1 and Female 1; they may be husband and wife; or lovers; if they are the only people in existence, there is no triangle, hence no problem. If M2 or F2 enters, a triangle will be formed and the problem becomes evident. If there is a connection between F1 and M2, real or imagined, there will be friction in between M1 and M2 resulting in fights followed by injuries, death/s. Likewise if there arises a connection between M1 and F2, jealousy would rear its head and M1 might be destroyed in that. F2 need not be a lover; mother-in-law, sister-in-law (younger/elder), co-sister, co-wife, even mother, daughter, sister (younger/elder), it can be anyone. Even without M1 and M2 they are by themselves very much capable of creating problems. Going further, even M1 and F1, married, but without any love and affection might be fighting all the time; even people living alone, due to their own sour character, can create problems without even such angles or corners.---intellect takes a wrong turn, stupidity grows, heart hardens, they might live lives that are undesirable both to men and God, neither capable of staying in their home nor fit to be in a mental hospital. The whole world would be their opponent. This problem of sexes seems to have no beginning; nor an end seems to exist.

If we leave these aside, what are visibly and directly relevant to us are biology and sociology. Marriage is a solution devised by man to address this question. That is like the eroding bank of sand adjoining a river. As long as the water flows beneath the sandy bank, it’s fine; however, if it swells and spills over, who could possibly stop the frenzied floods which ensue? ‘Who can possibly stop a flooding river or a woman out of control? Even Brahma cannot protect the fickle ones!” (the story of king Ratnādhipati).

Man is but a shell enveloping sense organs; even the one hailed as Kāmāri could not escape the torments of Kāma.

‘कामपरवशं न विप्रकुर्युः विभुमपि तं यदमी स्पृशन्ति भावाः’ 

If Parameśvara himself is not immune to these emotions, what chance do others have? - asks Kālidāsa in Kumārasaṃbhava. Parameśvara found a way out by fusing his wife inseparably with him. She assented, and that was that. Despite the saying ‘a woman pleased is loving, but a woman embittered is a shrew!’, is it possible for a man and woman to stay away from each other? A humorous story from Plato’s dialogues goes thus: the creatures which God first made belonged to a single gender called gaṇṇu or heṇḍu; he then split them into two halves called male and female; hence each half seeks its other in order to unite.

विलोक्यैकान्त भूतानि भृतान्यादौ प्रजापतिः |
स्त्रियं चक्रे स्वदेहार्धं यया पुंसां मतिर्हृता ||

[In the beginning, Brahma, seeing the loneliness of beings, created woman out of half of man’s body. It was she that stole man’s mind. Please compare with this śloka from Śrīmadbhāgavata (VI, 18-30)]

‘The discerning ones, despite being ordinary, seeking welfare in both the here and the hereafter, manage to keep under control the passions of desire and anger’ (like it happens in the story of Śūravarma). However, like Manu says: प्रवृत्तिरेषा भूतानाम् (such is the very nature of beings). Thus, for a creature already caught in the turbulence of basal nature and primed for fall from grace through ample inducements, of what help are courage and restraint? ‘Opportunity! You are to blame’ observed the great poet Milton, with sadness. ‘Caught amidst the five fires that are man, woman, drink, loneliness and unhindered opportunity, character is but a strand of straw’ (the story of king Ratnādhipati). What can one say about the game (cruelty?) of fate, which turns the already weak helpless, drawing them through inducements and pushes them into a well - as if to probe its depth! Thus, on many occasions, the sins of men and women are brought about due to natural propensities, weaknesses and temptations. One should look at this sympathetically. ‘May he who is without sin among you, be the first to cast stone on the sinful one’, exclaimed Christ. He took in the sinners; gave them courage and uplifted them.

Thus, while it may be possible to endure those who succumb to temptations, it is hard to brook the ones who are villainous, heinous, stubborn, envious and unyielding. One can live with creepers, not with thorns. One must not construe this to mean that I am advocating or approving indulgence in sensual pleasures. Vice, in any case, is a vice. However, an excess of even something good can turn out to be bad. When too much of home-made aromatic ghee obtained by melting butter is itself not salubrious, can foul smelling toddy be of any good?

In Kathāmṛta, there are good people too; the Vidyādhara women are good, beautiful and can bestow wealth, strength and happiness; but they are attainable only for Naravāhanadatta; so why bother about them? Let us take a look at the ordinary folk.

There are men who gave up their lives unable to bear the pangs of separation – we can see such people in other Purāṇic stories too – Rati and Indumatī, for instance. We will not be able to see elsewhere the kind of evil women whose story the Kathā-sarit-sāgara narrates. We can categorize them in the following manner:

1. Yoginī, Ḍākinī, Śākinī, (‘witch’/ magician) – they correspond to men such as Vetālasādhana, Kāpālika, Mantravādin and others
2. Women, who have an affair with their servant and cheat their husbands for no reason, though they are given all comforts and luxuries,.
3. Female friends who betray the heroine.
4. Angry, irascible and terrible wives and mothers-in-law.
5. Women who cheat their husbands, know no ethics and are sinful in their thoughts.Yet, there are chaste women who are devoted to their husbands – not everyone is crooked.
6. Co-wives who are jealous of each other.
7. Kuṭṭinīs, Prostitutes and women in the disguise of Sanyāsinīs. However, the prostitutes here are good-natured.
8. Step-mothers.
9. A stupid and a senseless wife who causes disputes.

Women who fall into the categories 1,2,3, 6 and 7 are either rare or are not part of the modern world at all. Women in rest of the categories are associated with the troubles between husband and wife as well as those that occur between a mother-in-law and her daughter-in-law. As the daughter-in-law is after all, her son’s wife, this can be considered as one particular category of problem (It is not necessary to classify it under a separate head). It is their evil nature and stupidity which makes the story interesting! Even if the man is smart, of what use is his intelligence if he is associated with that kind of a wife, mother and mother-in-law? It's like banging one’s head on to a rock and wounding oneself. Yet, how many men can do away with women? How many can restrain themselves from getting lost in that māyā called the feminine? If there were such men, prostitutes would go irrelevant. A work like ‘Kuṭṭinīmata’ would not have taken birth at all. Knowing very well that association with prostitutes will only lead to their own destruction, who indeed desires to go get crushed in that grinding stone? However, leading a life with an evil wife is more difficult than spending time with a notorious whore. Even if the husband is as great as Socrates, Tolstoy or Lincoln and although he could be good natured – and most men are good at heart – his state would be like that of a hapless dog (when his wife is evil).

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.




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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