Introduction to the Kathāmṛta – Part 17 – The place of Kathā-sarit-sāgara in literature

This article is part 17 of 18 in the series Introduction to the Kathāmṛta

The place of Kathā-sarit-sāgara in literature

Earlier, I had discussed a little about the poetic qualities of Kathā-sarit-sāgara. Here, I will write a few words about its plot. The main story in Kathā-sarit-sāgara is that of Vatsarāja and his son Naravāhanadatta. However, like the adage, “the nose ring is heavier than the nose itself”, the sub-stories surpass the main story both qualitatively and quantitatively. It is impossible to enumerate the stories and the stories within stories in Kathā-sarit-sāgara. While some span only a couple of lines, some run into pages. Story within story - like vessels stacked one within another - is the running theme. The elderly may have seen little girls reciting  “ಸೀತೇ ಕಾಲಲ್ಲಿ ಪದ್ಮರೇಖೆ ನೋಡೇ; ಪದ್ಮಾ ರೇಖೆಯೊಳಗೆ …” [“Look at the lotus whorls (padmā-rekhā) in Seeta’s foot; within lotus whorls …”] while playing. One wonders how huge Seeta’s foot might have been! According to this age-old poem, there is nothing which cannot be found in Sītā’s foot. Vatsarāja’s story is like that foot of Sītā; there is no story which isn’t trailed by another. Like the Ganga which flows from his matted locks, the story told by Shiva too flows across all the three worlds. Guṇāḍhya is the grandson of Vāsuki, the king of serpents; Vidyādharas are beings who roam the skies and live in the Himalayas; in their stories, Brahma and other deities, as well as Nārada and other divine sages commingle. Through the grace of Shiva, Naravāhanadatta is born and goes on to become the emperor of Vidyādharas. Apart from Jambūdvīpa, we see the tales of many other lands and islands like Śvetadvīpa, Karpuradvīpa, Haṃsadvīpa, Suvarṇadvīpa, Kaṭāhadvīpa and of the many adventurers and traders who journey back and forth.

It is commonly held that storytelling is the right and duty of grandmothers. In Kathā-sarit-sāgara though, apart from grandmothers, grandfathers, teachers and elders, even kings, queens, ministers, servants, assistants, animals, birds - pretty much everyone narrates stories. There is always a ready story for every occasion - A story to pass time; a story for someone who is unable to sleep; a story in support of something said, and a different one to oppose it as well! Whenever something happens, there is a corroborating story of an earlier birth narrated by someone who is gifted with memory across births, or has acquired power through penances or has miraculous or occult abilities. Even during battle, on the nights when a commander is unable to sleep and desires to hear a story, his assistants turn storytellers.

A few of these are about a millennium old and many have come crossing thousands of kilometres. The story of Ghaṭakarpara is a retelling of Herodotus’s Rhampsinitus. The story took its birth in Egypt. It is said that the story is about 2300 years old. Though the work contains several such stories, they neither come with foreign names for places or people nor do they have references to the cultural aspects of a foreign civilization. Except for the short story connected with Tājika  [Tājika is a word of Persian origin. It refers to the Arabs, apparently. We don’t know when and for what reason they came to Kashmir – it is hard to even guess the relationship between this particular story and their coming to Kashmir], the characters that come as a part of the rest of the stories behave just like Indians. Greater India is a treasure-trove of stories. The Persians borrowed stories and ideas from India, which they passed on to the Arabs. This further went to Italy and the French and the English also picked up tales which are native to India. Among these, the Pañcatantra is a very popular collection of such stories. This is found in over fifty languages and is present in two hundred different forms. As the stories travelled away from India, their structure changed and so did some of the details. However, the original form of the stories can only be found in Greater India. In fact, the Kathā-sarit-sāgara – and its original source, the Bṛhatkathā – are truly the largest and oldest collection of stories in the world. These Indian works, thus, have the foremost position in the world.

The Vedas in general and the Brāhmaṇas in particular contain Upākhyānas (sub-stories) of Vṛtra, Hariścandra and Pururavas. These stories have, however, found the best expression in the Mahābhārata and the Rāmāyaṇa. Bhīṣma and Viśvāmitra narrate thousands of stories! The Vanaparva of the Mahābhārata is filled with stories that different sages narrate to console the Pāṇḍavas. The stories are interesting, entertaining, educative, and profound. Stories such as those of Nala and Damayantī are not just found in the Mahābhārata but have had their influence on the Jaina and Bauddha literature too. The Bṛhatkathā contains several stories of this genre. (It is quite a surprising fact that the Bṛhatkathā does not contain Sāvitrī’s story!) The nature and structure of the same story that occurs in different works differ from each other to some extent. The famous Upākhyānas of the Mahābhārata are found in the Bṛhatkathā too, but with a change of flavour. For instance, stories of Kuntī, Ahalyā, Dharmavyādha are found in the epics as well as in the Bṛhatkathā. The story of Rāmāyaṇa is also found in a nutshell here and the story of the Uttarakāṇḍa is also present in Bṛhatkathā. The Uttarakāṇḍa is supposed to be a ‘prakshipta’ (extrapolation) segment of the Rāmāyaṇa. It is quite possible that the story of the Uttarakāṇḍa as it occurs in the Bṛhatkathā was popular in a certain province and it later got appended to the Rāmayana. The story of Bhadraghaṭa is one such example – it is found in the Christian and Buddhist sources as well, but with quite some variations in the story. (History of Indian Literature II, see Pages 369-70). The story of the akṣaya-pātra that occurs in the Mahābhārata seems to be another form of the same tale. The story of Arjuna getting cursed by Ūrvaśī seems to have its origin in the Bṛhatkathā.

As we proceed further, there is a growth in the Jaina and the Bauddha stories and they take predominance in the story-telling tradition. It is in the nature of the stories from these traditions to exaggerate whatever they say – whether it is related to the world, to the devaloka or it is something to do with the amazing or the disgusting – everything is blown out of proportion. Moreover, the authors belonging to these traditions seem to come up with some kind of peculiarity and add a special feature of their own.  At times, novelty only makes the original narrative lose its charm and discolours the story. Stories connected with Rundapuruṣa and his prostitute, Śaśi and his wife, the story of Tārāvalokana who sacrifices his wife and children – are stories that fall into this category. The love story that comes as a part of Yaśodharacarita is just like the story of Śaśi and Rundapuruṣa. Whatever may be the poetic beauty in the tale, the story itself is unbearable and quite a disgusting one. The story of Tārāvalokana tries to educate us about the importance of dāna; however, is dāna the only goal of a gṛhastha (householder, married man)? Isn’t it adharma to abandon his wife and children who have harboured great faith in him? The story of Devasena and his adherence to dharma is something worth praising today – when the commander-in-chief comes to the king to offer his wife for the latter’s pleasure, the king admonishes him and threatens to punish the commander-in-chief, who later even gives up his life out of repentance. Stories such as these take us through a labyrinth of tales and finally land at a meaningful point. At several instances in the work, the main story-line merely acts as a pretext to a series of anecdotes that emerge from it. The primary narration goes to the backdrop and the peripheral ones come to the forefront. These need not necessarily educate the reader in aspects of dharma and karma – it is sufficient if the stories entertain the connoisseur.

Udayana is supposedly the great-grand son of Janamejaya. The Bṛhatkathā is a work that was composed after the Mahābhārata. There is quite a lot of time difference between the two. While the Mahābhārata is a story that was narrated during the yajna of sages, the Bṛhatkathā was narrated by Śiva to his beloved wife, Pārvatī intimately and privately – it was meant as a pastime for her. It was retold by a person belonging to the Śiva-gaṇa – though the story has sages coming in, it is not mean as a preaching of dharma. Their stories are not like those who reside in the forests. While the Mahābhārata has dharma and mokṣa as its twofold aims, here, in the Bṛhatkathā, the world of artha and kāma comes to the foray. The Mahābhārata is a story, largely of the brāhmaṇas and kṣatriyas and the Bṛhatkathā is a lore of the vaiśyas and the śūdras.

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.

Author(s)

About:

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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