Introduction to the Kathāmṛta – Part 18 – Kathā-sarit-sāgara and the Society

This article is part 18 of 20 in the series Introduction to the Kathāmṛta

Naravāhanadatta who comes as a part of the Bṛhatkathā is special because of the streams of ‘knowledge’ he specialises in. There are stories where vāmācāra is practised and vetālas play prominent roles.  They do not dazzle like the Pāṇḍavas who were filled with quialities of brilliant dharma and vīra. In the Bṛhatkathā, kāpālikas play a more important role as against the yājñikas. It is for this reason that Bāṇa-bhaṭṭa says:

समुद्दीपित कन्दर्पा कृतगौरी प्रसाधना।
हरलीलेव नो कस्य विस्मयाय बृहत्कथा ||

Accordingly, the Bṛhatkathā has śṛṅgāra and vīra as the primary emotions, while the Mahābhārata has śānta-rasa as its basis.

Thus, the Bṛhatkathā is, in a sense, complementary to the Mahābhārata; the two works together delineate all the puruṣārthas.

In fact, it can be said that all the later literary works in the Indian tradition are based either on the Rāmāyaṇa, Mahābhārata and Bhāgavata or on the Bṛhatkathā.  The stories of the Bṛhatkathā have travelled far and wide, and have laid the foundations for all the story telling traditions of the world. The Aesop fables, Arabian Nights, Boccaccio stories, the stories written by Chaucer and also some of the plays of Shakespeare find their roots in the Bṛhatkathā. Though the people from the Kannada speaking provinces have ignored the importance of these stories, the Tamilians have put them to great use.  They have even made movies based on the work. The story of Mūladeva has appeared as ‘Mangamma Śapatham’.

Scholars who study the art of storytelling classify the genres of stories around the world into a hundred categories – the rest are born out of these hundred categories or are mere shades of these. The Kathā-sarit-sāgara contains many of these genres within it. This can, by itself, suggest how big a treasure trove of stories the Kathā-sarit-sāgara is.


Kathā-sarit-sāgara and the Society

 Today, there is a great demand for books, especially for story books. It is quite hard to procure books at the rate at which they are in demand. However big the book is, youngsters seem to be capable of finishing reading it in a day or two. Once read, they stretch their hands out for a new work. This is a good sign and is natural too. Instead of polluting one’s mind and wasting time on meaningless gossip, spending time with story books is definitely more worthwhile. The enthusiasm that girls today display for reading books seems to be absent in the boys.

They study after they are well into household duties, for them happiness, peace, consolation, for all such things the service to Sarasvatī takes prominence. Whatever might be the cons of women being educated in the current era, this one advantage defeats everything else; using this, many people have been writing stories of various kinds. If we are intelligent and wise, irrespective of what we read, our mind and actions will be under our control; filth would never become the leading light; who would adore a pig as though it were a cow? Filth indeed leads to disgust; may be by compulsion or by familiarity one might have to touch it, but if there are some values in place, cleanliness will finally triumph and not filth; due to advances in science, even filth can become manure and lose its odour. But someone who works with it can’t escape from the bad odour; kerosene can be used as a fuel to cook, can be used for lighting, even to destroy termites; but a kerosene merchant cannot escape its bad odour; he cannot use it as perfume; he has to wash his hands - if not, he cannot do anything else. Meanwhile, as the manner in which prominent personalities in the society repeatedly have to point out and convey who the role models worthy of following are, literature should also keep reminding us of the best works from time to time. Whatever might be the period of time, people would be receptive and intelligent enough to gauge their quality. The difference between a coconut tree and a thorny bush would never cease to be unnoticed, whichever may be the era.

 It is not as though vulgarity and disgust are not present in ancient literary works; it is indeed present.They are present in the works of Sanskrit literature and also in those of Kannada; by listing them out and enraging their fans won’t be of any use here; but there is no point in arguing for them blindly only because they are of antiquity. Is it appropriate that even someone like Kālidāsa in the Kumāra-sambhavam has provided descriptions of the lovemaking of Pārvatī and Parameśvara? Is he the one who actually wrote it?--- this deliberation is quite famous. Such descriptions are like a getaway/fulfilment of their innate desires for both the readers and writers--for someone who wouldn’t have found such provisions of enjoyment. It could be the problem of paucity which makes people describe heaps and mountains of gold, silver and other precious stones. This would just give an excuse for people who are already on the slippery slope. It would lead to weakness and fickleness. These qualities always beget losses and no gains;  always contempt, never respect. Someone who grows in a strict, controlled and virtuous environment might at first feel disgust, then he builds tolerance, makes peace and finally even starts enjoying it, in the end it becomes inevitable, an addiction without which one can’t live. Smoking, lying, thievery, gambling, drinking, adultery all these are examples; it is prudent to avoid these. Even though gambling, wine and meat exist since ancient times, the wise go by Pravttir-eā bhūtānā nivttis-tu mahā-phalā (प्रवृत्तिरेषा भूतानां निवृत्तिस्तु महाफला)’ and brought temperance into practice. If we are caught, it is like getting our hand caught in a grinding machine, it will not just pull our hand, but the whole body and grind it. Kathā-sarit-sāgara also has many such examples; similar to Mahā-bhārata, it is not just a religious text; it deals with worldly matters. Walking will result in tripping and falling; but one will learn; injuries will make one wise; a mistake in the past leads to wisdom in the future; Man is weak; like flowing water by nature he seeks to go down; if he is given opportunities to proceed in the same way, he alone will not be responsible for his sins; even the one who provides such opportunities is also responsible.  In this regard, leave alone the story writers and the movies, the government itself is not doing enough; It won’t be wrong to say that, to a large extent, the government itself is not fulfilling its duties. If a handful of men gamble and lose a little money among themselves, they are taken into custody by the police and punished. However, horse racing, lottery and other such costly gambling avenues where lakhs of rupees are lost wantonly and homes are destroyed, the nation’s coffers get emptied, and people are robbed of both wealth and wisdom in the glittering world of gambling dens and wedding halls, are permitted - because the government profits from this. Making alcohol readily available to the poor, the liquor contractors and through them the government, grow rich, earning sin money. People who drink in bottles under prohibition, take to drinking in barrels with the tacit approval, support, encouragement and public notifications from the government. People who undertake prostitution by stealth, start public businesses where bodies and along with them, diseases, are sold openly; with protection from the government, such enterprises acquire a stamp of morality and lose the fear of incurring sin. Sale of tobacco leaves, opium, marijuana and other harmful drugs too falls in the same category; (they are not seen in Kathā-sarit-sāgara, for these are recent evils.) It is not hard for the government to uproot them. However, due to the revenues that can be raised from these sources, the government itself takes over these businesses and makes money in both selling these and levying penalties. One fails to fathom if this is moral or amoral. Mahatma Gandhi got tired of repeating this ad nauseum while he was alive.

After the government fell into the hands of his followers, nothing has been done on this; in the name of alcohol prohibition, tax on business was imposed on people, and it became even more profitable for the government. What would be the difference between the unscrupulous traders who rained beedis and cigarettes in front of gullible farmers in weekly fairs to turn them into addicts; or the tea vendors who solicited them at their homes, offering them free tea until they got addicted, and the government which should have instead acted as the watchful parents to the people? In Kathāmṛta there are many stories of charlatans. In today’s world, these are not stories, but harsh realities transpiring right in front of our eyes. Today, is there anything unadulterated one can hope to buy? Is there anyone who desists from uttering lies? Can anyone be trusted? The whole world ridicules the government with frustration thus: If someone or the other is caught and fined a thousand rupees and sentenced to prison for a month, he would readily cough up the penalty and forfeit another thousand without qualms to avoid jail time and then go about his cons without any hesitation or fear. He makes twenty thousand in the place of the two he spent, through the inability or indifference or blessings of government officials. There are lessons for both the public and its leaders, in the stories of Kathā-sarit-sāgara; there is morality behind the amoral episodes therein; and generally, there are words of caution at the conclusion of every story.

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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