Introduction to the Kathāmṛta – Part 19 – Kathā-sarit-sāgara and the Society, cont.

This article is part 19 of 20 in the series Introduction to the Kathāmṛta

Another noteworthy element visible in Kathā-sarit-sāgara is the amiability within society - even those days there were religions, castes, occupations, and good and bad people; but they did not clash due to these differences; even the principles of Buddhism which are termed Cārvāka or Nāstika (atheist), merged with Hindu traditions like milk and water. Within the same families there were people who followed different paths; wonder why people should brawl over this! What do we have to profit from bickering over which god is great? Dharma exists to uplift oneself; why fight over this? Why is this web woven by those appointed as keepers of dharma? The faith people had, that once we get an independent government, there would be the establishment of a casteless and classless egalitarian society, has been broken; the public is alarmed that the very fundamental organs of the government have been amended to satisfy communal interests, thereby opening up opportunities to inflict injustice.

The maintenance of peace within the state is as important as protecting it from external enemies. Whether an atom bomb is dropped from the skies or a volcano erupts from within the earth – both result in the same (large scale destruction). There are people within the country who would prefer to meet their ends by creating fear just as a country might have threats from external foes. It is like putting fire to the husk and feasting on the grains. Thus, it is important for citizens of today’s world to lead their life in adherence to dharma. This is especially true and important to those who are educated. They will need to live and lead the world on the path of satya, dharma and peace. Instead of letting a stream of honey flow through the land, if a river of poison is let flow and war trumpets are resounded, who can be at peace and for how long? When will people overcome their sorrow? Our government today says that it will not get involved in a war and won’t encourage conflicts between nations. This is certainly a good and a happy sign. However, will the warring world allow India to be peaceful and all to itself? Today, the number of peace-loving people is growing around the world and they are giving calls for peace; their cries are only falling on deaf ears. What purpose does a cry in the forest serve?


Segments such as the Śaśāṅkatilaka-lambaka and Viṣamaśīla-lambaka have stories related to Vetāla. The following is some detail about them.

The main characteristic feature of a Vetāla is to enter dead bodies, speak and act like humans. It possesses great strength just as Bhūta, Preta and Piśācīs do. A vetāla has two forms – an invisible, subtle one – it enters the dead bodies in this form; its other form is an ugly and disgustful one. The description of this latter form occurs twice in the Kathā-sarit-sāgara:

सोऽपि कृष्णच्छविः प्रांशुः उष्ट्रग्रीवो गजाननः।
महिषाङ्घ्रिरुलूकाक्षो वेतालः खरकर्णकः ॥
- Śaśāṅkatilaka-lambaka, taraṅga 35, śloka 19

इत्युक्त्वाग्निशिखं नाम वेतालं स समाह्वयत्।
स चाहूतो ज्वलन्नेत्रः प्रांशुरूर्ध्वशिरोरुहः॥
-Viṣamaśīla-lambaka, taraṅga 2, śloka 23-24

 It is not clear if these are generic characteristic features of all vetālas or the description of one of them only. The second śloka quoted above gives an additional feature – erect hair on the head. A picture of a vetāla with all the mentioned properties is provided [on page 349 in the kannada version]. This was sketched by Sri. M.S. Purushottam and his contribution is acknowledged with heartfelt gratitude. We are usually familiar with the features of Narasimha, Nāga, Tumburu, Gaṇeśa, Śuka, Garuḍa and other purāṇic beings which have a human body with the head of an animal. However, it is only in the description of a Vetāla that we see that features of multiple birds and animals have come together. We don’t know what this means and it is hard to derive an etymology – nirukti for the word ‘Vetāla’.

The Slavs of Europe believe that a ghost enters a dead body. Satan is supposed to possess parts of different animal bodies. Some sketches also depict him with wings. He has legs with hooves, just as a vetāla has. Saitan is also a kind of evil vampire, just as the Vetāla. We, however, cannot be sure if there is any direct connection between the two or the resemblance in their features is a matter of pure coincidence. There is a certain mystical being called Satire in Greek Mythology. The Kaḻikā-purāṇa says that Vetāla is a variant of Bhairava, one of the men of Śiva’s retinue. However, that Vetāla does not have these kinds of features. The description in Bombay Gazetteer is a bit different.

[The Deccan guardian is Vetala who also appears as a goblin tenanting dead bodies … he is represented in human form, but his hands and feet are turned backwards, his eyes tawny green, his hair standing on end; he holds a cane in his right hand and a conch shell in his left; when he goes his rounds, he is dressed in green and sits in a litter or rides a horse, while his attendants follow holding lighted torches and shouting. – Bombay Gazetteer, Vol. 18, Part 1, p. 291 and Vol 24, p. 415]

  It comes closer to the depiction of Bhairava. As the vetāla is more likely to be found in the ‘rudra-bhūmis’, i.e., in grave yards, just as Bhūta, Preta and Piśācas are found, it might have entered the ‘retinue’ of Śiva-ganas. (Vetāla, does not seem to display any devotion to Śiva, though. It can be won over through mantra and tantra). Śiva is Paśupati, after all – he has a bull, a lion, an elephant, a snake, a mouse, a peacock and several other animals as a part of his extended family in the form of vāhanas or otherwise.

There was a person called ‘vaitālika’ appointed in royal palaces, who was specially meant for laudation of the king’s achievements and for flattery. This too can potentially suggest the sense that vetāla belongs to the retinue of king’s men or as a devotee of a deity.

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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