Lāvaṇakalambaka - 17 - The Story of Mahāsena, The story of Mendicant and the Ape

This article is part 17 of 119 in the series Kathāmṛta

निर्विघ्नविश्वनिर्माणसिद्धये यदनुग्रहम्।
मन्ये स वव्रे धातापि तस्मै विघ्नजिते नमः॥

[Salutation to that deity, the killer of obstacles, (Gaṇeśa), from whom even the creator (Brahmā) seeks blessings so that the creation can happen without hindrances.]

आश्लिष्यमाणः प्रियया शन्करोऽपि यदाज्ञया।
उत्कम्पते स भुवनं जयत्यसमसायकः॥

[Even while embraced by his beloved, because of whom Śaṅkara trembles that wielder of five arrows (Manmatha) will conquer the world]

Like this, Vatsarāja fully immersed himself in the love of Vāsavadattā. One night Yaugandharāyaṇa called upon Rumaṇvān and said, ‘Our king come from the illustrious lineage of the Pāṇḍavas; From his ancestors he has got the control over Hastināpura and the whole world by extension. He has only been able to retain Hastināpura; having addicted to women, wine and hunting, he has left the responsibility of the kingdom to us; we should apply our mind and make him gain all the lost lands which he had earlier got from his ancestors. Anything can be achieved by someone with a sharp intellect’ and he narrated the following story -

The story of the king Mahāsena

Once upon a time there lived a king called Mahāsena; When his kingdom was attacked and conquered by a powerful enemy, the ministers, fearing the loss of their power, made him pay tributes to the enemy. Since the king was proud, he started worrying thinking, ‘Oh I’ve surrendered.’ This worry caused ill health and his spleen abnormally enlarged and he was almost on his deathbed. No medicine had any effect and the royal physician, as the last resort, to cure him said, ‘Your majesty, the queen is no more!’ When he fell down, listening to it in acute agony, the enlargement ruptured; he got back his health, he lived happily with his queen and eventually was also able to defeat his enemy and regain his kingdom.

Narrating this story, Yaugandharāyaṇa said, “Just like the royal physician used his acumen to help the king we should also help Udayana to regain his lost kingdom; First we should go east and capture Magadha; the king of Magadha has a beautiful daughter named Padmāvatī; when asked her hand in marriage to Udayana he had replied, ‘Udayana’s love for Vāsavadattā is unparalleled; I can’t give my daughter who is dearer to me than my life to him!’ While Vāsavadattā is alive, even Udayana won’t marry again. By a cunning plan we should hide Vāsavadattā, burn her house and then we should float a rumour that Devī has been burnt along with the house; then we can achieve our goal; If Udayana marries Padmāvatī, the king of Magadha will be our ally. We can then conquer the rest without any trouble, it has been foretold that only if we act decisively the king will obtain control over the world.” Rumaṇvān replied, ‘This plan is fraught with danger; it might even backfire; I’ll narrate you a story, listen’ so saying he narrated the following story.

The story of the wandering mendicant and the ape

There is a town called Mākandikā on the banks of the Gaṅgā. There lived a wandering mendicant who had undertaken a vow of silence. One day, as usual, he went out seeking alms and eventually came to a merchant’s house and knocked on its door. It was answered by the merchant’s beautiful daughter. Looking at her, the mendicant was instantly smitten. He hatched a plan right then and there, to secure her. Then, lamenting ‘Alas! Alas! Very unfortunate indeed!’ within the earshot of the merchant, he started to walk away. The alarmed merchant sought him out and begged him to break his vow of silence and disclose to him the reason for his exclamation. The mendicant, in his pretentious generosity, sighed wistfully and replied: ‘O merchant! Your daughter bears the signs of ill-luck. As soon as she marries, your entire family shall perish! This is the reason for my sadness! You are a devout disciple of mine, and hence for your sake I broke my vow of silence! Forsake your daughter immediately. Put her in a trunk, place a lit lamp upon its lid and set it afloat on the Gaṅgā.’ The merchant was by nature a fearful man. Hence, without thinking through what he was about to commit, he proceeded to do as the mendicant had instructed.

Meanwhile, the mendicant returned to his dwelling and summoned his disciples. Addressing them, he said, ‘Tonight you will find a trunk with a lamp glowing upon it, floating down the Gaṅgā. I need you to fetch it for me. Make sure that you don’t utter a word about this to anyone. Even if you hear sounds from within the trunk, you shall not open it!’ The disciples headed for the river in deference to their master’s command. However, as luck would have it, before they could get there, a prince saw the trunk and got it ashore with the help of his servants. When he opened the trunk out of curiosity and peered within, he saw a maiden endowed with heavenly beauty! The prince and the merchant’s daughter fell in love with each other. Not wasting a moment, the prince married her in accordance with the gāndharva way, right there! He then had his servants release a ferocious ape into the trunk and shut its lid firmly. Placing back the lit lamp atop it, the prince released the trunk back into the river. The disciples of the mendicant who eagerly stood in wait further downstream spotted the trunk, and as their master had command, managed to get hold of it and carried it to him. Suppressing his glee at the sight of the trunk, the rogue mendicant said gravely: ‘Leave it here and go to sleep, O disciples of mine! Using mantras, I intend to acquire mastery over this evil entity all by myself!’ When the disciples had departed, he slowly opened the trunk. The next moment, the ape, maddened with rage, sprang forth from the trunk, and before the mendicant could react, it leapt upon him and bit away his nose and ears clean!

The next morning, the news of this incident spread all through the town and the maimed mendicant soon turned into an object of ridicule. Once the merchant came to know that his daughter was safe and had in fact wedded a prince, his happiness knew no bounds.

Having told this story, Rumaṇvān said: ‘Trying to be oversmart, like that ill-fated mendicant, what if some misfortune were to befall us? Not just that, something worse might happen to the king in his grief of separation from Vāsavadattā! Hearing this Yaugandharāyaṇa said, “There is no success for someone who does not put any effort. Seeing the king’s behaviour if left unchecked he might even lose the territories he currently possesses. Our reputation will be tarnished and we will never be spoken of as the intelligent ministers who were loyal to their king. If a king is self-sufficient then his ministers are mere tools who are used in his plans, but if the king is dependent on his ministers like in case our king Udayana, it’s the ministers’ enterprise that would lead to success, if the ministers lack courage, the king can bid farewell to all his aspirations to become great. In case you fear the fury of Caṇḍamahāsena, he will agree to my counsel and so will the queen and Gopalaka.” Rumaṇvān still going by his gut feeling which warned him of unseen dangers replied, ‘Even a level headed man separated from his beloved feels lasting pain. What is to say, then, of Vatsarāja?’ Then he proceeded to tell this story:

The story of Unmādinī and Devasena

Long ago, a wise king named Devasena ruled over Śrāvasti. In the same city lived a rich merchant who had a daughter of matchless beauty. Since whoever saw this beautiful maiden became crazed, she came to be known as Unmādinī. As the fame of his daughter’s beauty spread far and wide, the merchant became apprehensive that offering her hand in marriage to someone other than the king might invite the latter’s ire. Hence he approached King Devasena and said: ‘Your majesty! I have a gem of a daughter. If you wish, you are welcome to marry her!’ The king sent a few brahmanas to ascertain if Unmādinī was a good match for him. When they saw her, the brahmanas nearly lost their mind and thought to themselves: ‘If the king were to marry this maiden, he is sure to be always lost in thoughts of her. He will then surely neglect all his kingly duties. What good will come from his marrying someone like her!’ So they returned and lied to the king that the merchant’s daughter was not all that good looking.

To be continued...

The current article is a translation of Prof. A R Krishna Shastri’s Kannada classic Kathāmṛta along with additional segments added from the original Kathā-sarit-sāgara (of Soma-deva). Bṛhat-kathā-mañjarī (of Kṣemendra) and Bṛhat-kathā-śloka-saṃgraha (of Budha-svāmin) have also been referred to. The translation has been rendered by Raghavendra GS, Arjun Bharadwaj, Srishan Thirumalai, and Hari Ravikumar.

The original Kannada version of Kathāmṛta is available for free online reading. So are the other works of Prof. Krishna Shastri.



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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