The Story of the Brave Vidūṣaka
Once upon a time, there lived a king called Ādityasena, in Ujjayinī. He was an Ekacakravartī, i.e., he was like the Sun who has access to the entire world on his one-wheeled chariot. Once, when he was travelling on the banks of river Gaṅgā, Guṇavarmā, a merchant saw the king. He came forward and spoke - ‘O king! I have a daughter whose beauty is unparalleled in the three worlds; you are the only befitting groom for her!’ He also showed his daughter to the king. The king married the girl Tejasvatī, who was resplendent like a jewel-lamp and made her his queen. She begot a daughter who was a divine beauty.
Once when the king had to go to attack a vassal, he made his queen ride an elephant and she appeared like the guiding devatā of his army. The king rode on a horse. He marched along with his army. Once they reached the plains, in a bid to show off his horse’s agility, he goaded it. It took off in a flash and disappeared. Even though thousands of his riders searched for him, they were unable to find him. Thinking that some mishap had befallen, the ministers brought back the queen to the capital and shut all the entrances of the city.
Meanwhile, the horse carried the king to the dense forests of Vindhyā and stopped there. Not knowing what to do, he climbed down, requested the horse with folded hands, ‘You indeed are a divine being; someone like you won’t betray your lord; therefore I seek refuge in you; take me back to the right path.’ He climbed the horse again and it took him on paths which were not tiring, crossed hundreds of yojanas and brought him back to Ujjayinī by evening.
Since the entrances of the city were closed and dusk was in the skies, the king went to a maṭha located in a burial ground outside the city. Taking him to be a thief, some of the brāhmaṇas stopped him at the entrance. But amongst them was a brāhmaṇa named Vidūṣaka who was truthful and virtuous. He had pleased Agni by his penance and had received a sword from him in the form of a boon. Looking at the king, he thought that he was a divine being in disguise, invited him in, served him food and allowed him to sleep while he guarded the place the whole night. Next morning, he saddled the horse and kept it ready. The king took leave and entered Ujjayinī. The ministers and the queen were immensely happy to see him alive.
The following day, the king sent for Vidūṣaka, narrated the entire story to everyone in his court and gifted him a thousand villages and the power to collect taxes. He also gave him royal insignia consisting of an umbrella and a horse, and made him the royal purohita. Vidūṣaka received the villages and distributed them to the other brāhmaṇas in his maṭha. Haughty and proud due to their wealth, the brāhmaṇas tortured the villagers.
Once, a brāhmaṇa by name, Cakradhara who was harsh by nature saw the quarrelling brāhmaṇas. Though he was blind in one eye, he had a clear vision of justice. He said, ‘You rascals! Beggars like you gaining wealth all of a sudden have spelt doom to our villages. These are the fruits of having multiple masters; so, choose a leader amongst yourselves.’ At that point, everyone came forward with the proposal, ‘I will become the leader!’ and ‘No, I will become the leader!’
He said, “If there is to be stiff competition amongst yourselves, then you must agree to abide by a pact; in the cemetery of this town, just today, three robbers were punished [to death] by impalement; the one who can go there in the middle of the night, chop off their noses, and bring it back shall be your leader!” Everyone agreed to his idea; but nobody had the courage. Vidūṣaka was the only one who said, “Alright!” and went towards the cemetery with a sword in hand.
In the meantime, the vetāḷas [ghouls] who had entered the corpses of those robbers rushed forward to land a blow on him. Unafraid, he chopped off their noses and tied them up within the folds of his garment before starting his return journey. On the way, he saw a pravrājaka [mendicant, ascetic] performing japa, seated on a corpse. To see what the mendicant would do next—fuelled by curiosity—the Vidūṣaka secretly stood behind him and watched. After a moment, a hissing fire emanated from the mouth of the cadaver; mustard seeds began flowing out of its navel. As he collected the mustard seeds in his hand and tapped the corpse, it came to life. The mendicant climbed onto his shoulders, flew to a temple of Kātyāyanī, worshipped the Devī, and begged her to grant him a boon. The Devī said, “If you bring the daughter of King Ādityasena here and offer her to me in sacrifice, then I shall grant your wish!” At once, he stepped out of the temple, tapped the cadaver, climbed onto his shoulders, and took to the aerial path in a bid to bring back with him the king’s daughter.
The Vidūṣaka told himself, “While I am around, will I allow a royal princess to be sacrificed! I’ll remain here until that wretch returns!” and continued to wait in a secret spot. The mendicant entered the inner quarters of the palace through an open window, abducted the sleeping princess, and returned to the temple. She began wailing and shouted, “Mother! Father!” Leaving the vetāḷa [i.e. the corpse possessed by the ghoul] outside, the mendicant dragged the princess into the temple’s garbha-gṛha; even as he attempted to kill her [as part of the sacrifice], the Vidūṣaka dashed inside, held the mendicant’s tuft of hair [yanking it back], and chopped off his head. Following this, he pacified the princess and began wondering how he would send her back home. In the midst of these thoughts, he heard an incorporeal voice that said, “O Vidūṣaka! The mendicant you just killed had attained [magical] mustard seeds through the vetāḷa; take the mustard seeds stored in the folds of his garment. With the help of that, you can spend the night roaming about in the celestial sphere!” Accordingly, as he collected the seeds and escorted the princess out of the temple, he heard another voice from the skies that said, “O great hero! In exactly a month’s time, you must come back to this temple. Don’t forget!” He mentally took note of it [deciding to return at the appropriate time] and taking the aerial route, he accompanied the princess back to her inner quarters and spoke words of solace. Then he said, “I shall now take your leave; I will not be able to travel the skies tomorrow morning.” Overcome by fear, she said, “If you go away, engulfed by dread, I will breathe my last!” Upon listening to that, he told himself, “Whatever happens, let it happen! I shall not leave this place. If she gives up her life, of what use will I have been to the king?” He stayed back in the inner quarters of the palace. He was exhausted and so he fell asleep at once; she was overcome by fear and so remained awake all night. Although it was morning, she didn’t wake him out of affection, with the thought: “Poor fellow! Let him sleep for some more time and get some rest!” The servants of the inner quarters saw him and reported the matter to the king.
When the king called for the Vidūṣaka and questioned him, he narrated the entire story and showed the king the severed noses of the robbers as well as the mustard seeds of the mendicant that he had secured within the folds of his garment. The king called for the brāhmaṇas of the maṭha as well as the cakradharas and investigated the matter; subsequently, having seen the corpses of the robbers with their noses chopped off as well as the severed head of the mendicant, the king believed the story narrated by the Vidūṣaka.
Vidūṣaka’s courage in saving the princess had earned the king’s gratitude. Thus, king Ādityasena was only too happy to give her hand in marriage to him. A month passed and the alert princess reminded Vidūṣaka that it was time to visit the Devi’s temple and offer prayers, just as the voice from the sky had commanded. When he went there though, to his surprise, he saw a palatial building and a woman beautifully decked in divine ornaments. She said: ‘O Vidūṣaka, I am a vidyādhara named Bhadrā. I have been smitten by your virtues and valour. Know that the voice you heard the other day was mine. Even today, using my magical powers, I influenced the princess to remind you to come here. Do marry me!’ Vidūṣaka consented and married her in the gāndharva way and stayed on with her.
A few days passed and the princess grew worried for her husband who never came back from the temple. She then informed her father. The king immediately took a few of his trusted men and went to the temple to look for Vidūṣaka. However, due to the vidyādhara’s spell, he couldn’t see his son-in-law there and had to return empty handed. Seeing her father return without her husband, the princess’ hope started to fade. Soon however a wise man who visited the king prophesied: ‘Vidūṣaka is alive and well! He will return soon!’ Feeling reassured by his words, the princess somehow held on to her life by a thin thread.
Meanwhile, Bhadrā was cautioned by her concerned friend Yogeśvarī thus: ‘My dear Bhadrā! All the vidyādharas are miffed that you are living with a mere mortal. They may do something rash and cause you harm. Leave this place at once and go forth to Siddhakṣetra on Udayagiri. They won’t come after you there. Don’t fear for your beloved human. Inform him about this plan and leave right away. He will make it there, do not worry!’ Accordingly, that very night, Bhadrā narrated all this to Vidūṣaka and gave him her ring and departed at sunrise. Right then, what was a magnificent building instantly turned back into the desolated temple it was earlier. Vidūṣaka realized that king Ādityasena would never let him leave if he were to go back. So, donning old worn-out clothes and looking very shabby, he went around the town shouting ‘Ha Bhadrā! Ha Bhadrā!’ like a lunatic. The king soon had him found and brought to the palace. However, when anyone tried to speak to him, he would only wail: ‘Alas Bhadrā! Alas Bhadrā!’
The king tried hard to bring Vidūṣaka back to his former self, but it was all in vain. When the king’s attendants, as instructed by the doctors, tried to give Vidūṣaka an oil bath, he would right then pour ash and dirt on himself! Even if the gentle princess herself lovingly brought him food, he would kick the tray away. After a few days passed like this, the king concluded: ‘It’s beyond us now. Poor man! Why to simply torture him like this? If he were to die, we will be bringing down on our own heads, the sin of killing a brāhmaṇa! It may be better to just let him go his way!’, and set him free.
The next morning, a relieved Vidūṣaka left Ujjayinī in search of his beloved vidyādhara. On the way, in the town of Pauṇḍravardhanapura, he took shelter for the night in the hut of a kind old woman. Despite her meagre means, the old woman treated him with warmth and hospitality. However, Vidūṣaka observed that she appeared to be rather wistful. When he inquired, she said with a heavy voice: ‘Sir! I don’t think I’ll live much longer! In fact, I wish to bequeath this house and all my possessions to you. Please do me the favour and accept all this!’ He tried to console her and asked: ‘Mother, why do you speak thus?’ She replied: ‘Our king Devasena has a beautiful daughter called Duḥkhalabdhikā. When the princess came of age, he had her marry the Kacchapa king. However, on the very night of the wedding, just as the groom was about to enter the princess’ quarters, he fell down dead mysteriously. Devasena’s grief knew no bounds. However, he soon recouped himself and found another alliance for his daughter. Eerie as it may sound, even the new bridegroom died - under the very same circumstances! Since then, no king or prince has been brave enough to come forward to marry Duḥkhalabdhikā. Since then, King Devasana has become stubborn. After consulting with his commander, he has decreed that regardless of how long it takes, everyday, the princess will marry a new brāhmaṇa or kṣatriya youth of this kingdom, until the groom survives the night! The king has declared that the man who makes it alive will continue to be Duḥkhalabdhikā’s husband. Alas! On this fateful day, it is the turn of my only son! I have made up my mind. If something were to befall him, I will end my life tomorrow by jumping into fire. So, I wish to give away my possessions to you. I am doing this in the hope that gifting all this to someone worthy such as yourself will help me accrue enough merit to avoid incurring similar fate in my next life!’
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 Arjun Bharadwaj, Raghavendra GS, Srishan Thirumalai, and Hari Ravikumar.