Kathāmṛta - 35 - Madanamañcukā-lambaka - The Stories of Ratnadatta, Kaliṅgadatta and Tārādattā

This article is part 35 of 133 in the series Kathāmṛta

तर्जयन्निव विघ्नौघान्नमितोन्नमितेन यः |

मुहुर्विभाति शिरसा स पायाद्वो गजाननः ||

[May that elephant-faced deity, who by repeatedly raising and bowing his head, appears to continually threaten the multitude of obstacles, protect you all]

नमःकामाय यद्बाणपातैरिव निरन्तरम्|

भाति कण्टकितं शम्भोरप्युमालिङ्गितं वपुः||

[We salute Kāma, the deity of love, whose shower of arrows cause even the body of Śiva to appear horripilated while being embraced by Umā]


[From now we hear the story of Naravāhanadatta narrated by himself in third person to the seven Ṛśis and their wives, after having got all the riches and becoming the king of vidyādharas.]

Naravāhanadatta reached the age of eight. He spent his time gaining knowledge and playing with the sons of the ministers in the gardens.

The story of Ratnadatta

Meanwhile, Kaḻiṅgadatta, a devotee of Buddha was ruling Takṣaśilā, situated on the banks of the river Vitastā. In that city resided a merchant named Vitastādatta, who also followed Buddha. He had a son called Ratnadatta who ridiculed his father for giving up brāhmaṇya (vedic path) and becoming a śramana. The father counselled his son saying, ‘Dharma is not a monolith; the learned say brāhmaṇya comprises of truthfulness, compassion to one and all, and shunning desire and anger; Buddha also prescribes extending security and empathy towards all living things; being an adherent of such a noble path is not adharma.’ But the son continued rebuking his father harshly. This made his father sad and he informed the noble king. the king brought Ratnadatta to the royal court and feigning anger, he ordered, ‘Kill this traitor!’ When his father interceded on his behalf, the king postponed his execution saying, ‘Give him two months so that he can mend his ways.’ Ratnadatta thought, ‘What have I done? What is my crime which deserves such a harsh punishment? They’d slaughter me mercilessly after two months!’ This worry made him lose hope and he starved himself and became emaciated. After two months, he was brought before the king who asked him, ‘Why have you become so thin? I didn’t order you to skip food!’ Ratnadatta replied, ‘O king! Death being imminent, I forgot myself; what of food?’ The king said, ‘My dear boy! Now you understand how fear of death affects you; this fear is universal; thus the wise always try to attain mokṣa; so you should stop ridiculing your father who is on that path!’ Ratnadatta thanked the king for teaching him dharma and asked him to guide him to mokṣa. During the city fair, the king gave him a vessel filled with oil and ordered him. ‘Take a tour of the city, keeping the vessel in your hand; if you spill even a drop your head will be chopped.’ The royal guards armed with swords, unsheathed, followed him to keep an eye. Ratnadatta with great difficulty completed the task and returned. The king then asked him, ‘Now tell me, what all did you see in the city?’ With folded hands, the merchant’s son replied ‘O king! Truth be told, I could neither see nor hear anything; for I was only focused on ensuring that the oil does not spill!’ The king smiled and said, ‘Yes. Now likewise, concentrate all your attention on the divine. If that becomes the object of your unyielding focus, all external diversions will begin to disappear and you will finally see the Truth. And once you realize the Truth, you will not be caught in the vicious cycle of karma. This is the essence of the lesson on mokṣa.’ Having fulfilled his objective, the son of the merchant returned to his father’s home.

The story of Surabhidattā

Indra, for some unknown reason, had organised a celebration in Amarāvatī. All the apsarās were present except one by the name Surabhidattā. Indra through his divine powers found that she was having a secret relationship with a vidyādhara called Nandana. He was at once angered, but thought, ‘What fault is of the vidyādhara? Wasn’t Śiva himself perturbed by seeing Tilottamā? (see Umā-maheśvara-saṃvādaḥ, Anuśāsana-parva, 128th sarga, verses 1-8, the critical edition of Mahabharata for more details), Wasn’t Viśvāmitra by Menakā or Yayāti by Śarmiṣṭhā?’ Thus reflecting, the one who was swayed by Ahalyā, spared the vidyādhara, but cursed Surabhidattā to be born as a mortal. He also told her how the curse ends, ‘You’ll be liberated once you beget a daughter not born from the womb and accomplish the objectives of the deities.’

One night, Tārādattā the queen of king Kaliṅgadatta had a strange dream. She saw a brilliant flame descend from the heavens and enter her womb. The divine flame was in fact Surabhidattā, who was cursed by Indra to be born as a mortal on earth. The next morning, speaking to her husband, Tārādattā said that it is indeed one’s actions that beget good or bad fruits, and proceeded to narrate her story:

The story of Tārādattā’s previous birth

‘When I was just a little girl, a miracle happened. My parents Dharmadatta and Nāgaśrī were able to recollect the story of their previous birth, each unbeknownst to the other! However, they were now caught in a dilemma - whether they should share it with each other or not. If they didn’t tell each other, it would tantamount to betraying their mutual love. On the other hand if they did, the shock could kill them both. Even then, my mother gathered the courage to narrate her story first.

She revealed that in her previous birth, she had been a maid in the house of a brāhmaṇa named Mādhava. Her husband Devadāsa was a servant in the house of a merchant. They were so poor that their only possessions were a pan, a vessel, a broom and a cot. Each had only one set of clothes to wear and only one blanket to protect them from the weather. However, despite their abject penury, the husband and wife were happy. After a few years, famine struck the region where they lived. They were already poor, and now their situation had worsened further. They had barely any food to eat. When such was their state, one day, a guest arrived at their humble abode. The generous Devadāsa offered the entire portion of his meagre food to the stranger. Within a few days, his life abandoned him, as if angry that he respected the guest more than his life. Unable to bear this grief, Devadāsa’s wife followed him in the sati tradition by ascending his funeral pyre. She was then reborn as Nāgaśrī in a royal family. Nāgaśrī eventually married Dharmadatta and in due course of time, begot me.

Listening to my mother’s story of her previous birth, my father Dharmadatta revealed to her joy that he was in fact, the very same Devadāsa reborn! As ordained, my parents then left for their heavenly abode. After this, it was my aunt who raised me.

Once a seer had visited us. I served him just like how Kuntī had served sage Durvāsas. Thanks to the boon which the seer bestowed upon me, O king, I was blessed with a righteous husband in you.’

Having listened to the story of his queen Tārādattā, the amazed Kaliṅgadatta said, ‘Devi! It is true that if we diligently practice our dharma to the best of our abilities, it is bound to yield manifold fruits.’ He then proceeded to narrate the story of seven brāhmaṇas:

The story of seven brāhmaṇas

Long ago, in the town of Kuṇḍinapura, there lived a teacher who had seven brāhmaṇa disciples. As time passed, the region became drought stricken. The guru sent his disciples to his father in law’s house in another town, seeking a cow. They did as their guru had commanded and were duly given a cow. However, the father in law did not take care to offer food to the disciples as they embarked upon their return journey. Soon the disciples were overcome with severe hunger. They said to themselves: ‘Our revered guru’s home is still afar and we are stuck here. We will soon die of hunger and thirst. Alas! There’s no food to be found anywhere. Even this cow looks famished and could die anytime. So why don’t we kill it and fill our stomach and take what is left of it to our teacher?’ Then they used the cow as the sacrificial animal and performed the deva-pitṛ-yajña. They partook of the sacrificed animal and carried the portions left and offered them to the guru. As they had spoken the truth, the guru was pleased and pardoned their mistake. In about a week from then, they passed away without anything to eat. However, due to the strength of their honesty, they were born as jātismaras (someone with the knowledge of their previous birth/s).

The story of the brāhmaṇa and the caṇḍāla

A brāhmaṇa and a caṇḍāla were performing tapas on the banks of the river Gaṅgā and both observed a vow of fasting. Looking at the fishermen who were catching and eating fish there, the brāhmaṇa thought – ‘These fishermen are lucky rascals! They eat the meat of śapara fish everyday to sate their desire’. The caṇḍāla saw them and thought – ‘Fie upon these men who harm living beings! I shouldn’t see their faces!’ He shut his eyes and contemplated upon the ātman! Once the two left their mortal remains, the body of the brāhmaṇa was eaten by dogs and he was reborn as a fisherman. However, because of the association with the tīrtha, he was born as a jātismara. The caṇḍāla was born as a king and he too was a jātismara. Thus the brāhmaṇa suffered as a fisherman knowing his past deeds while the caṇḍāla with his good conduct in his previous life became the king. Mind is the root of the tree of dharma. If the mind is pure, the fruit will be good as well. Moreover, the fruit that is reaped from karma is proportional to the sattva.

To be continued...

The current article is a translation of Prof. A R Krishnasastri’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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