The following day, when they all assembled in the court, Marubhūti hung his head down with shame. Looking at him, Ratnaprabhā said, “Ārya-putra! You are truly fortunate to have your childhood friends as ministers. They too are fortunate to have their childhood friend as the king of the land. This is indeed a fortuitous result of the (good) karmas from former births!” When he heard these words, Tapantaka remarked, “It is true that he has become our king owing to karmas of a previous birth!” and narrated the following tale —
The Story of King Ajara
There lived a noble king named Vinayaśīla in the town of Vilāsapura, the residence of Śiva. He had a queen named Kamalaprabhā, dear to him as his own life. He spent many years enjoying conjugal bliss with her. When he began to notice signs of old age, he thought, How can I show this withered face with grey hairs to the Queen? and lamented. He called a physician named Taruṇacandra and inquired if there was any artifice by which old age may be averted. Taruṇacandra, as his name suggests was crooked like the digit of the moon. He thought of a plan to become the full moon! He replied, "Yes, there is! For eight months, if you live alone in an underground chamber and consume these medicines, you will be rid of your old age!" His ministers said, "All these are just games played by fraudsters. Will age that has passed ever return?" But such arguments barely touched the ears of the king let alone change his heart. Good counsel, after all have no effect on those who are after sensual pleasures. The king resided in the dark dungeon – it appeared as though the darkness of excessive ignorance had occupied the entire place.
The physician appointed an assistant to help him prepare the medicines and for six long months. The three of them were in the underground chamber with the physician giving a variety of medicines to the king. He became further aged. At that point, the physician made an arrangement with a certain young man who resembled the king. He promised – ‘I will make you the king’ and brought him into the underground chamber through a tunnel. He killed the king when he was asleep and threw him into an abandoned well, closed the tunnel, called the subjects and told them, ‘I’ve made your king youthful again in these six months; in two months his looks will become different; so have a look at him but from a distance!’ As and when they came, he would introduce them and their professional details to that young man. Thus, everyone from the palace was introduced to him.
After two months, he declared that the king is free from old age and brought the young man who had been well-nourished, out of the dungeon. He had a cleansing bath, took control over the kingdom and his ministers started ruling happily. He became known as ‘Ajara’ (lit. free from old age).
Everything in the royal palace including the queen Kamalaprabhā became his possession. He gave horses, elephants and villages to his friends named Bheṣajacandra and Padmadarśana and made them his equals. Though he respected the healer Taruṇacandra for his skill in medicines, he didn’t have confidence in his ethical behaviour. Once the healer met him and said, ‘What is this! Why are you not favourable to me and acting as per your whims? Don't you remember that you got all this because of me? The king replied, ‘You are indeed a fool! Who are we to do or give anything to anyone? The doer or giver here is our own deeds from the past! So don’t be so proud of yourself; I got all this from the tapas I’ve performed; I’ll prove that to you!’ The healer Taruṇacandra was scared and thought – he speaks like a sage and decided to remain silent.
The next day he set out along with Taruṇacandra and others. While sporting on the river bank, he noticed five golden lotuses floating towards him. He ordered his associates to bring them, showed them to the healer and said,’ Go upstream and see their source! I’m really intrigued!’ The healer, knowing no other way out went upstream searching for the source of the flowers, while the king and his retinue went back to their hometown.
As Taruṇacandra proceeded, he spotted a temple dedicated to Śiva and a banyan tree that stood on the bank of the river. A human skeleton was dangling from the tree. He bathed to relieve himself of tiredness, performed pūjā to Śiva and sat down. It started raining. The rain drops which trickled down from the skeleton fell upon the sacred waters of the river and this caused the birth of golden lotuses. He was surprised and thought, Who can I ask about these? There is no one around! Who can understand this astonishing creation of Brahmā! Now that I have understood how these lotuses spawn, I’ll drop the skeleton in this river; I’ll also accumulate puṇya; let golden lotuses spawn on its backbone! He dropped the skeleton, spent the whole day there. He reached back Vilāsapura in a few days’ time.
The king Ajara called him in secret and asked him, ‘Now you know what’s the secret of those golden lotuses? That place is extraordinary; the skeleton you saw hanging from the banyan tree is that of my body from my previous life; I had performed tapas hanging upside down and gave up my body; it is because of that, the water droplets from the skies that also fall on the skeleton spawn golden lotuses; you did a good thing by dropping the skeleton into the river; you were also one of my friends in my previous life just like Bheṣajacandra and Padmadarśana; due to the tapas I performed then, I’ve procured this kingdom and also regained memory of my previous life; I used this incident as a trick to let you know of the truth. Therefore, don’t be proud that you made me win this kingdom and don’t get troubled having known the truth. Every animal, right from its birth eats the fruit from the tree which is its own doing in its past lives!’ The healer was happy. The king felicitated him and enjoyed the fruits of his tapas, ruling the kingdom with his friends without any trouble.
Narrating this story, Tapantaka said, “Lord! Thus, the good and bad which visit upon living beings are solely due to their deeds in the previous births. Therefore, I sincerely believe that you are our lord because of the puṇya we’ve accrued from our past lives. How else can one explain your affection towards us?”. Listening to this amazing story which they had never heard of before, Naravāhanadatta and his wife were elated. Then they proceeded to take their ritual baths, partook of royal repast and spent the rest of the day relaxing.
7. The following day, in Ratnaprabhā’s mansion, Naravāhanadatta was holding a meeting with his council of ministers, when suddenly they were startled by the heart-rending wails from the foreground of the house. When the king enquired what had happened, one of the maid servants came forward and said “Lord! It is our kañcukī Dharmagiri. A few moments ago, he received the news of his elder brother’s passing away. The man had gone on a tīrtha-yātrā and unfortunately died in a distant land. A half-witted friend of Dharmagiri came up here and delivered the sad news indelicately. Upon listening to this, overcome with sorrow, without even realizing where he was, the kañcukī began to weep inconsolably. Now he has been taken home!”
The prince was very sad upon hearing this. Ratnaprabhā too felt pained and said “it’s very hard to bear the sorrow due to the death of a dear one. Wonder why Brahmā did not make all humans immortal!”. Marubhūti who was listening remarked “Devi! How is this even possible in this mortal world?” and began to narrate this story:-
The Story of Cirāyu and Nāgārjuna
Long ago there was a king named Cirāyu. The capital city of his kingdom too bore the same name and true to the name, the king was immortal. He had a wise minister called Nāgārjuna who was born through the aṃśa of Bodhisattva and was hence blessed with many great qualities. The minister was kind, generous, wise and possessed a scientific outlook. Nāgārjuna had mastered the science of various herbs. By carefully conducting innumerable experiments over the years, he had discovered the secret behind long lasting youth and life. He put this knowledge to good use for himself and king Cirāyu.
Many years passed. One unfortunate day, Nāgārjuna’s favourite son, who was also the youngest, died. The wise minister was so upset with the harsh reality of mortality that he set out to create amṛta, the nectar of immortality. After working day and night for many months, thanks to the power of his tapas, he had the concoction ready, except for its last ingredient. Even as Nāgārjuna searched for the missing element, Indra discovered his mission. Sensing trouble, the king of the devas, immediately summoned the Aśvinī-devatas and thundered, “You must go to Nāgārjuna and deliver these words of mine: Despite being a minister, what is this immoral endeavour you have set upon? Are you bent upon defeating the will of Brahmā himself? Death is but a natural and inevitable to all mortals. By setting out to prepare amṛta have you decided to make them all immortal! If you do this, what difference would remain between men and devas? There must be those who conduct yajñas and those who are propitiated by them - without this system, the whole world will collapse! Pay heed to my words and give up on this stubborn mission! If you do not, prepare to incur the wrath of the devas - they will surely curse you. I know you embarked upon this path out of sadness brought forth by the death of your beloved son. But let me tell you this - he is happy in the svarga in the company of immortals!”
Listening to these words, Nāgārjuna was dejected. He thought “If I don’t obey Indra’s command, let alone other devas, even these Aśvinī-devatas may curse me. I have no choice but to give up my dream of creating amṛta. Well, at least I know now that my son is in good stations in svarga due to his puṇya!”. With palms joined in reverence, he spoke these words to the twin gods: “Bowing to Indra’s commands, I am immediately stopping my mission to make amṛta. If you had delayed, in another five days the nectar would have been ready and soon every human would have turned immortal”. To display his deference to Indra’s decree, Nāgārjuna had the pots of amṛta which were buried underground for brewing, removed prematurely right in front of the Aśvinī-devatas.
The Aśvinī-devatas informed Devendra about this. Indra was happy.
The king coronated his son Jīvahara as the crown prince. Once coronated, the prince bowed down before his mother. The queen, Dhanaparā said “O child! Why are you feeling happy simply because you are now the crown-prince? Just like you, several sons of your father were crown princes. However, no one got the kingdom. If Nāgārjuna gives him rasāyana once, a hundred years will get added to his lifespan. This is the eighth time this is happening. I don’t know how many more times this is to take place!” The crown prince was deeply saddened. The queen continued “If you want the kingdom, do the following - The minister Nāgārjuna, after his morning bath and āhnika goes around asking if anyone needs anything before his midday meal. Go there and ask for his head. He does not do otherwise, once he gives his word. He will die chopping off his own head. If he dies, the king may also pass away or might retire to a forest! You will then get the kingdom for yourself. I can’t think of any other way to do this!” The son said – “So be it!” The love for the kingdom is, after all, more important than the love for all relatives, isn’t it?
The following day, the prince went to Nāgārjuna’s house and asked for his head. The minister replied – “Child! What will you do with my head? It only contains bones, flesh and hair, isn’t it? What purpose will it serve to you? If you think that it is going to be of some use to you, you may chop it off and take it with you!” The prince tried to chop off the minster’s head but could not achieve it, even when he tried multiple times. He tried again and again and many swords ended up getting shattered. Because he consumed rasāyana everyday, his body had become very strong. By then, the news fell on the king Cirāyu’s ears. He came to the spot and stopped his son from performing the act. Nāgārjuna said “Mahārāja! I have offered my head in ninety-nine lives until now. This is my hundredth birth. Please don’t stop him. Let the seeker not go with his wish unfulfilled!” He embraced him. He fetched an ointment from his store and smeared it upon the sword “Now hit me!” he said. The prince struck him. The minister’s head got severed and fell down like a lotus flower stuck by a twig.
Looking at this, the king too got ready to give up his life. ‘Mahārāja! Don’t do this! Don’t fret over the friend you have lost. He has attained the status equal to that of Buddha’ said an incorporeal voice. Listening to this, the king stopped himself. He gave up his kingdom, retired to the forest and with time attained paramagati.
Jīvahara did not rule the kingdom for long. The sons of Nāgārjuna got him killed as he had chopped off their father’s head. For the sorrow of losing her son, his mother died of grief. Can anything good happen if one takes to an immoral path? The son of the other queen, Śatāyu, was placed on the throne by the ministers.
In this way, Nāgārjuna tried to get rid of death that naturally occurs to men and it displeased the devatas. He was consumed by death. Therefore, the jīvaloka – the mortal world – is filled with sorrow and is impermanent. No one can act against the saṅkalpa of Brahmā!’
After listening to this story, Naravāhanadatta arose to perform his daily activities.
Early one morning, Naravāhanadatta set out to the forest for a hunt. He was accompanied by his father Vatsarāja, his friends, and his retinue consisting of horses and elephants. After the hunt, the prince rested and went on horseback along with Gomukha to another part of the woods. While they were playing ball, it slipped from their hand and hit the head of a tāpasī who came that way. She gave a lopsided smile and said, “If such is your insolence now, then how much more will it be once you obtain Karpūrikā as a wife!” At once, he sought pardon and comforted her; then he asked her who Karpūrikā was. She said, “On the other side of the ocean, there is a city called Karpūrasambhava on its shores and it is ruled by King Karpūraka. His daughter is Karpūrikā. It appears as though the ocean desired to create a second Lakṣmī and is safeguarding her there, after the first Lakṣmī who came out of the samudramathana was taken away by the suras. Karpūrikā cannot stand men. Therefore, she refuses marriage. But if you go there, she will accept you. Go, but you will experience troubles in the forest. Don’t get disheartened – everything will end well.” Saying so, she soared to the sky and disappeared.
At once, Naravāhanadatta mounted his horse and went in the Southward direction. Although he was not in favour of the idea [of chasing after an unknown maiden] Gomukha silently followed his lord. Vatsarāja and his retinue returned to the capital, thinking that Naravāhanadatta would return with his friends taking a different route. But he did not return even after a long time. They wondered if he had gone to Ratnaprabhā's residence and searched for him there. With her special vidyā, Ratnaprabhā divined that Naravāhanadatta had gone in search of Karpūrikā, whom he would marry, and return soon along with Gomukha. In order that he should not face troubles on his way, she sent him a vidyā (branch of learning personified) by name Māyāvatī to assist him. She caught up with Naravāhanadatta, who was traversing through the forest and told him that she was sent by Ratnaprabhā for his sake. Owing to her influence, he and Gomukha proceeded further without being tormented by hunger or thirst. By evening, they descended upon a lake. They partook of fruits, drank water, tied their horses to a tree, and perched on a tree after climbing it. At one point, the horses neighed violently. When they bent down to take a look, they saw a ferocious lion. At once, the prince threw his sword, which was tied to his waist, at the lion. Although it was badly injured, the lion killed both the horses in quick succession. Then he drew the sword that Gomukha had and threw it at the lion. The lion was severed into two. With both their horses dead, they set out on foot the next morning. To pass the time, Gomukha narrated this story to the prince:
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.