There lived a wealthy brāhmaṇa by name Śivadatta in the city of Hastināpura. I am his son; my name is Vasudatta; even in my boyhood I learnt the Vedas and the śāstras; my father got me married to an illustrious girl from a noble family.
But my mother is short tempered, difficult to please. After my wedding, my father got fed up with household duties, and he ran away. Seeing that I tried my best to keep my mother placated; my wife also, out of fear, behaved at her best. But that was not enough; my mother would actively search for reasons to pick a quarrel. If we were silent she would accuse us of being indifferent; if we spoke softly she would accuse us of showing fake respect; if we answered her she would accuse us of confronting; can anyone pack the fire in such a way that it wouldn’t burn? Her unfavourable conduct made my wife’s life miserable and she also finally ran away. When I was also about to run away, my relatives forced me to stay, found another girl and got us married to each other; she also couldn’t bear the torture and she killed herself by hanging; I thought at least now I can get away; but again my relatives disagreed; I had no other choice but to describe the dastardly conduct of my mother; I narrated the reasons for all the events which had happened starting from my father’s abandonment; but they didn’t believe me. So I bought a doll, reported that I’ve married again, brought it to my house, placed it in a room, and made one of the housemaids to guard it. I told my mother, “O mother! I have placed your new daughter-in-law separately; let us stay here itself separately; she is very young; she wouldn’t know how to serve you yet; you need not go where she is; she also need not come to you.” she agreed. But in spite of trying hard, she could never venture inside that room; the bolt remained fastened always. She brought a huge rock, smashed her head on it, while the blood was oozing she came out of the house and started crying loudly. I along with my relatives asked what happened. She complained that it was all the daughter-in-law’s fault and she is going to die. When the relatives started scolding me, I ushered them into the room. Seeing the doll they all believed me and returned back. With the coast clear I came out and by fate reached this gambler’s den. I got acquainted with such courageous folks like Caṇḍabhuja, Pāmsupaṭa, Śmaśānavetāla, kālavarāṭaka, Śāriprastara and others. I placed a bet saying that the people who lose would serve the people who won and made them all my attendants. But I became the slave of their noble qualities and due to their friendship I’ve forgotten all the sorrows. By our past puṇya you have joined us; please become our lord!
Thus Akṣakṣapaṇa narrated his story and the others with him introduced themselves one by one. He spent time with these courageous friends and the rainy season approached, causing the sea to flood the Vipāśā river. When the flooding subsided, the sand it had brought had stayed and so was a huge fish. Seeing the fish all them came with their weapons and started slashing it. From the belly came out a brāhmaṇa youth who was still alive. There was a lot of commotion among those who had witnessed this extraordinary incident. When Bhīmabhaṭa stepped forward to see who it was, he saw that it was none other than his friend Śaṅkhadatta! The reunited friends embraced each other and their joy knew no bounds. Then Śaṅkhadatta narrated his story in brief thus:-
After we got separated in the Gaṅgā, even before I could realize what was happening, a big fish swallowed me whole. I thus entered its huge mansion-like belly. Then on, in order to stay alive, I used my knife to slice off and eat little pieces of its innards. Today it seems as though God just decided to hurl the fish here. All these good people then thrashed it and pulled me out. Today I feel immensely blessed to see you and the sun again. This is all I know!
Listening to this fascinating story, everyone who had gathered there exclaimed with astonishment: “What are the chances of a fish swallowing a man whole in the Gaṅgā, and later wading into the sea only to be driven back up the river Vipāśā in a flood! And what’s more, we kill that fish and then a man, miraculously still alive, emerges from it! Can there be a greater wonder than this! Who can fathom the ways of fate!”.
A few days later, on the day of the festival of nāgarāja, Bhīmabhaṭa and Śaṅkhadatta went to see the temple fair. To the right of the temple was a huge lake. Haṃsāvalī, the beautiful daughter of the king Candrāditya of Lāṭa had come to bathe in its holy waters. Bhīmabhaṭa and Haṃsāvalī saw each other and instantly fell in love. The love-sick Haṃsāvalī ascertained who Bhīmabhaṭa was through her friends and then beckoned him to meet her at the palace. Bhīmabhaṭa replied that he would indeed present himself later that night unseen by anyone, using the powers of his invisibility-mantra. True to his word, Bhīmabhaṭa met Haṃsāvalī and married her in the Gāndharva way and spent the night there. Next morning, the royal guards of the inner chambers observed how their princess had changed and brought it to the notice of their king, who in turn instructed his spies to learn more of this development. Soon the spies came back and informed king Candrāditya that an invisible man had been visiting the princess in her chambers. The king replied: “He who possesses the power of invisibility cannot be a mere man. So go forth and bring him here. Talk to him cordially and convey these words of mine: ‘If you were to appear before me and seek my daughter’s hand in marriage, would I say no to you? Why this shroud of secrecy? It is but someone like you whom we wish our daughter would wed!’”. The spies waited at the entrance of the princess’ chambers and relayed the king’s message to Bhīmabhaṭa, who replied: “Why bother his majesty at this hour? Please inform the king that I shall present myself to him tomorrow morning and reveal everything!”.
The next morning, Bhīmabhaṭa wore his best clothes and went to the palace of king Candrāditya with his seven valorous friends. The king received them with due respect. Śaṅkhadatta proclaimed: “O king! This is Bhīmabhaṭa the son of King Ugrabhaṭa of Rāḍhā. He seeks your daughter’s hand in marriage!” . The king was overjoyed. With a sense of gratitude, he blessed Haṃsāvalī and Bhīmabhaṭa and arranged their wedding with full pomp and splendour. In due course of time, Candrāditya handed over the reins of the kingdom to his son-in-law, Bhīmabhaṭa and retired to lead the life of an ascetic.
As time passed, one day, Bhīmabhaṭa learned through his spies that his father had crowned Samarabhaṭa king and had gone to Prayāga and eventually cast off his mortal form. He then performed all the prescribed rituals for his departed father and shot off this message to his younger brother: “Idiot! Son of a dancing woman! What right do you have over our father’s throne? I reign over the kingdom of Lāṭa. Be that as it may, you have no right to rule!”. Samarabhaṭa was enraged reading his long writing. He wrote – “My father got you thrown out of the country as he found you ignoble. Why do you have such a false sense of pride? A fox too lives like a lion in its own cave; only when it encounters a real lion does it get to know its real worth!” He sent this with his messenger.
Bhīmabhaṭa read it and laughed out loud – “O messenger! Go tell that son of the dancer – Śaṅkhadatta saved you when you caught hold of the horse. I cannot keep forgiving you with the consideration that you are the favourite son of our father. I will certainly send you to your beloved father. Therefore, get ready. I will reach there in a few days”
The two fought. Samarabhaṭa lost his life in the war. Finally, after a long time, Bhīmabhaṭa caused immense pleasure to his mother, just as Rāma pleased his mother Kausalyā. The citizens placed him on his father’s throne and coronated him as the next king. He too felicitated his citizens and took good care of them. He handed over the kingdom of Lāṭa to his friend Śaṅkhadatta and coronated him the king. He gifted a bounty of wealth and several villages to Akṣakṣapaṇa and others. He went on a jaitra-yātrā – a dhārmic conquest, won over newer provinces and ruled over the kingdom in comfort.
One day, a muni named Uttaṅka visited him. Though his doorkeepers and messengers informed him about it, he was lost in his arrogance for having acquired a lot of wealth and paid no heed to the news of his arrival. The muni was enraged and said – “You arrogant fool! You will lose your kingdom and roam around as an elephant.” The king was shocked and scared upon hearing the curse. He rushed out, and fell at the muni’s feet. The muni gave up his anger and said – “You will definitely become an elephant; that is not wrong. You will console a person named Pracaṇḍaśakti, who would have gotten afflicted by nāga-pāśa. You will take care of him, listen to his story and tell him your background in return. You will then be relieved of the curse and will attain the status of a gandharva as per the wishes of Īśvara. Your guest, Pracaṇḍaśakti too will get his eyesight back!”
I, in the form of elephant, am Bhīmabhaṭa. I guess you are the famed Pracaṇḍaśakti. Here ends my curse – with these words, Bhīmabhaṭa gave up his form as elephant and turned into a gandharva. Pracaṇḍaśakti too got his eyesight back and saw the gandharva.
Mṛgāṅkadatta who was watching and listening to this hiding behind foliage, came running towards his minister Pracaṇḍaśakti and embraced him. The minister too was surprised to see his lord and was thrilled at his nectar-like embrace. He fell at his feet. Mṛgāṅkadatta bowed down to the gandharva, folded his hands and said – “It is because of you that I have procured this friend and he has got his eyesight back. My salutations to you!” The gandharva said – “O king! You will soon meet the rest of your friends, procure Śaśāṅkavatī and the kingdom. Don’t get scared. If you have a task for me, I will come to you even if you merely think of me.” With this promise, he left the place.
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.