The Brihatkatha and its Versions
The Story as Entertainment
The Panchatantra and Hitopdesa were meant to be instructive. However, the Brihatkatha of Gunaddhya and its various versions which include the Brihatkathamanjari of Kshemendra, and Kathasaritsagar of Somdeva amongst others and the Dasakumarcharita of Dandin were stories written more for entertainment and amusement. Many of them cannot really be considered suitable for children though some have been adapted for them while others have been retold more or less as they are.
The oldest, the Brihatkatha of Gunaddhya is considered the source work for the writings of Kshemendra and Somdeva. It was written in Paisachi which has been identified as a kind of Prakrit and is perhaps the only work in that language which had an influence on Sanskrit literature second only to the great epics. No original version survives, though several Sanskrit and Prakrit versions are said to have been made, not all of which are still in existence. It is the only work in Prakrit of which so many Sanskrit versions were made. The oldest Sanskrit version is said to have been made by Raja Purvardha in the 6th century A.D. but it is no longer in existence. Gunaddhya is said to have lived in the time of the Satavahana ruler of the Deccan in the first century A.D. (Some say 4th or 5th) who ruled over Pratishthanapur on the banks of the Godavari. The Satavahanas were a dynasty which was trying to Aryanise and the scholar J.A.van Buitenen believes Paisachi was a dialect of the North-West.
Vasudevhindi, a Prakrit version is considered the oldest amongst the available versions of the Brihatakatha. It was begun by a Jain monk Sanghdasgani and completed two centuries later by Dharmdasgani another Jain monk and is said to date not later than 604 A.D. They changed the original story by making Krishna’s father Vasudeva the main protagonist and narrator. Among the available Sanskrit versions, Buddhaswami’s Brihatkthashlokasangraha is considered the oldest. It was written during the reign of the Gupta dynasty. J.A.B. van Buitenen considers it ‘lively, observant, irreverent and colloquial’, in comparison with the better known Kathasaritasagar by Somdeva which he finds pedestrian at times.
According to legend these stories were told by Shiva to entertain his consort Parvati who begged him to tell her a story which no one had ever heard. He said that he would tell her stories about vidyadhars or aerial spirits since gods were invincible and humans lived in misery. Gunnaddhya (rich in virtue) was actually Malyavana, one of the members of the god’s retinue. His friend Pushpadant had made himself invisible and bypassed Shiva’s guard Nandi to enter the god’s cave and heard the stories secretly. He told the stories to his wife and in turn she passed them on. This led to his being discovered and cursed by a furious Parvati to become a mortal. When Malyavana pleaded his friend’s case he received a similar curse. But his wife was able to soften the goddess’stance. She finally said that if Pushpadant told these stories to a pishach Kanabhuti and Kanabhuti narrated them to Malyavana who in turn told them to human beings they would be able to free themselves from the curse. This little tale again illustrates the value attached to stories in ancient times.
It is said that Gunnadhya wrote these stories in secret in the forest because he was afraid the vidyadhars would steal them. Since he had no ink he wrote the 700,000 couplets in his own blood on bark. The manuscript consisting of seven books was presented to the Satavahana ruler who rejected it with disgust because it was written in blood. Gunaddhya burned six of the seven volumes after reading them to the birds and beasts of the forest but one was salvaged, that of Narvahandatta, the skeleton story which consisted of 16 parts and the kathapith added. Gunaddhya appears to have been a man who had traveled widely and in his stories the lives of gods and humans, fantastical beings like the vidyadhars who are semi divine—something between gandharvas and siddhas intertwine. Curses and boons and accounts of previous lives are used as plot devices. Scholars have commented on the fact that these are basically stories about merchants not kings and gods. The four major cities of Ujjaini, Tamralipti, Madura and Takshshila, which were major centres of trade and commerce play an important role.
The best known versions of Gunaddhya’s work are those of Kshmendra and Somadeva. Kshemendra compiled his Brihadkathamanjari some thirty years before Somadeva but the Kathasaritasagar is one third larger larger and is the better known work. It is the largest collection of tales, containing twice the number included in the Iliad and the Odyssey. However, Kshemendra’s work is considered more poetic by some.
Somadeva was a Kashmiri brahmin who composed this work some time between 1063 to 1081 A.D. to entertain Queen Suryamati, the wife of his ruler Anantdev.
Many people consider this vast work the foremost example of the Indian storytelling tradition. It combines history and myth, reality and fantasy with amazing effect and contains an extraordinary variety of characters and situations. Not only does it contain stories about actual historical figures like the grammarians, Vyadi, Vararuchi, Indradutt and Panini but also weaves in those about legendary supernatural beings like the gandharvas, kinnars and vidyadhars. There are extraordinary female characters as well. This work also provides amazing insights into human psychology and a vivid glimpse of the social structure, lifestyle, even the geography of the subcontinent. Neighbouring countries like Srilanka, Malaysia and Indonesia also figure in the narrative.
Many individual collections of stories are woven into the Kathasaritasagar. Among these the ones that have been most popular amongst children are the King Vikram stories. While the whole of the Kathasaritasagar consists of stories within stories bound together by the Shiva-Parvati story, both these collections use the device of the narration of the adventures of the king to link them together. They are the Vetalpanchvishanti or Vetalpachisi (Twenty-five Stories of the Vampire) and Singhasandwatrinshika or Singhasan Battisi (Thirty-two Stories of the Lion Throne). The legendary king Vikramaditya was an actual historical figure, the founder of the Vikrami era which is 56 years in advance of the Christian era. He vanquished the Huns and was the ruler of the Malwa region in central India and had his capital in Ujjaini. Some scholars, however, feel Vikramaditya could be a title of the great Chandragupta Maurya.
The Vetal stories are told to King Vikramaditya by Vetal, a ghost or vampire. The framing story says that a mendicant comes to the king’s court and asks him to help him in an important ritual. It entails bringing a corpse which hangs from a tree to the burning ground where the ritual was to be performed. When the king removes the corpse he finds that a Vetal resides in it. While he is transporting it, the Vampire tells him a story at the end of which he poses a question seeking a moral judgement or a definition of a social relationship, based on the action of the story which the king has to answer correctly or die. Each time the king gives his answer, the corpse immediately flies back to the tree and the king sets off to fetch it again, so the cycle is repeated. After twenty-four stories have been told the king is unable to answer the twenty-fifth question. The Vetal then exposes the mendicant as one who is seeking to destroy the king and after helping him to worst the man tells him to ask for a boon. The king asks that these twenty-five stories always be famous on the earth.
These stories are the most famous of our ‘riddle tales’ and like other popular literature travelled well beyond our borders. Van Buitenen states that some of them have influenced European literature and mentions the great German writer Thomas Mann’s novella Die Vertauschten Kopfe which is said to be inspired by the story “The Transposed Heads”. Similarly, he says the story of “The Three Fastidious Brahmins” traveled through Central Asia and Siberia and Jutland and became the basis for Hans Christian Andersen’s famous fairy tale The Princess and the Pea. [ii]
The Singhasan stories are told by thirty-two statuettes to another king, Raja Bhoja who has discovered the throne of King Vikramaditya and is trying to ascend it. As the framing story narrates, the king is astonished to hear that an ignorant cowherd is transformed into an ideal judge, better than him, when he sits upon a mound on the outskirts of his capital Ujjain and resolves disputes. Upon investigating the rumours he finds that they are true and has the mound excavated. He finds a magnificent throne buried below and prepares to ascend it with great ceremony. But each time he attempts to, he is stopped by one of the statuettes which line its base, which says only one who is worthy of it can sit on the throne and then tells him a story about the king who once occupied it–Vikramaditya. These thirty-two stories do not follow a specific pattern like the Vetal riddle tales. They do have a certain focus– to project an exemplary ruler—Vikramaditya, who has taken a vow guaranteeing the happiness of his subjects and is prepared to go to great lengths to fulfill it. In the course of discharging his duties he has many exciting adventures. The Singhasan stories expound the virtues of valour, ethical action and the duty of the king towards his subjects while providing entertainment through fantasy and suspense. In the Singhasan Battisi the Vetal is shown to be a powerful vampire in the control of the king who helps him to fulfill his vow.
The Shukasaptika or Kissa Tota-Mynah is another set of stories found in this work. These are stories of two birds, a parrot and a mynah who are lovers or consorts. However, since they focus on sexual escapades, their content does not make them very suitable for children though some have been retold as such.
The stories of the Kathsaritasagar show the world as a many splendoured place and on the whole, do not display any specific moral purpose. The magic and mystery of story telling works here and stories are told to divert, amuse and astonish. But while full of fantasy, they remain rooted in the ordinary life of men and for this reason they provide a vivid glimpse into the life and social structure, manners and morals of the times. As is common with much of traditional literature, stories from other narrative works like the Panchatantra, the Puranas and the Jataka tales have been woven into the narrative. Though attributed to Somadeva, the original text appears to be the work of several authors. These stories apparently traveled far too because apart from the two instances mentioned above Ramanujan mentions that some have been found in The Arabian Nights, in Boccacio and Shakespeare, he cites the stories of All’s Well that Ends Well and Cymbeline. In recent times the Kathasaritasagar has been the inspiration behind Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories.
The Kathasaritasagar has been translated into many other languages. H.H. Wilson published a summary of the first five chapters in English in1824. Brockhaus edited it in 1839 and published a compilation from six manuscripts in 1862. Another version was published by the Asiatic Society of Bengal between 1880 and 1884, translated by Charles Tawney in English and based on the Brockhaus edition. In 1889 the Mumbai based Nirnayasagar Press brought out a Sanskrit version by Durgadas which was compiled from the Brockhaus and other versions. Since then many versions have appeared in Hindi and other Indian languages.
J.A.B. Van Buitenen Tales of Ancient India (Chicago & London: Phoenix Books, The University of Chicago Press, 1959) p.2
Ibid., XIII, p. 9.
II Intro. p.xxiii