I just finished the Kathāsaritsāgara (The Ocean of Story), by Somadeva, written in Kashmīr in the 11C. Or, well, an abridgment of it, in Arshia Sattar’s very readable modern translation.
A vidyādhara. Nice booties!
The original Kathāsaritsāgara is about six times longer, and claims to be itself an abridgment of a book called the Brihatkathā, written by a celestial being named Guṇāḍhya in his own blood, in Paiśācī, the language of the piśācas, the lowest class of demons. Rather too much scholarly time has been spent on the trail of this mythical book in a mythical language— even some modern scholars are convinced that Paiśācī was a real language, though there exists not a scrap of it nor the Brihatkathā.
I’ve talked about the nested stories in the Hitopadeśa, but Somadeva has them beat. Navigating one particular part of the ocean:
- Śiva is asked by his wife Parvātī to tell a story no one has heard before. He tells the story of the vidyādharas, celestial beings with magical powers such as flight and shape-changing. He tells it in a locked room. One of their attendants is curious about this and uses his own powers to enter invisibly; he listens to the story and tells it to his wife, who tells it to Parvātī. Parvātī is angry at Śiva, since it appears everyone knows this story! Śiva divines what happened and explains, whereupon Parvātī punishes the attendant to live as a mortal.
- This attendant, now living as a mortal, is Guṇāḍhya. He has a whole book’s worth of adventures; one consequence is that he takes a vow not to use Sanskrit, which is why when he writes the Brihatkathā he uses an ignoble language. His curse will end when he spreads this story to the world. To accomplish this, he sends it to a king, who rejects it because it is written in Paiśācī. Sadly, Guṇāḍhya begins to read and burn the manuscript. Finally the king happens to come to the place where Guṇāḍhya is reading, and is enchanted with the stories. Guṇāḍhya has burned 6 of the 7 books, but he gives the last book to the king, ending his curse.
- Now we come to the story told in that book, which is the framing device for the rest of the stories: the story of the human prince Naravāhanadatta, how he accumulated an impressive harem of human and celestial wives, and finally became a vidyādhara himself and emperor of the vidyādharas. Most of the other stories are told to him to amuse or distract him, or because they relate to some of his problems.
- One of the these stories, related by his minister Gomukha, concerns the king Sumanas. One day a tribal woman arrives, a stunning beauty, who has a parrot. The parrot can talk, and is asked for his story.
- The parrot tells about growing up in a tree, until hunters come by and kill the parrots there, including his father. A brahmin rescues the young parrot and takes him to his guru, who laughs. He laughs because he knows the story of the parrot’s previous birth.
- The guru tells the story of the prince Somaprabha, who does what valorous princes do— conquers the surrounding lands. Far from home, he comes to a lake where a beautiful vidyādhara woman is singing.
- She tells him her story. She is Manorathaprabhā, the daughter of a vidyādhara king. She used her powers of flight to wander the world, and fell in love with an ascetic. They are briefly separated, and unable to bear this, the ascetic kills himself. The voice of a god prevents Manorathaprabhā from doing the same. Her friend Makarandikā now arrives and falls in love with Somaprabha…
Eventually Somadeva clears the stack and finishes each of these stories appropriately. (If you’re curious, the parrot is Makarandikā’s father under a curse.)
As you can imagine, this structure allows Somadeva to include pretty much any story he’s heard. There are animal stories overlapping with the Hitopadeśa, and jātaka stories (which are stories of the Buddha’s previous births), and vampire stories, and a tiny little retelling of the Rāmāyaṇa. There’s a whole book devoted to stories of the wickedness of women, and to balance them, stories of virtuous women triumphing over wicked men. There’s even an amusing libel about Pāṇini, author of the great, definitive Sanskrit grammar: that he was a dull scholar who only received his grammar from the gods as a reward for austerities.
I have my doubts about the spiritual value of the doctrine of saṃsāra— the endless cycle of rebirth— it’s too easy a solution to the problem of pain. It seems like a copout to blame present suffering on misdeeds in a past life. But the Indian storytellers show the real value of saṃsāra: as a narrative device. Neil Gaiman has noted that stories, if prolonged too far, always end in death. But with saṃsāra, death is only a temporary milestone, a chance for a story to change gears. In these stories, celestial beings are constantly being cursed to be mortals or animals, wives and lovers recur as in a cosmic dance, and stories dash madly from the heavens to the bottom of the ocean to all across historical India.
Malice is usually punished, and virtue is often rewarded… but so is a certain roguish opportunism. There are plenty of ascetics here, and people who tire of the pleasure of the world and go off to meditate in the forest— but Somadeva doesn’t seem to really believe in mokṣa. Here, asceticism too may only be a phase, perhaps ended by falling in love with a vidyādhara, or some other contrivance.
The Ten Princes had a certain unity of theme— men rising from nothing to find wives and become kings— and the Hitopadeśa is all animal stories, so this book is much more miscellaneous. But that’s a virtue in its own way: if one set of stories doesn’t quite thrill you, the next might.
I think my favorite stories are the stories of the vetāla, more or less the Indian equivalent of the vampire. They are spirits who reanimate dead bodies. A king, Vikrama, is visited by a beggar every day for ten years, and given a fruit. He gives the fruits to his treasurer, but one day he instead gives it to a passing monkey, and a jewel comes out. He asks the treasurer about the other fruits, and the honest man answers that he has simply thrown them into the treasury through a window. They go to look, and find that the fruits all rotted away, leaving an immense treasure.
This naturally makes the king ask the beggar what’s up. The beggar says that he was hoping to get the king to do him a favor. The king agrees. He is told to come to a cremation ground at night to meet the beggar.
Once there, the beggar asks him to walk to a tree and bring him the corpse that’s hanging from it. The king goes and cuts it down, but it turns out to be inhabited by a vetāla. As the king is taking him back to the beggar, the vetāla begins telling him stories. But the stories are also riddles, and the king has to answer each one correctly. For instance, a washing man falls in love with a woman named Madanasundarī. She goes with her new husband and his brother to a temple of Parvātī, but they have nothing to offer as a sacrifice. Her husband goes in and is so overcome by the religious atmosphere that he feels he must sacrifice something— and having nothing else, cuts off his own head. His brother comes after him, and seeing his head on the floor, does the same. Madanasundarī finally goes after them, and is shocked to see them both dead. She is about to kill herself when the goddess intervenes. She tells the girl to reattach the heads to the bodies, and they will be restored to life. This she does, but in her excitement she puts the wrong heads on the bodies.
Now, the vetāla asks, which man was really her husband— the man with her husband’s head, or the one with his body? Vikrama responds that the man with the head is her real husband: “the head rules the limbs and personal identity depends on the head.” (This sounds reasonable to us, but then we believe that we live in our brains, which was not an opinion shared by all cultures.)
After a couple dozen stories, the vetāla reveals that the beggar is a sorcerer, and plans to sacrifice the king to him to achieve power over the vidyādharas. The beggar will ask him to lay down on the ground in a certain way. The vetāla tells him to ask the beggar to show him how; the king should then cut off his head. The king does just this. The vetāla disappears and Śiva makes Vikrama king of the vidyādharas. Which in turn brings us back to Naravāhanadatta, who at this point in the framing story also becomes king of the vidyādharas.
Anyway: bottom line, if you can find Sattar’s translation, go get it. It’s a quick read and you won’t regret it.