Kathasaritsagara (the Ocean of Story)

by Somadeva | 1924 | 1,023,469 words | ISBN-13: 9789350501351

This is the English translation of the Kathasaritsagara written by Somadeva around 1070. The principle story line revolves around prince Naravāhanadatta and his quest to become the emperor of the Vidhyādharas (‘celestial beings’). The work is one of the adoptations of the now lost Bṛhatkathā, a great Indian epic tale said to have been composed by ...

Vetāla 11: King Dharmadhvaja and his Three Very Sensitive Wives

(pp. 10-12)

Click the link to jump directly to the english translation of the eleventh Vetāla. This page only contains the notes.

In the Hindi version[1] this story forms No. 10, and No. 11 in the Tamil.[2] The Hindi merely mentions the three sensitive wives in the last few lines of the story. The rest is taken up with a lengthy exposition of the Jain religion. It is well worth giving in full:

In the country of Gaur there was a city, Bardhamān by name, of which Guṇśekhar was king. His minister was a Jain, named Abhaichand, and he had converted the king to the Jain religion by his arguments. He, in consequence, prohibited the worship of Śiva and of Viṣṇu, and gifts of cows, and of land, and of pinḍs[3]; put an end to gambling and wine-drinking; and would not allow anyone to convey bones to the Ganges. And the minister who was charged to see to all those things proclaimed throughout the city, by sound of drum, that if anyone should commit those acts which were forbidden, his property should be confiscated, and he would receive punishment and be sent out of the country.

One day the minister said to the king:

“Great King, be pleased to hear the decisions (or judgments) of religion. Whoever takes the life of another, loses his own life in the next world: the life and death of one who has been born into this world are not exempt from the penalty of sin; again and again he is born and dies. Hence it is right for everyone who deceives birth into this world to practise religion. Behold! Brahmā, Viṣṇu and Mahādev, overpowered by love, anger, avarice and fascination, have descended to earth in various forms; but more excellent than all these, a cow, free from enmity, anger, intoxication, rage, avarice and inordinate affection, is supporting the people and those who are her sons; and solacing the creatures of the earth in many ways is cherishing them. Hence gods and Munis reverence the cow, and for this reason it is not right to regard the gods. In this world reverence the cow. And it is righteous to protect beasts and birds, from the elephant to the ant. In this world there is no righteousness greater than this. Those men who increase their own flesh by eating the flesh of other creatures, in the final period will surely fall into hell. Hence it is right that a man should protect animals. Those who do not sympathise with the griefs of other creatures, but kill and eat them, their lives will be short in this world; and in the next life they will be born maimed, lame, one-eyed, blind, dwarfed, humpbacked or deficient in bodily proportions. All such as eat the bodies of beasts and birds will hereafter destroy their own bodies. And from drinking wine and eating flesh great sin arises, and hence both are wrong.”

In this manner the minister, having explained his own sentiments, gained over the king to the Jain religion, and henceforward that monarch governed his kingdom according to the precepts of that religion—paying no respect to Brāhmans, Yogīs, Sannyasīs, or faḳīrs of any kind. One day, overcome by death, he gave up the throne to Dharmdhwaj, his son, who, having ordered his father’s minister Abhaichand to be seized, caused all his hair to be shaved off but seven locks, had his face blackened, and mounting him upon an ass, with drums beating, sent him on a circuit through the city, and then banished him the country. Henceforward he governed free from anxiety.

The Tamil version resembles that in our present text much more closely. There is a slight difference in the miṣap which befell the first of the three queens. She was walking with the king in a flower garden, when a bee came and settled upon a flower which was interwoven with the braiding of her hair. She immediately fainted away and fell down. Her female attendants raised her up, and recovered her from her swoon.

We have already discussed the “Bed” sybarite,[4] and will now consider analogues to the present story of the three sensitive queens.

For the earliest historical examples we must go back to the people who are responsible for the word “sybarite.” The ancient city of Sybaris lay in Magna Græcia, on the Gulf of Tarentum, between two rivers, the Sybaris and the Crathis. It was the oldest Greek colony in the region, being founded about 720 B.C. As time went on the city became great and opulent, with numerous dependencies and a highly important trade both on land and sea. The luxury and magnificence of the Sybarites soon became proverbial, and in the sixth century no Greek city could approach it in wealth and splendour. But such enormous opulence was too great, and had been acquired in too short a time, to be sustained for long. The great industry the Sybarites displayed in the development of their trade, agriculture, irrigation, etc., soon gave way to the luxury and effeminacy with which they are chiefly connected to-day. The story of their fall does not concern us here, and readers are referred to the excellent chapter on “Sybaris” contained in Lenormant’s fine work, La Grande-Grèce.[5] In 510 B.C. Sybaris was razed to the ground by the Crotoniats, and the channel of the River Crathis was diverted so as to flow over the ruins. In the days of Herodotus Sybaris was only a memory, but the story of its luxury lived on, and the word sybarite found its way into nearly every European language.

As is only natural, stories of the amazing luxury and effeminacy of the Sybarites found their way into the works of ancient classical writers, which were repeated again and again by subsequent authors. Hence we find Athenæus, in his Deipnosophists,[6] quoting Sybarite tales from Timæus, the Greek historian of about 300 B.C. Of particular interest to us is the fact that one of the tales resembles the unfortunate experience of the third sensitive wife in Somadeva—viz. the witnessing, or merely hearing, work being done, causing physical suffering to the person in question.

A few extracts from Athenæus will give a good idea of the kind of stories current over two hundred years after the sacking of Sybaris:

“And why need we mention the Sybarites, among whom bathing men and pourers of water were first introduced in fetters, in order to prevent their going too fast, and to prevent also their scalding the bathers in their haste? And the Sybarites were the first people to forbid those who practised noisy arts from dwelling in their city: such as braziers, and smiths, and carpenters, and men of similar trades; providing that their slumbers should always be undisturbed. And it used to be unlawful to rear a cock in their city.

“And Timæus relates concerning them that a citizen of Sybaris, once going into the country, seeing the husbandmen digging, said that he himself felt as if he had broken his bones by the sight; and someone who heard him replied:

‘I, when I heard you say this, felt as if I had a pain in my side. . . .’

But they had carried their luxury to such a pitch that they had taught even their horses to dance at their feasts to the music of the flute. Accordingly the people of Crotona, knowing this, and being at war with them, as Aristotle relates in his History of the Constitution of Sybaris, played before their horses the air to which they were accustomed to dance; for the people of Crotona also had flute-players in military uniform. And as soon as the horses heard them playing on the flute, they not only began to dance, but ran over to the army of the Crotonians, carrying their riders with them. . . . And one of the Sybarites, once wishing to sail over to Crotona, hired a vessel to carry him by himself, on condition that no one was to splash him, and that no one else was to be taken on board, and that he might take his horse with him. And when the captain of the ship had agreed to these terms, he put his horse on board, and ordered some straw to be spread under the horse.”

Athenæus then quotes the twenty-fifth book of the History of Phylarchus, where, after dealing with the strict rules of etiquette in vogue at Syracuse, he proceeds to compare the customs of the Sybarites which violate all the traditional social customs of Greece:

“The Sybarites, having given loose to their luxury, made a law that women might be invited to banquets, and that those who intended to invite them to sacred festivities must make preparation a year before, in order that they might have all that time to provide themselves with garments and other ornaments in a suitable manner worthy of the occasion, and so might come to the banquet to which they were invited. And if any confectioner or cook invented any peculiar and excellent dish, no other artist was allowed to make this for a year; but he alone who invented it was entitled to all the profit to be derived from the manufacture of it for that time, in order that others might be induced to labour at excelling in such pursuits. And in the same way, it was provided that those who sold eels were not to be liable to pay tribute, nor those who caught them either. And in the same way the law exempted from all burdens those who dyed the marine purple and those who imported it.”

For an explanation of the obvious exaggeration of some of the above tales, see Lenormant, op. cit., pp. 286-288.

The question arises as to whether the source of the Indian tales under discussion can be correctly attributed to these historiettes of Timæus, which must have greatly amused the Athenians for whom he wrote.

Even if we date the Vetālapañcaviṃśati as early as the very beginning of the Christian era, there would have been three hundred years for the motif to migrate! But as Lenormant has said:

“Ce qui est certain, c’est que les Sybarites usaient de leur richesse pour entretenir un luxe inouï, bien plus conforme aux habitudes de 1’Asie qu’à celles de la Grèce.”

It seems impossible that the luxury and opulence of so many of the ancient Indian courts should not have given rise to the “Sybarite” motif, without any necessity for importation. At the same time, if the tales did travel from West to East, they would surely have met with an appreciative reception in India.

In a Siamese story[7] three out of four ladies suffer merely from seeing things happen, while the fourth is the same as the second lady in our text. The first gets swollen hands on seeing someone crushing rice; the second feels as if her breast was being beaten to bits on hearing a drum being played; and the wrist of the third becomes tired on seeing someone fetching water; while the fourth is covered with bruises where the rays of the moon fall on her.

Similar stories are found in several European collections,[8] with but trifling differences. In a seventeenth-century collection by A. le Métel d’Ouville[9] we find some fresh and rather curious details, including another “bed” sybarite. Here four women, who were neighbours, all claimed to be the most delicately sensitive. Finally they decided to go before a judge and each to state her case.

The first one said that one fresh summer’s morning, clad in only her chemise and a pair of bedroom slippers, having stretched out her foot to catch the dew, a rose leaf fell on it, thereby causing her to limp for more than three months.

The second said that one day her maid in making her bed had carelessly left a small crease in the middle of the sheet, which was of the finest Dutch linen. Having lain down on this crease somewhat roughly, she broke three ribs, and was in the doctor’s hands for three months.

The third said that she had always been careful in instructing her maid to comb her hair in such a way that exactly the same number of hairs should be on each side of the parting, well knowing how serious it might be if she made a mistake. One day she inadvertently put three or four more hairs on one side than on the other, thus causing her head to remain sideways for over six weeks.

The fourth addressed the other three:

“Now then, ladies, there is not one of you who at least once a day hasn’t got to perform the acts of nature, for it is a thing so necessary to life that without it you could not exist. However, speaking of that, there happened to me the day before yesterday something that hasn’t happened to any of you others. While faisant mes affaires, although I do it as gently as possible, to show you the extent of my delicacy, I burst a vein du derrière, and no doctor can heal it without damaging all the others. Consequently I prefer to remain with this blemish rather than make worse the thing that I want to heal.”

The judge is quite at a loss as to what decision he ought to give, and the reader is asked to decide for himself.

It cannot be denied that some of the misfortunes which befell the fair sybarites mentioned above tax our credibility rather heavily. In fact, in many cases we are led to suspect fraud and hypocrisy; and as the sequel shows, our charges would not have been without justification, for in the Śukasaptati we find[10] that the supposed sensitiveness of Kāmalīlā, the beloved wife of King Vikramāditya, is used as a cloak to her unchastity. Bālapaṇḍitā, the clever daughter of the king’s private chaplain, realises why the fish laughed, but hesitates to say. After several digressions, which form subsequent tales, a learned Brāhman, by name Puṣpahāsa, who had never been known to laugh himself, is asked to solve the mystery.[11] On hearing the details he bursts out laughing and strikes the queen in the face with some flowers. She at once falls unconscious, and is tended by the enraged king.

On calling for an explanation of his extraordinary conduct, Puṣpahāsa answers:

“I laugh because during the night the queen was struck by her lover with canes and did not feel any ill effects, yet now, when struck with a few flowers, she has fallen (or pretends to have fallen) unconscious.”

The king is not at first convinced of the truth of the story, but at Puṣpahāsa’s advice he takes off her bodice[12] and sees the marks of the canes.

On this story was based another one, included in Cristo-foro Armeno’s Persian (?) collection.[13] Here we read that King Behram possesses a wonderful silver statue which laughs if anyone tells a lie in its presence. The king is anxious to marry a girl as modest as she is beautiful, but will not brook of any sort of deception. Accordingly he determines to test each one in the presence of the statue.

Four beautiful maidens are brought forward. The king chats to the first of these ladies, and throws some rose leaves on her breast. A tiny twig chances to hit her in the face, whereupon she behaves as if about to die. With trouble Behram revives her and takes her to the window in front of the statue. Immediately the statue bursts out laughing. The lady is in no way perturbed, but covers her face with her hands, as if in the presence of a man other than the king. At this the statue laughs again.

The second lady comes forward. Behram, who has now donned a garment embroidered with fur, proceeds to embrace her, but she at once draws back in pain, for the hairs of the fur have hurt her so much. The statue laughs. The king leads her to a mirror, but she immediately covers her face, as she does not consider it becoming that anyone but he should see her face. At this absurdity the statue laughs again.

The third lady also gives two proofs of her amazing delicacy. Behram leads her into the garden, and on passing a sheet of water she covers her face. On the king demanding an explanation, she says that as the water contains many fishes, some of them are sure to be of the male sex, and he alone should look on her face. He looks back at the statue and sees it laughing. A great wind suddenly arises, and a little boat on the water is sunk with all hands. At this sight the girl sinks unconscious to the ground. Once again the statue laughs.

The fourth lady is genuinely modest, but in no exaggerated way. The statue does not laugh, and the king selects her as his bride. It transpires that the other three girls, so far from being delicate or modest, have paramours whose sadistical cravings they willingly satisfy.

Footnotes and references:


Barker, op. cit., pp. 184-191.


Babington, op. cit., pp. 58-59.


Sanskrit, piṇḍa. See Vol. I, p. 56n1.


Vol. VI, pp. 288-294.


F. Lenormant, La Grande-Grèce. Pay sages et Histoire, 3 vols., Paris, 1881-1884. See vol. i, pp. 246-330, especially pp. 282-289.


Book xii, 15-20. See the English translation by C. D. Yonge, in Bohn’s Classical Library, vol. iii, pp. 830-835.


A. Bastian, Geographische und ethnologische Bilder, Jena, 1873, pp. 267, 268.


Bolte and Polivka, op. cit., vol. iii, p. 238.


L’ Élite des Contes du Sieur d’Ouville, edited with notes by G. Brunet, Paris, 1883, vol. ii, pp. 149-151. See also Contes à rire, ou Récréations Françaises, new edition, Paris, 1769, vol. ii, pp. 169-171; or vol. ii, pp. 109-111 of the Amsterdam edition of 1732.


R. Schmidt, Die Çukasaptati (Textus Simplicior), Kiel, 1894, tale 5, p. 11. I have already (Vol. I, p.46n2) referred to it in connection with “the fish that laughed.”


R. Schmidt, ibid., tale 9, p. 22.


This is doubtless the aṅgiyā, or kūrtā of Kashmir. See Vol. II, p. 50n’.


H. Fischer and J. Bolte, Die Reise der Söhne Giaffers, p. 119 et seq.

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