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 13: The Brahmin Harisvāmin, who first lost his Wife, and then his Life

(pp. 29-34)

This story is No. 12 in the Hindi version,[1] which has several slight differences. For instance the ravisher is a “Gandharb” and carries off Lāvaṇyavatī in a chariot. When the distracted husband reaches the house of the Brāhman there is no mention of the wife till the end of the tale; the man himself fills Harisvāmin’s cup with “rice-milk.” The food is poisoned by a black serpent instead of a dead cobra in the clutches of a kite. The ending is the same as in our text.

In the Tamil version[2] the tale, which is No. 16, is much more condensed. The hero is called Arjuna Svāmi, and his wife is named Vanapadi. The incidents, however, closely resemble those in Somadeva.

The details about the food differ slightly:

“She accordingly brought and gave him some rice and savoury food, which he received in a leaf and wrapped up in a bundle. So one evening, after bathing and finishing his devotions, he sprinkled water on the rice which he had kept in his bundle, and was in the act of eating it when, even as a sickness visiting the flower of youth, and as death coming in the hour of full enjoyment, and as a danger coming upon one who is alone, a kite, which, urged by hunger, had seized upon a cobra de capella...”

Babington adds an interesting note in which he attributes the king’s evasive answer to his deference to Garuḍa, the king of the birds, and also to the Nagas, so widely worshipped in Northern India. See also Oesterley, Baitāl Pachīsī, p. 202.

The chief motif of the story, food being poisoned by animals, is found in several collections of stories. The majority of these have been noted by Benfey, Pantschatantra, vol. i, p. 362, and Chauvin, op. cit., viii, p. 60.

A few examples will show the different uses made of the motif. I notice a curious one in Bloomfield’s Life and Stories of the Jaina Savior Pārçvanātha, pp. 34-35. I give it in full:

“Ina great forest in the Vindhya mountains, on a banyan-tree, lived a pair of parrots. Theirs was a beloved young parrot. One day it flew off, but being very young, it fell upon the ground. A hermit picked it up, took it to his hermitage, fed it, educated it, and treated it like a son. One day the young parrot overheard the abbot of the hermitage tell his pupils that in the middle of the sea there was an island, Harimela, in the north-east corner of which stood a large mango-tree, bedewed with ambrosia; and that the fruit of this tree restored youth by curing deformities, diseases and old age. The young parrot, remembering his decrepit parents, considered that he might now pay the debt of their love. He flew to the magic tree and fetched one of the mangoes, but, on returning, grew tired and fell into the ocean, keeping the fruit in his bill. A merchant by the name of Sāgara picked him up; the parrot, out of gratitude, presented him with the fruit, after which he flew away to get another. The merchant decided to make the virtue of the fruit universally accessible. When he arrived at Jayapura he presented it to the king then ruling, who had it planted, in order to reproduce the fruit for the benefit of his people. But a serpent, carried in the beak of a bird, happened to drop poison upon one of the mangoes, so that it ripened and fell to the ground. The keeper of the garden joyously took it to the king, who gave it to his chaplain, and he ate of it and died. The king in rage had the tree cut down. But a host of men, afflicted with incurable diseases, ate of its fruit for euthanasia (sukhamṛtyave), and became thereby like unto the God of Love. The king, discerning the true state of things, regretted his rash act, and lost pleasure in his kingdom.”

In the Śatruṃjaya Māhātṃyam, xiv, 207,[3] death does not follow, and the man in question himself relates the circumstances to Jāvaḍa, upon thinking of whom he was saved from the fatal effects of the poison.

The motif found its way into the Book of Sindibād and the Seven Vazīrs. In the former of these works[4] it forms the first of the prince’s tales told after the story of the seventh vazīr.

It tells of a most generous host who welcomed everyone who came to his house:

“He received them after the fashion of the generous, for this was ever his custom. A slave-girl went to fetch milk, that he might feast his guests with sugar and milk—two very good things. She covered not the top of the milk-dish. Hearken to these words, and take warning: A stork was passing in the air, having snatched up an old snake from the desert. How can one fly from the decrees of fate? Saliva dropped from the mouth of that viper, and that milk was mixed with poison; and whoever took any of that milk fell down, and there died forthwith.”

The prince asks who is to blame.

Various answers are given, but he replies:

“All these opinions are mistaken. No one was to blame; it was the decree of God.”

An abbreviated form of the same story occurs in the conclusion of the Seven Vazīrs.[5]

In the Bahār-i-Dānish of ‘Ināyatu-’llāh[6] the motif is used in quite a different manner. Here an adulterous wife has been discovered by her husband, but when asleep she suspends him head downwards from a tree and proceeds to carry on an orgy with her lover in full view of the unfortunate husband. The couple finally become dead drunk and fall senseless on the ground. At this point a snake glides down the tree, passes by the frightened husband, and spits venom into the cup of the lovers. Presently they awake from their drunken stupor; the man drinks of the cup and dies, while the wife is finally persuaded to release her husband, who becomes an ascetic.

To conclude, I would mention the variant in the Tamil Alakēsa Kathā. Here a Brāhman pilgrim offers food to an old Brāhman. Unknown to both a serpent carried in a kite’s mouth poisons it. The old man eats the food and dies. The youth is accused of murdering him and is put in prison and flogged. He prays to Kālī in his misery, and she destroys the whole village where the young Brāhman has been imprisoned. Kālī then “infuses herself into the person of one of the villagers” and tells them the whole truth, whereupon the youth is released and all is well.

The motif, being really only applicable to snake-infesṭed countries, is not one which found ready acceptance in Western collections.

Footnotes and references:


Barker, op. cit., p. 204 et seq.


Babington, op. cit., p. 68 et seq.


A. Weber, “Ueber das Çatruñjaya Māhātmyam. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der Jaina,” Abh. f. d. Kunde d. Morg., Leipzig, 1858, pp. 43-44.


Clouston, Book of Sindibād, p. 89.


Ibid., p. 213. See also pp. 263-266, where our version and one or two others are given.


J. Scott, Bahar-Danuṣ, vol. i, p. 78 et seq.

Like what you read? Consider supporting this website: