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 16: The Sacrifice of Jīmūtavāhana

(pp. 49-63)

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

This story has already appeared in Vol. II, p. 138 et seq., but here we had two sub-stories included: the first (27a) giving the hero’s adventures in a former life, and the second (27b) dealing with the dispute about the colour of the sun’s horses.[1] Apart from this the two tales are almost identical.

Turning to the Hindi version[2] (No. 15) we find that, although the story is shorter, there are but few deviations—the son offers to go forth and conquer the relations who would seize the throne after the “kalpa-bṛkṣ” has made everyone equally rich, but his father points out the frailty of the body and both go to the Malyāchal hill and live in a cottage. There is no incident of Malayavatī attempting suicide. Details about Garuḍa are omitted, and when he alights to seize his prey, he has to make a second attempt, as “the first time the prince escaped.” It is a bracelet, instead of a crest-jewel, which drops at the feet of Jīmūtavāhana’s wife. He does not actually die, as in the text of Somadeva’s version, but is apparently left in a mangled state, to get home as best he can. Although Garuḍa restores the snakes to life, there is no appearance of Gaurī to heal Jīmūtavāhana’s wounds. The Vetāla’s question is the same in both cases, but the answer is different. In Somadeva the king says that the reason why Jīmūtavāhana’s action was not so great as that of Śaṅkhacūḍa was because he had already acquired virtue in previous births, but the Hindi version merely says it was because he was of the Kṣatriya caste, and such an action would be a small matter for him.

The Tamil version[3] is, as usual, very much abbreviated. The story (No. 19) begins straight away with the petition to Garuḍa, whom Babington calls a Brahmany kite. When the hero offers himself in place of the proper victim, Garuḍa at once grants him a boon without doing him any harm.

The question of the Vetāla is: “Which, therefore, was the greater of these two?”—i.e. the “kite” or the king.

The reply is:

“The king was a man and understood all things, in consequence of which he promised to give up his life. The kite was in the habit of feeding on whatever it seized: that a charitable thought should come across it, and that it should promise to abandon its prey, was the greatest action.”

A version of the tale occurs in the Siṅhāsanadvātrinśika,[4] where it forms the story of the Eleventh Statuette.

The following outline, as given by Edgerton, is based on the Southern Recension, which comes nearest to the original text.

While Vikrama was wandering about the earth, he stopped once by night under a tree where dwelt a venerable bird named Long-lived (Ciraṃjīvin). At night his bird-friends gathered together, and he asked them about their doings during the day. One of them was in great grief this night. Being asked to declare the cause, he at first refused, on the ground that it would do no good. But being urged, on the ground that sorrow is relieved by the telling of it, he told a story of a city subject to a Rākṣasa, where each household in turn had to give a man a day as food for the Rākṣasa. The turn had now come to a Brāhman, a friend of the speaking bird in a former birth, who must sacrifice himself or his only son. Therefore the bird was grieved, as befits a friend. The king, hearing this, went thither by his magic sandals, and took his seat upon the sacrificial rock, waiting for the Rākṣasa. The Rākṣasa came, and was astonished to see his cheerful expression, and, learning that he was giving himself for others, offered to grant him any desire. The king obtained from him the promise to abstain from eating men henceforth.

Then there is the tale of the Rākṣasa Baka in the Mahābhārata,[5] who protected the town and the country, accepting as his fee a cartload of rice, two buffaloes, and the human being who brought them to him. The turn had now come to a poor Brāhman who could not afford to buy a man, and would not willingly part with any of his family. Accordingly he decides to go to the Rākṣasa with his whole family. Kuntī says that one of her sons will go instead, and Bhīma willingly agrees to the proposal. He takes the food and begins to eat it himself on the way. After a fearful struggle he overcomes Baka; and his relatives, other Rākṣasas, promise never to molest human beings again.

The Rākṣasas soon become dragons; and even in one of the Kalmuck tales[6] we read of two such creatures who, not satisfied with robbing the people of the water needed for irrigation, exacted a yearly toll of a man alternately of high and low degree. The turn of the Khan had come, but his son goes in his stead. On his way he is joined by a friend of his, a poor man’s son, who offers to go in his place. Finally they agree to go together, but through overhearing the dragons talking about how easily they could be killed, if people only knew, they manage to overcome them, and the country becomes fruitful once again. The rest of the story is composed of a long series of stock motifs introduced one after the other, and does not concern us.

But before going any further into tales dealing with human sacrifices necessary for the propitiation of gods, dragons, etc., we should look rather closer at our tale of Jīmūtavāhana.

It has always been regarded as a Buddhist legend of ancient date which was utilised by Guṇāḍhya in the Bṛhatkathā, and also found its way into the Vetālapañcaviṃśati; hence it appears twice, although rather differently, in Somadeva. In the first half of the seventh century a.d. it became the subject of Harṣa’s drama, the Nāgānanda.

In order to try to discover the origin of the legend we must bear in mind that the chief characters are Nāgas, Garuḍa and the hero who saves the former from destruction.

Now, in a paper on the Nāgas,[7] C. F. Oldham points out that in most of the temples dedicated to Vāsuki (king of the snakes, often mentioned in the Ocean), or Bāsdeo, in the Chenab Valley there is, besides the figure of the Nāga Rāja, a representation of his Vezier, who is called Jīmūtavāhana. Legend says that Bāsdeo was engaged in war with Garuḍa, and that, on one occasion, the Nāga chief was surprised by the enemy and had a narrow escape. In fact, he was saved only by the devotion of his minister, who gave his own life to save that of his master. This probably means that Jīmūtavāhana was killed in covering the retreat of the Rāja. Bāsdeo escaped to the Kailās Kūnd, a mountain lake some 13,000 feet above the sea, between the Chenab and Rāvi valleys. Meantime an army was raised, by which Garuḍa was defeated. The Nāga Rāja, in his gratitude, ordered that in future Jīmūtavāhana should be worshipped in the same temple with himself. It would seem from this that Vāsuki, like other Solar kings, received divine honours during his lifetime.

The legend just referred to seems to relate to some of the struggles between the unregenerate and the Aryanised tribes. It is probably founded on fact. At all events, a great festival is held annually at the Kailās Kūnd, which is attended by all the population of the surrounding country.

The fact that Harṣa (i.e. Śīlāditya Harṣavardhana, Rāja of Thānesar and Kanauj, a.d. 606-647[8]) wrote a drama based on the legend must have added greatly to its dissemination, especially when we remember that Hiuen Tsiang spent about eight years (635-643) in his dominions. It is related by I-Tsing, who lived about A.D. 670, that Harṣa kept all the best writers, especially poets, at his court, and that he used to join in the literary recitals personally. He would take the part of Jīmūtavāhana in his own play amid the sound of song and instrumental music.[9] It is also interesting to note that a version of our tale is related by Hiuen Tsiang about a great river (the Karakash, or possibly the Khotan-dāria) flowing 200 li or so south-east of K’iu-sa-ta-na (Khotan, Eastern Chinese Turkestan).

The story tells how the people took advantage of the river to irrigate their lands, but after a time the waters ceased to flow. Having inquired the reason from an Arhat, the king learned that the stoppage was caused by a dragon, and that the offering of sacrifices and prayers would cause the water to flow again. The king acted accordingly, when a woman emerged from the stream, saying that her husband had just died, and that without a lord to issue orders the current of the stream would remain arrested. If, however, she obtained one of the king’s ministers as a second husband, all would be well. The king returned to the royal apartments and informed the ministers of what had happened. One of the chief ministers volunteered to save the country, and after due rejoicings entered the river clad in white and riding a white horse; but as he advanced into the stream he did not sink, and whipping it with his lash the water opened and he disappeared. Shortly afterwards the white horse came up alone and floated on the water, carrying on his back a great sandalwood drum, in which was a letter saying that all was well with the minister, and that the drum was sent for the king to suspend at the south-east of the city; if an enemy approached, it would begin to roll. The river started to flow in its accustomed manner, and the country was prosperous once again.

“Many years and months have elapsed since then,” says Hiuen Tsiang in conclusion,

“and the place where the dragon-drum was hung has long since disappeared, but the ruined convent by the side of the drum-lake still remains, but it has no priests and is deserted.”[10]

Before speaking of the numerous variants of our story in the West, I would draw attention to a very curious and interesting tale from the Japanese, Ko-ji-ki.

The great importance of this work lies in the fact that

“it has preserved for us more faithfully than any other book the mythology, the manners, the language and the traditional history of Ancient Japan.”

It marks the point of the great change in the history not only of Japanese literature but of Japan as a whole. I refer, of course, to the great influence of Chinese civilisation and literature. The date of the completion of the Ko-ji-ki was a.d. 712, and although Buddhism had reached Japan, via China and Korea, by a.d. 538, it appears to owe nothing to its introduction. The sole object of the work as originally proposed by the Emperor Temmu (673-686) was to collect together the annals of the chief families of Japan, before they were covered by the dust of oblivion. The following story, therefore, is of undoubted interest. The translation is that made by B. H. Chamberlain in 1882.[11] It forms section xviii and is called “The Eight-forked Serpent”:

So, having been expelled, [His-Swift-Impetuous-Male-Augustness] descended to a place [called] Tori-Kami at the head-waters of the River Hi in the Land of Idzumo. At this time some chop-sticks came floating down the stream. So His-Swift-Impetuous-Male-Augustness, thinking that there must be people at the head-waters of the river, went up it in quest of them, when he came upon an old man and an old woman—two of them—who had a young girl between them, and were weeping.

Then he deigned to ask : “Who are ye?”

So the old man replied, saying:

“I am called an Earthly Deity, a child of the Deity Great-Mountain-Possessor. I am called by the name of Foot-Stroking-Elder, my wife is called by the name of Hand-Stroking Elder, and my daughter is called by the name of Wondrous-Inada-Princess.”

Again he asked:

“What is the cause of your crying?”

The old man answered, saying:

“I had originally eight young girls as daughters. But the eight-forked serpent of Koshi has come every year and devoured one, and it is now its time to come: wherefore I weep.”

Then he asked him:

“What is its form like?”

[The old man] answered, saying:

“Its eyes are like akahagachi [the winter-cherry], it has one body with eight heads and eight tails. Moreover on its body grows moss, and also chamæcyparis [a coniferous tree] and cryptomerias. Its length extends over eight valleys and eight hills, and if one looks at its belly it is all constantly bloody and inflamed.”

Then His-Swift-Impetuous-Male-Augustness said to the old man:

“If this be thy daughter, wilt thou offer her to me?”

He replied, saying:

“With reverence, but I know not thine august name.”

Then he replied, saying:

“I am elder brother to the Heaven-Shining-Great-August-Deity. So I have now descended from Heaven.”

Then the Deities Foot-Stroking-Elder and Hand-Stroking-Elder said:

“If that be so, with reverence will we offer her to thee.”

So His-Swift-Impetuous Male-Augustness, at once taking and changing the young girl into a multitudinous and close-toothed comb, which he stuck into his august hair-bunch, said to the Deities Foot-Stroking-Elder and Hand-Stroking-Elder:

“Do you distil some eightfold refined liquor. Also make a fence round about. In that fence make eight gates; at each gate tie together eight platforms, on each platform put a liquor-vat, and into each vat pour the eightfold refined liquor, and wait.”

So as they waited, after having thus prepared everything in accordance with his bidding, the eight-forked serpent came truly as the old man had said, and immediately dipped a head into each vat, and drank the liquor. Thereupon it was intoxicated with drinking, and all the heads lay down and slept. Then His-Swift-Impetuous-Male-Augustness drew the ten-grasp sabre, that was augustly girded on him, and cut the serpent in pieces, so that the River Hi flowed on changed into a river of blood....

We leave the East, and on arriving in Europe find the story of a hero sacrificing himself or endangering his life for that of some hapless person whose turn it is to be destroyed by a monster. So extensive is the cycle in European folktales that many volumes would be required to give them all. E. S. Hartland[12] has already written three volumes on the subject, and he has far from exhausted the variants, still less has he discussed all possible sources of the motif. Frazer also has given us a useful list of forty-one different versions, the first five of which are all from ancient Greek mythology.[13] He has added to this list in the Golden Bough[14] and discusses the possible origin of the custom of sacrifices to water-spirits. Following his usual style he brings together a large number of customs from all parts of the world showing various aspects of the worship of water-spirits.

Their conception as serpents or dragons is widespread, and in many cases animal or human sacrifices are needed as an offering. In other cases they are looked upon as kindly disposed to humans and the dispensers of fertility. They bestow offspring on barren women, and, in Greek mythology especially, we meet with similar ideas of the procreative power of water. Marriages of human beings of both sexes to water-deities are continually found—a motif which appears to be based partly on the idea that a cruel god must be pacified, and partly on the belief of sympathetic magic—the generative act would be sure to produce fertility in the earth and among both men and animals. It will thus be seen that it would be mere folly to attempt to attribute such a widespread motif to any one origin. The customs marshalled for us by Frazer certainly show certain definite lines of belief which have a distinct connection with, or which may be looked upon as variants of, the story under consideration.

At the same time the origin of a Buddhist legend may well rest on true historical fact, far back in the dim ages of the early struggles between the Aryans and the dark-skinned races they encountered in their migration through Northern India.

Footnotes and references:


See M. Winternitz, “The Serpent Sacrifice mentioned in the Mahābhārata,” Journ. Bombay Branch Roy. As. Soc., August 1926, pp. 74-91 (especially p. 80).


Barker, op. cit., p. 250 et seq.


Babington, op. cit., p. 78 et seq.


See Edgerton, Vikrama s Adventures, pt. i, p. lxxxiii.


For full references see Sorensen’s Index, under “Baka.”


Jülg, Siddhi-Kür, No. 2; corresponding to Coxwell, Siberian and Other Folk-Tales, No. 4, p. 183 et seq.; and to Busk, Sagas from the Far East, No. 2, p. 18 et seq. In error Tawney thought it was the same as Busk’s 5th tale, “How the Serpent-gods were propitiated,” but this is also No. 5 of Jülg and No. 7 of Coxwell, where it is called “Sunshine and his Younger Brother.” The tale tells of a lake guarded by dragons who had to be propitiated yearly by a youth born in a certain month. The hero and the princess, who has fallen in love with him, are sewn in a skin together and thrown to the dragons. They are touched by the mutual love of the couple and set them free, at the same time allowing the water to irrigate the land.


“The Nāgas: a Contribution to the History of Serpent Worship” Journ. Roy. As. Soc., July 1901, pp. 461-473, with seven illustrations.


See V. A. Smith, Early History of India, 1904, pp. 282-302; ditto, Oxford History of India, 2nd edit., 1923, pp. 165-171 ; and R. Mookerji, Harṣa, Rulers of India Series, Ldn., 1926, p. 152 et seq.


See S. Beal, Buddhist Records of the Western World (Hiuen Tsiang), vol. i, p.210n18; and A. B. Keith, Sanskrit Drama, 1924, pp. 170, 171. The Nāgānanda has been translated with a metrical version of Somadeva’s tale (from chap. xxii, not chap. xc) by B. Hale Wortham. The latter, with a metrical version of the story of Hariśarman (see Ocean, Vol. III, p. 77 et seq.), appeared in Journ. Roy. As. Soc., vol. xviii, 1886, p. 1 et seq. Numerous native editions, translations and partial translations will be found catalogued in the new Supplement to the Catalogue of Sanskrit... Books, Brit. Mus., 1926.


Beal, op. cit., vol. ii, pp. 320-322.


Trans. As. Soc. Japan, vol. x : Supplement, reprinted February 1920.


The Legend of Perseus, 3 vols., 1894-1896.


Pausanias’s Description of Greece, vol. v, pp. 143-144.


Vol. ii (The Magic Art), pp. 155-170.

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