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 ...

Note on the “act of truth” motif in Folk-lore

Note: this text is extracted from Book VII, chapter 36.

We have already referred to this motif in Vol. I, pp. 166, 167; and discussed its meaning and religious significance in Vol. II, pp. 31-33. We shall here look at a few actual examples of the motif, chiefly taken from the numerous references collected by E. W. Burliṅgame (“The Act of Truth” Journ. Roy. As. Soc., July 1917, pp. 429-4-67).

Its occurrence in the Jātakas is common, and the uses to which it is put are varied. Thus in No. 7 it is used to prove the paternity of a child; in No. 20 to obtain water to drink;

  • in No. 35 to cause a forest-fire to turn back;
  • in No. 62 to obtain safety in a fire-test;
  • in No. 75 as a rain-charm;
  • in No. 444 to counteract poison;
  • in No. 463 to get a ship back to harbour;
  • in No. 489 to obtain a son;
  • in No. 491 to free all captive animals;
  • in No. 513 to deliver a man from captivity;
  • in No. 518 to ascertain the truth;
  • in No. 519 to cure leprosy;
  • in No. 537 to heal wounds;
  • in No. 538 to obtain a son;
  • and in No. 450 to counteract poison.

The actual declaration also differs widely, but it is usually some well-known religious truth or quotation, or else merely a true statement about the speaker’s life or morals. Two examples from the above will be sufficient to explain this.

In No. 463, Suppāraka-Jātaka (Cambridge edition, vol. iv, p. 90), when the ship is in danger of being lost, the Great Being, after purifying himself, repeated this stanza:

“Since I can myself remember, since intelligence first grew,
Not one life of living creature have I taken, that I knew:
May this ship return to safety if my solemn words are true !”

Four months the vessel had been voyaging in far-distant regions; and now, as though endued with supernatural power, it returned in one single day to the seaport town of Bharukaccha, and even upon the dry land it went, till it rested before the mariner’s door, having sprung over a space of eleven hundred cubits.

In No. 518, Paṇḍara-Jātaka (Cambridge edition, vol. v, pp. 47, 48), the snake-king accuses an ascetic of being a traitor with evil designs on an innocent friend, and causes due retribution to fall on the ascetic by turning the accusation into an “Act of Truth”; he says:

Informer, traitor, that wouldst slay
A guileless friend, be thy head riven
By this my Act of Truth, I pay,
Piecemeal, all into fragments seven.”

So, before the very eyes of the snake-king, the head of the ascetic was split into seven pieces, and at the very spot where he was sitting the ground was cleft asunder.

There is a curious trick “Act of Truth” in Jātaka No. 63 (Cambridge edition, vol. i, p. 155), where a faithless wife offers to prove her innocence by undergoing the ordeal of fire and making an “Act of Truth.” She instructs her paramour to seize her hand just as she is about to step into the fire.

Then, standing before all the people, she says to her husband:

“No man’s hand but thine, Brāhman, has ever touched me; and, by the truth of my asseveration I call on this fire to harm me not.”

So saying, she advanced to the burning pile—when up dashed her paramour, who seized her by the hand, crying shame on the Brāhman who could force so fair a maid to enter the flames! Shaking her hand free, the girl exclaimed to the Brāhman that what she had asserted was now undone, and that she could not now brave the ordeal of fire, as another man’s hand had touched her. The husband, knowing himself tricked, drove her away with blows.

Other trick “Acts of Truth” will be found in Hemacandra’s Pariśiṣṭa-parvan, ii, 533-545 (Hertel’s translation, pp. 102, 103); Tantrākhyāyika, i, 3 c; Hertel, “Ueber die Suvābahuttarīkathā,” Festschrift fur Ernst Windisch, 1914, p. 144.

A few further examples will show other cases of the motif under consideration.

In a Tibetan tale, “The Two Brothers” (Schiefner and Ralston, p. 284), a princess says to her blind lover:

“If it be true, and my asseveration is righteous, that I have been in love only with Prince Kṣemaṅkara and with you, but with none else, then through the power of this truth and my asseveration shall one of your two eyes become sound as before.”

So soon as this asseveration was uttered, one of his eyes came again just as it was before. Then he said:

“I am Kṣemaṅkara. My brother Pāpan-kara reduced me to the state I was in.”

She said:

“What proof is there that you are Prince Kṣemaṅkara?”

Then he too began to asseverate, saying:

“If it be true, and my asseveration righteous, that although Pāpaṅkara put out my eyes, I do not in the least bear him malice, then in consequence of the truth and affirmation may my other eye become sound as before.”

So soon as he had pronounced this asseveration, his other eye became as it had been originally.

For another similar cure by the “Act of Truth” see Divyāi'adāna, pp. 407-417. In this latter work (p. 472) is a curious story of the future Buddha when, in a previous existence, he was a woman named Rūpāvatī. One day Rūpāvatī comes upon a starving woman who is about to devour her new-born child, whereupon she cuts off her own breasts and gives them to the woman for food.

When her husband learns of her act, he performs the following Act of Truth:

“If it be true that so wonderful and marvellous a thing has never been seen before, or heard of before, then may your breasts be restored.”

Straightway her breasts are restored.

The “Act of Truth” which most closely resembles that in our text is found in Schiefner and Ralston’s Tibetan Tales, pp. 227-228. Here the king’s elephant, which was parturient, was unable to bring forth its young. The ministers advised that it should be led into the zenana, in order that it might be relieved of its pains by the asseverations of the king’s wives. But although the elephant was introduced there, and the wives pronounced their asseverations, the pains did not come to an end, and the elephant uttered the most fearful cries. They were heard by a woman who was looking after some oxen near the palace, and who declared that by means of her asseveration the pains would be brought to an end. When the ministers had told this to the king, and he had ordered her to be brought into the zenana, she said: If it is true that one husband is sufficient for me, and I have not two husbands, then as the result of this truth let the elephant be eased of its pains.” Immediately after this utterance the elephant brought forth. When the king was informed of this, he declared that all his wives were of vicious habits, and ordered the herdswoman to be summoned. When she had replied in the affirmative to his question as to whether the elephant had been relieved of its pains in consequence of her asseveration, the king came to the conclusion that she must have a daughter like unto herself. This daughter, named Suśroṇī, he took as his wife; but fearing that, if he left her in the company of the other women of his court, she would undoubtedly contract bad habits, he begged the bird-king, Suparṇa (his younger brother), to convey her every day to Kaśerudvīpa, but to bring her back to him every night. Suparṇa agreed to this, and sent him every day wreaths of the odorous flower Timira, which grew at Kaśerudvīpa.

A little later in the story a certain Brāhman youth, Āśuga, is driven by a storm to Kaśerudvīpa, clinging to a plank, just like Yavanasena in our text. Suśroṇī does not follow after her chaste mother, and gladly welcomes to her embraces Āśuga bv day and King Brahmadatta by night. After various strange adventures, including being deprived of all her clothes and jewels, Suśroṇī does penance in the water and is finally restored to her former position.

The Act of Truth” plays an important part in the best-known tale of the Mahābhārata, that of Nala and Damayantī. When Damayantī is holding her svayaṃvara (marriage by choice) she finds her five suitors appear exactly alike, and she is unable to tell which of them is Nala. In despair she decides to appeal to the gods themselves by employing an Act of Truth”:

As on hearing the speech of the swans I chose the King of the Niṣadhas as my lord, for the sake of that truth, oh, let the gods reveal him to me. And as in thought or word I have never swerved from him, oh, let the gods, for the sake of that truth, reveal him to me. And as the gods themselves have destined the ruler of the Niṣadhas to be my lord, oh, let them, for the sake of that truth, reveal him to me. And as it is for the sake of winning Nala that I have adopted this vow, for the sake of that truth, oh, let the gods reveal him unto me. Oh, let the exalted guardians of the worlds assume their own proper forms, so that I may know the King Puṇyaśloka.”

Immediately Nala is revealed in his true mortal guise and Damayantī places the garland round his neck to show her choice.

Later in the story, when Nala has deserted her and she is wandering distracted through the forest, a hunter meets her and, overcome by her beauty, tries to force her. She saves herself by having recourse to an “Act of Truth,” asserting that if it is true that she loves Nala alone may the hunter fall down dead. He immediately falls lifeless to the ground—“like a tree consumed by fire.” In the new edition of Roy’s Mahābhārata (Calcutta, 1919) the full story of Nala and Damayantī appears in vol. ii, pp. 120-169—i.e. Vana-parva, sections liii-lxxix. The above incident occurs in Chapter LVI of the Ocean of Story, but here the number of suitors is six, and the hunter is reduced to ashes.

Although many other examples of this motif in Sanskrit fiction could be given, the above are sufficient to show the importance of the motif and the numerous uses to which it can be put.

At the conclusion of this article on the motif, Burliṅgame (op. cit., pp. 466-467) gives the following additional references:—

  • Dhammapada Commentary, xvii, 3; iii, 310;
  • Jülg’s Kalmükische Märchen, p. 20, and Mongolische Märchen, last story;
  • Bompas, Folklore of the Santal Parganas, p. 118;
  • Melanges asiatiques, 1876, p. 739;
  • Busk, Sagas Jrom the Far East, p. 47;
  • Steel and Temple, Wide-Awake Stories, p. 429;
  • Dames, “Balochi Tales,” Folk-Lore, iv, 219;
  • H. L. Haughton, Sport and Folk-Lore in the Himalaya, p. 101 et seq.;
  • Ind. Ant., iv, 262; vi, 224-225; xxxv, 148;
  • Mahā Bodhi and the United Buddhist World,” Journal of the Mahā Bodhi Society, Colombo, vol. xix, p. 7.

— N.M.P.

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