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 ...

Appendix 1.1 - Mythical Beings

The mythical beings mentioned in the Ocean of Story are:

Apsaras Gaṇa Nāga
Asura Gandharva Piśāca
Bhūta Guhyaka Rākṣasa
Daitya Kinnara Siddha
Dānava Kumbhāṇḍa Vetāla
Dasyus Kuṣmāṇḍa Vidyādhara Yakṣa

Of the above the great majority are mentioned in Book I, but Apsaras, Daitya and Dānava occur for the first time in Book II, Vetāla in Book V, Kumbhāṇḍa in Book VIII, Dasyus in Book IX, Bhūta in Book XII, and Kuṣmānda in Book XVII.

It is possible to classify them under four headings as follows: —

  1. Enemies of the gods, very rarely visiting the earth: Asura, Daitya, Dānava.
  2. Servants of the gods, frequently connected with mortals: Gandharva, Apsaras, Gaṇa, Kinnara, Guhyaka and Yakṣa.
  3. Independent superhumans, often mixing with mortals: Nāga, Siddha and Vidyādhara.
  4. Demons, hostile to mankind: Rākṣasa, Piśāca, Vetāla, Bhūta, Dasyus, Kumbhāṇḍa, Kuṣmāṇḍa.


1. Enemies of the Gods

The origin of the terms Asura, Daitya and Dānava is of the greatest importance in attempting to ascertain the exact position they hold in Indian mythology. It is not sufficient merely to say they are usually applied to the enemies of the gods.

Although many derivations of the word asura have been suggested, it seems very probable that the simplest is the most correct—namely, that it comes from asu, spirit, life-breath. (See Brugmann, Vergl. Gramm., ii, p. 189.) It means, therefore, “spiritual being,” and, as such, is applied to nearly all the greater Vedic gods.

Among the suggested derivations, however, mention may be made of that which is looked for in Mesopotamia. Attempts have been made to trace it thence to India. As the theory is attractive I will attempt to give the main lines of argument.

In the early Vedas, including the older hymns of the Ṛg-Veda, the word asura is an alternative designation for “deity,” or “friendly gods,” besides being used as an epithet of the most important gods, such as Varuṇa, Rudra, etc. In the later Vedas, and especially in the Purāṇas, asura is used to denote a formidable enemy of the gods (Devas). It is this strange contradiction of meanings that has led scholars to suspect some foreign origin of the word, and to attempt to trace its etymology.

Assur, Asur, Ashir, or Ashur was the national god of Assyria from whom both the country and its primitive capital took their names. The exact meaning of the word is not known; it has been interpreted as “arbiter,” “overseer,” or “lord,” but its original meaning is wrapped in mystery. The Persians borrowed the word, which became alnura, meaning “lord” or “god.” The Vedic Hindus did likewise, but gradually altered the meaning to the exact opposite. Various suggestions are put forward to account for this.

The discovery of a treaty in Asia Minor between the King of the Hittites and the King of Mitani (see Joum. Roy. Asiatic Soc., 1909, p. 721 et seq.) shows that the Vedic Aryans were neighbours of the Assyrians, so it may be that the progress of these Aryans into India was contested by their neighbours, the Asuras, just in the same way as later it was contested by the Dasyus in India itself.

Thus in time, when the religious system began to be fully developed, reminiscences of the human Asuras and their fights with the Aryans would be transformed into a myth of the enmity between the Devas (gods) and Asuras. (For details of this theory see Bhandarkar’s “The Aryans in the Land of the Assurs,” Joum. Bombay Br. Roy. As. Soc., vol. xxv, 1918, p. 76 et seq.)

We may, however, find further possibilities from Assyria’s other neighbours, the Iranians. As I have already mentioned, they used the word ahura to mean “lord” or “god,” but it is significant to note that daëva denoted evil spirits. The various nations of the Mesopotamian area had many gods in common, but their different interpretations of the speculative philosophy of life soon led them into different paths of religious thought and application. Zoroaster’s doctrine helped to widen this breach when he made the evil spirits appear in the Avesta as daēvas. In India the conception of asura gradually became a god of reverence and fear with an awful divine character, while deva became more friendly in its meaning and kinder to humans. Zoroaster, however, looking upon the daēvas as upstarts who were gradually ousting the original position of the Asuras, elevated the latter and added the epithet Mazdāo, the “wise,” to their name. Thus arose the Persian Ahurō Mazdāo, which in time became Ormazd, the “Wise Lord,” the “All-father.” The dāevas, in inverse ratio, became enemies of the gods. In India, as we have seen, the exact opposite had taken place, and thus the curious difference of meaning is brought about.

It is often said that the word asura means “not-god,” the negative “a” being prefixed to sura, which means “god.” This, however, is incorrect, the exact opposite being the case. When the Asuras had become the enemies of the gods, the word sura was formed as meaning the opposite of asura.

Turning now to the terms Daitya and Dānava, we find that Daitya means “descendant of Diti.” Diti is a female deity mentioned in the Ṛg-Veda and Atharva-Veda, whose particular nature was apparently little known. She is usually regarded as the sister of Āditya, to whom she probably owes her existence (cf. the way in which sura was formed from asura). The name Āditya is used as a metronymic from Aditi to denote some of the most important deities; thus their enemies were named Daityas after Diti.

According to the Mahābhārata (i, 65) the Asura race was derived from five daughters of Dakṣa, son of Brāhma. Of these daughters two were Aditi and Diti. A third was Dānu, from whom the name Dānava is derived. Thus the close relationship of the three terms will be realised, although it is only the word asura that may have an ancient extraneous history.

In the Ocean of Story the Asuras, Daityas and Dānavas are, with few exceptions, represented as the enemies of the gods. In Book VIII, however, where the terms asura and dānava are used synonymously, we find one called Maya who comes to earth in order to teach the hero the magic sciences. To do this he takes the prince back to Pātāla, which is the usual dwelling-place not only of the Asuras, but also of the Nāgas, or snake-gods. Pātāla is described as a place of great beauty, with magnificent castles and abundance of every kind of wealth. Some of the Asuras prefer to dwell outside Pātāla, either in the air, in heaven, or even on earth itself.

The widely different legendary accounts of the history of the Asuras are to be found in the Mahābhārata and the Purāṇas. (See Wilson’s Viṣṇu Purāṇa, i, 97; ii, 69.)

The power that Asuras can obtain is shown by the story of Jalandhara, an Asura who actually conquered Viṣṇu, and whom neither Śiva nor Indra could destroy.

In the Churning of the Ocean the gods found they could not get on without the help of the Asuras. Occasionally they have actually been held in respect and worshipped. In the Vāyu Purāṇa is the history of Gaya, an Asura who was so devout in the worship of Viṣṇu that his accumulated merit alarmed the gods. (This legend is given in a note in Chapter XCIII of this work, when Gaya is actually referred to.)

Rāhu should also be mentioned, who is the Asura causing the eclipses of the sun and moon.

Further details will be found in H. Jacobi’s article, under “Daitya,” in Hastings’ Ency. Bel. Eth., vol. iv, p. 390 et seq.

It is interesting to note that the term āsura is applied to marriage by capture. It forms with the paiśācha variety the two kinds of marriage condemned by Manu as altogether improper. In modern days, however, the āsura form is recognised even for the Vaiśya and Sūdra castes.


2. Servants (or Attendants) of the Gods

Foremost among these are the Gandharvas and Apsa-rases.

In the early Vedas the Gandharvas occupy a minor position, which in later days became more prominent. They are trusted servants of the gods, having guard of the celestial soma, and so become heavenly physicians, as soma is a panacea. They also direct the sun’s horses and act as servants to Agni, God of Fire and Light, and to Varuṇa, the divine judge. They dwell in the fathomless spaces of the air, and stand erect on the vault of heaven. They are also (especially in the Avesta) connected with the waters, and in the later Vedas have the Apsarases, who were originally water-nymphs, as wives or mistresses. It is at this period, too, that they become especially fond of and dangerous to women, but at the same time they are the tutelary deities of women and marriage. They are always represented as being gorgeously clad and carrying shining weapons.

In post-Vedic times they are the celestial singers and musicians at Indra’s Court, where they live in company with the Apsarases. They wander about the great spaces of air at random. Thus the term gandharvanagara means “mirage” — literally, the “city of the Gandharvas.”

They often visit humans, being attracted by beautiful women.

In number they vary greatly in different accounts. They are twelve, twenty-seven, or innumerable.

The Viṣṇu Purāṇa says they are the offspring of Brahmā, and recounts how 60,000,000 of them warred against the Nāgas, or snake-gods, but they were destroyed with Viṣṇu’s help.

Finally, they lend their name to a form of marriage. When two people desire mutual intercourse the resulting marriage is called gāndharva, because these spirits of the air are the only witnesses. Full details of the gāndharva marriage have already been given in this volume (pp. 87, 88).

We now pass on to the Apsarases, who, as we have already seen, were originally water-nymphs. (Their very name means “moving in the waters.”) They are seldom mentioned in the Vedas, Urvaśī, who became the wife of King Purūravas, being one of the most famous. (Ṛg-Veda, x, 95, and Ocean of Story, Chapter XVIII.)

In the later Vedas they frequent trees, which continually resound with the music of their lutes and cymbals.

In the Epics they become the wives of the Gandharvas, whom they join as singers, dancers and musicians in Indra’s Court. They serve the gods in other capacities; for instance, if a pious devotee has acquired so much power by his austerities that the gods themselves are in danger of being subservient to him, a beautiful Apsaras is at once dispatched to distract him from his devotions (e.g. Menakā seduced Viśvāmitra and became the mother of Śakuntalā).

The beauty and voluptuous nature of the Apsarases is always emphasised, and they are held out as the reward for fallen heroes in Indra’s paradise. In this they resemble the Mohammedan houris.

According to the Rāmāyaṇa and the Viṣṇu Purāṇa they were produced at the Churning of the Ocean. When they first appeared in this way, neither the gods nor the Asuras would have them as their wives; consequently they became promiscuous in their affections. They have the power of changing their forms, and are most helpful and affectionate to mortals whom they favour.

They preside over the fortunes of the gaming-table, and it is here that their friendship is most desirable.

The estimate of their number varies, but it is usually put at 35,000,000, of which 1060 are the chief.

In the Ocean of Story they often fall in love with mortals, but are usually under some curse for past misbehaviour. In Chapter XXVIII King Sushena recognises his future Apsaras wife as divine, “since her feet do not touch the dust, and her eye does not wink.” As soon as she bears him a child she is forced to return to her abode in the heavens.

Gaṇa is the name given to an attendant of Śiva and Pārvatī. The chief is Ganeśa (“Lord of Gaṇas”), who is a son of Śiva and Pārvatī. He it was who ranked as chief of the followers of Śiva, hence all the others are termed Gaṇas. The position seems, however, to have been an honorary one as far as Gaṇeśa was concerned, for we find in actual practice that Nandi, Śiva’s bull, was leader of the Gaṇas. As we have seen in the Introduction to the Ocean of Story, both Śiva and Pārvatī kept strict control over their Gaṇas, and any breach of discipline was punished by banishment from Kailāsa— usually to the world of mortals, where they had to serve their time till some event or other brought the curse to an end.

Kinnaras, Guhyakas and Yakṣas are all subjects to Kuvera, or Vaiśravaṇa, the God of Wealth and Lord of Treasures.

Kinnaras sing and play before Kuvera, and have human bodies and horses’ heads. The Kimpuruṣas, who have horses’ bodies and human heads (like the centaurs), are also servants of Kuvera, but are not mentioned in the Ocean of Story.

The Guhyakas help to guard Kuvera’s treasure and dwell in caves. They are often (as in Chapter VI of the Ocean of Story) synonymous with Yakṣas. The beings who assisted Kuvera in guarding treasures were originally called Rakṣas, but the name savoured too much of the demons, the Rākṣasas, who were subject to Rāvaṇa, the half-brother of Kuvera— so the name Yakṣas was adopted. The word yakṣa means “being possessed of magical powers,” which, as we shall see later, is practically the same meaning as vidyādhara.

It appears that both Yakṣas and Rākṣasas come under the heading of Rakṣas, the former being friendly to man and servants of Kuvera, the latter being demons and hostile to man.


3. Independent Superhumans

The Nāgas are snake-gods dwelling in Pātāla, the underworld, in a city called Bhogavatī. Although snake-worship dates from the earliest times in India, there is but little mention of Nāgas in the Vedas. In the Epics, however, they attain full recognition and figure largely in the Mahābhārata. Here their origin is traced to Kadrū and Kaśyapa, and their destruction through the sacrifice of Janamejaya is related.

In some stories they retain their reptilian character throughout; in others they possess human heads, or are human as far as the waist. They are usually friendly to man unless ill-treated, when they have their revenge if not duly propitiated.

Garuḍa, the sun-god, is their enemy (see the Ocean of Story, Chapter LXI), from whom they fly. As the snake is sometimes looked upon as representative of darkness, the idea has arisen that they are eaten by Garuḍa, or the dawn, each morning (see pp. 103-105 of this volume).

The extent of serpent-worship in India can be imagined when we read in Crooke’s Folk-Lore of Northern India (vol. ii, p. 122) that in the North-West Provinces there are over 25,000 Nāga-worshippers, and in the census-returns 123 people recorded themselves as votaries of Gūga, the snake-god.

It would be out of place here to give details of the ceremonies, superstitions and archæological remains of snake-worship throughout India. I would merely refer readers to Cook’s article, “Serpent-Worship,” in the Ency. Brit., vol. xxiv, pp. 676-682, and that by Macculloch, Crooke and Welsford in Hastings’ Ency. Rel. Eth., vol. xi, pp. 399-423. Both contain full bibliographical references.

Readers will remember the amazing story in the Nights (Burton, vol. v, p. 298 to the end of the volume) of “The Queen of the Serpents,” whose head alone is human, and the sub-story, “The Adventures of Bulukiya,” where Solomon and his ring are guarded by fiery serpents. The relationship of the Nāgas to the Piśācas is discussed below, in section 4. Their origin, like that of the Piśācas, was probably a primitive hill tribe of North India.

Siddhas play a very unimportant part in Hindu mythology. They are described as kindly ghosts who always behave in a most friendly manner to mankind. They are usually mentioned in company with Gaṇas and Vidyādharas, as at the commencement of the Ocean of Story. In the earlier mythology they were called Sādhyas (Manu, i, 22), where their great purity is emphasised.

Vidyādharas play a very important part in the Ocean of Story and require little explanation here, as their habits, abode and relations with mortals are fully detailed in the work itself.

Their government is similar to that in the great cities on earth; they have their kings, viziers, wives and families. They possess very great knowledge, especially in magical sciences, and can assume any form they wish. Their name means “possessing spells or witchcraft.”


4. Demons

The Rākṣasas are the most prominent among malicious superhumans. From the Ṛg-Veda days they have delighted in disturbing sacrifices, worrying devout men when engaged in prayer, animating dead bodies and generally living up to the meaning of their name, “the harmers” or “destroyers.”

In appearance they are terrifying and monstrous. In the Atharva-Veda they are deformed, and blue, green or yellow in colour. Their eyes, like those of the Arabian jinn, are long slits up and down, their finger-nails are poisonous, and their touch most dangerous. They eat human flesh and also that of horses. Pārvatī gave them power to arrive at maturity at birth.

It is at night that their power is at its height, and it is then that they prowl about the burning-grounds in search of corpses or humans. They are, moreover, possessors of remarkable riches, which they bestow on those they favour.

Chief among Rākṣasas is Rāvaṇa, the great enemy of Rāma. Reference should be made to Crooke’s Folk-Lore of Northern India, vol. i, p. 246 et seq.

They have also given the name to one of the eight forms of marriage which Manu says is lawful only for men of the Kṣatriya caste.

The Piśācas are rather similar to the Rākṣasas, their chief activities being in leading people out of their way, haunting cemeteries, eating human flesh and indulging in every kind of wickedness. In Chapter XXVIII of the Ocean of Story they appear to possess healing power, and, after being duly propitiated, cure disease.

In the Vedas they are described as kravyād, “eaters of raw flesh,” which is perhaps the etymological sense of the word Piśāca itself. In the Rāmayāṇa they appear occasionally as ghouls, but in the Mahābhārata besides being ghouls they are continually represented as human beings living in the north-west of India, the Himālayas and Central Asia. This is one of the points which has led Sir George Grierson to believe in the human origin of the Piśācas. (See the numerous references given in my note on Paiśāchī, the Piśāca’s language, on pp. 92, 93.)

Macdonell and Keith (Vedic Index, vol. i, p. 533) consider that when they appeared as human tribes, they were presumably thus designated in scorn. A science called Piśāca-veda or Piśāca-vidyā is known in the later Vedic period. (See Gopatha Brāhmaṇa, i, 1, 10, and Āśvalāyana Śrauta Sūtra, x, 7, 6.)

There is a form of marriage named paiéācha, after the Piśācas, which consists of embracing a woman who is drugged, insane or asleep. This is mentioned by Manu as the last and most condemned form of marriage. It was, however, permissible to all castes except Brāhmans. (See Manu, Sacred Books of the East, Bühler, vol. xxv, pp. 79-81 and 83.)

Finally there are the Purāṇa legends to be considered. They state that the valley of Kashmir was once a lake. Śiva drained off the water and it was peopled by the Prajāpati Kaśyapa. He had numerous wives, but three in particular, from whom were born the Nāgas, the Piśācas, the Yakṣas and the Rākṣasas. Thus the relationship of these various demons is understood.

Both Buddhist and non-Buddhist literature continually refers to them synonymously, and in modern Kashmiri the word yachh, for yakṣa, has taken the place of the old piśāca.

There is also a rather similar legend in the Nīlamata, a legendary account of Kashmir dating (so Grierson says) from perhaps the sixth or seventh century. According to it Kaśyapa first peopled the dried valley of Kashmir only with the Nāgas. He then wished to introduce men, but the Nāgas objected. Kaśyapa cursed them, and for every six months of the year his other sons, the Piśācas, who came from an island in the sand ocean (an oasis in Central Asia, probably Khōtan), dwelt there.

Many similar stories are found in the Dard country, north and west of Kashmir.

Vetālas are also closely related to the above demons. They are almost entirely confined to cemeteries and burning-grounds, where they specialise in animating dead bodies.

The twenty-five tales of a Vetāla are included in the Ocean of Story, where their nature is fully described.

Bhūta is really a generic name given to ghosts of many kinds. They are often synonymous with both Rākṣasas and Piśācas. (See E. Arbman, Rudra, p. 165 et seq.)

The Bhūta proper is the spirit of a man who has met a violent death, in consequence of which it assumes great malignity against the living.

The three tests of recognising a Bhūta are: (1) it has no shadow; (2) it cannot stand burning turmeric; (3) it always speaks with a nasal twang. It plays a very minor part in the Ocean of Story, being mentioned only once.

Crooke (op. cit.9 vol. i, p. 234 et seq.) has given very full details of the modern Bhūta, its veneration and the numerous superstitious rites connected with it.

Dasyus (or Dāsas) was originally the name given to the aboriginal tribes of India who resisted the gradual advance of the Aryans from the west. Owing to the legends which naturally sprang up about the bloody battles with these early foes, they have been introduced into fiction as demons of terrible and hideous appearance and are classed with Rākṣasas and Piśācas.

They are described as having a black skin, being snubnosed, god-hating, devoid of rites, addicted to strange vows, and so forth.

They are mentioned only once in the Ocean of Story, and then in company with Rākṣasas.

Kumbhāṇḍas and Kuṣmāṇḍas are also mentioned only once, and are merely a variety of demon, and of little importance.

The two words are probably synonymous, one being Sanskrit and the other Prakrit.

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