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 ...

Foreword to volume 3

IT is with great diffidence that I venture to step in where the great masters of Indian scholarship found some difficulty to tread. It is a heavy task to follow in the wake of men like Sir Richard Temple and Sir George Grierson, to whom Sanskrit literature is an open book, but turning the leaves I found they had left some blank pages, and on these I shall endeavour to put down some of the thoughts which this new edition of Tawney’s translation of Somadeva’s great work has suggested to me. I am encouraged to undertake this work owing to the kind invitation with which Mr Penzer has honoured me, and by whom I have been granted the privilege of appreciating to the full the excellent work which he is performing in producing his magnum opus. By his illuminating notes, and by the extensive treatment of some motifs found in this collection, he has carried his investigations far beyond the narrow borders of the original home of the Kathā Sarit Sāgara. With immense industry and keen insight he has been able to accumulate a mass of literary parallels from all parts of the world which gives to this edition a value of its own, and places it in the forefront of modern studies in comparative literature.

It is from this point of view that I will address myself to the task thus placed before me. Many a problem arises from the contemplation of this Indian literature in its relation to the other literatures of a similar kind. In the first place, the students of folk-lore are returning again to the question as to whether the inland lake of Indian tales was the ocean which overflowed its banks and carried these tales on the crest of its waves to distant lands and many nations. Ever since Benfey published his famous introduction to the German translation of the Pañcatantra —and here I fully re-echo Mr Penzer’s desideratum for an English translation brought up to date—this question has never ceased to agitate the mind of scholars. True, he was vii the first to show how great lias been the influence of Indian literature upon mediaeval fiction, but he also drew within the circle of his investigations a number of modern fairytales. His researches centred to a large extent round the literary products of India, notably those books which were unquestionably of Indian origin, and which had reached the West through manifold translations. Kalila wa Dimna, Syntipas and, to a certain extent, Barlaam and Josaphat are the typical representatives of this book-literature. It is now a fact that none of these books could have reached the West before the sixth century, the time when the first translation, at any rate, of the Kalila wa Dimna was made into Pahlavi by Barzoe at the Court of the Sassanian kings.

None of these books, then, reached Europe before the tenth or eleventh century at the earliest. Thus he merely touched the fringe of the greater problem as to the relation between the Indian and the European folk-tales and legends. Benfey’s theory stimulated the question rather than answered it, and a reaction set in which put folk-lorists on a different scent. The question had not been rightly put. It was not to be reduced merely to the relation of the Indian tales to European folk-lore in connection only with these books, for Benfey endeavoured to trace it back as well to other Indian collections of tales, and among them he drew very often upon Somadeva’s Ocean.

Mr Penzer has happily been able to fix the date of Somadeva’s literary activity c. 1070. This is at least five hundred years later than the date of the translation of the Pañcatantra, and creates a new problem as to the antiquity of the tales so sedulously collected, and also to a large extent copied by him.

How old are these tales, and whence did he derive them? As Mr Penzer rightly remarks in his Introduction, many a river has flowed into this ocean and has swelled its size. Can we trace these rivers to their ultimate source, or tell how long it has taken them to cut through the gorges of the mountains until they reached the lake or the ocean? What elements did they carry in their course, and how long was it before these turgid waters mingled together and allowed their sediments to settle at the bottom of the ocean, so that the waters, clear and transparent, should be able to reflect the blue sky and the radiant light of the sun during the day, and the silvery rays of the moon should play gently upon the waves, slightly moved by lover or tossed heaven-high by the storm of human passion? I do not feel competent to touch upon the question raised with such consummate knowledge by Sir Richard Temple as to the Dravidian or Aryan elements in this ocean. I wish we knew more of anything that is purely Dravidian or purely Aryan in legend and tales, and even in customs and beliefs. There is no pure race in the world, and I believe nowhere has such a blending and mixing of races taken place as in Central Asia and also in India. Who to-day can disentangle the skein and separate every strand? If anywhere, it is in the world of spirit and fiction that this blending goes on so continuously and so profoundly, that I for one fear me to approach this problem with the hope of arriving at a definite and satisfactory result.

Beyond the limited border of known facts there lies the wide world of hypotheses. There the goblins of fancy disport themselves, and that is the land where the spirit roams freely. Happily there are no geographical or religious or national boundaries in that land of imagination and fancy. The whole of mankind dwells therein. There is that higher unity after which man is yearning, and only there is that bliss which gives to the tales their peculiar charm.

But now let us return to sober facts, lest we are carried away too far into dreamland and lose the ground under our feet. At the time when Somadeva made his collection, not far from Kashmir Firdusi wrote his great poem Shahnameh, the mighty epic of the Persian kings, embodying the ancient legends of Iran; and in the West we witness the rise of epic poems and the romances of chivalry, not to speak of the great Arabic poem of Antar, all dealing with the great heroes of the past. What epic poems may have been lost with the Pahlavi literature, at which Firdusi hints, none can tell, save for those remnants that are found in Georgian and other late translations. One point which they have in common is that they are all written in verse, just as Somadeva’s Ocean. In looking for origins here we have a certain clue. They were all intended to be sung or recited with accompaniment to music. They formed from the beginning a written literature. The minstrels and troubadours in the West, the wandering Kaleki in Russia, did not read as prose those poems or ballads, but they sang them at the banqueting-tables of the great, or on the roadside to the poor, and on their pilgrimages to hallowed spots. The unwritten literature and the oral recital may have preceded the written poem. But it would not be easy to determine whether the oral tale preceded these poetic versifications, and what influence they may have exercised upon the imagination of the poet; but here they have become fixed and no longer float about, and form, as it will be seen, the starting-point of further development.

That Somadeva had used to a very large extent written literature there can be no doubt. Many of the Jātakas and tales from the Pañcatantra, which had been written down centuries before Somadeva, have indeed found their place in his Ocean. He may have used some oral traditions too, but, as just now mentioned, it would be very difficult to trace them. Thus far we would, then, have two sets of popular literature, but the process did not end by the writing down of the oral tale. The written book became in time the starting-point of a new set of oral lore. I shall return to these phases in the development of the popular literature when discussing the modern fairy-tale. For the time being it must suffice to have raised this question, and to hint at the possibility of Somadeva and of his immediate predecessors having made use also of some of the ballads and legends floating about only. But these may have been developed out of more ancient writings, thus forming a cycle which, however, did not lead to Nirvana.

If Indian tales and legends, Indian teachings, beliefs and customs have really spread Westwards at a time anterior to the translation of the writings mentioned before, it may have been done by word of mouth. Buddhist missionaries, as is well known, carried the teachings of the Master far and wide. Their presence in Alexandria in the second century B.C. is a well-established fact, and so one may mention parenthetically the presence of Buddhist monks in the north of Europe. What kind of seed did they carry in their bosom or their knapsack? Did they bring written Jātakas —if they were already then written down—or did they, as the storyteller to-day in the East, tell to a spellbound audience the miraculous life and adventures of the Great One?

Here Somadeva’s Ocean, on the one side, which contains not a few of these Jātakas, and shows us how in the course of time they were adapted to changed circumstances, and Mr Penzer’s scholarly notes on the other, help us to approach this problem with some hope of solution. Two remarkable beliefs suddenly come to light about that period.

Firstly, in the Hellenistic as well as Jewish Apocryphal literature we hear suddenly of a belief that, attracted by the beauty of women, angels fell from heaven. The love for women had overcome them and they lost their angelic status. Or, one of the angels, moved by insensate pride, lost his station in heaven and was cast down to earth, and henceforth acts as the inspirer of all evil. It is not here the place to do more than briefly refer to this extraordinary conception, and to the remarkable consequences to which it led, through the evolution of the idea of redemption and salvation. Whatever form this latter theory may have assumed in the religious system of Iran, the story of the fall of angels does not occur anywhere else except among the nations living in Egypt and Palestine, and in the tales of Somadeva, where we find it over and over again.

Many an Apsaras or Vidyādhara has lost his station as a divine being and has been cursed for his love of men and women exactly as in the Henochic literature. Is this of Indian origin?

Secondly, we have in Egypt, the home of aberrations of the mind and of morbid introspection and consciousness of human frailty, that peculiar development of extreme asceticism. The monks in the desert of Egypt mortify their flesh, and shun the pleasures of the world as so many temptations of the Evil One, giving their life up to the same morbid introspection to gain thereby heavenly bliss. There may have been some sects of an ascetic turn of mind along the banks of the Jordan and the banks of the Nile, like the Essenes and the Therapeuts—and who knows whether these also have not been influenced by Buddhist missionaries preaching the gospel of asceticism as the means of salvation—but they flourish nowhere so strongly as in Egypt, where the people were surrounded by tombs, by books and by monuments of the dead. Did they bring some of the parables found in the New Testament? To these questions Somadeva’s Ocean gives the answer. If they can be shown to be as old as the Jātakas, those tales would carry us back at least one thousand years before they were written down in their actual form.

On the other hand, did not India receive from the West? Those who travelled Westwards returned also to the East; they carried and fetched; just as easily as they could bring tales and legends, so could they also carry back some of the rich stores accumulated in other lands. Either way it is very difficult to discover the hall-mark of origin. Each nation quarrying in the same way the same mine of the spirit, and even one nation borrowing the gold from the other, puts its own seal on the coins which it mints. A river or rivulet flowing from Egypt or Palestine towards India will mingle its waters with the mighty ocean and become so profoundly assimilated as not to be easily recognised.

The farther back we go the more difficult it gets, no doubt, to settle the question of the priority, especially when the chronological dates are missing. Difficult as it is in the case of the pre-Christian period and of Greek myths, carried in all probability along by the armies of Alexander, it becomes still more difficult if we are turning to old Babylonian and Assyrian traditions, customs and beliefs. One country borders practically on the other, and the recent discoveries of Babylonian or Sumerian tablets (inscriptions) in India more than countenanced the belief in direct intercourse between India and Babylon. What may have flowed from one country into the other must for the time being remain an object of speculation, which, however, in this case, rests on a solid basis of facts.

Again, if we remember the activity of Christian missionaries, some of whom, like St Thomas, have been directly connected with India, and others, especially the Nestorians, how many legends could they not have carried with them and contributed to increase the amount of the popular lore in India? Besides, there is a rich material in the innumerable legends of the saints, which waits for the sifting hand and scholarly insight of men fully prepared for the task to examine the possible relations between Indian legends and Christian hagiology. Everywhere a strong assimilation has taken place. This is a regular process through which all the tales and legends are passing. One need not go farther than to remember the legend of Barlaam and Josaphat, who have become saints of the Church. Centuries have passed since their story was first circulated throughout Europe, and many a parable has become the property of the Western world, influencing even the genius of Shakespeare in the story of the Three Caskets, and it was only by the middle of the last century that Liebrecht recognised in them a Christianised form of the life and legends of Buddha, so thoroughly had their character been changed, and yet in essence they remain the same.

There is a profound psychological element in all these tales and legends, which appeals to the human heart and tends to explain to some extent the ready admission of such tales, quite indifferent as to their origin and the primitive meaning attached to them. The contemplation of the world and its miseries leads to two extremes—the asceticism of Buddha or the unbounded frivolity of the rich and the powerful. One, no doubt, produces the other. The contemplation of the Hedonism among the Greeks of Alexandria could create a reaction which culminated in that mortification of the flesh, and vice versa; the morbid turning away from all pleasure and joy as well as from duty and responsibility may have created a revulsion in the opposite direction. Thus the Decameron was written at a time when the plague decimated the city of Florence, and Somadeva’s Ocean was written, as Mr Penzer shows, at a time of murder and bloodshed, horror and despair. It is at such times that the soul takes refuge in a better and happier world as a consolation for the miseries of this world. Men wish to dream themselves away from the sore trials with which they are beset, and they grope instinctively for a world in which justice and mercy hold sway, righteousness triumphs over wickedness, and love finds its reward.

This is the general character of the fairy-tale to which I am now turning, and Mr Penzer has taken special pains to discover as many parallels as possible in the fairy-lore of the world. Here, again, we are confronted with a problem which is beginning practically to divide the two schools of thought. What has been the fate of these old stories and tales, and how have they become disseminated and known to the people? Nature abhors a vacuum and the spirit partakes of the same character. Everything is in constant flux, ebb and flow alternate. A literature that has reached the high-water mark does not keep it for long, and who can discover the water-sheds of literature, when they are running down from the heights of the palace and the cloister to mingle with the masses, and thus to become the real popular literature.

Leaving the ancient sources as a mere matter of speculation, we are more concerned with those facts which are easily discernible and can be followed up with greater accuracy and reliability. As hinted, many of these tales and stories deal either with the prowess of the hero on the battle-field, or with the spiritual wrestling of the saint. They have, one may surmise, in many cases a local origin; they can be localised geographically and connected with some outstanding personality, either a king or a Bodhisattva, with the former in epic poem tales, and with the latter in a pious legend. Here we have, then, indications as to the possible origin and date of some of these ancient tales at the time when they reached Somadeva, and also the way shown by which their dissemination may have been carried out. One outstanding characteristic of this literature is that a legend or tale after a time can be, and is, either slightly changed or entirely readapted in its further transmission. Yet in all this work of change and transmission I insist one must bear in mind that the written word remains the primary source for the later development. Those who were present at the recital by the bard at the court of the baron or king may then repeat the story by word of mouth, and those who join in pilgrimage to a holy place will listen with deep reverence and joy to the tales of miracles and wonders which have been performed by the saints in that special spot. Then these, scattering far and wide, and still following the great routes of pilgrimage, will at every halting-place and stage of their journey repeat and simplify, change and alter, the stories which they have heard.

Still another element assists in this development from the written to the oral—the picture and the sculpture. The stories are written in stones as well as on paper, and they in turn become the material upon which the imaginative power of the spirit feeds. At a certain period, almost contemporary with Somadeva, a rich store of Indian tales had been poured into Europe. A kind of levelling had been accomplished from East to West. We are in a better position to study here the gulf stream flowing from one part of the world to the other, and carrying with it some of the exotic trees and fruits of distant lands. They became quickly naturalised; they found everywhere a fertile soil and produced an unexpected crop, rich and luxuriant. Thus a vast amount of fiction has been accumulated, and as in the East so in the West it slowly glided down from the high places which it originally occupied to the lowly places in which men dwell. There the written book rules paramount, and the pictures which accompany it tend to make its contents familiar to larger circles.

The invention of the printing-press marks a turning-point and carries the written word far and wide among those who have now learned to master the mystery of the alphabet. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales give us the best example of this literary migration and dissemination. The tales are told on a pilgrimage, just as in centuries before, but these are all of a literary origin, mostly from Boccaccio, and one, at least, from the cloisters.

Thus the oral literature develops step by step, East and West alike, drawing its inspiration ultimately from the written book. I know it is a view which is shared by very few, if by any. But a careful study of the history of the chap-books, or “La Littérature du Colportage,” as Nisard called it, must lead to the same conclusion. The ancient romances slowly dwindle down to such small story-books as carried by the chapmen on their backs, and cheapened in the markets of the world, and are even still more reduced to illustrated broadsides. They show thus the slow decay which has overtaken the old written literature and has transformed it into the oral one.

We have now to go only one step farther, and in many cases the fairy-tale collected from the mouth of the people turns out to be a mere repetition of a printed chap-book. This brings me now to touch, as briefly as I can within the limited space afforded to me, upon that part in Mr Penzer’s work in which he refers to the fairy-tales. There is no better guide than he in following up the parallels for modern fairy-tales so richly adduced by him.

A gap of close upon a thousand years separates Somadeva’s Ocean from the small rivulets flowing out of it. The process of transformation has been the same in the East as in the West, and given the same motives the result must be similar. Here also there have been literary intermediaries at various stages between past and present, and in all probability the poetic imagination has ripened the fruit in the East much more quickly than in the West, and has produced what we call now the fairy-tale, with its glowing richness of fancy, some time before it assumed the shape in which we know it in Europe. Still one important fact must be retained— namely, that for a large number of incidents literary parallels can be adduced to prove irrefutably some connection between the written and the oral. The fairy-tale often turns out to be a replica of the old tale stripped of its geographical limitations and historical personages. It has freed itself from these trammels, it has broken down the barriers, and it is roaming freely over many countries.

The fact of the similarity of folk-tales in many parts of the world, discovered since Grimm started his collection, has given rise to many interpretations. Grimm’s mythological theory, which recognises in the persons and incidents found in the fairy-tales remnants of ancient Teutonic mythology, has developed into a much wider anthropological theory. According to this latter the popular tales are nothing else but the depositories of primeval culture and primitive civilisation. These incidents are nothing else but survivals carried unconsciously by the people, who have lost every knowledge of their origin and character. But I see in these alleged “survivals” nothing else but some of the archaic details found in the written literature. The anthropological interpretation must fail when we find the very same story among nations that are almost of yesterday and are divided from one another by race, faith and tradition— e.g. Rumanians, Huṅgarians, Bulgarians and Turks—yet have practically the same tales in common. Still more curious is the fact that such tales as are found in the east of Europe among the varying races are also found in England, in which the greatest mixture of races has taken place. Piets and Celts, Romans and Angles, Saxons and Danes, no less than Normans, have all contributed towards the formation of the British nation. How could they bring their own traditions and blend them together in such a manner that out of that melting-pot should arise the modern fairy-tale, unlike any of them, and yet like the rest of the fairy-tales of the world? Not so, however, if we believe them to be of a somewhat more modern origin, carried to a large extent by word of mouth in this their latest shape of development. They are neither the most ancient property of the people nor are they of such permanent character as the followers of the anthropological school would postulate. One has only to compare the stories collected in the East and in the eastern parts of Europe with those collected in the West, and then those collected a century ago with those collected in our own times, to realise that when they reached the West they were shorn of most of their poetic beauty and that they are fast disappearing. If this could happen within a century, how could they have persisted for thousands of years? To these   theories, therefore, I oppose what I may call the historical, an investigation which, instead of roaming far and wide and losing itself in the mists of the past, traces every tale and legend step by step from the modern type to a possibly more ancient written source, but directly and immediately connected with it in historical sequence. It is thus a question of tracing the literary influence upon popular lore and the possible reaction of the latter upon the former.

A careful examination of the tales from the stock of the European literature, and in fact of all the oral popular lore, reveals the surprising fact that they can all be reduced to a very limited number of types, not exceeding a hundred, and in all probability very much less. They are the elements out of which, through various combinations, the vast number of tales has been evolved. A rich material had already been accumulating in Europe during the previous centuries and a slight impetus and a few examples from the East would suffice to set the world of fancy in motion and to produce the new popular literature. The same shading down from the most perfect works of literary art has been taking place in the East as well as in the West, and this Mr Penzer shows by the parallels from Indian literature with the same results.

I now turn again to the present edition of the Kathā Sarit Sāgara. Not for their sins but for their virtues the tales are reborn over and over again, sometimes in a divine shape, sometimes in a human shape, for, travelling along the borders of this limitless ocean of poetry, the panorama changes and yet it remains the same. In the Ocean we do not find the modern novel with its psychological problem describing in detail the torture of the soul, but pictures of a life in which God and men play their parts often to bring happiness, but just as often telling us life as it is, with its ups and downs, with its hopes and disappointments, such as it has been lived in ancient India, and has always been lived throughout the world, and throughout all time.

To Mr Penzer the deepest thanks are due from all those who are interested in these entrancing studies.

M. Gaster.

London, 3rd February 1925.

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