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 ...

Chapter XXXVI

[M] (main story line continued) WHEN that Naravāhanadatta had thus obtained a new and lovely bride of the Vidyādhara race, and was the next day with her in her house, there came in the morning to the door, to visit him, his ministers Gomukha and others.

They were stopped for a moment at the door by the female warder and announced within; then they entered and were courteously received, and Ratnaprabhā said to the warder:

“The door must not again be closed against the entrance of my husband’s friends, for they are as dear to me as my own body. And I do not think that this is the way to guard female apartments.”

After she had addressed the female warder in these words, she said in turn to her husband:

“My husband, I am going to say something which occurs to me, so listen. I consider that the strict seclusion of women is a mere social custom, or rather folly produced by jealousy. It is of no use whatever. Women of good family are guarded by their own virtue as their only chamberlain. But even God Himself can scarcely guard the unchaste. Who can restrain a furious river and a passionate woman? And now listen, I will tell you a story.


50. Story of King Ratnādhipati and the White Elephant Śvetaraśmi

There is here a great island in the midst of the sea, named Ratnakūṭa. In it there lived in old times a king of great courage, a devoted worshipper of Viṣṇu, rightly named Ratnādhipati.[1] That king, in order to obtain the conquest of the earth, and all kings’ daughters as his wives, went through a severe penance, to propitiate Viṣṇu.

The adorable one, pleased with his penance, appeared in bodily form and thus commanded him:

“Rise up, King; I am pleased with thee, so I tell thee this. Listen! There is in the land of Kaliṅga a Gandharva, who has become a white elephant[2] by the curse of a hermit, and is known by the name of Śvetaraśmi. On account of the asceticism he performed in a former life, and on account of his devotion to me, that elephant is supernaturally wise, and possesses the power of flying through the sky, and of remembering his former birth. And I have given an order to that great elephant, in accordance with which he will come of himself through the air and become thy beast of burden. That white elephant thou must mount, as the wielder of the thunderbolt mounts the elephant of the gods,[3] and whatever king thou shalt travel through the air to visit, in fear shall bestow on thee, who art of god-like presence, tribute in the form of a daughter, for I will myself command him to do so in a dream. Thus thou shalt conquer the whole earth, and all zenanas,[4] and thou shalt obtain eighty thousand princesses.”

When Viṣṇu had said this he disappeared, and the king broke his fast, and the next day he beheld that elephant, which had come to him through the air. And when the elephant had thus placed himself at the king’s disposal he mounted him, as he had been bidden to do by Viṣṇu, and in this manner he conquered the earth and carried off the daughters of kings. And then the king dwelt there in Ratnakūṭa with those wives, eighty thousand in number, amusing himself as he pleased. And in order to propitiate Śvetaraśmi, that celestial elephant, he fed every day five hundred Brāhmans.

Now once on a time the King Ratnādhipati mounted that elephant, and, after roaming through the other islands, returned to his own island. And as he was descending from the sky it came to pass that a bird of the race of Garuḍa struck that excellent elephant with his beak. And the bird fled when the king struck him with the sharp elephant-hook, but the elephant fell on the ground stunned by the blow of the bird’s beak. The king got off his back, but the elephant, though he recovered his senses, was not able to rise up, in spite of the efforts made to raise him, and ceased eating.

For five days the elephant remained in the same place where it had fallen, and the king was grieved and took no food, and prayed as follows:

“O guardians of the world, teach me some remedy in this difficulty; otherwise I will cut off my own head and offer it to you.”

When he had said this, he drew his sword, and was preparing to cut off his head, when immediately a bodiless voice thus addressed him from the sky:

“O King, do nothing rash; if some chaste woman touches this elephant with her hand it will rise up, but not otherwise.”

When the king heard that he was glad, and summoned his own carefully guarded chief wife, Amṛtalatā. When the elephant did not rise up, though she touched it with her hand, the king had all his other wives summoned. But though they all touched the elephant in succession he did not rise up: the fact was, not one among them was chaste.

Then the king, having beheld all those eighty thousand wives openly humiliated in the presence of men, being himself abashed, summoned all the women of his capital and made them touch the elephant one after another. And when in spite of it the elephant did not rise up, the king was ashamed, because there was not a single chaste woman in his city.[5]

And in the meanwhile a merchant named Harṣagupta, who had arrived from Tāmraliptī,[6] having heard of that event, came there full of curiosity.

And in his train there came a servant of the name of Śīlavatī, who was devoted to her husband; when she saw what had taken place, she said to him:

“I will touch this elephant with my hand: and if I have not even thought in my mind of any other man than my husband, may it rise up.”

No sooner had she said this than she came up and touched the elephant with her hand, whereupon it rose up in sound health and began to eat.[7]

But when the people saw the elephant Śvetaraśmi rise up, they raised a shout and praised Śīlavatī, saying:

“Such are these chaste women, few and far between, who, like Śiva, are able to create, preserve and destroy this world.”

The King Ratnādhipati also was pleased, and congratulated the chaste Śīlavatī, and loaded her with innumerable jewels, and he also honoured her master, the merchant Harṣagupta, and gave him a house near his own palace. And he determined to avoid all communication with his own wives, and ordered that henceforth they should have nothing but food and raiment.

Then the king, after he had taken his food, sent for the chaste Śīlavatī, and said to her at a private interview in the presence of Harṣagupta:

“Śīlavatī, if you have any maiden of your father’s family, give her to me, for I know she will certainly be like you.”

When the king said this to her, Śīlavatī answered:

“I have a sister in Tāmraliptī named Rājadattā; marry her, O King, if you wish, for she is of distinguished beauty.”

When she said this to the king, he consented, and said: “So be it.”

And having determined on taking this step, he mounted, with Śīlavatī and Harṣagupta, the elephant Śvetaraśmi, that could fly through the air, and going in person to Tāmraliptī, entered the house of that merchant Harṣagupta. There he asked the astrologers that very day what would be a favourable time for him to be married to Rājadattā, the sister of Śīlavatī.

And the astrologers, having inquired under what stars both of them were born, said:

“A favourable conjuncture will come for you, O King, in three months from this time. But if you marry Rājadattā in the present position of the constellations she will without fail prove unchaste.”

Though the astrologers gave him this response, the king, being eager for a charming wife, and impatient of dwelling long alone, thus reflected:

“Away with scruples! I will marry Rājadattā here this very day. For she is the sister of the blameless Śīlavatī and will never prove unchaste. And I will place her in that uninhabited island in the middle of the sea, where there is one empty palace, and that inaccessible spot I will surround with a guard of women; so how can she become unchaste, as she can never see men?”

Having formed this determination, the king that very day rashly married that Rājadattā, whom Śīlavatī bestowed upon him. And after he had married her, and had been received with the customary rites by Harṣagupta, he took that wife and, with her and Śīlavatī, he mounted Śvetaraśmi, and then in a moment went through the air to the land of Ratnakūṭa, where the people were anxiously expecting him. And he rewarded Śīlavatī again so munificently that she attained all her wishes, having reaped the fruit of her vow of chastity. Then he mounted his new wife Rājadattā on that same air-travelling elephant Śvetaraśmi, and conveyed her carefully, and placed her in the empty palace in the island in the midst of the sea, inaccessible to man, with a retinue of women only. And whatever article she required, he conveyed there through the air on that elephant, so great was his distrust. And being devotedly attached to her, he always spent the night there, but came to Ratnakūṭa in the day to transact his regal duties.

Now one morning the king, in order to counteract an inauspicious dream, indulged with that Rājadattā in a drinking-bout for good luck. And though his wife, being intoxicated with that banquet, did not wish to let him go, he left her, and departed to Ratnakūṭa to transact his business, for the royal dignity is an ever-exacting wife. There he remained performing his duties with anxious mind, which seemed ever to ask him why he left his wife there in a state of intoxication.

And in the meanwhile Rājadattā, remaining alone in that inaccessible place, the female servants being occupied in culinary and other duties, saw a certain man come in at the door, like Fate determined to baffle all expedients for guarding her, and his arrival filled her with astonishment.

And that intoxicated woman asked him when he approached her:

“Who are you, and how have you come to this inaccessible place?”

Then that man, who had endured many hardships, answered her:

“Fair one, I am a merchant’s son of Mathurā named Yavanasena. And when my father died I was left helpless, and my relations took from me my property; so I went to a foreign country and resorted to the miserable condition of being servant to another man. Then I with difficulty scraped together a little wealth by trading, and as I was going to another land I was plundered by robbers who met me on the way. Then I wandered about as a beggar, and, with some other men like myself, I went to a mine of jewels called Kanakakṣetra. There I engaged to pay the king his share, and after digging up the earth in a trench for a whole year I did not find a single jewel. So, while the other men, my fellows, were rejoicing over the jewels they had found, smitten with grief I retired to the shore of the sea and began to collect fuel.

“And while I was constructing with the fuel a funeral pyre, in order that I might enter the flame, a certain merchant named Jīvadatta happened to come there; that merciful man dissuaded me from suicide, and gave me food, and as he was preparing to go in a ship to Svarṇadvīpa he took me on board with him. Then, as we were sailing along in the midst of the ocean, after five days had passed, we suddenly beheld a cloud. The cloud discharged its rain in large drops, and that vessel was whirled round by the wind like the head of a mast elephant. Immediately the ship sank, but as fate would have it I caught hold of a plank just as I was sinking. I mounted on it, and thereupon the thunder-cloud relaxed its fury, and, conducted by destiny, I reached this country, and have just landed in the forest. And seeing this palace I entered, and I beheld here thee, O auspicious one, a rain of nectar to my eyes, dispelling pain.”

When he had said this, Rājadattā, maddened with love and wine, placed him on a couch and embraced him. Where there are these five fires, feminine nature, intoxication, privacy, the obtaining of a man, and absence of restraint, what chance for the stubble of character? So true is it, that a woman maddened by the God of Love is incapable of discrimination; since this queen became enamoured of that loathsome castaway.

In the meanwhile the King Ratnādhipati, being anxious, came swiftly from Ratnakūṭa, borne along on the sky-going elephant; and entering his palace he beheld his wife Rājadattā in the arms of that creature. When the king saw the man, though he felt tempted to slay him, he slew him not, because he fell at his feet and uttered piteous supplications.

And beholding his wife terrified, and at the same time intoxicated, he reflected:

“How can a woman that is addicted to wine, the chief ally of lust, be chaste? A lascivious woman cannot be restrained even by being guarded. Can one fetter a whirlwind with one’s arms? This is the fruit of my not heeding the prediction of the astrologers. To whom is not the scorning of wise words bitter in its aftertaste? When I thought that she was the sister of Śīlavatī I forgot that the Kālakūṭa poison was twin-born with the Amṛta.[8] Or rather who is able, even by doing the utmost of a man, to overcome the incalculable freaks of marvellously working Destiny?”

Thus reflecting, the king was not wroth with anyone, and spared the merchant’s son, her paramour, after asking him the story of his life. The merchant’s son, when dismissed thence, seeing no other expedient, went out and beheld a ship coming, far off in the sea.

Then he again mounted that plank, and, drifting about in the sea, cried out, puffing and blowing: “Save me! Save me!”

So a merchant, of the name of Krodhavarman, who was on that ship, drew that merchant’s son out of the water and made him his companion. Whatever deed is appointed by the Disposer to be the destruction of any man dogs his steps whithersoever he runneth. For this fool, when on the ship, was discovered by his deliverer secretly associating with his wife, and thereupon was cast by him into the sea and perished.

In the meanwhile the King Ratnādhipati caused the Queen Rājadattā with her retinue to mount Śvetaraśmi, without allowing himself to be angry, and he carried her to Ratnakūṭa, and delivered her to Śīlavatī, and related that occurrence to her and his ministers.

And he exclaimed:

“Alas, how much pain have I endured, whose mind has been devoted to these unsubstantial, insipid enjoyments! Therefore I will go to the forest, and take Hari as my refuge, in order that I may never again be a vessel of such woes.”

Thus he spake, and though his sorrowing ministers and Śīlavatī endeavoured to prevent him, he, being disgusted with the world, would not abandon his intention. Then, being indifferent to enjoyments, he first gave half of his treasure to the virtuous Śīlavatī, and the other half to the Brāhmans, and then that king made over in the prescribed form his kingdom to a Brāhman of great excellence, named Pāpabhañjana. And after he had given away his kingdom he ordered Śvetaraśmi to be brought, with the object of retiring to a grove of asceticism, his subjects looking on with tearful eyes. No sooner was the elephant brought than it left the body and became a man of god-like appearance, adorned with necklace and bracelet.

When the king asked him who he was, and what was the meaning of all this, he answered:

“We were two Gandharva brothers, living on the Malaya mountain; I was called Somaprabha, and the elder was Devaprabha. And my brother had but one wife, but she was very dear to him. Her name was Rājavatī. One day he was wandering about with her in his arms, and happened to arrive, with me in his company, at a place called the dwelling of the Siddhas. There we both worshipped Viṣṇu in his temple, and began all of us to sing before the adorable one. In the meanwhile a Siddha came there, and stood regarding with fixed gaze Rājavatī, who was singing songs well worth hearing. And my brother, who was jealous, said, in his wrath, to that Siddha: ‘Why dost thou, although a Siddha, cast a longing look at another’s wife?’

“Then the Siddha was moved with anger, and said to him by way of a curse:

‘Fool, I was looking at her out of interest in her song, not out of desire. So fall thou, jealous one, into a mortal womb, together with her; and then behold with thine own eyes thy wife in the embraces of another.’

When he had said this, I, being enraged at the curse, struck him, out of childish recklessness, with a white toy elephant of clay, that I had in my hand. Then he cursed me in the following words:

‘Be born again on the earth as an elephant, like that with which you have just struck me.’

“Then, being merciful, that Siddha allowed himself to be propitiated by that brother of mine, Devaprabha, and appointed for us both the following termination of the curse:

‘Though a mortal, thou shalt become, by the favour of Viṣṇu, the lord of an island, and shalt obtain as thy servant this thy younger brother, who will have become an elephant, a beast of burden fit for gods. Thou shalt obtain eighty thousand wives, and thou shalt come to learn the unchastity of them all in the presence of men. Then thou shalt marry this thy present wife, who will have become a woman, and shalt see her with thine own eyes embracing another. Then thou shalt become sick in thy heart of the world, and shalt bestow thy realm on a Brāhman, but when after doing this thou shalt set out to go to a forest of ascetics, thy younger brother shall first be released from his elephant nature, and thou also with thy wife shalt be delivered from thy curse.’

This was the termination of the curse appointed for us by the Siddha, and we were accordingly born with different lots, on account of the difference of our actions in that previous state, and lo! the end of our curse has now arrived.”

When Somaprabha had said this, that King Ratnādhipati remembered his former birth, and said:

“True! I am that very Devaprabha; and this Rājadattā is my former wife Rājavatī.”

Having said this, he, together with his wife, abandoned the body. In a moment they all became Gandharvas and, in the sight of men, flew up into the air and went to their own home, the Malaya mountain. Śīlavatī too, through the nobleness of her character, obtained prosperity and, going to the city of Tāmraliptī, remained in the practice of virtue.


[M] (main story line continued)

“So true is it, that in no case can anyone guard a woman by force in this world, but the young woman of good family is ever protected by the pure restraint of her own chastity. And thus the passion of jealousy is merely a purposeless cause of suffering, annoying others, and so far from being a protection to women, it rather excites in them excessive longing.”

When Naravāhanadatta had heard this tale full of good sense related by his wife, he and his ministers were highly pleased.

[Additional note: the “act of truth” motif in Folk-lore]

Footnotes and references:


I.e. supreme lord of jewels.


For the great importance attached to the white elephant in the East see N. W. Thomas, “Animals,” Hastings’ Ency. Rel. Eth vol. i, p..514.—n.m.p.


I.e. as Indra mounts Airāvata.


See Vol. II, p. 162 n.—n.m.p.


This reminds us of the curious story in Herodotus (II, iii), in which a certain Pharaoh was cursed with blindness for ten years owing to an act of arrogance on his part. An oracle declared that in the eleventh year he would recover his sight by washing his eyes with the urine of a woman who had had intercourse with her own husband only, and had known no other man. He, therefore, made trial of his own wife first, and afterwards, when he did not recover his sight, he made trial of others indifferently; and at length having recovered his sight, he collected the women of whom he had made trial, except the one by washing in whose urine he had recovered his sight, into one city, which is now called Erythrebolus, and when he had assembled them together he had them all burned, together with the city; but the woman by washing in whose urine he recovered his sight he took to himself to wife.

There is also a curious legend in Hebrew literature, in which King Solomon is upbraided by his mother for saying: “One man out of a thousand have I found, but a woman have I not found” (Eccles. vii, 28). A priest and a woman get their hands stuck to a flask sealed with the Ineffable Name. They finally go to Solomon for help. Then he says: “Whichever woman has not sinned, let her place her hand upon the flask and the hands will be loosened.” Not one came forward. He then asked his mother, and she shrank back, remembering her sin with David. He then asked the men, and only his faithful servant came forward and put his hand upon the flask. They were then released. King Solomon thus proved the truth of his statement. (See Gaster, The Excmpla of the Rabbis, p. 129, and variants on p. 248 under the heading “Solomon and Worthless Woman.”)— n.m.p.


The modern Tamluk. The district probably comprised the small but fertile tract of country lying to the westward of the Hūghli river, from Bardwān and Kalna on the north to the banks of the Kosai river on the south (Cunningham’s Ancient Geography of India, p. 504).


In the 115th tale of the Gesta Rovianonnn we read that two chaste virgins were able to lull to sleep and kill an elephant that no one else could approach.——As already explained (Vol. I, p. 166), the incident in our text is an example of both a “test of chastity” and “act of truth” motif. The powers attributed to chastity have been fully enumerated by many writers and need not be detailed here. See, for instance, the various articles on “Chastity” by Crawley, Rhys Davids, Walshe, Maclean, etc., in Hastings’ Ency. Rel. Eth., vol. iii, pp. 474-503. For a note on the “Act of Truth” motif see that at the end of this chapter.—n.m.p.


Both were produced at the Churning of the Ocean.

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