Mudrarakshasa (literary study)

by Antara Chakravarty | 2015 | 58,556 words

This page relates ‘The source of the Mudrarakshasa’ of the English study on the Mudrarakshasa: an ancient Sanskrit dramatic play (Nataka) authored by Vishakhadatta which deals with the life of king Chandragupta. This study investigates the Mudra Rakshasa from a literary perspective, such as metrics, themes, rhetorics and other poetical elements. Chandragupta ruled the Mauryan Empire during the 4th century BCE, hence this text can also be studied as a historical textbook of ancient India.

4. The source of the Mudrārākṣasa

According to Dhanañjaya, the author of Daśarūpaka, the plot of a drama may be—

  1. prakhyāta (derived from history),
  2. utpādya (imaginary) or
  3. miśra (i.e. partly historical and partly imaginary).[1]

The plot of Mudrārākṣasa can be taken as miśra. As, if we search the history of ancient India into the Purāṇas and also in the other foreign chronicles there is no such story as trapping of Rākṣasa for taking up the charge of Candragupta’s ministry can be found. But the story of the overthrowing of the Nandas and the installation of Candragupta Maurya in their place is a historical fact recorded not only in the Greek chronicles but also in several of the Purāṇas and also incorporated in the Bṛhatkathā, as can be concluded from its presence in the Kathāsaritsāgara, Bṛhatkathāmañjarī and Bṛhatkathākośa [Bṛhatkathākoṣa]. The story of CāṇakyaCandragupta also can be found in the Ceylonese Buddhistic Chronicle Mahāvaṃśa and its commentaries. A reference to this incident is also found in the Arthaśāstra of Kauṭilay[2] and the Nītisāra of Kāmandaka.[3]

Dhanika, the author of the commentary Daśarūpāvaloka on Daśarūpaka of Dhanañjaya seems to have held Bṛhatkathā as the source of Mudrārākṣasa and said, bṛhatkathāmulam mudrārākṣasam.[4] But it does not seem to be true in toto.

There are accounts of Candragupta in the Viṣṇu, Matsya, Vāyu¸ Brahmāṇḍa, Bhāgavata and other Purāṇas and there are arguments about the following fact:

According to Viṣṇupurāṇa

Mahānandi will be the last of the ten Śaiśunāga princes, whose joint reigns will be three hundred and sixty-two years. The son of Mahānandi or Nanda, named Mahāpadma, will be born from a Śūdrā mother. He will be avaricious, and like another Paraśurāma will exterminate the Kṣatriya race, as from him onwards the kings will be all Śūdras. He (Mahāpadma) will bring the whole earth under one umbrella, his rule being irresistible. Nanda will have eight sons, Sumālya and others, who after him will govern the world and these sons, will reign for a period of one hundred years, until Kauṭilay, a Brāhmaṇa shall destroy the nine Nandas. After their destruction the Mauryas will possess the earth, Kauṭilya will install Candragupta in the kingdom.”[5]

Bhāgavatapurāṇa also supports the same story thus—

“The son of Mahānandi, born of a Śūdrā woman, a powerful prince named Mahāpadma shall put an end to the Kṣatriya rule, and from his time the kings will be mostly Śūdras void of piety. He will bring the earth under one umbrella, his rule being irresistible, and he will reign like another Bhārgava. He will have eight sons Sumālya and others, who will be kings of the earth for one hundred years. A Brāhmaṇa will destroy these nine Nandas, and after their disappearance the Mauryas will reign in the Kali age. That Brāhmaṇa will inaugurate Candragupta as king.”[6]

Again, in the Matsyapurāṇa the story of Candragupta is found with a slight difference thus—

“…a Brāhmaṇa, Kauṭilya will approve them (Nandas) all, and after they have enjoyed their 100 years it will pass to the Mauryas. Kauṭilya will appoint Candragupta on the throne.”[7]

Raghavan has compiled the Bṛhatkathā version, Baudhistic version, Jaina version of Mudrārākṣasa story and Greek accounts about Candragupta; and translated those into English in the introductory portion of his book The Mudrārākṣasanāṭakakathā[8]. These versions in a nutshell run thus–

(i) The Bṛhatkathā

According to the Bṛhatkathā version found in Kṣemendra’s Bṛhatkathāmañjarī and in Somadeva’s Kathāsaritsāgara runs in short thus—

The story starts with Vararuci narrating the tales of the foundation of Pāṭaliputra, of himself, Indradatta and Vyāḍi impeaching their studies there, of Indradatta becoming Yoga Nanda and of Cāṇakya uprooting him for minister Śakaṭāla’s sake and placing Candragupta on the throne. Pāṭali was a princess and Putraka was a Brāhmaṇa youth blessed by God Kumāra with vast riches and the fortune of future royalty. Once as they sporting themselves in air with the help of the miraculous aid of Pādukā which Putraka had secured, they descended at a place on the Ganges which they marked off and built into a city named after them as Pāṭaliputraka. Here, Vararuci, Indradatta and Vyāḍi approached Varṣa, brother of Upavarṣa, for study. Nanda was the king then. On the conclusion of their studies Indradatta and Vyāḍi had to pay one crore as teacher’s fees to Varṣa and decided to approach king Nanda, the Lord of 90 crore seeking for the amount. Taking Vararuci also with them they went to king Nanda, who was at that time camping at Ayodhyā. But just when they reached the royal camp, the king had expired. Immediately, Indradatta restored his yogic power of para-kāyā-praveśa, left his own body in Vyāḍi’s care and entered the dead Nanda’s body. This re-animated king was Yoga Nanda (not the real Nanda) and to him Vararuci applied for a crore of money for gurudakṣinā. Yoga Nanda ordered the minister Śakaṭāla to give the amount, but the shrewd minister guessed the true state of affairs when he thought about the surprising sequence of death, sudden reanimation and immediate application for money. Śakaṭāla wanted to mark time, as the late real Nanda’s son was a just boy at that time; he however ordered all the corpses that could be found to be consigned to the flames and consequently Indradatta’s body in Vyāḍi’s charge was also forcibly taken to burnt. Vyāḍi informed his friend in Nanda’s body of this and Indradatta was sorry he had permanently to inhabit a Śūdra’s body. Vyāḍi told Indradatta that they were not safe at the hands of Śakaṭāla who had seen their trick and that Indradatta had better take Vararuci as his minister. Yoga Nanda acted upon Vyāḍi’s advice made Vararuci his minister and threw Śakaṭāla and his hundred sons into an empty well with a daily supply of food and water sufficient for only one person. Śakaṭāla wanted to avenge the ill meted out to him, and so his sons offered to die, allowing their father to sustain his life by the food and water daily sent down, so that he might take revenge upon Yoga Nanda. Yoga Nanda, the king and Vararuci the minister returned to Pāṭaliputra. The Ganges whom Vararuci propitiated was pleased to place at Vararuci’s disposal a daily gift of gold. Mad with power, Yoga Nanda now become a prey to lust and Vararuci thought of Śakaṭāla and had him rescued from the well and brought back as a minister. Inwardly nursing his grudge, Śakaṭāla carried on his ministerial duties nursing his grudge inside. Vararuci gave more than one exhibition of his intuitive powers, in one of which he intuitively marked a mole at the waist of the queen. Yoga Nanda thereupon began to suspect the character of his queen and Vararuci, and ordered Vararuci’s execution. Śakaṭāla, however, in view of Vararuci’s great powers, kept him hidden in his own house and had someone else executed in his stead. Confidence grew between Vararuci and Śakaṭāla now and the former told Śakaṭāla thanks to Rākṣasa whom he had rendered subservient to himself, none could kill him. Vararuci showed to Śakaṭāla not only the Rākṣasa, but also the goddess Ganges.

Yoga Nanda had a son by the name Hiraṇyagupta who went mad owing to his act of ingratitude towards a bear. Yoga Nanda unable to decipher the cause of his son’s madness exclaimed in despair that had Vararuci been alive he could have told him its cause at once. Śakaṭāla seized upon the opportunity to reveal the fact that he had kept Vararuci alive and brought him to the king. Vararuci narrated to the king the cause of his son’s madness and added that this, as well as the queen’s secret mole, he had known by intuition. The king was stricken with remorse for the treatment he had given to Vararuci, but the latter, who was, by this time, fed up with life, retired for penance.

As Yoga Nanda’s wise guardian, Vararuci, was now away once and for all, Śakaṭāla found it the best time to wreak his vengeance on Yoga Nanda. He once found a Brāhmaṇa named Cāṇakya uprooting a stump of grass that had hurt his foot and thought that he was the person who could be made angry enough to uproot Yoga Nanda. Śakaṭāla persuaded Cāṇakya to attend a śrāddha (death ritual) at the place and accept a lakh of gold as fees. Cāṇakya agreed and went to the palace. There was another Brāhmaṇa named Subandhu whom the king preferred for the first seat. This led to Cāṇakya being insulted, and the latter untied his tuft and swore that he would do away with Yoga Nanda in a week. To that end, he raised an evil spirit and Yoga Nanda died. Śakaṭāla then killed Hiraṇyagupta, crowned the son of the real Nanda as the king, made Cāṇakya his minister and retired for penance.[9]

Now, according to this version, the real Nanda king was a Śūdra and Candragupta was his son. The kings, who were to be killed for making Candragupta the king, were a fake Nanda and his young son Hiraṇyagupta. This fake Nanda was Indradatta, who, by his yogic powers, inhabited the dead body of the real Nanda king and was so called Yoga Nanda. Here, Cāṇakya killed this fake Nanda king through black magic. The old minister Śakaṭāla’s grudge against the usurper Yoga Nanda remains the prime motive here, but Cāṇakya’s predicament to bring round Rākṣasa as a minister, which was his preoccupation in the play Mudrārākṣasa, finds no place in this version of the story.

(ii) Ceylonese chronicles

According to the Ceylonese Bauddhistic chronicle Mahāvaṃśa and its commentaries, Dhana Nanda, the last king of Nanda dynasty accumulated a wealth of eighty crores by imposing numerous taxes on his subjects and hid them in a rock cave underneath the river-bed of the Ganges.

Meanwhile, at Takṣaśilā there was a Brāhmaṇa named Cāṇakya who was a great scholar. His father had passed away. His mother pointed out to him that his teeth had indications of coming royalty and that so far as she was concerned, she did not think happily of his becoming a king. Preferring his mother’s love to sovereignty Cāṇakya smashed his own teeth and added more ugliness to his already uncommon appearance.

Once, Dhana Nanda, wishing to honour the Brāhmaṇas, built an alms-hall. Cāṇakya came to Puṣpapura for disputation and sat on the seat intended for the chief Brāhmaṇa. Dhana Nanda came into the hall and seeing the ugly Brāhmaṇa in the chief Brāhmaṇa’s seat, ordered him to be removed. Out of anger Cāṇakya decided to destroy the Nanda dynasty.

In the retinue of Dhana Nanda there was a prince called Pabbato (Parvataka). In an effort to win him over to his side, Cāṇakya, one night, went up to him and promised him of sovereignty. Searching for a second individual, Cāṇakya along with Pabbato went to the Maurya dynasty. The dynasty was called by the name, Maurya because, the place was full of Mayūras (peacock) where the dynasty was situated.

When Candragupta was yet in the womb, his father was killed and the pregnant queen took shelter in Puppapura (Puṣpapura) where she gave birth to a child near a cattle pen. A bull named Candra guarded the child and gave him the name Candragupta. As a boy, Candagupta was playing a game of royalty, himself playing the role of the king. The personality of the boy attracted the mind of Cāṇakya. Cāṇakya made both Candragupta and Parvataka his disciple with the gift of gold twisted woolen thread round the neck.

One day Cāṇakya wishing to test the qualifications of the two gave Parvataka a sword and asked him to bring the thread round Candragupta’s neck who was sleeping at that time, without cutting the thread. But he could not do so. Another day, Cāṇakya ordered Candragupta to do so while Parvataka was asleep; finding that the only way to secure the thread without cutting it was to cut off the head, Candragupta slew Parvataka and brought Cāṇakya the thread. Satisfied with Candragupta’s capability Cāṇakya taught him everything in seven years. When Candragupta came of age, Cāṇakya brought out the hidden treasure of Nandas and with that gathered an army for Candragupta. Then they both along with the army after capturing the frontiers and the provinces easily attacked Pāṭaliputra, killed Dhana Nanda and seized the throne.

The commentary then speaks of the story of the cleaver Cāṇakya devising a gradual programme of adding poison in little amounts daily in Candragupta’s food in order to make him immune to poison, least some enemies try to poison him. However, Candragupta, unaware of all these, once gave a little amount of this food to his wife who was in her ninth month of pregnancy. She did not survive but Cāṇakya cut open her belly and took out the baby who became an able emperor named Bindusāra.

(iii) Jaina version

In the Jaina version however the story is narrated in a different way. Here, the birth and parentage of Cāṇakya is referred. In some books, the Jaina writers convey the information that Cāṇakya lived in the Golla country. His father was Caṇi, a Brāhmaṇa by caste and his mother was called Caṇeśvarī. But in another book (Bṛhatkathākoṣa of Harisena) Cāṇakya’s father was mentioned as Kapila and his mother was named as Devila. According to this book Cāṇakya even had a wife named Yaśomati. In this version it is also stated that after being insulted by the Nandas, Cāṇakya went to the village called Mayūrakoṣaka where peacocks for the royal house of Nanda were being reared. There the daughter of the chief was pregnant and Cāṇakya took a promise that her child would be handed over to him. A story is here told how, thanks to Cāṇakya’s ingenious device, the pregnant woman ‘drank the moon’, a story which explains the significance of the name Candragupta.

Here also the alliance with the Himalayan king Parvataka with CāṇakyaCandragupta is mentioned and even the murder of Parvataka by the ‘poison-maiden’ is depicted here just like that of the Mudrārākṣasa story. But, completely new information can be gathered from the version that Candragupta married Nanda’s daughter. Otherwise the rest of the story is similar with that of the previous version.

(iv) Greek versions

In the Greek versions the writers Curtius, Diodoros, Plutarch, Justin, Arian and Megasthenese all had mentioned about the powerful Indian king Sandrokuttos (Candragupta) and his fight against Alexander but have not mentioned the Cāṇakya–Candragupta story. Therefore it cannot be the source of the plot of Mudrārākṣasa.

Now, the available versions of the story of the conflict between the Nandas and Cāṇakya-Candragupta reveals that the traditions are varied and confusing and all that is common to them is restricted to a few motifs, incidents and names.

(v) The commentary

Dhuṇḍirāja, the commentator of Mudrārākṣasa also mentioned in his commentary the previous history of the plot of the drama which resembles some of the points of the stories mentioned above. A summary of this previous history is given bellow-

At the beginning of the Kaliyuga Nanda dynasty ruled over Magadha, one of them was Sarvārthasiddhi who had a devoted and efficient minister Rākṣasa by name. Sarvārthasiddhi had two wives, one, a Kṣatriya named Sunandā brought forth nine sons and the later, a Śūdrā, Mūrā by name gave birth to a son of amiable quality, who was named after her Maurya. Maurya got hundred sons and the ablest of whom was Candragupta. As the nine Nandas had no progeny arrested all the hundred Mauryas and allowed to take only a small amount of food in the cell, as a result of which Candragupta alone survived. He was set free from his cell by solving a riddle sent to the Nandas by the king of Laṅkā.

One day Candragupta saw a Brāhmaṇa named Viṣṇugupta, son of Caṇaka well versed in the science of government and a great diplomat digging out the roots of darbha grass that had hurt his foot. Thinking Cāṇakya to be the proper guide in the eradication of his enemies Candragupta became his pupil and told him about the sufferings at the hands of Nandas. Cāṇakya also promised to help him. One day being insulted by the Nandas in a feast in the royal house Cāṇakya vowed to overthrow the whole Nanda dynasty. Therefore he set a Brāhmaṇa named Induśarman, disguised as a Kṣapaṇaka to spy upon the activities of Rākṣasa. Cāṇakya also induced king Parvataka against the Nandas promising him half of the kingdom. As a result in the battle between the invading army and the Nandas the later were killed. After the fall of the Nanda dynasty, Rākṣasa took Sarvārthasiddhi, the father of the Nandas in a safe place through a subterranean passage where he was put to death by Cāṇakya’s order. Rākṣasa also went underground in Kusumapura planning against Candragupta but all his intrigues were failed by Cāṇakya’s foresightedness. Even the poison maid sent by Rākṣasa to kill Candragupta was diverted to Parvataka resulting in Parvataka’s son Malayaketu flee away from Pāṭaliputra and joined Rākṣasa’s team. Rākṣasa thus become the chief adviser of Malayaketu and together planned the conquest of Magadha. At this point the play opens.

Thus Viśākhadatta has made use of the Bṛahatkathā story and also the traditional information about Cāṇakya i.e. his wrathful nature, his insult by the ruling Nanda prince, his vow to overthrow the Nandas by any means, and to wear his Śikhā losses until the vow is fulfilled.

We thus see that Viśākhadatta has derived only the barest skeleton of his theme from the sources before him. Besides the prologue, he has also spun out his imagination several details of great dramatic significance such as the sham quarrel between Cāṇakya and Candragupta, the poisoning of Malayketu’s ears against Rākṣasa and the other allies and the consequent division between them, the whole story of Candragupta and also the plans and the counter-plans of Cāṇakya and Rākṣasa. All these details have been so well woven into one fine texture that one really wonders at the art displayed here by Viśākhadatta.

Footnotes and references:


prakhyātotpādyamiśratvabhedāt tredhāpi tat tridhā / prakhyātamitihāsāderutpādyaṃ kavikalpitaṃ // miśraṃ ca saṃkarāt tābhyām divyamartyādibhadataḥ//Daśarūpaka, I.15-16


yena śāstraṃ ca śastraṃ ca nandarājagatā ca bhūḥ/ amarṣeṇoddhṛtānyāśu tena śāstramidaṃ kṛtam// Arthaśāstra, 15 Adhikaraṇa, p.1110


yasyābhicāravajreṇa vajrajvalanatejasaḥ/ papāta mulataḥ śrīmānsuparvā nandaparvataḥ/ ekākī mantraśaktyā yaḥ śaktaḥ śaktidharopamaḥ/ajahāra nṛcandrāya candraguptāya medinīm// -Kāmandakīya as quoted by Dhuṇḍirāja


Vide., The Daśarūpaka of Dhanañjaya with Avaloka of Dhanika by R.S. Tripathi, VishwavidyalayaPrakashan,Varanasi, p. 34


navaiva tān nandān kauṭilyo brāhmaṇaḥ samuddharisyati/ teṣāmabhāve mauryaśca pṛthivim bhokṣyanti/ kauṭilya eva candraguptam rajye’bhiṣekṣyati// -Viṣṇupurāṇa, Nandarājyam, 24 adhyāya IV aṃśa, sl-7


nava nandān dvijaḥ kaścitprapannānuddhariṣyati/ tesāmabhāve jagatim mauryā bhokṣyanti vai kalau// sa eva candgraguptam vai dvijo rajye’bhisekṣyati //Bhāgavatapurāṇa, 12. 12


uddhariṣyati kauṭilyaḥ samairdvādaśabhiḥ sutān/ bhūktvā mahīṃ varṣaśatān tato mauryān āgamiṣyati//Matsyapurāṇa, 272. 22


Et passim. Mudrārākṣasanāṭakakathā of Mahadeva, by Dr V. Raghavan Published b Hony,Secretary the Tanjore Maharaja Serfojis Saraswati Mahal Library, Tanjore, Third revised Edition–1973


Mudrārākṣasanāṭakakathā of Mahadeva by Dr. V. Raghavan, Published by the Honry. Secretary, The Tanjore Maharaja Serfoji’s Sarasvati Mahal Library Tanjore 1973

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