Entering The Ocean of the Streams of Stories from Its First Book, Story’s Revered Seat

Article of the Month - Jul 2022

This article by Shubha Pathak, Associate Professor, Department of Philosophy and Religion, American University

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Wading into Deeply Storied Waters


One of the most precious possessions that India and other South Asian nations have is an unlimited trove of enchanting traditional stories.  One of their richest sources is an eleventh-century collection known as the Kathasaritsagara (The Ocean of the Streams of Stories) and local to the then kingdom of Kashmir.  Situated at a well-travelled node along the Silk Roads that had connected Asia and Europe for several centuries before, the Kashmiri sovereignty offered a wealth of opportunities for material and cultural exchange.

Among their keenest witnesses was a brahmin named Somadeva backed by the Kashmiri court.  Even though he was a Shiva devotee like his sponsor, Queen Suryavati, he was well aware of the rich religious diversity in their midst.  The tales he told, then, featured all manner of characters, many of them drawn from even earlier traditional works—such as the great Ramayana and Mahabharata epic poems, the Panchatantra and Hitopadesha fable compilations, and the ruler-and-ghoul Vetalapanchavimshati folktales.  But still more important than the original sources of Somadeva’s stories was the new, irreverent outlook that he brought to them.  With no one off-limits for his wit, the Shaiva author was unafraid of bending conventions to suit his somewhat absurd sense of humor—his attitude informed by a thorough awareness of the hilarity that could ensue when circumstances brought together people of different perspectives on the world.

Perhaps the most pivotal turn of events to ensure the survival of Somadeva’s well-observed work of twenty-two thousand Sanskrit verses was their full rendering into English at the turn of the twentieth century.  This translation task was taken on by Englishman Charles Henry Tawney, and its product ultimately was edited by his countryman Norman Mosley Penzer.  As the only complete English version of Somadeva’s text, the Tawney/Penzer effort remains invaluable.

In appreciation of the author’s, translator’s, and editor’s contributions to today’s stores of world literature, I will be surveying The Ocean’s breadth and depths in an article series of eighteen parts, exploring, in each, one of The Ocean’s eighteen books.  In doing so, I hope to illuminate the variety of worldviews that went into The Ocean’s making.  Although time and space do not allow me to cover each Ocean book in its entirety, I still seek to convey a telling message from each part by interpreting a pivotal tale contained therein.  Each story that I will study also will connect in some regard with visual art, a vivid example of which I will find among the wealth of aesthetic objects in Exotic India’s extensive inventory.

Building the Background of The Ocean’s First Book

The Ocean of Story Being C.H. Tawney's Translation of Somadeva's Katha Sarit Sagara (Kathasaritsagara): (Ten Volumes)

A good place to begin this literary/artistic exploration is the setting of the origin story opening The Ocean’s first book.  It is told on Mount Kailasa (in the Himalayas) by none other than divine destroyer Shiva to his beloved divine wife Parvati (daughter of the god embodying the Himalaya mountain range) as she sits on Shiva’s lap.  In response to her request for a pleasurable story never heard before, he narrates the Great Tale (Brihatkatha) about seven spell-chanting, sky-dwelling demigods known as Vidyadharas.

Although Shiva has stationed his loyal bull vehicle, Nandi, outside the couple’s chamber door to prevent any interruptions, one of Shiva’s preferred attendants (ganas), Pushpadanta, gets around that stern guard by using a divinely given gift of enchantment to enter the chamber unseen and to listen in on the entire Tale.  He then shares it with his doorkeeping wife, Jaya, who tells it in Parvati’s company.  The goddess then furiously accuses her husband of misleading her about the Tale’s innovativeness, and he responds by using his yogic concentration to discern and to explain Pushpadanta’s deceit and indiscretion.  Consequently, Parvati curses both Pushpadanta and his fellow attendant Malyavan, who has attempted to intervene for his friend’s benefit, to be reborn as mortals.

Super Fine Lord Shiva with Parvati Seated on Nandi Tanjore Painting

When Pushpadanta, Malyavan, and Jaya prostrate themselves before Parvati and ask her to specify the circumstances that will conclude the curse, the mountain goddess then discloses those favorable terms.  According to Parvati, Pushpadanta, having encountered the goblin (pishacha) Kanabhuti (who is in that monstrous form because he, as the yaksha Supratika, one of the demigods attending upon wealth god Kubera, was cursed by him for offending him), will be freed upon remembering how he lost his gana status and relating the Great Tale to Kanabhuti.  Moreover, Kanabhuti himself will be redeemed by sharing the Tale with Malyavan.  Finally, Malyavan will be liberated by publishing the Tale.  Immediately after Parvati’s revelations, Pushpadanta and Malyavan are reborn.

Some time later, out of sympathy for them, Parvati inquires of Śiva where exactly they are.  Śiva shares that Pushpadanta now is known as Vararuchi in the city of Kaushambi, and that Malyavan currently goes by the name of Gunadhya in the city of Supratishthita.  While saddened by his attendants’ destinies, Shiva nonetheless goes on to live with Parvati among Kailasa’s delightful wish-fulfilling groves.

Sure enough, true to those fates, Vararuchi interacts with Kanabhuti and, in the process of asking him how he became a goblin, learns four things.  First, Vararuchi is apprised by Kanabhuti that this former yaksha incurred Kubera’s wrath for befriending a wicked demon (rakshasa).  Second, Vararuchi apprehends that the mortal who formerly was the gana Pushpadanta will escape the curse of his human rebirth by teaching the Great Tale to the once yaksha and now goblin Kanabhuti.  Third, Vararuchi is informed that Kubera’s curse on Kanabhuti will conclude as soon as he relays the Tale to the man who used to be the gana Malyavan.  Fourth, Vararuchi gleans that that now man and former gana will be able to curtail the curse of his own human rebirth by sharing the Tale that Kanabhuti will have passed down to him.

This fourfold knowledge prompts Vararuchi to recall that he was Pushpadanta and to relate the seven-story, seven-hundred-thousand-verse Great Tale in full to Kanabhuti.  Afterward, Vararuchi instructs Kanabhuti to wait for the priest (brahmana) Gunadhya, who previously was the gana Malyavan, to tell the Great Tale to him, so as to liberate both Gunadhya and himself from their imprecations.  Vararuchi, also a priest, then enters a meditative state and gives up his human body to regain his gana station.

By the time Kanabhuti is reached by Gunadhya, this priest has vowed not to communicate in Sanskrit, its simpler derivative Prakrit, or his local dialect.  Thus, Gunadhya, who recalls his earlier gana birth as soon as he sees Kanabhuti, speaks with him in the goblin tongue (Paishachi) to request immediately the retelling of the Great Tale (as received from the former Pushpadanta) to terminate the curses on Kanabhuti and Gunadhya.  Kanabhuti shares the originally Sanskrit, seven-story Tale with Gunadhya in Paishachi, and Gunadhya commits the Tale’s Paishachi version to writing over seven years to keep the Vidyadharas from taking that seven-hundred-thousand-couplet composition, which Gunadhya, lacking ink, has inscribed in his own blood.  Upon confirming that Gunadhya has completed his work, Kanabhuti escapes his goblin condition.

Gunadhya’s own self-liberatory efforts, however, are stymied for a time.  He deputes two of his goblin students to take his book to Pratishthana, the capital of King Satavahana, but this ruler refuses to disseminate the poem.  Although he is impressed by its length, he is disgusted by the opus’s gory transcription and goblinese expression.  Burdened with the rejected manuscript, the student duo reports back to Gunadhya, who is pained at the unfortunate news.  Accompanied by his acolytes, he finds a nice isolated spot on a nearby elevation and makes a fire there.  He then moves to consign to it his poem’s every page upon reciting it to the surrounding, riveted, watery-eyed animals, as witnessed by his watery-eyed pupil pair.  Because these two followers especially like and want to learn his one-hundred-thousand-couplet account about Prince Naravahanadatta (who one day will reign over the Vidyadharas), Gunadhya saves that poem section from the flames.

During the book burning, King Satavahana becomes unwell, having consumed meat lacking nutrients because the animals that were its source ceased to eat as they attended closely to Gunadhya’s page-by-page reading.  The monarch himself rushes to this hilltop scene, pays homage to Gunadhya, and requests clarification of what has been happening.  Gunadhya, in his goblin argot, describes his earlier gana birth and the events that have brought him here to the sovereign.  He falls before Gunadhya and requests the Great Tale.  Gunadhya, in the absence of six-sevenths of Shiva’s original work, instructs his students to tell the remnant.  Gunadhya then gives up his human body and becomes divine Malyavan again.  King Satavahana returns to his city with Gunadhya’s disciples, rewards them handsomely with various riches, learns the Tale’s remnant from them, and composes this portion’s first book, Kathapitha (Story’s Revered Seat), in Sanskrit to explain the goblin-spoken and -written transmission of the fractional Tale.  Overflowing with captivating marvels, it makes the city dwellers fail to remember the stories of their deities, and makes its way across the heavens, earth, and elsewhere to achieve neverending fame.

Intra- and Extratraditional Meanings Gleaned from Story’s Revered Seat

Like the other stories of The Ocean, its first book’s origin narrative bears meaning both within and without its Hindu tradition.

That story’s distinction between the original, authorized telling of the Great Tale by Shiva in Sanskrit and the Tale’s unauthorized transmission first wholly by his gana Pushpadanta (after being reborn as Vararuchi) in Sanskrit and by Kanabhuti and by Gunadhya in Paishachi and then partially by Gunadhya’s students in Paishachi and by King Satavahana in Sanskrit evokes the Hindu division between divinely authored shruti texts and humanly authored smriti texts.  Shrutis, which include (among other texts) the ritually intensive hymns of the Vedas and the philosophically focused teachings of the Upanishads, are believed to be received through hearing from gods themselves and require perfect preservation.  Yet smritis, which comprise (among other works) the myths of the theologically rich compendia called Puranas and the codified instructions of the multifarious treatises known as Shastras, are said to be recalled and, somewhat removed from their fleeting composers, are assumed to be endlessly emendable.

Symbolically bridging those divine and human textual levels is The Ocean’s first book’s title, Story’s Revered Seat.  The sitting place indicated by the Sanskrit term pitha can refer not only to divinely associated positions (a deity’s seat, an idol’s pedestal) but also to humanly connected stations (an ascetic student’s cushion of grass, a sovereign’s throne).  So, Shiva’s exalted positions atop Kailasa as its foremost deity, a god who both assumes yogic poses and rules over his mountain sovereignty, are mimicked in combination by the two mortals who try to spread, widely, unsanctioned versions of his Great Tale—the meditating ascetic Gunadhya (who writes down the entire story in Paishachi) and the commanding King Satavahana (who publishes part of that account in Sanskrit).

The circumstances that lead him to revise his initial, disdainful impression of the Tale reveal an additional meaning of The Ocean’s first book’s origin story, which transcends this account’s Hindu context.  As Gunadhya gradually destroys most of the goblin-told Great Tale before the wild creatures that make up most of his witnesses, those animals are sustained by his systematic recitation of each of the Tale’s ill-fated pages rather than by their usual food.  But the ruler who feeds on certain of these beasts, Satavahana, has not yet found a substitute for their physically undernourished flesh and thus falls ill.  Only after committing himself to transmitting the fractional Tale, and thereby preventing the original Tale’s utter disappearance, does he appear to thrive again.

Here, then, Somadeva suggests the necessity of narrative to human life.  No matter where the stories that people tell originate, those psychologically supportive sagas enthralling their audiences are vital to survival.  This message applies and appeals to anyone able to follow a storyline and to get its gist.  As people themselves participate in preserving the tales that captivate them, these erstwhile listeners, in turn, play, to some degree, the parts of storytellers.

Story’s Revered Seat’s Artistic Souvenir

In remembrance of the sedentary storytelling session with which The Ocean began stands this watercolor painting of the divine Kailasan couple in repose.

Parvati In Shivas Lap

Made on layered cotton cloth by Rabi Behera in Odisha’s Patachitra tradition, this joyously colorful work, “Parvati in the Lap of Shiva,” features the deity pair in their Kailasan chamber.  Their visible delight in and devotion to each other show that theirs is a meeting of minds as well as of bodies.  An apt representation of the interpersonal connection and intellectual stimulation that storysharing can nurture!

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