The Kathasaritasagara is said to have been compiled by a Kashmiri Saivite Brahmin called Somadeva in AD 1070, although the date has not been conclusively established. Legend has it that Somadeva composed the Kathasaritasagara for queen Suryavati, wife of King Anantadeva who ruled Kashmir in the eleventh century. The stories in this book are retold from ten of the eighteen books of the original Kathasaritasagara.
The most remarkable feature of the Kathasaritasagara is that unlike other texts of the time, it offers no moral conclusions, no principles to live by and is throughout a celebration of earthly life. The tale of Naravahanadatta, the prince of the vidyadharas, the sky-dwellers with magical powers, comprises the narrative and is used as an outer frame to introduce the stories in the text.
Promiscuous married women and clever courtesans, imbecile Brahmins, incompetent kings and wise ministers, wicked mendicants and holy ascetics, cursed men and men who are granted boons, all jostle for attention in Arshia Sattar’s masterful translation of this timeless collection of tales.
Although his dates have not been conclusively established, according to some historical records Somadeva was a Kashmiri Saivite Brahmin who lived in the eleventh century during the rule of King Anantadeva. Legend has it that he composed the Kathasaritsagara around AD 1070 for queen Suryamati, wife of King Anantadeva. However, the stories in the Kathasaritsagara were in circulation long before Somadeva compiled them into this particular collection. The Kathasaritsagara is supposed to be part of a larger text, the Brhatkata, composed by Gunadhya who is generally reckoned to be a mythical figure.
Arshia Sattar has a Ph.D. from the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilization from the University of Chicago. Her areas of interest are Indian epics, mythology, and the story traditions of the subcontinent. She also reviews books and writes on women’s issues and contemporary culture for various newspapers and magazines.
The Kathasaritasagara tells ‘tales of wondrous maidens and their fearless lovers, of kings and cities, of statecraft and intrigue, of magic and spells, of treachery and trickery, murder and war, tales of blood-sucking vampires, devils, goblins and ghouls, stories of animals in fact and fable, and stories, too, of beggars, ascetics, drunkards, gamblers, prostitutes and bawds. The ‘Ocean of the Sea of Story’ is a vast, rambling and thoroughly captivating treasure trove of tales. For their sheer widespread popular appeal, the stories in the Kathasaritasagara rank with the Arabian Nights and Grimms’ fairy tales. However, despite the fact that the Kathasaritasagara shares a universe with other collections of popular tales in other cultures, within the context of classical Indian Sanskrit texts, it remains unusual, if not an outright aberration.
In many of its formal and structural features, the Kathasaritasagara conforms to Indian literary convention, with its framed narratives, its semi-divine author and its tales of the interaction between the gods, mythical creatures and human beings. But equally, it has its own niche. Like Visnu Sarma’s Pancatantra, a compendium of fables, where animals stand in for humans and each tale is a medium for teaching, the Kathasaritasagara has worldly concerns. But unlike the Pancatantra, the tales in this text have little or no moral intent. There is no overarching unity of theme, religion or perspective. The Kathasaritasagara speaks of the world as a many-humans of various persuasions and motivations act and interact with varying degrees of success and failure. Generosity and pettiness, love and betrayal, sacrifice and selfishness are emotions displayed equally by Brahmins and Sudras, by kings and courtesans, for everyone in this text is concerned with only one thing-worldly pleasure and power.
Of the four purusarthas in the Hindu world, the Kathasaritasagara is animated by artha. Scholars have often pointed out that the truly remarkable feature of the Kathasaritasagara in its Indian context is that it is very clearly collection of stories that celebrates earthly life with all its joys and sorrows, its triumphs and defeats, its petty ambitions and noble aspirations. The characters in almost all the stories seek power, money and success on earth.
The Kathasaritasagara is generally regarded as a Hindu text because it comes out of a Hindu milieu and because it is in Sanskrit, the classical language of Hinduism. But even a cursory glance at the stories that it contains will indicate to the perceptive reader that the collection is eclectic and profane, rather than religious. Religious mendicants and rogues, forest tribes and Brahmins, Buddhists, pasupatas, vidyadharas and pisccas are handled with same ironic detachment. ‘Caste destinies’ in the Kathasaritasagara ocean are most often not pervading ethos of the Kathasaritasagara is Hindu, one that is familiar to the general reader from other Indian texts and from Indian history.
The Kathasaritasagara as we have it today was put together by a Kishmiri Saivaite Brahmin, Somadeva, around 1070 CE. This however, does not mean that Somadeva ‘invented’ the stories that comprise the Kathasaritasagara, for these teles had probably been in existence and in common currency for centuries already. The presence of Jataka tales and stories from the Pancatantra, as well as brief versions of Puranic myths and that Somadeva performed the function of a compiler, a re-teller of tales, rather that of an ‘author’ in the modern sense.
Somadeva states in his epilogue that he composed the Kathasaritasagara for the queen Suryavati, wife if King Anantadeva of Kashmir. Kallana’s Rajatarangini, historical chronicle of the kings of Kashmir, states that Anantadeva’s rule was a time of political turbulence ans strife in the kingdom, with Anantadeva and his son Kalasa battling each other for the throne. Kalasa killed his father in 1081, and his mother, Suryavati, is said to have committed sati on the pyre of her husband. While she lived, the queen was known for building monasteries and collection of stories ‘would, even for a brief while, divert the queen’s mind from its usual inclination towards worshipping Siva and acquiring learning from the great books.’
It is the great god Siva himself who sets up the pedestal upon which Somadeva’s dizzingly complex web of tales in built. The Kathasaritasagara opens with Parvati asking Siva to tell her a story that she had never heard before. Siva relates the adventures of the vidyaharas to Parvati because ‘the gods were always too happy and mortals were always too miserable, whereas the adventures of semi-divine beings were always interesting.’ As Siva narrates the tales of seven vidyadhara princes, they are overheard by one of his attendants who repeats them to his own wife who happens to be Paravati’s door-keeper. This woman, in turn, tell the stories to Paravtai’s who is enraged that Siva had told her a story that even her door-keeper knew. The erring attendant, Malyavan, is cursed to be reborn on earth as Gunadhya, where he will remain until he has spread the tale that he overheard far and wide. Thus, the story comes to earth and is told in the world of mortals by a narrator who is actually a celestial being.
Setting aside the questions that inevitably arise from the divine source of the Ocean of Stories, the text’s won account of its subsequent corpus. On earth, Gunadhya writes the Brhatkatha, i.e., all the seven tales that he heard from Siva, on bark in his own blood using the Paisaci language. The ‘manuscript’ is presented to a Satavahana king by Gunadhya’s students but the king rejects it because it is written in blood and in a crude and unsophisticated tongue. Crushed, Gunadhya, the first earthly narratorburns the manuscripts of six of the seven takes that comprised the Brhatkatha. The one book that was salvaged from the proverbial flames was the adventures of the vidyadhara prince, Naravahanadatta. When the Satavahana king heard this tale, he was entreanced by it and decreed that it should be preserved.
The Satavahana monarch also added the Kathapitha to the adventures of Naravanadatta, a preamble that tells the story of how Malyavan was cursed, his life on earth as Gunadhya and the role played by the king himself in the preservation of the last tale. In short, the Kathapitha chronicles how the divine story came to be spread among humans. It is this Kathapitha and the adventures of Naravahanadatta that from the Kathasaritsagara. Naravahanadatta’s story, the skeleton that holds the multiplying stories of the Kathasaritasagara together, begins in the second book of the collections, the Kathamukha. From this point on, in sixteen further books, the Kathasaritasagara unleashes its rivers and streams, tributaries and distributaries’, lakes and seas of stories.
At its very start, then, the Kathasaritasagara points beyond itself to a larger collection of tales, the Brhatkatha, in a different and supposedly mythical language. But even as it points to larger text, it also states that the larger part of the larger text has been lost. Also in the Kathapitha, we are confronted with a narrator, Gunadhya who acts within the story that he tells. This provides the perfect point-of-view twist to an already complicated myth of origins. What has been transmitted through this tortuous route into Somadeva’s eleventh-century Sanskrit version is a mammoth set of wonderful tales, their origins shrouded in the smoke of Gunadhya’s fire. They are made all the more remarkable for the conspicuous lack of attention they have received from scholars and readers.
As in the case of other Indian texts, scholars have grappled with the authorship of the Kathasaritasagara. While Somadeva may well be the ‘author’ outside the texts, Siva and Gunadhya are the authors inside the text. If we accept that Somadeva was a historical person who put the tales together from a larger collection, we still have to contend with the ‘authorship’ of Gunadhya who is a celestial born as a human with the express purpose of spreading the tale that he overheard, the tale of which we now have but a part. But before we investigate the issues of ‘authorship’ and divine origins, we should examine the material and linguistic history of the text we have in front of us.
‘The Ocean of Story’ is my very favourite collection of stories. It is a wonderful combination of simultaneously innocent and sophisticated folk common sense and highly sophisticated Sanskrit court style. It paints a vivid picture of a most particular part of India at one moment in history, and yet it tells stories that are the Indian variants-often the Indian sources-of stories told around the world. I can think of no one better qualified to capture these polarities than Arshia Sattar, who embodies in herself an unparalleled sear-of-the-pants brilliance and the subtle understanding of a cosmopolitan Indian woman who has lived, and lived well, in both India and the west. Her exuberance and her pleasure in the text spill out of every page of the introduction and infuse every page of the translation. She is a great storyteller herself, and a great appreciator of other peoples’ stories.
The only competing English translation and edition of this text is the so-called Twenty-Penzer edition, a translation by C.H. Tawney, edited with copious notes by N.M. Penzer, and published in ten several virtues that the older edition lacks. First of all, it is in our language. Second, its author is a native of India. And, third, it is a selection, a book that one can read from cover to cover. Let me discuss this triad of virtues one by one.
One reason why it is necessary to retranslate a great classic every century at least is that our own language keeps changing, and each generation needs a new translation that reflects its own voice. This is why people did not stop translating Homer even after Chapman did it, and it with genius, producing what may still be the most beautiful translation of Homer, just as many people regard the Bible. ‘The Ocean of Story’ requires such an updating even more than those other classics do, sine it is such a now kind of book, so immediate, so worldly, so vernacular. It cries out for a fresh voice, and it has found that voice in Arshia Sattar. A good test for a translation is just to read it aloud and see if it says what it says in the way that the characters in the story are likely to have said it. Every single sentence of this translation passes than test, with flying colours.
A second virtue of this translation lies in the fact that Arshia Sattar is a native daughter. Sidestepping for the moment all the post-colonial, anti-Orientalist, hegemonic subaltern discourse about Western scholars who appropriate Indian texts, it remains the case that there is a particular lilting, vital quality in the translator. ‘Good’ is an important qualifier. It is generally the case, I think, that it is better for a translator to be native in the language into rather than the language out of which she translates. In the present instance this is the only possibility, since there are no longer any native speakers of Sanskrit; the next best thing would be a Hindi is derived from Sanskrit. But a well-educated young Indian woman of the merchant text; again, this speaks English from birth, though such a woman, when educated in India rather than in England of English fluency. She also brings a native understanding of the text, of the way things smell and taste and sound in India, if the lay of land in which the text was written. This gives Arshia Sattar the inside track against any potential British or American competitors, over and above her particular advantage over Penzer in that she is still alive, while they are lone dead.
Finally, the selection. It is a Good Thing to have the whole translation of a great text available for scholarly use, but there are things that a good selection can do that the full translation cannot. First of all, you can read it all. Who among us has read the entire Mahabhartata, or for that matter, the entire Tewenty/Penzer translation of ‘The Ocean of Story’? Second of all, you can carry it around with you, take it to the beach, read it in the bathroom, give it as a present to your friends. You can assign it to your students to read. More important, perhaps, the accessibility of a good, readable selection enables the text to enter into conversation with other texts in our contemporary tradition, a tradition which, in this Kali Yuga of mass culture, regards anything over 350 pages as ‘heavy’. And, finally, a good selection-and this is a very good selection-allows even those few scholars who have the time, drive, leisure, and motive to read the original, enables even them to see the patterns and structures of the text that the full rendition obscures. Arshia Sattar has struck a perfect balance, including enough of the frame story so that we never allowing it to overwhelm the human detail of the individual stories contained within that frame; including enough of the famous stories so that we do not miss any of our old favourites, but also ferreting out enough obscure stories so that we learn something new on every page. She has somehow managed to reduce the length of the text without in any reducing its texture or its total effect.
So we are triply in Ms. Sattar’s debt for the translation. As for her introduction, it is masterful scholarly achievement, full of wit and insight. It presents the reader with everything that anyone should know about the text, as well as with a great deal that the reader will enjoy knowing but might not necessarily need to know, and might not be told about by less imaginative scholars than Ms. Sattar. Ms. Sattar treats the Orientalists gently but mockingly, and judiciously doles out credit and blame in reviewing the use of the text as one of the foundation stones of the great Teutonic edifice of Western folklore. She invokes the metaphor of the onion to illuminate the elusive nature of Indian storytelling, a metaphor all the more apt since anthropologists have used the onion to describe the Self in India, in contrast with the Western idea of the Self as an artichoke, in which you throw away the leaves and get down to the heart. For what should anyone have in the heart but a good story? Ms. Sattar also brilliantly employs the metaphor of the Moebius strip explain the convolutions of the frame story-the leaves of the artichoke, it I may mix both metaphors and cultures. And she concludes her introduction by inviting refuse? Who, having read this far, will put the book down? What more can I say? You have a wonderful swimming companion. Dive in.
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