‘Tales from the Kathāsaritsāgara’ – an excerpt

An excerpt from ‘Tales from the Kathāsaritsāgara’ – Somadeva

Translated from the Sanskrit with an Introduction by Arshia Sattar

Penguin Books India


p.84 – 91 of ‘Ratnaprabhā’


            When Naravāhanadatta had obtained Ratnaprabhā, his new Vidyādharī bride, he stayed with her in her house.  The next day, his minister Gomukha and others came to visit.  They were detained at the door by the door-keeper who allowed them to enter only after their arrival had been announced.  They were welcomed with honour and said to the door-keeper, ‘Do not stop my husband’s friends at the door like this again, for they are dearer to me than my life.  I do not think that women’s apartments should be guarded in this manner.’  Then she said to her husband, ‘Listen to what I have to say on the subject of the protection of women.  I think that the custom of guarding them so carefully is useless.  It arises from jealousy and serves no purpose at all.  Well-born women protect themselves with chastity as their only bodyguard.  But even the gods cannot protect the promiscuous, for no one can control a river or a lusty woman!  Listen and I will tell you a story.


The City Of Unchaste Women


‘In the middle of the ocean there is an island named Ratnakūta .  In the old days, it was ruled by a brave king who was a devotee of Vishnu and he was rightly named Ratnādhipati as he had several jewels in his possession.  He wanted to conquer the world and make all the royal princesses his wives and so he undertook a great penance to propitiate Vishnu.  Vishnu was pleased with Ratnādhipati and appeared to him in his manifest form and said, “Arise, for I am pleased with you.  Listen to what I am going to say.  In the country of Kalinga there is a gandharva who was cursed by a muni and has been born as a white elephant named śvetaraśmi.  Because of his penances in his previous birth and his devotion to me, śvetaraśmi has divine wisdom.  He can also fly through the air and remembers his past lives.  In a dream, I instructed him to come here through the air and become your mount.  You must ride that white elephant the way Indra rides Airāvata and fly through the air.  Whichever king you visit thus will honour your presence and give you his daughter in marriage as a tribute for I will have already ordered them to do so in a dream.  In this way you will conquer the entire earth as well as all its harems and you will marry eighty thousand princesses.”  After saying this, Vishnu disappeared. 

‘The king broke his fast and the next day, he saw the white elephant in the sky.  He mounted him as Vishnu had instructed and conquered the entire earth and all the princesses.  Ratnādhipati lived happily with his eighty thousand wives, enjoying himself as he pleased.  Every day, he fed five hundred Brāhmins to please the pious elephant, śvetaraśmi.  One day, the king was mounted on his elephant and was roaming around the other islands.  When he returned to his own island and was coming down from the air, a bird descended from Garuda struck that wonderful elephant with its beak.  The king attacked the bird with his sharp elephant-goad and the bird flew away but the elephant fell to the ground in a faint.  The king dismounted but the elephant, though he regained consciousness, was unable to stand despite all the efforts that were made and soon, he stopped eating.  The elephant lay where he had fallen for five days and the king was so upset that he, too, stopped eating and prayed.  “O guardians of the quarters, tell me the solution to this problem for otherwise I will cut off my own head and offer it to you!”  He pulled out his sword and prepared to cut off his head when a voice rang out of the sky.  “Do not act in haste.  The elephant will rise only if he is touched by the hand of a chaste woman!” 

‘The king was delighted and called for his own wife and chief queen, the carefully guarded Amritalatā.  When the elephant did not rise at the touch of her hand Ratnādhipati called all his other wives.  One by one they all touched the elephant but he did not rise, for not a single one of them was chaste.  The king was terribly embarrassed when his eighty thousand wives were humiliated in public and so he called for all the women in his city and made each of them touch the elephant.  But the elephant still did not rise and the king was shamed for there was not even one chaste woman in the entire city.

            ‘Meanwhile, a merchant named Harshagupta came to Ratnakūta from Tāmraliptī for he had heard what had happened and was filled with curiosity.  Among his retinue was a servant woman named śīlavatī who was devoted to her husband.  When she saw what had happened, she said, “I will touch the elephant with my hand and if it is true that I have not even thought about a man apart from my husband, then it will rise.”  She touched the elephant and it stood up and began to eat.  All the people gathered there were delighted to see śvetaraśmi stand up and they shouted with joy and said, “Chaste women like this are hard to find, who, like śiva, can create, preserve and destroy the world!”   Ratnādhipati was also very pleased with the chaste śīlavatī and gave her all kinds of wealth and jewels.  He also honoured her master, Harshagupta, and gave him a mansion near the palace.  He decided to have nothing more to do with his own wives and ordered that they be given only basic food and clothing.

            ‘After the king had bathed, he sent for the chaste śīlavatī and in private, in front of Harshagupta, said to her, “If there is another girl in your father’s family then give her to me in marriage for I know that she will be chaste and virtuous like you.”  śīlavatī replied that she had a sister, Rājadattā, in Tāmraliptī and that the king could marry her if he so desired for she was very beautiful.  The king agreed and, along with śīlavatī and Harshagupta, he mounted śvetaraśmi and flew through the air on a personal visit to Tāmraliptī.

            Ratnādhipati went to Harshagupta’s house and that very day, he consulted astrologers for an auspicious time for him to marry Rājadattā.  The astrologers made enquiries about the stars that the two of them had been born under and said, “An auspicious conjunction for this wedding will arrive three months from now.  If you marry Rājadattā under the present configuration she will definitely prove to be unchaste.”  Despite what the astrologers said, the king was eager to marry this beautiful woman for he was tired of living along.  He thought to himself, “Enough of this debating!  I want to marry Rājadattā today.  She is the chaste śīlavatī’s sister and would never be unfaithful!  There is an island in the middle of the ocean that is completely uninhabited.  I will place her in the empty palace there and have her surrounded by women guards.  How will she be unfaithful when she will not even see a man?”

            ‘The king hastily married Rājadattā, who was given to him by śīlavatī.  After he had been received according to custom by Harshagupta, he took his wife and śīlavatī, mounted śvetaraśmi and returned through the air to Ratnakūta where the people eagerly awaited his arrival. He richly rewarded śīlavatī, who had now fulfilled all her desires because she had reaped the fruits of her virtue.  Ratnādhipati placed his wife on that elephant which could fly through the air and took her to the island which was inaccessible to men.  There, he placed her in the empty palace and sent whatever she needed through the air with the elephant because he was so distrustful.  He was deeply attached to Rājadattā and so he spent every night with her but returned to Ratnakūta during the day to perform his royal duties.

            ‘One day, the king had an ill-omened dream and so he indulged in a drinking game with Rājadattā to get over his discomfort at the dream.  Rājadattā was drunk and did not want Ratnādhipati to leave but he returned to Ratnakūta to attend to the royal affairs, for kingship requires great dedication.  He transacted his business but all the while, his mind was uneasy, dwelling on the fact that he had left his wife alone in a drunken state.  Meanwhile, Rājadattā was truly alone in that inaccessible place, for her servants were busy with their domestic chores.  Suddenly she saw a man enter the door, like destiny that was determined to undo all the precautions taken to guard her.  She was filled with astonishment when she saw him and because she was a little drunk, she went up to him and asked him who he was and why he had come to that isolated place.


The Story Of Rājadattā’s Lover


            That man, who had endured many hardships, said to Rājadattā, “I am the son of a merchant from Mathurā and my name is Pavanasena.  When my father died, I was left an orphan and my family took away all my wealth.  I went to another country and had to resort to the indignity of serving another man.  With great difficulty, I managed to collect a little wealth through trading but once when I was travelling, I was raided by thieves along the way.  Then I wandered as a beggar with others like myself and finally came to a mine of jewels known as Kanakashetra.  I was contracted to pay the king of the area his share but even after digging for a whole year, I did not find a single jewel.  While the other men that I was with were overjoyed with the jewels that they had found, I was overcome with sadness and went to the seashore and began to gather firewood.  As I was collecting the wood to build a funeral pyre for myself, a merchant named Jīvadatta came that way.  He was a compassionate man and he persuaded me not to kill myself.  He fed me and as he was going to the island of Svarnadvīpa the next day, he took me with him.

            “After we had been sailing on the ocean for five days, huge clouds suddenly appeared.  Torrential rain began to fall and the wind spun the ship around as if it were the head of a rutting elephant.  The ship sank in a moment but I was lucky enough to grab a plank just as we were sinking.  I climbed up on it and, at that very moment, the storm abated.  Impelled by destiny, I came to this island and reached a forest.  When I saw this rest-house, I entered it and here I saw you who are like a shower of nectar to my weary eyes.”  Rājadattā, impassioned by love and wine, pushed him onto the couch and took him in her arms.  Where the five fires of womanhood, drunkenness, solitude, lust for a man and lack of self-control exist together, what chance does good conduct have?  That a woman in the throes of love has no discretion is proved by the queen’s attachment to that repulsive and unfortunate creature.


Ratnādhipati Learns The Truth


            ‘Meanwhile, Ratnādhipati, the king of Ratnakūta, was eagerly on his way to the island, mounted on the sky-flying elephant.  He entered the palace and saw his wife Rājadattā in the arms of another man.  He was completely repulsed by the sight of that man and wanted to kill him, but he did not do so, for the man fell at his feet and cried piteously.  Ratnādhipati saw that his wife was really frightened despite her drunken state and he thought to himself, “How can a woman who is addicted to wine, that chief cause of lust, ever be faithful?  It is not possible to control a lustful woman even if she is guarded.  Can one expect to hold a whirlwind in one’s arms?  This is the result of my ignoring the astrologers’ predictions.  Those who ignore the words of the wise are left with a bitter taste in their mouths.  When I learned that Rājadattā was śīlavatī’s sister I forgot that the kālakūta poison was born along with the elixir of immortality.  Besides, man can never match the workings of Fate!”

            ‘Thinking thus, the king was not angry and spared the life of his wife’s lover after asking him his life story.  When the merchant’s son was dismissed from there, he had few options left.  He saw a ship coming in from afar and he climbed on to his plank and while drifting in the sea, he cried out, “Save me!  Save me!”  A merchant named Krodhavarmā was aboard the ship and he pulled the merchant’s son out of the water and took him as a helper.  The act which is appointed for a man’s destruction follows him wherever he may go.  For this idiot was discovered by Krodhavarmā in a secret relationship with his wife and was cast into the sea where he drowned.

            ‘Meanwhile, Ratnādhipati made Rājadattā and her servants climb onto śvetaraśmi and without any anger, brought her back to Ratnakūta and handed her over to śīlavatī.  He narrated the incident to his ministers and said, “What sorrow I have suffered as a result of my attachment to these meaningless and insubstantial pleasures!  I will now go to the forest and take refuge with Vishnu so that I am never again the vehicle for such pain!”  His ministers and śīlavatī tried to dissuade him but the king was disillusioned with the world and would not change his mind.  The king renounced all pleasures and gave half his wealth to the virtuous śīlavatī and the other half to the Brāhmins.  He made over his kingdom in the prescribed fashion to a superior Brāhmin named Pāpabhañjana.  While his subjects watched with tears in their eyes, he called for śvetaraśmi so that he could retire to an āśrama in the forest.

            ‘As soon as the elephant was brought in, it renounced its body and a divine-looking man emerged wearing a necklace and a bracelet.  The king asked him who he was and what all this meant.  The man said, “There were two gandharva brothers living on Mount Malaya.  I am Somaprabha and my elder brother was named Devaprabha.  My brother had only one wife and he loved her dearly.  Her name was Rājavatī.  One day, when he was roaming through the air with her in his arms and I was also with them, we reached a place named Siddhavāsa.  We worshipped Vishnu in his temple there and sang hymns of praise.  Soon a siddha arrived there and could not take his eyes of Rājavatī who was singing beautifully.  My brother grew jealous and angry and said to the siddha, ‘How is it that despite being a siddha you are gazing lustfully at another man’s wife?’  The siddha was outraged and cursed him.  ‘Idiot! I was admiring the song, not your wife!  For that, you will be born in a human womb as will your wife, and you will have to see her in the arms of another man with your own eyes!’

            “I was angry when I heard the curse and in my immaturity, I hit the siddha with a toy elephant that I had in my hand that day.  Then he cursed me as well. ‘You will be born an elephant like the one with which you just hit me!’  But the siddha was compassionate and when he was propitiated by my brother, he pronounced an end to our curses.  ‘Devaprabha, even though you shall be mortal, through Vishnu’s favour you shall become the king of an island and your brother shall come to you as an elephant that is worthy of the gods.  You shall obtain eighty thousand wives and shall learn of their unchasteness in public.  After that, you shall marry the woman that your present wife has become and you shall see her in the arms of another man.  You shall become disgusted with the world and shall give your kingdom to a Brāhmin.  When you retire to the forest, your brother shall be released first from his curse as an elephant.  Then you and your wife shall also be released from your curses.’  This was the end of the curse that the siddha pronounced and we were all born as a result of our acts in our earlier births.  Now the end of our curse has arrived!”

            ‘After Somaprabha had said this, Ratnādhipati recalled his previous birth and said, “Indeed, I am that very Devaprabha and Rājadattā is my earlier wife Rājavatī.”  Then he and his wife gave up their human bodies and turned into gandharvas in a moment.  In front of all the people, they rose into the air and returned to Mount Malaya, their home.  śīlavatī grew prosperous because of her virtues and went back to Tāmraliptī where she continued her life of good deeds.

            ‘Thus it is true that a woman cannot be guarded by force in this world.  But young women from good families are protected by their own virtue.  Jealousy causes pointless pain and is irritating to others.  Instead of protecting women, it creates desire within them.’

             Naravāhanadatta and his minsters were very pleased when they heard this sensible story from Ratnaprabhā .


Copyright Arshia Sattar 1994


Apologies for the mix of proper transliteration symbols and phonetically rendered sounds, and the absence of capital letters for certain names.  It is difficult to represent the proper transliteration using this software.  I hope it’s readable at least if not strictly correct.  – VA


1 Response to “‘Tales from the Kathāsaritsāgara’ – an excerpt”

  1. 1 Rajiv Bhardwaj September 28, 2008 at 3:17 pm

    Beautiful story.
    Its difficult to believe that such wisdom existed so long ago.

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