On “The Ocean of the Rivers of Story (volume one of seven)”, “The Ocean of the Rivers of Story (volume two of seven)” and “The Ocean of the Rivers of Story (volume three to seven of seven)” Sir James Mallinson

Soma·deva wrote his “The Ocean of the Rivers of Story” (Kathāsaritsāgara) in Kashmir in the twelfth century CE. It is a vast collection of tales based upon the “Long Story” (Bṛhatkathā), a now lost (or perhaps legendary) repository of Indian fables, in which prince Nara·váhana·datta wins 26 wives and becomes the emperor of the sorcerers. It has tales within tales within tales. Sometimes funny, sometimes instructive, sometimes exciting, they are used to illustrate points within the narrative or simply as entertainment for the protagonists. Its twenty thousand verses are written in simple but elegant Sanskrit and it has long been used as an introductory text for students of the language.

When the CSL editors suggested I might like to translate the Kathāsaritsāgara I was immediately interested, not least because I had already translated the “The Emperor of the Sorcerers” (Bṛhatkathāsaritsāgara) for the series and had been bitten by the Bṛhatkathā bug. The question of the existence of an ur-text of the various works said to be based on the Bṛhatkathā will probably never be answered and so far I haven’t turned my attention to it, but I love being swept away in the flood of stories which are said to have their origins therein, and there is no greater source of them than the Kathāsaritsāgara.

In the Bṛhatkathāsaritsāgara, the central narrative of the exploits of Nara·váhana·datta may sometimes be swamped by the other stories but it is never very far away and all the stories are initimately connected with it. The tale of Nara·váhana·datta is handled with great skill. Small details pick up on episodes found thousands of verses earlier and Nara·váhana·datta is portrayed as a very human hero whose character we see develop over the course of the story. In the Kathāsaritsāgara, however, one quickly forgets why one is being told most of the tales. In some respects this is to the detriment of the work — the central narrative is sidelined along with any real character development and this is not particularly suited to modern tastes. The trick is to lose sight of the wood and concentrate on the trees: let yourself be carried away by each individual story as listeners in India would have done. (Perhaps the main Bṛhatkathā narrative was so well known that Somadeva felt no need to keep it in the forefront.)

One of the first tales of the Kathāsaritsāgara in which to lose oneself is the story of Upakósha, the beautiful wife of Vara·ruchi. Vara·ruchi has gone away and various civic dignitaries try to force themselves on Upakósha. She shuns each one in turn, telling them to come to her house at successive intervals on the same night. When each turns up she contrives to have him stripped, smeared in lampblack and locked in a chest. Then comes the merchant Hiránya·gupta, who is refusing to return the money entrusted to him by Vara·ruchi for his wife’s upkeep. In the hope of making love to Upakósha he tells her in front of the chest that he will return the money. Then he too is stripped and smeared in lampblack before being thrown out into the brightening dawn. In the morning Upakósha goes to the king’s palace.

There Upakósha told the king in person that the merchant Hiránya·gupta wanted to steal the money that her husband had deposited with him. She then said, “I have witnesses, my lord. My husband put the gods of the household in a chest before he went away. Hiránya·gupta admitted the deposit before them in his own words. Have the chest brought here and ask the gods yourself.”

On hearing this the king was so astonished that he ordered the chest to be fetched. It was immediately brought in by a crowd of men.

Then Upakosha said, “Tell truthfully, o gods, what this merchant said and then go home, otherwise I shall either set fire to you or open the chest in the assembly.”

When they heard this the terrified men in the chest said, “It is true. He admitted the deposit in our presence.”

With nothing to say in reply, the merchant confessed to everything.

Then the king was so intrigued that with Upakósha’s permission he had the bolt shot and the chest opened there in the assembly. Looking like three blobs of blackness, the men were taken out and recognised with difficulty by the ministers and the king.

Then, while everyone laughed at them, the curious king asked the good lady what was going on and she recounted everything.

The members of the assembly praised Upakósha, saying, “Unimaginable is the behaviour of respectable ladies hidden behind their virtuous conduct!”

Then each of those men who had coveted another’s wife had all his property taken away and was banished by the king. No one prospers through bad behaviour.

C.H.Tawney’s translation of the Kathāsaritsāgara, which was first published in 1880, has been a friend to scholars and students ever since. It is clear and accurate so one might well ask what point there is in translating it again. Well, its language and attitudes are in places somewhat archaic (couples not only don’t make love, they don’t even sleep together), it does contain a few mistakes and it isn’t based on the Nirnaya Press’s 1915 edition of the Sanskrit text, the edition favoured by Sanskritists today. Moreover, it is not to be found in the CSL format so my translation should make life much easier for students.