The Kathasaritsagara

The Kathasaritsagara, also known under the title of “Ocean of the Streams of Story,” is a compilation of individual fables that, collectively, make up the whole of the Kathasaritsagara. The individual accredited with compiling the Kathasaritsagara, as the exact origins of the individual fables are unknown, was an eleventh century Kashmire Brahmin by the name of Somadeva Bhatta. (Haase 531; Franke 316). The collection falls under the category of Indian art called kavya; individuals who utilized kavya art forms “display their skill…by presenting well-known subjects in a refined and sophisticated poetical form” (Franke 316). It is noted by several sources, and within the prefaces of such translators as C.H. Tawney’s 1880 English version of the Kathasaritsagara, that the work was compiled for the entertainment of a queen by the name of Suryamati, the wife of a king named Anantadeva of Kashmir (Haase 531-532; Franke 316). It is also believed that in addition to simple entertainment, the Kathasaritsagara was compiled with the intention of providing the queen with a form of distraction and comfort from several hardships that were experienced in the family, particularly surrounding her husband and son (Franke 316). The hardships were characterized by the hatred and animosity that existed between Suryamati’s husband, Anantadeva, and their son (Franke 316). Unfortunately, the animosity between Anantadeva and Suryamati’s son eventually led to Anantadeva commiting the act of suicide (Franke 316).

Over the years since the Kathasaritsagara was first compiled, the work has been translated and edited, in whole or in part, from the original Sanskrit versions into languages such as German, English, and Persian. Each translation and editation of the Kathasaritsagara holds its own merits and backstories.

Several known editors and translators have worked versions of the Kathasaritsagara into English variations. One such translator of the work is Sir Richard Francis Burton. Specifically, Sir Richard Francis Burton worked with one of the fables in the Kathasaritsagara in order to translate that particular piece into English. The fable that Burton translated is entitled Vetalapanchavinsati, however, it is also known through its translated names of “Tales of a Vampire, Vikram and the Vampire,” as well as “Tales of Indian Devilry” (Haase 532; Burton 1868). An easily accessible version of Burton’s work can be found online (Burton 1868).

Another popular English version of the Kathasaritsagara was translated by C.H. Tawney in the year of 1880. Tawney’s translation has resulted in the entirety of the Kathasaritsagara being available to audiences in the English language. Within his version, C.H. Tawney provides an index, glossary, as well as commentary. The commentary that C.H. Tawney provides can be found at the bottom of several of the pages, some of which includes comparisons of the fables present in the Kathasaritsagara to others. C.H. Tawney’s translation of the Kathasaritsagara is available online, but it is broken into two volumes (Haase 532; Penzer 3). An edited version of Tawney’s translation by N.M Penzer contains ten volumes (Haase 532; Penzer 3).

One particular German version of the Kathasaritsagara, was translated by an individual by the name of Hermann Brechams. His version of the Kathasaritsagara is noted by Donald Haase, in his work “The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Folktales and Fairy Tales.” The German version that has been translated by Breckhams is available online, similarly to other translated versions of the work (Breckhams 1862). A noted Sanskrit version of the text has been edited by two men, known as Pandit Durgaprasad and his son, Kashinath Pandurang Parab. Another edited version, in Sanskrit, of the Kathasaritsagara was completed by Brockhaus; The two versions are compared for their differences by Speyer (Speyer 61-75). A copy of the Sanskrit version, of the Kathasaritsagara, Pandit Durgaprasad and Kashinath Pandurang Parab’s translation is available to audiences online (Parab & Durgaprasad 1930; Speyer 61).

The Persian version of the Kathasaritsagara was translated from Sanskrit into Persian for the Mughal emperor, Akbar (Franke 313). The translation likely was inspired upon the visit of Akbar to Srinagar in the year of 1589 (Franke 313). It is suspected that during his visit to Srinagar that Akbar became introduced to the Kathasaritsagara, and then ordered its translation into the Persian language (Franke 313). One well-known version of the Kathasaritsagara that was translated for Akbar contained illustrations in addition to the translation of the collection (Franke 313). Unfortunately, one cannot find a whole copy of such a manuscript anymore, at least not of that concerning the translations that had been created for Akbar (Franke 313-315). The reason that one cannot find a whole manuscript from Akbar’s time in Persian is due to the fact that it was disassembled; what is left of the manuscript can be found in portions (Franke 313-315). Some of the illustrations that are believed to have originated from the manuscript, created for Akbar, are now in private collections and in the collections or available to be viewed through museums (Franke 313-315). Museums that currently have some of the illustrations from the manuscript in their collections includes the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Franke 313-315; The Metropolitan Museum; Los Angeles County Museum of Art). The Metropolitan Museum currently portrays two of their acquired illustrations from the Kathasaritsagara in their online collection (The Metropolitan Museum). The Los Angeles County Museum of Art displays three illustrations from the Kathasaritsagara (Los Angeles County Museum of Art).

The Kathasaritsagara, as a collection of fables, adheres to the general role that stories categorized under the term of fables follows. Fables are categorized separately from other forms of literature due to the fact that fables are meant to serve a specific purpose aside from that of providing entertainment or information. As stated by H.J. Blackham, “A fable takes or invents representative material offered to reflection.” (Blackham 224) Therefore, the overall purpose of fables can be understood as a way in which to provide readers and audiences with narratives that allow for the reader to gain insight to utilize within the context of different situations in their lives. The Kathasaritsagara begins by laying a foundation story under which many of the fables carry on in separate stories that are able to be connected, similarly to that of a series. Each individual story provides audiences with a message or lesson to be passed on for the individual to apply into the lives of the audience members.

The Kathasaritsagara is divided into eighteen separate books; the Kathapitha, Kathamukha, Lavanaka, Naravahanadattajanana, Chaturdarika, Madanamanchuka, Ratnaprabha, Suryaprabha, Alankaravati, Saktiyasas, Vela, Sasankavati, Madiravati, Pancha, Mahabhisheka, Suratamanjari, Padmavati, and Vishamasila (Tawney 1). Each of the eighteen books have their own set of chapters. Several chapters within each of the books are capable of standing alone, with the addition of the chapters also having the capability of acting as fables. Within the first book of the Kathasaritsagara, the Kathapitha, each of the individual chapters provides an independent story that is still linked to the main story of the book. The individual chapters are situated and presented to the audience in such a way that each one is capable of portraying a lesson or motif to the audience and reader. The capability of the chapters to stand as individual narratives, that are capable of portraying lessons and motifs that can be applied to one’s life as is dictated under the categorization of fables (Blackham 224), is a great characteristic of the Kathasaritsagara that one can and should analyze.

The ability for one to be able to categorize many of the stories within the work as being capable of being categorized as a collection of fables is evident as soon as the first book within the Kathasaritsagara, the Kathapitha. In the case of the first book, the primary story is told in the first chapter where the goddess Parvati harshly punishes Pushpadanta as well as a Gana Malyavan who attempted to intercede on behalf of Pushpadanta (Tawney 4-5). The punishment was that the two pramathas would be cursed to be mortals until such a time that they would be able to complete two separate, yet interceding tasks (Tawney 4-5). As time passes, Parvati comes to regret her harsh punishment that had been born out of quick anger and jealousy (Tawney 5). The first chapter of the first book acts as both an introduction to what the whole of the book’s chapters’ plots are based upon. The first book in itself is also capable of acting as a standalone story with its own motif and lesson. As a fable, the first chapter of the Kathapitha provides audiences with a story in which one can discern the disadvantages associated with several actions including quick temperament and eavesdropping. The third chapter, in the Kathapitha, as well as other chapters in the Kathapitha, share a similar function of acting as a fable, however, unlike the initial chapter of the book, it has a story that can act independently or, as it is within the Kathasaritsagara, as a continuation of the book. Pushpadanta encounters the Gana Malyavan, who had attempted to intercede on his behalf, thus allowing for the completion of half of the curse’s cure followed by the beginning of the second half through the telling of several stories (Tawney 4-5, 11-16). The main story within the chapter is centered around a character named Putraka and his family. The motif of the fable is centered around the advantages of living in virtue despite the unvirtuous, greedy, and evil acts of others. The story begins by describing how Putraka’s parents and two sets of aunts and uncles came to meet, followed by the abandonment of his mother and aunts by their husbands in the time of a famine (Tawney 11). The virtue of the three women in regards towards the care of Putraka as well as their loyalty of austerities and duty towards their husbands, despite their abandonment, led to good fortunes and blessings from the god Siva (Tawney 11-12). Putraka eventually welcomed his father and uncles back into the family, after he had become king. His uncles and father, however, were not satisfied with the wealth and power that they obtained from their relationship to Putraka – they lusted after more. The three men arranged for a group of assassins to kill Putraka upon a visitation to a temple, of which Putraka was able to dissuade by persuading the assassins to accept payment for his life. Once the deal was struck, Putraka left his kingdom. Despite the careful planning of the three men and the actions of Putraka to leave the kingdom quietly as if he had indeed been assassinated, his father and uncles were put to death for their treason against Putraka (Tawney 12-13). During his flight from the kingdom, that had been his home, Putraka came across two men fighting over a series of inheritance. The men were greedy, and so Putraka was able to trick them by proclaiming that the two men commit to a race, the winner of which would win all three items. The men agreed to the plan and left the items in Putraka’s presence, once the men were out of sight, Putraka took the pieces of inheritance the men were fighting over for himself (Tawney 13-15). In another kingdom, he fell in love with a daughter of the kingdom’s king (Tawney 15-16). The two of them escaped the kingdom after the king discovered their romance (Tawney 15-16). With the inheritance that Putraka came to possess from the two fighting men, he and his new wife created a kingdom of their own (Tawney 16).

The portrayal of the Kathasaritsagara, as a collection of fables, continues on into the third book, the Lavanaka. Within this book, some of the stories portray that although pieces of literature are capable of offering guidance in the form of a fable, it is up to the individual to apply the lesson portrayed properly within the context of their life’s situations. A great example is shown in the first chapter in the third book. A great example is shown in the first chapter in the third book. Within the chapter, the main story introduced is that two ministers of a kingdom by the names of, Yaugandharayana and Rumanvat, meet to discuss the progress of the kingdom under the rule of their king (Tawney 101). It is believed that the king does not pose enough personal involvement in the growth and development of the kingdom, but rather in personal pleasures (Tawney 101). Both provide different points of view about how to address the subject intellectually and practically. Yaugandharayana and Rumanvat each support their cases through the utilization of different stories or fables (Tawney 101-104). Yaugandharayana made the claim that they should report to the king of a neighboring kingdom that the queen of their king, Vasavadatta, as dead in order to get the neighboring king’s daughter’s hand in marriage (Tawney 101). Yaugandharayana’s hope was that through the successful implementation of the deception, the kingdom would ultimately end up gaining an ally (Tawney 101). The reasoning behind Yaugandharayanana’s hope of a new, strong ally in the opposite kingdom is that the kingdoms, as one, would be able to conquer all of the kingdoms on earth with the aid of the neighboring king’s large, strong armies (Tawney 101). With the conquering of the world’s kingdoms, Yaugandharayanana portrays that the promotion of the growth of the kingdom would be accomplished and his king would have achieved his duty (Tawney 101). Yaugandharayana claimed that his plan would act similarly to the actions and rewards of the characters in the story that he presents as evidence that his idea is a good one (Tawney 101-102). Within the story that Yaugandharayana provided, a king who submitted to a rival king after being bested had come to develop an illness (Tawney 102). The illness was determined to have been derived from the mental applications on the king’s psyche from his submission to the rival king (Tawney 102). In order to cure the king, a physician informed him that his wife had dead. Later, upon hearing that his queen was alive, the king comes to prosper once more in glory (Tawney 102). Rumanvat presents this story as an example for his argument against Yaugandharayana (Tawney 102). Rumanvat presents his example as a way to express how he believes that Yaugandharayana’s plan of deception against the two kingdoms will ultimately lead to the eventual ruin of many individuals, himself and Yaugandharayana in particular (Tawney 102). The story that Rumanvat chooses to illustrate his point against the use of deceit for gain is focused around a character identified to be a deceitful ascetic (Tawney 102-104). Within the fable, the ascetic utilized his position to trick a merchant so that he would believe that his beautiful daughter was inauspicious (Tawney 103). Specifically, the ascetic proclaimed that the daughter’s inauspicious nature would ultimately lead to the death of her entire family (Tawney 103). The ascetic further claimed that the only way that the merchant could hope to save the family was to place his daughter into a basket with a lit lamp on a river, and send her a drift in the dead of night, a request to which the merchant adhered to (Tawney 103). On the prescribed night of the merchant’s daughter’s sending off on the river, the ascetic sent his followers to retrieve the daughter’s basket (Tawney 103). The ascetic sent his followers off without informing them of the events that led up to the task, or the contents of the basket, so that he could secretly claim the daughter for himself (Tawney 103). Before the followers could retrieve the basket, however, a good prince happened upon the basket as it drifted down the river, and married the daughter that evening (Tawney 103). The prince had the basket replaced in the river, with an occupant of a vicious monkey, which mutilated the ascetic upon his gaining of the basket – marking him in shame and humiliation in light of his deceit while those around him are happy (Tawney 103-104).






References and Further Recommended Reading


Blackham, H.J. (2013) The Fable as Literature. Sydney: Bloomsbury.


Breckhamms, Hermin (1862) Kathasaritsagara: Die Marchensammlung des Somadeva. Leipzig: F.A Brochaus.


Burton, Richard (1868) “Vikram and the Vampire or Tales of Indian Devilry” Fraser’s Magazine: 407-761.


Durgaprasad, Pandit and Kashinath Pandurang Parab (1930) Kathasaritsagara (Original Text): 4th Edition of Nirnay Sugar Press. Bombay: Nirnay Sugar Press.


Franke, Heike (2010) “Akbar’s “Kathasaritsagara”: The Translator and Illustrations of An Imperial Manuscript” Muqarnas vol. 27: 313-356.


Haase, Donald (2007) The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Folktales and Fairy Tales. London: Greenwood Publishing Group.


Los Angeles County Art Museum (2017)


Penzer, N.M. (1928) The Ocean of Story Being C.H. Tawny’s Translation of Somadeva’s Kathasaritsagara (or Ocean of Streams of Story) vol. 10. London: Chas J. Sawyer Ltd., Grafton House.


Speyer, Jacob Samuel (1908) Studies about the Kathasaritsagara. Amsterdam: Johannes Muller.


Tawny,C.H., (1880) Kathasaritsagara vol.1. Calcutta: Baptist Mission Press.


The Metropolitan Museum (2000-2017)


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Article written by: Victoria Jean Layton (Spring 2017), who is solely responsible for its content.