A Brief Examination of The Kathasaritsagara

The Kathasaritsagara, also known as the Ocean of the Streams of Stories is a 11th-century Sanskrit text composed of Indian fairy tales and legends. Similarly to other stories, legends and epics, a Saiva [a follower of the Hindu tradition favoring the god Siva] named Somadeva retells the Kathasaritsagara. The Kathasaritsagara is a well-known adaptation to the Brihatkatha (Big Story), an Indian epic written by Gunadhya, often compared to Vyasa, the author and a character in the Mahabharata. Gunadhya, is credited as the author of the Brhatkatha, although it is not written in Sanskrit, rather, written in the hard to understand, and archaic language of Paisaci. The Brhatkatha was lost, and can now be only tracked through its two adaptations, being the previously mentioned Kathasaritsagara, and the Brhatkathamanjari written by Kshemendra, a 11th century poet.

The Kathasaritsagara as written by Somadeva, consists of 18 books written in Sanskrit, but was adapted into English by Charles Henry Tawney, an English scholar highly revered for his multi-lingual skills that lead him to often translate Indian legends to English. Tawney published two volumes of the English translated Kathasaritsagara, as The Katha sarit sagara; or Ocean of the Streams of Story between 1880-1884. Norman Mosley Penzer expanded upon Tawneys English translation adding commentary and notes, publishing his The Ocean of Story, being C.H. Tawney’s Translation of Somadeva’s Katha sarit sagara in 10 volumes between 1924-1928.

The original Kathasaritsagara is written in Sanskrit, an Indian prose. There are 18 books in Somadeva’s text. The first book is Kathapitha, followed by Kathainukha, Chaturdarika, Mandanamanhuka, Ratnaprabha, Suryaprabha, Alankarvavati, Saktiyasa, Vela, Sasankavati, Madiravati, Mahabhisheka, Suratamanjari, Padmabati and then the last book; Vishamasila. Tawney’s English adaptation, published in two volumes, compiles Somdeva’s 18 books into 56 chapters in the first volume, and 69 chapters in the second volume.

While the Kathasaritsagara itself is a compilation of many stories and legends, there is a great emphasis on the story of Udayana and his son. The first tale in the Kathasaritsagara follows the story of Pushpadanta, and the curse the Mountain Goddess places on him, as he travels around in human form in an attempt to cure his curse. The story of Udayana and his son, Naravahanadatta, in which the role of King is passed on through three generations.

The Story of Pushpadanta’s Curse, and His Human Life as Vararuchi:

Somdeva’s first book, compiled into chapters one to eight in Tawney’s The Katha sarit sagara; or Ocean of the Streams of Story, begins with the introduction of Pushpandanta, a loyal devotee to Siva, eavesdropping into a conversation between Siva and his beloved, Kaliasa, the Mountain Goddess. This story spreads, and Kaliasa learns of Pushpadanta’s intrusion. Angry by his disobedience, Kaliasa curses him, while also telling him how to free himself from the curse (Tawney 1880: 4). Pushpandanta, now wandering the earth as a human named Vararuchi, has grown forgetting his origins and his past life. He runs into a character named Kanabhuti, who was also a loyal devotee to Siva, telling him the story that Pushpandanta started. After Kanabhuti is finished telling the story, Vararuchi remembers that he was once Pushpandanta, and then sets to trying to end the curse.

Similarly to other Hindu legends, the Kathasaritsagara has many side stories that tie into the main story. Continuing with the fourth chapter in Tawney’s adaptation, Vararuchi comes upon a beautiful woman and falls in love with her. During the night, Sarasvati, the goddess of eloquence and learning, visits him in a dream and tells him that the woman he fell in love with, Upankosa, was Sarasvati’s lover in a past life and is still destined to her. Vararuchi, marries Upankosa regardless. In a humorous side story, Upankosa refutes the advances of several men while Vararuchi is gone performing a ritual. Later in the story Vararuchi is told to find Badarika, a hermit in the forest. After proving himself to Badarika, Vararuchi then sacrifices his body through fire, “putting off his mortal condition”, and then ascending to his heavenly home (Tawney 1880: 31).

In chapter six, Gunadhya, the author of the Brhatkatha and also a character, recites the story of his life to Kanabhuti. Kanabhuti in return, recites the tale of Pushapandanta, in which Gunadhya then writes it in the Paisaci language, but fearful of having his composition stolen, writes it in his own blood (Tawney 1880: 47). Empathetic to Vararuchi’s condition, Gunadhya sends his heavenly tale to earth, in which king Satavahana disregarded the work, “… the Paisacha language is barbarous, and the letters are written in blood; away with this Paisacha tale” (Tawney 1880: 48). Gunadhya, overcome with sorrow, then destroys the book in a fire as his two disciples, Gunadeva and Nandideva, watch and listen tearfully. King Satavahana falls ill, in which leads him to search out Gunadhya. At this point, Gunadhya had almost burnt his entire tale, save for one section, named the Vrihat Katha. King Satavahana takes this tale and the two pupils as Gunadhya dies, and ascends to his heavenly home. To conclude the story, Satavahana recompiles the original tale with the help of the two pupils, and names it the Kathapitha, redistributing the story similarly to how Pushpadanta spread Siva’s story(Tawney 1880: 49).

The story of Udayana and his son, Naravahanadatta:

Udayana, the child of King Sahasranika and Queen Mrigavati, was born after a bird carried off his mother while she was bathing, separating Mrigavati from King Sahasranika, leaving the King tormented in grief. The bird realizes she is not food, and drops her into the wilderness (Tawney 1880: 54). Scared, she weeps loudly, catching the attention of a hermit’s son. The hermit, Jamadagni and his son, take care of Mrigavati as she gives birth to Udayana. During his birth, a voice from the heavens spoke “an august king of great renown has been born, Udayana by name, and his son should be monarch of all the Vidyadharas” (Tawney 1880: 55). Udayana grew up to be virtuous, heroic, and intelligent under Jamadagni, who taught him the sciences and archery. In a side story, Udayana shows his virtuous nature by saving a beautiful snake caught by a hunter. He trades the snake’s life for a bracelet he wore that bore the King’s name written on it. The hunter then tries to sell the bracelet, catching the attention of a servant working for the king, who then reports that his wife was alive. The King sets out to find his wife, finally coming upon the hermitage of Jamadagni. Jamadagni hands Mrigavati and Udayana over to King Sahasranika, as they made the long journey back to their kingdom of Vatsa. The King then appoints Udayana as prince, and him and his wife Mrigavati retire to the forest.

Udayana as a ruler becomes bored, and gives into the pleasures of royalty rather than becoming a Dharmic ruler. King Udayana’s only worry was finding a suitable wife, and through a lengthy side story, marries the daughter, Vasavadatta, of the neighboring kingdom’s King, Chandamamahasena. King Chandamahasena was a sworn enemy of Udayana and the Vatsa kingdom, and captured Udayana as a prisoner. Vasavadatta grew fond of Udayana while he was kept a prisoner, and they escaped from King Chandamahasena to complete a marriage ceremony in the Vindhya forest, and Vasavadatta became the Queen of Vatsa (Tawney 1880: 94). A scheme is composed by Yaugandharayana to make the King a better ruler. Through Yaugandharayana’s planning, the Queen fakes her death in a fire, and is taken to the kingdom of Magadha where the princess Padmavati takes in Queen Vasavadatta who conceals her true identity under the alias Avantika. King Udayana, similarly to his father before him, is thrown into a fit of sorrow and grief and considers suicide, before realizing that she might still possibly be alive and further investigates her condition. The king is convinced to marry Padmavati, the Princess of Magadha before the truth is revealed, in which the King happily rules with his two wives as the two Queens of Vatsa (Tawney 1880: 145).

Later in the story, in a dream, Siva tells King Udayana that he “shalt soon have a son who shall be king of all the Vidyaharas” (Tawney 1880: 145). Having a renewed energy, the King sets out to conquer the Benares region, ruled by King Brahmadatta. His father-in-law, Chandamahasena, and the King of Magadha honor his victory by devoting their kingdoms under his rule. Anxious for the birth of a son, Vasavadatta soon becomes pregnant after summoning Siva who informs her that her son will be the incarnation of the God of Love, Kama (Tawney 1880: 167). Vasavadatta gives birth to her son, and the whole kingdom celebrates the birth of Naravahanadatta. The King’s ministers also had sons about the same age, in which Naravahanadatta grew up with.

Naravahanadatta, like his father before him, is raised with the appreciation for the sciences and archery by his father and two mothers, Vasavadatta and Padmavati. In another humorous side story, Naravahanadatta turns eight, and the King Udayana is faced with a difficult decision. To either wed Kalingasena, daughter of King Kalingadatta, in which his passion will be sated, but if he consents to the marriage, Vasavadatta, Padmavati and Naravahanadatta will all die. He debates the options while his wives scheme, encouraging him to marry the Princess, knowing that their encouragement will make him reflect, and decide not to marry her. With the help of the Kings sly minister, Yaugandharayana, the two Queens convince King Udayana not to marry Kalingsena. Kalingsena admits she’s married to another, and pregnant with her husband’s child. The king decided that the daughter of Kalingsena will be beautiful enough for his son, Naravahanadatta, and therefore, will be the next appointed queen (Tawney 1880: 305). The Daughter, of Kalingsena, named Madanamanchuka, grew up to be very beautiful as predicted, while the Kings ministers sons all grew up with the prince as well, Gomukha becoming the closest of friends to the young prince. Not long after, Naravahanadatta and Madanamanchuka are married, becoming his head wife as he gains other wives throughout the rest of the tales.

The story of Udayana now focuses on its third generation. The King and Queen of Hemaprabha give birth to a girl, named Ratnaprabha in which a voice from the heaven tells the Queen that she is to marry the young prince Naravahanadatta once he’s old enough to realize his divine nature, as the incarnate of Kama. Impatient, Ratnaprabha goes to meet Naravahanadatta, and are married. Naravahanadatta grows up as a mischievous but virtuous among his ministers, remaining in his fathers, gaining a harem, while waiting for his turn to become the Emperor. Marriage is a reoccurring theme in Naravahanadatta’s story, as he also marries Alankaravati after the King of the Vidyadharas bestows her upon him (Tawney 1880: 485).

In Tawney’s The Katha sarit sagara; or Ocean of the Streams of Story volume two, Naravahanadatta’s closest friend and minister, Gomukha tells the young prince several stories and moral tales preparing the prince for his turn in the throne. In the meanwhile, he’s preparing to marry Saktiyasas, but he gets restless and impatient while waiting. Gomukha tells him stories throughout the time to keep him distracted. After marrying Saktiyasas, Naravahanadatta gains another wife, Lalitalochana, whom faked the identity of his first wife, Madanamanchuka, so the Prince of Vatsa would listen to her proclaim her love to him. He takes Lalitalochana to the Malaya Mountain to celebrate spring. While Lalitalochana is picking flowers, a hermit named Pisangajata spots Naravahanadatta, and invites him to his hermitage to tell him the lengthy side story of Mrigankadatta, son to King Amaradatta. The hermit’s story reflects Naravahanadatta’s own worry of not being near his head consort, Madanamanchuka. The Hermit consoles him by saying “ as Mrigankadatta in old time gained Sansakavati after enduring affliction, you also will regain your Madanamanchuka” (Tawney 1884: 427). With renewed hope, Naravahanadatta leaves the hermitage with Lalitalochana to find Madanamanchuka.

Returning home looking dejected, Marubhuti tells Naravahanadatta that his head wife is in the Garden, in which the prince races off to. Madanamanchuka tells her husband why she had left, admitting that because she had forgotten the oblations she promised the Yakshas she’d make, they took her away, and demanded that she re-do their marriage ceremony. Unknown to Naravahanadatta, the supposed Madanamanchuka was actually Vidyahari Vegavati in disguise. After Narahanadatta marries Vidyahari Vehavati, he sees through her disguise, she shows him her true form, and flies away with him. He’s gone for some time, soon forgetting about his other wives and his ministers after he marries Bhagirathayasas. Worried, he makes the long trip back to his fathers palace, and has to battle Manasavega, who has stolen his wife, Madanamanchuka, similar to the Ramayana in which Ravana steals Sita from Rama, and Rama must go to save her. During a fight with Manasavega, Naravahanadatta is thrown down a mountain, in which Amitagati insists he now accepts his role as Emperor (Tawney 1884: 469). The new Emperor’s army defeats Manasavega, and he is finally reunited with Madanamanchuka, and he is free to enjoy the rest of life’s pleasures, becoming the Lord Paramount over all of Vidyadhara with his many ministers and 25 wives (Tawney 1884: 505).

The Kathasaritsagara, rich with legends and folklore, also makes references to other Hindu stories, such as the Ramayana, and the Mahabharata. As well as its references to other Hindu epics, the Kathasaritsagara is very obvious with to which God it preffers. Somadeva, as a Saiva, tailors his adaptation of Gundhya’s Brihatkatha to favor Siva, as Siva is the main God the characters turn to, and offers the most help. The Kathasaritsagara is not well known for its moral tales, however a life lesson can be taken from all of the stories presented.


Sternbach, Ludwik (1980) Aphorisms and proverbs in the Kathā-sarit-sāgara. Lucknow: Akhil Bharatiya Sanskrit Parishad.

Mosley, Norman (1924) The Ocean of Story, Being C.H. Tawney’s Translation of Somadeva’s Katha Sarit Sagara (Or Oceans of streams of story). London: Private print.

Tawney, Charles H. (1880) The Katha Sarit Sagara; or Ocean of the Streams of Story. Calcutta: Printed by J.W. Thomas at the Baptist Mission Press.

Tawney, Charles H. (1884) The Katha Sarit Sagara; or Ocean of the streams of story. Calcutta: Printed by J.W. Thomas at the Baptist Mission Press.




Charles Henry Tawney






Normal Mosley Penzer














Article written by: Dakota Knull (March 2017) who is solely responsible for its content.