Recently, I read kathAmR^ita, A.R.Krishnashastri's Kannada precis-translation of the kathAsaritsAgara of sOmadEva, which is again a translation of guNADhya's bR^ihatkathA written in paishAcI. It was a jolly read, and mighty thought-provoking too. After I read it, I realized why Dr. Ganesh said that if one wanted to see celebration of life, it was in works like kathAmR^ita.
This was not my first reading of kathAmR^ita. I had read it when I was very young - probably in my third or fourth grade. My aunt saw me reading this book, and told my Mom about it - "She turned the page, and it was so dirty!!". I was then too young to glean anything from the stories I read... I just read them because they were stories. This time, though, it was different.
kathAmRita means 'nectar of stories'. The main story is that of naravAhanadatta, son of udayana and vAsavadattA, predicted to rule the vidyAdhara kingdom for one kalpa. udayana and vAsavadattA and their ministers are made immortal in bhAsa's plays 'svapnavAsavadattam' and 'pratijnAyaugandharAyaNam'. Both of them are based on bR^ihatkathA. The all-time classic pa~Jcatantra and vEtAlapa~JchavimshatI (the famous vikram and bEtAl) have their roots in the bR^ihatkathA. In fact, guNADhya's life-history itself (why he stopped using samskR^itam and took to paishAcI) is a very interesting story. The king of whom guNADhya was serving, outsmarted by his wife, wanted to learn samskR^itam as soon as possible. guNADhya said that he could teach him in 6 years, while vararuci, another celebrated grammarian of his time, said that he could do it in six months. guNADhya challenged him, saying that he would not use samskR^itam if he did it. guNADhya lost the bet and gave up samskR^itam. The slighted guNADhya left for the forest and met the pishAcha kANabhUti and heard seven stories of seven vidyAdharas. He wrote them in paishAchI language and took it to the king. The king, well versed in samskrt now, refused to read a work that was written in a lowly language. guNADhya then started reading his stories to the animals of the forest and destroying them in the fire. The animals absorbed in the stories, forgot eating and drinking. The king, surprised at the lean meat served to him, learned that guNADhya was the reason for the lean-ness of the animals. He immediately went to the forest to make peace with guNADhya. guNADhya was then reading out the last story, that of naravAhanadatta. The king obtained the manuscript of that story and made it famous in his kingdom.
In the kathAsaritsAgara, the characters in the main story relate stories of other characters who in turn relate others' stories and so on, like a stack. You keep pushing stories in and then pop them out. There are stories of merchants, kings, poor people, learned brahmins, thieves, fools, prostitutes, kulastrIs, yOginis, bEtALas, adventurers, devotees and what not. The diverse nature of the stories makes it extremely enjoyable. Only in a collection like kathAmR^ita can you find the story of a bOdhisattva immediately after the story of fools. This is, in a way, the great thing about kathAmRita. Nothing is embellished. There is no meaningless orthodoxy and sentimentality. Nothing is looked down upon. The importance of dharma is stressed, but it does not feel like dry preaching.
Tragedies are rare, almost non-existent in traditional Indian literature. In many stories of the kathAmRita, even partners who have died come back to life through the grace of some deity. The Indian mentality is really amazing. In spite of the hardships faced by men and women (at least in stories), they nurse the hope of a better future for themselves and their loved ones. No story ends in separation or death. Here, all journeys really end in lovers' meeting. If a son or a wife or a parent is lost in the beginning of the story, you can be sure that he/she/they will be found miraculously before the story ends. The same trait is seen in Indian cinema also. We are not used to tragedies, however convincing they may be. A while ago, I was reading Steinbeck's "Pearl", and was desperately hoping that the Sea-Goddess or something or someone would come and make the dead baby alive again. Yesterday, I was watching 'ondu muttina kathe', directed by Shankar Nag. It is an Indian adaptation of "Pearl". I found it very difficult to watch the movie, because of the horrible things that happen to Kino and his wife. It is my Indian upbringing, you see... Sorry for digressing, but the point I wanted to make was that the Indian mind is not comfortable with tragedies. Bhavabhuti, in his uttararAmacharitam, united sItA with rAma, though tradition says that sItA was absorbed by Mother Earth. Kalidasa does not end raghuvamsha with agnivarNa's death, but with the coronation of his unborn child. Endings of stories are similar even in kathAmRita. This is in stark contrast with western literature, where tragedies are very common. Even western religion is gloomy, in that the End of Days and the Judgement Day are given a lot of importance.
The very appealing thing about kathAmRita is that many of the characters are not black and white, but different shades of grey. This kind of characterization is really an achievement. Nobody can be fully evil or really angelic. This grey nature of humans is what makes life so interesting. That is what makes kathAmRita interesting, too.
One point I really want to write about is the extoling of dharma in the book. There are some principles like "ahimsA satyamasteyam brahmacharyam dhRutiH kShamA", that need to be followed always, everywhere. But as far as my understanding goes, social laws a few centuries ago (my sources are a few books that I have read and some discussions with people I consider very learned) were not as stringent as they are now. That is thankfully changing, but imo this change is making people rootless. What we need is a change for the better, while being rooted firmly. When it comes to inheritance rights and marital rights, Indian society was far advanced than it is now.
When I was reading through the preface of the kathAmRita, I was very angry with the way women were thought of. A woman is always expected to be obliging and pleasing and be pleased, and docile and what not. I do not know when this sort of thinking started, but when I read through kathAmrita, I found more instances of confident and free women than I did of docile women. Probably this was the way of the society then. They probably enjoyed much more rights than we do now. Was it because it was much safer then than it is now? I do not know! I do not want to dwell on this topic, for fear of being labelled a feminist.
A fitting end to the story is the going back of guNADhya and others to kailAsa. After all, after the joys and sorrows of life, that is the goal!