The Ocean of Tales

Yet another post that should have seen the light of the day earlier, atleast 19 days earlier. But then life continues to be challenging and we flow along as well as we can with the changing of the river course! Anyhow, late last year I had signed up for the the The Official TBR Challenge 2018 hosted by Adam at The Roof Beam Reader; and as part of the challenge, I had committed to reading 12 books through the year, that have been on my TBR the longest. The first book in this series was Kathasaritasagar by Somadeva, translated by Dr. Arisha Sattar.

Way back, as kid growing up in early 1990s, before cable and satellite television invaded Indian homes, most of us relied on the state funded Television channel for our information and entertainment. While options did seem limited, the quality was excellent and way better than what we are served today. The news was accurate, up to date and independent of any political influence; and the entertainment was top notch, comedy, drama, romance, all served with quality and sensitivity! One of the series that made an incredible impression, was this series of unrelated stories from what I now understand as ancient India. There were stories in stories, of princes and priests, of jackals and lions which captured an 8 year old’s imagination. My father told me that these stories had been taken from a book called Kathasaritasagar by Somdeva and it took me yet another 26 years before I actually found the book and read it cover to cover!


Kathasaritasagar literally means Ocean of Stories was written in 11th century by Somadeva as the offering to Queen Suryavati, the consort to King Anantdeva, who ruled all of Kashmir, the northern most state of India. However, the tales are in itself older than 11th century and have been handed down orally, until Somadeva collated them together for this collection. Interestingly, the intent behind this effort was to divert the Queen’s mind even for a while, from the worship of Shiva and acquiring learning from great books!

The Book opens by Goddess Parvati, asking her consort, the supreme God Shiva to tell her a tale, that has never been heard before! As Shiva narrates the tales, they are overheard by one of his attendants, who latter narrates them to his wife, who happens to be Parvati’s doorkeeper! The doorkeeper then re-tells the story to Paravati, who is enraged at the audacity of the attendant and curses him to be reborn as a mortal Gunadhya, where he will remain, until he spreads the tale far and wide! Gunadhya thus eiled from heaven writes his tales Brhatkatha,(The Great Story) the collection of 7 stories and presents it to the Satavahana King who rejects it as inferior work. Scorned and dejected, Gundhaya begins to burn his stories and all but one are destroyed before a heavenly Prince named Naravhanadatta rescues the document.When the Satavahana King here;s this, he is entranced and asks that the  manuscript not only be persevered, but the story spread far and wide!  Thus begins the stories of Kathasaritasagar with beautiful maidens and their fearless lover, of jackals to advise the lion kings, of Brahmans who covet power, stories of statecraft and intrigue, of love and friendship, peopled with kings, mendicants, aesthetics, merchants, princesses, prostitutes, drunkards and gamblers, all who come together for a rip roaring adventure in ancient India!

To begin with, this book, unlike any other work in Sanskrit literature, does not provide any moral judgement; in a unique stand  of each to his own, this book talks of everything under the sun, from infidelity to greed to intrigue and it simply tells the tale. Women are crafty, so are men, but there is no moralizing in these stories! In yet another departure from standard Sanskrit texts. it does not talk about spiritual well being and the need for austerities to attain Nirvana; instead it delights on all earthly pleasures of love and generosity, of power play and intrigue and all earthly emotions! The tales despite being set in an era more than 2000 years ago, retain a sense of universality, with human interactions and emotions being as relevant today as 2000 years back! There is an element of what-happens-next that keeps the reader on the hooks and keeps the page turning! There is some timeline confusion, Nandas, the rulers of 300 BCE India, interact  with Rig Vedic Aryans, the latter preceding the Nanda’s by 1500 years! But considering the time it was written in and the oral narrative sourcing of the tales, such confusion is understandable. One thing that stood out starkly, as a commentary on Indian society is the status of women and those deemed as lower castes in Hindu society. Written in 11th century, it comes out clearly, while women were considered to have fulfilling lives only as wives and mothers, the reality is different – they had affairs, they remarried and even controlled property and finances in the absence of their husbands.  There is also immutability and fluidity in the caste system, the lower castes mingle with the higher castes and even compete for same rewards! Therefore, in yet another testimony that original Hinduism was a liberal institution, changed beyond its original complexion by zealots and subsequent invasions, which narrowed the position of women and lower castes and turned them into oppressed beings!

To end, this is one brilliant book, that needs to be read by anyone interested in India and her history and culture, that also just happens to be an all out entertainer!


12 thoughts on “The Ocean of Tales

  1. we’ve read the Mahabarata and loved it… never heard of this one, though: it sounds remarkable! i’ll look around and see if i can find a copy… wonderful post! tx for that…

    1. Glad I was able to share an idea :D. This is not as erudite or even philosophical as Mahabharata, rather its pure entertainment! Hope you are able to find a copy!

      1. the Penguin Classics one was over $30.00 on Amazon; but i found an early edition on Abebooks for $11.00; i don’t know if the same stories will be included, but i’ll find out…

      2. It may contain different set of stories but the vein should be the same! So glad you were able to find a reasonably priced version! Do let me know how you did/did not like it! 🙂

  2. I’m reading about Shiva and Parvati from a rather different perspective at the moment. I was given a copy of The Immortals of Meluha, which is apparently very popular in India as a reimagining of Shiva as a human, rather than a god.

    1. Oh! Yeah! The Immortals are a bit of a rage here! So I really really liked the concept of Shiva as a Tibetan tribal leader; what I had a problem with was how the book quickly descended into a Bollywood drama, after the initial great start! But it is still a very good read, especially for those, not fully conversant with Indian Gods and mythology! Do let me know how you liked it!

  3. so now Abebooks sent me a notice that the one i ordered has been damaged and they don’t want to send it! that’s happened several times; my suspicious nature believes that they sold it to someone else for more money! at any gate, i’ll look for another copy…

    1. sorry about overcommenting, but after the above debacle, i managed to download all 124 chapters onto my ectaco jetbook mini; so i’ll give it a try; so far, parvati and siva are talking to each other… we’ll see how it goes…

      1. Please do not apologies…..this is why I love blogging…we can chat and discuss and share our excitement and grievances; let me know how you progress …I am glad you were able to download, and I am kinda thinking, the same thing that the book was sold at a higher price! Either way, let me know how your progress; the initial chapter or epilogue can be a bit confusing but just hang on until you get to the actual stories!

  4. This book sounds wonderful and you have no idea how much I wish I had time to even read a chapter of it. Sigh! I will check further to see how the start of your new year could be remotely as busy and similar as mine. I’ve been basically working, coming home and going to bed. It’s very sad …… 😉 However, I’m glad you were able to read something. Yay, you! Keep it up!

    1. I know; this year has been so far completely crazy….my routine is exactly like yours, with an addition of hospital thrown in …arrggghh! Reading is therapy and escape! Here’s hoping you get to read some more, especially once the tax season is over!

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