Brihatkatha, literally meaning the big (vrihat) story (katha), is an ancient Indian epic written in a form of Prakrit whose originals has not been found, and a great many classic Indian fables like the Panchatantras, Hitopadesha, Vetala Panchvimshati and others have probably been taken from this source, and many of the stories have traveled far and wide. Brihatkatha has become a legend living only through later (mostly Sanskrit) adaptations like Kathasaritsagara, Brihatkathamanjari and Bṛhatkathāślokasaṃgraha as the original prakrit version has been "lost". There may have been a gap of several centuries between the original prakrit version and its Sanskrit versions and thus the actual time period is difficult to ascertain. According to several testimonials by later day Sanskrit poets like Daṇḍin, Subandhu, and Bana, Brihatkatha is from 6th Century AD. But according to other estimates it predates that period by several more centuries. For example if the Story of Udayana by poet Bhāsa(and also later by Harsha in Ratnavali) was inspired by Brihatkatha, it had to be older than the time of Bhāsa which is quite before 3rd Century AD. But if Brihatkatha was the source of Vetala Panchvimshati and if the story of Vikram~ in the story is indeed Vikramāditya (c. 1st century BC) then the timing of Brihatkatha has to be after Vikramaditya's time i.e. roughly falls somewhere between 1st Century BC to probably 1st Century AD, and no later than 3rd Century AD.
History: Origin and Adaptations
Brihatkatha's existence is asserted first definitely by name in the seventh century when Subandhu in Vasavadatta, Bana in both his romances Harsacarita and Kadambari and Dandin in his Kavyadarsa attest its fundamental importance. Later references include both the text and the comment of the Dasarupa of Dhananjaya, champu of Trivikrama, Yasastilaka of Somadeva Suri and Saptasati of Govardhana. A Cambodian inscription (c. 875) expressly mentions Gunadhya and his aversion to Prakrit. The earliest extant Kannada work on grammar and poetics, Kavirajamarga by Nripatunga (c. 850), mentions a now lost Sanskrit version of Brihatkatha by the author Durvinita. We can safely assume the existence of a romantic work by Gunadhya before AD 600.
Although the original work is now lost to us, its enduring memorial is furnished by the versions of the Brihatkatha which have reached us. The three Sanskrit versions are: Somadeva's Kathasaritsagara, Ksemendra's Brhatkathamanjari and Budhasvami's Brhatkathaslokasamgraha. A Pali version is found in the Dhammapada commentary. In Prakrit we have the Vasudevahindi. Two slightly differing versions exist in Tamil - Perunkatai and Utayanakumara-kaviyam. Finally, a work in Apabhramsa called Karakanda-cariu not only incorporates a brief summary of the Brihatkatha but itself derives its plot and many of its theme from the same source.
The origin of Brihatkatha as described in Kathasaritsagara is:
Shiva had narrated the story of the Vidyadharas to Parvati. Siva's gana Pushpadanta happened to overhear the story. When Parvati was cursing Pushpadanta his friend, Malyavan tried to plead on his behalf and got a share of the curse. Pushpadanta was to tell the story to Pishacha Kanabhuti in a forest and then get relief from the curse and get reborn in Kaushambi as Vararuchi. Meanwhile Malyavan was to be released from the curse only when he would collect the story from the Pisacha and release the story to the world. Malyavan was born to a Virgin Brahmin girl in Suprasthita under the name of Gunadhya and was appointed a Minister (Possibly Court Poet) by king Satvahana. He went into the Bindhya forest to get the story from the Pisacha and wrote down the story with his own blood in the Paisachi language. But when he took the story to the king the king refused to acknowledge the story (probably because it was written in Paisachi per the Encyclopedia of Indian Literature by Amaresh Dutta) and Gunadhya retired to the forest again. One of the versions of Kathasaritsagara suggests that when Gunadhya set a fire and kept reading out the Brihatkatha page by page and sacrifice the read out page in the fire. All the animals were so charmed by the story that they all gathered there and silently listened to the story. The King had gone to the forest to hunt and could not find any animal but was himself charmed by an amusing sound and was attracted to the source. When he reached the source he found Gunadhya sacrificing the epic written in his own blood page by page. He managed to stop Gunadhya from sacrificing the seventh chapter but all the six previous chapters had already been sacrificed. This seventh verse is the only remains of the Brihatkatha from which all the later adaptations—like Kathasaritsagara—have been made.
The tale starts with the history of Avanti from the death of king Pradyota (c. 480 B.C.; one of Udayana’s fathers-in- law, the father of Vasavadatta). This leads from history into fiction when one of Pradyota’s successors is abducted by the ‘wizard’ vidyadhara. The emperor of the wizards, Naravahanadatta, intervenes to give judgment in the case and to release the king. Naravahanadatta then relates the story of how he became emperor. The main story being thus introduced, it is narrated in the first person by Naravahanadatta.
The son of King Udayana of Vatsa, Naravahanadatta (‘Given by Kuvera’) was brought up with four sons of hereditary ministers, of his own age. Their youthful character and exploits are brilliantly described, and their wild adventures bring them by chance into contact with an unfortunate wizard. They are able to help him, and in consequence Naravahanadatta gains a superhuman friend and will ultimately be able to learn the ‘sciences’ vidyas of the wizards, giving him superhuman powers. Having thus intervened in the affairs of the wizards Naravahanadatta becomes gradually more involved. The decisive event is that he crosses in love a powerful wizard prince, Manasvega, marrying a (human) heroine, Madanamancuka, born a geisha, desired by both of them. Manasvega then abducts Madanamancuka. The wizard’s sister Vegavati, however sympathizes with the abducted girl and takes a message from her, then assumes her form and is ‘found’. Naravahanadatta at once wins the love of Vegavati and consequently her aid against her brother, after discovering who she really is. Before he can develop a plan to recover his wife, Naravahanadatta is himself carried off by Manasvega. Vegavati intervenes as her brother flies off with his victim, and Naravahanadatta is dropped as they fight. Through Vegavati’s ‘science’ he floats down to earth unharmed, and lands in a forest not far from the city of Campa on the lower Ganges.
The son of the amorous Udayana surpassed even his father in the conquests of love: it is love which is the aim of all his efforts, politics and war being purely incidental. Though his object is to recover Madanamancuka, Naravahanadatta is easily distracted from this preoccupation by his encounters with a series of beautiful girls who fall in love with him, human or divine or mixed. From his arrival in Campa a series of incidental adventures begins as he faces these distractions, though from time to time he remembers Madanamancuka, his greatest love and renews his efforts to get home and to organise an attempt to recover her. At the same time his incidental affairs are really necessary to his ultimate success, for he marries all his mistresses and thereby (like his father) gains powerful allies, some of them among superhuman beings (such as Siddhas or Genii), and especially vidyadhari wives endowed with ‘sciences’ and bringing him allies in the realms of the wizards themselves. Altogether he acquires twenty-six wives, the queens who eventually adorn his cloud-borne court.
Naravahanadatta’s handsome appearance, charm of character and manifold skills win him friends as well as mistresses everywhere, and usually the protection of kings. As far as possible he maintains his incognito on his long wanderings, posing as a wandering brahman. Of course Vegavati has no difficulty – with her sciences of flight and invisibility – in discovering his residence in Campa; but finding him already in love with Gandharvadatta, a beautiful semi-divine girl but the adopted daughter of a merchant, whom in due course he wins in a lute vina contest, she retires hurt, and for a time leaves him to his fate. In the music competition we are incidentally reminded of Naravahanadatta’s ancestry and the partly divine origin of the Paurava, or rather, Pandava dynasty. The sons of Pandu were supposed in reality to have been the sons of gods, and Arjuna, through whose grandson Pariksit the dynasty continued, was the son of Indra. He learnt from his father to tune his vina to the gagrama gamut used only by the gods, and this knowledge was handed down to his descendants. The object of the contest in Campa is simply to accompany Gandharvadatta successfully in her singing, but as she is of semi-divine origin she uses the gagrama gamut and baffles all but Naravahanadatta. The explanation of the girl’s origin brings in as a subsidiary narrative the extraordinary story of the travels of her adoptive father Sanudasa.
After his marriage with Gandharvadatta, Naravahanadatta lives for some time in great luxury, but then falls in love with an outcaste candala girl. She turns out to be Ajinavati, a Siddha girl, in disguise, and these Siddhas, inhabitants of a mythical Eastern region, are enemies of the wizards of the Southern Wizard kingdom (in the Himalaya) where Manasavega lives. The wizard king, Gaurimunda, has schemes afoot against Naravahanadatta, but the latter is protected by the Siddhas into whose alliance he enters by marrying Ajinavati. He is then conveyed by air to her mountain home. A brother of Gaurimunda suddenly appears and abducts Ajinavati from a park: the Siddhas fly off to fight and Naravahanadatta is left alone. He wanders through the mountains, seeking his way back to the world of men.
Meanwhile, his boyhood friends, the ministers’ sons, lead an expedition towards Campa to find him. This is broken up by an attack of barbarian tribes from the Vindhya mountains and the friends are scattered. As he leaves the mountains Naravahanadatta meets one of them by chance, and together they reach Varanasi (Banaras). There Naravahanadatta finds himself two more wives, one of them a merchant’s daughter and the other Bhagirathayasas, the daughter of Brahmadatta, the king of the Kasi Kingdom of which Varanasi is the capital.
This is as far as the Brihatkathaslokasangraha takes us, and a sufficient indication of the way in which the story develops, skillfully combining amorous adventures with the furthering of the main plot of the struggle with Manasvega. Among the incidents which follow we may mention that Naravahanadatta is again abducted, but this time by a vidyadhari lady, Lalitalocana, who has fallen in love with him and is determined to make him her own. She takes him by air to the Malaya mountains in South India and has no difficulty in marrying him, but she is not able to monopolise his affections. He leaves her for a time on the mountains but somehow returns with her to Kausambi (the details here seem to be lost).
From time to time Naravahanadatta recovers sufficiently from his series of infatuations to think again of Madanamancuka. Yet he makes little effort for a long time: he knows her whereabouts from Vegavati but apparently has no idea how to rescue her. Eventually, a vidyadhari Prabhavati, from compassion for her carries him off from his other wives and takes him secretly to Manasvega’s palace, though quietly marrying him herself on the way. Disguised as Prabhavati, he is then able to visit Madanamancuka by stealth in her prison in the palace, but he is in the end caught and fettered. Fortunately, his enemy is obliged to submit his complains against Naravahandatta to due legal process in a vidyadhara court. Naravahanadatta of course defends his action of visiting his own wife, and succeeds in establishing his right to a fair and equal legal contest with his fetters removed. After this Prabhavati uses her superhuman science to bamboozle the court and rescue him.
Having at length regained Kausambi, our hero at last makes serious preparations for a military invasion of the realms of the wizards to settle accounts with his enemies. With his by now numerous allies, especially the superhuman ones, including some of the wizards themselves, open warfare and even an attack on regions inaccessible to ordinary humans beings seems practicable. The Southern Wizard kingdom, ruled by Gaurimunda, is located between the Himalaya and Mount Kailasa (the summit of the latter being the abode of Siva, in the Kasmira recension, but also traditionally of Kuvera, who presumably was mentioned here in the original text of Gunadhya) – a region which it was believed no mortal could enter, owing to the barrier of mountains and snow and the interdiction of the gods who lived there. We may note here that there is also a Northern vidyadhara kingdom between Kailasa and Meru (the North Pole, also believed to be a high mountain). The two wizard kingdoms were in Gaurimunda’s time completely isolated from one another by Siva’s (or rather Kuvera’s) presence on Kailasa, which would not brook overflights even by vidyadharas.
Naravahanadatta’s first invasion is unsuccessful, his troops being scattered by the powers of the wizards. After seeking divine aid he then finds time to marry Sulocana, a daughter of the first wizard he had met and helped. In a second invasion of the Southern Wizard kingdom, more carefully planned, he kills both Gaurimunda and Manasvega in battle. Having married five more wizard maidens, who had been secretly pining for him, and taken possession of Gaurimunda’s kingdom, as well as freeing Madanamancuka, his aim would seem to be accomplished, but Naravahanadatta has yet to fulfill his destiny of becoming a universal emperor. To do this he must subjugate the Northern Wizard kingdom by some means, but the final attainment of the imperial power depends primarily on proving his predestined claim by obtaining the seven imperial emblems (‘gems’) which only a universal emperor can possess. The first of these he obtains from a place in the Southern kingdom, to which only a predestined emperor can climb, the rest from a cave in the Malaya mountains in South India, where they are guarded by sage Vamadeva (they have been preserved in these places since the time of the last universal emperor). He learns how to pass Kailasa, through a tunnel under it which is strictly guarded, especially by Parvati (Kasmira version, originally Kuvera’s consort Bhunjati or Buddhi?), but may be traversed by one possessing the seven gems and by his wives and messengers. In due course he sallies forth to encounter Mandaradeva, king of the Northern Wizards, overpowers him and marries his sister and her four best friends.
Naravahandatta, who has thus tasted victory in war and is inclined, contrary to his former way of life, to further martial exploits, is dissuaded from the only possible military conquest which seems still to remain: Meru, the home of the ancient Vedic gods. The North Pole, it appears, is ever beyond the reach of even a universal ruler of this world and sacred to the true gods of the other world. Naravahanadatta is told the northward march had been attempted by Rsabha, a previous universal emperor, but that the latter had met his death at the hands of Indra, king of the gods.
The story then concludes with the imperial consecration of Naravahanadatta, blessed by Siva and Parvati (or originally Kuvera), and universal rejoicing.
Sources and Literary themes
It is impossible to determine with precision the content of the Brihatkatha; our sources are too slight, but we can gather a general impression of the task accomplished by Gunadhya. The sources on which he drew were, it is clear, three in number. The Ramayana gave him the motif of the search of a husband for a wife cruelly stolen from him soon after a happy marriage; from Buddhist legends and other traditions of Ujjain and Kausambi he was deeply familiar with the tales of Pradyota or Mahasena and the gallant and dashing hero Udayana, whose love-adventures were famed for their number and variety; he was also in touch with the many tales of sea-voyages and strange adventures in far lands which were current in the busy centres of Indian trade, and with the abundant fairy-tales and legends of magic current in India. From the latter source and from Buddhist legend he derived the conception of the emperor, Cakravartin, who is the secular counterpart of the Buddha; Naravahanadatta, his hero, is born with the thirty-two auspicious signs which assure him Buddhahood if he enter the ascetic life, universal dominion if he remain in the affairs of the world. But the empire is not of this earth; it is essentially a fairy land, the realm of the Vidyadharas, who dwell beyond the formidable defences of the Himalayas and who by reason of their magic powers have semi-divine attributes. The hero is a son of Udayana, and in effect is Udayana revised and remodelled for his new destiny, while the Ramayana lends the decisive element of the plot, the rape of Madanamancuka by Manasavega, and the efforts of her husband to discover her, in which he has the aid of his faithful minister Gomukha. His success is accomplished simultaneously with his winning the empire of the Vidyadharas, just as the recovery of Sita is followed forthwith by the royal consecration of Rama.
Brihatkatha is written in a colloquial style as if a real story teller is telling the tale to an audience, and, in the course of the narration there are mentions of other previous narrators—sometimes human, sometimes birds (e.g. Suk or Sari) or other superhuman creatures (e.g. Pisacha, Jaksha). Thus it is a huge collection of tales within tales, possibly incorporating a composite of folklores, on top of a mystique background of mythological humans, lords, ladies and various forms of superhumans, demigods and other myriad creatures.
- "A History of Indian Literature (Volume 3)" by Maurice Winternitz, Moriz Winternitz
- "Gunadhya" from "The Encyclopaedia Of Indian Literature (Volume Two) (Devraj to Jyoti)" by Amaresh Datta, page 1506.