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Bṛhatkathā (Sanskrit, "the Great Narrative") is an ancient Indian epic, said to have been written by Guṇāḍhya in a poorly-understood language known as Paiśācī. The work is no longer extant but several later adaptations — the Kathasaritsagara, Brihatkathamanjari and Bṛhatkathāślokasaṃgraha in Sanskrit, as well as the Peruṅkatai and Vasudevahiṃḍi in vernaculars — furnish tantalizing and often contradictory clues to its nature.

The date of its composition is uncertain. According to testimonials by later Sanskrit poets like Daṇḍin, Subandhu, and Bana, the Bṛhatkathā existed in the 6th century AD.[1] 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 — itself uncertain, but before the 3rd century AD.

Probable relationship between versions of the Brihatkatha

Early references[edit]

The earliest extant reference to the Bṛhatkathā seems to be that of Subandhu (5th or 6th century AD?) in Vasavadatta.[2] Bāṇa (7th century) refers to it in both his romances Harshacharita and Kadambari.[3] A reference by Daṇḍin in his Kavyadarsha is problematic because it describes the Bṛhatkathā as being marvelous and as composed in the vernacular of the bhūtas (evidently Paiśācī). However, the information appears to be second-hand. A fuller reference is provided in Daśakumāracarita, whose author is possibly not the same Daṇḍin.[4] Later references include the Daśarūpa of Dhanamjaya, Nalacampū of Trivikramabhaṭṭa,[5] and Āryāsaptaśatī of Govardhanācārya.[6] A Cambodian inscription (c. 875) expressly mentions Guṇāḍhya and his aversion to Prakrit.[7] The earliest extant Kannada work on grammar and poetics, Kavirajamarga by Nripatunga (c. 850), mentions a now lost Sanskrit version of Bṛhatkathā by the author Durvinita. We can safely assume the existence of a romantic work by Guṇāḍhya before AD 600.

Extant adaptations[edit]

Although the original work is now lost to us, its enduring memorial is furnished by the versions of the Brihatkatha that are still in existence. 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 - Peruṅkatai 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.

Reconstructed content[edit]

Relationships of chief characters in the Brihatkatha (as evidenced by the derived texts Brihatkathashlokasamgraha, Brihatkathamanjari, and Kathasaritsagara).
Equivalents of chief names[8]
Sanskrit Tamil (Peruṅkatai)
Kauśāmbī Kōcampi
Ujjayinī Uñcai, Uñcēṉai
Gomukha Kōmukaṉ
Hariśikha Arucikaṉ
Kaliṅgasenā Kaliṅkacēṉai
Madanamañjukā Mataṉamañcikai
Mānasavega Māṇacavēkaṇ
Mārubhūtika (Bhūti, Marubhūti) Pūti
Naravānhanadatta Naravāṇatattaṉ
Padmāvatī Patumāpati
Pradyota Mahāsena Piraccōtaṉaṉ Maṟamāccēṉaṉ
Ṛṣabhaka Iṭapakaṉ
Rumaṇvān (Rumaṇvat) Urumaṇṇuvā
Śatānīka Catāṉikaṉ
Tapantaka Tavantakaṉ
Udayana Utayaṇaṉ
Vasantaka Vayantakaṉ
Vāsavadattā Vācavatattai
Vegavatī Vēkavati
Yaugandharāyaṇa Yūkantarāyaṇaṉ, Yūki
Placenames in gray.
Character equivalents in the Vasudevahiṃḍi
Sanskrit Mahārāṣṭri
Naravānhanadatta Vasudeva[9]
Udayana Aṃdhagavaṇhi[10]

Although several derivative works are extant, they differ so greatly that they cannot be used to reconstruct the Bṛhatkathā in a literal sense. However, some strong inferences can be made about its content based on their similarities.[11]

Ujjayinī frame[edit]

Pradyota Mahāsena (father-in-law of Udayana) is the King of Ujjayinī. When he dies, the throne passes to his elder son Gopāla, younger son Pālaka, and grandson Avantivardhana, in turn. Avantivardhana and his wife Suratamañjarī are abducted by the Vidyādhara Ipphaka. Another Vidyādhara returns them, along with the instigator, Ipphaka, to Pālaka's aśrama (spiritual retreat), where judgement is to be overseen by Avantivardhana's cousin Naravāhanadatta, emperor of the Vidyādharas.

Naravāhanadatta arrives with his retinue and 26 wives, and the case is adjudicated. The head of the aśrama then asks him to tell them the story of his 26 marriages and his becoming emperor of the Vidyādharas. He consents.

Naravāhanadatta's narrative[edit]

The frame presents a typical authorial third person narrative. From this point on, however, Naravāhanadatta narrates his own story in the first person.


Due to a dohada ("pregnancy craving"), Mṛgāvatī, pregnant with Udayana, is either covered or immersed in red. A monstrous bird mistakes her for raw meat and carries her away, later dropping her. She is cared for in a hermitage, where she raises her son.[12] Udayana obtains a wonderful lute, elephant taming skills, and confidants; he and his mother eventually return to their home, Kauśāmbī.[13]

Udayana is later captured by Pradyota, the King of Ujjayinī. Here, he teaches the lute to Pradyota's daughter, Vāsavadattā, and they fall in love.[14] Eventually they escape to Kauśāmbī, where Udayana's rightful kingship is restored, and they are married.[15] But fearing Udayana is getting soft, and desiring an additional political alliance, Udayana's ministers make him believe that Vāsavadattā is dead, and effect his marriage to Padmāvatī.[16]

Though he is later reunited with Vāsavadattā, Udayana remains childless. Later, as a boon of Kubera, Vāsavadattā becomes pregnant with Naravāhanadatta (his name means "given by Kubera"[17]), who is fated to become the emperor of the Vidyādharas.


Udayana's life serves as the prelude to the central story of his son, Naravānhanadatta. Unlike his father, who appears in several works unrelated to the Bṛhatkathā, Naravānhanadatta is known only from texts demonstrably linked to the Bṛhatkathā.[18]

Early life: Naravāhanadatta's early life may have been covered somewhat briefly, but probably included episodes with his companions, especially Gomukha who is responsible for introducing him to a courtesan's daughter, Madanamañjukā, with whom Naravāhanadatta falls in love.

Crisis: Before they can be married, she is abducted by the hostile Vidyādhara Mānasavega, but soon seems to reappear. She and Naravāhanadatta are married, but this "Madanamañjukā" is revealed to be Vegavatī, sister of Mānasavega, who, disapproving of his sister's actions, subsequently abducts Naravāhanadatta. He escapes but ends up far from home. These pivotal incidents set the stage for the rest of the epic: a sequence of lambhas ("attainments").

Attainments: Taking place over years of exile and wandering, Naravāhanadatta's lambhas ("attainments") comprise an extended series of political, military, magical, and romantic adventures. He attains power, magical abilities of the Vidyādharas, and 26 wives. These probably supplied the bulk of the epic. Though extant examples of lambhas are loosely episodic, the Bṛhatkathā's lambhas may have been more structured: possibly each lambha concluded with one marriage, to which was logically tied political and magical powers. Having realized these attainments, he has now become a Vidyādhara himself, and is allied with many others through his marriages. He now conquers the empire of the Vidyādharas, becomes its emperor, captures Mānasavega, and at last marries his first love, Madanamañjukā.


After Naravāhanadatta's long narration of his own history, the Bṛhatkathā may have concluded with a brief return to the "present" of the frame story (which presumably occurs only shortly after the events of Naravāhanadatta's narrative).

Legendary origin[edit]

Major characters and path of Shiva's story in the legend of Gunadhya, as told in the first Book of the Kathasaritsagara (Ocean of Rivers of Story).[19]

The origin of Brihatkatha as described in Kathasaritsagara is:[20]

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.

Sources and Literary themes[edit]

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 clearly 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. However, the empire is not of this earth; it is essentially a fairy land, the realm of the Vidyadharas, who dwell beyond the formidable defenses 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 remodeled for his new destiny. 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.


  1. ^ Winternitz 1985, p 346.
  2. ^ Vijayalakshmy 1981, p 11.
  3. ^ Nelson 1974, pp 19-22.
  4. ^ Nelson 1974, pp 33-35.
  5. ^ Vijayalakshmy 1981, pp 11-12.
  6. ^ Nelson 1974, pp 36-37.
  7. ^ Vijayalakshmy 1981, pp 12-13.
  8. ^ Nelson 1974, pp 330-332.
  9. ^ Nelson 1974, p 197.
  10. ^ Nelson 1974, p 206.
  11. ^ Reconstruction based on Nelson 1974, pp 324-327 & Nelson 1978, pp 665-669; except where noted.
  12. ^ Vijayalakshmy 1981, pp 58-60.
  13. ^ Vijayalakshmy 1981, pp 60-62.
  14. ^ Vijayalakshmy 1981, pp 60-62.
  15. ^ Vijayalakshmy 1981, pp 78-81.
  16. ^ Vijayalakshmy 1981, pp 84-86.
  17. ^ Penzer 1924, Vol IX p 119.
  18. ^ Nelson 1974, pp 16-17.
  19. ^ Lacôte 1923, pp 22-25.
  20. ^ "Gunadhya" from "The Encyclopaedia Of Indian Literature (Volume Two) (Devraj to Jyoti)" by Amaresh Datta, page 1506.