Sunday, April 8, 2018

History and Us

Normally, I should have been the last person to say anything about history. It is true that like any other small kid, I also had learned stories from Ramayana, Mahabharata, Vedas, and above all, the glorious achievements of the great Maratha king Shivaji, revered like a God by most people in Maharashtra, from my mother and grandmother. During my school days, I had also watched number of excellent films in Marathi on silver screen, about this great king. However, that was about everything I ever did with studies of humanities, particularly History and Geography. From eighth grade, I opted for the technical subjects and never even opened any history book. I managed to keep myself away from historical dates, years, births, deaths, battles, treaties, and armistices, so plentifully mentioned in all books on history. Later, I opted for Engineering as my career and after passing out, launched myself in the real world of manufacturing things. I never really repented my choice of my career. Subjects like history and geography were simply forgotten, only to be remembered occasionally, while reading an odd column in Sunday newspapers over a cup of tea. 

After a long span of many decades, when I finally exited the world of elevations, plans, raw materials, and quality controls. I had plenty of time on my hand. I started reading books on many assorted subjects. I read Hawking’s and Weinberg’s treatises on Nuclear Physics, travelogues of Herodotus and Ibn Battuta, Philosophical books like Dnyaneshwari (Where I must admit to have failed miserably to understand anything of substance), books on Genealogy and migrations. It was then that I hit upon some book finally, name of which I do not recollect now, on ancient history of India. It was a great revelation to learn about India of the past, its unimaginable wealth, great Kings, who ruled here, and the series of murderous invasions from northwest by some of the most barbarous and cold-blooded tyrants, India had to face. Along with history, came its natural partner, Geography. I soon realized that one could never really understand history, if he does not know enough of Geography, of which I was again very ignorant. Luckily, I found my salvation through Google earth, and from then on, I was oversold to history.

Yet I had my choices. I loved the history of people from Sindhu-Saraswati Civilizations. I read about their subsequent migrations to Gangetic plains, central India and eventually to northern Maharashtra, where they interacted with indigenous people coming from north and east. The Buddha, Buddhism, and its slow demise in India were the next. I read about Satvahana, Vakataka, Chalukya and Yadava kings of Maharashtra. I must admit that I somehow never felt interested in medieval history of India, though an interest for a brief period, made me read a few books about kingdom of ‘Vijayanagara’ in south. Jumping a century or so, I came to Marathas and finally to Peshavas. They obviously remain my all-time favourites. I tried my hand at writing a few articles that dealt with bits of this glorious history. I also managed to travel to many historical places of interest in India.

I think readers are likely to question my intent in giving above a long list of topics, in which I have managed to read a few books. However, relax! I have no wishes to claim to be a historian. I accept that reading a few books on history, does not make one a historian. As I see it, it needs decades of study and research, field trips, and some original work, before anyone could even hope to achieve some credit in this direction. Yet I feel that, whatever efforts I have put in, give me some credentials to express my thoughts about  a dangerous new trend that is emerging out in India or particularly in Maharashtra. With the advent of social media, we suddenly have multitudes of young historians, who have very little knowledge of historical facts, yet claim to be in knowledge of everything. This by itself is harmless. Problem comes when these people start integrating their  sentimentality with historical facts and start believing that historical facts believed so far are incorrect and history actually was, the way they think it is. They forget that no historical fact can be accepted, unless it is backed by solid archaeological evidence or a manuscript.

Early warnings of this new malignance, had appeared a decade ago, when one of the well-known and famous historian, Late. Ninad Bedekar had openly declared that neither he shall write a line or utter a word in future about history of Marathas, even though; it was always his favourite subject. I still remember that I had listened spellbound to a lecture of this knowledgeable historian sometimes in late seventies, about unknown historical spots in city of Pune.  However, he had sensed the new danger and preferred to keep himself away. Today, the problems are becoming even more alarming with advent of social media.

As I have mentioned above, history of Buddhism remains one of my favourite topics. I have managed to write a few lines about Early Rock cut Buddhist temples of Maharashtra and the iconography found therein, after visiting some of them and the museums, which display many of the beautiful icons and murals from these places. Other day, after reading my comments (all based on museum legends and well known books written in nineteenth or twentieth centuries) on one such mural displayed in a museum, one of my facebook friends, commented that he had started getting doubts, whether I was really a Buddhist or not? This absolutely alarmed me. I could not understand how my young friend had assumed that I was a Buddhist. Perhaps, this young man had already this preconceived notion in his mind that the people, who can write about rock-cut Buddhist temples of Maharashtra, have to be Buddhists. After receiving his comment, I simply posted a paragraph from the famous book ‘Cave temple of India’ by Fergusson and Burgess, in support of what was my contention. My friend’s reaction was even more deadly. He promptly told me that Fergusson and Burgess were foreigners and did not know anything about India. Sorry! M/S Fergusson and Burgess, your research is no longer valid in twenty-first century India, because you were foreigners and not even Buddhists. I was however,  not going to take this lightly, so I posted a photo of the Legend, displayed by the museum, where this controversial  art object was displayed and told my young friend that this legend exactly supports, what I am saying. A prompt reply came that he does not care about, what museum says. After this, it became too much for me and I felt that there was no point in continuing my conversation. I simple removed the particular photograph, on which the whole conversation in facebook was based and unfriended this young man to end the matter.

I have given details of my conversations with this young friend solely to make my readers aware of bringing in sentimentality, while reading or studying history. For such readers, there are many reasons for such an absurd point of view.  The most important reason perhaps is the prides these people possess in belonging to a particular religion or community. Off course, they are perfectly free to enjoy their pride, but that does not mean that they should lead themselves in historical theories that cannot be backed up by any evidence.

Remember George Orwell’s famous book 1984. In this book, the leading character of the novel, Winston Smith, is a member of the Outer Party, who works for the Ministry of Truth, or Minitrue in Newspeak. Minitrue is responsible for propaganda and historical revisionism. Smith's job is to rewrite past newspaper articles, so the historical record always supports the Party's agenda. The workers are told they are correcting misquotations, when they are actually writing false information in the place of fact. Minitrue also destroys all previous editions of revised work. This method ensures there is no proof of government interference.

I am afraid that present attitude of the young budding Historians from social media almost borders the diktats or decrees of the Inner Party from Orwell’s 1984. To hell, with your evidence! Whatever we say is the truth, because it suits, greatness of our religion or community. If the trend continues, I am afraid that study of history, instead of being an occupation of a few scholarly aspirants, would then turn into a hazardous field, where facing abuses or even rioting mobs would soon become an order of the day and we might as well close the museums, as Afghans did in Kabul during Taliban regime.

Study of history (with accompanying geographical factors) can be quite rewarding. It gives a rare insight into a country’s past. History is not a list of dates and wars. History can tell us why Sindhu-Sarswati Civilizations collapsed, not because of any invasions but because of the successive failures of monsoon rains over years and years. History can tell us why India could never emerge in the past as a united country, except for reigns of a couple of Emperors (separated by eight centuries apart). History can tell us why India always fell before a powerful invader, as fractured small kingdoms were no match for the might of Greeks, eastern Scythians (Shakas), Yui-zhi (Kushans), Kidarites (Huns), Hephthalites (White Huns), Mongols, Islamic Iconoclasts from Arabia and Persia, and finally Moghuls. History can tell us why land of India, so rich in resources, always ailed as it was divided on basis of castes, communities, and religions. However, to understand all this and much more, a reader has to have an open mind, free of prejudices, injected in him by the false prides in religions and communities. The reader should have enough sense not to look at history under terms of reference of present day world and condemn every tradition and belief of our ancestors. I would be last person to suggest ever that we should adopt ancient traditions and customs. They are no longer relevant. However, to label them as anti-social, casteist or chauvinistic would be equally wrong as people had adopted these operating under totally different factors such as abysmally low (by today’s standards) average age to which men or women survived, fear of foreign invasions, rule of tyrants, draughts, floods  etc. The list can be endless. With an objective and curious mind, history rewards you; no other subject can ever match. 

9 April 2018

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

The Pitalkhora Yaksha

The three main religions from India, Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism, believe in an order, where, besides human beings, creatures of Sentient (having an ability to experience feelings) existence also inhabit our world. Common examples of such sentient creatures are in form of Devas, Gandharvas and Yakshas. Out of these creatures, Yakshas are of special interest, as they are found in abundance in religious scriptures and stories of all the religions that have originated in India. R. Spence Hardy in his book, ‘Manual of Buddhism’ describes Yakshas as.
Yakshas are not to be classed with devils, though this is their popular designation. They are beings whose karma has placed them in the situation they now occupy in the scale of existence; but many of their acts might be attributed to the Dewas, as many of the acts of the Dewas might be attributed to them, without any appearance of impropriety. The dwelling-place of the Yakshas is not in the Hell (Narakas); so that they are not spirits condemned to ceaseless torments like the devils of revelation; they are found in the earth, and in the waters, and form one section of the guards round the mansion of Sekra. They marry (to Yakshinis), and delight in dances, songs, and other amusements; their strength is great; and some of them are represented as possessing splendour and dignity”.

In Buddhist literature, the Yakṣhas are the attendants of Vaishravaṇa, the guardian of the northern direction and quarter, a beneficent god who protects the righteous and rules from Capital ‘Alaka’ or ‘Alakananda’. In Buddhist art forms,  Yakshas are always represented in a Human form.  The Buddhist rock-cut temples of India invariably display Yakshas, standing on both sides of the entrance of a monastery or Chaitya. They are commonly known as ‘Dwarapala’. Reason for their inclusion can be found in the Tibetan scripture “Dul-va” (part of Ka-gyur). In this book, Shakyamuni Buddha is believed to have instructed to Anathapindika about decoration of Buddhist Viharas by placing a Yaksha figure on the outside door.

However, besides being displayed as ‘Dwarapalas’ on the sides of entrances, we also find Yaksha figures at other places such as plinth surfaces of Buddhist monasteries and Chaityas and on balusters.Yakshas are picturised as bringing stability to heavy structures by holding them in their hands. Common examples of such Yaksha figures can be found in Rock cut caves at Nashik and Pitalkhora in Maharashtra state of India.

A popular Buddhist scripture from Nepal is known as ‘Pancharaksha’ (Five-fold-protection). It  is a collection of ‘Mantras’ (religious rhymes that are supposed to have magical powers) that offers protection against sin, malady and other evils. Each of the ‘mantra’ is known as a ‘Dharani’. One of the ‘Darani’ from this collection is called as ‘Maha-mayuri’ sutra (Sermon of great peacock) and it is believed to offer a protection from snake poison.

It is believed by Nepali Buddhists that ‘Maha-mayuri’ Sutra was first delivered by Shakyamuni Buddha himself to his senior most disciples, Ananda. The original Sanskrit (or Prakrit) Sutra was translated by ‘Amoghavajra’, a monk born in Samarkand of an Indian father and Sogdian mother, in Chinese in 7th century. It is known as ‘Fu-mu-da-kong-que-ming-wang-jing’ (佛母大孔雀明王經).

In this Sutra, Shakyamuni tells Ananda. “Furthermore there are these great Yaksha kings and Yaksha generals who live along seashores, reside on high mountains and other mountains, dwell in the wilderness, live in rivers, streams, marshes, ponds, burial grounds, caves, villages, alleys, at four-way crossroads, parks, trees and other dwelling places, including a great Yaksha,  who resides in the palace of Apadakavati”.

Continuing, The Buddha tells Ananda in this Sutra to recite the names of the great Yaksha king and all the major Yaksha generals, which he names subsequently. The list covers almost all the major towns that existed in India at that time. However, the particular Yakshas, which are of our  interest here, are listed by Buddha in verses (श्लोक) 41-43. 

पौंड्रेशू मेघमालि च I
प्रतिष्ठाने च खन्डकः
पितङ्‌गल्येशु सङकारि
तरङ्‌गवत्यामं सुखावहाः
नासिकये सुन्दरो यक्षा
असाङ्‌गो भरुकच्छके 

(Yaksha named Meghamali from Paundravardhana, Khandaka from Pratishthana, Sankari from  Pitangalya, Sukhavaha from Tarangavati, Sundara from Nashik and Asanga from Bharukachchha)

More specifically, from this list, three Yakshas(Yaksha named Sundara, who resides in Nasikya (Nashik), the Yaksha named as Sankari, who resides in Pitangalya (Pitalkhora) and Khandaka from Pratishthana) are of our immediate concern

A visit to Nashik caves would show up several Yaksha figures standing as ‘Dwarapala” in cave nos. 3, 9 and 18 and also on the front plinth of caves 3 and 9, shown as lifting the burden of the cave structure. These appear to be just decorations sculptured as instructed by Buddha and cannot be considered that of any important Yaksha general, named in ‘Maha mayuri’ sutra as Yaksha Sundara, who can be revered.

Chaitya Hall at Pitalkhora circa 1880

Pitalkhora caves, discovered by Henry Cousens in 1880, are located near the head of a narrow ravine at a distance of 2.4 Kilometers to the southeast of the ruined village, known as ‘Patan’. This village is mentioned by the great Indian mathematician ‘Bhaskaracharya’ in his work and his grandson had established a school here in year 1206 to teach his grandfather’s works. ‘Patan’ is located about 18 or 19 Kilometers from ‘Chalisgaon’ railway station. The ‘Pitalkhora’ caves, consisting of a Chaitya and eight monasteries, when compared with other caves at Nashik, Karle or Bhaje, are in ruinous condition, because of the inferior quality of the Basalt rock there.

Fergusson and Burgess describe these caves in these words. “Were it not for this (the ruinous condition) they (Pitalkhora caves) present features that would render them as one of the most interesting of the minor groups of caves in west. They have a strangely foreign look, as if copied from some Persian or Assyrian examples, of course executed in colour”.

Pitalkhora caves were thoroughly investigated by M.N.Deshpande, an archaeologist from Archaeological Survey of India. In the heaps of rubble, he found a great storehouse of sculptures and bas-reliefs that today adorn the Museums at Delhi and Mumbai. A visit to the caves is still quite interesting, as the exquisite figures on capitals of pillars and pilasters are still intact.

Coming back to Yaksha figures, Deshpande found twelve of them in all, at Pitalkhora, besides carved figures of two female 'Yakshis'.  Two bas-reliefs of Yaksha ‘Dwarapalas’ were found sculptured on the either side of the staircase entrance to the main monastery hall of cave no. 4. (The figure on right still stands at the site, whereas the figure on left seems to have been moved to some unknown place). Two more  'Dwarapala' figures were found in the debris found in the forecourt of Cave No. 3 or Chaitya Hall. One of this is still in good shape and has been since moved to museum at Mumbai. The other figure was found to be too much weather-worn and almost beyond re construction. There is nothing extra-ordinary about these four figures, as they are very similar to ‘Dwarapala’ figures at Nashik caves. One Yaksha figure was discovered on a mutilated portion of a Pilaster that depicted a female chauri-bearer and a small Yaksha. On either side (baluster) of the flight of  twelve steps in two stages, cut in rock that lead to Chaitya or cave no. 3, Deshpande discovered two Yaksha figures ( on either side) engraved  in a sculptured panel, making the total of Yaksha figures as 9. Another loose panel from cave no. 4 shows  two Yaksha figures  sitting with legs folded backwards from knee and hands upraised. They have been shown bearing the weight of the broken panel. This takes the total of Yaksha figures to 11.  Even a cursory look would confirm that all these ‘Yaksha’ figures are just decarations, sculptured as instructed by Buddha to Anathapindika and are like those found at Nashik.

Dwarapala Yaksha standing at the entrance of Chaitya hall, Mumbai museum

Deshpande found that the twelfth Yaksha figure however, was a very different proposition, as it was not a bas-relief but a free standing, round sculpture. It was also discovered in a heap of rubble, lying in the forecourt of Chaitya or cave no. 3. Deshpande describes the Yaksha figure as unique and admits that he has not been able to get anything parallel to it anywhere else. The surviving portion of the statue sculptured in buff stone (harder than the sandstone but softer to than granite) is about a meter high with legs below knees broken off and missing left forearm. The figure is of a chubby or plump male with arms raised upwards to hold a shallow bowl. Because of this, this figure is known as ‘Patravahak Yaksha’ (Yaksha carrying a pot). The figure has been dated by Archaeologists to second century BCE.

The legend at Delhi museum, where Yaksha figure is now displayed reads. “A corpulent male, dwarfish in stature, conceived with bold, robust, and distinctive features. As reveals the expression on his face and eyes, he is full of wild joy. This zest for life also reflects in his lavish adornment rendered with several unusual types of ornaments. His lotus flower-like dressed hair with twisted hair rolls is exceptionally attractive. He is putting on a beautifully designed 'antariya' - lower garment, conceived with vertical linear courses and other styles of folds, descending down to the mid-thigh height. It has been held on the waist with a decorative thick one-stranded cord with two ends lying loose around the left thigh. Friendly, benign, and eager to share his mirth with all, his devotees, and others, the figure of the Yaksha has been conceived with large bulbous eyes, chubby face, and wide-open mouth with rows of teeth well revealed as when laughing and in jubilation, expressing delight. The image has two notable features, one curious, and other, historically significant. On the right and left sides of his belly the Yaksha has a pair of human icons and on the outer side of the right palm the image has a 2nd century BCE  inscription in Brahmi scipt  that reads as,

कन्हदासेन हिरमं
नकारेन कटो

(Kanhadasena Hiram-nakarena kato),

revealing the name of the sculptor as Kanhadasa, a goldsmith”.

Perhaps because of the uniqueness of the image and the fact that it was found in the Chaitya itself, Deshpande proposes that the image may be that of ‘Yaksha Sankarin’ mentioned in ‘Mahamayuri’ Sutra. There has been some criticism of this proposal. (See the article by M. S. Mate in Bulletin of the Deccan College Research Institute, [ Vol. 26, No. 3-4, 1965-66] or Pitalkhora: Art  and Archaeology By S.K. Mittra, thesis submitted for PhD). I however feel that the criticism appears quite unjustified for two reasons. Firstly, as Deshpande suggests, the Yaksha image is unique, and unlikely to have been carved as decoration, like other 11 figures. 

There is an old belief in Maharashtra villages that a person bitten by a snake is revived, even when all other ways to revive him fail, if he is brought and kept in a Shiva temple. It is possible to imagine a similar belief in Buddhists to bring a snake bitten person to a Chaitya where an image of a Yaksha was kept especially for this purpose. Considering the antiquity of the image, it seems quite possible that the Pitalkhora monastery monks got the image cut by a goldsmith later, especially for worshipping or revering in case of snakebites, as has been suggested in the ‘Mahamayuri’ Sutra. 
Extrapolating from Pitalkhora Yaksha- it can be presumed that in all major towns of that time and monasteries nearby, a Yaksha figure might have been installed to cure the snake bitten. It is no surprise therefore that ‘Mahamayuri’ Sutra mentions more than hundred names of Yakshas, from places not only from India, but also from ‘Kapishi’ (present day Begram in Afghanistan), ‘Tukhara’ (Bactria, present-day northern Afghanistan), and ‘Suvastu’ from Xinjiang China (presently known as Subashi ruins) installed in Buddhist temples for reverence in case of snakebites.

Mention of the names of monasteries from far off places in ‘Mahamayuri’ Sutra, would also indicate their inclusion in the Sutra at a later period, when Ashoka’s emissaries had spread Buddhism to central Asia and China (after 3rd century BCE). I do not mean by this that the places like ‘Tukhara’ were not known in the earlier periods in India, as we can find their mention  even in Rigveda and Mahabharata. However, mention of places like ‘Suvastu’ monastery,   built around first century, would definitely confirm their inclusion in the Sutra, only at a much later period. There is also a possibility that the Sutra itself originated at a later period, but we shall never know for sure.
5th April 2018

Friday, March 9, 2018

Searching for the original ‘Brihat-katha’

Most of the Indian readers of my blog must have read, when they were young, the famous collection of stories known as ‘Vetala Panchavimshati’ (वेतालपञ्चविंशति) either in a book form or in pictorial or comic format. For sake of other readers, I would like to give here the frame of the story, which goes along on these lines. The legendary king ‘Vikramditya’ makes a promise to a sorcerer that he will capture a ‘vetala’ (वेताल), (a celestial spirit Pishacha [analogous to a vampire in Western literature] that hangs upside-down from a tree, inhabits, and animates dead bodies). King however finds the task much more difficult than he had ever imagined. Each time the king tries to capture the ‘Vetala’, it tells a story that ends with a riddle. If the king cannot answer the question correctly, the vampire consents to remain in captivity. If the king knows the answer, but still keeps quiet, then his head shall burst into thousand pieces. Moreover, if King Vikramaditya answers the question correctly, the vampire would escape and return to his tree. Being extremely wise, the king knows the answer to every question; therefore, the cycle of catching and releasing the vampire continues for twenty-four times, giving us twenty-four amazing stories.

Readers may not know that ‘Vetala Panchavimshati’ stories come from a much larger collection (actually a vast collection) of stories, aptly called as ‘Story Ocean of many rivers’ (कथासरित्सागर), a name I am sure that all my Indian readers must have heard of. The work, consisting of 18 books of 124 chapters and approximately 22,000 Shlokas (each shloka consisting of two half-verses of 16 syllables each), is believed to have been composed by a Kashmiri Pandit, Somadeva. He was commissioned by a King of Kashmir, ‘Anantadeva’ (reigned 1028-1063 CE) of ‘Lohara’ dynasty, to compose a cycle of stories to amuse and calm the queen ‘Suryamati’ (सूर्यमति) during a political crisis. Though the basic story line of this book narrates, the exploits of King Naravahandatta (नरवाहनदत्त) of ‘Vatsa’ dynasty, who ruled from the ancient city of ‘Kaushambi’, located on bank of River Jamuna. Author Somadeva skillfully manages, during course of his book,  to interweave an unbelievably large number of short and long stories, which sometimes have no connection whatsoever  with the main story line. The Book begins with birth of King ‘Udayana’, narrates his life, loves and queens. Story then proceeds with birth of Udayana’s son ‘Narvavahandatta’, his upbringing and finally how he acquired his many (twenty-six) wives.

Somadeva, though a great story teller, to be fair enough, accepts in the beginning of his magnum opus that he is not the real author of this work and he has merely abridged it from the work of a great poet (who lived between first and third century) known as ‘Gunadhya’(गुणाढ्य). This original work was known as ‘Brihat katha’ (बृहत्कथा, a widely spread story). Somadeva says.

एवं गुणाढ्यवचसा सप्तकथामयी I स्वभाषया कथा दिव्या कथिता काणभूतिना II
तथैव च गुणाढ्येन पैशाच्या भाषया तया I निबद्धा सप्तभिर्वर्षैर्ग्रंन्थ्लक्षणि सप्त सा II

मैतां विद्याधरा हार्षुरिति तामात्म्यशोणितैः I अटव्यां मष्यभावाश्च लिलेख स महाकविः II

“Gunadhya for his part using the same Paisachi language threw the original tale of Kanabhuti consisting of seven stories into seven hundred thousand couplets in seven years; and that great poet, for fear that the Vidyadharas should steal his composition, wrote it with his own blood in the forest, not possessing ink.”

 (Paishachi language was a form of ‘Prakrit’ language and is believed to have been popular in northwestern region of ancient India. The present Pakistani –Afghan languages of ‘Pushtu’ and ‘Dardistan’ people are believed influenced by ‘Paishachi’ language.)

However, it so happens, that Somadeva is not the only Kashmiri Pandit to compose such a work of ornate poetry based on Gunadhya’s ‘Brihat Katha’. Another Kashmiri Pandit, Kshemendra (क्षेमेन्द्र) had also composed about thirty years earlier (year 1037 CE), a poetic work known as ‘Btihatkathamanjari’ (बृहत्कथामञ्जरी). In all fairness, ‘Kshemendra’ also accepts, like Somadeva, that his work also is a recension of Gunadhya’s ‘Brihat Katha’. He says.

श्रुत्वा गुणाध्यकथितं कानभूतिरुवाच नम्‌ I
शोणितेन लिख क्षिप्रं सप्तानां चक्रवर्तिनाम्‌ II

कथां विद्याधरे न्द्राणां कथयामि स्थिरो भव I

इति श्रुत्वा लिलेखाशु सप्तलक्षाण्यनन्यधीः II

Even though these two above-mentioned works of ornate poetry, based on Gunadhya’s ‘Brihat-Katha’, have been always available to scholars including European Orientalists, the original ‘Brihat Katha’ written by Gunadhya remained untraceable. Surprisingly, as more and more scholarly interest was shown in Gunadhya’s  ‘Brihat-katha’ during Nineteenth and Twentieth centuries, more recensions of the original ‘Brihat katha’ came to light or became known, from study of ancient literatures. In 1906, S. Krishnaswami Aiyangar reported in Journal of Royal Asiatic society that a Tamil work of poetry known as ‘Udayanan Kadai’ or ‘Peruugadai’ was according to him a literal translation of  Gunadhya’s ‘Brihat-katha’. He felt that it was written around second century CE. In 1913, R. Narsimhachar reported in Journal of Royal Asiatic society, discovery of a copper plate inscription of a king of ‘Ganga’ (गान्गेय) dynasty, ‘Durvinita’ (दुर्विनित), who reigned in first half of sixth century. The inscription attributed the king with the authorship of three books. One of the books was called as “Vadda-kathena”, which Narsimhachar interprets as the Sanskrit translation of original ‘Brihat-katha’ in Paishachi language. Prof. F.Lacote, in his essay published in 1908, claimed that he knows about even a Persian version of ‘Brihat-katha’ that was stored at India Office Library in London. The book was titled as ‘Kutha and Purana’ and consisted of 34 stories, which unfortunately were not coherent. Readers might be aware that the stories from ‘Brihat-katha’ were found used in many famous Sanskrit poetic works and dramas, such as ‘Swapna-vasavadatta” (स्वप्न-वासवदत्ता), ‘Pratidnyayaugandharayan’ (प्रतिज्ञायौगंधरायण), ‘Ratnavali’ (रत्नावली), ’Harshacharita’ (हर्षचरित), and ‘Meghaduta’ (मेघदूत).

However, original ‘Brihat Katha’ still remained obscure and untraceable.

In 1893, Pandit Hara Prasad Shastri reported in Journal of the Asiatic society of Bengal,  about the discovery of twelve manuscripts that originated in Nepal and were obtained through the good offices of his friend Babu Kshirodchandra Raychaudhari, Headmaster of Chapra Zilla School in Bihar. I quote from his report as follows.

“The twelfth manuscript is labeled as unknown. The first page is missing and the end far away. On examination, it is found that pages from 2 to 210 exist. The handwriting is beautiful but much older. On examination, the manuscript proved to be a portion of the ‘Brihat-Katha’, about tenth of the whole work. It is not Somadeva’s ‘Katha saritsagara’ nor Kshemendra’s ‘Brihatkathamanjari’ because in both these works the chapters are divided into ‘lambhakas’ and ‘tarangas’, whereas in the present manuscript it is divided into ‘Adhyayas’ and ‘Sargas’. The manuscript contains one complete Adhyaya and a portion of second. It has in all 26 ‘sargas’. Some of the markers at the end of a page or Colophons bear significant words; ‘Brihatkatha- ShlokaSangraha’ (बृहत्कथा- श्लोकसंग्रह), Names of ‘sargas’ and some proper names also appear in some of the Colophons, which I have not been able to identify in Somadeva’s or Kshemendra’s works”.

Based on his observations, Pandit Hara Prasad Shastri came to the obvious conclusion that his manuscript must have been the third recensionof Gunadhya’s ‘Brihat-katha’, originally written in Paishachi language, and it bore a name ‘Brihatkatha- ShlokaSangraha’. He also noted from the archaic style of letters written in ‘Devnagari’ script that this manuscript was much older period (from Gupta period, Fourth to Sixth century) than those written by Somadeva and Kshemendra. He also pointed out that the manuscript was part of a large work with only the first Adhyaya  itself comprised of 4200 Shlokas or verses. In comparison, Kshemendra’s entire work consists of little more than 7000 Shlokas.

A famous French Orientalist, Prof. F. Lacote managed to collect three or four manuscripts of ‘Brihatkatha- ShlokaSangraha’. One of the first things that he noted was that colophon of ‘Sarga’ 28, gave name of the composer of this book by saying ‘Shribhatt Budhaswamin krit Brihatkatha-shlokasangraha ’ (श्रीभट्टबुधस्वामि कृत बृहत्कथा- श्लोकसंग्रह),  which could be translated as  ‘Brihatkatha, abridged in epic verses by Budhaswamin’. After a thorough study of all the manuscripts of ‘Brihatkatha-shlokasangraha’ collected by him, Prof. Lacote, thirteen years later (1906) wrote his famous essay, titled ‘Essai sur  Gunadhya et la Brhatkatha’. However, before we jump to the conclusions drawn by Prof. Lacote, let us examine another book of great relevance to the subject,  titled as,’ History of Indian literature’ by M. Winternitz,  written in 1922. Winternitz points out in this book and I quote.

“There are many points that go to suggest that ‘Brihatkatha- ShlokaSangraha’ stands closer to the work of Gunadhya than the Kashmiri recensions .” He gives two examples to support this argument. Firstly, the introductory verses about Gunadhya (quoted above) that are present in ‘Katha Saritsagar’ and ‘Brihatkathamanjari’ are completely missing in ‘Shlokasangraha’. Secondly, Budhaswamin’s book says in chapter 14, verse 60-61 that “Gunadhya could not sing in his own praise”; a sure indication that ’Shlokasangraha’ is a verbatim version of the original, in the form of a poem. Winternitz adds that the nature of the main story in ‘Shlokasangraha’ creates a stronger impression of the work being original than the Kashmiri recension.

Prof. Lacote, in his essay, comes to the same conclusion, when he guardedly says. “Budhaswamin may have innovated a little in the detail of the adventures, and much, if one likes to think so, in the style, is not unlikely, more essentially, in the necessary tales, which are of a nature more vague than the frame story itself. I do not believe that Budhaswamin has deliberately given to the ‘Brihat katha’ a commonplace, even a vulgar character, which did not exist already in the original. Everything considered, it does not seem to me as if he had altered considerably either the plan or subject matter (of Gunadhya’s Brihat-katha)”.

Considering the three recensions (two Kashmiri and one from Nepal) together, Prof. Lacote tries to reconstruct in his essay, the main frame of the story of Gunadhya’s  ‘Brihat-katha’ that he considers is nearest to the original. However, as readers must have realized by now, our purpose here was never the story itself, which readers can always read from the plethora of translations available in many languages. What is more fascinating is the account of the attempts made and efforts put in by many a scholars and Orientalists to try to retrieve the original ‘Brihat-katha’, a masterpiece of ancient Indian literature, even when the original manuscript has been lost forever.

9th March 2018