Hinduism,Cosmos ,Sanatan Dharma.Ancient Hinduism science.
Bṛhatkathāmañjarī is an abridgement of the northwestern recension of the now lost Bṛhatkathā. It was composed by Kṣemendra of Kashmir (11th century CE). Kṣemendra was apparently a great ‘abridger’, having also done abridgements of the itihāsa texts, Rāmāyaṇamañjarī and Bhāratamañjarī, apart from a lot of original work. The guy studied under the illustrious Abhinavagupta of Kashmir, who is famous for, among other things, the full exposition of rasa, a central concept in Indian aesthetics first introduced by Bharatamuni in his Nāṭyaśāstra. Anyway, Bṛhatkathāmañjarī itself is not as interesting as the original Bṛhatkathā, which has a lot going on behind the scenes. Before we get to the content of Bṛhatkathāmañjarī, let’s talk about Bṛhatkathā a bit. Since the original work is lost, we don’t have much to go by. But there is a legend surrounding its writing and its author. This legend is retained in works derived from Bṛhatkathā, like Bṛhatkathāmañjarī and Kathāsaritsāgara of Somadeva Bhaṭṭa, also from Kashmir.
Guṇāḍhya was a minister of a Sātavāhana king. Now this king, he was not exactly well read and didn’t know Sanskrit. One day, he was playing near the lake in a garden with his wives. When one of his wives told him to stop splashing water at her, in Sanskrit, he misunderstood it and ordered his servant to bring sweets. She then explained what she meant (मोदक = मा + उदक) and teased him for his ignorance of a simple sandhi rule. Dispirited, he shut himself in one of his rooms at the palace and sulked all day. When two of his wisest ministers, Śarvavarma and Guṇāḍhya, arrived to help, the king spoke: How long will it take me to learn Sanskrit, my ministers, if I work hard? What good is all this wealth, all these wives, these lands, if I am ignorant? Guṇāḍhya answered: Most people need twelve years, great king, but I will teach you in six. Śarvavarma, in an effort to one-up him, said: The king neither can nor does he need to spend so long. He has matters of the state to attend to. I will teach you in six months! At this, Guṇāḍhya challenged him: Śarvavarma, if you accomplish such an impossible feat, I shall renounce Sanskrit, Prakrit, and the Vernacular.
The king was happy simply to be rid of the feeling of inadequacy, but of course, it was impossible. So Śarvavarma prayed to Sarasvatī, and with her blessing, managed the impossible. Guṇāḍhya, having lost the bet, left the kingdom with two of his disciples. Guṇāḍhya travelled in silence, since he had given up all known languages. After a time, he wandered into a wild forest, where he met a group of piśācas, who spoke an obscure, incomprehensible tongue—Paiśācī. Learning this strange language, he started speaking again, without having to break his vow. Wandering through the forest, he came one day upon an old forest-dweller named Kāṇabhūti. From his expressions, it seemed as if he had been waiting for Guṇāḍhya—because he was. At this point, we need to take a detour.
Once, Śiva asked Pārvatī, gladdened by her affection for him, what he could do to please her. Pārvatī asked Śiva to tell her a most delightful story never heard before. He asked her: What can there be in this universe that is not known to you? But after being eagerly persuaded by her, Śiva proceeded to tell her the story of her previous life as Satī. Pārvatī, upset by this depressing story, called him a deceiver who wouldn’t tell her a pleasing tale. Śiva, in a bid to please her, promised to tell her a wonderful story. Pārvatī then told Nandi to guard the door and not let anyone in. Śiva then said: The gods are supremely blessed, men ever miserable, and the actions of demigods exceedingly charming. Therefore I now proceed to relate the history of the Vidyādharas.
Presently, one of Śiva’s favourite attendants, a gaṇa named Puṣpadanta, appeared at the door but was refused entry for said reasons. Intrigued and curious to know what was being hidden from even him, the divine attendant took an invisible form and sneaked into the Mahādeva’s chamber. After listening in, he then told the story to his wife Jayā, an attendant of Pārvatī, for who can hide secrets from women? Jayā ended up reciting the story in Pārvatī’s presence, for whom can women hide secrets from? Enraged, the goddess complained to Śiva: You did not tell me any fascinating tale, for Jayā knows it also. Śiva, being Śiva, found out immediately what had transpired and informed Pārvatī, who promptly cursed Puṣpadanta to become a mortal. In her wrath, she also cursed another attendant of Śiva, Mālyavān, who had presumed to intercede for Puṣpadanta. The two attendants and Jayā all fell at her feet and pleaded her to also pronounce the conditions for the lifting of the curse. Out of compassion, Pārvatī added further that a yakṣa named Supratīka had been cursed by the Lord of Wealth, Kubera, to become a piśāca and was residing in the Vindhyas. Puṣpadanta would be freed from his curse when he would find the piśāca and, recalling his origin, tell him the story that he was not supposed to eavesdrop on. Supratīka would be freed when he would then pass on the story to Mālyavān. And Mālyavān would be freed, of course, upon making this story famous. Puṣpadanta was then born in Kauśāmbī as Vararuci. Mālyavān was born as Guṇāḍhya in Supratiṣṭhita (Pratiṣṭhāna).
Now, back to the forest. When Guṇāḍhya realised that Kāṇabhūti was in fact Supratīka, he asked him to recount Śiva’s tale so that their curses may be lifted, the tale of the seven emperors of the Vidyādharas who, by the way, are semi-divine beings like yakṣas and gandharvas and serve Śiva. Once he finished his story, Kāṇabhūti was freed from his curse. Guṇāḍhya, having no ink, recorded the story on leaves made of tree bark with his own blood, in 7,00,000 ślokas in the Paiśācī language. Then he sent it to the Sātavāhana king with his disciples, in order that it might be spread far and wide. But when the king, now conversant in Sanskrit, saw this story written in an incomprehensible Paiśācī in blood, he was disgusted and rejected the work. Dejected, Guṇāḍhya made a fire and started reading the story to forest animals, burning each leaf once read. The beasts, held in thrall by his composition, forgot even to eat and listened. Meanwhile, the king was being fed poor quality meat. The enraptured beasts who weren’t eating had become too lean. Upon investigation, the king came up to the forest-dweller, and recognising him to be Guṇāḍhya, stopped him from burning the story. By then, he had already burned six of the seven stories. Only the last 1,00,000 ślokas remained. Upon learning the story behind this great story, the king himself composed the legend of Guṇāḍhya to serve as the introduction to the remaining seventh story, the Bṛhatkathā.
Bṛhatkathāmañjarī is the abridgement of this story of the seventh emperor of the Vidyādharas. It is the story of the exploits of Naravāhanadatta, son of Prince Udayana of Kauśāmbī with Princess Vāsavadattā of Ujjayinī. Naravāhanadatta was destined to become emperor of the Vidyādharas. The first of the 18 lambakas or books, ‘Kathāpīṭha’, tells the story of Guṇāḍhya and Vararuci. In Kathāsaritsāgara, Vararuci is identified with Kātyāyana, the ancient linguist, and is also treated as a contemporary and peer of Pāṇini. According to Kathāsaritsāgara, Vararuci was superior to Pāṇini and was overshadowed only because of a bet he lost to him. The second lambaka of Bṛhatkathāmañjarī, titled ‘Kathāmukha’, deals with the birth of Udayana, his adventures and the circumstances of his marriage to Vāsavadattā. ‘Lāvānaka’, the third lambaka, deals with the going of Udayana and Vāsavadattā to Lāvānaka, the ploy of Udayana’s ministers and his marriage to Padmāvatī. Naravāhanadatta is born in the fourth lambaka, ‘Naravāhanajanma’. With this prelude, the story begins. It meanders through many minor events and stories within stories, apart from the larger, overarching narrative in which Naravāhanadatta takes 26 wives before he becomes emperor of the Vidyādharas. So yeah, it’s a long story. Although the story of Udayana and Vāsavadattā is the subject of many works, including Svapnavāsavadattam by Bhāsa, a playwright to whom even Kālidāsa paid obeisance, Naravāhanadatta appears only in works associated with Bṛhatkathā.
Bṛhatkathā itself is no minor work, at least in the minds of the writers and poets of the classical and post-classical era India. The work was compared with Rāmāyaṇaand Mahābhārata and was hugely influential on Indian literature. Its loss is considered to be among the greatest losses of Indian literature. It was pretty much the crown jewel of the kathā tradition and inspired a few retellings like Kathāsaritsāgara, Budhasvāmin’s Bṛhatkathāślokasaṅgraha (considered most faithful to the original but only partially recovered) and of course, Bṛhatkathāmañjarī. Some of its stories are also found in Śukasaptati, Siṃhāsanadvātriṃśikā, and guess what—Vetālapañcaviṃśati. Yes, Vikram aur Betaal originates in Bṛhatkathā and one of its oldest recensions is found in the 12th lambaka of Kathāsaritsāgara. An early recension of Pañcatantra is also found in its 10th lambaka. Note that Somadeva divided the work only into 124 taraṅgas or chapters. The division of Kathāsaritsāgara into 18 lambakas is by later translators into English. Betaal or Vetāla is a piśāca, by the way. And Bṛhatkathā likely contained the earliest reference to the legendary Vikramāditya or Vikram of Vikram aur Betaal.
Bṛhatkathāmañjarī and Kathāsaritsāgara are the two complete Sanskrit retellings available, both derived from the northwestern recension. The latter is the most famous retelling of the original and it features a frame narrative structure where, woven within the frame of a larger narrative, numerous subplots find their own legitimate position as mini-stories, so much so that the main story line is often lost. Bṛhatkathāmañjarī, though similar, is less ornate, being written in a summary style and is about a third as long. Kathāsaritsāgara is about twice as long as Iliad and Odyssey put together, at 22,000 ślokas. The frame narrative structure is how early ‘short story collections’ emerged. Many of the folk tales known to us are present in Somadeva’s ‘Ocean of the Streams of Stories’. It is likely that Bṛhatkathā (lit. Great Story) also employed this structure. If so, it was probably the perfected form of the frame narrative, given the sheer size of the work. And that’s a huge deal, considering most of the folk tales that have come down to us have used this structure, including Pañcatantra, Vetālapañcaviṃśati, Arabian Nights, Decameron and The Canterbury Tales.
As for Paiśācī, no work in it survives and next to nothing is known about it. Almost everything about it surrounds Bṛhatkathā, which itself is a question mark. Even its author is known only through the fantastical legend I just narrated. The 6th–7th century grammarian and writer Daṇḍin, in his Kāvyādarśa, calls it bhūtabhāṣā or ‘dead language’. So it may have become extinct long ago. For most questions about Bṛhatkathā, Guṇāḍhya and Paiśācī, the correct answer is we don’t know.
I’m not sure about translations but you can read Bṛhatkathāmañjarī in Sanskrit on Archive: Brihatkathamanjari of Kshemendra. Kathāsaritsāgara is also available in Sanskrit on Archive: Kathasaritsagara of Somadeva Bhatta. I haven’t read either. A full translation of Kathāsaritsāgara by C H Tawney runs into multiple volumes.