One beautiful spring day, King Satavahana visited a pleasure garden, taking his queens with him. Playing in the pool, surrounded by pretty ladies, the king looked as handsome as Cupid. As the sunlight refracted off their jewels creating dizzying patterns of color in the water, he began playfully splashing his companions with cool drops of water. One of the queens, whom the king had pelted rather hard, cried out “Your Majesty, don’t splash anymore water on me!”
Unfortunately, the queen had spoken in Sanskrit, a language at which the king was a complete dunce. He thought she wanted sweets. “Have all the sweets in the palace brought to the pool side!” he ordered his retinue. The queen who had spoken in Sanskrit felt embarrassed for him. His other queens, who were all quite learned in Sanskrit and grammar, and even many of his retainers, caught the gaffe and started shaking with suppressed laughter. The king saw all this, and felt very upset. But then, it took even the wise sages countless years of penance and devotion to acquire learning, so what did the poor king expect?
After that incident, the king went into a depression, turning away all his followers and refusing to speak to anyone. Sorrow at his own ignorance gnawed at him night and day. Some time later, I went to see him. His minister, Sharvavarman, was with me. The minister said to him, “Why are you so upset over a trifle? Is it important that you should already know everything on your own? You are an emperor, attended by wise scholars. Let them teach you!”
This was my cue. I said, with an appearance of thoughtfulness, “I am Gunadhya. My name means “rich in virtues and excellence.” Let’s forget undue modesty – I live up to that name. I can turn Your Majesty into a scholar in five years.”
Sharvavarman then said, “Six months will be more than enough for me to turn His Majesty into an expert on Sanskrit. Gunadhya, people like you should just take it easy and leave this sort of work to me.”
I laughed, more in anger than in amusement. In a shrill voice, I screeched, “If you can do this, Sharvavarman, I will stop speaking in the three tongues (Sanskrit, Prakrit and Apabhramsa).”
He on his part said, “If I fail, I’ll spend the next twelve years carrying your shoes on my head!”
Well, Sharvavarman went off for a short while after this exchange. Rumor has it that he went to a cave and learned some magic tricks. I’m inclined to believe that, for only tantric magic can account for what happened next. Sharvavarman did manage to teach the king Sanskrit in a matter of mere months!
Having lost the wager, I stopped speaking, in fulfillment of my vow. Taking two of my students, I left the kingdom (though the king had asked me to stay), and, in great sorrow, travelled north. Finally, we camped out in a forest, where I began speaking Paisachi – the language of spirits and fiends – since I had sworn to renounce the three tongues known to civilized men.
After some years had passed, I had in my mind the plot of an enormous novel. It would be a huge cycle of tales revolving around seven emperors. I had also befriended a ghost, Kanabhuti (another long story). Anyway, my friend urged me to write my novel – a bit of a problem as I didn’t have access to ink. “Write it in blood,” my friend said (never one to be daunted). I mustered all my concentration and wrote down the story of seven sorcerer emperors, in about seven hundred thousand couplets. Now, I needed someone to publish my book and spread the word, so I had my students take it to King Satavahana.
That dissolute king, all puffed up with the arrogance of the rich, insulted my book. “What’s this bizarre Paisachi language? And why is it written in blood, not ink? We all know that the writer is a crazy fool who refuses to speak any civilized tongue.”
With that, he dismissed my brainchild, my wonderful Brihat-katha (or “the huge story”). He didn’t even try to understand the core of my work. Typical. Fools lack the insight needed to digest and appreciate my book. And here, I’d thought that my readers would be the most sophisticated and famous intellectuals in society.
(The rest of the story is told by Gunadhya’s friend, the ghost).
Gunadhya really took the rejection of his novel hard. Furiously, he started tearing out his manuscript page by page. He would tear out a page, read it out to his students – who tried to commit it to memory because they loved the tale so much – and then burn it. As he did this, the birds and beasts of the forest gathered around to listen to the story. So absorbed were they that they forgot to eat. They just listened all day to his stories, their eyes full of wonder. I even saw some of them cry.
Meanwhile, King Satavahana fell sick due to the poor quality of the meat he was getting. When he recovered, he made enquiries and found out that the reason the meat was so poor was because hunters couldn’t get hold of any well-fed animals. All the animals wanted to listen to Gunadhya’s story even more than they wanted to eat!
Amazed, the king made up his mind that he had to see this spectacle himself. By the time he reached the forest, Gunadhya had burnt six hundred thousand of the couplets that had made up the seven hundred thousand of his original novel. The king was just in time to prevent him from burning up the remaining one hundred thousand. When he heard the rest of the tale from Gunadhya’s students (who could speak in the three civilized tongues as well as Paisachi), he was riveted.
What magical ingredients went into the tale? Maybe it had a slice of cool silvery moonbeams from the full moon. Or maybe, the gods had slipped a taste of heavenly nectar in it? The upshot was that the king managed to persuade Gunadhya not to burn the rest of the tale. He then honored Gunadhya and his two students, and took them all back to his kingdom. The king published the part of the Brihat-katha saved from the fire, and became happier and more prosperous than ever.
Translator’s note: This story is excerpted from the Brihatkathamanjari, an eleventh century Sanskrit novel in verse by Kshemendra, a polymath from Kashmir, in northern India. Kshemendra, in turn, had based his novel on a lost Paisachi language manuscript called Brihatkatha (meaning “Huge Story”), attributed to Gunadhya. Scholars date the Brihatkatha to the first century BC. Though it must still have existed in Kshemendra’s time, it is lost to modern readers. Sanskrit is the language of the elite in the society depicted in Gunadhya’s story, but other, slightly less polished languages, Prakrit and Apabhramsha, were also widely spoken. Paisachi – the language of the original Brihatkatha – had an inferior status, and legend has it that it was understood by ghosts, as well as by birds and beasts.
Editor's note: We were unable to typeset this story in its original language, however, the original work is in the public domain. The original Sanskrit text is available by searching for Brihatkathamanjari.