विदलिष्यति मूर्धा ते यदि जानन् न वक्ष्यसि !

(vidaliṣyati mūrdhā te yadi jānan na vakṣyasi !)


“Your head will burst into pieces if you know and yet stay silent!” -- note the clever use of ‘jānan’ to avoid a cumbersome if-then construction using words like yadi-jñātvā-api-tarhi etc. “Shortcuts” like these are a mainstay of free-flowing Sanskrit.

This line is so famous that we probably don’t even need to tell you where it’s from!


Today's phrase is taken from the Kathā-sarit-sāgara of Somadeva, from its 12th book that contains the famous Vetāla-pañca-viṃśati (Vikram and Betal). All we know is that Somadeva was a Kashmiri Brahmin, and wrote this work about 1000 years ago.

The Kathā-sarit-sāgara is the most detailed of the texts that attempt to recreate the famed Bṛhat-kathā in Sanskrit. The Bṛhat-kathā is often spoken of as the hidden third, the Sarasvatī, of the epic tradition consisting of the Rāmāyana (the Yamunā) and the Mahābhārata (the Gaṅgā). While Dharma (that which is Right) is a very important consideration in the latter two, the former deals exclusively with Artha (that which is useful) and Kāma (that which is fun). It is rather telling that this happened to be the text that was lost -- for as long as the mind’s eye can see, an abject disregard towards Artha and Kāma have plagued India for centuries, and continue to wreak havoc to this day.

The Kathā-sarit-sāgara is of considerable size -- nearly 22,000 mostly śloka verses, covering several hundred stories and occupying over 3000 pages in an English translation. There is very little of description, and the stories trot at a fast pace with only the barest skin of ‘classical’ poetry. But their very beauty lies in this fact -- their brilliance is exclusively dependent on the plot!

There is something magical about the very idea of storytelling. The work appears almost intended to be told by an elder to a whole flock of young children listening in rapt attention on a lazy afternoon after lunch, the kids shuddering at the thought of the various demons, goblins and other creatures that feature regularly, tearing up at the many moments of tenderness and sacrifice, cheering loudly for the clever solutions of the heroes, hotly debating the morals offered -- in short, living the stories.

Vikram Chandra said, “The world is a story we tell ourselves about the world”, and the immense richness of the Kathā-sarit-sāgara is worth many worlds. In a sense, stories are the most important elements of a culture. The very idea of tradition and continuity depends on a young novice going through the same mental processes and encountering the same thoughts as elders did before him. This creates a shared context, a bond between and within generations that vastly enriches the human experience. A grandfather relating the same story to his grandchildren as he remembers from sitting on his grandfather’s lap; a teacher of engineering pausing at a difficult concept and relating a bawdry joke to help remember a sequence, the very same one he was tickled by when he was a student; a judge leaning back and describing tales of lawyerly eloquence and biting wit from his past to a bar of young lawyers[1] -- these are the kinds of experiences that build a sense of trust, of community, of humanness. We know very well that lifelong bonds with a stranger can begin by discovering just one anecdote or joke that was experienced in a shared context!

This simple, human connection is among the rarest of joys today. One can find the efforts of hundreds of men, thousands of computers and millions of dollars packaged into two-hour extravaganza at virtually no cost, but one has to be very fortunate to have an easily-accessible grandparent entertaining a flock of kids.

Because the Kathā-sarit-sāgara attempts to congregate and compress all that was known as part of the Bṛhat-kathā, many familiar works appear within its parts. Two very famous examples are the Pañcatantra and the Vetāla-pañca-viṃśati. While Somadeva applies a light, overarching touch, it’s clear that the stories are not by one hand and appear very different in style. For example, as we have seen, the Pañcatantra is an extremely intelligent work that has not even an iota of moralizing. Men of all ages can see different motivations in its characters’ actions, and the author very cleverly leaves it to the reader to explore the reverberations of interpretation (Dhvani). In contrast, the Vetāla-pañca-viṃśati is a much simpler work. Every story neatly wraps up, a moral is discussed, and the next story comes on. There is very little Dhvani, and the richness of imagination alone drives everything. It is genuinely a children’s story. As in other such stories, we have to make adjustments for the sensibilities of the times. Treating it as a living legend whose purpose is to to provide joy is far superior to treating it with perfect preservation with a curatorial eye.

With that, let’s delve into an example. The main frame story is quite famous -- the King Vikramāditya or Trivikrama-sena is approached by a tantric asking of him a strange favour. The tāntrik wants the King, acting alone, to bring a corpse from a cemetery to a certain ritual ground at midnight on a new moon day. He tells him that the corpse is hanging from the trunk of a Śiṃśapā (rosewood) tree in the cemetery. The king fearlessly goes there, and finds the corpse as expected.  A bedsheet and a torch would make for the most perfect props for this series!

Even in his brevity, Somadeva does not spare us of the descriptions of the dark night, the fearsome surroundings and all the scary noises going around. Every opportunity for effective micro-detailing is used. Raymond Chandler’s thoughts on such micro-detailing are profoundly apt:

A long time ago, when I was writing for the pulps I put into a story a line like “He got out of the car and walked across the sun-drenched sidewalk until the shadow of the awning over the entrance fell across his face like the touch of cool water”. They took it out when they published the story. Their readers didn’t appreciate this sort of thing: just held up the action. And I set out to prove them wrong. My theory was that they just thought they cared nothing about anything but the action; that really, although they didn’t know it, they cared very little about the action. The things they really cared about, and that I cared about, were the creation of emotion through dialogue and description; the things they remembered, that haunted them, were not for example that a man got killed, but that in the moment of his death he was trying to pick a paper clip up off the polished surface of a desk, and it kept slipping away from him, so that there was a look of strain on his face and his mouth was half opened in a kind of tormented grin, and the last thing in the world he thought about was death. He didn’t even hear death knock on the door. That damn paper clip kept slipping away from his fingers and he just wouldn’t push it to the edge of the desk and catch it as it fell.

SUDDENLY, the corpse starts laughing an evil laugh! This would be enough to freeze the blood of forestsful of tigers and phantoms, but the king calmly says,

ततस् स राजा मत्वा तं वेतालाधिष्ठितं तदा ।

किं हसस्येहि गच्छाव इति यावद् अकम्पितः ।12.8.54।

tataḥ sa rājā matvā taṃ vetāla-adhiṣṭhitaṃ tadā |

kiṃ hasasi ehi gacchāva iti yāvad akampitaḥ |12.8.54|

“The king knew that a Vetāla had possessed the corpse. He calmly said without the slightest flinching, ‘Why are you laughing? Come, it’s time to go’”.

Just imagine the scene! As soon as he spoke, the body flew out back into its original hanging position. The king wondered if his speaking had anything to do with it, and got it back down silently and sent off a second time. Then,

यान्तं च तं शवान्तस्थो वेतालो अंसस्थितो ऽब्रवीत् ।

राजन्न् अध्व-विनोदाय कथाम् आख्यामि ते श्रुणु ।12.8.58।

yāntaṃ ca taṃ śava-antastho vetālo aṃsasthito abravīt |

rājan adhva-vinodāya kathām ākhyāmi te śruṇu |12.8.58|

“The Vetāla that was inside the corpse on his shoulder said, ‘King, to pass time, I’ll tell you a story, listen’”.

The most beautiful micro-element in all of the Kathā-sarit-sāgara are the free-flowing, idiomatic lines. “adhva-vinoda” is literally “path-amusement”, something to pass time on a journey. Note also the natural compression of Sanskrit -- yāntaṃ taṃ śavāntastho ‘msasthito vetalo abravīt sounds so loaded when translated into English, but is perfectly light in Sanskrit.

This is the frame for the twenty-five stories that constitute this series. Let’s look at Story #2 to see what the Vetāla’s all about.

On the banks of the Yamuna, there was a settlement called Brahmasthalā where a pious Brahmin named Agnisvāmi lived. He had a very beautiful daughter named Mandāravatī. She was so beautiful that:

याम् निर्माय नवानर्घ-लावण्यां नियतं विधिः ।

स्वर्गस्त्री-पूर्व-निर्माणं निजम् एव अजुगुप्सत ।12.9.7।

yām nirmāya nava-anargha-lāvaṇyāṃ niyataṃ vidhiḥ |

svargastrī-pūrva-nirmāṇaṃ nijam eva ajugupsata |12.9.7|

“After creating her, endowed with the freshest, rarest charms, Brahma looked at his own past creation of the damsels of heaven, and felt disgusted”.

“Ugh, I was really a novice then!” Brahma appears to have thought! Note the clever form jugupsā, deriving from “a desire to hide or conceal”, giving a meaning of “disgust”. Poor Brahma was embarrassed at his amateurish past work!

The beauty of Somadeva is that he stops here and moves on with the story. This makes the description memorable. A lesser poet would have spent a canto describing her from top to toe. As many have observed, the most critical element of all art is knowing when to stop!

Three suitors turn up, and the father is placed in a quandary. He knows the other two would die of heartbreak if he gives her to one, so he keeps vacillating. One day suddenly, a deadly fever envelopes poor Mandāravatī and she dies.

Her last rites are sorrowfully concluded, but none of the three can relinquish their love for her. One of them carefully collects her ashes, sets up a hut in the cemetery she was burnt in, and lives in her memory. Another collects her bones to take to the Gaṅgā for her safe passage to the next world. A third became a sanyasi (monk) and wandered the earth.

How many sanyasis were born because of disappointment in love? Is there any other kind?

The sanyasi is wandering around one day, and is ready to eat at the house of a random householder, when the child in the house appears to start crying. The mother tries to calm it down, but he wails louder. Enraged, the mother picks up the child and throws him into the stove! The child is immediately burned to a crisp!

The sanyasi is horrified to see this, and walks out with a curse that he entered a house of Brahma-rākṣasas (demons). The householder calmly calls him back, takes out a secret book, chants a mantra and sprinkles a pinch of ash, and behold! The child comes back as if nothing had happened!

That night,

सुप्ते गृहपतौ तस्मिन् स्वैरम् उत्थाय शङ्कितः ।

स प्रिया-जीवितार्थी तां पुस्तिकां तापसोऽग्रहीत् ।12.9.25।

supte gṛhapatau tasmin svairam utthāya śaṅkitaḥ

sa priyā-jivīta-ārthī tāṃ pustikāṃ tāpaso agrahīt |12.9.25|

“When the householder was asleep, the sanyasi got up cautiously, and fearfully approached the secret book. Longing to see his beloved come to life, he stole it.”

Note the conciseness and beauty of using “priyā-jivitārthī”. Also, words like “svairam” to mean “cautiously” are the very life-blood of a living language.

The sanyasi then hurries back to the cemetery where Mandāravatī was burnt. Along the way he also bumps into the fellow who had her bones and who was coming back from the Gaṅgā. He meets up with the fellow who’d set up camp at the cemetery, gets the carefully preserved ashes from him, and recites the mantra. Behold!!

वह्निं प्रविश्य निष्क्रान्तं वपुः पूर्वाधिकद्युतिः ।

तदा बभार सा कन्या काञ्चनेनेव निर्मितम् ।12.9.32।

vahniṃ praviśya niṣkrāntaṃ vapuḥ pūrvādhika-dyutiḥ |

tadā babhāra sā kanyā kāñcanena iva nirmitam |12.9.32|

“Her body came back from the fire, even more radiant than earlier, and she glowed like she was made of gold”.

Again, “pūrvādhika-dyutiḥ” is such beautiful, clean, Sanskrit!

Predictably now, a fight breaks out. All three claim to be the ones responsible for saving her. “She was made alive by my magic and asceticism!” says the sanyasi. “No, it was my visit to the holy Gaṅgā that cleared her sins and made a path back!” says the second. “I protected her remains day and night and was devoted to her!” says the hut-dweller. The Vetāla stops his story here, asks which of the three deserved to marry her the most, and utters the verse with today’s phrase in it:

विदलिष्यति मूर्धा ते यदि जानन् न वक्ष्यसि!

इति वेतालतश् श्रुत्वा तं स राजैवम् अभ्यधात् ।12.9.37।

vidaliṣyati mūrdhā te yadi jānan na vakṣyasi!

iti vetālataḥ śrutvā taṃ sa rājaivam abhyadhāt |12.9.37|

“ ‘Your head will burst into pieces if you know and yet stay silent!’. The king heard this, and answered.”

The King knew that if he stayed silent, he would die; if he spoke, the Vetāla would fly back and he’d have to retrace his journey. The latter is clearly the easier choice, and he has a natural inclination to justice, so he answers.

“The sanyasi who brought her back to life is the equivalent of her father. The traveler who went to the Gaṅgā is the equivalent of her son. For the first, the act was done very much in desire of the result. The second was carrying out an impersonal duty as ordained. Both of these were drawing their strength from other sources -- the first from desire, the second from ritual.

But the one who had built a hut in her cemetery and had selflessly preserved her remains, with no expectation of any result nor any kind of crutch of ritual, was demonstrably worthy of her love. Therefore, the hut dweller has the highest right to marry her.”

The Vetāla was pleased, and flew away back into his tree. The king resolved to back and pick up the corpse again, and begin everything anew.

Clearly, the ‘solution’ offered by the king is not indisputable. It has a logic behind it, but one could very well argue that everyone contributed. But part of the allure of these stories is indeed in the differences of opinion they generate. What is important is not one opinion, but the frame the opinions sit in.

This story is one of the relatively deeper ones of the lot. There are several which are rather shallower. Here again, the greatest contribution of this series is the frame. This is the kind of story that can last, and has lasted, centuries. More talented writers inserting stories with more dhvani are always welcome! Again we see that a curatorial mindset is to be shunned. It’s a living art, and must be nourished with the intelligence of the times. The magazine Chandamama has been doing this very successfully for decades now, writing a story in this frame every month.

Let us consider this story again. A symbolic interpretation could show it in a completely different light. Let Mandāravatī represent anything worthy of being preserved and being proud of -- say, Sanskrit literature itself. The sanyasi then is a kind of technologist, who can take the mere remains of something and produce a living being. A transformation no less amazing has happened over the last twenty odd years, since the creation of the Internet. Virtually any Sanskrit work is available at the click of a button, and there never was a time in history when the materials of study were so easily available. In fact, the level of access is so impressive that even rare poems of Sanskrit are far easier found than even famous poems of regional languages spoken by millions of people today! A dizzying array of technologies have come together to make this happen.

The ritualist going to the Gaṅgā is the curator. He has collected what he has to, and is following some set procedure and at the end of the day, his job is done when a checklist is complete. His focus is on forms. If a hundred thousand verses of the Mahābhārata are known to be somewhere, he is happy and moves on to curate something else. His interest isn’t in actually reading any of those verses, just in preserving them. This isn’t to detract from its importance: somebody needs to do this job.

However, the hut-dweller is the person who lives with literature. It is indeed a miracle that we have preserved a hundred thousand verses of the Mahābhārata, and a miracle that we can search for a word in it in half a second, but surely an even greater miracle is that over more than two thousand years, these verses have passed on tirelessly from mouth to mouth across hundreds of generations. Those who rejoiced in them and kept them alive are the greatest contributors.

Happily, in real life there is no need for a all-or-nothing split of the spoils. Everyone’s contribution is welcome, like the squirrel’s little grain of sand was to Rama’s bridge. Also, all three types are often to be found in the same person. That makes for an even more satisfying end to the story, where everyone is happy!


It’s a sobering fact that often, familiarity itself can breed contempt.  Rājaśekhara wrote 1200 years ago,

गीत-सूक्तिर् अतिक्रान्ते स्तोता देशान्तर-स्थिते ।

प्रत्यक्षे तु कवौ लोकस् सावज्ञस् सुमहत्यपि ॥

gīta-sūktiḥ atikrānte stotā deśāntara-sthite |

pratyakṣe tu kavau lokaḥ sāvajñaḥ sumahatyapi ||

“The world rushes to praise a poet who’s passed away or living in a foreign land, but is indifferent to even a great poet who’s alive in front of its eyes!”

This seems to be universal. A classical epigram says much the same thing:

“Seven Grecian cities claimed great Homer dead,

Through which, in vain, he living begged his bread

[1] A highly recommended example is McDonnell Bodkin’s Recollections of an Irish Judge (1914), available in full online: http://goo.gl/boK1ao