Tales of Ancient India

by J. A. B. van Buitenen.
Tales of Ancient India
J. A. B. van Buitenen.
University Of Chicago Press
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November 6th, 2012


This volume of Indian tales, drawn chiefly from the Brhatkathasaritsagara, and secondarily from the Brhatkathaslokasamgraha and the Dasaku-maracarita, is a delightful collection of excellent translations meant for the general public. Having selected ten of the fourteen stories included in this anthology from the Brhatkatha-saritsagara and the Brhatkathaslokasamgraha, Dr. Van Buitenen discusses these works and their relationship to the Brhatkatha. Of Somadeva's work, the Brhatkathasaritsagara, he says, ". the main narrative has almost irretrievably got lost in the maze of stories that are added to it.. At the slightest provocation a speaker recalls a tale in which a speaker recalls another tale, and the banquet consists of nothing but hors d'oeuvres" (p. 2). This hardly seems a fair judgment of Soma-deva's skill as a story teller. The "main narra-tive," that is, the adventures of Naravahanadatta, is not the main narrative of the Kathasaritsagara at all. As the inclusion of a version of the Pafica-tantra and of the Vetalapaiicavinsatika clearly illustrates, Somadeva's work is a collection of the most diverse literary materials, in which Narava-hanadatta's adventures function merely as a unifying factor. It is indeed evident, as Dr. Van Buitenen asserts, that the Brhatkathaslokasam-graha "represents an earlier and less overgrown stage in the transmission of the original" (p. 2), i. e., the Brhatkatha, but equally as evident is the fact that, had Somadeva chosen, he too could have produced a coherent account of Naravahanadatta's wanderings. That he only makes allusions to cer-tain episodes, which the Brhatkathaslokasamgraha relates in detail, does not prove that he was inept as a storyteller. Too much of his work demon-strates that this is simply not the case. It would be more to the point to assume that his allusions were meant to be allusions and made perfect sense to an audience already familiar with Naravahana-datta. A non-Indian, lacking this same famili-arity, may very well feel that he is wandering through a " maze of stories " when he reads Soma-deva's work, but this feeling is more the result of the reader's deficiencies than of Somadeva's. We have to keep in mind that the practice of emboxing stories within stories, was itself considered an art in India. It is a device which should be assessed primarily in connection with the Indian oral tradi-tion. The frame story supplies the sole thread of continuity as the storyteller (kathaka) weaves relatively disparate tales together. Indeed the number of tales which he succeeds in introducing into his recitation, and the artistry with which he interweaves them, are considered major indices of a kathaka's skill. In a welcome protest against the image of Indian spirituality held by so many in both East and West, the translator has " deliberately reduced . . . the number of religious stories and morality tales," in this volume, "for there is a surfeit of holiness in the currently available translations of Indian literature." (p. 9) The stories, therefore, have been chosen to dispel the myth that the Indian is spiritual man par excellence. They are tales of love and of adventure, and only rarely lapse into the didactic. Before our eyes parades many a stock character of the Indian narrative tale-the false ascetic, the greedy priest, the lascivious nun, the courtesan and her mama, the hero and his trusty friend, and that charming rogue, the ever-ubiquitious Muladeva. It is to be regretted however, that, except in the case of the courtesan, Dr. Van Buitenen has not taken the opportunity to delineate the roles that these char-acters play in Indian literature. Had he done so, he would have given greater substance to his "belief" that "this anthology does justice to Indian narrative literature." (p. 9)  

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