Tales from the Kathasaritsagara: Somadeva

Translated from Sanskrit by Arshia Sattar

Kathasaritsagara can be translated as the “ocean of the sea of stories”. This is the mother lode of stories, composed by Somadeva around 1070 CE for the Kashmiri queen, Suryavati. But many of these had been around for a long time, so Somadeva was more of a compiler than a creator. They are full of unfaithful wives, conniving spirits, magic and intrigue. There are no morals here—these narratives celebrate life, in all its forms.

It starts with Parvati, the consort of the god Siva, asking him to tell her a story that no one has heard before. The story Siva tells her is overheard by his attendant, who then tells it to his wife, Parvati’s door keeper. The wife repeats it to Parvati, who is furious that she was told something that her door keeper knew. The attendant is then cursed to be reborn as a human and to tell the story over and over.

Many of the stories are about vidhyadharas, sky-dwellers with the ability to change shape, who are sent down to earth for some misdeed (like Siva’s attendant). Once they have fulfilled their destiny, they are released from the curse through death. Death is not an end here, merely a return to one’s true nature.

The original Kathasaritsagara runs into several volumes, and this book is a selection of the stories. Each chapter has a framing story, within which is another, within which is another, and so on. This gives the narrative a flow and continuity, like a river’s tributaries flowing into the sea. These are stories to get lost in, to enter another world where anything can happen.

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