Somadeva


Somadeva
(11th century)
   Somadeva was a Sanskrit poet known for his late 10th-century collection of tales called the Kathasaritsagara (The ocean to the rivers of story). Little is known of his life, but he seems to have been of the Brahman caste, and he does mention in his text that Queen Suryamati of Kashmir was his patron and that he wrote the Kathasaritsagara for her, to take her mind off the study of the sciences. Somadeva based his work on a much older collection of stories called the Brhathatha (The great romance), attributed to Gunadhya. The Brhathatha is no longer extant, but Somadeva’s rescension is a worthy aesthetic creation in its own right, and preserves a good deal of ancient Indian folklore.
   The Kathasaritsagara contains some 350 tales, including some collections of stories that have been brought in from a variety of sources. Clearly Somadeva did not create any of these tales, but retold them in an entertaining way. The tales are not unlike European fairy tales in their emphasis on adventure and on the supernatural. A number of them are somewhat bawdy. They are told in a relatively simple narrative style and with details that appeal to the reader’s imagination. The Kathasaritsagara is structured as a framed narrative, not unlike the THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS or CHAUCER’s CANTERBURY TALES. The largest frame explains how the Brhathatha came to be written after two goblins were tossed out of paradise for listening to the tales the god Siva told his wife Parvati. Required to tell all of Siva’s stories to someone on earth in order to win their way back to heaven, one of the goblins relates the stories to a troll, who later conveys them to Gunadhya, who tells them to the world.
   Within this tale is the main frame of the Kathasaritsagara, in which Prince Naravahanadatta acquires a great deal of wealth and magical powers that make him king of the spirits of the air. In the meantime he has a number of amorous encounters with a princess and other beautiful women. Many of the stories in the collection are told by characters within the narrative of this frame to entertain lovers and friends, just as Siva’s original tales were told to entertain his wife. Since the stories of the Kathasaritsagara most often deal with the acquisition of wealth, and have middle-class protagonists who focus on material gain, it has been suggested that the stories reflect the materialist values of cosmopolitan areas of 11th-century India. Somadeva’s book is a valuable historical source for the social customs of the time, as well as an entertaining collection of colorful characters and powerful, imaginative stories.
   Bibliography
   ■ Somadeva. Tales from the Kathasaritsagara. Translated by Arshia Sattar. With a foreword by Wendy Doniger. New Delhi: Penguin, 1994.
   ■ van Buitenen, J. A. B., trans. Tales of Ancient India: Translated from the Sanskrit. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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