The World of Fables and Legends - 04

Selected Legendary Tales from Indian Texts

Continued from Previous Page

A question might come to the minds of many people as to what is so great or significant about the fables and legends that makes it worth writing a series on the subject. As a voracious reader of the old classics in Indian and Western literature including scriptural books, this author has often observed many points of commonality or convergence as also distinction and divergence among different cultures and civilizations despite being evolved independently in different geographical spread. This itself is quite interesting to explore and observe lineage and link of the present with past as also the impact of the latter on the former. Accordingly, in the first two parts, efforts were made to analyse global trend in occurrences of such tales as also an evaluation to what extent they represent fantasy or reality of existence. In the third and previous part, it was explained why the fables and legends are still relevant in reminding our civilizational and cultural heritage, wrapped life lessons enriching knowledge and perspective, educating and grooming our children and offering solace in our quest of happiness and happy ending.

Unfortunately, despite being the oldest surviving culture and religion, the Hinduism constantly faced the aggression and onslaught of Islamic invaders as well as European colonizers for over eight hundred years during the last millennium. They not only plundered and enslaved Indians but also systematically destroyed it cultural and literary heritage besides leaving behind a legacy of loyal intellectual Indians with slavery in mind, who still consider everything Indian as inferior to everything West. The author has seen such Indian intellectuals glorifying Western epics Iliad and Odyssey compared to own Mahabharata and Ramayana. Factually, the Mahabharata is the longest poem ever written in Sanskrit with over one hundred thousand verses, which is roughly ten times the length of the Iliad and Odyssey combined. Subject wise also it is not a mere narrative of events; instead, it scholarly addresses a variety of disciplines such as knowledge about the religion and culture, philosophy, ascetism, ethics and morality, polity, policy, war, human virtues and good behaviour, yoga and devotion, and so on.

A British philosopher WJ Johnson had tried to compare the Mahabharata to that of the Bible or the Quran, the works of William Shakespeare, the works of Homer of Iliad and Odyssey fame. Per se comparing the Mahabharata with Bible and Quran, two strictly dogmatic treaties on religions, does not auger well in view of the former’s length, canvas, vintage and multi-disciplinary approach. Many educated Indians liberally quote Shakespeare but forget Kalidasa, glorify Keats and Wordsworth but ignore Mathily Sharan Gupta, Mahadevi Verma and a host of Tamil and Bangla poets; it is good to appreciate and acknowledge worthy authors and poets irrespective of their origin and vintage but it is still better to first know own cultural and literary heritage. Needless to mention, aforesaid juxtaposition only represents the typical syndrome that everything Western is superior and more significant. Apart from two great epics, many major and minor Puranas too are long and priceless treaties documenting Hindu civilizational history, which has survived till date due to its inherent and eternal virtues and strength, when many others including Greek and Roman perished.

In the current piece, the author proposes to briefly relate some more popular and representative legendary tales from the Indian Epics and Puranas to see if they still have their relevance in the modern times.

1. Nala and Damyanti

Nala - Damayanti is a classical love story narrated in the Vana Parva of the Mahabharata. Nala was the king of Nishadha kingdom, who married the princess of the Vidarbha Kingdom, and together the couple had very tough testing times. They are also chief protagonists in the 12th century epic text Nishadha Charita authored by Sriharsha in Sanskrit. Besides, the story of the couple is also found in many other Hindu texts in different Indian languages. In the Vana Parva of Mahabharata, the story is narrated to Yudhisthira by Sage Brihdashwa, when the former lamented that there was no other so ill-fated and unhappy king on the earth than him, narrating the saga how Kauravas had insulted and snatched his kingdom and all possessions by defeating him in the game of dice through sheer deceit and also humiliated queen Draupadi in the court, and.

Nala, the son of Virasena, was very brave, virtuous, handsome and truthful King of Nishadha. He was fond of dice, well versed in the art of horses and maintained a mighty army. Damayanti, the princess of Vidarbha Kingdom, was the daughter of King Bhimak. She was exceptionally beautiful, kind-hearted and virtuous woman of her time. One day, a beautiful swan came to her and narrated the glory of Nala and his eligibility as a suitable match for her as husband. The swan was actually the messenger sent by Nala after hearing about her from various sources. After hearing from swan, she was deeply impressed and desired to marry him. As per the existing custom, then a swayamvara was organised by King Bhimak inviting Nala along with many other eligible kings. As Damayanti had already made up her mind, she chose Nala out of present kings and princes and the two got married. Thereafter, they lived happily for years and were blessed with two beautiful children.

Many years had passed thus, when Pushkara, a cousin of King Nala inspired by jealousy and greed, challenged the latter to play the dice game. Nala refused him but he persisted in his demand and those days it was considered cowardice to refuse to play with a rival if so challenged. As the luck would have it, whatever Nala put at stake, he lost that day including his kingdom and personal wealth. As per the condition of the game, the winner Pushkar became king and loser Nala went for an exile to live in forest. While the two children were sent to their maternal grandfather, Nala and Damyanti started struggling and wandering in the forests for their livelihood. Due to bad influence of Kaliyuga, desolate Nala also lost his prudence, and one day he walked away from Damyanti leaving her alone while she was still asleep. Damyanti had to face a lot of hardship including a python attack and evil eyes of a lustful hunter in the forest, before getting shelter in a rather safe palace of the Chedidesh kingdom.

While wondering directionless, Nala found Naga King Karkotak in trouble and saved his life from the forest fire. Karkotak in turn changed Nala's appearance and advised him to change his name to Bahuk, and go to King Rituparna of the kingdom of Ayodhya to seek employment as the caretaker of horses. He also told Nala to learn the game of dice from the king, which would help him to get back his kingdom later on. Nala went to Ayodhya with the pseudonym Bahuk and took employment of the caretaker of horses. In the meantime, the father of Damyanti, King Bhiumak had sent many messengers in all directions in search of his daughter and son-in-law, and one of them found and recognized her in Chedidesh palace; consequently, she was restored to her father’s place in Vidarbha uniting with her two children.

As the whereabouts of Nala was not forthcoming, King Bhimak sent emissaries to all places at the insistence of Damyanti to search for him. After couple of days, the person returning from Ayodhya gave some clues about the likelihood of Bahuk being Nala in disguise on the basis of his skill in horses and conversation that occurred between Bahuk and the emissary. To test it, Damyanti persuaded her father to send a fake news to the Ayodhya king about her swayamvara on the next day as she knew that only Nala was so skilled to drive horses fast enough to reach Vidarbha from Ayodhya at such short notice. With the turn of events in Ayodhya, Nala was recognized, his appearance restored, and he was united with Damyanti and children. Following the reunion, Nala challenged Pushkara for another game of dice and this time he won back his kingdom with the skill learnt from King Rituparna during his stay in Ayodhya. Thereafter, the two divine lovers lived a happy and blissful life.

This legendary story was narrated to Pandavas brothers when they were extremely dejected, desolate and depressed with their ascetic life in woods after losing their name, fame and kingdom in gambling. They had a feeling as if no other king or commoner has ever met such a nemesis at the hands of misfortune. The story essentially establishes that the joy and despair, affluence and privation, fame and infamy, and glory and obscurity are part of life and everyone has to go through this cycle. Therefore, people should endeavour to cultivate an equipoise mind with due patience and courage to face adversity and happiness alike. It also establishes the value and significance of love and marital bond in Indian culture, something found seriously amiss in the Western culture since ancient age.

2. Savitri and Satyavan

It’s a very popular story well known in the most Hindu households even in the modern age. The oldest version of the tale is documented in the Vana Parva of the Mahabharata, where the saga is narrated by Sage Markandeya to the eldest Pandava Yudhishthira, when the latter asks if there was another woman ever who was as devoted as Draupadi to her husband and family.

King Ashwapati of the Madra Kingdom and his queen Malavika were childless. So Ashwapati did penance for several years offering oblations to the deity Savitur (Sun god). Pleased with his prayers, the Sun god granted him boon that he will soon be blessed with a daughter. The daughter was born to queen Malavika in due course, who was named Savitri in reverence to Sun god. Savitri was so beautiful and radiant that most men felt intimidated and insecure in her vicinity. This made it difficult to find a suitable match for her. As no eligible groom volunteered asking for her hand, the king permitted her to find a suitable match on her own. Savitri went on a pilgrimage and found Satyavan agreeable for marriage, who was the son of the blind King Dyumatsena of Shalwa kingdom living in the forest in exile having lost his kingdom in a war.

Sage Narada, however, told her father that Satyavan was an erroneous choice as he was foreordained to die in one year. The father asked Savitri to rethink but Savitri insisted that she would prefer to live her destiny rather than changing own choice for the fear of death. Accordingly, Savitri and Satyavan got married and she left her palace to live the life of ascetics along with her husband and parents-in-law. When the date of foreseen death approached, Savitri resorted to fasting and vigil three days in advance performing needful austerities. On the morning of the destined death, Savitri took elders’ permission to accompany Satyavan to woods; at the scheduled time, her husband became exhausted and weak, complained about headache laying his head on her lap.

At the scheduled hour, Yamadutas (messengers of Yama - the god of death) came but could not retrieve Satyavan’s soul due to Savitri’s purity and grace. Now Yama himself came to take possession of Satyavan’s soul. Savitri started following Yama as he carried the soul away; he tried to persuade her to return back but she resisted quoting her wife’s Dharma. This followed a prolonged intellectual discourse on various subjects including the righteous duties of conscious souls. Impressed with her knowledge and demeanour, Yama granted her five boons one by one, putting condition for the first four to ask anything but the life of Satyavan. In response, Savitri asked for the restoration of the eyesight of her father-in-law King Dyumatsena as first boon and restoration of his kingdom as the second boon. For the third boon, she asked for hundred more sons to her father-in-law while another hundred children for herself and Satyavan as fourth boon. Yama happily granted her all the boons but the fourth one created a moral dilemma as it could not be fulfilled without Satyavan being alive again. Thus, ultimately deeply impressed with her purity and dedication towards her husband, Yama granted life to Satyavan and blessed both of them to together live for long years.

In the original tale, Satyavan awakened as if he was in a deep sleep and they returned to parent’s hermitage only to find that the father-in-law had regained his eyesight. While Savitri was narrating what actually transpired, Dyumatsena’s ministers arrived with the news of the death his enemy and that the kingdom was restored to them. The story of Savitri and Satyavan indicates a tradition of unclenching support and commitment in the family and matrimonial bond. As can be observed, Savitri did not ask anything for self and in fact in the first three boons, she sought only goodness and welfare of parents-in-law. These are unusual and extraordinary virtues found in many Indian families even today that we seldom find in Western culture.

3. Devyani and Yayati

Yayati, the son of King Nahusha, was a Puranic king and ancestor of Pandavas and Yaduvanshis. In Hindu texts, he is mentioned as Chakravartin Samrat because he had conquered the world during his time. While Yayati ruled the bhuloka (earth), he had appointed his four younger brothers to administer the world's cardinal directions. The story of Yayati is narrated in detail in Srimad Bhagavata Purana as well as in the Adi Parva of Mahabharata. He had formally married Devayani while Sharmistha was his love interest. The two women were the daughters of Asura Guru Sukracharya and Danava King Vrishparva, respectively; their mutual rivalry, suspicion and conflict is the central theme of the Yayati saga.

One day Devayani accompanied Sharmishtha and her entourage to have fun and bathe in a forest pool. After a prolonged fun and bathing, Devayani put on Sharmishtha's clothes by mistake due to misapprehension. With her arrogance of being princess, Sharmishtha took exception to this act of Devayani and scolded her for the mistake. Devayani took it at heart being the daughter of Sage Shukracharya, a high priest and guru of all the Asuras as she felt that King Vrishparva's and their kingdom survived on his father’s blessings. When Devyani scolded back, Sharmishtha got infuriated and threw Devyani without clothes into a well with the assistance of her servants. By a sheer chance, Yayati came to the well for water and rescued Devayani. As he was rescuer and saviour of her modesty, Devayani requested Yayati to accept her as wife which he agreed to taking it as a call of destiny.

When Devayani was back to her father’s place, she narrated her plight to Sukracharya and sought revenge by insisting that Sharmishtha must serve her as personal maid. King Vrishparva had to agree to this inappropriate demand because he did not want to offend enraged Shukracharya fearing a curse. Sharmishtha too agreed to this personal ignominy of serving as the maidservant of Devayani to save the kingdom of his father from Sukracharya’s wrath. Consequently, when Devayani moved to Yayati's kingdom after the nuptial knot, she took Sharmishta along to the king’s palace. As Sharmishtha herself was a princess and virtuous girl, Shukracharya had warned Yayati not to have any romantic relationship with her. Although King Yayati initially discouraged Sharmishtha’s advances but, ultimately, he succumbed to her desire. With the passage of time, both Devayani and Sharmishtha conceived; while Devayani gave birth to two sons Yadu and Turvasu, Sharmishtha delivered three sons Druhyu, Anu and Puru.

Eventually Devayani learnt about Yayati’s relationship with Sharmishtha and complained about it to her father. Shukracharya was infuriated with the news and he cursed Yayati with premature old age as punishment for not abiding his warning and thereby inflicting pain to his daughter. However, on learning that it was Sharmishta's wish to become a mother, he moderated his curse with a conditionality that Yayati could swap his age with any son to regain his youth, if one so agrees. Yayati spoke to his sons one by one but they refused except the youngest Puru from Sharmishtha, who willingly agreed to sacrifice his age for the happiness of father. Indebted with Puru's filial devotion, King Yayati nominated him as his legitimate heir and it was from Puru’s patrimony that the Kuru dynasty evolved later on.

After enjoying passions and pleasures of senses for longyears, Yayati realized that the cravings for the sensual pleasure is not removed through indulgence but aggravated actually in same way as the ghee poured into fire escalates it. Therefore, the person who aspires for real peace and happiness, he must renounce desire and sensual cravings. Having realized this, Yayati wilfully returned the youth of his son Puru to take back his old age with the resolve to spend the remaining days as an ascetic in the forest. His spiritual practices and quest for Moksha rewarded him a place in the heavenly realm of the Supreme Divine at the end.

Kacha - Devayani Episode

The tale of Sage Kacha, the son of Brihaspati, is mentioned in the Mahabharata, Matsya Purana and Agni Purana, and is also linked with Sukracharya’s daughter Devayani. According to the legend, Kacha was detailed by his father to learn the Mrita Sanjivini (reviving the dead) mantra from Shukracharya, who was guru and well wisher of Asuras. In a premeditated plan, Kacha was to first impress Devayani to get access and grace of Asura guru because his love and attachment for the daughter was famous in all lokas. Kacha acted accordingly to befriend Devayani but she actually fell in love with him. During his stay with Sukracharya, Asuras tried to kill Kacha many times knowing his precedence and link with Devas but each time Sukracharya revived him on daughter’s insistence.


On successful learning of the mantra and its use, Kacha was about to commence his journey back when Devayani insisted him to marry her. However, he refused saying that as she was daughter of his guru, she was like a sister to him as per the rules of the Sanatana Dharma. Enraged with it, Devayani cursed him that he would forget the mantra when he will be in the direst need to use it. On his turn, Kacha too cursed her back that she would marry outside the Brahmin clan. Later during the Devasur Sangram (battle of Devas and Asuras), Kacha tried to revive dead Devas to life but due to Devayani’s curse he failed to recall Mrita Sanjivani mantra, giving upper hand to Asuras in the war. On her part too, Devayani got married to King Yayati and ultimately faded to oblivion with Sharmishtha’s son Puru succeeding to throne.

4. Dadhichi’s Sacrifice

The story of Sage Dadhichi is documented in the Shrimad Bhagavata Purana, Devi Bhagavat Purana and other Hindu texts including the Mahabharata. He was the son of the Sage Atharvan and his wife Chiti, who is believed to be the author of the Atharvaveda, one of the four Vedas that constitute the foundation of the Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism). He is believed to have his ashram in in Misrikh, Nainisharanya near Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh. Dadhichi and his wife Swarcha had the only son named Pippalada, who became a famous sage and established the Pippalada school of philosophy in Hinduism and also wrote Prashna Upanishad.

According to a puranic incident, once Dadhichi had an argument with the king Kshuva, a devotee of Lord Vishnu, over superiority of Kshatriya Kings versus Brahmanas. The debate turned ugly and enraged Dadhichi punched Kshuva, who in turn retaliated with the attack of thunderbolt. The humiliated and injured sage was treated by Asura’s Guru Shukracharya. Later on, Dadhichi did hard penance to please Lord Shiva to secure three wishes: 1) No one should be able to humiliate him; 2) No one should be able to kill him; and 3) his bones should be hardened as a Diamond. Needless to mention, equipped with these boons, he returned to challenge Kshuva again and humbled him to accomplish his revenge. Notwithstanding his proximity and favour to his adversary Kshuva, Dadhichi had great respect and consideration for Lord Vishnu.

The Devas and Asuras were traditional enemy and had a constant rivalry and war over the supremacy about the land and other resources in the three lokas. The king pf Asuras, Vritra had become very powerful those days with the boon that none of the conventional and celestial weapons would kill him. So, he attacked Devas, defeated their King Indra, and driven him out of the Devaloka. With his invulnerability to any known weapon, he became greedy and tyrant controlling all worldly resources including water to deprive Devas and humans so that they could suo moto be perished with thirst and hunger. By now, Indra was convinced that he cannot defeat the Asura king to recover his kingdom back. So, he decided to seek the guidance of Lord Vishnu who revealed to Indra that the only way to kill Vritra was to create a new weapon Vajra from the hardened bones of Sage Dadhichi.

Following Vishnu’s advice, Indra and all other Devas approached the Sage Dadhichi seeking his help in defeating Vritra. For the goodness and wellbeing of Devas and humans, Dadhichi agreed to sacrifice his life; he, however, expressed his desire to go on a pilgrimage to all the holy rivers before giving up his life. To save time, the Devas brought the water from all holy rivers at the Naimisharanya allowing the sage to fulfil his desire before the extreme sacrifice. Dadhichi now assumed a deep meditative posture and liberated his soul from the mortal body. Following his death, his bones were retrieved and the divine engineer Viswakarma was roped in to make Vajra (Thunderbolt). Equipped with this celestial weapon, Indra challenged Vritra and killed him in a bitterly fought war to reclaim his kingdom. Another alternate version of the story also exists in some texts with the end objective remaining the same. The message that the legendary tale conveys is that a person should not be hesitant in giving the extreme sacrifice if it is for the overall interest of the society and mankind.

5. Sage Ashtavakra

The legend of Sage Ashtavakra is recorded in many Hindu texts including the Ramayana, Mahabharata and some Puranas as well. He finds a passing reference in the Yuddha Kanda of Valmiki’s Ramayana. In the Vana Parva of the Mahabharata, the story of Ashtavakra is narrated at a greater length. After losing their kingdom in the game of dice, the five Pandavas and Draupadi were in exile for twelve years; while living in forest, Sage Lomasha met them and narrated the story of Ashtavakra to enlighten them with the knowledge on human existence to enable them cope with the miseries and pain inflicted by their covetous and evil cousin Kauravas.

According to the legendary tale in the Mahabharata, Sage Uddalak had an obedient pupil named Kahoda who was very dedicated in serving his guru. Accordingly, Uddalak gave him the knowledge of all Vedas and also married own daughter Sujata to him, who soon became pregnant. According to one legendary version, while still in foetation, the developing baby became extremely sharp and quick learner. One day when his father was reciting verses from the Vedas, the baby in the womb interrupted him for the incorrect pronunciation. To this interruption, Kahoda became so angry that he cursed the baby to born with eight deformities commensurate with eight interruptions. Hence he was named Ashtavakra on birth.

While Ashtavakra was still in womb, the family being poor, his father Kahoda decided to seek some fortune in King Janaka’s court in Videha. There he was made to enter in a debate on Shastras with the court scholar Vandin, was defeated and consequently immersed in water as per rules of the debate. The mother tried to keep him away from these things but as Ashtavakra grew, he came to know about his curse and the nemesis of father. Till then, he knew Sage Uddalak as his father and his son Swetketu as his brother. He was only about ten-year-old, when he decided to go to the court of Janaka to participate in debate accompanied with Swetketu, where initially he was stopped due to his age but allowed by the king after personally evaluating his proficiency in dialogue and being amazed with his rich knowledge and wisdom.

After a terse and prolonged debate on knowledge of Shastras in Janaka’s court, Ashtavakra defeated Vandin and requested the king to make sure that his rival meets same fate as his father and many other Brahmanas had in the past by drowning in water. Vandin then revealed that he was the son of god Varuna and had been doing it purportedly for a ritual of his father and none of the Brahmanas were harmed. All the Brahmans including Kahoda were freed and Ashtavakra’s father felt proud of his son’s knowledge and achievement. While coming back home, his father asked him to take a dip in the holy river Samanga that cured Ashtavakra’s deformities.

Sage Ashtavakra became famous for his knowledge and learning, and later he wrote the Ashtavakra Gita (The Song of Ashtavakra). The treaty is independent of the Srimad Bhagavad Gita and it deals with the science of Metaphysics, essentially relating to the nature of existence and the meaning of liberation explaining the Supreme Reality (Brahman), the Individual Self (Atman) and other mysteries of the universe.

Ashtavakra's knowledge and learning is reflected from his words in the following verse (translation) of the Vana Parva, Mahabharata while pleading his case with the concierge for entry into King Janaka’s court. What he spoke then essentially conveys the universal wisdom beyond time, space and age:

An elderly man doesn't become great,
Merely by age, by grey hairs, or by riches,
Or the ancestry, as the seers made Law;
He who is great, is one who has learning.

(Mahabharata, Vana Parva, Book 3.123)


The last millennium was completely dominated by the barbaric Islamic invaders, their descendants and European colonizers worldwide and in India as well. Western historians under their patronage tried to base everything on Christian era estimating Indian civilization of not more than 3,500 to 4,000 years vintage. Also with their limited reach, knowledge and biased approach, they tried to build a narrative as if the ancient Indians had no wisdom or sense about recording the history. Following independence in 1947, many eminent Indian historians too with dominant Marxist ideology or aversion about ancient Indian culture under the patronage of apex political leadership tried to endorse and escalate same notion about the ancient Indian historiography.

On the contrary, the Indian Puranas have accounted for the continuous genealogical and chronological history of the ancient India. For instance, the available Puranic texts and other literary works unanimously and unambiguously suggest the date of the Mahabharata war in the 32nd century BCE. Further, the epigraphic evidence of the Aihole inscriptions definitively establish the period of the Mahabharata war in 3162 BCE. The available texts of Puranas and Epics such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata relate umpteen legends of the Vedic and post-Vedic period along with the genealogical information of various dynasties and other famous people such as eminent Brahmanas and Sages of the time.

Due to various constraints of the past, some inconsistencies may occur in the chronological account and narratives of the people and events. Also, the possibilities of extrapolation and exaggeration in some narratives is also not ruled out with the passage of time. However, this in no way undermine or reduce the historical value and significant of the ancient Indian civilizational heritage. In the ancient literature, we find two references of Abhimanyu and Ashtavakra, who are believed to have learnt quite a lot while still in womb. On face, this may appear miraculous and insurmountable but even in the modern age, we occasionally find children with enormous intellectual and learning ability at a very young age. It is likely that certain legends of the past may have been allegorised with a certain objective, so there we must try to see the essence of the underlying message or moral rather than engaging self in captious epistemology of the plain narrative.

Continued to Next Page 


More by :  Dr. Jaipal Singh

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