For keen readers, the point where texts transform into literature is always interesting. The protagonists are more likely to be fallible humans than deities, the prescriptive and didactic approach wanes to show the world as it is, not as it should be. The transition is usually marked by a watershed work and in Sanskrit’s case, it could be this rollicking 7th century AD tale of adventure and romance — without many scruples.
But Dandin’s “Dashakumaracharita” or “Dasa Kumara Charitam” (“Tales of the Ten Princes”) has a few more achievements to its credit.
As per diplomat-turned-classical scholar A.N.D. Haksar, it was the first prose romance where the stress is more on the story and the characters — unlike Bana’s “Kadambari” and Subandhu’s “Vasavadatta”, its prose contemporaries, which concentrate more on stylistic elements to let the story muddle on by itself.
Then in the expanse it covers, it is probably the first to stress the idea of India as one cultural unit, with common social mores and values, despite political divisions. The author, who hailed from Kanchi (in present Tamil Nadu), places only one of the stories at home, and most of the others are across the Indian subcontinent, from what is now Punjab to Odisha, from Uttar Pradesh to Kerala, and from Gujarat to Assam, and even the Indian ocean.
And then for good measure, it pioneered the form of a framing story encompassing a whole series of stories, as well as the “lost and found” trope that can be seen in a wide range of cultural works, stretching from “dastaans” to the films of Manmohan Desai.
But before we deal with what the adventures are all about, we must acquaint ourselves with its creator.
A grammarian and author in the Pallava court in Kanchi in a period spanning AD 650-750, Dandin, of a family of Brahmin scholars of the Kausika gotra, “is one of the best-known writers in all of Asian history”, as per Sanskrit scholar Yigal Bronner.
This, Bronner, an associate professor of Asian Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, says is due to his “Kavyadarsa” (Mirror of Poetry), a treatise on classical Sanskrit poetics, which “travelled widely, was translated and adapted into Kannada, Sinhala, Pali, Tamil, and Tibetan, and may even have exercised on the formation of Recent Style Poetry in China”.
His reputation as a poet is praised in many popular verses, one by an anonymous poet taking him far beyond Kalidasa and others to more exalted company: “Jate jagati valmikau sabdah kavir iti shtitah/vyase jati kavi kavayas ceti dandini (Upon the birth of Valmiki/the word ‘poet’ was coined/With Vyasa it was first used in the dual/And ‘poets’ in the plural, first appeared along with Dandin”.
But he was a man of the world, despite his name (literally means staff bearer and figuratively meaning member of a mendicant/ascetic order), with Haksar noting that he was “obviously a man of vast and variegated learning”. This not only covered sacred and secular literature, and many other subjects like erotics but also had observed first -hand a range of unique situations, as his story of the princes shows.
“Dasa Kumara Charitam” is the second of his three most famous works. The “Dvisandhana”, simultaneously retelling the “Ramayana” and the “Mahabharata” through double entendre words has been lost. Even “Dasa..”, which is divided into a prologue, the narrative proper and an epilogue, is believed to be part of a longer story now lost, but even what is available makes for a comprehensive, readable tale.
As is common in this type, the framing device is perfunctory. King Rajahamsa of Magadha is defeated by a rival and retreats into the forest with his court. There, a son (Rajavahan) is born to him, some of his ministers also have sons while several other infants are brought to him due to a variety of causes (one rescued from a tiger, another handed over by his nurse to be raised properly and so on) ultimately making the 10 princes of the title. They study together and when 16, are despatched to conquer the world.
Rajavahan meets a Brahmin, who lures him into a scheme to conquer the underworld, and the rest also scatter. Ultimately reunited, they tell each other their fantastic adventures, most of which cover amorous dalliances (the orginal has one prince forced to tell his account without any labial words as his lips are still bruised by his paramour’s vigorous kisses) but also war, humbling the proud and haughty and so on.
What makes it interesting is the picture it paints of the extant society in all its colours and its cheerful, no-holds-barred descriptions of sex (the female form especially), crime and conspiracy, and as such appears refreshingly modern in outlook.
If Indians want to cherish their classical heritage, it is works like this which they must know to understand our ancestors were not sanctimonious prudes like their modern, self-serving “champions”.
(Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
By Vikas Datta