Many many years ago, in Bhāratvarsha, there was a kingdom called Dhārānagara. It’s king Gandharvasen, had four queens, and six well learned and powerful sons.
It so happened that Gandharvasen died in the course of time, and his eldest son, Shanka, was crowned king. Shanka was intelligent, but rude and insolent, and the kingdom suffered under his rule. After a few months of constant suffering and infighting, Shanka’s younger brother Vikram revolted, and led a final assault on the king’s armies. Shanka was killed in the process, and Vikram was crowned king.
Vikram ruled well, under his able governance, the kingdom quickly spread it’s influence in all four directions, and soon, Vikram was the ruler of all of Bhāratvarsha.
One day, Vikram thought to himself “I have made many conquests, but there are so many janapadās (cities)that I have not yet seen. I should undertake a journey, and explore my own kingdom, meet the people and know more about their welfare…”
And having thought so, King Vikram handed over the reins of the kingdom to his younger brother Bhartharī, became a jogi (traveller) and set out on a long journey of discovery.
In the same janapadā, lived a poor Brahmin who served in a local temple and made his living. He also undertook austerities, meditating for days at end, and chanting Sri Vishnu’s name every day, for hours and hours.
One day, when he finished chanting and opened his eyes, he found an apple lying in front of him.
“This is the fruit of immortality”, said a voice. ” We are pleased with your devotion, and this is a reward in return”, it continued.
The Brahmin thanked the voice, and brought the apple home to his wife. “My dear, I got this apple as a reward for my devotion. Whoever eats this, shall become immortal.”
His wife started to cry. “Oh, what a curse this is!”, she wailed. “If we become immortal, we will have to beg for alms forever, till the end of kaala (time)”. She wiped her tears with the pallu of her saree. “I would choose death, rather than have this reward. At least that way, we would be delivered from the pains of this miserable life.”
“I accepted the fruit and brought it to you…I didn’t think so much about it”, the Brahmin replied. “But after hearing all that you had to say, I don’t know what to do. And so, you tell me what needs to be done, and I will do it.”
The Brahmin’s wife said “I have an idea. Give this to the king, and in return, he will give you a lot of gold coins. Surely money is better than immortality. We can then live happily, and in peace.”
And so the Brahmin went to the king Bhartharī and narrated the course of events. “My king, I have no use for this fruit. I would rather present it to you, so that you can continue your illustrious rule, and in return, I would gladly accept whatever you give me that will allow me to lead the rest of my days on this earth, in peace and happiness.”
The king said…
So starts the कथामखुम् (or prologue) of the वेतालपञ्चविंशति (Vetala Panchavimshati)…better known as the stories of Vikram and Betaal.
Like the Panchatantra, the Kathasaritsagara, the Jataka, and many other compilations, there are multiple versions of the Vetala Panchavimshati, but they are pretty close to each other, with no major deviations. The extended prologue is present in one major version, and I liked it so much that I decided to go with it.
As always, I will try my best to combine the Sanskrit prose with the English translations wherever possible. The Vetala Panchavimshati was always intended to be a compilation of stories, and so Subhashitas and other sayings do not make a frequent appearance. Nevertheless, reading it in Sanskrit brings a better flavor to an already-delightful menu, and I have attempted to top it up with a delicious scoop of a singular illustration from the Chandamama, which carried the tales of Vikram and Betaal into many young minds, including my own.
I hope you enjoy this series as much as the Panchatantra. Happy reading:)