3. The Adventures of a Disobedient Prince
A king had four wives and four sons, one son by each wife. He had no care in the world, and enjoyed every luxury and pleasure. He had many long titles; twenty-four other kings paid him tribute and his kingdom was truly vast.
One day, as he sat on the swing under the full moon playing love games with his queens, he was struck by a fancy. He summoned his four sons to his presence, and asked the eldest of them, “Son, you are my eldest, the future king of this country. What are your plans?”
He obediently answered, “Father, I'll follow in your illustrious footsteps. I'll try to be a great king like you.”
He asked the second son the same question. “Son, what are your plans?”
“Father, I'll be a statesman and help my brother rule the kingdom.”
When the third one was asked, he answered, “I'll be a great commander and help my brother rule in peace.”
When the fourth son's turn came, he answered differently. “Father, you are the king of kings. Twenty-four kings pay you tribute. I want to be better than you. I'll conquer kingdoms, marry four celestial wives, and build my own city.”
“What!” exploded the king. “Do better than me? You beast on two feet! You'll marry celestial wives? And do better than me?”
In his rage, he called his servants and screamed, “Throw him out! Banish him to the jungle at once!”
His mother tried to pacify the old man, but he would not listen to her. So she went in and prepared a bundle of rice for her banished son, and tearfully bade him goodbye.
The youngest son promptly left the palace, went out of the city, and walked straight till he found himself in a forest, where he heard nothing but the roar of tigers and lions on one side and the trumpetings of wild elephants and the grunts of wild pigs on the other. He cautiously climbed a tall tree and spent the night among its branches. At dawn, in the light of day, he came down, bathed in a nearby lake and prayed to the Bull, his family god, to protect him. He then ate from the bundle of rice his mother had given him, and started walking again through the wilderness till night fell. It was dark. He saw a small lamp flickering in the distance, and he made for it, like a bee to a flower. Soon he was standing at the door of a hut. When he called, “Anybody home?” a very old woman came out and took him in. She said, “You must be tired. Wash your feet and rest here tonight.”
When she asked him why he was in this jungle, he briefly told her his story, and asked her in turn how she happened to live alone in this forest. She said “My name is Sickle Granny. My story is a long one. Rest now. I'll tell you some other time.”
But the young prince was curious and insisted on hearing the story right away. So she told him her story.
“I may not look like it, but I'm the daughter of a great sage. Though he was a sage famous for his austere way of life, one day he went mad with lust and bothered my mother no end. She didn't want to give in to his lust, for that would have cancelled at once all his past history as a sage. She tried to save him from himself. But he wouldn't listen. He took her by force, had his will of her, and satisfied himself. So I was born, ugly as sin. Soon after I was born, he went into that same jungle you just came through, and while he was gathering fruit a tiger attacked him and tore him to pieces, limb from limb. My mother died soon after, and I was orphaned. Because I knew I was very ugly, I stayed on in the forest and never went into town. I just prayed and worshiped every day, and I attained the powers one gets only by such penance (tapas). Many marvels have I seen since then. I can tell you more, but it can wait. It's late and you must sleep.”
The prince stayed with her and helped graze her cows. The old woman had only one rule for him. “When you take the cows out to pasture, never go towards the north,” she had said. He had said, “Yes, I'll remember that,” but one day his natural curiosity made him want to see what there was in the north that he shouldn't see. So he drove the herd in that direction. He came upon wonderful sights. He was particularly taken with a beautiful bathing well, built with gold bricks and the steps set in crystal. Green, red, pink, blue, and yellow fish sported in the water. He had hardly sat down under the shade of the jambu tree that spread its branches over one side of it when four celestial women appeared, as if from the sky. He hid himself behind the tree and watched them take off their yellow silk pitambara saris, jump noisily into the well, and splash each other with the crystalline water, having a great time. On an impulse, the prince picked up one of the saris and fled. The sari belonged to none other than Indra's own daughter. She saw him run off with her sari, so she quickly got out of the water and ran after him, crying out, “O young man, you look like a hero. I'll marry you and no one else. Stop, turn around, and look at me.”
Astonished, he stopped, and the celestial woman at once snatched the sari from his hands, changed him into cold stone, and vanished.
When the prince did not return home as usual by evening, the old woman became anxious. Wand and lantern in hand, she set out in search of him to the south, the east, and the west, but she found no trace of him. She guessed that he must have gone to the forbidden north, and when she went in search of him there she found him lying on the ground, a piece of rock. She struck it with her wand, and he returned to life, standing up in his own body. They hurried home to safety and she scolded him.
“Didn't I tell you never to go north? By ‘never’ I meant ‘never.’ ”
“Yes, Granny, you did tell me. But I knew somehow that's where my life would be fulfilled. So I couldn't resist it, I went. In fact, I want to go there again.”
“All right, go if you must. But take some precautions. Don't take the cows with you. And don't be beguiled by those celestial wenches, their looks and sweet words. This time, when you pick up the sari, run straight home. I'll be waiting for you, and I'll take care of the rest.”
He followed her instructions. Next day, he ate his morning meal early and went back to the place of the beautiful well and hid himself under the jambu tree. This day, too, the women arrived and unwrapped their saris before his unbelieving eyes. He gazed on them, his eyes moving from head to toe. What shapes, what complexions! Kohl-streaked eyes, faces like the moon, cascades of black hair flowing down to their buttocks, round breasts like perfect melons, and all of them young and virginal. They dived into the water, leaving their saris and pearls on the dry ground. The prince leapt out of his hiding place, quickly snatched the same sari he had taken the previous day, and ran. Its celestial owner ran out of the water and followed him, weeping and calling to him. But he was not deceived. He ran straight to the hut and handed the heavenly sari to the old woman, who changed him at once into a small baby and put him in a cradle. She pretended to rock him to sleep and lull him with lullabies. With her magic, she had also placed the sari inside the baby's thigh and sewn it up without a seam showing. A few moments later, the celestial woman arrived at her door, panting, and asked her, “Did anyone come this way? A young man?”
“A young man? No, no one has come this way. I've been here for hours,” said the old woman.
“He may be hiding here somewhere.”
“Before you do anything, dear, you must hide your shame. It's not a good idea to go around naked. Take this cotton piece. This is no way to be.”
After a few minutes of this pretense and teasing, the old woman said to her, “I know where your sari is. You can have it back if you agree to marry him.”
The celestial woman agreed. The old woman changed the prince back to his original form. They were married right there, in that hut, with the old woman as the wedding priest.
They lived there for a few days and one day took leave of the old woman and moved on. He had yet to win three more wives for himself, hadn't he?The prince and his celestial bride talked to each other endlessly on their journey and soon found themselves at the gates of a city. The townspeople were struck by their beauty; they thought he was like Lord Krishna and she like his consort Rukmini, the very dwelling-place of all that is lovely. A boy in the street who was eating a piece of jaggery was so entranced watching them that he began to bite into his fist. A woodcutter missed his stroke and axed his own leg. People forgot themselves in looking at these splendid newcomers.
The prince rented a small house and found a job with the local king. A few days later, when the prince and his wife were sitting on a swing, gently swaying, two of the king's servants came there to give him his month's pay. They were so dumbstruck by his wife's beauty that they ran back to the king and, as soon as they found the words, stammered: “Your Highness, we've found you a most fitting prize in that new man's house. It's his wife. She looks so fantastic that she doesn't seem to be a mortal woman.”
The king lost his reason and fell into a fantasy. The more vividly they described her the more he wanted her all for himself.
When the young man went to the court the next day as usual, he found that the king was absent. He inquired where he was, and was told that the king was sick with a pain in the stomach. So he hurried to the king's quarters in the palace and greeted him, “Victory to the king!” The king's voice was feeble.
“I'm glad to see you. You're like a long-lost brother. I'm dying of an ulcer in the stomach. The only cure, my doctors tell me, is the poison of the snake Karkotaka. Who can get it for me?”
The prince did not see through the old man's guile. He volunteered and promised to get it if it would save the king's life. He went home, thinking of how he should go about getting the poison of Karkotaka, the most deadly of serpents. He sat down lost in thought, forgetting even to eat. His wife roused him from his deep reverie by asking him what was troubling him. He told her about the king's illness and the remedy. She had a way.
“Go to the north beyond Jambu Peak, and you'll reach the Seshadri hills in a few miles. On those hills, under a tamala tree, you'll find a snake mound. I'll give you a letter; throw it in its hole and wait,” she said, and gave him a letter to take.
He ate his dinner and slept happily, woke up early next morning, and set out on his quest. On his way, he noticed a bharani worm writhing miserably in a spider's web on the twigs of a tree. He carefully released the worm from the filaments and saved its life. Then he walked on till he reached the snake mound and slipped his wife's letter in the hole. Soon he heard noises from within. Several serpents came out to carry him magically into the netherworld, and set him before the King of Snakes, who was intently reading the letter, which said:
O Snake King of the Netherworld, this is a letter from Indra's daughter, who is like one of your own daughters. The bearer of this letter is my husband. As I am rather lonely in the earth-world, please get your daughter married to this fine man, and send her with him. The two of us will be happy together, I assure you. Please grant his request, about which he will tell you.
The Snake King liked his looks and proceeded to arrange a wedding with his daughter right away. Then he arranged for the newlyweds' journey. His personal retinue went with them to ensure their safe conduct till they had crossed Jambu Mountain. The prince was also given a sealed vial of Karkotaka's venom. When they reached his home by evening, the two women, who were old friends, were ecstatic to see each other and gave each other many hugs.
The next day the prince took the vial of deadly venom to the king, who asked his servants to open it carefully in the palace courtyard. Even as they opened it a little, the tamarind tree in the yard began to smolder, caught fire, and became a heap of ashes. The king asked them to take it far away and bury it deep.
So the king's first ruse didn't succeed. The young man didn't get killed or lost; he managed to get the deadliest venom of all. The king was now even a little afraid of the young man.
A month later, on a holiday, the king's servants brought him his monthly pay at home as they had done before. This time they saw two beautiful women instead of one sporting with him, and they hurried back to the king with their drooling descriptions. The king was beside himself with desire for the young man's fabulous wives. He sent for the prince again and said he had another of his terrible headaches, for which the cure would be a crocodile's bile. Would the brave young man bring it for him?The prince went home, lost in thought. Both his wives asked him in unison, “Lord and husband of our souls, what is ailing you?” And he told them what his king wanted from him. Where could he go for a crocodile's bile? For his wives, that seemed like nothing extraordinary. They both sat down at once, wrote letters, and asked him to throw them in the great ocean.
He felt confident again, ate and slept well that night, and set out early the next morning in the direction his wives told him to go. On the way, a young crocodile was stranded on dry land and was growing feebler by the hour. He carried it tenderly to the river, where it revived at once, finding its element. The grateful animal said, “O mortal, you saved my life. If you are ever in need, think of me,” and glided into the depths.
He reached the seashore and as soon as he threw the letters into the waves, four crocodiles appeared and carried him safely to the presence of the King of All The Seas, who, after reading the letters, eagerly offered his daughter to him with a dower of the ocean's best diamonds and, of course, a supply of the best crocodile bile.
When he returned home, the three unearthly beauties were happy together. Next day, when he brought the king the crocodile bile he had asked for, the king's heart sank. He knew his plans had failed again.
The next month when the servants brought him his pay, they were dazzled by the sight of three celestial damsels laughing mischievously with the prince on the swing after a sumptuous meal together. They rushed back to the king as they had done before and told him what they had seen—three women who were out of this world, beautiful beyond compare. The women's charms had made them eloquent. The king went almost mad with desire.
So he summoned the young prince again next day and praised him: “You are really a hero. You obviously can do anything. Do you think you can go to Indra's heaven and find out how my father, mother, and brothers are doing? Only you can bring me such news.”
“As you wish, my king,” said the prince, who then went home to consult his wives.
All three of them sat up all night and wrote letters—five hundred of them. He took the whole sackful of them, went to the king, and asked him to get ready a deep pit of fire for him. When the pit was filled with firewood and lit, he leapt into the flames. At once, the god of fire, who was waiting for him, transported him to his world, read the celestial women's letters addressed to him and other gods, and offered his own shining daughter in marriage to him. Then he sent him back to the earth. On his way back home, the prince had casually noticed a stream of water running towards an anthill, and he had stopped to divert the stream away from the ants. He slept well that night surrounded by four loving women.
Next morning, he took a letter to his king and another to the minister who was giving him advice. The letter to the king read as follows:
Your messenger brought us all the news about you and made us very happy. We are comfortable here without a care. We eat, drink, and dress like gods. Why don't you come and see us here? You can stay with us forever. You can come the same way your messenger came. Really, there is no other way. Come soon. We will be waiting eagerly for your visit.
The king and his wicked minister were excited by these letters. They were filled with the desire to go bodily to heaven. The king ordered a great fire built before sunrise. The news spread and the whole town was ready to jump in. Everyone wanted to go to heaven and see their dead relatives. But the prince said, “Good people, be patient. Let Our Royal Highness and the Honorable Minister go first.” The king and the minister, resplendently dressed, entered the fire with their entire family and entourage, and were burned to ashes before everyone's eyes. The prince sent the townspeople home with the words, “Look, the wicked king and his villainous minister are dead, as you can see. This fire won't take you to heaven. It will only burn you. Go home now, and live your lives well.”
When he went into the king's palace, in the king's chamber he found the name of a brahmin on a piece of paper. He at once searched for the brahmin, found him in a little hut, and crowned him king, though the brahmin protested.
“I'm a poor man and I like it that way. What do I need a kingdom for? You rule it yourself.”
But the prince persuaded him. “No, this is all yours. You can give me shelter when I come here next.”
Then he left town with his four wives for the forest, where, with their help, he cleared a large space, built a great new city, and lived there happily for a while.
Meanwhile, his father had fallen on bad times, lost his kingdom and wealth. He had become so poor that he was cutting and selling wood for a living. The whole royal family roamed from place to place in search of a pittance and, one day, arrived in the new city. The prince saw them from his balcony as they were walking in the street down below. He brought them home and gave them every comfort and luxury.
One day soon after, before going on a hunt with his three elder brothers, he gave his first wife's sari to his mother for safekeeping, with strict warnings not to let it out of her sight and not to give it to anyone. At that time, the daughters-in-law were bathing. The first wife somehow found out about the sari and asked her mother-in-law, most sweetly, “Mother, let me see that new yellow silk pitambara sari. It's beautiful. Give it to me. Let me wear it today.”
The mother-in-law replied, “No, no, I can't. My son has asked me not to give it to anyone.”
“What, not even to me?” said the first wife in a hurt tone. Then she used her wiles, spoke beguilingly, and won over the somewhat simple old woman. She wheedled the sari out of her, and before anyone could say a word, the four celestial women quickly wrapped themselves in it and flew straight to heaven. That very moment, the great new city that was their creation also vanished, and nothing was left but the primeval jungle in its place.
The old mother began to cry helplessly. The prince and his brothers, who were out hunting, seemed suddenly caught in an unknown fastness in the jungle, as if it had thickened around them before they knew it. The brothers asked him, “What's happening?” He knew. “It's all our mother's doing,” he said. They slashed all about them with their swords, somehow extricated themselves from the tangle of bushes and creepers, and came to where the mother was sitting distraught and in tears. The young prince brought them all to the kingdom now ruled by the brahmin, who was very happy to receive them.
Then he went in search of his errant wives.
The celestial wives spent a while in the world of the gods, but soon began to miss their husband. They remembered his pranks with longing. So they decided to come down to the earth, found him wandering aimlessly, and offered to take him with them to their world.
“Meet my father,” said the first wife, Indra's daughter, “and you will be able to bring us all back with his permission. You kidnapped me then and didn't get his permission.”
“Why not? I will come and meet your father and get his permission. Let's go,” he said, and they transported him at once to the world of the gods by changing him into a fish in a vessel of water for the duration of the journey. And once they were in the upper world, they vanished, abandoning him in a strange place. “Women!” he muttered to himself, and started asking around for Indra's capital. He was soon taken there. Everyone was amazed at the presence of a live earthling. It was not long before he was in the presence of Indra, who heard his tale and said, playfully, “If you want these girls, you'll have to prove yourself worthy of them. You must perform four tasks that I shall set you. If you succeed, I'll marry them all to you once more.”
Indra scattered a basket of tiny sesame seeds in a vast field and said, “There! Pick them all in three hours and you can have the Fire God's daughter back.”
The prince was baffled at first and thought hard. Suddenly he remembered the ants he had saved from being washed away. As soon as he remembered them, a whole swarm of them appeared and, according to his wish, picked out every sesame seed scattered in the field and left them in a neat heap. Thus he won back one wife, his youngest.
Indra then threw his signet ring into a deep well that looked bottomless, and asked him to retrieve it. In a flash, the prince remembered the frog, which darted into the well at his bidding. [The hero's previous encounter with this frog was apparently omitted by the storyteller.—Eds.] But he returned almost at once, looking mortally afraid because there was a coil of snakes guarding the bottom. He then summoned his young tadpole son and took him down into the well, where he threw him to the snakes, which came up to eat the tadpole. The old frog dived in and leapt up with Indra's ring. Thus the prince won back the princess of the water world.
“Now,” said Indra, taking the prince to a plantain tree, “I want you to cut this tree in three pieces with one stroke. You'll then get back the Snake Princess.”
The young prince at once thought of the crocodile he had saved on his way to the sea. The reptile appeared even as he thought of it, saluted him, and asked what he wanted done.
“Do you see this plantain tree? I want it cut in three pieces with one stroke of your sharp tail.”
Before he had even finished saying this, the tree lay before him in three neat pieces. He had won the snake princess as well. Now Indra set him his last test. With his magic, he made his daughter's three friends look exactly like his own daughter, and said, “Tell me who is your first wife.”
The prince was completely at a loss. He was faced with four look-alikes. He could not tell them apart, though he looked at them closely. Suddenly he remembered the bharani worm, which arrived from nowhere, now a winged insect, touched the sari-end of Indra's daughter, and flew in circles around her head. At once, the prince said, “There, that's my first wife!” and seized her hand. He had won her, too.
The gods were amazed at the way the humble animals of the earth-world had come to the help of this mortal man. Indra, who had hugely enjoyed the fun of it all, arranged a heavenly wedding ceremony for the young people and got them married according to celestial customs.
The prince descended to the earth with all four wives and went straight to his father's kingdom and original capital, which were now in the hands of foreign kings. He conquered them and all the minor kings around them, became king of the old kingdom, and brought back his parents and brothers to the capital.
One day, under the light of the full moon, as he sat on the palace swing with his four queens, he remembered another such day. He asked for his father, and when he arrived, the son said to him, “Father, did I do what I said I once would do?”
To which, the father replied, “Yes, son, you did. If one has sons, one must have sons like you.”
Types and Motifs
Type AT 923, Love Like Salt + AT 413, Marriage by Stealing Clothing + AT 465A, The Man Persecuted Because of his Beautiful Wife + AT 554, The Grateful Animals.
As indicated above, this complex romantic tale has several sections, which often occur as independent segments or tales:
(1) The hero is banished by his father, who wishes to hear praise of himself. This action propels the hero out of his home into the wide world. This is a variant of 923, Love Like Salt, better known in the West for its use in the King Lear story. Characteristically, in this Indian tale, not daughters but sons are questioned and tested by the old father. In the traditional Indian familial pattern, the sons stay in the paternal home, while daughters are expected to leave, become part of another family, love (and obey) the men they marry. A Kannada proverb says, kotta hennu kulakke horage, “A daughter given away [in marriage] is outside the family.” Note how the Japanese adaptation of Lear in the film Ran also changed the daughters into sons. Yet 923B, The Princess Who Was Responsible for Her Own Fortune, in which an unmarried daughter defies her father, marries a poor, weird, or diseased man and makes him rich through her wit, is also told widely in India.
(2) Marriage by stealing clothing (413 Ind.): The hero meets an old woman (Motif N 825) who asks him not to go in a certain direction, but he does (Z 211) and sees celestial maidens bathing. He steals the sari of one of the bathing women (H 1335) and runs, but he looks back and is turned to stone. The old woman restores him (Z 121.3) and he succeeds a second time. The celestial woman lives with him as his wife as long as he keeps her sari, which is stitched into his thigh. This sequence of events occurs in many classic Indian collections of novellas like the Sanskrit Daśakumāracarita or the Tamil Madanakāmarājaṉ.
(3) The king covets the hero's wife (AT 465A) and, on the advice of wicked counselors, assigns him dangerous tasks, which he performs with the aid of his celestial wife or wives. Each quest takes him to a different world (the subterranean world of serpents, the undersea world, etc.); in each, he marries another celestial princess. The final task sends the hero to get news of the king's ancestors. On his wife's advice, he jumps into a crater of fire, enters the netherworld, is helped by the god of fire, and returns radiant with the daughter of the Fire God as his bride. He persuades the king and his wicked counselors to likewise enter the fire so that they too can visit heaven. They plunge to their deaths.
(4) He is reconciled to his father, who is by now impoverished (like Lear). He entrusts his mother with the safekeeping of the celestial's sari, but she naively lets the celestial wives take it, which at once allows them to fly back to heaven, leaving him destitute. This action starts the hero on his last set of adventures. He goes to heaven in quest of his wives. Indra, the king of heaven, imposes four tasks on him (AT 577), which he accomplishes and thereby wins his four wives legitimately, with Indra's blessing. He accomplishes these through grateful animals (AT 554)—ants, a crocodile, a bee, and a bharani bug, all of whom he has helped in his previous journeys. Sections of this tale, like the last one, are told both in Asia and in Europe, retold in famous collections like the Kathāsaritsāgara and the Arabian Nights, as well as in European collections like the Grimms' in German and Afanas'ev's in Russian. The story is known to Indonesia, central Africa, and the French in Missouri.
This type of tale carries a paradigm, a scenario, for the initiation of a young man: he is banished from the parental home, meets up with an old woman or man who serves as a mentor, sees celestial women naked, and brings one of them home by stealing what covers her naked beauty; he then fights against a father/king who covets his wives and who sets him tasks, sends him on dangerous quests to different realms (like earth, air, fire, and water), where he marries the princess of each; finally, he loses his wife, whom he had originally won by deception, and has to win her again by legitimate accomplishments, by doing tasks set by his bride's father—another father-figure who is loath to let his daughters go. He accomplishes them with the help of animals whom he has helped earlier, creatures that represent different realms, like earth, air, and water in this tale. His last task is that of distinguishing his true spouse from among illusory look-alikes. A mere redescription of these motifs suggests that they could be read in psychological terms as steps in a novice's progress towards mastery and adult selfhood: conflict with different kinds of father-figures, enlisting the help of various feminine figures, winning through kindness the support of the animal world. The very last scene of the story completes the drama when he demonstrates to his own father his married bliss with his four wives (from four realms), thereby realizing his original wish to rival and surpass his father, for which he had been banished in the first place.
The aesthetic intricacy and finish, the smooth progression from task to task, and the rounding out of the frame tale (father banishes son, son rescues father, finally son proves himself to father, the last scene fulfilling the very first) are very much a part of the hero's reaching maturity. An accomplished tale embodies the accomplished hero; the aesthetic form enacts the ethos.
[Motif H 508.1, King propounds questions to his sons to determine successor + AT 413, Marriage by Stealing Clothing; AT 465, The Man Persecuted Because of his Beautiful Wife; AT 554, The Grateful Animals.]