Origins of the Tradition
While the term katha is often understood to mean simply "a story," this translation tends to overly nominalize a word that retains a strong sense
of its verb root. In India a "story" is, first and foremost, something that is told , and the Sanskrit root kath , from which the noun is derived, means "to converse with, tell, relate, narrate, speak about, explain" (Monier-Williams 1899:247). Katha[*] might thus better be translated a "telling" or "narration"; it signifies a performance and suggests a milieu. To tell a story means that there must necessarily be someone to hear it, and in Hindu performance traditions the role of the "hearer" (shrota[*] ) is generally a participatory rather than a passive one.
The roots of katha[*] -style performance lie in ancient Brahminical traditions of teacher-disciple dialectic and oral exposition upon existing sacred text; a milieu that can be glimpsed, for example, in the teaching dialogues of the Upanishads and in the terse structure of the sutra, which often presupposes the presence of a living expounder. The development of storytelling as a form of mass entertainment, however, was first reflected in the Sanskrit epics, the traditional narrator of which was the Suta[*] , originally a charioteer and royal herald (Rocher 1985:2.1.2). While the Suta's social status appears to have been relatively low, at least in the eyes of Brahmin legalists, the "tales of wonder" with which he entertained priests and kings during breaks in sacrificial cycles came in time to be seen as powerful religious narratives, which could even claim a sanctity on a par with that of the Vedas themselves. Significantly the Mahabharata[*] provides evidence of the growing involvement of Brahmins with the epic, as its memorizers, performers, and elucidators (e.g., Mahabharata 1.1.50).
The role of the oral mediator of sacred text increased in importance with the emergence of devotional cults advocating the worship of Vishnu[*] and Shiva and offering hope of salvation to faithful devotees regardless of sex or social status. The message of this new religious movement was set in the form of the "old story" (Purana), and while its language was still the Sanskrit of the twice-born elite, its intended audience explicitly included the lower classes, women, and Shudras. To reach this largely illiterate audience, the Puranas ceaselessly advertised the merits of their own recitation and exposition, and even offered detailed directions for the staging of such performances (Bonazzoli 1983:254–80). The performer was called by a variety of names: pauranika[*] (puranic specialist), puranajna[*] ("knower" of the Puranas), vyakhyatri[*] (expounder), and vyas[*] . The latter term, denoting one who "separates" or "divides," recalls the archetypal expounder Veda-Vyas, who "divided" the one Veda into four in order to make it more readily comprehensible to the men of this Dark Age, and who was also credited with the authorship of the Mahabharata and of many of the
Puranas themselves. The puranic vyas[*] was viewed as a spiritual descendant or even temporary incarnation of Veda-Vyas (himself an avatar of Vishnu[*] ) and was privileged to speak from a vyas-pith[*] : a "seat" of honor and authority in the assembly of devotees.
This assembly too had a special designation: satsang or sant-samaj[*] —"fellowship with the good." Although such congregational expression of religious feeling must have become common quite early in the puranic period, the establishment of Muslim hegemony in northern India in the late twelfth century helped create conditions favorable to the spread of this tradition. Unlike the Vaishnava royal cults of an earlier period, devotional expression through satsang required no elaborate superstructure of temples and images that could become targets for the iconoclasm of the new rulers, and storytellers and expounders were often wandering mendicants whose activities were difficult to regulate. Moreover, the bhakti message of devotional egalitarianism made a strong appeal to those of low status and served to counter the social appeal of Islam; this factor may have encouraged the patronage of wealthy twice-born Hindus who were alarmed at the conversion of lowcaste and untouchable groups. A related development was the composition of new "scriptures" in regional languages, in order to carry a devotional message—and any appended social messages—to the widest possible audience, regardless of whether it had access to the Sanskritic education of the religious elite.
The importance of oral exposition of scripture during the sixteenth century is amply attested by the Manas[*] itself, for Tulsidas's epic, set as a series of dialogues between gods, sages, and immortal devotees, invariably characterizes itself as a katha[*] , "born, like Lakshmi, from the ocean of the saints' assembly" (Ramcharitmanas[*] 1.31.10), and it constantly admonishes its audience to "sing," "narrate," and "reverently listen to" its verses. The hagiographic tradition depicts Tulsidas himself as a kathavachak[*] ("teller" of katha ), and the poet's frequent references to himself as a "singer" of Ram's[*] praises seem to accord well with the traditional image. It is noteworthy, however, that while the Manas appears to have rapidly acquired a singular and far-flung reputation among
Vaishnava devotees and among sadhus of the Ramanandi[*] order, it does not seem to have initially won the allegiance of the religious and political elite of Banaras. Although the legends of the epic's miraculous triumph over Brahminical opposition may lack historical veracity, the process which they implicitly suggest was undoubtedly a real one: the slow and grudging acceptance by the religious elite of an epic composed in "rustic speech" and cherished by the uneducated classes and by the casteless mendicants of what was, at the time, one of the most heterodox of religious orders (Burghart 1978:124).