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the Complete Review
the complete review - epic

The Emperor of the Sorcerers


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Title: The Emperor of the Sorcerers
Author: Budha·svamin
Genre: Epic
Written: before 1000 CE (Eng. 2005)
Length: 858 pages
Original in: Sanskrit
Availability: The Emperor of the Sorcerers - volume one and two - US
The Emperor of the Sorcerers - volume one and two - UK
The Emperor of the Sorcerers - volume one and two - Canada
The Emperor of the Sorcerers - volume one and two - India
directly from: NYU Press
  • Sanskrit title: बृहत्कथाश्लोकसंग्रह
  • Published in two volumes
  • Translated by James Mallinson
  • Previously translated by Ram Prakash Poddar, as Budhasvāmin's Br̥hatkathā Ślokasaṅgraha (1986)
  • This is a bilingual edition which includes the original (but not devanagari) Sanskrit text

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Our Assessment:

B+ : story-packed, quickly paced

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The Sanskrit title of The Emperor of the Sorcerers is बृहत्कथाश्लोकसंग्रह -- Bṛhatkathāślokasaṃgraha, referring to a much, much larger work, the lost Bṛhat|kathā -- the 'Long Story' -- in which it first appeared. As translator James Mallinson explains in his Introduction:

The import of the title of the Bṛhat|kathā|śloka|saṃgraha is thus that it is an abridgement (saṃgraha) into Sanskrit verse (śloka) of the "Long Story".
       'The Long Story Abridged into Sanskrit Verse' is not exactly a catchy title, so one can see why they went with The Emperor of the Sorcerers -- and the story does, indeed, center around the man destined to become the 'emperor of the sorcerers' (vidyādhara|patiḥ), Nara·váhana·datta. [Mallinson explains in a footnote: "Vidyā|dhara, “sorcerer,” literally means “possessor (°dhara) of magical science (vidyā°).”".] It is, however, perhaps a bit misleading, with little emphasis on Nara·váhana·datta in his emperor-role -- for much of the work he (tries to) conceal his identity as royalty from others -- and not that much sorcery in evidence.
       Nara·váhana·datta is, of course, also familiar from another, better-known (and considerably longer) abridgement of Bṛhat|kathā, the massive Ocean of the Streams of Story -- the Kathā|sarit|sāgara. And, in fact, Bṛhatkathāślokasaṃgraha was also a considerably longer work taken from the same source, but only a fragment of 4539 verses -- what is presented here, in two volumes, as The Emperor of the Sorcerers -- remains. It seems it's perhaps less than a quarter of the original work: as Mallinson notes:
We are told that our hero is to amass twenty-six wives during his travels (5:50), but when the story breaks off in the twenty-eighth canto he is in pursuit of only his sixth bride.
       That more or less also sums up the plot-outline of The Emperor of the Sorcerers, but in fact the epic is considerably more than merely the story of Nara·váhana·datta's adventures in accumulating wives. Much of the epic is narrated by Nara·váhana·datta, but many others also recount their own adventures and experiences along the way, as Nara·váhana·datta's story is a sort of framing device for a larger story collection.
       The Emperor of the Sorcerers is an epic presented in verse, in twenty-eight cantos. While only a fragment of the original, it is an almost complete section of it -- the beginning, with only a few lines missing along the way; while it is disappointing that the narrative cuts off where it does, at least there's a coherent whole up to that point.
       In his Introduction, Mallinson does claim: "Budha·svamin was a masterful poet", but in his translation he has definitely placed story over language -- notably already in rendering the Sanskrit verse into prose in English. Certainly, the original already doesn't bother much with poetic frills and ornamentation; as Mallinson points out, Budhasvāmin: "deliberately eschews elaborate descriptions in favor of a fast-paced narrative and deft characterization". He's not kidding: The Emperor of the Sorcerers is both action-packed and mostly very quick to the point, right down to scenes such as that from Sanu·dasa's account of his many adventures (canto 18), when he describes being saved after a shipwreck, picked up by another boat and seemingly safe and sound only to find: "To cut a long story short, the boat set sail and sank like the last one". Another character reports similarly dramatically, after yet another shipwreck:
     No sooner had he escaped from the ocean and was crawling along the shore than he was captured by a band of thieves who stole his jewelry. Then a troop of horsemen surrounded the band of robbers, beat them, bound them and hanged them from the trees.
       Such rapid sequences of events -- and abrupt reversals -- are not unusual: The Emperor of the Sorcerers is a propulsive narrative (though compact rather than, generally, rushed).
       There are twenty-eight cantos to the work, chapters that generally focus on distinct stories though there is also a continuity to the narrative. The cantos are of (greatly) varying length: the shortest is a mere 33 verses, the longest is 702.
       The story gets to its main character, Nara·váhana·datta, in a roundabout way, as the opening cantos recount the stories of a succession to a different throne. Nara·váhana·datta then first appears in the third canto, arriving in spectacular fashion with a fleet of sky-chariots ("the lattice of lights from its myriad gems was awe-inspiring"), where:
The sky-chariot of the emperor of the sorcerers was in the form of a lotus surrounded by twenty-six petals of ruby. He himself sat in the middle of the emerald pericarp; his wives, wearing fabulous jewels, were in the petals.
       Here then we have a Nara·váhana·datta in full imperial glory, with all his wives. The scene is one of his basically observing a (quickly dealt with) legal case, but what everyone is curious about is the emperor, and the fourth canto begins with the story everyone wants to hear from him: "Tell us how Your Reverence came by this extraordinary majesty and won these wives !". So begins the story of Nara·váhana·datta -- or rather, first, that of his parents, Udáyana, king of Vatsa, and Vásava·datta.
       Udáyana and Vásava·datta desperately want a son, but struggle to have one; amusingly, the king's closest friends and advisors closely follow suit: Udáyana asks how many sons they have, and:
     When they lowered their heads a little and did not answer, Vasántaka, because he was the favorite, said with a laugh, 'Sire, we are devoted to our master and copy our master's actions, so we have as many sons as our master.'
       One of the stories Udáyana hears is from a woman who bore eight sons, thanks to Vishnu, and he becomes more determined to have a son of his own. An astrologer predicts he will have one -- and that he, destined to be: "king of all the sorcerers" will have twenty-six wives. Vásava·datta duly becomes pregnant; among the amusing stories along the way then are of pregnancy-cravings, including one example of a woman who admitted: "I am thirsting after the blood, flesh and guts of Vishnu", a craving then cleverly satisfied (with no harm coming to Vishnu ...) -- as is Vásava·datta's own, of wanting to: "fly in a sky-chariot and see the whole world".
       The wives of the ministers also become pregnant at the same time, and all give birth to sons shortly after Nara·váhana·datta is born; these become the close friends he grows up with, and who share some of his adventures. Most prominent among them is Go·mukha -- whose own wooing of the girl he was destined to be with and then marriage are also narrated at some length later in the story.
       What follows is essentially an odyssey of Nara·váhana·datta accumulating wives, albeit one with a variety of detours along the way, particularly with stories that are more and less relevant heard along the way.
       As noted, Nara·váhana·datta collects less than a quarter of his allotted wives over the course of what remains of The Emperor of the Sorcerers, but the few found here are fine stories of these conquests. There is Gandhárva·datta, for example, -- "the most beautiful girl in the three worlds", who comes with a challenging bride-price ("that even the gods would find hard to meet"), her suitors challenged to accompany her with the lute when she sings: "a certain song that it seems nobody has heard before" -- leading to a lute-playing craze in Champa, as: "every single man in Champa is completely crazy about the lute, and dares to think that he will be the one to marry her".
       There is also Priya·dárshana -- to all appearances, a man, yet Nara·váhana·datta is convinced otherwise, not least when he glimpses a breast, "like a round moon seen through clouds". Even as Go·mukha warns him not to trust his perceptions, Nara·váhana·datta can't help but be drawn to the figure -- and eventually the mystery is cleared up, as long earlier a sorceress had:
tied a glittering gold locket containing a magical herb around the girl's neck. Looking at it, she said, "By the power of this herb, everyone who looks at this lady will see a man -- except for the future emperor. Because of their pure and infinite merit, emperors are omniscient and with their divine sight they see things as they really are, so the man who sees her as a woman is sure to be the emperor, the ruler of all sorcerers, and her husband. The herb around her neck is called Priya·darshaná, and she is to be known by that name. "
     Thus the man Priya·dárshana, the chief of the guild of the city, is the lady Priya·darshaná, a bride worthy of the emperor of sorcerers.
       The side-stories, of romance and adventure, are also entertaining. Generally brief, some are also quite involved -- notably Sanu·dasa's account, or, for example, the story of Kunda·málika (and her family) being tricked into marrying a deformed monster known as the Freak (and how she manages to upend the trick).
       While the supernatural often comes into play in many of the experiences of the characters, what is particularly notable about The Emperor of the Sorcerers is how much is engineered and orchestrated, deceiving appearances. This begins with what leads up Nara·váhana·datta's birth, as his father's ministers tell Udáyana that:
The birth of a sun to a merchant's wife, catching sight of the pictures in the festival procession, the appearance of Píngalika: these were all part of a plan put into action by us and, as planned, Your Majesty has made it bear fruit !
       So also, many of Sanu·dasa's adventures, for example, turn out to have been pre-arranged -- down to:
     And when you spent a day and night in the slum, the king used actors to stage it just for that period. For, my long-lived son, you know full well that there is no poverty in Champa.
       Even the shipwrecks galore that happen in several of the stories aren't always what they seem; as one character admits:
Having got my chance, I lost no time in using my specially fitted boat to have you fall into the sea. Shipwrecks do not happen in an area where the sea is deep enough to support a strickenvessel !
       Nara·váhana·datta, too, is sometimes manipulated -- such as when Go·mukha contrives to bring him and Mádana·mánjuka together. First there is a scene where Nara·váhana·datta sees a carriage passing but fails to understand a gesture of greeting from the girl within, and then sees that:
     Go·mukha said to me, "Your crown has slipped and is covering your forehead. Put it right !" When I brushed my brow with my right hand, the girls in the carriage gave a shrill titter. Go·mukha looked away and the shaking of his sides showed that he was laughing. He then quickly changed the subject.
       Nara·váhana·datta does not understand what has happened here, but Go·mukha eventually explains it as part of his larger, carefully orchestrated scheme, as, inter alia:
And when I told you to adjust your crown because it had slipped a little, that too had a purpose. The ladies thought it was a polite greeting by Your Majesty, done to gratify your beloved, their mistress.
       Romance is at the fore here throughout, including in some very nicely put scenes, such as that of Avánti·várdhana's passion for Súrasa·mánjari:
     After he married the outcaste girl, he did not leave his innermost apartments, even in his mind, and dreamed of her constantly even though she was there before his eyes.
       Sexual pleasure, meanwhile, is presented with considerable restraint -- acknowledged, but not elaborated on too greatly (in keeping with the narrative's brisk pace), going little beyond scenes (and explanations) such as:
At this she started to massage my chest with her exquisite breasts. They heaved, my chest quivered ...
    But enough of this rambling digression ! a succinct tale about agreeable things never becomes boring.
       Amusing oddities also include a peculiar tendency of characters to faint -- often in dramatic situations, such as in one shipwreck-scene where:
I noticed my sweetheart draw near, floating between two waves while clinging to a plank. At the very moment that she called for me, holding out her hand, a sudden wave snatched the poor girl away. Furious with the wave, I fell into a deep faint.
       And some of the quirks that move the story forward are also rather unusual -- such as Sanu·dasa amassing a great mound of cotton on his adventures but a thief's lamp burning the mound to the ground -- and him having to flee, as:
The custom in Máthura is that if someone's house is on fire, he and his household are thrown into it, screaming.
       Naturally, The Emperor of the Sorcerers suffers some from being fragmentary -- not least in ending rather dramatically, Nara·váhana·datta's eyes already on the next wife-to-be, the closing words finding him admitting: "My mind wearied by thoughts of hundreds of such stratagems, I struggled through the night without getting any sleep". Still, the episodic nature of the work allows it to be enjoyed much like a story-collection, and readers are not really left hanging; the expectation is that if there had been more, it would be more of the same (though not in a bad way: Budhasvāmin's variations are creative and enjoyable).
       The introductions to the Clay Sanskrit Library volumes tend to be very short, but Mallinson's is extreme even among these. A synopsis usefully guides readers through some of the thickets -- "The many layers of narrative in the text can sometimes lead to confusion", he notes --, but beyond that there's very little about the work, author, style, context(s), or even the approach to translating the work (as noted, he renders the verse-work in prose). Admittedly little -- well, basically nothing, as he does point out -- is known about Budhasvāmin, for example; still, a work such as this, which does not seem to be well-known, could well do with a more thorough introduction.
       Having the Sanskrit text available facing the English translation -- even if in romanized presentation, rather than devanagari -- is always welcome, but here, too, the rendering in English prose of the Sanskrit verse leaves it less useful than usual. As Budhasvāmin's focus is less on language -- the text isn't as 'poetic' as much Sanskrit literature is -- there's also perhaps less to be won from comparison with the original; I have to admit that with my very rudimentary Sanskrit this was one text where I gave up on following the original as simply too arduous (even if, ironically, the language is, strictly speaking, more accessible than much Sanskrit verse; Budhasvāmin does, for example, employ some wordplay, but isn't particularly intricate or elaborate). (Readers who do care to follow or explore the Sanskrit -- and don't mind Sanskrit-in-Roman-letters -- will find the Digital Corpus of Sanskrit (click Bṛhatkathāślokasaṃgraha under 'Select a text') a useful resource.)
       It is surprising that The Emperor of the Sorcerers isn't better-known. While the beginning -- getting to the real start of Nara·váhana·datta's story -- is perhaps a bit circuitous, even that offers good stories, and the rest of the work proceeds without letting up. One might wish for more elaboration and description at some points, but Budhasvāmin presents a whole lot of good stories here -- while also moving forward well on the main track, of Nara·váhana·datta's path collecting wives. It is a very solid and enjoyable entertainment.

- M.A.Orthofer, 30 July 2021

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The Emperor of the Sorcerers:
  • NYU Press publicity pages for volumes one and two
Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Budhasvāmin lived sometime before 1000 CE.

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© 2021 the complete review

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