The Vetālapañcaviṃśati, A Manuscript Divided

Houghton Library Blog 2014-04-07

The Vetālapañcaviṃśati, or the twenty-five tales of the corpse-possessing spirit, is an Indian story collection dating back to at least the 11th century CE. The framing narrative tells the story of a king who is tricked into helping an ascetic perform a necromantic ritual in a cremation ground. The king is tasked with the fetching of a corpse hung from a nearby tree, only to discover that the corpse is possessed by the title’s eponymous vetāla, or spirit. The last page of MS Max Müller memorial f. 1 in the Bodleian Library, Oxford University, which contains the first 10 tales of the Vetālapañcaviṃśati.

The first page of MS Indic 1200 in Houghton Library, Harvard University, which begins with the 11th tale of the Vetālapañcaviṃśati.

As the king carries the corpse back to the ascetic, the vetāla tells him stories to while away the time. Each story ends in a riddle which the king must answer if he can. Failure to do so would result in his skull cracking open, a punishment typical of riddle contests in Indian literature. However, each time he answers a riddle correctly, the vetāla carries the corpse back to the tree from which it was originally hung. Thus, a cycle of emboxed tales appears within the framing narrative.

The cycle finally comes to an end when the king fails to answer a particular riddle, and chooses to walk on in silence. Impressed not only by his acknowledgement of defeat, but also by his persistence in seeking victory, the vetāla relates how the ascetic is in fact plotting to sacrifice the king when he returns with the corpse. By offering up its advice, the vetāla helps the king outwit the ascetic and sacrifice him instead.

The gods descend with praise and shower boons upon the king who can now safely return to his palace and go on to become the ruler of the whole wide world.

Despite the popularity of the story collection – both as entertainment and as a reader for beginning Sanskrit students – the only serious attempt at a critical edition dates back to 1881 when Heinrich Uhle desperately tried to correlate the contents of eleven highly idiosyncratic manuscripts within the authorial tradition of Śivadāsa (c. 14th cent.). The result was unconvincing, to say the least, and since then many more manuscripts containing the text have appeared.

When I began collecting the manuscripts used by Uhle for my own critical study of his critical edition, I found that several of them were now being kept in the Houghton Library. MS Indic 1200, available digitally via Harvard, designated ms. g by Uhle, only contained the latter half of the story collection, and as Uhle did not give any information about the whereabouts of the first half, it was assumed to have been lost.

Therefore, my curiosity was naturally roused when I came upon a catalogue of Sanskrit manuscripts from the Bodleian Library in Oxford (A catalogue of the Sanskrit manuscripts purchased for the administrators of the Max Müller memorial fund, comp. by T. R. Gambier-Parry) which made mention of a manuscript containing the first half of the story collection (MS Max Müller memorial f. 1). The manuscript formed part of a larger codex containing three manuscripts in total, and judging from the colophons at the end of the other two (complete) manuscripts, I could tell that they shared certain characteristics with the colophon at the end of the manuscript in the Houghton Library, not the least of which was the year of completion (1702-3 CE).

Having acquired digital scans of the Vetālapañcavṃśati manuscripts in the Houghton and Bodleian libraries, it was a matter of simple comparison to establish that they did indeed form two halves of a once unified whole. Something that had apparently gone unnoticed since A. A. Macdonell acquired the first half of the manuscript for the Bodleian Library from a Benares Brahmin in 1907.

The question that remains is, of course, how the two halves came to be separated from each other. All we know is that it must have happened sometimes prior to Uhle’s acquisition of the second half for his 1881 critical edition. While my mind’s eye paints a portrait of two maddened professors pulling at each end of the damn thing somewhere in the snowy heights of the Khyber Pass, the truth is probably somewhat less dramatic. Perhaps a clever Brahmin decided to sell off his manuscripts piecemeal to unknowing foreigners, or perhaps it simple got misplaced when an old family cupboard collapsed upon itself, spreading the leaves of hundreds of manuscripts left and right.

Thanks to Jacob Schmidt-Madsen for contribution of this post. Schmidt-Madsenholds an MA in Indology and currently teaches Sanskrit at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. He may be reached via jacob (at)