The text below is from the sixth chapter of the ‘Harshacharita’ (Deeds of Harsha) as translated by E. B. Cowell and F. W. Thomas. Bana describes the arrival of Harsha’s elder brother, Rajyavardhana in Thanesar (Sthanishvara). The two brothers lament the sudden demise of their father. Full of grief, Rajyavardhana expresses his desire to renounce the kingdom, and live as an ascetic. This unleashes panic among the courtiers. Harsha is confounded by his sibling’s request to assume sovereignty. Bana captures Harsha’s agitation with great accuracy. Suddenly, news arrives of their brother-in-law’s death at the hands of the king of Malwa, and the imprisonment of their sister, Rajyashri. This infuriates Rajyavardhana, who despite his brother’s protests, sets out to avenge the murder, all by himself. Rajyavardhana smashes the Malwa army but falls into the trap set by the king of Gauda, and is killed. Shocked by the audacity of the conspirators, Harshavardhana, swears to subdue the refractory kings, and destroy the Gaudas. He summons Skandagupta, the caretaker of the elephant corps, and asks him to summon the royal herds for battle. There is an interesting passage outlining the need for a monarch to maintain secrecy and not reveal his thoughts with regard to the conduct of war or government (in the form of advise rendered unto Harsha by Skandagupta).

The Brahman who consumes the departed spirit’s first oblation had now partaken of his meal. The horror of the days of impurity had passed. The various appurtenances of the royal bier, beds, chairs, chowries, umbrellas, vessels, carriages, swords and the like, now become an eyesore, were in course of distribution to Brahmans. The bones, in shape like sorrow’s spearheads, had been carried with the people’s hearts to sacred fords. A monument in brick had been set up on the sepulchral pile. The royal elephant, victor in mighty battles, had been abandoned to the woods. Gradually the lamentations subsided, the outcries became rarer, the tears ceased to flow; the sighs were less vehement, the exclamations of despair sank to a murmur, the couches of despondency began to disappear. Ears were now capable of listening to reason, hearts in a mood to be heedful of kind attentions, the king’s virtues could now be computed. Grief was becoming a moral theme, the poet’s pathos had had its day. Only in dreams was the king present to the eye, only in hearts did he reside, only pictures retained his outline, only poetry preserved his name. At this season my lord Harsha, having on a certain occasion laid aside his occupations, saw himself unexpectedly surrounded by a great company of silent downcast nobles headed by the whole assemblage of his aged kinsmen. At this spectacle he reflected, ‘What else can it be? This sorrow-stricken throng of people announces my dear lord’s arrival,’ and so with a tremour at his heart questioned one of them, a man of distinguished bearing, as he entered, ‘Come, speak; is my noble brother arrived?’ ‘As your majesty says,’ he slowly answered, ‘he is at the door’: whereat the prince, whose mind was softened with supreme sorrow added to brotherly affection, all but poured out his life along with a gushing torrent of tears.

Anon, heralded by lamentations, which, uttered by the chamberlain, entered like servants in advance, the elder brother came in sight amid a throng of servants pale and worn with many days’ neglect of bathing, eating and sleeping, and reduced in numbers by their long and rapid march. Only one or two, chiefly domestics, could be distinguished. The umbrella-bearer was wanting, the superintendent of the wardrobe lagged behind, the pitcher-carrier had collapsed, the spittoon-bearer was prostrate, the betel-bearer panted, and the sword-bearer limped. The prince’s form was grey all over with the dust of the roads, as though his helpless heritage, the earth, had made him her refuge. Long white bandages, bound about arrow-wounds received in battle while conquering the Hunas, dotted his form. Limbs emaciated, as though for the preservation of the king’s life he had offered their flesh in sorrow’s fire, told of the heaviness of his grief. Upon his crestless head, with its hair miry and disordered and its jewel gone, he seemed to bear grief visibly enthroned. His forehead, lined by sweat oozing under the heat, appeared to weep with yearning to fall at his father’s feet. With a broad river of tears he ceaselessly bedewed the earth. His grief-worn cheeks seemed channelled by the fall of that incessant stream of tears. From his round lips the betel stain had faded away. Though his beard showed but a faint growth, yet his face looked black with the long growth of mourning. He was as a lion distressed and left without a refuge by the fall of a great hill, absorbed in a sorrow beyond the appeals of the counsels of age, the cure of good men’s eloquence, the scope of sages’ voices, the power of holy writ, the course of wisdom’s efforts, the range of friendly offices, the sphere of sense delights, the province of gradual repair.

Uplifted, as it were, on an agitated sea of stormy surging love, Harsha rose excitedly to meet him. But his majesty Rajyavardhana, on seeing him at a distance, felt inclined to let loose his long-stemmed torrent of tears. Extending his long stout arms, he clasped his brother’s neck in abandonment of grief and drawing him now to his own worn unshawled bosom, now to his neck, now to his shoulder, now to his cheek, sobbed with such violence that their hearts were almost uprooted with their moorings. The king’s favourite also, as his sovereign was recalled to his mind, responded like an echo with vehement sobs. It was long before the elder brother’s tears ceased to flow, and, like the rain-god in autumn, he very gradually calmed himself. Then he sat down, and, water being brought by a servant, bathed his eyes. Then with a towel presented by the betel-bearer he wiped his face, which the hot tears had scorched. Having spent some time in utter silence, he rose and proceeded to the bath house. After a stay there he roughly wrung his unadorned locks of dishevelled and disordered hair, and threw himself upon a couch placed on the courtyard terrace and having a cushion disposed beneath a low awning. There he remained without uttering a word. My lord Harsha also bathed and reclined in silence by his side, stretched on a blanket laid upon the ground. Glancing ever and anon upon his afflicted elder brother, he felt his heart almost split into a thousand parts. To the people that day was terrible even beyond the day of their king’s death. Throughout the city none cooked, none bathed, none took their pleasure. Not otherwise did the day pass by. At length, the sun sank, red as madder, in the waters of the western sea.

At that hour, being solicited by the chief feudatories, who approached with inoffensive admonitions, Rajyavardhana reluctantly consented to take food. Dawn having appeared and all the kings being admitted, he addressed himself to Harsha, who was standing near, as follows, ‘My dear brother, your situation invites instruction from your elders. Even as a boy you held fast to our father’s habits of thought. Do not revert to the gaucherie so easy to the nature of the young and so much at variance with affection. Do not like a dullard make opposition to my wish. You are surely not unacquainted with the universal practice. What did Raghu do on the death of Dilipa? What did Rama do on the death of Dasharatha? What did Bharata on the death of Dushyanta? Enough of these; did not our father himself undertake the government on the decease of his auspiciously named sire? Moreover the man whom grief subdues the learned term coward. Still what am I to do? It is some native cowardice or womanishness which has rendered me subject to the flame of filial grief. The great splendour sunk, the lamp of wisdom is vanished from my darkened prospect. All my manhood is melted like a thing of lac by a mighty flame of pain. At every word my mind faints like a deer smit with a poisoned shaft. My firmness has, like our mother, departed with our sire. Daily my sorrows increase, like moneys employed by a usurer. My heart cannot with mere tears dismiss the fall of so noble a spirit, stately as Sumeru. My mind seeks to avoid a glory, which, as if belonging to outcasts, is of no noble sort. Like the house sparrow, I cannot endure to abide even a moment in a home which has become a hell. I desire therefore in a hermitage to purge with the pure waters of pellucid streams that run from mountain tops this fond defilement which clings to my mind as to a garment. Therefore do you receive from my hands the cares of sovereignty, a gift not high esteemed indeed and reft of the joy of youth? I have abandoned the sword.’ So speaking, he took his scimitar from the hand of his sword-bearer and flung it on the earth.

At this speech Harsha’s heart was cloven as with the stroke of a sharp-pointed spear, and he reflected, ‘Can my lord have been angered when away from me by a hint received from some envious wretch? Or is he seeking in this way to try me? Or is this a mental aberration born of grief? Did he intend one thing while another escaped his lips? Is this a stratagem of fate for the downfall and ruin of our whole house? Or is it a pleasantry of the Kali age, that this man has, like the vilest of mankind, instigated me, as one ready for any deed, to this atrocious act, as if I were no child of Puspabhuti’s line, no son of our sire, no younger brother of his own, void of affection and detected in fault? Thus much indeed is seemly, that on the death of so noble a sire, a man should seek a hermitage, don the bark dress, and practise austerities. But as for this charge of sovereignty, it is like a rain of cinders on a drought-parched wilderness, scorching one already scorched. This is unworthy of my lord. Again, although in this world a prince without pride, a Brahman without greed, a saint without anger, an ape without tricks, a poet without envy, a trader without knavery, a fond husband without jealousy, a good man free from poverty, a rich man without harshness, a hunter without cruelty, a wandering ascetic without gluttony, and a king’s son without vice are all equally hard to find, yet my lord himself has been my instructor. Who, I wonder, with such a father fallen, with such a royal elder brother going in his young manhood to a hermitage, abandoning his throne, could desire the clod called earth, defiled by the tears of all men’s eyes? How did such a deeply degrading thought enter my lord’s imagination? What is this blemish observed in me? Again, my lord being gone to a hermitage, who indeed could so long for life as even to entertain a thought of the earth? But what avail these vain and manifold reasonings? In silence will I follow in his train.’ So reflecting, he stood silent and downcast, in spirit gone first to the hermitage. The weeping Keeper of the Robes provided bark dresses. The women of the royal household were screaming. Brahmans with uplifted arms were wailing aloud in horror. With doleful cries a group of citizens were engaged in bending before the princes’ feet. Ancient courtiers ran away with tumult in their hearts. Aged kinsmen leaning on servants entered with trembling forms, disordered apparel, grief-choked voices, streaming eyes, and hearts bent on remonstrance. Despondent feudatories sighed.

Suddenly a distinguished servant of Rajyashri, Samvadaka by name, entered with flowing tears in a bewilderment of grief. Uttering a cry, he precipitated himself into the audience. Thunderstruck at this, Rajyavardhana and his brother questioned him with their own lips, ‘Speak, friend! Speak; what stroke more unmanning than the present is fate, triumphant at the king’s death, bringing upon us, in pursuance of her resolve to increase her efforts for our ruin?’ ‘My lord,’ the man with an effort replied, ‘it is the way of the vile, like fiends, to strike where they find an opening. So, on the very day on which the king’s death was rumoured, his majesty Grahavarman was by the wicked Lord of Malwa cut off from the living. Rajyashri also, the princess, has been confined like a brigand’s wife with a pair of iron fetters kissing her feet, and cast into prison at Kanyakubja. There is moreover a report that the villain, deeming the army leaderless, purposes to invade and seize this country as well. Such are my tidings; the matter is now in the king’s hands.’ Instantly at the news of such a fresh, sudden, unexpected, unimagined disaster the overwhelming passion of sorrow, vanished from a heart previously unacquainted even by hearsay with humiliation. An awful paroxysm of wrath leapt fiercely into the recesses of Rajyavardhana’s heart, like a lion into his cavernous abode. On his broad brow a deadly frown broke forth. On his cheeks appeared an angry flush. His fresh wounds as if to awake his valour sent by the poison of sorrow to sleep. Thus he addressed his younger brother, ‘This task, my noble brother, is my royal house, my kin, my court, my land, my people. This day I go to lay the royal house of Malwa low in ruin. The repression of this unmannerly foe; this and no other is my assumption of the bark dress, my austerities, my stratagem for dispelling sorrow. Malwas to maltreat the race of Puspabhuti! This is the hind clutching the lion’s mane, the frog slapping the cobra, the calf taking the tiger captive! My pain has vanished before a more vehement passion. Let all the kings and elephants stay with you. Only Bhandi here must follow me with some ten thousand horse.’ So speaking, he ordered the marching drum instantly to sound.

Hearing this command, my lord Harsha, inflamed as he was with a fit of anger at the tidings of his sister’s and brother-in-law’s fate, felt his agony grow, as it were, to a greater height at the order to remain behind. Speaking out, ‘What harm,’ he asked, ‘does my lord see in my attending him? If I am regarded as a boy, then I should all the more not be abandoned; if as needing protection, the cage of your arms is an asylum; if incompetent, where have I been tried? If you would have me happy, happiness marches in your train; if you think the toil of the journey great, absence is harder to support; if you wish me to guard your rear, valour is your rear-guard; if you say a great man must not carry a companion with him, then you count me as distinct from yourself; if you say you are marching with a very light train, what excessive weight is there in the dust of your feet? If you say brotherly affection is timid, the fault is mutual. Whence this your arm’s excessive greediness that you desire alone to quaff the ambrosia of fame as white as a mass of the Milk Ocean’s foam? Never before have I been stinted in your favours. Therefore let my lord be gracious and take me also.’ So speaking, he sank his head to the ground and fell at his brother’s feet. But the elder upraised him and said, ‘Why thus, dear brother, by putting forth too great an effort add importance to a foe too slight for our power? A concourse of lions in the matter of a deer is too degrading. How many flames gird on their armour against a sheaf of grass? Moreover for the province of your prowess you have already the earth with her amulet wreath of eighteen continents. For a world-wide conquest you, like Mandhatri, shall grasp, in the shape of your bow, a comet portending the end of all earthly kings. Only, in the unbearable hunger which has been aroused in me for our enemies’ death, forgive this one unshared morsel of wrath. Be pleased to stay.’ Such was his answer, and on the same day he set out to seek the foe.

My lord Harsha’s brother being thus occupied, his father laid to rest, his brother-in-law banished from life, his mother dead and his sister a prisoner, he could scarcely make the time pass, alone as he was like a wild elephant strayed from the herd. Many days having elapsed, on one occasion as with the night two-thirds spent he lay awake, being still despondent at his brother’s departure, he heard the watchman chanting an Arya couplet:
Though his virtues be sung by continents, though rich be his worth like a treasure of jewels
As a squall a ship, so does fate overwhelm a hero without warning.
At this his heart was further grieved by thoughts of the instability of things but when the night was well-nigh ended, he obtained a moment’s sleep, and in a vision saw a heaven-kissing pillar of iron broken in pieces. With a throbbing heart he awoke again, and reflected, ‘Why do these evil dreams thus incessantly pursue me? Day and night my eye, and not the right one, throbs expert in prophecies of evil. Day after day Rahu is seen to wear a bodily form no longer curtailed. The Seven Sages vomit eruptions of smoke, and cover all the planets with grey. Every day dire flames are seen in the heavens, and the star groups fall from the firmament. Who shall waylay this fatality in our stock, which wastes its tender growth as an elephant a bamboo? Be it well, in any case, with my lord.” After such thoughts as these he found a difficulty in encouraging his heart, which seemed in coward flight from an outburst of brotherly affection in its midst. Then rising, he went through the usual round of duties.

When in the audience chamber, he saw Kuntala, a chief officer of cavalry and a great noble high in Rajyavardhana’s favour, hastily enter with a dejected company entering in his train. His form was wrapped in a shawl as miry as if unbearable grief had reddened its texture with a smoke of hot sighs. His looks were downcast, as if through shame at the preservation of his life, his glance fixed on the end of his nose, and his face, hairy with the long growth of mourning, mutely with uninterrupted tears bespoke his master’s fall. This sight aroused the prince’s alarm, but when the time came to hear the dreadful calamity, he seemed seized in every limb by all the world powers at once, water in his eyes, sighs in his mouth, fire in his heart, earth upon his breast. From the man he learnt that his brother, though he had routed the Malwa army with ridiculous ease, had been allured to confidence by false civilities on the part of the King of Gauda, and then weaponless, confiding, and alone, despatched in his own quarters.

Instantly on hearing this his fiery spirit blazed forth in a storm of sorrow augmented by flaming flashes of furious wrath. His aspect became terrific in the extreme. As he fiercely shook his head, the loosened jewels from his crest looked like live coals of the angry fire which he vomited forth. Quivering without cessation, his wrathful curling lip seemed to drink the lives of all kings. His reddening eyes with their rolling gleam put forth as it were conflagrations in the heavenly spaces. His very limbs trembled as if in affright at such unexampled fury. Like Shiva, he put on a Shape of Terror; like Vishnu, he displayed a Man-lion’s aspect; like the Vindhya, he grew in sublimity of form; like Janamejaya, intent upon burning all sovereigns; like Vrikodara, athirst for his enemy’s blood. He represented the revelation of valour, the frenzy of insolence, the delirium of pride, the supreme effort of hauteur, the new age of manhood’s fire, the regal consecration of warlike passion. ‘Except the Gauda king,’ he cried, ‘what man would by such a murder, abhorred of all the world, lay such a great soul low, in the very moment when, having by his arm’s undissembling valour subdued all princes, he had laid the sword aside? Apart from that ignoble wretch, in whose minds would my lord’s heroic qualities find no favour? How could he, furious as the summer sun, which dries the water of the lotus pools, put forth his hands, regardless of friendly advances, to take my lord’s life? What shall be his doom? Into what creature’s womb shall he pass? Into what hell shall he fall? What outcast even would wreak this deed? My tongue seems soiled with a smirch of sin as I take the miscreant’s very name upon my lips. With what design did this mean remorseless being bring my lord to his death, working his way like a worm into a sandal pillar? Truly now the fool, when he laid hands upon my lord’s life, saw not the coming onset of a swarm of arrows. By lighting up this evil path this vilest of Gaudas has collected only foul shame, like lampblack, to the soiling of his own house. Though the sun, crest jewel of the world, may be sunk in the west, is there not the moon, ready at once by the creator’s appointment to quell the darkling foe of the road of right? What now will be the wretch’s fate?’

Even as he thus spoke, the senapati, Simhanada, a friend of his father, was seated in his presence, a man foremost in every fight, in person yellow as a hill of orpiment, stately as a great full-grown sal. He was far advanced in years and, although he had oft risen from repose upon a couch of arrows, yet in point of vigorous age he seemed to scoff at Bhishma. So stubborn was his frame, that even old age laid but a trembling hand, timidly as it were, upon his stiff hair. He seemed while still alive to have been born anew into a lion’s nature, compounded of guileless valour and having for a mane his straight locks white as a bunch of moonlight. His eyes were veiled by brows whose wrinkled skin hung loose. His terrible visage was brightened by a thick white moustache which hid his cheeks. A beard hanging down to his navel played the part of a white chowrie. In spite of age his broad chest was rough with great gashes of wounds opening their lips as if athirst to drink the water of whetted steel’s edge; and all across it ran in lines the writings of many great scars graven by sharp swords. In the charm of diverse martial exploits he seemed to outstrip the very Mahabharata; in an unbroken career of slaughtering foes to give a lesson to Parashurama himself; in steadfastness, rigidity and elevation to shame even the hills.

His very voice, deep as the booming of a drum, inspired the warriors with lust for battle, as he said, ‘My lord, knaves in themselves most foul mark not how they are themselves deluded by fortune, as crows by the koel. The aberrations of success, like those of the lotus, include the closing of the eyes in error. What indeed is a wretch to do whose looks, turned away through excess of timidity, have never beheld the faces of angered heroes? Little suspects this miserable man how great souls dishonoured, in a moment consummate the ruin of whole houses. Well does this deed, so capable of hurling irredeemably to hell, befit such an outcast from all martial gatherings. But the coward is, like the moon, deer-hearted and pallid of hue: how can his glory abide steady for even a pair of nights? Royalty also glitters more brightly through rubbing against the grindstone edge of many a king’s diadem jewels. Hundreds of bandages bound about manifold wounds make fame. Hard strokes of swords, falling upon the cuirassed panels of enemies’ breasts, spit forth not only sparks but also glory. As foul lampblack does not so much as touch the diamond mirror, naturally brilliant with a radiance of ever glittering splendour, so sorrow touches not the illustrious. Once more, you are the vanguard of the stout-hearted, the captain of the wise, the foremost of the mighty, the champion of the noble, the forerunner of the illustrious, the prime of the dauntless. Think not therefore of the Gauda king alone; so deal that for the future no other follow his example. Dispel with exudations of tepid blood the side glances of ill-got fame. Forsake not the path along which your sire, grandsire, and great grandsire have marched amid the envy of the three worlds. Relinquishing grief to cowards, appropriate the royal glory which is your heritage, now that the king has assumed his godhead and Rajyavardhana has lost his life by the sting of the vile Gauda serpent. Comfort your unprotected people. Even Parashurama, a solitary ascetic, did so when his father was slain; frame his resolve and one and twenty times cut down and eradicate the Kshatriya stock; what then of my lord whose spirit wields in the native hardness of his frame a thunderbolt? Therefore, this very day register a resolve, and for the wreck of this meanest of Gaudas take up the bow.’

So much said he ended, and my lord Harsha replied, ‘The advice of your eminence deserves to be acted upon. My mind, brimming with passion, has no room for complying with the observances of mourning. Nay, so long as this vile outcast of a Gauda king, this miscreant who deserves to be pounded, survives, like a cruel thorn in my heart, I am ashamed to cry out helplessly with dry lips like a hermaphrodite. Until I evoke a storm of rain from the tremulous eyes of the wives of hostile hosts, how can my hands present the oblation of water? By the dust of my honoured lord’s feet I swear that unless I clear this earth of Gaudas, and make it resound with fetters on the feet of all kings who are excited to insolence, I will hurl my sinful self, like a moth, into an oil-fed flame.’ So saying he gave instructions to Avanti, the supreme minister of war and peace, who was standing near, ‘Let a proclamation be engraved. As far as the eastern hill, whose summit the Gandharva pairs abandon when alarmed by the hurtle of the sun’s chariot wheels, as far as Suvela, where Rama’s devastation of Sinhala was graven by axes hewing down the capital Trikuta, as far as the western mount, the hollows of whose caves resound with the tinkling anklets of Varuna’s intoxicated mistresses, as far as Gandhamadana, whose cave-dwellings are perfumed with sulphur; let all kings prepare their hands to give tribute or grasp swords, to seize the realms of space or chowries, let them bend their heads or their bows, grace their ears with my commands or their bowstrings, crown their heads with the dust of my feet or with helmets, join suppliant hands or troops of elephants, let go their lands or arrows, grasp mace-staves or lance-staves, take a good view of themselves in the nails of my feet or the mirrors of their swords. I am gone abroad.’

Thus resolved, he dismissed the assembly, and having sent away the feudatories, left the hall once more desirous of the bath. Having risen, he performed all his daily duties like one restored to himself. Later on when even the adorable sun, reft of his radiance, had disappeared, as if afraid of the loss of his own sovereignty, all the people with bowed heads joined a forest of adoring hands. Harsha did not stay long at the evening levee. He dismissed the company, and, interdicting the servants from entering, passed into the bed-chamber. There he lay prostrate and stretched upon the bed his languid limbs. As soon as he was left alone with his lamp, fraternal affection, finding its opportunity like a brigand, held him in its grasp. Without a pause his sighs issued forth, as if in quest of his brother’s life. Covering his face with a flood of tears in place of a white shawl’s hem, he wept long and silently, and these thoughts were in his heart, ‘How could such a form as his possibly deserve an end like this? Accursed fate has parted me from him without even an effort. Unfeeling that I am, my grief has been all this time obscured by rage; fie upon it!’ These and the like mournful meditations were in his mind. When day dawned, he gave early instructions to the chamberlain that he desired to see Skandagupta, the commandant of the elephant troop.

Summoned by a succession of numerous people running all together, Skandagupta, not waiting for his elephant, hastened on foot from his quarters, with bustling lictors forcing the people aside. At every step he questioned the chief elephant doctors, who bowed on every hand, as to the night’s news concerning the favourite elephants. All around him was a bustle of groups of people belonging to the camp. In front ran throngs of persons, come for the purpose of bursting the animals’ fastenings. With them were riders displaying handfuls of emerald green fodder, soliciting fresh-caught elephants, or bowing from a distance in delight at getting prime wild ones, or reporting the approach of rut in one under their charge, or ordering the drums to be mounted. First of all came some who, having been deprived of their elephants for careless offences, wore their beards long in mourning, while ragged new comers ran up in hope of the happiness of securing one. Troops of superintendents, finding at last an opportunity, were busy with hands uplifted enumerating the serviceable females. Rows of foresters by upraising tall goads, announced the number of freshly captured elephants. Crowds of mahouts displayed leather figures for practicing manoeuvres. Emissaries from the rangers of elephant forests, sent to convey tidings of the movements of fresh herds and momentarily expecting supplies of fodder, reported the commissariat stores at villages, towns, and marts. An aspect of indifference upheld by his master’s favour, and a natural unbending rigidity gave to Skandagupta an air of command. He seemed to enjoin the very seas to provide a limitless supply of shells for elephants’ ears, to pillage the very hills for red-chalk unguents to paint their heads. His swinging arms appeared to plant on either side an avenue of stone pillars for elephant posts. Though he had abandoned the use of the bow, yet all the ends of heaven heard the echo of his great qualities. With a whole army of raging elephants at his disposal, he was yet untouched by presumption. Great in station, he was yet full of sweetness; royal yet full of virtues; chief of the generous as of elephants; wearing his dependence with the undaunted dignity of sovereignty; raised to a position in the king’s favour, unapproachable, like a noble wife.

Entering the palace, he saluted from a distance, leaning his lotus hands upon the earth and touching it with his head. When he had seated himself in not too great proximity, Harsha addressed him, ‘You have received a full account of my brother’s destruction and my own intentions. You must therefore hastily call in the elephant herds out at pasture. The hot pain of my brother’s defeat forbids even the briefest delay in marching.’ Thus addressed Skandagupta replied with an obeisance, ‘Let my master consider his orders executed. Loyal devotion, however, requires of me a few words. Therefore let your majesty hear. All that your majesty has undertaken is worthy of the nobility fostered in Pushpabhuti’s line, of your own in born valour, and of your peerless affection for your brother. Yet the story of his majesty Rajyavardhana has given you some inkling into the despicable characters of vile men. Thus do national types vary, like the dress, features, food, and pursuits of countries, village by village, town by town, district by district, continent by continent, and clime by clime. Dismiss therefore this universal confidingness, so agreeable to the habits of your own land and springing from innate frankness of spirit. Of disasters due to mistaken carelessness frequent reports come daily to your majesty’s hearing. In Padmavati, there was the fall of Yagasena, heir to the Naga house, whose policy was published by a sharika bird. In Shravasti faded the glory of Shrutavarman, whose secret a parrot heard. In Mrittikavati, a disclosure of counsel in sleep was the death of Suvarnachuda. The fate of a Yavana king was encompassed by the holder of his golden chowrie, who read the letters of a document reflected in his crest jewel. By slashes of drawn swords, Viduratha’s army minced the avaricious Mathura king Brihadratha, while he was digging treasure at dead of night. Vatsapati, who was wont to take his pleasure in elephant forests, was imprisoned by Mahasena’s soldiers issuing from the belly of a sham elephant. Sumitra, son of Agnimitra, being over fond of the drama, was attacked by Mitradeva in the midst of actors, and with a scimitar shorn, like a lotus stalk, of his head. Sharabha, the Ashmaka king, being attached to string music, his enemy’s emissaries, disguised as students of music, cut off his head with sharp knives hidden in the space between the vina and its gourd. A base-born general, Pushpamitra, pounded his foolish Maurya master Brihadratha, having displayed his whole army on the pretext of manifesting his power. Kakavarna, being curious of marvels, was carried away no one knows whither, on an aerial car made by a Yavana condemned to death. The son of Shishunaga had a dagger thrust into his throat in the vicinity of his city. In a frenzy of passion, the over-libidinous Shunga was at the instance of his minister Vasudeva, reft of his life by a daughter of Devabhuti’s slave woman, disguised as his queen. By means of a mine in Mount Godhana, the Magadha king, who had a penchant for treasure caves, was carried away by the king of Mekala’s ministers to their own country. Kumarasena, the Paunika prince, younger brother to Pradyota, having an infatuation for stories about selling human flesh, was slain at the feast of Mahakala by the vampire Talajangha. By drugs whose virtues had been celebrated through different individuals, some physicians brought an atrophy upon Ganapati, son of the king of Videha, who was mad for the elixir of life. Confiding in women, the Kalinga Bhadrasena met his death at the hands of his brother Virasena, who secretly found access to the chief queen’s apartments. Lying on a mattress in his mother’s bed, a son of Dadhra, lord of the Karushas, encompassed the death of his father, who purposed to anoint another son. Chandraketu, lord of the Chakoras, being attached to his chamberlain, was with his minister deprived of life by an emissary of Shudraka. The life of the chase-loving Pushkara, king of Chamundi, was sipped, while he was extirpating rhinoceroses, by the lord of Champa’s soldiers ensconced in a grove of tall-stemmed reeds. Carried away by fondness for troubadours, the Maukhari fool Kshatravarman was cut down by bards, his enemy’s emissaries, with the cry of victory echoing on their lips. In his enemy’s city, the king of the Shakas, while courting another’s wife, was butchered by Chandragupta concealed in his mistress’ dress. The blunders of heedless men arising from women have been brought sufficiently to my lord’s hearing. Thus, to secure her son’s succession, Suprabha with poisoned groats killed Mahasena, the sweet-toothed king of Kashi. Ratnavati, pretending a frenzy of love, slew the victorious Jarutha of Ayodhya with a mirror having a razor edge. Devaki, being in love with a younger brother, employed against the Sauhmya Devasena an ear lotus whose juice was touched with poisoned powder. A jealous queen killed Rantideva of Viranti, with a jewelled anklet emitting an infectious powder: Vindumati, the Vrishni Viduratha, with a dagger hidden in her braided hair; Hamsavati, the Sauvira king Virasena, with a girdle ornament having a drug-poisoned centre: Pauravi the Paurava lord Somaka, by making him drink a mouthful of poisoned wine, her own mouth being smeared with an invisible antidote.’

So much said, he ended and went forth to execute his master’s orders. His majesty Harsha complied with all the forms of royalty. But while he, according to his vow, was commanding his march for a world-wide conquest, in the abodes of the doomed neighbouring kings manifold evil portents spread. Herds of black spotted antelopes roamed restlessly hither and thither, like imminent glances of death’s emissaries. With streams of flame issuing from hideous mouths, ill-omened jackals, even in the day time, howled long and with no fair presage. Down swooped vultures, as if full well acquainted with dead men’s flesh. All at once the trees in the parks put forth untimely flowers, as though to say farewell. Vehemently wept the statues in the halls. The warriors beheld themselves headless in their mirrors. The chowries of the slave women slipped suddenly from their hands. As if sniffing the scent of Yama’s buffalo, the steeds refused to eat the green young grass, ripe though it might be. In the courtyards the sluggish peacocks would not dance, though coaxed. Near the gateways night after night troops of dogs howled without cause, upturning their faces. Shaking her forefinger as if to count the dead, a naked woman wandered all day long in the parks. Upon the bodies of the soldiers a crimson rain was seen to have fallen, in hue ruddy as blooming bandhuka flowers, suggesting the red sandal juice wherewith doomed criminals are decked. As if to lustrate a doomed glory, blazing meteors ceased not to fall in showers. At the very first a furious hurricane swept along, from every house bearing away chowries, umbrellas and fans.

PS: Though the text is taken from the English translation by E. B. Cowell and F. W. Thomas, I have made minor changes to make it easier to read and understand. This required the removal of entire paragraphs in between (mostly literary hyperbole), and the substitution of certain words (archaic or confusing).

Image Attribution: The image above, sourced from Wikimedia Commons, shows a copper statue of Goddess Chamunda from Nepal (c. 14th century CE). Chamunda is a deity associated with death, disaster, famine, pestilence, cremation grounds and human sacrifice. She is revered by some sects and communities among the Hindus, Buddhists and Jains as one of the Matrikas (mother goddesses) or Yoginis (practitioners of Yoga). Chamunda is shown standing on a corpse, carrying a skull-cup filled with blood, wearing a garland of severed heads and accompanied by goblins and jackals. The statue from Nepal has a pair of goblins and a jackal at the Goddess’ feet, trying to drink the blood dripping from the severed heads. In the Harshacharita, while Harsha is preparing for battle, evil portents start appearing in the enemy kingdoms (restless antelopes, howling jackals, hungry vultures, weeping statues, sluggish peacocks, barking dogs, furious winds, red raindrops, blazing meteors, and a naked woman wandering in the parks, counting the dead). These omens, reflected in Goddess Chamunda’s iconography, signal death and disaster for Harsha’s foes.

References:

  • The Harshacharita of Bana translated by E. B. Cowell and F. W. Thomas (1897)
  • Banabhatta: A Monograph by K. Krishnamoorthy (1976)