Indian cultural history is replete with myths and legends, origins of which can be traced back to ancient history of the subcontinent. Stories of brave warriors and great rulers mixed with extravagance serve as a perfect blend of history and mythology. Legend of King Vikramaditya is one such example.
According to some noted historians, a certain king of Ujjain fought valiantly against the Shaka rulers, who came from Central Asia. The king was famously known as Vikramaditya. Since then, the name became a coveted title and any emperor who achieved a great feat adopted this title. One can consider this similar to the Roman emperors adopting the title of Caesar to emphasize upon their greatness. As time progressed, Vikramaditya became a legendary figure and his tales have been a source of inspiration for generations.
Life and times of Maharaja Vikramaditya
Bhavishya MahaPurana mentions the birth of a man, divinely ordained for the destruction of the asuras (demons) and propagation of Dharma. It is believed that asuras had taken over the earth as mlechhas (historically, Shaka rulers have also been referred to as mlechchhas). Lord Shiva sent his attendant Malyavat, to be reborn on earth to eradicate evil from the society.
Vikramaditya was born to king Gandharvasena, as the prince of Ujjain. He moved towards an ascetic life at the early age of five, returning to the throne after twelve years of meditation. When he was about to ascend the throne adorned with thirty-two golden statues, a learned Brahmin intervened the ceremony in order to teach him the craft of statehood and responsibilities of a sovereign. After receiving the training worthy of an efficient ruler, he assumed the throne and drove out Shakas, moving as far as Bactria (modern-day Tajikistan and Uzbekistan). It is believed that his empire ran across the Indian subcontinent, even encompassing most of Central Asia.
King Vikramaditya displayed utmost tolerance and acceptance towards different religious beliefs and cultures that existed in his kingdom. He constructed an excellent transport and postal system furthering effective communication between Indians and Persians, whom he considered as ‘long lost cousins’. It is said that the development of road network undertaken by him was one of the world’s longest, spanning about 1700 miles. The idea of assembling nine luminaries in the court is said to have been originated from Vikramaditya’s court, later adopted by Krishnadev Rai and Akbar.
The king of Ujjain, Gandharvasena, was defeated by the Shaka ruler, Sahi. The vanquished king retired to the forest and his son, Vikramaditya, later invaded Ujjain driving out the Shakas. A new era following the defeat of Shakas (during 56-57 BCE) was termed as Vikrama Samvat. Vikrama Samvat is a historical Indian Lunar calendar which is said to have been followed after Vikramaditya’s victory over the Shaka rulers.
Samvatsara in short ‘Samvat’ is a Sanskrit term for ‘year’. The New Year of Vikram Samvat begins with the new moon day of the month of Chaitra, known as Chaitra Sukhladi. The earliest mention of the Vikrama Samvat era is found on the inscription of King Jaikadeva, who ruled over the Kathiawar State (Gujarat). The calendar is popularly used by Hindus and Sikhs of the Indian subcontinent. It is based on twelve lunar months and 365 solar days. It is also the official calendar of Nepal since 1901. A proposal has been tabled to the Government of India to declare Vikram Samvat as India’s official calendar.
Representation through Legends and Literature
Literary texts like Kshemendra’s Brihatkathamanjari and Somdeva’s Kathasaritsagara narrate numerous tales about the legendary king. Book 12 (Shashankavati) of Kathasaritsagara contains the vetala panchavimshati legends, a collection of stories. This collection of tales is popularly known as Baital Pachisi and widely regarded as the main compendium of works surrounding the legend of Vikramaditya.
Originally written in Sanskrit, it comprises of twenty-five tales where King Vikramaditya tries to capture a vetala (analogous to a vampire in the Western world) upon being requested by a tantric. The king captures the vetala but the latter puts a condition in front of the king. He would tell a tale and pose a riddle. The king is given three choices; if he cannot solve the riddle correctly, the vetala would remain in his captivity. If he solves the riddle correctly, the vetala would escape. However, if the king knows the answer but chooses to not answer it, his head would burst into a thousand pieces.
The cycle goes on for twenty-four times where Vikramaditya captures the Vetala, who tells a tale and poses a riddle in front of him. The intelligent and wise king answers correctly thereby setting the Vetala free. It is upon the twenty-fifth time that the king is unable to answer the riddle, thus retaining the Vetala in his captivity. The Vetala, later informs Vikramaditya of the evil plan of the tantric who had planned to sacrifice both of them to gain supreme power. Vetala suggests a plan to Vikaramaditya following which, Vikramaditya saves both from being sacrificed. When Vetala confers a boon upon him, he merely asks for forgiveness on part of the tantric, displaying the utmost nobility and kind-heartedness.
Another tale highlighting the grandeur of Vikramaditya’s personality is from Simhasana Dvatrimiska. The primary centre of the literary piece is the royal throne of Vikramaditya surrounded by statues of thirty-two celestial nymphs. These statues used to recount the tales of Vikramaditya’s valour and was hidden after his death as no one was deemed worthy of occupying it. It is believed that King Bhoja discovered this throne years later but was met with a tale of Vikramaditya’s bravery and generosity, each time he attempted to ascend it.
Inspirations from Life of Maharaja Vikramaditya
The legend of King Vikramaditya represents the figure of an ideal ruler. The tales of valour, nobility and generosity have served as benchmark and a yardstick for other rulers in Indian history. One may contest the historicity of these tales, but nonetheless, the essence of these tales is to propagate the qualities of a virtuous and just ruler.
Many modern-day leaders and administrative officers have much to learn from the tales of Vikramaditya’s statecraft and polity. India’s largest warship, INS Vikramaditya, is named after the legendary king. It only reflects that the stature of King Vikramaditya has stood the test of time and continues to be an inspiration even today.