This ancient land of Bharata has been ruled by a multitude of kings and monarchs over the course of its history but what names come to your mind when you think about the most admired ones among them ?
One expects Chandragupta Maurya, Vikramaditya, Samudragupta, and Shivaji to spring to most people's mind.

A fewer no. may recall the great Cholas, Bhoja and Harsha.

However, there's one name that, despite all its glory, one doesn't expect to be mentioned: Udayana
Udyana who ?

Udayana, the Vatsaraja

Udayana, the descendant of the great Pandavas

Udayana, the master of Ghosavati the lute

Udayana, the conqueror of wild elephants
Though now almost forgotten, going by literary records, Udayana was the most celebrated king in Indian history.
And although he was undoubtedly a historical figure, the story of Udyana or Udayanakatha, preserved in written and oral traditions, reaches us in multiple streams of legends scattered all over secular and religious literature.
The earliest reference to Udayana seems to be in Arthashastra ( 4th cent BC ) where Chankya mentions his name to illustrate how a king can regain lost power.

Next, we see his life as the theme for two of Bhasa's plays viz. SvapnAvAsavadatta and Pratijna -YaugandharAyana
We find Udayanakatha mentioned in Kalidasa's Meghadutam when, thinking of his beloved city Ujjain, he says

प्रापयावन्तोनुदयनकथा कोविदग्रामवृद्धान्

( Where the elders of villages know the Udayankatha )

Udayana is mentioned in Sudraka's Mrchhkatika ( 5th cent AD) too.
We keep finding the story repeatedly :

Brihatkatha by GunAdhya in 6th cent AD

Ratnavali and Priyadarsika by Harsha in 7th cent AD

This continues at least upto BrihatkathaManjari by Kshemendra in 11th cent AD

This shows how amazingly long the legend of Udayana survived.
Udayana's story has been narrated in Sanskrit, Pali and Prakrit. Besides secular literature we find it in religious literature such as Puranas and DhammapAda. The longevity of this legend and the sheer breadth of sources mentioning it is unparalleled.
This brings forth a few questions.

Who exactly was this Udayana ?

What explains the enduring charm of his story ?

Well, the best way to find is to briefly recount the main elements of this age old story.
Before starting, it must be said that various legends of Udayana differ regarding many details.

So, don't mind if you find the story to be somewhat different from the one you know. The main purpose here is to provide a simple outline of main events.
We join the action on a day in 6th century BC Kaushambi, the capital of Vatsa, one of the 16 mahajanapadas

Mrgavati, the queen of Vatsa, pregnant with our hero, has a strange pregnancy longing or दोहद for a bath in a blood filled tank.
To fulfil her wish, Vatsaraja Sahasranika builds a pool having water reddened by juice of lac. While the queen is having a bath, a monster bird, in a bizarre twist of events, mistakes her for a piece of meat, picks her up and flies away.
However, soon the monster bird realises that the queen is alive and drops her on the Udaya mountain. The distressed queen after crying helplessly for sometime gets rescued by a young ascetic who takes her to the Ashrama of Rishi Jamdagini.
Mrgavati starts living in the Ashrama and in due course gives birth to a son who is named Udayana after the Udaya mountain. Rishi Jamdagni performs all the necessary Samskaras for him and teaches him all the arts and sciences required for a prince.
By the time Udayana turns 14, he becomes a proficient lute player and comes into possession of a miraculous lute named Ghosavati gifted to him by a serpent.
He also acquires deep knowledge about elephants and can tame elephants using the power of Ghosavati's music. Over time, taming elephants becomes one of his favorite pastimes.
Here we stop to note that in having such a power Udayana is only one of his kind among all ancient kings, real and fictional. Nowhere else do we find such an example.
Soon, Udayana's life in the Ashram comes to an end with a series of fortuitous events.

One day while hunting, Udayana sees a snake being dragged by Sabra (mountain tribe). Moved by the plight of the snake, he gets it freed by giving his armlet to the Sabra.
The snake, very pleased with Udayana gifts him the magical lute Ghosavati (mentioned above )

The snake also gives him a magic charm for making unfading garlands and tilak.
The Sabra then tries to sell the armlet in the town. However, he runs into trouble with royal guards because the armlet, gifted to Udayana by his mother, has King Sahasranika's name on it. Hence, he is taken to the king.
The king inquires the about the armlet and comes to know the whereabouts of his wife and son. He goes to rishi Jamdagni's ashram and brings them to Kaushambi with great pomp. Udayana is installed on the throne as Sahasranika and Mrgavati retire to the forest.
With Udayana becoming the king of Vatsa, the stage gets set for what is undoubtedly the most memorable and popular episode of this glorious king's life. It is what is what is known as the VAsavadattA episode.
To VAsavadattA, the princess of Avanti, goes the main credit for immortalising the saga of Udayana in ancient Indian literature. Without VAsavadatta, the romantic aura around Udayana would be reduced to a great extent.
And while Udayana was romantically linked to many other women too, VAsavadattA is the only one whose presence and importance in Udayana's life is attested by all streams of the Udayana legend.
We go back to story where Udayana, after becoming the king, immerses himself in a life of enjoyment so much that he even starts neglecting his duties. However, what's going for the king is the support of his loyal and dutiful ministers YaugandharAyana, RumanavAna and Vasantaka.
Things look hunky dory as the loyal minsters execute the duties of governance while the young king spends his time chasing and taming elephants.

However, danger is lurking around as Chanda Pradyota , the king of Avanti, hatches a plan to take Udayana a captive.
There is some dispute regarding Chanda (or fierce) Pradyota's motivation behind hatching such a plan. While some sources that he did this because he wanted Udayana to be his son in law, others attribute this action to old enmity between the kingdoms of Vatsa and Avanti.
Whatever the motivation, Chanda Pradyota sees an opportunity in Udayana's addiction to taming elephants. He gets a mechanical elephant built and sends it to the forest where Udayana is out for a hunt. When Udayana comes to know of this elephant, he sets out to capture it.
As he approaches the elephant, he leaves his retinue behind so that the the elephant doesn't get excited or irritated . However, as he gets closer to the elephant, warriors of Avanti come out, in Trojan horse fashion, from the elephant and capture Udayana.
He is then taken to Ujjaiyani, the capital of Avanti. However, Chanda Pradyota treats him with respects and asks Udayana to teach music to his daughter VAsavadatta.
Udayana starts teaching her and soon they fall in love with each other.
Meanwhile, Udayana's minister YaugandharAyana, after coming to know about Udayana's capture, leaves for Ujjayini along with Vasantaka to secure release of his king. YaugandharAyana disguises himself as a hunchbacked beggar while Vasantaka takes the disguise a lunatic.
Through many manoeuvres, the wily YaugnadharAyana arranges for elopement of Udayana and VAsavadattA on BhadrAvati, the she elephant. The plan is executed one evening as the two lovers escape from Ujjaiyani and after some twists and turns reach Kaushambi.
Chand Pradoyta gives his approval for the alliance of Udayana and VAsavadattA. Her brother GopAlaka arrives in kaushambi and gives his sister's hand to Udayana along with many gifts.
VatsarAja Udayana being very pleased with the loyalty of his ministers YaugnadharAyana, Vasantaka, RumanvAna and others gives them handsome rewards and villages.

Note: The description of VAsavadattA episode here is based largely on kashmirian BrhatkathA
Here we pause to note that the while the VAsavadattA episode appears to be a love story on the surface, it also fosters an important political development : The cementing of an alliance between the powerful kingdoms of Vatsa and Avanti.
Both Vatsa and Avanti were among the big four of the 16 mahAjanapadas. The other two were Magadha and Kosala. Hence, this new alliance with Avanti meant an increase in prestige and power of VatsarAja Udayana.
While Udayana's first marriage to VAsavadatta and the resulting political alliance with Avanti was a consequence of a romantic love affair, his second marriage was part of a plan devised by the shrewd YaugnadharAyana, for getting a new political ally for Vatsa.
The events leading to Udayana's second marriage form the part of the LAvAnaka episode. We follow BhAsa's 'SwapnaVAsavadatta' to describe this episode.
The background to the events here is that Aruni, the king of Panchala has captured most of the territories of Vatsa.
The ever dutiful YaugnadharAyana is anxious to recover these territories and he concludes that an alliance with the powerful kingdom of Magadha would be required for taking back the lost territories.
He therefore wants Udayana to get married to PadmAvati, the sister of King of Magadha. However, Udayana is so attached to VAsavadatta that he wouldn't consent to a second marriage.
This leads YaugnadharAyana to make a plan, to get Udayana married, with help of VAsavadatta.

As part of the plan, the royal camp is taken to LAvAnaka, a village on the border of Kaushambi and Magadha.
One day , when the king goes out for hunting, the ingenious minister sets fire to the village and dupes everyone into believing that queen and the minister died in the fire.
After this, YaugnadharAyana, in the disguise of a wandering hermit, leaves for Magadha along with VAsavadatta who is disguised as a brahmin woman named AvantikA.
In Magadha, YaugnadharAyana meets princess PadmAvati and persuades her to keep avantikA under her protection as an attendant till he comes back to take her. After this he goes away leaving avantika with PadmAvati.
Soon, Avantika becomes a trusted companion of PadmAvati and uses here closeness to the princess to create curiosity about and interest in Udayana in PadmAvati's mind.
Meanwhile Udayana, in spite of being aggrieved by death of VAsavadatta, finally consents to marriage with PadmAvati.

The marriage is sealed when Udayana visits an Ashrama where VAsavadatta disguised as Avantika is present along with PadmAvati.
This is followed by a grand wedding. After this, through several developments, the identities of YaugnadharAyana and VAsavadatta are revealed towards the end of BhAsa's play. The whole plan is revealed and there's happiness all around.
Udayana is also able to re capture lost territory from Aruni, although it's not clear from various versions if he did it on his own or with help the Magadh army.
So, another marriage done, another powerful political ally found.
Lost kingdom recoverd.
Two wives who respect and admire each other and live in perfect harmony.
Udayana is back in a good place again.
One striking aspect of this episode is the role played by VAsavadatta. It's not hard to see that it must have hard for her to see the king getting married again. However, she was wise enough to see that the interests of the Rashtra were above her own interests.
Many would feel unhappy to see VAsavadatta giving up exclusive rights on her husband but was it too big price for the opportunity to impact the destiny of her nation ?
Udayana is said to have been romantically involved with several other women too. His romantic affairs with PriyadarshikA and RatnavAli are described in plays of Harsha.
Various other names such as LalitA, Vasudatti, ViracitA and Bandhumati are mentioned by different sources.
As per many accounts Udayana was said to have a weakness for women.

S N Dasgupta calls him ' a Hindu Don Juan'.
Dr keith describes him as the dashing hero "whose love adventures were famed for their number and variety."
With that we'll end the discussion about women in Udayana's life as the historicity and the importance of these women in Udayana's life is not very clear. Instead , we'll now focus on his political career.
According to BrhtkathAmanjari(BKM) and KathAsaritasAgara(KSS),
soon after his marriage with PadmAvati, Udayana comes into possession of throne of his ancestor Yuddhisthara. His ministers tell him that to be worthy of seating on that throne, he must first accomplish 'Digvijya'.
Udayana decides to undertake a Digvijaya. His will is strengthened by the fact that king of Magadha who had always opposed him in the past is now his relative and an ally.
His brothers in law GopAlaka and Simhavarman come to assist him with their army and the campaign starts with a victory over Brahmadatta, the kasi.

The BKM account of his digvijaya stops here but KSS goes on to say that he brought the whole of India under his control.
This is certainly a fabrication given the facts about political situation in Buddha's time.
what's more likely is that a more limited 'digvijay' was attained with a few victories over some kings.
However, there is no doubt that Vatsa's power increased under Udayana's rule.
There isn't much information about his political acts after this Digvijaya. We also, do not hear much about his last days and death. Of the various sources, only BKM and KSS, through almost identical accounts, provide us some information about his last days and death.
According to KSS version, Udayana is struck with grief upon learning about the death of his father in law, AvantirAja Pradyota.

The death of his father in law makes him realise the transitory nature of life.
He concludes, after consultations with his ministers, that purpose of their lives had been exhausted as they had acquired all pleasures of life and successfully carried out all their duties. Hence, they decide to commit suicide.
He hands over his Kingdom to his brother in law GopAlka saying that he was like his own son NarvahAnadatta to him. After this, along with his ministers and wives VAsavadattA and PadmAvati, he goes to the KAlanjara mountain.
After reaching the peak of the mountain, he first bows to Shiva and then taking out his beloved lute Ghoshavati, he jumps from the peak. Others follow him. As he is falling, a shining chariot appears from the sky and carries him and his followers to heaven.
While the authenticity of this account has been challenegd strongly, it does show us that Udayana lived a long life where and fulfilled all his duties. Another striking thing here is the depth of his relationship with his wives and ministers.
They lived their lives for him and they were with him even at the very end. It goes without saying that one has to be a special person to receive that kind of loyalty for that long in both personal as well as professional sphere.
This is not to suggest that Udayana was perfect. We have seen the irresponsible king who neglected his work in pursuit of pleasures like taming elephants and we have talked about his weakness for women. As per some accounts he was also haughty and rash.
We see him landing into trouble time and again but every time that happens he finds a way out of it. Every time he falls, he gets up, fights and wins.
It's the hope of victory inherent in his struggles that endeared him to so many generations of India.
He could also be viewed as a man who achieved 3 if not all 4 PurushArthas of life. In his status as king of Vatsa and in his marriages we can see ample evidence of Artha and Kama. In the dutiful king who was taken to heaven in a chariot is the proof of his dhArmikta.
Add to this, the blood of the mighty Pandavas in his veins, his romantic persona and his unusual powers such as conquering elephants, and he becomes truly larger than life.
It's no wonder that Udayana's story was so immensely popular for such a long time. As with so many other things from our glorious past, we don't know when Udayana went out of our consciousness but his is one extraordinary story that is worth recounting again and again.
Before ending I'd like to mention these tweets by @yaajushi
which made me read about Udayana again & helped me to sum up his character. DhanyawAdah.

thread based on "The story of King Udayana" by Niti Adaval
( publisher: Chowkhamba Sanskrit series)
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