The following synopsis is reprinted from The Indian Theatre: A Brief Survey of the Sanskrit Drama. E.P. Horrwitz. London: Blackie and Son Limited, 1912.
The most powerful of all surviving Sanskrit plays is The Toy Cart, which was composed in the reign of King Shudraka, about the sixth century. The unknown author, who enjoyed the royal patronage, gives a graphic picture of social life in medieval India.
Aryaka, a young herdsman, had been apprehended and imprisoned by order of King Palaka. The Raja, like Krishna's royal kinsman, was troubled because of a prophecy that a shepherd dynasty was to overthrow his own. Palaka was a tyrant, and Sansthanaka, the Queen's brother, was a spendthrift and a libertine. One day the debauched Prince molested the beautiful Lady Vasanta, who had been shopping in the bazaar. She took refuge in Charudatta's house, and begged the poor but virtuous brahmin to protect her against the insolent and vulgar addresses of the unprincipled Sansthanaka. Evening drew near, and as the streets were unsafe at night, Vasanta left her jewellery in the brahmin's charge, and gladly accepted his offer to escort her home.
Soon after, Sharvilaka left Vasanta's house. He kept company with the lady's maid, and dearly wished to purchase the freedom of the slave-girl, so that they might get married. But then he was only a poor working man, and how could he possibly raise a sufficient sum of money? Such were his anxious thoughts when he suddenly overheard the words--"and thank you so much for taking care of my jewels; I am sure to send for them tomorrow morning." The person addressed was Charudatta. Sharvilaka followed him unnoticed, and when the priest entered his humble home, the thief managed to glide after him into the dark passage. There he waited until all was quiet. It was after midnight that Sharvilaka, with noiseless step and bated breath, felt his way to the bedroom, where, after some search, he hit on the coveted treasure, and made off with it.
Next morning, Charudatta was in great consternation. If he told the truth, and stated that burglars had broken into a poor brahmin's house, who would believe him? No; let her rather think of him as a reckless than a dishonest man. So he pretended to have gambled away the entrusted deposit; and wishing to refund the loss to the best of his power, he offered Vasanta his wife's necklace, old-fashioned, but of considerable value. It was the only ornament left to the poor woman. Everything else had been sold for life's bare necessities.
Sharvilaka, in high glee, related to his sweetheart the adventure of the preceding night. The honest girl was shocked to hear of the theft, and told her lover that she would have no more to do with him until he had restored what she knew belonged to her mistress. Sharvilaka, conscience-stricken and henpecked at the same time, gave up the stolen property, and the maid took the jewels to their rightful owner, with a message that the parcel had been left for Her Ladyship.
But walls have ears. The conversation of the two had come to Vasanta's knowledge, and being pleased with the upright conduct of her maid, she gave her a handsome present in money, and permission to get married. Good had come out of evil, and Sharvilaka was a happy man when he learned his good fortune. He came to thank Vasanta, and parted with a grateful heart to make the necessary preparations for the wedding. As he opened the front door, a man rushed in, gasping for breath, and anxiously looking for a place of concealment. He had lost every suvarna, he said, and had run away from the gaming table when he could pay no longer; but now the other gamesters were hard at his heels, and if they caught him he would have to go to jail unless his debts were paid. No person in distress ever appealed in vain to the generous Vasanta. She at once satisfied the claims of the importunate creditors. The relieved gambler took a solemn vow to give up his disreputable life, and entered a Buddhist monastery.
Vasanta was deeply touched by Charudatta's disinterested diplomacy, and had humour enough to fall in with his delicate tactics. So she made up a mournful tale, and acknowledged that she too was addicted to gambling, and had recklessly staked the necklace of the brahmin's wife. "But alas! I lost," speaking with downcast eyes, and heaving a gentle sigh. The lady then handed Charudatta a jewel box, which she begged him to accept in the meantime. On opening the casket the astonished priest recognized the stolen gems, and the mystery of their recovery was speedily cleared up amid much mirth and laughter. The interview ended with mutual assurances of goodwill and love.
As Vasanta was chatting with the brahmin's wife, the youngest boy came running into the room. The little fellow cried piteously; he was tired of playing with his toy cart of burnt clay, and wanted golden playthings such as the son of the rich neighbour had. Vasanta longed to help her impoverished friends without giving offence, which the poor take so easily, and gladly turned the little incident to practical account. Patting the child's head fondly, she gave him a handful of jewels, and said: "Ask dadda to sell these stones, and buy you a toy cart of gold." She then left hurriedly, and the lad stood gazing at the glittering stones with wondering joy.
During this pretty family scene Sansthanaka was paying a call next door, where the rich folks lived. His palanquin waited outside, and Vasanta, mistaking it for her own, stepped into the vehicle. The bearers, being under the impression that it was the Prince who had entered, moved on to the deer park as usual.
That very day Aryaka, by the help of his friend Sharvilaka, had escaped from the prison cell. No sooner was the flight discovered than a hue and cry was raised, and a hot pursuit began all over the city. The game was well-nigh up; the fugitive expected to be rearrested every moment. How could he baffle the keen-scented police? Bewildered, he dashed past Charudatta's house, when, by a lucky chance, Aryaka noticed Vasanta's palanquin. If he only succeeded in putting the bloodhounds off the right track! Desperate and regardless of all consequences, the hunted man slipped unobserved into the empty conveyance, and drew the curtain. Vasanta's slaves, never suspecting that they did not carry their mistress, bore Aryaka to her house, where Sharvilaka's girl concealed the exhausted herdsman.
The next to appear on the scene was the King's brother-in-law. When he could not find his carriage, he flew into a passion, and walked off at last, swaggering and swearing loudly. Sansthanaka did not much like to be seen on foot by his fashionable friends, so he cut right across the deer park to the deserted lake at the other end. There the ex-gambler, now a devout Buddhist, was washing his yellow robe. Without the slightest provocation the vicious Prince knocked the harmless monk down, but his vile and cruel temper quickly passed into a fresh channel at the unexpected sight of his palanquin. Sansthanaka called out to the startled liverymen, and poured on them a volley of threatening language and abuse. But on beholding Vansanta, "he gave a whistle long and low," and put his arms round her waist. Disgusted and terrified, she pushed him away; he stumbled, and measured his full length upon the ground. The ruffian got up again, and, white with rage, dragged the unfortunate lady out of the carriage. After dismissing the attendants abruptly, he struck her in the face, and beat her mercilessly until life seemed extinct. But Sansthanaka was as cowardly as he was depraved. Trembling, he looked about lest somebody should have witnessed his misdeeds. But there was no sign of a human being anywhere. The monster hastily scraped a large heap of dry leaves together, threw them over Vasanta's body, and decamped. In the distance he noticed Charudatta absorbed in thought, but to the guilty conscience of Sansthanaka it seemed as though the detested priest had watched him.
Vasanta was not dead, but stunned by the heavy blows she had received. As soon as her assailant was gone the Buddhist monk, still faint from loss of blood, came up and charitably busied himself in reviving his fellow-victim from her deathlike swoon. He fetched water, bathed her wounds, and ministered to all her needs, the more tenderly when he recognized his never-forgotten benefactress.
Sansthanaka bore Charudatta a secret grudge ever since the priest had offered protection to Vasanta and had foiled his evil intentions. The infamous Prince was afraid of being reported, and, at the same time, anxious to ruin his hated adversary. He seized the golden opportunity, and with a bold front accused the innocent brahmin of Vasanta's murder. Charudatta was sent for, and calmly denied the charge. He was so beloved in the city that nobody in the court really believed him capable of the dastardly crime. Yet Charudatta had to admit that he had been near the lake at the hour when, according to the indictment, the murder was committed. Moreover, Vasanta had been seen in the defend house on her dying day. Besides, she was rich, while he was poor, and it would not have been the first time that poverty led to crime. Another link in the chain of appearances against Charudatta was that his informer was the Queen's brother, a man of the highest rank and influence. The kindly judge looked grave as he gave orders to have the indicated place searched for the dead body. When no trace of it could be found, Sansthanaka declared on oath that he had seen the priest murder the woman, and after the foul deed despoil her of all jewellery. "How am I to know what has happened to the corpse?" he replied sullenly to the interrogating judge; "the villain might have thrown it in the pond for aught I know."
Just then Maitreya, the happy-go-lucky jester in the play, passed the law courts on his way home; he lived within a stone's throw of Vasanta's house. His friend Charudatta had begged him to take the jewels back to the lady, who was evidently in a playful mood when she gave them to his little boy. Maitreya was fond of gossip, and as he was not in a particular hurry (he never was), he entered the courts to see what was going on. Good Heavens! there stood his venerable friend accused of manslaughter. Maitreya could not believe it. On hearing the details, he was unable to restrain his angry passion, and violently denounced Sansthanaka before the assembled court. Had he not seen with his own eyes, but two days ago, how that scoundrel of a Prince annoyed and insulted Vasanta publicly in the street? And was not Charudatta respected by every townsman for his lofty principles and spotless character? In his excitement Maitreya dropped the jewels, which he was holding under his robe for safety. They were at once identified as Vasanta's property, and Maitreya was arrested on the charge of complicity. Defendant was again cross-examined, and owned that he had handed the incriminating gems to his apparent accomplice. On this additional evidence the jury convicted Charudatta, and banished him for life. Before the Mohammedan Conquest, reverend brahmins, whatever their crime might be, were exempt from capital punishment. But King Palaka took the law into his own hand in Charudatta's case. Although the Raja had little cause to trust any statement made by his worthless brother-in-law, he was more averse to the publicity of a Court scandal than to the infliction of a grievous wrong. Determined, at all costs, to save the honour of the royal family, the despot not only accepted without question the verdict (though he thought there might have been a miscarriage of justice), but even aggravated the legal sentence, and signed the condemned man's death warrant. Human respect had stifled the voice of Palaka's conscience.
Charudatta was wonderfully resigned. He looked serene and dignified as the jailers led him to the place of execution. The chandala was ready to strike the fatal blow when suddenly Vasanta and her Buddhist friend forced their way through the surging crowd, and begged a moment's hearing. The lady had been ill all the time; only this morning the horrible news was conveyed to her sick-bed. And now she was hear to bear witness to the truth that the priest was innocent, and his accuser guilty.
The bloodthirsty rabble listened to Vasanta's thrilling tale in deep silence. It was the lull before a storm. "Let His Majesty's orders be carried into effect; put the culprit to death, him of blood royal," was the general outcry. Sansthanaka, who had invited a "smart set" of friends to attend the execution, grew deadly pale. Charudatta, in a firm and ringing voice, then entreated the people to listen for a moment. When the wild turmoil subsided, he forgave his persecutor, and, with tears in his eyes, pleaded for the Prince's forfeited life.
"Long live the noble Aryaka!" "Prosperity to King Aryaka!" the burghers shouted in the streets. The old prophecy had come true at last. King Palaka lay assassinated in his palace for disregarding the ancient law of the land. Aryaka, whose undeserved misfortunes had aroused general sympathy, was solemnly crowned amid the enthusiastic acclamations of the populace. The new Monarch's first gracious act was to nominate Charudatta Governor of a province, and give him Lady Vasanta in marriage. Bigamy is not held criminal in India, although monogamy, less costful to the husband, is the rule amongst the middle classes. The ex-gambler was appointed Superior-General of the Buddhist monasteries throughout the country, and Sharvilaka, the reformed thief, Chief of the City Police.
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