Lessons on a Sanskrit literary style

Print edition : August 05, 2016

FL BOOKS 20-02-15_1

Krishna slaying King Sishupala: A painting depicting a scene from Magha's "Sisupalavadha". Photo: The British Museum

Shakuntala looking back to get a glimpse of Dushyanta: A Ravi Varma painting depicting characters from Kalidasa's play "Abhijnanashakuntalam".

The strength of this volume does not lie so much in showing changes in the practice of kavya in the ancient and medieval period as in representing changes in the modern study of kavya.

THIS is a massive volume not only because of its physical dimensions —all of 800 large, printed pages of scholarly text —but also because it attempts to cover over a thousand years of prodigious Sanskrit poetry and prose, that is, the first millennium C.E. and a few centuries after that. It also carries within its pages the contributions of several leading scholars of Sanskrit today, albeit entirely from the Western world. Apart from pieces by the three editors, who are Sanskritists from the University of Chicago and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and who have written nearly half of the 25 essays in the book, there are pieces by Indologists such as Phyllis Granoff, Lawrence McCrea, Charles Malamoud and V. Narayana Rao.

A notable absence is that of Sheldon Pollock, who can be said to have pioneered the mainstreaming of the study of kavya in the fields of literature and history in recent decades. And, of course, entirely missing are Indian scholars.

On the face of it, this is an irony and surely a travesty of the fecund traditional scholarship that has grown around Sanskrit in its homeland. However, one is also constrained to note that outstanding works on kavya are few and far between in contemporary India. Instead, the fields of vyakarana (grammar), darshana (philosophy) and dharmashastra (law) hold sway over research in Sanskrit departments across the country. Nor, where it is studied, do innovative ways appear to be sought or encouraged to interpret kavya and alamkara (poetics). This is noticeable particularly when compared with the creative turn that this specialisation has taken, especially, but not only, in the United States.

That said, the composition of the volume does lead one to wonder whether Western scholars have now assumed that they have something of a monopoly over Sanskrit studies. And, further, if this does not reflect on the more or less beleaguered state of this language and its literature in their own birthplace. The not-so-distant public furore over the teaching of Sanskrit in schools in India tells its own tale: One of the greatest classical languages the world has known, and one which has yielded path-breaking expertise in all conceivable knowledge systems, tended to be reduced in hasty critique by its indignant opponents to the language of mere ritual and scripture, if not also caste, and thereby rubbished as both redundant and regressive. Thus a victim to politics and misrepresentation, the study of Sanskrit in India has perhaps been worst served by ill-informed sections of Indians themselves. In the event, it is perhaps a matter of relief rather than regret that at least in certain dedicated circles in academia abroad Sanskrit is accorded the primacy it is denied here.

The title of the volume clarifies its agenda: It does not present a new, comprehensive history of kavya as a literary genre or movement in premodern India. For that, one will still have to turn to M. Krishnamachariar’s monumental History of Classical Sanskrit Literature, a classic published in 1937 and unsurpassed even by the efforts of worthy successors such as S.K. De and S.N. Dasgupta in the 1940s to the 1960s. So what does the present volume attempt then? Only to “identify critical moments of breakthrough and innovation in Sanskrit literature—moments when the basic rules of composition and the aesthetic and poetic goals underwent dramatic change” (front jacket).

The editors are seized of the significance of this aim in the face of an existing misconception about kavya—only one of many erroneous perceptions that prevail about the Sanskrit language itself. This is the view that this literature was impervious to change and therefore lacked dynamism, the ability to adapt, and relevance over time. In their words: “The dominant, classicising view holds that Sanskrit poetry reached its peak very early [with Kalidasa], and that everything that happened later—after the fifth century C.E.—belonged to a process of long decay. This view paradoxically goes hand in hand with a perception that commentators within the Sanskrit tradition have emphasised, namely, the timelessness of the Sanskrit language... and of its individual literary productions. It is as if innovation, in a positive sense, were totally alien to this long, continuously creative tradition” (page 2).

Before one proceeds to examine how this volume goes about its creditable aim of redeeming this state of affairs, a few observations about this statement of the problem itself may be in order. One is unsure that traditional scholarship in this country has ever held that the successors of Kalidasa were any less illustrious or important than he. One has only to think of a Bana or a Bhavabhuti to realise how much these poets of the seventh and ninth centuries, respectively, whose style was vastly evolved from Kalidasa’s genius, have been celebrated, even fetishised, by generations of students of Sanskrit literature, not to mention by school and university curricula. What is more, rhetoricians believe that Kalidasa’s USP lies in the clever deviance of his poetry rather than in any defining typicality for kavya.

As for the tradition itself speaking of “the timelessness of the language”, one again wonders whether we are not conflating with the kavya tradition a modern understanding that has really gained ground vis-a-vis the Vedas, a much older, very different and exclusive genre. One recalls Pollock’s analysis of the philosophy of Mimamsa which, according to him, sought to construct this kind of eternalising discourse and image for the Vedas, which were, after all, scriptures that were regarded as shruti, or revealed truth. But kavya?

Certainly alamkarikas such as Dandin in the eighth century have described Sanskrit as daivi vak, or divine language. But that is for reasons to do with its grammatical perfection, as Dandin himself states in the relevant passage, and does not imply any kind of immortality. Moreover, the tradition has always emphasised the individual poet’s intuition as the supreme quality rather than stale conventions, and poets themselves have been at pains to underline what is novel about their creations born out of their special acumen or insight. It is true that Sanskrit poets, like their counterparts in other classical tongues, have from time to time boasted of a transcendent value for their creations. But the self-projection of a literary culture as perhaps embodying something so valuable that it conquers time need not be confused with an unchanging tradition itself.

Do the essays in Toward a History of Kavya Literature capture changes, innovations and turning points in the praxis of this literary genre? The reader will find that, in the end, this volume is a bunch of independent literary analyses of select pieces of poetry or prose, or of their prodigious authors, and of what was the one main theme or technique they each cultivated par excellence, at least in the estimation of the analysing scholar. Thus, David Shulman talks about Kalidasa’s Raghuvamsa as “a vast essay on time”, while Gary Tubb details the foregrounding of the heroine in Kumarasambhava by the same poet. Peter Khoroche interprets the special use of slesha (pun) in Bharavi’s Kiratarjuniya, while Tubb does so for the yamaka (rhyme) in Magha’s Sisupalavadha and Yigal Bronner for samasa-sandhi (conjunctive compounds) in Subandhu’s Vasavadatta. Shulman and Herman Tiecken both dissect Bana’s Kadambari for the (same) poetic devices that engender the pragalbhya (boldness) attributed to this famed poet. Similarly, there are studies of the works of Murari, Bhavabhuti, Abhinanda, Shriharsha, Rajashekhara, Bilhana (a most interesting one on his political ambivalence written by Bronner), and so on. Practically each of these interpretations is masterly and engaging and shows one the way to creatively reread these traditional poets and thereby, indeed, revise the common understanding of them as merely veterans of stock convention.


However, it is when the volume attempts to show these works, which are, incidentally, already long celebrated by traditional scholarship, as executing some kind of radical turning point in the history of kavya that concerns arise. The reader, for instance, is confused as to why the use of the rhyme or pun or compound should be regarded as an innovation when it is in fact enumerated by some of the earliest works on poetics, such as Bhamaha’s Kavyalankara or Dandin’s Kavyadarsha, as lying very much within the ambit of what kavya is supposed to do. Rather than innovation, such use may arguably be regarded instead as the intensified cultivation of prescribed poetic devices by different kavis over time. Now, if phases of kavya composition based on the variegated currency of poetic techniques in vogue were what this volume was trying to delineate, it would be a perfectly valid approach to writing a history of kavya, though not an original one. But that is not quite what this volume sees itself as doing.

Its far more specific and urgent aspiration lies in its obsession with innovations and turning points. Few of the essays in this volume actually dwell on or flesh out how the object of their scholarly attention pioneered a change so profound that it altered the course of kavya irreversibly or initiated a new trend that others followed ever after (which is what a turning point is). Moreover, did these poets even seek to do that? Did they see themselves as drastically altering the very warp and woof of kavya or were they actually seeking to demonstrate their mastery of the very best features of this genre as defined by their forebears? The practice of kavi prashamsa—Sanskrit poets praising the greats who went before them in the prelude to their poems—is a testament to how even the most vain among them were actually seeking to locate themselves within the tradition rather than overthrow it, even as they staked a claim to a pride of place within it.

Be that as it may, Toward a History of Kavya Literature is certainly right in highlighting the kavya tradition’s own concern with and debate over what constitutes newness ( navatva) in poetry: Whether newness was possible only in rendition rather than in content and form, as Anandavardhana, the great Kashmiri rhetorician of the 10th century, maintained, or whether there could be such a thing as new themes, genres and techniques, as Kuntaka argued a century later.

Perhaps the more persuasive examples of innovation that the volume cites are of the latter variety. A “tremendous expansion of the ecology of genres in medieval Sanskrit” included the rise of prominent new literary forms—such as sandesha kavya, social satires like Ksemendra’s short works, historical mahakavyas, and Jayadeva’s lyrical song sequence, The Gitagovinda—all around the first few centuries of the second millennium (page 25). Ironically, the volume does not include a single essay on any of these. It is a different matter whether these can really be seen as new genres or more as subsets or variants of forms that were around. Thus, Meghaduta of Kalidasa surely served as the first sandesha kavya, and Bana’s Harsacarita the first historical kavya.

On balance, it would appear that the strength of this volume does not lie so much in showing changes in the practice of kavya in the ancient and medieval period as in representing changes in the modern study of kavya. And these are most welcome changes, as essay after essay in this learned volume exemplifies. They focus on interpreting kavya from perspectives that speak to the modern and the contemporary, on the one hand, and widen the traditional knowledge of the field, on the other. Examples of the latter are the two studies by Dan Martin and Thomas Hunter, respectively, on Tibetan and Javanese kavyas that were composed well outside the Indian subcontinent. These essays insert the lens of cross-cultural transfer in looking at Sanskrit.

The very special contribution of this book in the opinion of this reviewer, however, is in its bringing together examples of the former, that is, the rather contemporary qualities and stances that our kavis evidently adopted a millennium ago. Chief among these was a defiance of the all-powerful patron, the king, an act supercilious moderns hardly ever suspected of court poets. And, still more memorably, the articulation by these poets of the weary solitude and alienation, even eccentricity, that often characterise the literary mind across ages. Seeing Sanskrit poets in this light is a step towards rehabilitating these ancient litterateurs as intellectuals rather than as “house birds of patricians”, as D.D. Kosambi, the Marxist historian, controversially dubbed them.

Gems of poetry

It would be fitting to quote here some of these gems of Sanskrit poetry. Given the rigour of its technical analyses, one thinks that Toward a History of Kavya Literature is a book primarily for specialists. Hence, the general reader, who may not wish to plough through the wealth of detail in this volume, can sample some of this tempting fare here. The playful translations of the verses below are those of the editors.

Thus, Bilhana, the 11th century poet in the employment of the Chalukyan king Vikramaditya, writes scornfully in his biography of the same king: “The number of fine feats on their resumes/ is zero. Can someone tell me why such kings/ assemble teams of poet laureates? Why in the world/ would berry-wearing forest-dwellers/ appoint a jewellery-designer in residence?” (page 500).

Dharmakirti, writing in the eighth century on the solitary path of the creative poet, speaks thus: “No one is walking ahead./ No one follows behind./ There are no fresh footprints on the road. Could I be all alone?/ I understand.../ The path taken by those before me/ Is now desolate./ And it’s obvious I have left behind/ the crowded, easy one” (page 3).

The ninth century Bhavabhuti’s calm and confident response to criticism of his poetry is as follows: “Those who scorn me now/ know what [little] they know./ My work is not for them./ Someday someone will be born/ who shares my nature,/ for time is boundless/ and the world is wide” (page 4).

And, finally, parting words for the casual reader of today, as it were, from Shriharsha, the 12th century poet: “I have deliberately planted knots/here and there in my book. Those readers/ who think they’re so smart,/ who do violence to the text—/ this is no playground for such thugs./ Do it right./ First find a teacher you can trust to unjam the knots/ and serve him well./ Only then can you plunge at will/ into the deep waters of my poetry/ and enjoy it” (page 13). Are there many such teachers around today, one wonders. Toward a History of Kavya Literature perhaps attempts to fill the gap.

Shonaleeka Kaul is Associate Professor of Ancient History, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

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