Tag Archives: Literature

The Mind of Margayya

(source: tribuneindia.com)

Rasipuram Krishnaswami Iyer Narayanaswami (1906-2001), the creator of Malgudi was one of India’s greatest storytellers and thinkers. Writing under the shortened name R. K. Narayan, a small sample of his works include Swami and Friends, Bachelor of Arts, Guide, and Gods, Demons, and Others. His equally illustrious brother Rasipuram Krishnaswami Iyer Laxman (RK Laxman) brought Malgudi to life with his magical illustrations. The siblings were recipients of the Padma Vibhushan, India’s second highest civilian honor. The popular 1980s TV series Malgudi Days, directed by the great Kannada artist Shankar Nag was based on the works of RK Narayan, and the 1965 Hindi movie Guide, a favorite of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was based on his book. 

The Financial Expert

RK Narayan’s 1951 work ‘The Financial Expert‘ [1] is universally regarded as a classic, and has been the subject of several excellent reviews from a western literary perspective, by both Indian and western writers. The book was made into a successful Kannada movie ‘Banker Margayya’ starring actor Lokesh in 1983, which went on to win multiple awards.

(source: shareyouressays.com)

Here, we explore some of the themes in this WW2-era Malgudi story using an Indic perspective, and in doing so, are rewarded with insights that would not be obtainable using a purely western lens. In particular, we discover that the timeless lessons in Neeti and Dharma that used to be orally transmitted from generation to generation in India are embedded within the ‘Financial Expert’.


In ‘Financial Expert’, RK Narayan brilliantly encodes in simple English the sophisticated nuance and wisdom of Indian Itihasa and Purana, even as he unravels the multiple threads of thought running through Margayya’s mind. Margayya, like many a character in itihasa, undergoes intense penance in order to acquire some special power. His aim is to please Goddess Lakshmi, so that she will bless him with wealth and financial success. The story of Margayya’s journey from 14D Vinayak Street to 10 Market Street and back is rich in the symbolism and subtle suggestion that characterizes Indian art.

Margayya was named Krishna at birth, and his professional name (pronounced ‘Marg-Ayya’) reminds us of Arjuna’s charioteer who showed the way (Marg) of Dharma in the Mahabharata. Margayya employed his financial Ganita prowess to game the system. He presented the peasants within a 100-mile radius of Malgudi a financial roadmap that enabled them to secure a endless sequence of cash loans from the Central Cooperative Land Mortgage Bank (est. 1914). The ‘Cooperative Bank’ part was an oxymoron as it neither co-operated with its poor shareholders, nor performed its banking duties with a sense of seva. Margayya, aged 42, made a living by aggressively filling this gap from his service location under a banyan tree right opposite the co-op, much to their irritation. Imagine a smarter Alan Greenspan in a topi, torn shirt, and brown dhoti.

Margayya wanted to progress beyond this tension-ridden low-end job. A tipping point is reached when the stained-dhoti clad financial jugaad master is humiliated by the rich, boorish bank secretary dressed in European attire, top to bottom. We can see in Margayya’s subsequent reactions, the self-loathing, and frustration, sense of inferiority, and confusion that infested many Indians in the 20th century. A transition of people who were progressively less grounded in the forest civilization [2] traditions of Dharma and harmony that India embraced during its prosperous history; a mindset increasingly attracted to a desert civilization’s zero-sum modes of survival and self-preservation that appeared more pragmatic in a once-flourishing land, but now looted and scorched by the British Raj, abounding only in scarcity.

Margayya’s Rise

Margayya’s natural entrepreneurial drive was in sync with the Vidura Neeti that promoted the virtue of self-employment. His mind constantly tinkered with ideas for startups. He wanted to secure the financial future of his wife Meenakshi, and son, Balu. When Margayya witnessed impoverished townspeople using an unclaimed corpse to extract small-change from passersby for a funeral (and booze), and when he observes people risking life and limb to earn a few paise, he is struck by the power of money. “People did anything for money. Money was men’s greatest need, like air or food…Money alone is important in this world. Everything else will come to us naturally if we have money in our purse.“.  Here, he appears to gain some intuition about Chanakya’s words (dharmasya moolam artha). Indeed, a prosperous and developed nation is best equipped to preserve and propagate Dharma and harmony, else the rule of the desert will reign.  His goal from the day he quarrels with the co-op secretary is to reach the top of the wealth pyramid and through this wealth, acquire everything else. And right there, Margayya parted ways with Vidura and Chanakya and followed his own path and rules.

Like a Yogi, but for all the wrong reasons, Margayya constantly meditated on money and through this manthana emerged all kinds of discoveries. His analysis enabled him to delineate the subtle differences between money, riches, wealth, and fortune. Wealth, in particular, contained elements of transcendence as well as Jugaad.  “Riches any hard-working fool could attain by some watchfulness, while acquiring wealth was an extraordinary specialized job. It came to persons who had on them the grace of the Goddess fully and who could use their wits“.  If Ramanujan‘s amazing ganita results were achieved through the blessings of Lakshmi as Namagiri Amman in his dreams, Margayya’s self-serving schemes too (in his mind) were due to the blessings of Lakshmi. Through the mind of this ‘financial mystic’, we get to see the infinite recursive patterns hidden within ‘interest’.

There was probably no other person in the whole country who had meditated so much on the question of interest. Margayya’s mind was full of it. Night and day he sat and brooded over it. The more he thought of it the more it seemed to him the greatest wonder of creation. It combined in it the mystery of birth and multiplication…Every rupee, Margayya felt, contained in it seed of another rupee and that seed in it another seed and so on and on to infinity. It was something like the firmament, endless stars and within each star an endless firmament and within each one further endless … It bordered on mystic perception. It gave him the feeling of being part of  an infinite existence.

Such was Margayya’s devotion to the process of managing interest rates and accumulating wealth, that he was even able to give up his old addiction to snuff so that he could pursue his ‘yoga’ on all four cylinders which would free him from all worldly wants. A side-effect of this one-track meditation is Margayya’s general cluelessness and disdain for topics unrelated to his money, and therein lie the seeds of his downfall.

Margayya’s Fall

Margayya failed in his Nara dharma [3] and did not understand that dharma is the most important of the Purusharthas [4]. As explained here, Chanakya wrote:

Margayya is never really happy throughout the story. He obtains wealth and power, but is never able to conquer his senses, and always yields to moha, lobha, and krodha, which ultimately combine to ruin him.

Margayya has no use for the Dharma that accords to the elder brother the respected position of a second father [3], being far more interested in grabbing his share of the family property. He is quite sad that the Hindu Samaj prevented a complete takeover of the house and had to make do with a half-share (“he would willingly have seen his brother’s family perish without water by closing it to them, but public opinion prevented the exercise of his right.”).

He has no use for Saraswati and learning, which is dismissed as a derivative product that can be purchased on-demand (“‘A man with whom the Goddess of Wealth favours need not worry much. He can buy all the knowledge he requires.“. The dharmic concept of profitability, Shubh Labh, is rejected in favor of amassing wealth regardless of all consequences to others, to his family, and even to himself.

He has no qualms about misusing kama and rejecting dharma in order to hoard wealth and acquire power.  Moha blinds his eye like a Dhritharashtra to his son’s faults, and in any case, he convinces himself that a single-minded pursuit of Artha is the key that unlocked all the doors in this world for himself and his family. Every minute of his life is invested in this material quest, and it begins to acquire almost a spiritual quality. In short, Margayya’s misunderstanding of the priorities and implications of the Purusharthas leads him astray. Grihasthashrama Dharma takes a back seat. Moral relativism and a materialist clamor for rights overrides duties, replacing Hinduism’s contextual Dharma ethics [2] at every decision making fork in Margayya’s life journey.

Ultimately, Margayya begins to make money by the sackful. The more he made, the more it consumed him, until this activity completely drained him of his capacity to think straight. In a momentary lapse of reason, the coldly calculative Margayya is replaced by an angry, panic-stricken father. He loses control of his senses and strikes out against Dr. Pal, the very instrument that brought him all the wealth, and in one stroke, Dr. Pal ensures that all those earnings are taken away. Without the firm guidance of Dharma, Margayya the path finder himself loses his bearings, and returns to square one, financially bankrupt. There is some recognition in the end by Margayya of what he lost in his obsessive pursuit and why. The readers get a story filled with lessons from Dharma traditions.

The book has several memorable characters, but for brevity, we’ll focus here on Margayya’s friend, Dr. Pal.

Dr. Pal, Social Scientist

First, a brief introduction to Dr. Havelock Ellis (1859-1939). He was a contemporary of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). Unlike India, where Kama was always recognized as one of the Purusharthas and celebrated in poetry, song, dance, painting, and sculpture, the Europeans in Dr. Ellis’ time were repressed by the strictures of Victorian morality. Ellis boldly shattered several taboos although he was indifferent to the dharmic/adharmic impact of his work. He appears to have been a proponent of Eugenics and oddly okay with the Nazi sterilization program. Freud appears to have borrowed some ideas from Ellis for his psychoanalytical theories [5].

Dr. Pal is the instrument that befriends, makes, and finally breaks Margayya (It’s unclear how he became “Dr”). He is a journalist and an author and a sociologist who is influenced by Ellis’ work. Like India’s eminent journalists, authors, and social scientists today, Pal too is a scientific expert.

He mashed together Vatsyayana’s Kamasutra and Dr. Ellis’ liberating ideas to create a scientific cocktail and distilled this wisdom into an illustrated book titled ‘Bed Life’. Margayya here represents the mentally colonized and under informed native who is overawed by ‘modern science’ label that claims to enhances and elevates an ancient Indian treatise. Margayya’s Lobha overcomes his instinctive disgust for Dr. Pal’s work and he benefits immensely from the proceeds obtained by publishing this bestseller (renamed ‘Domestic Harmony’ to avoid legal scrutiny and obscenity lawsuits).  Margayya’s growth is seeded by the ill-gotten gain obtained from this salacious ‘digestion’ of Kamasutra.

Long before Wendy Doniger invaded the sacred traditions of dharma [8], propagating Freudian pseudoscience and Hinduphobia, we have the duo of Dr. Havelock Ellis and Dr. Pal. It is remarkable how RK Narayan’s 1951 novel anticipates contemporary India where educated people flock to devour Wendy Doniger’s latest sleazy pulp fiction that tramples upon their own heritage and indigenous knowledge systems [9].

Dr. Pal is the western-influenced free-thinking rebel for whom ‘anything goes’. Later, he brings to Margayya the steady supply of clientele required to sustain the latter’s Ponzi scheme. Dr. Pal is a double-edged weapon that Margayya tries to control. Despite Margayya’s best attempts to keep Dr. Pal away from his family, his corrosive influence begins to consume Margayya’s married son, and drives him to debauchery. At this point, Margayya loses his composure and beats up Dr. Pal who hits back by completely ruining Margayya, thereby completing the karmic cycle.

Lighter Side: Margayya versus Modi

Margayya loved cash, and only cash. “‘What am I to do with property?’ he said. ‘I want only money, not brick and lime or mud,’ he reflected when he reconverted his attached property into cash. Margayya seems happy only when he is counting cash. “…. the moment he reached home, he counted the notes again, bundled them up in tidy little batches, the lovely five-rupee and ten-rupee and the most handsome piece of paper – the green hundred-rupee note” . 

British India One Hundred Rupee Note (source: rbi.org)

Per RBI records, the thousand rupee note was introduced in 1938, withdrawn prior to independence, and reintroduced in 1954 [6]. It is possible there wasn’t a significant percentage of high denomination notes (500/1000) in circulation during a time when these amounts were princely sums. Margayya’s Ponzi scheme attracted so many greedy and shady investors that nearby banks began to lose their deposits. However, no one in his office had any clue about his net worth. Margayya would’ve preferred higher denominations to hundred-rupee notes since he was running out of space for his cash stash at home (“there were currency bundles stacked up a foot high all over the floor.“).  We’ve read in the newspapers how certain Indian co-op banks operate in present times, and why they’ve become a target for tax evasion investigators.  Modi with his demonetization and push for a less-cash society could’ve badly dented both Margayya and the Malgudi co-op.

RK Narayan’s Writing

It is interesting to compare RK Narayan with Shashi Tharoor, another Indian writer whose English novels are popular. RK Narayan’s works are popular all over India for their relatively straightforward rendering and simple English, while Tharoor’s target audience appears to be the westernized elite in and outside India.

It is not surprising that Tharoor chose to focus on, and expressed contempt  for Narayan’s simple English, and was frustrated by RK Narayan’s indifference to a language that colonized Indian minds. Mocking his English as a ‘translation’ is actually a compliment, because when I read RK Narayan, it is like reading a timeless story in my mother tongue about our civilization, people, and way of life. On the other hand, the well-written prose in Tharoor’s ‘Great Indian Novel’ based on the Mahabharata gives it kerb appeal, but cannot mask its alienating lack of authenticity.

A purely intellectual view of itihasa is reductionist and guaranteed to fall short. While Tharoor has spoken eloquently about India’s heritage and its wisdom, he remains confused about the differences between religion and Dharma, and intellectual versus the adhyatmic [2]. An entire generation of mentally colonized Indian writers in the last few decades, armed with excellent English, and indoctrinated in the Euro-centric humanities remains proudly clueless about the sacred art traditions of Bharatvarsha. Even if they wrote in an Indian language, it would still sound foreign. In contrast, RK Narayan as a child imbibed India’s Itihasa and Sanskriti from his grandmother. Perhaps it is this learning that is reflected in his stories.

There is no independent existence for, and artificial demarcation between, the secular/outer world and the sacred/inner realm in the ‘Financial Expert’. This reflects India’s unified view of reality. Preserving this integral approach [10] gives RK Narayan’s simple prose its powerful universal appeal.  Injecting sophisticated western structures would actually interfere with, and diminish this impact. Just as Ananda Coomaraswamy noted in The Dance of Siva [7] that inserting western harmony in order to ‘enhance’ a sangeetam recital would be unnecessary and detrimental. Indeed, this integral perspective indicates that RK Narayan’s writings are part of a long, unbroken artistic tradition that follows the Natya Sastra (itself rooted in the four Vedas).

Bharata’s Natya Sastra [12] is the most influential ancient exposition on dramaturgy, performing arts, and aesthetics in the world [2], which was accessible to all sections of the society without geographical or linguistic restrictions. Rajiv Malhotra notes (emphasis mine) that the Natya Sastra “treats ‘natya’ as the total art form, including representation, poetry, dance, music, make-up and indeed the whole world. It is an organic and integral view encompassing the Vedic rituals, Shaivite dance and music, and the epic tales. The eight traditional rasas (love, humour, heroism, wonder, anger, sorrow, disgust, and fear) mirror the real world and come together in pursuit of the ‘purusharthas’ (human goal).” One can find all traditional rasas within the pages of the ‘Financial Expert’. We will end with RK Narayan’s own words in his 1964 book Gods, Demons and Others [11], where he shares his views regarding literature. He emphatically affirms the integrally unified perspective of Natya Sastra over a synthesizing approach (emphasis mine):

Everything is interrelated. Stories, scriptures, ethics, philosophy, grammar, astrology, astronomy, semantics, mysticism, and moral codes – each forms part and parcel for a total life and is indispensable for the attainment of a four-square understanding of existence

Literature is not a branch of study to be placed in a separate compartment, for the edification only of scholars, but a comprehensive and artistic medium of expression to benefit the literate and the illiterate alike. A true literary composition should appeal in an infinite variety of ways; any set of stanzas of the Ramayana could be set to music and sung, narrated with dialogue and action, and treated as the finest drama, studied analytically for an understanding of the subtleties of language and grammar, or distilled finely to yield esoteric truths“.

  1. ‘The Financial Expert’,  R. K. Narayan. (Vintage International), Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition, 2012.
  2. ‘Being Different: An Indian Challenge to Western Universalism’, Rajiv Malhotra. Harper Collins, 2011.
  3. Nara Dharma‘, N.R.I.Pathi, Indic Civilizational Portal. 2016.
  4. The Purusharthas‘, N.R.I.Pathi, Indic Civilizational Portal. 2016.
  5. Havelock Ellis Wikipedia page
  6. RBI Monetary Museum, rbi.org.in.
  7. ‘Dance of Shiva: Essays by Ananda Coomaraswamy’,  Dover Publications. 1985.
  8. Invading The Sacred: An Analysis of Hinduism Studies in America’, Editors: Krishnan Ramaswamy, Antonio de Nicolas and Aditi Banerjee, Rupa & Co., Delhi. 2007.
  9. Hitchhiker’s Guide to ‘Invading the Sacred’, 2014.
  10. How Sumitranandan Pant Rediscovered Dharma‘, 2013.
  11. ‘Gods, Demons, and Others’,  R. K. Narayan. University Of Chicago Press. 1993.
  12. Classical Indic Literature III: Dramatics‘, N.R.I.Pathi, Indic Civilizational Portal. 2016.


Thanks to n.r.i.pathi for the valuable feedback.

Classical Indic Literature V: Romantic Sanskrit Poetry


Rebuilding the National Character involves not only understanding what we need to do, or even why we are doing it, but why it is worth preserving at all.

Civilization is more than the mere sum of its principles, precepts, philosophies, and pasts. It extends beyond even an ideal or reciprocal duties. At its uttermost height, it is in fact, a sentiment. Bharatiya Sanskriti is very much about Dharma, Rta, and Satya, but that Satya that is at its heart, is also the timeless Truth of Prema.

For Indic Civilization, for any Civilization, to Revive itself, it must not only think, dream, and converse in its own language, it must also love and romance in it. Sringara (Romance) is also Part of Our Culture. For far too long have its masses been misguided by foreign thoughts ennobled by Indian implementations, or foreign thinkers using local rustics to change the meaning of our words. And for far too long, have they reduced the Indian, the Indic, the Hindu Culture we know & love as only ascetic or erotic., when it is also Romantic. The very height of the Romantic in Classical India was the Sanskritic.

And which wordsmith could be more romantic than than that master of Simile, Mahakavi Kalidasa,and his eternal Kavya. For almost 2,000 years, this most perfect of poets has made even the most pedantic recognise that simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.  Long before Shakespeare asked “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day“, the Court Poet of King Vikramaditya had become the utmost paragon of Upama, with comparisons that were as fresh and unique as the flowers that garlanded the Gods.

Ours was, and is, a civilization and culture of not only great warriors and devout women, but also charming gentlemen and passionate princesses. But as all things in Dharma, it is time, place, and manner that takes a natural feeling and ennobles it to a timeless aesthetic. And what can be more aesthetic than the romantic?

Therefore, without further ado, we bring you the first in an Anthology (accompanied by commissioned artwork), a concept that was a decade in the making…

…and the next installment of our Continuing Series on Classical Indic Literature: 

Romantic Sanskrit Poetry.


Ancient India had many timeless love stories. Katha, Kavya, Purana, and Itihasa are replete with lovelorn lovers, hopeless romantics hoping against hope, and eternal soulmates reuniting with each other across times and lifetimes. True, Rukmini & Sri Krishna, Sita & Rama, and Siva-Parvati, are all famous Divine lovers. But even we mortals figured in our ancient tales, in love stories worthy of not only drama, and opera, but even cinema.

Quite possibly the most famous of such prema kathas comes from the Land of the Kurus. The sons of Bharata take their name from that Bharata born to this couple, who entwined the legendary with the historical. The ancestors of the great Emperors of Hastinapura were the great Chandravanshi King and Conqueror, Maharaja Dusyanta & his lady love Sakuntala.


Mentioned in the Mahabharata, this courting couple was forever immortalised by Mahakavi Kalidasa. His famed drama was called Abhijnana-Sakuntalam: The Recognition of Sakuntala. This paramount of romantic poets produced a timeless tale of love, separation, and reunification. The composition was artful, the verses were tasteful, and the numerous productions of this play wonderful, across the centuries. Such were the Kailasan heights that Sanskrit Drama ascended to, that many thousands of years later, the famed German poet-philosopher Goethe exclaimed:

Willst du die Blüthe des frühen, die Früchte des späteren Jahres,

Willst du, was reizt und entzückt, willst du was sättigt und nährt,
Willst du den Himmel, die Erde, mit Einem Namen begreifen;
Nenn’ ich, Sakuntala, Dich, und so ist Alles gesagt.

Wouldst thou the young year’s blossoms and the fruits of its decline

And all by which the soul is charmed, enraptured, feasted, fed,
Wouldst thou the earth and heaven itself in one sole name combine?
I name thee, O Sakuntala! and all at once is said. [4]

So fascinated were foreigners by the Recognition of Sakuntala that there are 46 translations of this play in 12 European languages, going back to the first in 1789.  Indeed, in Europe, even a libretto was composed and Operas performed on it, at the height of the Colonial era. While it is nice to impress the videshi, however, it is better to take inspiration from the Bharatvasi. Sakuntala was forever ceremonialised by Raja Ravi Varma in his celebrated paintings. She is seen here with friends, artfully posing.

Shakuntala | Ravi Varma | Oil on Canvas |1870

Sakuntala has also been produced not only stage (a notable English language production in 1920) but on-screen many times starting with a silent film (also in 1920).  Yet so-called contemporary “national cinema” seems to have forgotten it (except back in 1947) for the time-worn recipes and veneers-of-lust masquerading as romance produced with parasika playwrights. Production values and marketing and black money may make it big at the box office, but it is the beating heart of a civilization and the sentiments and emotional verses it perfected, that make truly time-tested art.

The time has come for a new production of the great plays of Mahakavi Kalidasa, the foremost of which was the Recognition of Sakuntala. If compromised producers don’t have the fortitude, than the public at large should crowdsource a production with a talented director armed with artistic talent. This great Sanskrit drama could elegantly flow with Shuddh Hindi (or in my case, Telugu) dialogue that sets the stage for elegant Sanskrit verses, across scenes. Serenading with song may be well and good; charming with poetry is even better.

As Bollywood may not have the national interest at heart, perhaps it’s time for Tollywood to again step into the vacuum and inspire the nation. To do so, let would-be directors study the composition first.


A play in  7 acts, it begins with the traditional Prastaavana (Prologue) and Benediction (Nandi). Despite being a drama, Abhijnaanasaakuntalam is a veritable treasure trove of poetry with 34 slokas in the first act, 18 in the second, 26, in the third, 21 in the fourth, 31 in the fifth, 32 in the sixth, and 35 in the seventh…a grand total of 197 couplets.

This opus is interwoven with supple Sanskrit slokas, a multitude of characters, and the prominent theme of Sringara Rasa (Romantic sentiment).  “The drama ‘was meant for translating the whole subject from one world to another—to elevate love from the sphere of physical beauty to the eternal heaven of moral beauty’“. [1, xxiv]

The Nayaka (hero) is Dusyanta of the House of the Kurus and the Nayika is Sakuntala, daughter of Sage Viswamitra and the Apsara Menaka. She had been cared for by Saakuntas (birds) and was therefore called Sakuntala. She was later raised by Rishi Kanva, and grew up into a beautiful woman. The recognition of Sakuntala has in fact come down to us in two versions. The traditional one is found in the Mahabharata. Kalidasa gives us another, however, that brings us a brilliant battle in the Heavens with Dusyanta assisting the Devas in their war against the Asuras.

There are total of 4 recensions (a Devanagari, a Bengali, a Kashmiri, & an Andhra one) and two variations of the story. Nevertheless, both of these versions retell the birth of Bharata Dausanti, better known as Sakuntala-putra Bharata. Though the original Bharata who gave his name to our Land was the son of Rishabha of the Ikshvaku Dynasty, for a period of time, it was called Nabhi-varsha (after a king of the same House). But Sakuntala-putra was so famed for his world conquest and righteous rule, that the name Bharatavarsha came into fashion once more.

Whichever version you prefer, there is surely a blockbuster movie in the making here. If only the right director, with the right vision, and right talent (and right finances!) comes along. But financial matters are for the bean-counters. The aesthete is more concerned with the achievement of the author, and the talent that created this work.

Mahakavi Kalidasa

The biography of that best of Kavis, Kalidasa, is a tale in and of itself—indeed, it is worth of a book, an article, a cinema, or several. Correspondingly, the writer who intertwined legend with history and delightful fancy with moral principles, led a life of similar meeting points. By the present foreign paradigm, he is dated to the 4th century CE, but it is more likely that he belongs to the 1st Century BCE instead.

The foregoing discussion is enough to justify the truth and the vitality of the age-long tradition that the poet belongs to the days of the glorious King Vikramaditya of Ujjayini—the founder of the Samvat era (57 B.C.) [1, vi]

It is not for nothing that Jayadeva (of Gita Govinda fame) referred to Kalidasa as “Kavi kula guru” (master of poets). Famous for his love of Ujjayini (in modern Madhya Pradesh) and praise of Vikrama, Kalidasa was and is the undisputed King of Kavya. Blessed by the Goddess from whom he takes his name, this ‘Servant of Kali’ would go on to marry a princess and be considered one of the Navaratnas—Nine Gems of Avanti’s Court. “Ujjayini was the city of his heart and he is delighted to sing of her glories and the romantic loves of her maidens“. [1, vi] He would set standards of excellence in poetry for millennia.


Great Plays of Kalidasa

  • 7 works of his have come to us today.
  • 3 dramas, 2 epics, 1 lyrical poem, and 1 descriptive poem. [1]

Abhijnaana-Saakuntalam is arguably the most immortalised of all of Kalidasa’s compositions. While his other dramas (Malavika-Agnimitram & Vikramorvasiya) have also been celebrated on canvas, it was the story of the Signet ring that has captured  imagination throughout the centuries.

The weaving of beautiful poetry, in the form of slokas (Sanskrit couplets), into the rupaka (dramatic composition) gives the literary experience more resonance. With the exception of Meghadootha, Kalidasa’s other works of pure poetry don’t rise to the same love of pure romantic sentiment. Kumarasambhavam is one of his contributions to the Pancha-Mahakavyas (the other being the famous Raghuvamsa), but it is an epic work with a hint of the erotic. Sringara-tilakam is very much a freshman work, but one that nevertheless gives us periodic foreshadowing of future talent, even in his younger days. And Rtu-samhara is very much a celebration of the seasons in all their splendour. Though Sringara rasa predominates, it is more of a descriptive work.

But while it is important to prepare the palate before cultivated taste can be appreciated in the aesthetic arts, one should not linger too long. This exegesis on this play, this poet, and this poetry, was all for the purpose of better understanding Sringara-Sanskrita-Kavya: Romantic Sanskrit Poetry.

To better prepare for married life, it is important to not only learn how to become eligible, but also marriageable. The courtly aesthetic is important not only in kingly courts, but in the courtship of couples.

Bharatiya boys, you may want to take notes, and Bharatiya ladies…you’re welcome…


I.Sarvat aapsara sambhavaisha

Maanushishi katham va syaadrsya roopasya sambhava |

Na prabhaatha ralam, jyothi, roodhethi, vasudaata laath ||

Truly born from a heavenly apsara

For what woman could give birth to such a lovely form


After all, the sparkling light of tremulous beams, does not rise from the surface of the earth. [intimation: ‘but descends from the heavens’] A.1 s.26


II.Kaamam priyaa na sulabha manasthu tabdaava darshanaa-srvaasi |

Akrutaarthe api manasije rati mubhaya-praarthanaa kurute ||

True, my darling is not easily attainable; yet my heart assumes confidence from observing the manner in which she seems affected.

Even though our love has not hitherto prospered, our mutual longing, nevertheless, causes delight. A.2 sl.1


III. (smitam krutva) Evamaatmaa-bhipraya sambhaaviteshta-jana-chittavrutti praartha-

Yitaa vidambyate | tadhyatha

(smiling) Thus is the lover beguiled, who judges of the state of his beloved’s feeling by his own desires. It is thus

Snigdham veekshitam anyato’pi nayane yatpreyantyaa tayaa

Yaatham yach cha nithambayor guruthayaa mandham vilaasad iva |

Ma gaa ithyu-paruddhayaa yad api saa saasooyamuktaa sakhee

Sarvam Thathkila matparaayam aho kaamee svataam pashyati ||

The tender look she cast, even while she directed her eyes elsewhere; her slow movement caused by the heaviness of her hips, as if for grace’s sake; the angry words she spoke to her friend who detained her saying ‘Do not go; ‘ all this was, no doubt, on my account! Ah! How does a lover discover his own (everywhere!). A.2 s.2


IV. Chitre niveshye parikalpita sattva-yogaa

Roopa-uchchayena manasaa vidhinaa krutaa nu |

Stree-ratna srushtir-aparaa prathibhaathi saa me

Dhaatur-vibhutvam-anuchintya vapuscha tasyah ||

Was she conceived in a picture [painting] and then endowed with life?

Or was she moulded in the Creator’s mind from an assemblage of all lovely forms?

When I meditate on the power of Brahma, and my beloved’s lineaments, she appears to me a matchless creation of the most beautiful of women. A.2 sl.9


V. Anaaghraataṃ puṣpaṃ kisalayam aloonaṃ kara-ruhair

Anaaviddhaṃ ratnaṃ madhu navam anaasvaadita-rasam |

Akhaṇḍaṃ puṣyaanaaṃ phalam iva ca tad-roopam anaghaṃ

Na jaane bhoktaaraṃ kamiha samupa-sthaasyati vidhiḥ ||

She seems a flower whose fragrance is yet unsavoured,

A gem uncut by workman’s tool,

A branch no desecrating hands have wasted,

Fresh honey, untasted and cool.


No man on earth deserves her beauty,

Her blameless loveliness and worth,

Unless he has fulfilled man’s perfect duty—

And is there such a one on earth? A.2.sl.10



VI. Priye

Smruthi bhinnamoha tamaso dhishtayaa pramukhe sthithaasi me sumukhi |

Uparaa gaante sasinaha samupa gathaa Rohini yogam ||

Oh Beloved,

By the kindness of heaven, O lovely-faced one, thou standest again before me, the darkness whose delusion has been dispelled by recollection.

The star Rohini, at the end of an eclipse, rejoins her (darling) moon. A.7 s.22


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  abhignanasakuntalam   shakuntala_hindi__1.1473417981DevadharKalidasa


  1. Devadhar, C.R. Works of Kalidasa: Volume I. Delhi: MLBD. 2005
  2. Ryder, Arthur W. Kalidasa: Translations of Shakuntala, and Other Works.New York, E.P. Dutton & Co.1914
  3. Rajan, Chandra. The Complete Works of Kalidasa: Volume 1 (Poets). New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi. 2005
  4. Goonetilleke, William. The Orientalist. Mumbai: Education Society Press.1985.p.101
  5. “Shakuntala”.IMDB. http ://www.imdb.com/find?ref_=nv_sr_fn&q=shakuntala&s=all
Ankitham: Dedicated to a Song Offering, who spent many a long & lonely night waiting to be sung and serenaded.

Acknowledgment: Gratitude to the amateur voice actor who brought these couplets to life & vibrant resonance—a Lothario in real life,no doubt.

Acknowledgment: My thanks to the Artist Archana,whose talent I'm sure, will blossom like the flowers she painted here.

Special Acknowledgment: My utmost appreciation for Nilambari. Her tireless work consulting on this effort and ever insightful counsel ensured this project finally materialised after years. Thank you.

*Minor Proofing for some translations

Who were the Yavanas?


One of the great controversies in “Indology” has been the term “Yavana”. But our Itihasa-Purana long ago expressed itself clearly. As usual, rather than speaking in one voice, Bharatiyas, especially our two clever by half half-wits  in their philognostic navel gazing have made matters worse by further associating the term with Indo Greeks.


Fortunately, our real Acharyas, such as Pandit Kota Venkatachalam, trenchantly established the truth. Whatever the later usage towards Persianised Turks and Arabs, “Yavana” (especially in the Puranas) refers to degraded Aryas who later became the Kambojas, Sakas, and Parasikas (Persians). Some of the Yavanas became Ionian-Greek, but the Yavanas referenced in the Puranas were not Greeks. “Yavanacharya” and “Yavaneshwara” were not Greek. Milinda from Milinda Panha was not Greek.


Pandit Chelam categorically denies that the Greeks had any kingdoms East of the Indus River. In his “Plot in the Indian Chronology” he wrote that the British fabricated much evidence and even forged coins. Indo-greek history constructed primarily on the basis of coins (numismatics). Were these forgeries?—worth scientifically investigating.


Per the Vishnu purana, Maharaja Sagara (ancestor of Sri Rama) of the Ikshvakus defeated and banished the Yavanas. He made them cut their hair and shave their beards, hence the fashion of the western-most variety. Of course, western “Indologists” are careful to omit this part, but happily use the Garga Samhita and its alleged attachment, the Yuga Purana, to advance the claim that the Indo-Greeks successfully campaigned in Northern India. Pandit Chelam has questioned the authenticity of this “Yuga Purana” saying that it does not appear to be the work of Vriddha-Garga.


That is the stupidity of our band of half-wits because what they find “fascinating” and gleefully promote in their half-knowledge is actually used by westerners, western wannabes, and mid-east wannabes to mock them. Milinda was not Menander, but was a Yavana-Kshatriya of Balhika (Transoxiana). As degraded kshatriyas they had been banished from India, but were promised by Ishvara that they would successfully invade Madhyadesa later in the Kaliyuga (see Medieval Period). Their time is now over.

While Astika Brahmanas abandoned them, as they had abandoned the Vedic rite and Sadachara, these Yavana-Kshatriyas nevertheless had their own Yavana-Brahmanas, Yavana-Vaishyas, and Yavana-Sudras. Per the Vedic Arya estimation of Madhyadesa (that is the Gangetic core), all these had the status of Mleccha only.

YavanacharyaTherefore, the “Yavanacharya” and “Yavaneshvara” of the Surya Siddhantha, are none other than these exiled vratya Indians, who later joined with the various borderland tribes and became their rulers. That is why Yavana Astronomy is praised. That is what Yavana actually means. And that is why “Silence is Golden”, because these self-same morons-archaeologist who just discovered the topic in their Wikipedia research, have gone so far as to bring this to the attention of troll magazine and its resident olog-hai. That is why knowledge is not wisdom.

The reality is, Western Indology knows damn little about the Indo-Greeks, and a recent European scholar admitted as much. It took the work of native Bharatiya historians, and many decades, to push back against the colonial narrative established by the British, which imagined Demetrios and Menander as an ancient Clive & Dalhousie. Luckily for us, our ahankari-shikhandis lost no time to bring a broken narrative to the attention of all the wrong people, and help them revive it. But hey, who cares when we can give gyaan to grow follower counts and engage in half-knowledged speculation!

So next time you come across something that could be misportrayed and misused against your own people, make use of that dm option, do further research, or simply remember the value of “shut up”.

As for the full account of the Yavanas, here is some of what Bharatiya Charitra Bhaskara, Sri Kota Venkatachalam, wrote on the matter [Emphasis and Proofing ours]:

The following Post was originally published at True Indian History on April 28, 2009


Reference to Yavana countries:

To the west of Kashmir there were five Yavana countries. Some of them are now part of Kashmir Empire. These Yavanas were not Greeks but they belonged to the Kshatriya race of India. As these disregarded and neglected the performance of vedic duties and rites they were called Mlechchas. In those Yavana regions lived four castes of people. As all these castes relinquished Vedic rites, their caste-names were merely nominal.

Among the people of the Yona kingdoms, Rajatarangini relates that there were castes called Yona Brahmins, Yona Kshatriyas, Yona Vaisyas and Yona Sudras.
Yona or Yavana Kingdoms:

1. Abhisara, 2. Uraga (Urasa), 3. SimhaPura (Singapura)
4, Divya Kataka (Deva Kataka or Kataka ), 5, Uttara

(Vide the Map of western India in post ‘The Empire of Kashmir’).

“Abhisara” consisted of two regions namely “‘Darva” and “Abhisara.” The kings of these Yavana regions were Kshatriyas who became Mlechchas, were subordinate and paid tribute to Kashmir Kings. We find in Rajatarangini many instances, when these Yavana rulers revolted and became independent and the Kashmir monarchs subdued the rebels and brought them again under their sovereignty. Some of these five regions are part of Kashmir and others are on the western border. In the list of the Kashmir Kings, during the reign of 130th ruler, Kalasa Maha Raja, there was the description of Yona Brahmin as follows,

“There was a Brahmin born in the Yona Village who begged alms of paddy. His name was “Loshtaka” and he was considered to be an Astrologer of that village.” So says Rajatarangjni.

From this, it is evident that the Kshatriyas residing in the Yona regions, on the borders of Kashmir, though they were firstly Kshatriyas, were treated as Mlechchas, on account of their disregarding their vedic duties; the other caste people also were called Mlechchas. Therefore, Rajatarangini relates that there were caste differences even among the Mlechchas. The yona Brahmins were experts in Astrology. The ‘Yavana. Rishi’, the author of “Yavana Siddhanta”, was a ‘Bharatiya Yavana Brahmin’, but not a Greek. The territory “Ionia” which got that name, on account of its conquest by the Yavanas of india, was later called Greece from its contact with the savage Greek tribes.

The Bharata Yavanas were of a very ancient origin. They took the sciences of Astrology and others, on their migration to ‘Ionia’(modern Greece) from India, but India borrowed nothing from Greece. On the otherhand. the western writers turned matters topsy-turvy and proclaimed that all the arts and sciences flowed from Greece to India. The histories containing this inverted information were introduced as Text-Books and our children were taught these packs of lies in the schools and colleges.

As the students were manufactured to be disciples of the Greeks, as a result, they cultivated a love for Greek lore and learning and developed a hate for Bharatiya knowledge and wisdom. Until and unless correct and true history of Bharat is written and these authentic books are prescribed as Texts for study in the schools and Colleges, these wrong and baneful notions cannot be torpedoed and the minds of future generations of young men cannot be diverted from the tinsel glamour of west to the true glory of the East, the hearth and home of culture and civilisation from time immemorial.

The following Post was originally published at True Indian History on July 4, 2009

Pandit Chelam provides an excerpt from a correspondence. Following that, he responds to the questions with his answer on Yavanas.

The two questions: The learned Dr. Sirkar (Govt. Epigraphist for India,Ootacamund, South India) asked in a letter in February,1955 after receiving a copy of a booklet “The age of Buddha from Pandit Chelam) :-·
On the basis of your (Puranic) Chronology how do you account for
1. The Yavana king “Milinda” of Sakala mentioned in the “Milinda Panha” who flourished 500 years after the Buddha’s Parinirvana?
2. The Yavana Monarch “Amtiyoka” whose dominions bordered on the empire of Asoka, grandson of Chandragupta Maurya, according to Maurya inscriptions?
To answer the questions raised, we felt the need for further investigation of allied history and historical research and came upon an essay by the learned Dr. D.C.Sircar himself on ‘The Yavanas’ in Vol.II of “The History and Culture of the Indian People” published by the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. We acknowledge that we found the essay also very useful for our purposes in this connection in furnishing our answers to his questions.

In Vol II of the “History and Culture of the Indian People” Dr. D.C. Sirkar writes about the Yavanas :-

“One of the factors that led to the extinction of the dynasty of the Imperial Mauryas was the advent of the Yavana invaders through the North—western gate of India. Indeed the most interesting feature of the post Maurya period of Indian history is the establishment of foreign supremacy in Uttarapatha, Aparanta Paschaddesa, and the adjoining region of Madhyadesa successively by alien powers, and the Yavanas were the first among them.
The word ‘Yavana’ was used in medieval Indian literature as a synonym of Mlechcha and indicated any foreigner. But as late as the early centuries of the Christian era it meant to an Indian, the Greeks only. The word was derived from the old Persian form ‘Yauna’ signifying originally the Indian Greeks and later, all people of Greek nationality. The Greeks of Ionia in Asia Minor, between the Aegean Sea and Lydia, and the people of North Western India, certainly came into contact with each other as subjects of the Achaemenion emperors of Persia since the time of Darius I (522-488 B.C.) Vide p. 101, Ch. VII of Vol. II of Dr.Sircar’s “History and Culture of the Indian people”, of the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan series.)”


[Pandit Chelam’s Response to Sirkar]

It is not a fact that foreigners established supremacy in ‘Uttarapatha’ in the post-Mauryan period. It is not correct to say the Sanskrit word “Yavana” is derived from the Persian form ‘Yauna’. 70% of the vocabulary of ancient Persian consists of Sanskrit words. The Persian language is itself a Prakrita(Vernacular dialect) derived from Sanskrit. The original Persians constituted a branch of Bharatiya Kshatriyas. Along with some others they were Kshatriyas excommunicated from the Kshatriya caste of Bharat on account of the non-observance by them of the regulations and rituals prescribed by the Vedas for the Kshatriya caste.

The regular Kshatriyas refrained from social and marital association with the excommunicated branches. One [o]f such excommunicated branches was known as the ‘Parasaka’ and they settled down in Eastern Persia. The region was named after them and came to be known as ‘Paarasika’. As they had originally belonged to the Aryan race, the country was also known by the more ancient name of Iran. Sanskrit was the parent language from which was derived the dialect known as Persian. The contention that the Sanskrit word ‘Yavana’ is derived from the Prakrit word ‘Youna’ of the derived Persian language is entirely baseless. The Sakas, Yavanas, Barbaras, Bahlikas and others were all branches of Kshatriya caste belonging originally to the Aryan race and the Hindu fold, but known generally as Mlechchas, having been excommunicated for their non observance of the prescribed caste regulations and duties, but they were severally referred to by their separate Kshatriya subsect names whenever necessary.

The Sakas, Yavanas, and others had their own Kingdoms in ‘Uttarapatha’ for thousands of years before the Mahabharata War (3138 B.C.). Thev were Hindus (excommunicated) and not at all foreigners.

The Mauryas were not emperors, sovereigns over an empire. From the time of Chandragupta Maurya. Chandragupta Maurya was able to establish himself on the throne of the Magadha kingdom, only with the help of the famous Chanakya. His son Bindusara also was only the king of M[a]gadha and not an emperor. In his time Magadha extended as far as ‘Taxila’ in the west. His son Asoka appears to have extended his dominion by conquest and got recognised as an emperor. Even for his empire the western boundary was only at Takshasila and there were the Yavana kingdoms and Gandhara to the north west and west of it, Kambhoja and Kashmir to the north. His descendants were not so formidable and so in a few generations after him the empire dwindled gradually and came to be confined once again to the Magadha kingdom only. In 1218 B.C. Pushya-mitra-Sunga murdered the last king of Magadha of the Maurya dynasty, himself became king of Magadha, conquered and brought under his suzerainty the neighbouring kingdoms and performed the Aswamedha to establish his claim to the status of an emperor.

The Maurya empire was disrupted on account of the weakness of the successors of Asoka which led to the independence of the feudatory kings and not on account of the invasions of foreign ‘Yavanas.’ Yavana kings were perhaps crossing the frontiers (river Indus) with small armies and indulging in marauding activities in the villages and towns across the border. But they were returning to their countries at the approach of the armies of Magadha. These Yavanas across the border of the Maurya empire were of Bharatiya Kshatriya descent and were neither Greeks nor foreigners. There were no Greeks at that time.

It is wrong to identify the word ‘Yavana’ with the ‘Greek.’ The ancient Yavana kingdoms now comprise modern Afghanistan. The Yavanas and the Yavana kingdoms were in the northwestern region of Bharat from times immemorial and not of foreign advent. There was only one (Bharatiya)Yavana invasion in the time of the Maurya emperors and then it was repelled. lt is erroneous to contend that the Maurya empire was disrupted by the Yavana invasions. It is not a fact. There is no historical evidence whatsoever in support of such a contention.

Sir william Jones, one of the most intellectual of the European critics of Sanskrit literature, pronounced the Sanskrit language to be ‘of a wonderful structure, more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either. (Vide Asiatic researches, Vol I, p, 422)

While thus innumerable reputed scholars unanimously declare that Sanskrit is the most ancient and the parent language of all the languages on the earth, from which all the other languages [w]ere derived, and in particular Zind, the ancient Persian language, is 70% Sanskrit and derived from Sanscrit it is surpriseing that Dr. Sirkar should suggest that the Sanskrit word “Yavana” is derived from the ancient persian word ‘Yauna’. The word ‘Yavana’ is frequently in use in Sanskrit literature, from times immemorial. To say that it has recently been imported into the Sanskrit language, argues little acquaintance with Sanskrit language and literature. There is a lot of information and innumerable references in Sanskrit literature to the Yavanas and other Bharatiya Kshatriya races which subsequently spread all over the world.

The following excerpts are from a Post at True Indian History on July 4, 2009

Question II of Dr, Sirkar:- About the age of ‘Amtiyoka’, the Yavanah monarch mentioned in the edicts of Asoka.

[Pandit Chelam’s Response to Sirkar]

The above mentioned ‘Amtiyoka’ belonged to a branch of Bharatitya Yavana Kshatriyas. He was the ruler of ‘Simhapura’ one of the five Yavana kingdoms 1. Abhisara. 2, Uraga 3. Simhapura 4. Divyakataka 5. Uttarajyotisha.

The other four rulers were subordinate to him. These five kingdoms were all beyond the borders of Asoka’s empire on the North-west and a group stretching in sequence from west to northeast. Now we find them included 1. in Kashmir, 2. in the North- west Frontier Province and 3, 4. 5, in Afghanistan. They were very small kingdoms. The people of these regions were Yavana Kshatriyas and martial people who lived on their arms i.e. served as mercenary soldiers under any ruler who paid them. Their women were very beautiful and they were employed as body-guards in the royal (harems) households of several Indian princes.

These mercenary soldiers were very loyal to the masters under whom they served and sacrificed their lives if necessary for the safety of their masters. They were Kshatriyas of Solar descent. But they were excommunicated from the Aryan Kshatriya fold on account of their disregarding and discarding the Vedic rituals and observances.(Manu 10-43, 45) They were regarded as Mlechchas. When they could not secure employment under wealthy masters who could maintain them, they used to live upon theft and banditry, raiding peaceful villages and carrying away loot to their mountain regions

So “Amtiyoka” was a Bharatiya Yavana prince, not an Iono-Greek or Greek prince. He was the contemporary of Ashoka. His age was from 1472-36 B.C. The “Yavana” of Northwest Bharat became Ionian in Asia minor and Greece and mixing with the Greek the Ionian became Iono-Greek and then by the order of the Government of Ionia or Greece, the Iono-Greek became “Greek” and the country became “Greece”.

The following excerpts are from a Post at True Indian History on August 1,2009

YugaPuranaFabThat Menander was a great Indo·Greek prince was recorded by the historian Strabo whose authority for the statement was a reference to him by the ancient writer Appolodorus. Periplus is another book assigned to 70-80 A.D., but of unknown authorship. But it is stated in this Periplus that coins with Greek letters and devices were current in the neighbourhood of Broach on the west coast of India in the first century A.D, ‘These coins resembled the insignia of Appolodorus and Menander, Greek Potentates who were in power after Alexander. Hence it is inferred that the neighbourhood of Broach might have been included in the Greek dominions in the times of Demetrius, Appolodorus and Menander. All this is entirely in the sphere of conjecture. It seems Appolodorus and Menander are mentioned in the list of Bharatiya Yavana princes in the writings of Justin, the historian. But his writings are now extinct and not available for verification.

It seems Plutarch also mentioned Menander as renowned for justice and that when he passed away the various cities in the neighbourhood contested for the privilege of holding his remains. This Menander is further identified with Milinda of the Milinda Panha (questions of Milinda), a Buddhist text containing the several questions raised by Milinda and the answers furnished to them by the Buddhist monk Nagasena at the end of which the prince, satisfied embraced Buddhism. This prince is spoken of as ‘Milindra’ in Avadana-Kalpa-lata by Kshemendra. In the Shinkot inscription the name is given as ‘Menadra‘ and so it may be identified as ‘Minendra’or ‘Menandra’. This name might be read into the devices on the coins, we are told.”


The following excerpts are from a Post at True Indian History on August 1,2009

“In Hieun-Tsang’s writings there is scope for the current provisionally accepted date of 486 B.C, If we count 500 years from the provisionally accepted date of Buddha Nirvana we get 14 A,D. So Menander should belong to after 14 AD.,ie. Ist century A.D. But even this is pure conjecture and based on the assumption of the identity of Menander with the Milinda of Milinda panha, Even the provisionally accepted date of Buddha Nirvana is itself based on the wrong assumption of the contemporaneity of M[a]urya Chandragupta and Alexander of 324 B.C. How can we expect the superstructure to yield correct dates when the basic assumption is itself questionable and a mere conjecture? As soon as the hollowness of the original foundation of the entire structure is exposed and recognised the entire edifice topples down with a crash and the time for it is approaching.
It is wrong to identify Menander with Milinda. Menander even according to the author of the essay, Dr. Sirkar. belongs to the 2nd century B.C. It will he proved in the pages that follow that Milinda belongs to the end of the 14th century B.C.”EucratidesEumenedes


  1. True Indian History. [Various Blog Posts]
  2. Kota, Venkatachalam Paakayaji (Pandit). The Age of Buddha, Milinda, and Amtiyoko. Guntur: Sri Ajanta Printers.1956
Acknowledgement to Sri G.D. Prasad garu, Grandson of Pandit Sri Kota Venkatachalam, for his kind permission to reprint these Excerpts and Blog Posts.

Literature: Panchatantra


Many of you may wonder, with the galaxy of Classical Indic Literature at our tips, why the Panchatantra, a story of animal fables, may be the first work of Literature we cover in-depth at ICP.

Given the constant drumbeat about Indian culture being “life-negating” and Hindu literature being “other-worldly”, many forget that our civilization was once highly shrewd and rooted in material wisdom.

The most striking feature of ancient Indian civilization has been the element of humanity combined with a sense of duty and practicality. [1, xvi]

Fair enough, you may say, but still why study the Panchatantra? Why should a work composed for kids be studied by children and adults alike? How is this ancient book of “fables” relevant to “modern” Indians today?

The truth of the matter is, child or adult, Bharatiyas today are very much like the dullard students of Acharya Vishnusarman. “Over-opinionated, under-informed”, stupid beyond belief, and arrogant without justification.  Good for nothing—unless forced to by immediate circumstance. Supercilious, selfish, stubborn, stupid. It is precisely this royal recipe for disaster that faced King Amarasakti and his sons. For this reason, his kingdom was (and now Bharatavarsha is) at the precipice.

As we discussed in our preceding article, more than anything else, more than even Dharma, it is Niti which is the aspect of our culture which is unmitigatingly absent among Indians today. The only Niti they know or need is a mutant form of “Rajniti!” practiced by dushtamatyas, but other than that, it’s gullibility to the extreme. This gullibility of Bharatiyas has been exploited time and again, not only by foreigners, but by Indians in foreign employ. Truth is expected to be spoken among those who practice Dharma; but there is no such obligation to those who practice deceit. It is because there are such persons in the world, that Niti was given to protect the innocent.

Not all individuals are inclined to study, let alone study deeply. Whatever lessons they learn in primary school or secondary school, we must therefore supplement with the blessing of Niti. A good soul is not spoiled if he is taught 1. Dharma, 2. Niti, 3. Studies, in that progression. Evil persons do not care for Dharma, and Niti is frequently in their nature, due to natural deceitful ways. Since not everyone becomes a vidvan or Ph.D., let the innocent or illiterate learn Niti.

Niti can be grasped most readily by works by aphorisms and maxims such as Saamethas or similar traditions in other languages. In fact, a famous one involving a son named Somalingam clearly took its inspiration from a Panchatantra tale. “Dhobi ka kutta, na ghar ka na ghat ka” is one such celebrated example in Hindi. This is because a single saying offers many layers of wisdom that can be peeled off as a child grows older. The individual is exhorted to not be a Dhobi ka kutta, and so in the process, learns to pick and stick with a side, instead of having no place of his own. Works of pure Niti, such as the Niti Satakam, are indeed useful, but tend to be for older students. Hence, the Panchatantra becomes most useful to the younger student.

Tales of Animals capture their attention, and stories within a story allow individual lessons to be teased out and separated. So too can basic Niti be separated from more sophisticated Statecraft. That is the Brilliance of the Panchatantra, for while it affords basic behavioural lessons to children, useful for later in life for citizens, it also incorporates the lessons of Politics and Statecraft, to be studied in sum, a second time by the civic-minded.



The author of this work, Vishnusarman, was 80 years old when he gave his lecture on the Panchatantra. The manuscript itself tells us that this set of five books emanated from the distress of King Amarasakti “from the southern city of Mahilaropya“. It is not known exactly where this city was, other than it was presumably south of the Vindhyas. The ruler of this fair city had 3 stupid, selfish, stubborn, supercilious sons named Bahusakti, Ugrasakti and Anantasakti.  They too, like modern Bharatiyas were “devoid of reasoning” and “destitute of discretion” and “impertinent“. [1, 2] He was so upset and feared for the future of the kingdom to such an extent, that he convened his ministers and promised a reward for the one who could reform them.

His Mantri, Sumati, suggested the brahmana Vishnusarman as one who had extracted the great elixir from the various branches of knowledge . Vishnusarman himself saluted Manu, Brhaspati, Sukracharya, Paraasara, Vyaasa, and Chanakya in his treatise. The influence of the latter shows in later discussions of mandala theory. Nevertheless, more than politics, this is a work of practical principles for all persons, and the wise conduct of life.

A person’s character is not something that one is born with. Ancient sages were of the view that the character could be built, and by moulding the characters of the citizens, a just and fair society would come into being where each individual may take note of the interests and concerns of others without being influenced by vested interest, personal priorities, egocentricities or prejudices [1, xli]

Visnusharman was so confident of the value of his teachings that he stated”If I am not able to render your sons well-versed in the science of politics within six months, you are all-empowered to hang me til death”. [1, lxx] What’s more, he famously claimed in the Prologue that one using the Panchatantra could not be defeated even by Sakra (Indra) [1, lxx]:

Above all, however, was the uniqueness of Vishnusarman’s approach that truly stands out. Tradition ascribes this fabulous work to one Visnu Sarma. But we know nothing about this gifted author who, judging from the artistry displayed in the text he is credited with having composed, brought storytelling to such heights of sophistication; who in fact created a literary genre of storytelling; who had many imitators over the centuries, none of them his equal. [2, xi]



The Panchatantra is a Sanskrit work written in the form known as Champu (a mixture of verse and prose). “Verse is employed for articulating maxims, proverbs and precepts, sententiaea, generally, and for conveying heightened emotion; prose for the narrative and dialogue” [2,liii]. This makes the composition useful as a work of “instruction and correction“. [2, xlii] The Panchatantra is often connected with the Jataka Tales. Indeed, there are many commonalities. But it is not yet clear which drew from which. After all, didactic stories were not unique to the Jataka Tales, and are also found in the Brihat Katha, and there are similarities even with some stories from the collectively more ancient Mahabharata. [1, xxi] There are even verses descending directly from the Niti Satakam of the famous King of Ujjain, Bhartrhari.

Not only Bauddhas (Buddhists) but even Jainas are also mentioned. Jain literature also passed on the Panchatantra through traditions and names like Panchakhyaana. The Buddhist narratives from the Jataka focused more on the past, while the Jaina tradition was focused on the present, “instructing in an ironic and suggestive manner“. [1, xxx]

In many ways, this makes the magnum opus of Acharya Vishnusarman a snapshot of our literary and cultural heritage, thereby making it an ideal starting point. We see elements of the past woven into the culture’s future. Above all, we see a tradition of combining entertainment with education, and moral with practical living. This is the Panchatantra’s greatest greatest  achievement of all. It is not for nothing it is termed ‘The crest-jewel of Fables’. [1,xxxv]

That branch of didactic literature is called ‘fable’ which comprises of little, cheerful and sententious stories and whose characters are often animals. The word fable comes from the latin word fabula which once was employed to mean any kind of story. But, gradually, it came to mean a very special kind of story…which is ruled by an intellectual and moral impulse and it tends towards brevity. It is a narration intended to enforce a useful truth, especially one in which animals speak and act like human beings.” [1,xvi-xvii]

The characters teach lessons which can be used in every one’s daily life, since their actions are so much like those of human beings, the reader of the fable usually does not have to figure out for himself what the lesson is. It is often given at the end of the fable under the title of ‘Moral’. So, unlike a folk-tale, it has a moral that is woven into the story and often explicitly formulated at the end“. [1, xvii}

But in an era which rejects ‘morality’, what value can the Panchatantra have? That why the term Niti here is best translated not as moral or policy, but ‘lesson’. The Panchatantra in fact is amoral, and is focused on giving lessons in practical principles for the wise conduct of life. True, it does discuss Dharmasastra and the importance of living a righteous life, but it is nevertheless, highly practical and even cynical on the intentions of everyone…even saints!

The great genius of this work is that, while it is a great expository on the importance of Niti (Practical Principles and Wisdom) over Vidya (knowledge), it also inculcates and creates curiosity in various branches of knowledge. Beyond Dharmasastra and Dhanurveda, there are even brief discussions of Saastriya Sangeeta, Classical Music. [1, 666]

It is no wonder this work has stood the test of time. The man armed with Niti is superior to the man armed with Vidya. But who can face the man armed with both? That is the value of Sanskriti. The Panchatantra is an excellent work not only emanating and expounding our culture, but giving a glance at its history.

Panchatantra has transcended cultures and literary as well as linguistic barriers. It is among the greatest classics of all time. [1, xvii]




There are four main rescensions of the Panchatantra. The Southern Version is basis for the Nepalese Panchatantra and the Hitopadesa. This is the largest version and is said to contain 96 stories.  [1, xlvi]  A second is found in the manuscripts of the Brhatkathamanjari of Kshemendra, which descends from the lost Brhat Katha of Gunadhya. A third is the Pehlavi (Persian version). The Tantraakhayaayika represents fourth manuscript lineage, and is considered the oldest form of the Panchatantra. It was found in Kashmir. It has two sub-recensions and is said to demonstrate the original form.

It is the only version which contains the unabbreviated and not intentionally alterated language of the author, which no other Indian Pancatantra version has presented, while the Pehlavi translation distorts it by numerous misunderstandings’ [1, xliii]

The the Persian version was the source material of the subsequent Arabic Translation of this original Sanskrit work, which was called the Kalia wa Dimnah.

Global Impact


Perhaps nothing underscores the global impact of the Panchatantra than Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent official visit to Iran. Per historical accounts, Barzawayh the physician, of the Persian King Khusrau Anushirvan’s court (6th century CE) was said to have been tasked with finding the Indian elixir that raises the dead back to life. On failing to do so, Barzawayh in dire straits asked an Indian for help. He was introduced to the Panchatantra, which was translated into Persian. Per the Shahnameh of Firdausi, the elixir was the wisdom extracted from the trees and herbs (writings) of Indian sages who raised the corpse (ignorant men) back to the living (wise conduct of life). [1] Khusrau was said to have been wonderstruck by the wisdom, and rewarded his minister. The text was used to groom Persian princes. How easily modern Indians discard or deride wisdom valued by others.

Such was the impact of this work of Bharatiya Nitisastra, that this lost Pehlavi version was subsequently translated into Arabic  as Kalilah wa Dimneh (Karataka and Damanaka), and later spread to Europe. “Dr. Benfey has proved the specific debt of the medieval European literature to the Panchatantra”. [1, x, li]  Aesop’s Fables is said to have been a product of its influence, and even the Arabian Nights are thought to be rooted in these Indic origin stories. [1, liii] Many also know these as the Fables of Bidpai (Stories of Vidyapati). In the last thousand years, the stories of the Panchatantra have made their way into the Greek, Latin, German, Spanish, French, English, Armenian and Slavonic languages, along with even Hebrew and Malay. [2, xvi]

Few books have enjoyed such popularity as the Panchatrantra of Sri Visnusarman. This masterpiece is remarkable for the beauty and simplicity of its language, the vividness and reality of its objective and the author’s sense of humour. The extra-ordinary appeal which it makes to the human mind is evident from the fact that it has been translated into no fewer than fifty languages, and 200 versions around the world.” [1, i]

Whether you are 6 or 66, the Panchatantra is a work that must be studied by all. It is composed in such a way so as to educate young and old alike. More innocent stories can be separated for individual children’s lessons, while the collective work and more mature stories can be studied again as an adolescent or adult. The composition itself is divided into five books, hence the name Pancha Tantra. These are as follows:

I. Mitrabheda (Dissension of Friends)

This deals with the story of the Lion King Pingala, the Bull Sanjeevaka, and how their friendship was divided by the knave Jackal Minister Damanaka. It is a cautionary tale of how friends and family can be divided by selfish people who put their interests above the common good. That a jackal was selected for a minister is in itself telling, as it is a caveat against dushtamatyas who prioritise private political gain over national interest. It also has a lesson valuable for royal and common Indians alike: “The first lesson, to be learnt, by the kings and especially the emerging and nascent princes, is how to differentiate between a selfless friend and a latent enemy.” [1, lxxvii] In short, it is an didactic tale on the value of Discretion.

II. Mitrasampraaptih (Acquisition of Friends)

This tale deals with the benefits of true friends. The unlikely friendship of a mouse, a deer, a crow, and a tortoise ends up being collectively and individually beneficial. Not only do they enjoy each other’s company and find purpose in helping each other, but they are able to save each other’s life by working together and collaborating. That is the value of gaining and keeping friends.

Thus, an analysis of the second book evinces that much stress is laid upon winning of intelligent friends. Contrary to the Mitrabheda, Mitrasampraapti proceeds to explain the nature of true friendship and the undoubted worth of companions in getting out of tricky situations in life”. [1, 277]

III. Kaakollukeeyam (On the Crows and Owls)

This is the famous story of the war between the Crows and the Owls. It is an exegesis not only on statecraft, but also on strategy. It helps understand that the noble exhortations of Dharma are in fact in concordance with the exegencies of strategy. When the enemy is wicked and breaks the rules of war, use of Kutaniti is justified in ensuring the survival of one’s clan, kingdom, or civilization. If it’s us or them that has to go, better it’s them. That is the overarching lesson of this tale.

IV. Labdhapranaasam (Loss of what was Procured)

This story is also a riposte and a rebuke to those who misuse “atithi devo bhava” as a means to destroy the host. Guest should be respected, yes, but not when they put one’s own survival at stake. Even the monkey new that, and told that to his guest, whose wife literally shed “crocodile tears”. Do no be gullible, and when in distress, keep your wits about you. That is the true purpose of intellect–not poodle tricks. When a monkey was able to do that, why can’t you?

V. Apareekshitakaarakam (The Ill-considered Action)

This more than any other book, is applicable to Indians today. “Under heightened sentimental impulses or emotional states, human beings tend to or are more inclined to engage in ill-considered or rash actions. Consequences of taking action in a hurry, without knowing the details or the truth, are mostly dangerous.” This book stands out as it has no framing story, but is simply critique after critique of rash and ill-considered action. This has serious lessons for Hyperactive Hindus of today.Nevertheless, each story sets the stage for the subsequent one. Independent Niti is united by the “inter-connectedness” of the stories.[1,617]

But perhaps no lesson is more crucial for today than the stories of the magic wicks, and more famously, the four brahmanas. The moral there is clear when the one brahmana berates another saying “despite the scholarship, he lacks practical intellect and also that good sense is superior to learning“. [1, 622] That is the essence of this fifth Tantra, perhaps the most valuable of all.

Apariksitakaraka is prescribed in the curriculum just to instil the core universal human values in the minds of the young generation and make youths good human beings with all-round success and joy in their lives. [1, 625]

At first sight, one might befuddled at why Mitra-Bheda might come before Mitra-Sampraapti. Seemingly out of order to fresh eyes, we realise later the true genius of Acharya Vishnusarman: preservation of true friends and loyal family members is of highest priority. This is because wealth and weapons and warp and weft can all be lost, but nothing is more precious than a true friend. A friend in need is a friend indeed. And a wise person sees to it that real friends are treated with respect and kept in good humour rather than neglected or alienated.

There is nothing more dangerous than a former friend or antagonistic relative—they know our back story, strengths, and weaknesses. It is why even the wise Vidura sought to conciliate the Pandavas and Kauravas…he knew the price of internal/internecine war. That is why one of the wider lessons of the Mahabharata War was on the dangers of fratricide.

Modern Bharatiyas today have the opposite tendency. Many, especially those with the dog mentality, kick those who lick them and lick those who kick them—all in contravention of the Sastras. Conciliation doesn’t mean groveling. There is a difference between bowing when forced to and crawling cause you want to…it is self-respect. As such, the wise and prudent person returns good for good and bad for bad. It is not only courageous, but ensures that the opposing party, even if he doesn’t like you, is forced to respect you.

It is true that common interests often divide friends and family. But that is why we have Dharma to guide us on the use of Niti. Vidura was skilled at Niti, but used Dharma to stanch any ambitions to the throne he may ever have had. So should Dharma dictate succession: Seniority, Competence, and Character being the three deciding factors in that order.

The Panchatantra  is not meant to be memorised for show, but understood & applied. While it does exhort committing wise verses to memory, it is again for later meditation, rather than braggadocio. That a single Sanskrit verse can have many meanings is best embodied by the story of “Praapthavyamartham labhate manusya“. When we understand this story, when we understand the Panchatantra, we understand that Acharyas—real Acharyas—try to equip their students with Niti, so that they may become self-reliant, shrewd, and societally responsible citizens.




Suguptam rakshyamaano’pi| T.4, sl. 49

“Silence is Golden”

48. Parrots and starlings (minas) are encaged due to the fault of their mouth (speech), herons there, are not confined (due to not speaking; silence leads to the accomplishment of all objects.

And also:

49. That donkey, even though properly concealed and being guarded, manifestly showing his dreadful body and covered with the skin of tiger was killed due to his speaking” [1, 591]

That silence is golden is the most important lesson for modern Bharatiyas is a concept we have stressed time and again. What story better exemplifies it than this. Not only the donkey that couldn’t shut up, but the crocodile who told his intentions to the monkey in advance. The net result is much like the name of the very Tantra that covers this: Labdhapranaasam (Loss of what was Procured).


Anya prathaapamaasaadhya yo drdatvam na gacchathi|

Jathujaa’bharanasyeva rupenaapi hi tasya kim|| T.1, sl 117

Of what advantage is the physique and appearance of him who does not stand firm against the prowess of others, like an ornament, made of lac, which does not maintain its stiffness when pitched against fire. [1, 44]

Essence: Every Dog has its Day, so have both patience and courage. This is the lead in sloka for the famous Tale of the Jackal and the war-drum. The key takeaway of the story is the nature of life having ups and downs. The fearful jackal took courage after hearing the sound of the war-drum and upon investigation was happy at his good luck at finding a pot of food making the sound. But upon eating it, he hurt his mouth and realised it was just a strip of leather. So who knows what turns the life of others may take, if they are fortunate, be patient for you may find out they may not be so fortunate after all. Better to wait your turn for good fortune than to be jealous of others.


Na yasya cheshtitham vidhyaanna kulam, na paraakramam|

Na tasya visvaset praajno yadeechhechreya maathmanah|| T.1, sl. 285

A wise man, desirous of his well-being, should never trust a stranger whose demeanour, family-tradition or strength be not known. “[1, 156]

Self explanatory: Don’t be gullible. If you must trust, verify. Be wary of strangers.


Svabhavo nopadeshena sakthye kathurmanyathaa|

Suthaptamapi paaneeyam punargacchathi sheetataam || T1, sl., 281

The nature (of beings) can not be altered through preaching, because, water, even heated properly, regains its coolness again [1, 153]

When we understand the fundamental natures (prakrutti) of people, animals, and even nations, then we are forewarned of whether or not to place trust in them. This encourages caution in dealing with others.


Anaagatham yah kuruthe sa shobhathe, sa shochyethe, yo na karothya naagatham|

Vanethra samsthasya samaagatha jaraa, bilasya vaanee na kadaa’pi me shruthah || T.3., sl.212

One, who takes action after pre-meditation, shines; he, who does the opposite (i.e. acts without pre-meditation), comes to grief. Old age came over me while living here, but I never heard the words of a cave. [1, 506]

Forewarned is forearmed: This is the celebrated story of the jackal, the lion, and the cave. Suspicious of the tracks leading into a cave, the quick-minded jackal concocted a ruse to test whether anyone was there. The lion foolishly fell for it, by calling back to the jackal, who realised the cave was indeed occupied by a dangerous lion. Forewarned is forearmed.


Sa suhrdh vyasane yah syadanya jatyubdhavo’pi san|

Vrddho sarvo’pi mithram syat sarvashaameva dehinaam|| T.1, sl.368

A true friend is he, who, although born in another caste, comes to rescue in distressfull…times, as, in prosperity all behave as friends with all men [1, 203]

A friend in need is a friend indeed. False friends only linger during good times; they show their true face afterwards. A true friend is known by the consistent assistance he renders.


Yo mitraani karotyatra, na kautilyena vartthathe|

Thauh samam na paraabhoothim sampraapnothi kathanchana|| T.2, sl.199

A man, who makes many friends and never behaves with them in a manner filled with duplicacy, always gains victory with their assistance and never gets defeated. [1, 390]

This sloka, and indeed, the entire Mitra-sampraapthi section, discusses the importance of gaining friends. Through collective action and collaboration among friends, even the greatest enemies can be defeated. Therefore, it is important to work together as a team, whether among friends or family. Then, irrespective of individual fortunes being up or down, the good of all is preserved.




It is now long past time for Bharatiyas to wake up and smell the coffee. While they boast about IQ and perform poodle tricks, their enemies—who value wisdom over knowledge—are running circles around them. The truth is, our people have become laughingstocks, and everyone is in on the joke but them. In fact, that is why they ask for your opinion, to laugh at you behind your backs cause they know you can’t shut up.

Api saastroshu kusalaa, lokaachaaravivarjithaah |

Sarva tho haasyathaam yaanthi, yatha the moorkhapandithah || T.5, sl.39

Even though skilled in sastras, if, men are short of knowledge of worldy dealings, they become the laughing-stocks (subject of derision) like those foolish panditas. [1, 652]

What other people could be so stupid as to not support their own and turn to foreigners to educate them…on their own culture? What other people could be so stupid as to promote the same people working to destroy them…out of “friendship!” or rivalry with their own? What other people could be so stupid as to think that they can give gyaan on strategy and statecraft without having the leadership competence and experience to run even a popsicle stand?  If our people are stupid today, it is not because of native culture, but despite it! When bollywood garbage and corrupted campy languages are considered “high culture”, what else will you produce besides debauched mimbos and bimbos?

The Panchatantra is no mere story of animal fables. The Panchatantra is a work of  concentrated Tapasya by Acharya Vishnusarman to educate even the most stupid, stubborn, selfish, and supercilious of souls on the value of Niti. “Practical worldly wisdom is expressed for human beings, desirous of their well-being”. [1, ] It is to explain how sentiment and hedonism and gullibility cannot guide us and be a way of life. We must be serious people who understand natures and intentions of others, then we know the right course of action. That is how we find the balance between svadharma and Civilizational Survival, because Dharma and Niti themselves are joined at the hip. Dharma itself mandates Civilizational Survival, and Niti is the means to achieve it.

 That is the value of the Panchatantra. And that is why it must be studied, first as a child, then as an adult. Start today.

 tales_from_the_panchatantra__78606.1407097467.1280.1280panchatantrabookpanchatantra hindi

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*Translations of these Selections are generally not literal and are meant to convey the equivalent thought or lesson in English.


  1. Jha, Naveen Kumar & Anjana. Srivisnusarmans’ Pancatantram. Delhi: J.P.Publishing House. 2016
  2. Rajan, Chandra. The Pancatantra. London: Penguin. 1993

Classical Indic Literature IV: Epic Poetry


The soul of a culture and civilization is embodied in its National Epics. Not just the values and high-minded principles, but also its emotions, core, and national character. That is the importance of High Culture and the Indigenous Indic Literary Canon, and that is the value of today’s topic in our continuing Series on Classical Indic Literature.

Readers may recall the previous articles in the series: Literary Theory, Poetics, & Dramatics. Part IV continues with a survey of Epic Poetry.

Epic Poetry

From the Epic of Gilgamesh to the Prose & Poetic Edda, Epic Poetry has a crucial place in the annals of World Literature. It is often adapted as was Milton’s Paradise Lost, re-constructed as was the Aeneid, or even outright constructed, as was the case of the Silmarillion. In fact, J.R.R. Tolkien of Lord of the Rings fame, is said to have written the latter on account of a desire to create a mythology for the English, and mythos to reference in LOTR. Allegations of anti-semitism aside, Richard Wagner is said to have held a similar fascination for Norse Mythology, which was adapted for the Germanic people for a Teutonic mythos. But what others called mythology, we call Sacred History. [2]

Indeed, the category of Epic Poetry in the Indic context is better served by native terminology of Itihasa-Purana and Mahakavya For us, these stories, names, and even places are not made up, but in most cases, stories, names, and places that are still being lived or lived on today. Ayodhya is not some imaginary city, but an important municipality that stands even today and is revered by millions. Mathura is not on some distant planet, but a place of pilgrimage to the common person. Kasi is not merely a crowded, polluted town, but the holiest city in Hinduism. They are as much the cities of Rama, Krishna, and Divodasa, as they are Pradhan Mantri Narendra’s.

That is why, even when characters and various lokas seem fantastical in the modern world, they still hold a very real relevance because the earthly places  themselves still exist. Whether we believe these stories took place verbatim, or believe them to be mere atisayokti (hyperbole) added to true events per the storyteller’s prerogative, Itihasa-Purana is at the heart of our heritage. Empires may fall, cities may be destroyed, but the heritage of a people, indeed their historical memory and civilizational identity, is contained in its stories and epics. That is also why “mythologists” and assorted videshi vipers have been hissing and spreading sometimes sweet, but usually sour, poison about our stories and figures, whether male, or increasingly female. When they are ‘Invading the Sacred, it becomes all the more important that we reassert the sacredness of our epics and adapt them to the modern context.

Classical Indic Epics

What are the civilizational epics of Bharatavarsha? How many are the national epics of India? The short answer is 2, 20, and 32.  Virtually every Bharatiya  when prompted about the sacred epics of their society will instantly respond: Ramayana & Mahabharata.   And this is for good reason. They are our two most important epics and central stories as they are not only spotlights on the national character, and guidebooks on dharmic living, but they in turn connect us to the overarching Puranas and our ultimate Vedic tradition. Both are stories within stories. As the Silmarillion provides the backstory that makes the Lord of the Rings all the more compelling, so too the Puranas provide the backstory that makes the Ramayana and Mahabharata all the more compelling.

But while Tolkien had to invent a mythology for a nice story, we have ready made Pauranic punditry to bring to life the Ramayana and Mahabharata’s sacred history. The Lord of the Rings and the western literary canon are generally mere fiction meant to provide entertaining stories. But the Ramayana and Mahabharata provide a moral compass for society. That is why we study them and make serials which no Hollywood or Bollywood could replace. Their profundity surpasses production capacity of the big screen.

But along with these 2 Sanskrit epics and the 18 Maha Puranas that form the corpus of Pauranic literature, we also have contributions from Baudha Dharma and Jina Dharma via associated Sanskrit and Tamizh Literature.  First, there is the Buddhacharita of Ashvagosha. Then there are the 5 main epics of Tamizh Literature. Finally, there are the Mahakavyas. These are the 5 main great poems of Sanskrit: Kumarasambhava, Raghuvamsa, Kiratarjuneeya, Sisupalavadha, and Naisadheeya Charita, by Kalidasa, Bharavi, Magha, and Sri Harsha respectively.

Despite being mere adaptations of Pauranic history as Paradise Lost was to “biblical history”,  these Mahakavyas have over the course of time acquired a potent character so as to be almost sacred. The truth is, given the 30 million texts in sanskrit alone (leave aside Tamizh, Prakrit, and Pali), countless tomes can be classified as Epic Poetry. But what what is it that truly makes a work Itihasa-Purana, or a Purana, or a Mahakavya?

That is where the tradition itself and the adhyatmic authorities who guide it, play the presiding role, not some self-appointed videshi “dhotiwallah’, pretending to go native.  What text has served to provide moral education and critical understanding of our Dharmic tradition? That is what elevated even the Mahakavyas to the level of secondary epics.


Before we commence with this exegesis on the epics, it is important to briefly touch on those two mightiest of poets, who art the fount of both poesy and wisdom, from which men of the dread Kali Age derive their dharma and direction.



Known as the Adi Kavi, Maharishi Valmiki, and his own wondrous story of redemption, needs no introduction to the cultured Indian person. From robber-hunter to wise Sage to majestic poetic, he is the man who gave us our most inspiring tale of familial and fraternal love, and yet inspires us with his own biography.

He uses the anushtubh metre in his wonderful poem, imbued with the spirit of his tapas. Like the Ramayana, his is a story of vindication. Indeed, his life alone demonstrates that it is not mere learning or knowledge or certified scholarship that marks an acharya or authority on literature (let alone a Maharishi), but rather, sadhana and shraddha.   Like the Aayana of Rama, Valmiki’s journey is one that awakens not just the mind but also the soul, and the fruit of his Tapas, is our beloved Ramayana.

Veda Vyasa


Better known as Krishna Dvaipayana, “the Island Born” Krishna (as distinguished from the other Krishnas: Draupadi, and Vasudeva), Maharishi Veda Vyasa is famous for, among many other things, compiling the Vedas and presenting them in their present form.

Per the tradition, the full corpus of the Vedas could no longer be memorised and understood by a single human being in a single lifespan, due to the moral and physical degeneration of man in the Kali Yuga. As such, at the End of the Dvapara, he divided the Vedas into the Chaturveda as we know them today. However, in their original form, these only constituted Karma Kanda, that is, the portion of Vedic Knowledge associated with ritual and yajna. The remaining portions of the traditional “Veda” include Jnana Kanda (The Upanishands) and Upasana/Bhakti Kanda (Bhagavata Purana).

As such, the work of this mighty Maharishi spans the breadth of our tradition: from the Vedas, to the Itihasas, to the Puranas. The son of Satyavathi and Maharishi Parasara not only compiled the Vedas, and composed the Mahabharata, but features in the latter as well. Nevertheless, his story and greatness are a matter for another time. It is time to understand what makes an epic, epic.


Arjuna in Indonesia

The sway of our epics has spanned the breadth of the world. However, nowhere outside of India has their impact been more obvious than South East Asia. Our ancestors crossed the oceans, and the love of Indic culture and civilization created new Ayodhya’s across the samudra. Mahakavi Dandin wrote that “lore is the boat for those who desire to cross the deep ocean of poetry”[5, 7]. That is the value of not only the epics, but understanding of Itihasa-Purana and Sastra. The value of each reference, each allusion, each simile, and their respective depths-of-meaning can only be fully absored by one well-versed in lore.

Despite the sophistication of Classical Indic Poetry, its brilliance is in capturing the most elevating of sentiments and philosophies in the simplest and most sundaram of stories.



Divided into six books, kandas (though the 7th Uttara Kanda is sometimes added), the Ramayana is the most beloved of all Indic epics, and the masterpiece of Maharishi Valmiki.  [10, 72] It is for this reason, known as the Adi Kavya, and its author, the Adi Kavi. It is 500 cantos and 24,000 verses of pure spiritual beauty. Was it history? When did it take place? Some say thousands of years ago, some say, Chatur-yugas ago. Nevertheless, this is the singular work that binds the heart and soul of Indic civilization together. This is not due to geography  or history or even morality, but the pure sentiment of the work. Despite being dharmopadesa, it is a poem of vatsalya (familial affection).

So much so is this the case that even the video game, Sid Meier’s Civilization, refered to the Ramayana as a civilizational achievement that boosted the morality and happiness of a populace. Yet in our era, this timeless tale is attacked from all corners without proper understanding, or unwillingness to undertand, its subtlety and moral high-mindedness.

From Presidents of the Republic, to local dhobis, it is the universally known and universally recited epic of our civilization. From the small child, to the greatest warrior, all draw inspiration from its simple elegance, profound sentiment, and hope against hopelessness. The well-known story of Lord Vishnu’s 7th incarnation as Rama, the Crown Prince of Ayodhya, his wife Princess Sita, his loyal brothers, his beloved bhaktas, his vaunted lineage, and his destiny’s enemy  Ravana, are all so woven into our being that it is verily part of our national character, and can be discussed at another time.

Nevertheless, it is a guidebook for individuals and the conducting of individual relationships. It captures the sweetness of family life and provides a cautionary tale of how selfishness and jealousy lead to division. But it is also a triumph. While the Mahabharata destroys one family, the Ramayana victoriously reunites this one.  It is a tale of a family reunited, because they were able to surmount the bitterness of circumstantial division (caused by fate), and ultimately triumph because all the brothers and all the sisters-in-law did their duty. One sin by one mother nearly destroyed a kingdom. But it was the nobility of the eldest brother and the sacrifice of the second-eldest, and the selflessness of the two youngest, that ensured the family was ultimately able to triumph over all tragedies. The rightful heir became king, and the people received good government, not only because they were worthy of Ram Rajya (unlike our current crop), but because all rejected the Perils of Ambition.

Fittingly, this very theme of ambition and its perils would be evaluated in the Epic that defined the very geography of Bharatavarsha, the War of the Bharatas.



The epic of epics, the Bharata of Bharatas, the incarnation of incarnations, all are so contained in this magnum opus of Maharishi Veda Vyasa that the very name evokes sweeping grandeur. The familiar story of a family divided, and the fratricidal war that follows, shows not only the ultimate restoration of dharma, but also the dangers of internecine and inter-familial rivalry.

That, incidentally, is also part of the lesson of the epic Poem for which the future Sapta Rishi is famous for. Originally known as Jaya, and Bharata, the Mahabharata is the single greatest epic known to man. Requiring no introduction to any Bharatiya of worth, it is more than just the record of a rivalry or war as with the Iliad or the tale of journey a la Odyssey, but is an expression of the philosophical, political, societal, and strategic culture of Dharma itself. “It is not an epic written to please the kings sitting on the throne” [10,62]. It is a guide of societies. “The artistic unity and symmetry, the harmony and the right proportion of the various parts and the natural way in which events follow events and items are introduced in various contexts –all these make the epic a real work of art.” [10,62]

At 18 chapters and 180,000 verses, and 1.8 million words, it is the single longest epic poem in World Civilization. Ten times larger than the Iliad and the Odyssey put together, it is four times longer than the Ramayana.  Simultaneously discussing various aspects of humanity, and with numerous side stories and side instruction, a veritable lifetime itself could be spent poring over its plentiful details and nuances. What begins on the banks of the Ganga, featuring its eponymous Goddess and the Kuru King Shantanu, ends not on that famous field of the Kurus, or even with the end of Sri Krishna avatar, but concludes with an exhortation to moral behaviour. While the Ramayana is written in the form of a recitation, the Mahabharata is written as a dialogue, of Rishi Vaisampayana recounting the story to King Pareekshit. It predominantly uses anushtubh chanda (metre). Said to take place in the Dvapara Age, the passing of Krishna, iniated the start of the Kali Yuga (3102 B.C.E).

As the world’s longest poem, veritable tomes let alone articles could be written on the best of Bharatas. Where to begin and where to end in the discussion of the sum total of human experience? Maharishi Veda Vyasa himself notes that while what is contained in it may be found elsewhere, there is nothing found elsewhere that is not contained in it. Therefore, better to end this section on the Mahabharata with the sloka that best defines epic:

Oorddhva baahurviromyesha na kashchit shrnothi me
Dharmaath artthasha kaamascha kim na sevyati? (Svargarohanika Parva, S.5)

I raise my hands up [in frustration] and say “The way to wealth and love is through Dharma—why doesn’t anybody listen?!”

Classical Indic Literature traditionally maintains the category of Itihasa-Purana. While the two Civilizational epics cross the threshold of that liminality, because our tradition holds them as sacred physical history, there are nevertheless the namesake Puranas that are clearly meta-physical in nature.


Bhagavatapurana picture
Bhagavatha Purana

There are traditionally 18 Maha Puranas and 18 Upa Puranas. While the Ramayana and Mahabharata are often referred to as Puranas, per the tradition, in the Pauranic context, they are referred to as Itihaasa. Many such as the Vayu Purana are mentioned in supplements to the Epic of the Bharatas. Thus, the 18 Maha Puranas, generally of later origin, can therefore be distinguished. Of these, the Bhagavatha Purana is of the greatest importance, while the others are often assigned a younger date circa 300 B.C.E. [10, 76] This is because when Maharishi Veda Vyasa, at the end of the Dvapara (5117 years ago) was compiling the Vedas, it was determined that the traditional corpus could no longer be mastered by a single brahmana. As such, he divided it into karma-kanda (Chatur-Veda), jnana-kanda (Upanishads), and upasana/bhakti-kanda (Bhagavatha Purana).  The other 17 Maha Puranas are as follows: Padma Purana, Vishnu Purana, Shiva Purana, Skanda Purana, Vayu Purana, Brahma Purana, Brahmanda Purana, Brahma-Vaivarta Purana, Agni Purana, Garuda Purana, Linga Purana, Markandeya Purana, Matsya Purana, Kurma Purana, Varaaha Purana, Vamana Purana,  and Naradheeya Purana.

The Dasavatara of Lord Vishnu is predominantly discussed here. Per tradition, the Puranas are all said to be extensions of the Mahabharata, and thus, all are sometimes credited to Maharishi Veda Vyasa. [10,74] Nevertheless, there is more to them than moral instruction. Interestingly, we find that despite being spiritual in nature, and dealing with the creation story of the universe, they remain works of great literary significance. Women too are provided with a prominent place. The Shiva Purana itself critically features episodes concerning Goddess Durga.


The 18 upa-puranas typically deal with matters of lesser importance. These include the history of place names, and thus, many are called “sthala purana”. [10,79]

Nevertheless, Jina Dharma (Jaina/ Jainism) and Baudha Dharma (Buddhism) also made significant contribution to Epic Poetry.


Ashvagosha wrote his famous Buddhacharita in the days of Kanishka. Considered a good poet writing “true poetry”, he nevertheless has, unlike Mahakavis, the intention to sermonise, and he does so plentifully. Despite differing in panth, he looked to Adi Kavi and the compiler of the Vedas for inspiration. He himself annointed it a Mahakavya and composed it in Sanskrit (as opposed to the traditional Pali). [7, ii] Only half the work (17 cantos) is said to have come down to us, four of which are not considered authentic. In fact, in a recurring issue, we have a later poet adding on to the original work. Translations in Tibetan and Chinese take the original number to 22 cantos at least. [10, 131] We see the episodes involving Siddartha Gautama‘s life in the palace, eventual despair at the cycle of samsara, and quest for enlightenment. The language used is simple but elegant, and very much in line with the Vaidarbhi style of Acharya Dandin.

Interestingly enough, Ashvagosha is credited with a lesser  known epic the Saundara-nanda. A work in 18 cantos, it begins in the city of Kapilavastu with the father (Suddodhana) and brother of the Tathagatha, namely  Nanda. Here we see the rise of the Buddha’s half brother to the throne, and understand his ambivalence between the exigencies and pleasures of the material world, and the buddhist beatitude of the spiritual world. [10, 132-4]. Whether it should be considered a formal epic in the league of the Buddhacharita is another matter, but in “the Saundara-nanda, there is a deliberate introduc-tion of the poet’s erudition in the ancient lore of India, various names of sages and of poets of the ancient times, the Vedic rituals and customs and manners, stories of the heroes of old and so on.” [10,133]

Considered a work of great dexterity and kavya skill, the Saundara-nanda of Ashvagosha gives us an understanding of sampradayic relations. In fact, in “his works we see the great reverence which the poet had for Vedic literature and Vedic culture”. [10,133] As such, the actual “integral unity” of our tradition is apparent once again. This is also apparent in the Jain canon and in the classical Tamil language.

Tamizh & Jain Literature

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Among the other classical languages, Tamizh (Tamil) naturally stands out. There are 5 epic poems credited to the Sangam Age that define this branch of the Indic canon. These epics, nevertheless, are the Silappathikaram, the Manimekalai, the Sivaka Chintamani, Valayapathi, and Kundalakesi. Interestingly enough, though most of Jain literature, especially the Purvas and Angas, is in Ardh-Magadhi (Prakrit) or Sanskrit, it is in Tamizh that we see its philosophy come to life in epic form.

While the  Manimekalai favours Baudha Dharma, Jain themes are replete in the Sivaka Chinatamani and the Valayapathi. Tamizh itself by tradition is attributed to Lord Shiva, and its grammar credited to Maharishi Agasthya, per his disciple Tolkappiyar (who wrote the Tolkappiyam). Sangam literature itself is presently dated to the 3rd Century B.C.E. to the 1st, though it is likely older. The most famous however remains the Silappathikaram. It too is a tale that is replete in Dharma, and the heroine, Kannagi, said to be an incarnation of Devi herself. These epics are filled with themes of heroism and valour. [16]

Tamil literature in fact contains numerous resplendent gems, such as the Thirukural and the Kamba Ramayana. Nevertheless, in order to properly appreciate these classics, it best to learn from proponents of the tradition themselves,  here.


There are, according to tradition, 5 Mahakavyas in number, and thus, they are known as the Pancha Mahakavya. [10,136] Of course, alert students (and motivated videshis) are quick to question why Ashvagosha’s work or Bhatti’s Kavya are not included in this number. But that is a matter for another time and another article. At present, we shall limit ourselves to the traditional number and works.

These are: Kumara-Sambhava and Raghuvamsa of Kalidasa, Sishupala-vadha of Magha, Kiratarjuneeya of Bharavi, and Naishada Charita or Naisadeeya of Sri Harsha. In his Kavyadarsa, Mahakavi Dandin has stipulated conditions for a poem to be classified as a Mahakavya:

The truly great work of Poetry is the Mahakavya (Great Poem). A type of this is the Sarga-bandha, which is” a Mahakavya that has a beginning with a benediction or indication of contents, it deals with purusharthas and has one of the four types of heroes. It describes the various phases of romance between great lovers, their journeys, trials and tribulations, uses rasa and bhava, has reasonable size chapters and will survive several kalpas. [5, 8-10]

Reputed scholar M.R.Kale defines it as follows: “A Mahakavya is a metrical composition which ought to be divided into cantos, not less than eight and more than thirty in number, and not containing less than thirty and more than two hundred slokas in each.” [6, v]. He further writes that it may be concered with the life of a single hero (Kiratarjuneeyam) or an entire race of kings (Raghuvamsa). The hero should possess the qualities of the Dhirodatta Nayaka (hero of sublime qualities). Moreover, each canto is required to have a uniform metre, which much be changed at its end–with some exceptions. What’s more, at the conclusion of each canto, the subject matter or predominant rasa should be indicated. “A Mahakavya must, as well, contain descriptions of great cities, oceans, mountains, seasons, the rise of the sun and the moon, sportings with ladies in gardens and water, drinkings, separations and unions of lovers &c. The style should be highly sentimental and embellished with figures of speech &c. Nothing that violates the dignity of poetry, such as unmeaning talk &c. should find place in a Mahakavya.“[6,vi]

Given these guidelines, it is obvious to see that only a poet of great skill, a true Mahakavi, can aspire to complete a true Mahakavya. It is for this reason that, while many epic poems have been attempted before and completed since, it is only these 5 poems in Sanskrit that are traditionally referred to as Mahakavyas. It is also why 3 of the 4 poets below wrote at least 1, and the remaining 1 was a master of poetics.

Upama Kalidasasya, Bharaverartha gauravam ! Dandinah padalalityam, Maghe santi trayogunah !!

The simile of Kalidasa, the depth of meaning of Bharavi, the word-play of Dandin, in Magha all three qualities are found! [4]

There are of course many other poems that are epic in nature, not only in Sanskrit, but many other languages. By some estimates 3000 sanskrit works have been composed since Bharatiya Svatantra (Indian Independence). But these Pancha Mahakavya have acquired a certain sanctity that, like canon law among the Anglo-Saxons, has a certain authority of their own. The first of these authorities is none other than poet extraordinaire, Mahakavi Kalidasa.


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Kalidasa is reckoned the poet among poets, and an artist of the first echelon. Reams can be written on him, and indeed have been, and will be. Nevertheless, the focus of today is not on his life or even his poet grace, but the majesty of his mahakavyas, the first of which is the Kumarasambhava.

The Kumarasambhava of Kalidasa is a tour-de-force of literary effort of a very high order, and is in fact the oriflamme of Indian poetic genius. It is a gem among Kalidasa’s poetic works“. So wrote eminent scholar C.R. Devadhar. But what is it that makes this recounting of the Birth of the War God, so resonant with power and redolent with sentiment?

Adapting the a portion of the Skanda Purana, it discusses the marriage of Shiva and Parvati and the Birth of their child, Kumara (Karthikeya/Muruga/Skanda), who will grow up to become the commander-in-chief of the Devas and defeat the demon Tarakasura. There are some who assert that due to presence of eros in the gandhamadhana episode, that Kalidasa’s pupils must have finished sections of it, to account for the disparity. There are others of more foreign disposition who assert that all of Sanskrit kavya is eros, so there is no point in drawing morality from it (this specifically is patent nonsense). It is true that as both Kama and his mate Rati feature in the Kumarasambhava, so too do Sringara rasa and Rati bhava accompany each other. But as both this mahakavya, and the one we end with demonstrate, the nava rasa is present in the discussion of dharma, because dharma pervades all 9 of them. A poem in 17 cantos (though Kalidasa is usually credited only with 8),[10,120]  its predominent rasa is Sringara, but due to the great battle that is to ensure, it has elements of Vira rasa as well, as can be seen here:

God Kumara, too, indulging in the sport of war, snapp-ed into bits the arrows and the bow of the Asura, just as a Yogi, himself dry as dust, by his yaugic practices, snaps the infallible bonds of Samsara s.47,C.7 [7,252]


return of ramaThe Raghuvamsa is one of the most beautiful epic poems composed by man. This mahakavya of Mahakavi Kalidasa, is singularly one of his best works. While he normally distinguishes himself through upama (that is simile), here we find a magnificent work conceived from start to finish, encapsulating the glory of the dynasty of the Raghus.  The maturity of the poet’s age and talent is seen in the sophistication of this composition.

There are by tradition 25 cantos, of which 19 have come down to us. [7,ii] The great Telugu commentator Mallinatha, from new Telangana state, famously did a commentary on it. Raghuvamsa begins with a salutation to Lord Shiva and then commences with the story of King Dilipa. From there it proceeds to the rise of Raghu, then Aja, then Dasaratha, and the veritable tilika of the Raghus himself, Sri Ramachandra. After relating key episodes in the Ramayana, in proceeds to successors from Kusha down to Agnivarna. In a long line of kings of high character, the last one named proves a libertine. Nevertheless, it ends on a note of hope, mentioning his pregnant wife.

In an era of special effects and CGI, the Raghuvamsa nevertheless proves an engaging and even engrossing read. Filled with action, softened by sentiment, and replete with deep-seating meaning and moral principle, it is the complete Mahakavya. And discussing Kings from the Uttarapatha down to the Dakshinapatha (the Chola king is invited to a Svayamvara), it is the complete Indian Mahakavya. [7]


As the title indicates, this poem adapts an infamous episode from the Mahabharata, known as the Slaying of Sishupala, the evil cousin of Krishna. But what marks the skill of the poet is not the description of the blades of the Sudarshana chakra. Rather, it is the very apogee of not only poetic skill, but imagination and conception of rhetoric device. That is why makes Sisupala-vadha an unique, intricate, and memorable work.

It is said by some that Magha, in whom all three qualities of great poetry are said to be found, was in fact inspired by Bharavi.  There are many points of resemblance. “It is said that the name Magha was assumed by the poet to indicate when Magha (a month in the cold season) comes Bharavi (the sun) loses his splendour“. [6, xxii] A few examples alone will demonstrate the consummate skill of Mahakavi Magha.

From the 114th stanza of the 19th canto, a single consonant is used to compose an entire sloka!

दाददो दुद्ददुद्दादी दाददो दूददीददोः ।
दुद्दादं दददे दुद्दे दादाददददोऽददः ॥

dādado duddaduddādī dādado dūdadīdadoḥ
duddādaṃ dadade dudde dādādadadado’dadaḥ

“Sri Krishna, the giver of every boon, the scourge of the evil-minded, the purifier, the one whose arms can annihilate the wicked who cause suffering to others, shot his pain-causing arrow at the enemy.”

Naisadheeya Charita


Naisadhiya-carita is philosophy and all sciences and other currents of thought brought into poetry, or poetry presenting all the systems of philosophy and all the sciences and currents of thought knit around a simple and familiar story. There are elaborate descriptions, both of nature and of human emotions.“[11, 147]. Such is the glowing the glowing account of the Naisadheeya Charita of Sri Harsa Deva. But of all the why’s and who’s that come up, the first is whether the aforementioned Harsa is in fact Emperor Harshavardhana of Kannauj, the famous king of Kanyakubja who ruled Northern India in the 7th Century C.E.


From all accounts, this appears to be the case. He, in fact, is credited with a number of other works including the dramas Ratnavali, Svapnavasavadatta, and Nagananda. If this is in fact beyond a doubt, then it only goes to show that the model of Indic manliness and kingship, the embodiment of Nara Dharma, is in fact shown through harmony of prowess in battle and cultivation of culture.

A composition in 22 cantos, the Naisadheeya is an account of the famous episode in the Mahabharata concerning the Nishada King Nala and his lady love Queen Damayanti.[11,xx] It discusses their romance, and marriage. Harsha’s language is described as “lucid and grand“. “Harsha’s philosophy does not affect the art in his poetry; on the other hand, he beautifies his philosophy by giving it a coat of art”. [11, 147]



The Kiratarjuneeyam is that famous Mahakavya that celebrates the episode of Arjuna fighting Lord Shiva in the guise of  Kirata (mountain-man) and later receiving his blessing and Pasupat-astra. Composed by Mahakavi Bharavi, its predominant sentiment is Vira rasa (heroic). While little has come down to us about its author, it is not the clash of arms that has elevated this composition to the stratosphere, but for the power of the poetry itself.

Bharaver-artha gauravam is a famous portion of a sloka on the sanskrit Mahakavis, and this is not without cause.  Bharavi is famous for his depth of meaning and we understand why from the first canto. His expertise in political philosophy and rajniti is apparent throughout, and thus, it is as much as a pragmatic work as it is poetic. It has been referred to by other commentators as “one of the most vigorous and spirited poems in the Sanskrit language“. [6,xxi] Mallinatha remarked that  Bharavi’s style was like a coconut “which has to be broken before one can get at the sweet kernel“. [6,xxii] But why learn second hand what you an see for yourselves. Here is a sample sloka.

Abhimaana dhanasya gathvarairasubhih sthaasnu yasaschi cheeshathah|

Achiramshu vilaasa chanchalaa nanu lakshmih phala maanush-angikam|| C.2, s.19

To a man regarding self-respect as his wealth and seeking imperishable (lasting) glory by (at the cost of) perishable life,

wealth which is unsteady like a flash of lightning is but an object of secondary consideration.  [6, 112]



In the era of 300 Ramayanas, Ravanleela, Siya ke Ram, and Sita sings the Blues, the very accuracy, let alone efficacy and sanctity of epics has been questioned. Bharatiyas, particularly the English-medium variety, are being “saved” by foreigners who are falling over themselves to rescue them from the very upper castes who feature in and composed these epics…if only we’d gosh darn let them! But why are they and their 300 Ramayana’s theories so full of Beowulf?–because our tradition also asserted what is the original. Despite being a proud Telugu speaker, I know that the Andhra Mahabharatamu may be a wonderful re-telling, but it does not have the authority of Vyasa.

It is the height of foreign arrogance to think that a Nina Paley could have the same authority as Maharishi Valmiki. This is because if countless and contradictory variations serve as ultimate authority, than what is the lesson we are meant to draw? So why do our “phoreign sabiours” insist?–It is because if epics can be and mean anything, then they are and mean nothing. That is the true value of epics: Dharma Upadesa. They give us upadesa (moral instruction) and niti (lesson) from which to guide our life. Does the heartbroken Nina Paley have the same authority of a tested Philosopher? Why the reverence of Derridas, but not Valmiki? That is why regional variations and assorted 300 Ramayanas, whatever their literary merit, provide adaptation to local needs, but the paramount authority remains the original version composed after sadhana and intense tapas, repeatedly chanting the syllables “Ma Ra”, as japa, resulting in that sweetest of phala:

Ra Ma.

Accordingly, the Valmiki Ramayana and the Vyasa Mahabharata stand out not only because they are the originals (and therefore, canon) but are pan-Indic in nature and their influence spans the subcontinent. In fact, it is not the “Valmiki Ramayana”, but simply The Ramayana, as it is the authentic version that all others bow to, draw from, and depend upon. That the Mahakavyas all draw their inspiration from these two as well as the Maha Puranas, only further demonstrates their status and that they are in a class of their own. Epic Poetry is itself a non-Indic classification. As such, as feted as the Mahakavyas are for their literary merit (and deservingly so), it is only the original Ramayana and Mahabharata that are worthy of the appellation Itihasa-Purana, and the due reverence they deserve. The others are unofficial upa-puranas at best, but more likely mahakavyas.

Those pseudo-intellectual Ivory & Ivy tower pinheads who mock our stories and serialised epics as “masculinasation of [effeminate] hindoos” should keep their shameless colonial terminology to themselves. The Raj era racist tripe against “Hindoos” is well known (and its modern day variants easily detectable), and these Western Europeans are the modern-day bearers of that ‘White Man’s Burden’. Perhaps that is why they decry the popping of that bubble so much (and having failed, perhaps that is why their attack is from the other end of the spectrum now). Yes, our heroes were manly, but also respectful of women. It is not a cowardly Parthian shot by retreating central asian horse archers, or conquest through canon from a distance and deception that marks manliness. It is not just power, but strength of character… integrity. Do these self-proclaimed, self-assuming “masculine” races have it?


Why do they attack our sacred stories? A certain Shri Srinivasan has ventured a theory. Perhaps that is why they brand Bhagvan Ram and deride Durga Ma, because they themselves are insecure at the piffle they’ve produced. Can the Iliad and Odyssey, or Lusiad and or assorted tales of chivalry, even hold a candle to just our two epics?

Indic Epic Poetry is attacked so heavily for other reasons as well. “This immense literature consisting of the Itihaasas and the Puraanas held the nation together, resisting the tendencies for separation and even disruption on account of geographical distances, introduction of new religious beliefs and practices, presences of different races in the country and the incursion of foreign tribes into country, and also the development of many regional languages into literary languages. ” [10,79]

It is no wonder that the Vedas and the Itihaas and the Puraanas are worshipped by the nation as the path for salvation. These specimens of poetry and their poets are the real saviours of the country from utter ruin. [10,79]

As a cosmopolitan person, it is important to appreciate what the rest of the world has produced. From Sun Tsu to Ovid, there is in fact much to appreciate in global literature, whether practical or philosophical. It is good to read widely and recognise wisely what is good in others. But it is even more important to do so, while being firmly rooted in one’s own tradition. That is the value of our Sacred Epics and Epic Poetry. It is only by juxtaposition (upamana) that we understand the beauty of what we have, and it is only by knowing the beauty of what we have, that we can correctly appreciate beauty in others.

But above all, Epic Poetry and Itihasa-Purana are crucial for reasons, ironically, that the Lord of the Rings itself best expressed.

And we shall conclude with that.


  1. The Mahabharata. http://sacred-texts.com/hin/maha/index.htm
  2. Srinivasan, Rajeev. Firstpost. “Modi right to Ditch English”. (June 11, 2014) http://www.firstpost.com/india/modi-right-to-ditch-english-but-he-should-speak-sanskrit-at-un-1563899.html
  3. Malhotra, Rajiv. http://rajivmalhotra.com/library/articles/myth-hindu-sameness/
  4. Das, Sisir Kumar. A History of Indian Literature, 500-1399: From Courtly to the Popular. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi. 2005. p.75
  5. Sastrulu, V.V., and Ed. Rabindra K. Panda. Kavyadarsah of Dandin. Delhi: Bharatiya Kala Prakashan. 2008
  6. Kale, M.R. Kiratarjuniyam of Bharavi.Delhi: MLBD. 1993
  7. Devadhar, C.R. Works of Kalidasa. Vol. II. Delhi: MLBD. 2010
  8. Mishra, Sampadananda. The wonder that is Sanskrit. Sri Aurobindo Society, Vijay (2002).pp. 3
  9. The Ramayana. http://www.valmikiramayan.net/
  10. Raja, C. Kunhan. Survey of Sanskrit Literature.Delhi: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. 1962
  11. Kale, M.R. Ratnavali of Sri Harsa-Deva. Delhi: MLBD. 2011
  12. Malhotra, Rajiv. Sulekha. 2002. http://creative.sulekha.com/the-axis-of-neocolonialism_103313_blog
  13. http://www.thehindu.com/br/2004/02/03/stories/2004020300331500.htm
  14. R. S. Sharma; June Gaur.Ancient Indian Literature: An Anthology. Sahitya Akademi.Sahitya Akademi (New Delhi, Inde).2000 p. 137.
  15. http://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/kozhikode/capturing-the-essence-of-18-puranangal-in-murals/article6271621.ece
  16. Sastri, K.A.Nilakantha. A History of South India. New Delhi: Oxford. 2015

Classical Indic Literature II: Poetics

A version of this Post was published at Andhra Cultural Portal on June 12, 2015

Kalpa Sutra Manuscript-Auspicious Dreams of Jina's Mother (wikipedia)

Continuing our Series on Classical Indic Literature is Part II: Poetics. Long time readers may recall our previous post on Literary Theory. This piece will very briefly recap some of the related concepts before quickly moving on to expand upon our discussion of our traditional art of poesy.

ACP’s coverage of Andhra literature begins at its origin point, in Classical (sastra-based) Indic Literary Theory and Poetics. Andhra’s all India auteurs like Mallinatha and Princess Gangadevi were properly schooled and cultivated in the great tradition, in order to permit their own future works.  In fact, the rajkumari of Vijayanagara herself mentions the main figure of today’s discussion as an highly accomplished poet, and noted authority on poetics.

Poetics (A reintroduction)

Literary theory in general and Poetics in particular were highly developed and sophisticated in ancient India. Indeed, it would be difficult to find a peer culture or civilization in this regard. This is apparent not only in the cultivation of the world famous Ancient Indic Nava Rasa theory, but also in the explication and categorization of works of fiction and drama, romance and comedy, poetry and prose, elite and common.

In fact, despite attempts to criticize, or failing that, digest it into the tradition of parvenus by poseurs, Classical Indic Literary Theory managed to incorporate both the elite and common worlds. As written previously, Sanskrit and Prakrit were used alongside each other, not only by the same author, but in the same dramatic compositions! In our preceding posts we discussed the theory of rasa at great length, and by association, rasavat, that which provokes sentiment. These dramatic concepts and alankara (art of rhetoric) are critical to poetics. Few demonstrated this as well as Dandin, famed for his way with words.

Upama Kalidasasya, Bharaverartha gauravam ! Dandinah padalalityam, Maghe santi trayogunah !!

The simile of Kalidasa, the depth of meaning of Bharavi, the word-play of Dandin, in Magha all three qualities are found! [3]

While Mahakavi Magha and his Sisupalavadha may be dealt with at another time, it is Acharya Dandin and his masterly art of wordplay that is our topic of today.


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Having already discussed the Dasakumaracarita at length in the last piece, we will merely place it in context here, vis-a-vis Dandin and Poetics.

The Dasakumaracarita is considered an Akhyayika. An Akhyayika should include a genealogical account of the poet’s family and also of other poets; its verses may occur in it at intervals. Its chapters are called Asvaasas, which should contain introductory verses suggestive of episodes in the story. While the Dasakumaracarita does not strictly conform with this definition of the Akhayayika, it is nevertheless considered one.

Regarding the differences between the Akhyayika and the Katha, Visvanatha of the 15th century wrote in his SahithyadarpanaIn a Katha a charming plot is composed in prose, which is interspersed with stanzas in the Arya, Vaktra, and Aparavaktra metres; in the beginning there should be a salutation to a deity, a description of the nature of villains,etc. “[2, xii].

While most non-religious stories of Ancient India tend to claim descent from the Brihat-katha of Gunadya, the Dasakumaracarita of Dandin appears to be wholly original. If Kalidasa’s couplets read like supple vines, Dandin’s verses read like a rolling brook, pleasantly bubbling in our eyes and ears. The passage below illustrates this:

There, in the course of conversation with regard to her lover, she, coming to know his family and name from Balachandrika, was overcome with intense love (with the fall of Cupid’s arrows), and began to grow emaciated day by day, like the crescent of the moon in the dark half of the month, from the pangs of separation. She gave up taking food and her other daily pursuits, and in her secret chamber restlessly rolled her creeper-like (slender) frame on a bed formed of (tender) leaves and flowers wetted with sandal-juice. Her female friends, seeing the delicate princess in that state withering with the fire of love, and feeling very sad, tried to cool her body, with materials for relief from the torment, such as water prepared for her bath, mixed with sandal, usira and camphor and kept in gold vessels, garments of lotus-fibres, and fans of lotus-leaves. Even that application of cooling reeds simply [causes] fire to appear on all sides in her body like water dropped in heated oil…(the princess) of delicate limbs was affected by the highest stage of the feverish condition of love” [1, 250-1]

 The Dasakumaracarita is a must read for any lover of great literature, particularly the Classical and  Indic. To understand the poetics and art of rhetoric that helped craft such perfect prose-poetry, Acharya Dandin’s own treatise must be read.

The Kavyadarsa

kavyadarsaThe Kavyadarsa promulgates and expounds many canons of poetic composition which show that its author had refined notions about style and its functions [1, xv]

Dandin’s work on poetics is itself poetic. Literally meaning ‘Mirror of Poetry’, the Kavyadarsa imbues us with knowledge of kavya and alankara-sastra (rhetoric) in a language redolent with the art of poesy Dandin himself extols. It is one of the earliest works on Alankara [2,ix].  Rather than being a boring list of categories and a lexicon of terms, it is fluidly composed and easy to read and digest even for the unschooled. A work of poetics that is itself poetry, it commences in appropriate fashion.  It is tradition in Sanskrit literature to begin with a benediction.

Pariccheda I

Chaturmukha mukhaambhojavana hamsavadhur mama

Maanase ramataam nityam sarvasuklaa Sarasvati P.I,S.1

May the lovely lady swan that sports among the lotus-mouths of Brahma, the all-white Sarasvati roam for ever in delight in the lotus-pool of my heart. [2,1]

Goddess Sarasvati is particularly praised by poets of all ranks, as she is the fountain of knowledge, truth, and speech. As for the work itself, it is divided into three Paricchedas, or sections. First and foremost in the first Pariccheda, where he stresses grammar, and how it is critical to understanding and evaluating poetry.

He then moves on to discuss the body of a poetic composition.

This (body) is classified threefold, as Padya, as Gadya as Misra (i.e. as verse, as prose and as a mixture of prose and verse). Verse has four feet; and (again) it is divided into two classes Vrttam and Jati (according to Varna and Matra respectively).” [2, 6]

Types of verse include Muktata, Kulaka, and Sanghaata, and are dealt with collectively as part of the Sarga-bandha. The truly great work of Poetry is the Mahakavya (Great Poem). A type of this is the Sarga-bandha, which is” a Mahakavya that has a beginning with a benediction or indication of contents, it deals with purusharthas and has one of the four types of heroes. It describes the various phases of romance between great lovers, their journeys, trials and tribulations, uses rasa and bhava, has reasonable size chapters and will survive several kalpas. [2, 8-10]

In contrast to poetry is prose, which is a sequence of words not constructed in metrical feet. Prose is divided into Akhyayika and Katha. The former, according to Dandin, is told only in the first person (from the mouth of the hero), while the latter may be told by all. The last type of literary body is Misra, which is a mix of prose and verse, usually in Nataka (dramatic) form and in Campu verse. Literature was further divided into four linguistic classes. [2,16]

“Samskrtam is the name of the celestial language which has been used by great sages; Prakrtam is divided into many ways as Tadbhava, Tasama and Desi.

In such language is the ocean of gemlike saying Setubhanda and other works.” [2,17]

In Poems, languages, like the Abhira and the like are considered as Apabhramsa; but in the sastras … any language other than Samskrtam is considered Apabhramsical. “[2, 18]

Sarga-bandha and other types of similar verses are Samskritam, Skanda and similar types are considered Prakritam, Aasara and others are Apabhramsa, and Nataka and others are considered Misrakam (due to their mixed linguistic nature).

Dandin then continues,  explicating the path of word being twofold, the path of Vidarbha and the path of Gauda.

He describes the Vidarbha as having the characateristics of “Slesa (compact), prasada (charity), Samata (evenness), Madhuryam (sweetness), Sukumarata (elegance), Arthavyakti (expressiveness), Udaratvam (excellence), Ojas (vigour), Kanti and Samadhi (structure)”[2,21]

Gauda is referred to the as the opposite of these. Slistam is when the letters are not loose and not of small breath-value while Sithilam is loose. The latter is a key part of the Gauda and adds dignity to the composition. For the uninitiated, Gauda may be deemed cumbersome, compound (sandhi), and consonant, while Vidarbha is light, short-syllabled, and easy to grasp. Evenness of composition, or samatam, is divided into Mrdu, Sphuta and Madhyamam (soft, hard and medium).

He criticizes easterners as effecting a want of evenness in literature stating “unnevenness and desiring the display of pompous embellishments, the series of Kavyas of the Paurasyas (easterners) have developed.” I guess some reputations haven’t changed! It is the general poetry of his poetic work, and witty remarks like this, that truly make Dandin a delight to read. Indeed, he moves on by extolling sweetness (Madhurya) as the flavour in words and in sentiment. The wise, he says, are like bees in that both are intoxicated with honey. The related concept is Anuprasa, which is word sequences that conveys flavour or sentiment (rasa) through evenness with prior words. [2, 29]

Examples of Anuprasa in words and metrical feet are then given, followed by descriptions of Sruti and Saithilya. Sruti here is sequences of similar sounds and saithilya is want of coherence of sounds rugged in build. The recurrence of the same sequence of sounds in uneven fashion is called Yamaka (alliteration, i.e. consonance and assonance). Daksinatyas (Southerners) did not like incoherence of sounds. It appears the South’s reputation for stricture and conservatism was intact back then as well!

Perhaps the most critical sloka on poetics for our era of vulgar parvenu poetry is the following:

Granting that all arts of speech (Alankara), and delectableness to the idea (conveyed) it is the absence of vulgarity of expression alone that is mostly responsible for delectableness” [2, 33]

Gramya is vulgarity in expression examples of this are given, as well as the opposite. The Acharya is very critical of vulgarity but also of unnecessary and overly complicated constructions to appear intelligent.

There has been a tendency, which Dandin appears to attribute to pretentious easterners, to preference difficult to pronounce compound words (sandhi) under the impression that they constitute grandeur.  He exhorts that it is only by Sukumarata, tenderness (i.e. use of non-harsh letters) rather than over-embellishment that we get approval in the minds of the good. [2,39]

Moving on, he describes Udara as when all sequence of words find their excellence when the word sequence’s excellence is clear, while “Ojas [vigour] is in abundance of compound words. This is the soul of Gadya (prose;) in verse Padya also for the non-Southerners this alone is the goal” [2, 43]

While kantam (not straying from standard meanings) is mentioned, most important, according to Dandin, is the concept of Samadhi. It is structural embellishment or the simultaneous application of many characteristics.

The guna or characteristic of poetry called Samadhi is the very treasure-house and constitutes the entire wealth of poetry. The entire group of poets follows (and uses) this characteristic.”[2, 53]

Pariccheda II


The Second Pariccheda focuses on Alankaras proper. This is the critical aspect of poetry that makes embellishment possible and sets it apart as an high art. But why explain what an old master does better:

They give the names of Alankaras to the characteristics, which render kavyas attractive. These characteristics are even to-day diversified anew; who then can treat of them exhaustively?” [2, 57]

The old masters have shown the following alankaras (figures of speech: -Realistic expression, simile, metaphor, light, repetition, objection, illustrative citation, differentiation, cause terseness, hyperbole, conceit, reason, subtlety, minuteness, sequence, felicity, provoking sentiment, vigour, paraphrase, unison, sublimity, denial, paronomasia, specialty, equation, direct praise, concealed praise, conjunctive expression, exchange, benediction, confusion and expressiveness. Realistic expression also called Jati or group description is the first alankara and describes the actual forms of different conditions of objects.” [2, 59]

Dandin moves on to discuss realistic expression of species (Jati), of action (Kriya), of characteristic (Guna) and of substance (Dravya). He then provides an entire section on the various and numerous types of upama, that is simile. This is delightfully done with poetic examples of this essential aspect of poetics. As it is too long to reprint here, we will merely list the different types of simile:

There is the simile of quality (Dharmopama), the simile of object (Vastupama),the transposed simile (Viparyasopama), the simile of mutuality (Anyonyopama), the simile of exclusive determination (Niyamopama), the simile of indetermination (Aniyamopama), the multiple simile (Sauccayopama), the hyperbolic simile (Atisayopama), the simile of conceit (Utpreksopama), the simile of wonder (Adhbutopama), the simile of delusion (Mohopama), the simile of doubt (Samsayopama), the simile of certainty (Nirnayopama), the paronomasiac simile (Slesopama), the simile of exactness (Samaanopama), the simile of contempt (Nindopama), the simile involving praise (Prasamsopama), simile involving the desire to express (Acikhyaasopama), the simile involving opposition (Virodhopama), the simile involving exclusion (Pratisedhopama), the simile of truthful expression (Asaadhaaranopama), the simile of impossibility (Adbhutopama), the simile involving statements contrary to nature (Asambhaavitopama), the simile of super-excellence (Vikriyopama), the simile in a series (Maalopama), the simile of sentences (Vaakyarthopama),  the simile stating the object (Prativastupama), the simile of equalising (Tulyayogopama), and finally the simile involving a statement of the reasons (Hetupama). [2, 62-82].

While many figures of speech may seem similar to the simile, there is a rule in Sanskrit poesy that a simile cannot be in verbs. This is the word of the Aaptas (or authoritative writers). [2, 148]

As one can see, the exhaustive and methodical classification of the simile, so elementarily treated in english, reaches a near-impossible level of sophistication. Perhaps it is not for nothing Alankara, like the sastras, are ultimately credited to divine beings in the Classical Indic Tradition.

Next, Dandin describes the Metaphor. Simile itself where the difference is implicity is called the metaphor, for example, arm-creeper, palm-lotus, foot-tendril” [2, 84]. There are 66 types of compound metaphors, which for reasons of brevity, won’t list here. The sanskrit word for metaphor is rupakam. The numerous varieties are so copious, there is even a rupaka-rupakam or metaphor on metaphor. [2, 94]

We move on from the two major concepts to other types of Alankara. The concept of Dipakam (or light) is unique as it is the notion of a word helping the entire sentence through jati (genus), kriya (action), guna (quality) or dravya, which is the subject-matter.[2,96] Avrtti, or repetition, is then discussed along with its assorted types and uses both in word and meaning. Aaksepa, which is objection and has a variety of classes. Interestingly, of the different types of objection includes anujnaksepa, that is objection in the form of apparent permission–a phenomenon with which married men the world over are all too familiar! Indeed, the section on Aaksepa is a veritable playbook for a woman in a relationship to influence her beloved!

Then there is illustrative citation (arthantara-nyaasa). Assorted figures of speech are used to express ideas by citing other objects such as those that are universally applicable (visvavyaapi), special (visesastha), panoro-masiac (slesa-viddha), having opposition (virodhavaan), incongruous (ayuktakaari ), fitting (yuktatma), partly incongruous and partly fitting), and contrary (viparyaya). [2, 123]

Acharya Dandin asserts that “Reason (hetu) and subtlety and minuteness (suksma and lesa) constitute the best alankaras of words” .[2,151] This is because a slight reference to a thing discloses (lesa) both indicates and excites the imagination.Correspondingly, Ingita and Aakaara are mentioned as facial gesture and condition of the body respectively. [2,163] Paryayoktham is the paraphrase .[2,178] Drstantam is defined as illustration.

Udaattam (sublimity) is the alankara used to express the pre-eminent greatness of a person, both his qualities and his riches. Apahnuti is denial and is used to great effect in order to enhance the description. [2,184]. Slistam is paronomasia, or words with a single form but many meanings [2,187]. Indeed, there is an entire sub-section on specialty, which again, for brevity’s sake, we will leave at here.

Among other interesting concepts include variations of ninda (insult/deprecation) and praise, stuti. There are numerous categories of stuti, such as Aprastuta-prasamsa (indirect praise) and Vyaajastuti (concealed praise). Concealed praise is where it is in the form of despise and virtues are described through mention of vices.

With all these alankaras, or embellishments, Dandin uses examples to not only illustrate, but to very frequently entertain. What could easily have been an exhausting effort because engagingly educative.

Pariccheda III

In the third pariccheda, Dandin moves on to the more structural aspects of poetics. He discusses recurrences of letters (Yamaka) and various types of feet (pada), one through four. Types of recurrences are discusses such as Vyapeta-Yamaka (mediate recurrence) and Avyapeta (mixed recurrence of mediate and immediate). [2, 228]. This is described with great complexity with all the permutations and combinations of letter recurrences.

Finally, this magnum opus of poetics concludes with a veritable lesson in linguistics. From the listing of vowels to the various consonant types, it is highly detailed and worth a review. He also discusses Prahelikas (or Amusing Riddles). These are described as “useful in the entertainment of sportive assemblies; and by those who know them for the purpose of secret consultation in a crowd and for setting riddles to others” [2,262]. Once more, he goes into the technical aspects of riddles, and the various components and component types. In fact, there were as many as 16 types of Prahelikas.

Ten faults of artless poets are also discussed: Apaartham (or meaninglessness), Vyartham (or contrary meaning), Ekaartham (or identical in meaning), Samsayam (or doubtful meaning), Apakaaramam (or want of sequence), Sabdahinam (or wanting in word), Yatibhrastam (or absence of pause), Bhinnavrttam (or metrical defect). Visandhikam (absence of Sandhi, or pause) and impropriety in place, time, in branch of learning, etc.” (desadhi-virodhi,kala-virodha, nyaya-virodha, etc) [2, 276-7].  He nevertheless mentions how a clever poet can use any and all of the improprieties to lift up from the region of fault to the good qualities of poetry.

He concludes with concepts associated with love. Laya is the blending of tunes. Harmonious laya is said to promote Raaga or Love while”Utka and Unmanayantya both convey the longing of the beloved“. [2, 281]

Thus, with an exhaustive but easy-to-read treatise, Acharya Dandin explicates his educative exegisis on kavya and alankara-sastra. Fittingly, he ends with the following advice for would-be poets:

With his intellect, trained by this Path of guna and dosa (Excellences and Faults) shown according to the rules, the blessed person sports like a youth attracted by Words, who have loving eyes and who remain in his control; and he also obtains fame. [2, 305]


  1. Kale, M.R. Dasakumaracarita of Dandin. New Delhi: MLBD. 2009
  2. Sastrulu, V.V., and Ed. Rabindra K. Panda. Kavyadarsah of Dandin. Delhi: Bharatiya Kala Prakashan. 2008
  3. Das, Sisir Kumar. A History of Indian Literature, 500-1399: From Courtly to the Popular. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi. 2005. p.75

Classical Indic Literature I: Literary Theory

The following Post was published at Andhra Cultural Portal on November 20, 2014

At long last, we touch on Literature proper here at the Andhra Cultural Portal.

The importance and impact of this aspect of Indian Civilization and Andhra Culture cannot be minimized. After all, the stories, heroes & heroines, great romances, beautiful places, and wondrous accomplishments of yore are all preserved in and passed on via the literature of a people.  It is this, the documentation of the sum total of a civilization’s life, society, and above all, values that connects the young with the old, and for those yearning for star-crossed sringara, connects lover with lover as well. However, to properly appreciate the nuances of a sophisticated culture’s Literary Accomplishments, one must first understand the structural theory it is founded upon.

Those of you following us on Twitter may have seen our recent tweets about videos and articles educating layreaders on the logic and principles of Classical Indian Music and Artistic systems. In that light we continue today with the first in a series on Classical Indic Literature: Literary Theory.

Intro to Classical Indic Literature

Scene from the Kurukshetra in the World’s Longest Epic Poem: Mahabharata

India’s Classical Literature Traditions indubitably begins with its unmatched Sanskrit Literary Heritage. By some counts of Indologists, there are some 30 million Sanskrit Texts on various subjects: some political, some religious, some scientific, some literary, some romantic, some historical, and many not even properly catalogued.

In the recent past, the study of Sanskrit has been highly and unfairly politicised. It was not just the language of Brahmins nor was it limited only to Vedic rite. In fact, Sanskrit was the language of high culture, and the speech of the elite and refined. Although most of the credentialed-but-ignorant think its poetry was merely limited to the epic Ramayana and Mahabharata; the reality, however, is that there is a galaxy of romantic poetry and comedic prose in this most elegant of tongues. Poets and Dramatists ran the spectrum and included such literary jewels as Kalidasa, Bhavabhuti, Bhasa, and Dandin. Poems such as Meghadootam and Uttaramacarita captivated our forbears with their sentiments of passionate love. Plays such as AbhignanaSakuntala (Recognition of Sakuntala) and Malavikagnimitra (The Romance of Malavika & Agnimitra)made their heroic and comedic marks as far as Germany and beyond, with the former even developed into an Opera during the Enlightenment era.

Tragically, due to the vicissitudes of history and the travesty of politics, Classical Indic Literature was neglected, much like the Classical Indian Education. Therefore, to properly appreciate the literary accomplishments of Ancient India, one must first be properly acquainted with its literary theory  and creative logic. Much like aesthetics is taught to artists, and music theory to musicians, so to is it with the civilized written word.

While our tradition maintains that Dharmic Civilization’s musical and theatrical canons originate with the Saama Veda (the fourth of the Vedas–the other three being the Rig, Yajur, and Atharva), India’s first great treatise specifically on these canons is the Natya Sastra of Sage Bharata.

Classical Indic Literary Theory

Natyasastra of Bharata Muni in Four Volumes

Classical Indic Literary Theory [Saahithyalochana] was highly developed, with a host of treatises expounding its structure and a constellation of commentaries applying its critical theory. Works such as Ghantapatha (commentary on Kiratarjuneeya) and Saahithyadarpana  along with names such as Jaggaadhara, Bhaamaha (a rhetorician), and Andhra’s own Mallinatha respectively provide expository on detailed structural theory and incisive analysis. Unlike today, many of these critics and commentators were successful litterateurs in their own right.

The origin of Classical Indian literary theory is traced to the Sanskrit treatise of Rishi Bharata, Natya Sastra. Natya translates to the performance arts (histrionics). Conservatively dated to 200 B.C.E, but very likely much earlier,”[i]ts comprehensive treatment of artistic experience, expression and communication, content and form emerges from an integral vision which flowers as a many-branched tree of all the Indian arts”.

This mighty work runs the gamut from literature, music, and dance to painting, sculpture, and architecture. While a discussion of this seminal opus of genius could take a series of blog posts or a book itself, the relevant aspect for our post today is the originality of Bharata Muni’s rasa theory, and its pervasiveness in not only dance and music, but literature as well.

The Rasa

Nava Rasa: The Nine Emotions of Natya

Rasa theory is the outstanding contribution of Classical India to World music, dance, and above all literature. This sentiment is the lasting impression or feeling of the author that he/she aims to impress upon the audience. These are nine in number (hence the term Nava Rasa): Sringara (Romantic), Veerya (Heroic), Haasya (Comedic), Karuna (Pathos), Raudra (Furious), Bhayaanika (Frightful), Bibhatsa (Loathsome), Adhbuta (Marvelous), and finally Shaantha (Calming).

The Sthayibhaava is the leitmotif or permanent sentiment of a composition. There are generally eight in number, based on eight of the nine rasas. They are as follows: rati (erotic), haasa (comic), shoka (sorrowful), krodha(angering), utsaha (enlivening), bhaya (frightening), jugupsa (disgusting), and vismaya (amazing). A ninth, sama (tranquility), is associated with Shaantha

Bhaava is the complete affecting of the heart by any emotion. Vibhaava is the Excitant which builds up the main sentiment and is divided into Aalambana, the subject (i.e. hero, heroine) of the Rasa  and Uddeepana or the object that excites (i.e. the moon, beauty, seasons, etc). Anubhaava means the Ensuant. This is the “outward manifestation of internal feelings, through the eyes, face, etc.”

There are other literary elements such as metre (chandah); however, such an expository on the Natya Sastra is best dealt with another day, the present focus being literary theory in general.


A Drama on Political Intrigue

The Literary structure of Classical India chiefly aggregates into Dramatics and Poetics.

Literature (saahithya) in Sanskrit has typically been divided into drusya (what can be seen or exhibited on stage) and sravya (what can only be heard or read).

Dramatics falls into the first category. Nataka is the word for a play, while rupaka is the term applied to dramatic compositions. Minor or short dramas, such as the Ratnavali of Sri Harsa Deva (Emperor Harsha Vardhana of Kanyakubjya (Kannauj)), are called Natikas. While there are 17 other classes, they needn’t be examined for our purposes.

The 3 main aspects of a Rupaka are (1) The Plot (Vasthu) (2) The Hero (Neta) (3) The Sentiment (Rasa). There are two main kinds of Vasthu: Principal (Adhikaarika ) and Accessory (Prasangika ). The Principal Plot is that which concerns the main characters of the piece and the central storyline. The Accessory Plot is that which deals with the supporting characters, and may in fact further the Principal Plot. There are two kinds of Prasangikas: Pataka and Prakari. The Pataka (meaning : “Banner”) “is an episode by which the progress of the plot is illustrated, furthered or hindered”. This further piques the audience’s interest in the story. It frequently spans the entire play to the very end. In contrast, the Prakari is only a short and minor episode of limited importance. The principal characters do not play any role here.

The other main plot devices in the classical Indic drama are the bija (seed), bindu (drop), and karya (the final issue or object of the plot). Together with the above two, these five dramatic constructs are called ArthaprakritisVasthus may borrow from history (Natakas) or may be wholly or partly fictitious (Prakarana).

The five stages of a play are called Avastha (conditions): (1) Aarambha(Beginning) (2) Yatna (Efforts ) (3) Praaptyaasa (Prospects of Success) (4)  Nityataapti (Obstacle Removal) and  (5) Phalaagama ( Attainment of Object). Links to connect them and other parts of the main action are called Samdhis, of which there are five kinds (mukha, pratimukha, garbha, avamarsa, and nirvahana). Mukha is where the seed is sown (including the various rasas), pratimukha is where the chief end is revealed, the garbha establishes the attainment or non-attainment of the object, avarmarsa is where the seeds attain growth and the attainment sprouts, and finally, the nirvahana is the consummation of the all of the preceding, in the story’s denouement.

The Hero of the Play (Neta) is expected to be “modest, decorous, comely, munificent, civil, of sweet address, eloquent, [and]…from a noble family” or a ministerial family. There are four kinds of hero: Dhirodaatta, Dhiralalita, Dhirashaantha, and most importantly, the Dhirodatta.

The Dhirodatta  is the hero of sublime qualities. He is known for his magnanimity, patience, modesty, self-possession, resolve, concealed high spirit, valor, and keeping of promises.

Heroic Rama defeating Ravana

Rama is the best example of this as well as Veerya rasa (heroism/manliness). This quality of his is best seen in the drama Mahaviracharita by Bhavabhuti. Rama’s romantic (sringara) qualities are highlighted in the same dramatist’s follow up work, Uttararamacharita.

The Hero’s principal assistants are the Peetamarda (key figure in the accessory plot/episodes), who is clever in speech, loyal to the Neta, and only slightly lesser to him in his manly qualities. Next is the famous Vidusaka, or comic relief. He is known for his wit and for assisting the hero in his romances. Finally, there is the Vita, who is skilled in one art (of the traditional 64).


The Nayika is the heroine, and must generally be the equal of the hero in his various virtues, as Sita is to Rama. She may be the wife of the hero, a woman who already is obligated to another, or a common woman. The helpers of the heroine are the sakhi (friend), daasi (servant), dhaatreyi (nurse or mother), and patikesika (neighbor).

The hero’s rival, or villain, is called the Pratinaayaka, and is generally “avaricious, bold, impetuous, criminal and of evil conduct”.

The Nataka is typically conducted by commencing with a benediction (svastivachana), followed by a prastaavana (prologue) introduced by the Nandi (the introductory portion which suggests the plot). All this is conducted by the Sutradhara (stage-manager). Typically divided into Scenes and Acts (which may be as many as five to ten in number), the Classical Nataka of Ancient India had long-standing rules on structure and even subject-matter. There was a historical rule against tragedies, since the rasas themselves are thought to imbue a spiritual quality in the audience. However, at least 1 play, Nagananda by Sri Harsa, is known to have broken this custom.

The most intriguing aspect of the classical drama is the diversity of languages. The aristocracy and other elites are seen conversing in Sanskrit, with the more common folk relying on various types of Prakrit for dialogue.


meghdutamPoetry is divided into Prose (gadhya), Verse (padhya), and Mixed (misra). The vast majority of our classical literature has been in padhya.

Gadhya is further divided into katha and aakhyaayika. The distinction between the two is generally considered to be minimal. The modern understanding is that the aakhyaayika gives a detailed prose narration of the litterateur’s family history and background (i.e. auto-biographical), while the katha does the same in a short verse, and therefore, is seemingly less formal. This is because the latter is rarely divided into chapters, and there are no embedded stanzas suggestive of future events.

Aakhyaayika is also strictly narrated by the hero, which is not the case in katha. There are other distinctions as well, such as names of chapters in Aakhyaayika being called ucchvaasa, but they are not important for our discussion today. The key takeaway is that, according to the treatise Alamkaarasamgraha, the Aakyaayika is based on historical facts and events, whereas a katha is considered purely fictional.

We end this post with a brief sample of a famous Aakhyaayika by a famous poet and scholar of Poetics: The Dasakumaracarita of Dandin.


One of four known historical prose romances, the Dasakumaracarita of Dandin is a remarkable work. Literally meaning History of the Ten Princes, it is a composition of prose par excellence. The author Dandin is celebrated for his word play (pada-lalityam) in a famous sanskrit sloka (couplet).

Since the author himself will be discussed in detail another time, the work will be the object of brief focus. A truly delightful story, Dasakumaracarita has it all, from political conflict and war to action/adventure to feverish romances. It is centered around the escapades of ten princes and young ministers as they all seek to gain the necessary allies and strength to defeat their King’s enemy. It nevertheless is set in a background that gives a vivid picture of common life and is a detailed rendition of Indian Society during that period.It is divided into three parts: the Purvapithaka (Prologue), Dasakumaracarita proper, and the Uttarapithaka (Epilogue).

This piece of prose is dated to the 6th-7th centuries C.E., although tradition holds that the author was a contemporaneous rival of Kalidasa himself, which would date him to the 1st-4th centuries C.E. While Dandin is also famous for his incisive and erudite work on Poetics, it is his lyrical command of language (apparent even in translation) that truly defines him and this magnum opus of literature.

Frustratingly, due to the baggage of history, only an incomplete portion of the original text was discovered. Thus, it effectively begins in medias res and two of the ten narratives are missing/incomplete. One of the foremost scholars of Sanskrit literature, the late Moreshwar Ramchandra Kale, wrote that the Dasakumaracarita is officially classified as an Aakhyaayika, though it doesn’t appear to carry the main markers of one. Therefore, he designates it a gadhya kaavya (prose-poem or prose romance). Whether or not it is based on historical events, the Dasakumaracarita gives us a panoramic view of classical Bharat.

The Ten young noblemen in the story have various run ins with kings from throughout India, including Andhra, further demonstrating Bharat’s historical civilizational unity. While it is particularly famous for making delightful and frequently scintillating reading, we will end this post with a short passage that emphasizes its wisdom more than its word-play.

Foolish, indeed, are the worldly people that place Artha (wealth) and Kama (pleasure) on an equal footing with Dharma (virtue)…To be sure, Artha and Kama cannot come into being without Dharma; but even without regard to them, Dharma alone is the creative cause of final beatitude, and is attainable only by the concentration of the mind. It does not (like Artha and Kama) much depend on external means. Supported (i.e. held up) by the knowledge of the reality, it is not affected by Artha and Kama, howsoever pursued; and, even if affected, it is set right by a little exertion, and redaicating that defect also, it conduces the highest bliss.


  1. Kale, M.R. Dasakumaracarita of Dandin. New Delhi: MLBD. 2009
  2. Malhotra, Rajiv. Sulekha. 2002. http://creative.sulekha.com/the-axis-of-neocolonialism_103313_blog
  3. http://www.exoticindiaart.com/book/details/bharata-natyasastra-IDD947/

Classical Indic Literature III: Dramatics

rp_basis1.pngPranamya sirasa devau pitamaha-mahesvarau | natyasastram pravaksyami brahmanaya dudahrtam || NS 1.1

With a bow to Brahma and Siva I shall expound the Canons of Drama, as these were uttered by Brahma.

While the soul of our culture and civilization is Dharma, the body of it verily is the arts—the alankara of culture. Perhaps no extant text more deserves the title of “Fountain of the Arts” than that masterpiece by Bharata Mahamuni: Natya Sastra. This article is, therefore, a proper introduction to both it, and its composer.

Natya Sastra is an expansive text that deals with a variety of topics such as Nrtya (Dance), Chitra (Painting ), Silpa (Sculpture), Vaastu (Architecture),  Kavya (Poetry ) all under the umbrella of  Natya (Performance Arts or Histrionics).  Due to its originations of such concepts as Rasa, it is referred to as a work on Aesthetics and Beauty as well. Those of you who are long time readers would recall our articles on Classical Indic Literature. We previously dealt with Literary Theory (Saahithyalochana) and Poetics (Alankara Sastra or Kavya Sastra). This article will continue that series started over at Andhra Cultural Portal with Classical Indic Literature III: Dramatics (Nataka Sastra). It will focus more on the literary aspects of the illustrious work as well as its direct applications for literature (drama in particular), leaving performance aspects for another time.



It is said that ” No activity in a Society can remain unaffected by the Philosophy of that Society, be it a literary, or social or cultural or scientific activity.” [3, 1]  The elite Literature of Bharat, Saastriya Saahitya, is no different.  An important note: “the recent use of the term sastra as adjective, sastriya nrtya or sangita, it suggests quality of performance, sometimes genre, with an implied translation of the term ‘classical’ in English, as a qualitivative and not historical period category.” [1,43] Thus, our heritage is very old, but very much alive, and rather than secular, is sacred in nature. While our tradition maintains that Dharmic Civilization’s musical and theatrical canons originate with the Saama Veda (the fourth of the Vedas–the other three being the Rig, Yajur, and Atharva), and “[a] re-reading of the Upanisads is convincing proof of the concrete imagery of the senses, the sense perceptions and sense objects of these highly abstract metaphysical texts”[1, 54], India’s first great known treatise specifically on these canons is the Natya Sastra.

The origin of Classical Indian literary theory, as such, is traced to the Sanskrit treatise of Rishi Bharata. Natya translates to the performance arts (Histrionics). Conservatively dated to 200 B.C.E, but very likely much earlier,”[i]ts comprehensive treatment of artistic experience, expression and communication, content and form emerges from an integral vision which flowers as a many-branched tree of all the Indian arts”. [1]

Considered the earliest extant work on Dramaturgy, Natya Sastra is most famous for Bharata Muni’s rasa theory, and its pervasiveness in not only dance and music, but literature as well. He has sanctioned the use of all the rasas without reservation (NS, 19.147).

Not much is known about the author himself. There are several legends associated with him. There is strong reason to believe, however, that  Bharata Muni hailed from Kashmir.

The Natya Sastra in fact touches on the life of the great Sage ever so briefly. It mentions that he had 100 sons. They are said to have misused their skills and capacities to ridicule sages and other such dharmic personages (something very common even today).  They are therefore cursed by rishis who say, ‘as due to pride in your knowledge (jnana)  you have taken to arrogance (avinaya), your ill knowledge (kujnana) will be destroyed’ [1,9]. This is an appropriate warning not only to those who take interest in learning the fine arts, but also those today who have grown arrogant of their knowledge, and are misusing it for their own ends.

“Bharata’s initial statement that ‘I am creating a theory and text of performance, of practice and experimentation’ acquires crucial importance. The composer of the text consciously creates a fluid text. He calls it a sastra of prayoga i.e. a theory of praxis.”[1,38]

An important point is that “sastra is distinguished in literature and the arts as being a category distinct from the creative. While in the English language, we can easily use the terms ‘creative and critical literature’, ‘creative and technical literature’, when the terms are transferred to the sphere of the Indian, for that matter, the Asia arts, there is difficulty. “[1,40]

What’s more, artificial separateness does not characterise Bharata or the Indic tradition. There is a clear interrelationship between all the various artforms. “The  themes which the Indian dancer portrays are not only the raw material of literature, but are also the finished products of literary creation; the music which seems to accompany the dance is actually the life-breath of its structure and, indeed, dance interprets in movement what music interprets in sound; the postures and the stances it attains are the poses which the sculptor models; all these the dancer imbues with a living spirit of movement in a composition of form which is both sensuous and spiritual. The body is the medium to transcend the ‘body’. [1,112]

As such, teleology again becomes important. The sophisticated audience or refined reader (sahrdaya) recognises that each movement, each word, even each omission is filled with meaning and symbology. Therefore, merely dividing and subdividing to attempt to fathom is merely learning more and more about less and less. To gain a proper understanding, an holistic and systemic approach is required to understand what is very clearly an intentional methodology. All this was done with a specific design. It was not art for the sake of art or poetry for the sake of debauchery, but a system of aesthetics designed to not only be transcendant, but to transcend.

“Bharata had inherited a ‘vision’; he gave it form as concepts and framework. The creative artist, in turn, internalized the vision of the inner and outer life he had experienced. The principles of structure enumerated by Bharata were inherited directly or assimilated as part of a larger ambience, gave the artist the tools for creating a variegated world of ‘forms’ and multiple forms only to evoke the beyond form (pararupa).”[1,112]


How old exactly is Bharata Mahamuni and his Great Tradition? According to Manomohan Ghosh, the Sage of Natya doesn’t mention the Arthasastra of Kautilya, but rather that of Brihaspati. This, therefore, leads to the logical inference that Bharata pre-dates the Maurya Empire, which puts him before the 3rd Century B.C.E, and some would say even earlier than the 5th. [6]

Per our Pauranic accounts, the origin of Natya is attributed to Narada muni. In fact, it is he who is said to have brought music and the arts from Brahma to the world of men. Nevertheless, this Sastra itself is a product of the intense Tapas of the present Muni, who refers to other authorities.

“To return to the inheritance the lineage of Bharata, as also those who inherited from him—we have already referred to Bharata’s indebtedness to the Vedas, the Upanisads and Brahmanical yajna practices. He incorporates the system of puja later codified in the agamas, draws freely from contemporary practice, and considers loka, the ‘people’, as the final authority.” [1,113]

There were other attempts of course. Even a certain celebrated grammarian touched on the topic and how there were other such treatises.“The Natasutras referred to by Paanini have been cited as examples. The Astadhyayi (IV.3.110-111) refers to them and the schools of Silaalin and Krsasva. Although the works are possible irretrievably lost, perhaps, this was the first attempt to codify some rules of dramaturgy.” [1,114]

The key takeaway however is that while Bharata may be the greatest in our present era, he may in fact not have been the first. “The fact that there was a flourishing tradition of poetry, dance and music, even of architecture, sculpture and painting, is evident from innumerable references in the Vedas and epics. Patanjali’s Mahabhaasya and Arthasastras, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata provide interesting details of theatre halls, recitals, social status and training, but of the works of writers Acaryas or rsis of the arts we learn little. Bharata provides a list of his gurus (teachers) and contemporaries. Apart from Pitamaha Siva and Mahesa, he mentions Kohala, Dhurtila (Dattila), Salikarn, Baadaraayana (Badari) and others.” [1,114]

Nevertheless, whatever his biography and lineage, Bharata Mahamuni managed what others have not:

“From amongs those that have received attention of scholars from the fields of literature, poetrics and dramaturgy, music, dance, architecture, sculpture and painting, it is possible to surmise that Bharata’s text provided the single unified source for a theory of art.”[1,115]

It is therefore, a complete theory of Aesthetics and provides an Adhyatmik approach to Beauty.


As seen above the Natya Sastra commences with a salutation to Siva and Brahma, and it credits knowledge behind the work to the Supreme. Bharata tells the munis of Brahman’s state of yoga, that is his concentration, and determination (sankalpa) which produced the fifth veda, or Natya Sastra. [1,8]

“Obviously the authority of the Vedas was recognized at this stage. This alone could enable Bharata to cull out a theory of aesthetic and a structure of drama from the Vedas. Important is the fact that he identifies paathya, the arti-culated spoken word, not just the word (sabda) with the Rgveda.”[1, 13] It explicitly cites the traditional four aims of life, or Purusharthas of Dharma, Artha, Kama, Moksha as ends of literature.

His assertion that he is creating a fifth Veda which will be accessible to all castes and classes at the same time likening it to the Vedas (i.e. creating a fifth Veda and the analogy of a ritual) transcends the accepted boundaries of hierarchy as also norms of inclusion and exclusion.[1,21]

Bharata emphasized the synthesising role of drama with respect to all spheres of knowledge from the sacred scriptures to arts and crafts to geography. This is what makes it open to all. Indeed, its written versions were a matter of history as well, as between 1900-1926 a hunt was on for more manuscripts. As a result, there was a sizeable find of 40 manuscripts and two recensions. This is fascinating as the Natya Sastra, like much of real Indic literature, was transmitted via the oral tradition. To have such an expansive written reach demonstrates its influence, both North and South.[1, 34]

Kapila Vatsyayan, noted authority on the Natya Sastra, had this to say on the matter:

“the division of many manuscripts into southern and northern recensions has been in many cases a superimposition of a tacit acceptance of marked differences in northern and southern recensions. In this case, the fact of the matter is that Abhinavagupta was a northerner but the closest approximation to his text is a manuscript in the Trivandrum collection. Other instances can be given. The more pertinent question to be asked is as to the manner and mode of transmission of a single text to different parts of India—ranging from Nepal, Almora to Ujjain, Darbhanga, Maharashtra, Bengal, Andhra, Tamilnadu and Kerala. All these manuscripts can be dated roughly between the twelfth and the eighteenth centuries with the exception of those of the commentator—Udbhata. One of his works was found in the Gilgit manuscript (tenth to eleventh century), now edited by Gnoli. The earliest manuscripts come from Nepal in Newari script. The text is available in many scripts—Newari, Devanagari, Grantha, Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam.”[1, p. 36]

Despite the Pan-Bhaarata reach of Bharata Mahamuni, Kerala is considered the strongest inheritor of Sanskrit drama and dramaturgy. Forms such as Kutiyattam and even the classical dance Kathakali all resonate with the influence of  the Natya Sastra. This is not only due to the genius of native Kerala son Kulasekhara, but also due to just how foundational the fifth Veda was and is.

Perhaps the single most interesting aspect about the Natya Sastra is that it is in fact one of many. Much like there were Arthasastras before Kautilya there were Natya Sastras before Bharata Muni. “Previous authors reputed to have written on Natya Sastra as a discipline include Kohala, Dattila, Tandu, and Salikarna.“ [1,8]

Interestingly enough, there is an hypothesis that ‘Bharata’ is an acronym for the syllables Bha, Ra, and Ta (standing for Bhava, Raga, and Tala respectively).“Bharata occupies a supreme place for being the master-developer of ‘categories’ for all the arts, particularly drama, dance, poetry, music. His distinction lies in his acumen for an uncanny precision in evolving a system of correspondence between the material, physical and the psychical, ethical and even spiritual”.[1, 25]


The Natya Sastra itself is of expansive structure. It consists of 6,000 slokas (verses) spread among 36 chapters. As with all else in the Indic tradition, this number too is rife with symbology. According to Subhash Kak, the 36 chapters are said to correspond to the 36 tattvas of Kashmiri Shaivism. [7] What’s more, “The thirty-six chapter of the Natyasastra can be grouped from the point of view of (i) artistic experience, (ii) the artistic content or states of being, the modes of expression through word, sound, gesture, dress, decorations and methods of establishing correspondences between physical movement, speech and psychical states, as also communication and reception by the audience, readers and (iii) structure of the dramatic form, popularly translated as ‘plot’. The itivrtta is, however, a more comprehensive term for structure and phasing.”[1, 58]

While 5 chapters are dedicated to music, certain key chapters give us insight into his dramatic methodology.

In chapters I and II, Bharata appears to lay a conceptual and physical foundation that is nevertheless redolent in the sacred. The origin of drama is attributed Brahman with various actors such as Vishnu, Shiva, Sarasvati, the Daityas and Bhutas, and Yakshas, all as actors–either protagonist or as agitators . In some ways, Indra can be conceived of as the hero, as his dhvaja or pole (jarjara) provides the fulcrum of the stage. Sarasvati is the heroine, as she is the embodiment of speech, and Shiva is the energizer.

“Two statements by Bharata at the end of chapter XXI are clear indication of his approach to all that he has suggested. After describing the characteristics and components of the dramatic form, called nataka, he emphasizes the fact that drama presents, re-narrates (anucaritam) through abhinaya (expression), but its success is possible only when the actor has overcome, suppressed, his personal self (svabhaavas tajyate: chapter XXI, v.12-1234).” [1,80] As one can see, the spiritual is very much immanent in this, the most dramatic of artforms.

The spiritual is therefore not only intertwined with the psychological and the conceptual, but even the sensual. We find that true the highly sophisticated use of various ornaments or devices or archetypes, specific reactions are catalysed.

“Pertinently, it is in this context that he describes the different types of graces (alamkaara) or women, namely, feeling (bhaava), emotion (haava) and passion (hela). These are not autonomous categories: they are psychic states with their emotional and involuntary reflect physical response co-ordinates in relation to the opposite sex (XXIV, verses 6-11) and in the sphere of kaama (normally, most inadequately translated as erotic). The underlying foundation of the entire chapter is thus kama and sense, body, mind and consciousness relationship. Logically, at the level of perception and expression, these are either inner or outer (aabhyantara and baahya) or indirect, implicit or invisible (paroksa) and direct and explicit (pratyaksa). Another group of terms, namely, suci (pointing needle), ankura (sprouting), saakha(branches) indicate the feeling, body and word-gesture relationship in different sequential order or concurrency, suggested or proliferated. It is on these foundations of perception and insight, that Bharata narrows down his concern from the generic character and personality types of women to the categories of heroines (naayika).”[1, 85]

Perhaps it is not for nothing that he is referred to by some as the first neuromarketer.

Key Concepts

Na tajjaana na tacchilpa na sa vidya na sakala|
Na sa yogo na tatkarma yanna tyesminna drsyate ||  NS 1.116.

There is no wise maxim, no learning, no art or craft, no device, no action that is not found/reflected in the drama.

“Only India believed that literature is efficacious in ‘sivetara-ksati’ or countering inauspiciousness”. [2, 7] The notion of mangalam, is a constant throughout the Dharmic tradition, and even drama is supposed to contribute to this idea of auspiciousness.

In Indian dramatics there is also a formal rule against tragedy (likely on account of the inauspiciousness of the genre). The celebrated dramatist Bhasa, however, set this rule aside in his famous Urubhanga, a one act play on the episode of the shattering of Duryodhana’s thigh.

Nevertheless, one thing is clear: “Bharata wants drama to not only enterain, but to teach and ennoble. The fruit which the hero desires being difficult to attain, the final success of the hero is an inspiration and exhortation to the spectators”. [2,205]

While lakshana(secondary meaning) is discussed by some as the most important concept to stem from the Natya Sastra, an interesting point is that tattastha seems to be the most underlying one. Literally meaning “spacing”, it becomes apparent that in poetry, music, dance, and the visual arts, the unsaid is frequently as important as the said. In fact, there is a legend that while Manavas prefer the direct, the Devas prefer the indirect. Lakshana and tattastha are both interrelated concepts that not only emphasise the importance of the idea but demonstrate the sophistication of Bharatavarsha’s Natya.

Although musical theory obviously dates back to the Saama Veda, Subhash Kak asserts that acting and indeed elements of the theatre tradition can in fact be found in the Yajur. “Since the four Vedas come together in the dramatic performance, natya is the Fifth Veda”.[6] As such, the sacred and sanskritic is very much a part of the Indic tradition of dramatics and histrionics.

He goes on to assert that the Natya Sastra took paathya (recitation) from the Rig Veda,  abhinaya (acting ) from the Yajur, rasa (sentiment) from the Atharva, and sangeeta (music) from the Saama.

The Play or Nataka was a very sophisticated matter. Generally, a rupaka (dramatic composition)was recommended to consists of between 5 and 10 acts. It would begin with  a Prastaavana (prologue) sanctified by a Svastivachana (benediction) which is part of the Naandi (introductory portion which suggests the plot). Acts were not to be too long, inauspicious events (such as wars) only indicated rather than portrayed, and the play was to end as it began, with another benediction. In this cause, it was fittingly named Bharatavakya.[2] Typically, the vasthu (plot) was based on pauranic or historical events.

Chitra-abhinayaa (translated, special enactment, special representation, mixed pictorial, a category of different types of enacting through speech and movement) was a key aspect to stage craft itself.[1,p.86] Indeed, it lays the foundation for histrionics, which stems from the dramatic.

The sutradhara (stage-manager) would frequently introduce the play, along with a host of other characters. Other important figures/concepts include prayokta (producers), prayoga (dramatic production) and saadhaka (creator-artist with inner control and discipline). There were in fact a whole set of rituals including puja performed in what was called the purvanga (preliminaries).

“Bharata reminds us that the entire act of creation and presentation is a saadhana where impersonalization, de-personalization and detachment is primary.”[1, 91]

Slokas from the critical chapter XXVI discuss some of the specifics of natya.

The triple basis of drama is discussed in slokas 118-119 as being the people (loka), the Vedas, and the spiritual faculty (adhyatma). [1,88] Indeed sloka 124 goes on to state that “Whatever sastras, laws, arts and activities are connected with human conduct (lokadharma) may be produced (literally called) as a drama).”[1, 89]

The prekshaka, or audience, also had its own dharma.

“As for the audience and spectators, they too must be attuned, trained and initiated. The demand from them is no less exacting. Preparedness of both attitude and initation into some technicalities is an essential pre-requisite.”[1,91]

Bharata goes on to lay the criteria for critics (samalochakas) and judges, laying down the qualifications for the jury. The last, as typical with the sastras, is near exhaustive. Experts in ritual (yajnavit), in archery (isvastravit), in dance (nartaka), in prosody (chandovit), in grammar (sabdavit), in painting (chitravit),  and music (gandharva) are all required. A king (rajan), king’s officer (rajasevaka), and interestingly even a courtesan (vesya) are all listed as well, likely due to their extensive training in The 64 Arts. [1,91]

Of course, no discussion of the Natya Sastra, indeed dramaturgy itself, is complete without mention of Rasa.


As a refresher on Rasa, here are some introductory concepts we discussed in previous articles. Rasa theory is the outstanding contribution of Classical India to World music, dance, and above all literature. This sentiment is the lasting impression or feeling of the author that he/she aims to impress upon the audience. These are nine in number (hence the term Nava Rasa): Sringara (Romantic), Vira (Heroic), Haasya (Comedic), Karuna (Pathos), Raudra (Furious), Bhayaanika (Frightful), Bibhatsa (Loathsome), Adhbuta (Marvelous), and finally Shaantha (Calming).

The Sthayibhaava is the leitmotif or permanent sentiment of a composition. There are generally eight in number, based on eight of the nine rasas. They are as follows: rati (erotic), haasa (comic), shoka (sorrowful), krodha(angering), utsaha (enlivening), bhaya (frightening), jugupsa (disgusting), and vismaya (amazing). A ninth, sama (tranquility), is associated with Shaantha.[2]

Bhaava is the complete affecting of the heart by any emotion. Rasa means sentiment, sthayi bhava means dominant emotive state, and vyabhichari bhava means transitory or transferable stages.”They are the instrumentalities of conveying and communicating intangible but real states of mind.”[1,9]

Literature (Saahitya) in Sanskrit has typically been divided into drusya (what can be seen or exhibited on stage) and sravya (what can only be heard or read).

Dramatics falls into the first category. Nataka is the word for a play, while rupaka is the term applied to dramatic compositions. Minor or short dramas, such as the Ratnavali of Sri Harsa Deva (Emperor Harsha Vardhana of Kanyakubja (Kannauj), are called Natikas. While there are 17 other classes of these Uparupakas (minor dramas), they needn’t be examined for our purposes.

The 3 main aspects of a Rupaka are (1) The Plot (Vasthu) (2) The Hero (Neta) (3) The Sentiment (Rasa).

Bharata muni avers that literary artists should seek to use adhbuta rasa (sentiment of wonder) in the nirvahana samdhi (denouement). He gave highly sophisticated almost scientific sanction to dramaturgy. Indeed, so much care and preparation is allocated to the stage itself that modern (usually western/westernised) commentators wonder at how tenable its implementation was.

Bharata classifies drama into ten types. Each one has differing aims, length, and magnitude. “The structure of drama, according to Sanskrit dramatic theory, is the scheme of avasthas (Stages/phases) and samdhis (juncture) and samdhyangas (parts of junctures). These form the infrastructure of the drama.” [2,202]

Some hold that Lakshana (indirect expression or secondary meaning) is in fact the most important contribution of Bharata to literature in general and Poetics in particular. They believe that it is a “lost master-key which opens all the locked mansions of alankara [rhetorical device], guna [merit/quality], riti [diction], vrtti [mode of expression/style], chandas [metre], dhvani [resonance] and vakrokti [twist in expression] and aucitya [propriety]”. [2,5]

Whether via rasa or lakshana or tattastha (or all 3), the Natya Sastra is the conceptual foundation for the Indic Literary and Performance Arts.


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“The arts provide both pleasure and education and are a vehicle of beauty, duty and conduct” [1, p .25]

The legacy of the Natya Sastra cannot be minimised. Scholars and commentators from Abhinavagupta to Manmohan Ghosh have all propounded its centrality not only to literature and the performance arts, but the Classical Indic Tradition itself.

“Natyasastra lays down the foundations of a theory and practice of the Indian arts which was adhered to by theoreticians and practicising arts” for thousands of years. This was done consistently throughout the subcontinent. [1,26]

And yet, despite the best efforts of many motivated men to muddle not only its importance but to limit it to Kashmir, the impact of it was not only pan-Indian but Pan-Asian as well. “It had validity and applicability outside the country, especially in Asia, and continues to have relevance today for articulating a theory of art which can be clearly distinguished from Aristotelian or subsequent theories of aesthetic and art in the post-Renaissance West.”[1,26]

Above all, above even rasa and lakshana, was the uniquely spiritual quality that the Rishi of Natya brought to dramatics and histrionics. As many artistes in disparate fields such as dance and art and music attest today, to perform based on the structures and tradition of India is not merely an experience of the senses, but an experience of the spirit:

“Bharata’s adherence and debt to this world-view is clear when he repeatedly speaks of the ‘eye’ and the ‘ear’ and purification. It is not only ritual purification; it is the constant endeavour to arrive at a greater and greater degree of subtlety and refinement. The theatrical universe is the world of the ‘audible’ and the visible’. The senses and sense-organs and perceptions play a crucial role in the evolution of the theory, as also the techniques of each of the four instrumentalities of expression—sound, word (vacika) and body language (angika), décor and dress (aahaarya) internal states (sattvika)”.[1,55]

The imprint of Bharata is felt, therefore not only in Classical Ancient India, but even in the medieval period and across regions. From the Manasollasa (Kannadigas) to the Dhvanyaloka (Kashmiris) to the Sangita Kaumudhi (Odias) to the Sangitaraja (Rajasthanis), the influence of his work is irreplaceable and undeniable, crossing centuries and corners of India. Even the Ain-e-akbari, Risala-i-Ragadarpana, Sangita Mallika, and Kitab e Nau Rasa all rely heavily on, and some would even say attempt to digest, the pioneering work of Bharata muni. Notably, however, this influence was neither regimented nor haphazard. [1,120]

Jayasenapati’s Nrttaratnavali from Andhra (thirteenth century) also reflects both adherence to and departures from the Natyasastra. While it follows the basic principles it focuses much greater attention on training vyaayama and a full account of the desi type of karanas.We gather very important information from this text on many matters, including the basic techniques of training, including those on the bar. Unlike others, he includes a section on construction of theatres.”[1,122] True integral unity with diversity. The canon itself provided general principles which were adapted to the local style and needs of the region. Indeed, Jayasena’s text was instrumental in reviving not only Andhranatyam but Perini Siva Thandava as well.

The reverbations of the ancient and medieval period, therefore, can still be felt today. Most importantly, vrtti (style) and pravrtti (regional school) both had their place and space, as opposed to regimented standardisation. Perhaps that is what makes the Indic tradition so dynamic. Appropriate flexibility exists to not only provide for the civilizational and the regional, but also the material (laukika) and the spiritual (adhyatmika). The spirit of dharma, therefore, can seamlessly move from school to school, region to region, and artform to artform.

The body and beating heart of a tradition and its values is in the arts. Study of the Natya Sastra is crucial because those prejudiced against Indic Civilization…real Indic Civilization…have long pretended that there is no classical canon. The same sophists who call India a british invention say this about classical Indian music.

The British and their elite academic atlantic relatives have historically taken pro-pak positions, pretending a variety of falseties for propagandic purposes. One theory that was floating around was that there was no true performance music before turks came and took “vedic chants” from the temples to create Hindustani music. This ignorant (or self-serving) view has no historical basis, as even the most committed hinduphobe knows the Natya Sastra is dated to 200 BCE, if not earlier.

It is also one of the reasons why adarsh liberals have always given such step-brotherly treatment to south India, long before l’affaire Jallikattu. This is because foreign influences are difficult to divine or impose on Carnatic. Even recent additions like the European violin have been adapted to suit the Indic taste, much as Hindustani and Kathak were merely modified Indic artforms to suit the Turkic taste.

To bring things back full circle, however, perhaps the best rebuttal came from a scholar of literary theory himself:

In my opening remarks I referred to narrow nationalism as going against the spirit of Comparative Literature…Narrow nationalism, however, is not the problem here; rather its opposite is the problem; and its opposite is not wider nationalism; it is absence of national feeling. We Indians are often unnecessarily apologetic about ourselves and about our national heritage. We unnecessarily feel guilty of jingoism, of cultural expansionism in such matters. This peculiar feeling has its roots in respect of some students of literary not in the thorough knowledge of our heritage, but in its opposite, namely, complete ignorance of our heritage. [3,185]

Understanding the root helps us learn where all the branches are. That is the importance of the Natya Sastra to Indic—real Indic—music, art, poetry, dance, and drama.“The Mahamuni provided the basic framework and a pan-Indian vocabulary which was to guide the theory and practice of the Indian arts for two millennia”,and likely more .[1,100]

Bharata’s work influenced millions directly or indirectly. For these reasons alone, Natya Sastra is one of the most important books ever written [6,19]


  1. Vatsyayan, Kapila. Bharata: The Natyasastra. Sahitya Akademi.2007
  2. Kale, M.R. Dasakumaracarita of Dandin. New Delhi: MLBD. 2009
  3. Pandey, Sudhakar and V.N.Jha.Glimpses of Ancient Indian Poetics.Satguru Publications: Delhi, 1993 .
  4. http://natyasastraced.blogspot.com/
  5. http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-national/tp-karnataka/cultural-research-complex-on-natya-sastra-planned/article3149469.ece
  6. Kak, Subhash. Early Indian Music. http://www.ece.lsu.edu/kak/manila.pdf
  7. Kak, Subhash. The Wonder that was Kashmir. http://www.ece.lsu.edu/kak/wonder.pdf
  8. Malhotra, Rajiv. Sulekha. 2002. http://creative.sulekha.com/the-axis-of-neocolonialism_103313_blog