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Classical Indic Literature V: Romantic Sanskrit Poetry

SringaraSanskritaKavya

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.

Composition

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.

Sakuntala&Dusyanta

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.

220px-Raja_Ravi_Varma_-_Mahabharata_-_Shakuntala
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.

Abhijnaana-Saakuntalam

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.

Author
MahakaviKalidasa
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…

Selections
§

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

SakuntalaRecogntion2§

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

§

SakuntalaRecognition

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

                                                                            

References:
  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

Classical Indic Literature IV: Epic Poetry

MahabharataManuscript

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.

Authors

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.

Valmiki

maharshi-Valmiki

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

Maharshi_Vyasa-image

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.

Epics

Arjuna_statue
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.

Ramayana

rama-coronation

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.

Mahabharata

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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.

Puranas

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.

shivapuranaack

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

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

silappathikaram-oor-eliya-arimugam-700x700-imadab8byzvkzyfk
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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.

Mahakavya

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.

Kumara-Sambhava

kumarasambhava_of_kalidasa_m_r_kale_medium
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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]

Raghuvamsa

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]

Sishupala-vadha

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

nala&damayanti

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.

harshavardhana

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]

Kiratarjuneeyam

Kiratarjuniya

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]

Conclusion

ram-ravana-the-ramayana-indian-mythology-brahmastra

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?

samudraram

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.

References:

  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.

Dasakumaracarita

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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

dhwani-theory-and-alamkara-9-638

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]

References:

  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