Today we present to you our long planned Romantic Sanskrit Poetry 2.
This post features the famous Kavya of Mahakavi Kalidasa called Meghaduta.
Those of you following ICP would recall our inaugural Post on Romantic Sanskrit Poetryfeaturing Abhijnaanasaakuntalam. While the ‘Recognition of Sakuntala’ was a drama featuring beautiful poetry, Meghaduta is a lovely, lyrical poem that is pure romantic reverie. Perhaps no padya captures the longing of a husband for his wife like the ‘Cloud Messenger’. Indeed, if there were ever any question of Kalidasa’s poetic greatness, Meghaduta put it all to rest.
What is there to be said about Kalidasa that has not already been said?Quite a bit actually.
Kalidasa is a courtly poet, but his knowledge of the human heart and his understanding of the complex play of human motivation, are profound. A keen observer of nature in all its varied aspects—he sees with a painter’s eye and speaks with a poet’s tongue—he is at the same time a learned writer who wears his enormous learning lightly and with grace. 
Clearly there is a lesson in this legendary poet’s own approach. As alankara-sastra expert Acharya Dandin frequently decried, there is a proclivity toward pedantry, particularly in those subscribing to the school of Gauda. Mere show of learning is no real accomplishment. It is in the application of learning, to craft useful things which improve human life or via lucidly lyrical literature that lights up the soul. Along with learning, there is grace.
Kavi kula guru Kalidasa may have delighted us with his delightful dramas and romantic rupakas to remember. Abhijnanasaakuntalam, Vikramorvaseeyam, and Malavikaagnimitram may entertain us with their splendid stories. But if there is a piece that showcases the true genius of Ujjain’s most ardent devotee, it the one dedicated to a cumulus amicus. Meghaduta is that kavita that not only captures our heart but captivates our imagination.
“Kalidasa’s accomplishment is distinguished not only by the excellence of the individual works, but by the many-sided talent which the whole achievement displays. He is a dramatist, a writer of epic and a lyrical poet of extraordinary scope. In his hands the language attained a remarkable flexibility, becoming an instrument capable of sounding many moods and nuances of feeling; a language limpid and flowing, musical, uncluttered by the verbal virtuosities indulged in by many writers who followed him; yet, remaining a language loaded in every rift with the rich ores of the literary and mythical allusiveness of his cultural heritage. By welding different elements to create new genres, his importance as an innovator in the history of Sanskrit literature is clearly established.” [2,1]
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]
Kalidasa would set standards of excellence in poetry for millennia.He imbues with life:
“Men of great stature, power and valour, and women of uncommon beauty and grace met by the heroes of epics and romances are often asked with admiring wonder if they are beings of divine origin: yaksas, gandharvas, apsaras. Apsaras, ‘born of the Waters’—the waters of creation (see note 8), are, like yaksa-yaksees, associated with life and fertility and seen as beneficent powers” [2,29]
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. It is here that our hero of poesy truly excelled. He inspired generations of not only litterateurs and litterateuses, who frequently referred to him, but women and men of the elite, princesses and princes, wives and husbands, to great romantic deeds in the itihaas of shringaar. But why take my word for it, hear from another great poet of antiquity.
Bana author of the Kadambari exclaimed:
Who is not delighted when Kalidasa’s perfect verses spring forth in their sweetness, like honey-filled clusters of flowers?”
Indeed, who is not delighted. But if you have yet to dip your tongue in the madhu-madya of Mahakavi’s poetry, then start with Meghaduta.
Sringara (Romance) is also Part of our Culture. Perhaps no Poem says Sringara like Meghaduta. From its dazzling descriptions of the Indian Subcontinent to its pleasing poetry recounting its people to its captivating kavya capturing sentiment, it is truly the poem for the true Romantic.
Describing the separation of a semi-divine Yaksha from his wife, we learn of this heavenly being’s banishment to Earth for 1 year. With no friend or beverage in which to drown his sorrows, this servant of Kubera turns to a gracious Cloud whom he beseeches to be his messenger. Duta-kavya can be considered a genre of poetry in and of itself, dating back to the Ramayana, and Rama’s anointment of Hanuman to be his messenger to Sita. In fact, the Meghaduta itself alludes to Valmiki’s great epic with frequent mentions of its characters and place names. The nayaka (hero), like Rama, is not resentful of the originator of his banishment, and bears his exile with heroic forbearance. It is certainly inspired by the Adi-kavya, and possibly an outright homage to it. And it certainly aspires to its himalayan heights of resonant rasa.
“The chief goal of drama is to produce rasa, the aesthetic emotion, evoked by the appropriate mood built cumulatively through not only words, but also by mime and gesture, music and dance, costume and jewellery” [2,7]…and oh, does Kalidasa evoke it, not only in his dramas, but in this descriptive poem.
The Court Poet of Vikramaditya and the first poet among Romantic kavis not only sources scintillating Sringara rasa but stylises soka as the sthayibhava.
He uses the “stately” mandaakraanta metre in his messenger poem. With its 17-syllabled lines, it is considered the archetypal chanda for love-poetry and longing. Indeed, through its cadence, it conveys the loneliness and yearning of the yaksha. If that is the mood, then the ambience is dream-like, like the very cloud with which it is eponymous.
The Meghaduta is divided into the Purvamegha (earlier cloud, as in the cloud’s journey to Alaka puri) and Uttaramegha (latter cloud, the narrative when the journey to Alaka ends).
The Purvamegha has 63 slokas and the Uttaramegha has 52 for a total of 115.
While this article will concentrate on the Uttaramegha, which most superbly captures the vipralambha sringara (love-in-separation) of the a-namika yaksha and yakshi as well as the exhilaration of Alakaa-puri, outstanding descriptions of the Indian Subcontinent’s landscape is given in the poem’s earlier half, the Purvamegha.
“In the Poorvamegha the poet reveals the Yaksa facing a cloud, clasping a towering peak of Himaalayas, whom he thinks of making the bearer of a message to his lorn wife; for he was cursed by Kuvera his Lord, to be severed from his wife for dereliction of duty. He makes an offering of Kutaja flowers and water to the cloud.” [1, iii]
It is a sophisticated work of an veteran poet and arguably ranks with Kumarasambhavam in its maturity. Connections with the Ramayana aside, it stands out for the originality of approach and the breadth of geographic treatment. Indeed, this descriptive poem provides a veritable tour of Bharatavarsha and connects the sacred and super-human with the everyday and historical.
“In this poem, Kaalidaasa gives us a glimpse of Kailaasa, and the Himaalayan regions. His eye in a fine frenzy rolls over the ridges, cliffs, scarps, valleys, dales, glades and the gritty upland of that mountain. He delineates the story of a bereaved Yaksa in crystal-clear vignettes that are remarkable for their precision and romantic charm.” [1,iii]
Mountains, rivers, valleys & cities, all are veritably painted by his padya for our manasa.Although apsaric Alakaa is the abode of the hour, Avantika’s favourite penman is loath to lose an opportunity to dedicate his penmanship to it.
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]
Kalidasa’s reference to Ujjain in Meghadutam
“to Ujjayinee glowing in splendor like a brilliant piece of Paradise
Come down to earth with traces of merits of dwellers in Paradise returning, the fruit of their good deeds almost spent.” [2,5]
For pedantic grammar-gyaanis and assorted Panchatantramurkha-panditas, an appropriate note regarding translation courtesy Chandra Rajan:
“Kalidasa’s poetry like much of Indian art is stylized. The Stylization is not a rhetorical procedure but part of the self-awareness with which the verse shapes itself. The translation therefore, has to be faithful, has to somehow contrive to be stylized and readable; to steer clear of a literalness of rendering as well as an identification of readability with contemporaneity.” [2,xvii]
In our time of jaded ennui and de rigeur poseurs, the Mahakavi revives the romantic with this refreshing tale of a lovelorn lover. Rather than the woman pining over the man, we find the husband pining over his wife.
“The [cloud’s] message must be delivered at midnight, for the Yaksa’s fair and chaste wife passes sleepless nights, leaves her bed, sits in the highest window in the palace until the long to come daybreak comes. She is in no mood to enjoy the moonlight since she is neither fully awake nor asleep. Her lips go parch-dry, her hair grows coarse from want of oil; and her sleep is disturbed by tears so that she cannot dream of reunion. Such is the pitiful sight of the disheveled pining wife of the Yaksa that even the cloud would not fail to grow tender…The cloud is requested to bring back on his return a message from his beloved wife” [1, xii]
C.R.Devadhar muses how interesting a sequel to Meghaduta would be, and what the return message from the Yaksa’s wife would be—perhaps there is a poem there to be composed by a skilled poetess yet to write…
And here, our journey into the author and his composition ends, and the selections from his celebrated poem begin. We now step into the heavenly realm of Himalayan Alakaa.
Alakaa is a world created by our dreams and desires where time stands still and whose ways are untrodden by the unimaginative; where ‘sensual music’ fills the nights to overflowing under the moonlight (Megh.66,68). [2,26]
I. Tanvee syaamaa sikhari dasanaa pakva bimbaa daroshtee
Ya tatra syaadhya vathivishaye srushtiraadhyova dhaathuh || UM.Sl.19
There resides my wife, the Creator’s prototype of a luscious woman, slender and youthful, with pointed teeth and lips red like bimba fruit, a thin waist and a glance like that of a startled deer; she has a deep navel, with a measured gait owing to the weight of the hips, and she is slightly stooping from the weight of her bosom. [1, 31]
II. Thaam jaaneethaah parimitha-kathaam jeevitam me dvitheeyam
In her recognize my very life, sparing in her speech and cut off from me like a chakravaaka [bird] from the spouse. Her heart overflows with longing as days pass heavily; I think she droops like a younger creeper in Winter’s rigour. [1, 31]
Artwork by Artist Nana Joshi
III. Noonam yasyaah prabala-rudeetochoo nanetram priyaayaa
My darling’s eyes are swollen red by constant tears, the color of her lips fades by her burning sighs; her face rests upon her palms, hid by her long tresses. Indeed, she looks like the waning Moon enwrapped in the night’s folds. [1, 32]
Artwork by Artist Nana Joshi
IV. Nih-svaasenaadhara-kisalaya-klesinaa vikshipantheem
Her delicate lips are scared by her fervid sighs. She spills her hair, grown rough and dry since she washes them in pure water without oil or scent. She longs for my embrace even though it be in a dream. But tears well up and destroy the relief which sleep could afford. [1, 34]
V. Srangenaangam-suthanu tanunaa gaada-taptena taptam
Obstructed by an angry and inexorable Fate, the distant one [your husband] seeks to unite with you, to mingle tears with tears, arms with arms, pining bodies, anxious heart to heart, sigh with sigh—such are his wishes. [1,38]
VI. Syamaasvanga chakhita-hareergipre-ksharge drshtipaatham
Devadhar, C.R. Works of Kalidasa: Volume II. Delhi: MLBD. 2010
Rajan, Chandra. The Complete Works of Kalidasa: Volume 1 (Poets). New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi. 2005
Wilson, H.H. The Megha-Duta: The Cloud Messenger. London: Thurner & Co. 1867
Acknowledgement: My thanks again to the young voice actor for enacting this poetry recitation on short notice.
Acknowledgment: The outstanding artwork by artist Nana Joshi can be found on this website. The poem was verily brought to life by these chitras.
*Minor Proofing for some translations
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. 
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.
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 197couplets.
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.
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.
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 thePancha-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
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
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
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.
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. 
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.
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.
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.
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
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. 
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.
The simile of Kalidasa, the depth of meaning of Bharavi, the word-play of Dandin, in Magha all three qualities are found! 
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.
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]
The 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. 
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.
“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.”
“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.
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:
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.
The Mahabharata. http://sacred-texts.com/hin/maha/index.htm
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
The following Post was published at Andhra Cultural Portal on November 20, 2014
At long last, we touch onLiteratureproper 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
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
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.
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.
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 Arthaprakritis. Vasthus 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.
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.
Poetry 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.
Kale, M.R. Dasakumaracarita of Dandin. New Delhi: MLBD. 2009
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 originatewith 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”. 
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. 
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]
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]
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.  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.
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”. 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. 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.
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.
“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 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]
Vatsyayan, Kapila. Bharata: The Natyasastra. Sahitya Akademi.2007
Kale, M.R. Dasakumaracarita of Dandin. New Delhi: MLBD. 2009
Pandey, Sudhakar and V.N.Jha.Glimpses of Ancient Indian Poetics.Satguru Publications: Delhi, 1993 .