Sanskrit Poetics

Arasu Balan. Handbook of Twentieth-Century Literatures of India. Editor: Nalini Natarajan, Greenwood Press, 1996.

Vedic and Later Hermeneutics

The four Vedas—Rg, Sama, Yajur, and Adharvana—dated anywhere from 2500 B.C. to 600 B.C., not only are the earliest Sanskrit literary texts but have also defined compositional rules and aesthetic principles of the Sanskrit literary heritage. The Vedic hymns also show the origin of self-consciousness and rational questioning in the Sanskrit literary tradition characterizing any literary criticism. In the Vedas, celebration of supernatural power is reconciled with the realization of creative instincts in people, which are equated with the divine activity itself. Thus, God becomes a poet in Rg Veda: “He who is the supporter of the worlds of life, He, Poet, cherishes manifold forms by his poetic power” (XIII, 41.5). Poem is as spontaneous as a stream (X, 68.1), but it is, at once, an expression of divine afflatus and a verbal construct. As one Vedic poet sings, “As an expert artisan constructs a chariot, so have I composed this hymn for thee, O Agni!” Divinity itself is no less a human construct in the poetic form: “The Beautiful Winged, though He is one, the wise poets shape, with songs, in many figures” (X, 114.5).

As Rajasekhara’s Kavyamimamsa in the late ninth century puts it, literary criticism is the fifth Veda. The early Sanskrit critics not only differentiated between poetic language (kavya) and intellective language (sastra)—similar to the distinction the modern British critic I. A. Richards would foreground in his Principles of Literary Criticism —but also defined rules for poetic composition. In anatomizing poetic methods, some Sanskrit writers reduced techniques to rigid rules, whereas some others distinguished between the technical and lexical aspects of poetry. Being the oldest Sanskrit text, the Rg Veda drew the attention of the earliest aestheticians. Panini in the fourth century B.C. laid down rules for various forms of expressions in the Vedas and other texts, and Yaska in the fifth century B.C. came up with a definition of similes in the Vedas. Many critics have felt that early critical analysis in India went too far in its formal analysis. For example, Sushil Kumar De remarks that the early Sanskrit aestheticians were too concerned with grammatical rules at the cost of aesthetic sensibility (De 1963, 27; see also Dwivedi 1969, 178-80). If the analysis of style rigidified from Aristotle and Isocrates to the Middle Ages in the West (Wimsatt and Brooks 1957, 142-43), in India, too, the technical study of rhetorical methods in poetry sometimes led to a focus on mere systematization and inane ornamentation.

Major Schools and Concepts

The earliest literary debates in Sanskrit seem to have focused on the distinctions between aesthetic and merely ornamental aspects of poetry. The Riti school thus focused on “style,” a concept similar to figures of speech in English tradition. Sweetness of words, forceful or smaller compounds, and alliterations were considered to mark the style of poetry (Dwivedi 1969, 14). As Roland Barthes informs us in his The Semiotic Challenge, the classical Western trivium did not differentiate among grammatica, dialectica, and rhetorica. For Sanskrit poeticians, too, grammatical rules were meant for rhetorical effects. For Patanjali (second century B.C.), Bhamaha, Rudrata, and Dandin (all three lived in the eighth to ninth centuries), language consisted of word (sabda) and sense (artha) but the ornamental aspect (alamkara) of poetry was more than a mere combination of word and sense. Thus emerged the Alamkara school, which claimed figures to be the most essential element of poetry. As Bhamaha insisted, “even the charming face of a damsel does not shine stripped of ornament” (Mukunda Sharma 1968, 9). The rhetorical tools are embellishments (alamkara) and characteristics (laksana), the former being external like jewels on a body, and the latter being intrinsic like the beauty of the body itself. Bharata (second century) distinguished in his Natyasastra, the earliest Sanskrit treatise on aesthetics, about 36 marks of laksana, and Bhamaha cited 43 kinds of alamkara. Dramaturgists like Bharata were more conscious of the difference between the intrinsically poetic and the merely ornamental aspects of language, and poeticians like Bha-maha ignored such distinctions. But the term alamkara, in general, meant more than mere figures of speech for Sanskrit aestheticians. Comparable would be the sometime confusions between tropes (metaphor, simile, synecdoche, personification, and so on) and figures of speech (alliteration, zeugma, and so on) in Western poetics. Bhamaha himself defined alamkara as “that which gives sufficiency to a composition to be classed as poetry.” Later on, alamkara expanded its meaning to include characteristics and embellishments to such an extent that the sixteenth-century writer Appayya Diksita listed some 124 kinds of alamkara (Dwivedi 1969, 10-11).

The clearest connection between the technical and the aesthetic principles in Sanskrit poetics emerged in the grammatical concepts of Bhartrhari (seventh century) and the interpretation of these concepts by Anandhavardhana (ninth century). In Bhartrhari’s Vakyapadiya, the meaning of a word or sentence was the indivisible unit of grammar. Such a grammatical unity (sphota) was a pure and suggestive energy (Coward 1976, 31-38). Anandavardhana created a link between grammar and poetics by using Bhartrhari’s idea of the suggestive power of a word for the suggestiveness of poetry itself in general. For Bhartrhari, the spoken word offered the inner meaning and took the shape of sphota. Anan-davardhana claimed that this implicitness of a word was the very poetic principle of suggestiveness. Thus, Sanskrit poetics, which always has assumed an active response in a reader and a creative process that presupposes such a subjective response (Munro 1965, 67-74), came to identify feeling (rasa) and suggestive-ness (dhvani) as the distinguishing features of poetry. Even though rasa and dhvani were closely connected, as feeling is something that can only be suggested and not directly expressed, both these poetic principles have had their own history.

Traditionally, a discussion of rasa begins with an experience of Valmiki, who composed the well-known epic Ramayana in the third century B.C. The poet is said to have been inspired to write the epic after an emotional experience in a forest when a hunter killed a male Krauncha bird that was mating with a female bird. After condemning the hunter in his agony, the poet later claimed to his pupils that his spontaneous utterance, “kim idam vyahrtam maya?” [What is this that has been uttered by me?], was nothing but poetry. Anandavardhana saw in this story the germ not only of poetry but also of criticism because the poet consciously posited that only an intense realization of an external event was the germ of poetry (Sankaran 1929, 7-8). Thus, Valmiki’s emotional experience and his later rationalization of such a moment embodied an intense feeling, which defines rasa. In the Western aesthetics, too, poets like William Wordsworth, John Keats, Oscar Wilde, and Charles Baudelaire and critics like John Stuart Mill and Walter Pater have stressed the emotional part of a literary experience. For example, Pater in his Renaissance spoke of “wisdom, the poetic passion, the desire of beauty, the love of art for its own sake.” But the concept of rasa gave a unique role to emotion and joy in Sanskrit poetics.

Bharata’s Natyasastra used the term rasa in the poetic sense for the first time, but the word had an earlier history with different senses. In the Rg Veda, it meant the taste of a drink, the ecstatic experience of taste, and then a unique taste that gave a sense of joy (Sankaran 1929, 2-3). For Bharata, rasa was “a realization of one’s own consciousness as colored by emotions.” As the French critic Rene Daumal elaborated it, rasa “is neither an object, nor an emotion, nor a concept; it is an immediate experience, a gustation of life, a pure joy, which relishes its own essence as it communes with the ‘other’—the actor or poet” (41). Rasa was an emotional disturbance, like Valmiki’s at the death of the Krauncha bird, which depended on, but could not be reduced to, its experiential constituents because of its pure immediacy and intensity. It was also distinguished by the dissolution of egoistic or appetitive side of emotions. Thus, it was at once subjective and transcendental. Rasa in Bharata’s original description and Abhinavagupta’s redefinition of it were a balance among various moods such as serenity, love, joy, compassion, violence, valor, awesomeness, loathsomeness, and wonder, somewhat like I. A. Richards’s definition of poetry as an organization of various impulses. It was an emotion that orchestrated other feelings for an identity with what one saw or read, but, at the same time, it was beyond ordinary modes of experience (bhava) felt for its own sake without subjective affectations. The poetic presentation universalized the situation for an objective experience of an emotion for its own sake beyond personal conflicts or anxiety. In its purest form, rasa was also identified as a merger with the Absolute. Rhetoricians with devotional orientation usurped the theory of rasa for the celebration of the Supreme Brahman (Dwivedi 1969, 195-200).

Rasa was an emotional impact in a literary experience that was effected through suggestiveness (dhvani). For poeticians like Anandavardhana, dhvani was a literary value in itself. The passage Mukunda Sharma quotes is a good example of the metaphoric discourse that defines dhvani: “The sight of heroes does not so delight in their beloveds’ breasts red [sic ] with saffron anointment as in the temples of enemies’ elephants, painted deep in vermillion” (60). The trope apparently praises valor at the cost of love. But the comparison implicitly suggests that the breasts of the women are as large as the temples of the elephants. For Anandhavardhana, what suggestiveness could do would not be possible for ordinary or direct speech. The Dhvani school revitalized some hackneyed ideas in Indian poetics and focused on the authentic role of poetic language (Mukunda Sharma 1968, 59-73). Anandavardhana included the total mood of a poem under the word dhvani and thereby removed any perceptible distinction between rasa and dhvani (Coward 1976, 85; Dwivedi 1969, 173).

If dhvani in Anandhavardhana’s interpretation meant both the external element of the word’s suggestive power and the internal element of aesthetic impact, Abhinavagupta in the tenth century used the term to talk about atman, the aesthetic experience. Abhinavagupta’s theory of rasadhvani enumerated in his Locana only took Anandhavardhana’s reconciliation between rasa and dhvani to its logical conclusions. If rasa took one to the transcendental levels, rasadh-vani, which was beyond rasa and dhvani, could also accomplish a consummate merger with the Absolute (Coward 1976, 86-87). The combination of aesthetic and religious principles, too, was the hallmark of Sanskrit devotional lyrics. Sankaracarya’s The Saundaryalahari (Flood of Beauty) is a good example of religious poetry in which the divine is neither completely above the human nor beyond sensuous attributes.

Classical Drama and Dramaturgy

It is impossible to separate the history of Sanskrit drama from that of Sanskrit poetry. The Vedas themselves have some dramatic scenes, and Natyasastra, the text on which Sanskrit poetics to a great extent relies, is basically on dramaturgy. The divine blessing that Bharata claimed for theater in the text was a supreme celebration of any creative activity. In Bharata’s explanation of the origin of drama, God announced the role of theater when the devilish forces claimed representation in it: “Neither your nature nor that of the gods is exclusively represented by the theatre, for it describes the manifestations of the triple world in its entirety. Sometimes law, sometimes play, sometimes wealth, sometimes quiet, sometimes laughter, sometimes warfare, sometimes passion, sometimes violent death.” If, as we have seen, poetic principles were sometimes appropriated for religious purposes, in Natyasastra God outlined the purposes of drama, which seem to be for both didactic and recreational goals: “It is a receptacle of activity, for superior, inferior, and average men; it engenders useful teachings, and, from moments of tension to those of relaxation, it renders all joys” (Daumal 1982, 49).

Like the imitative theories of Western drama, which have their origin in Aristotle’s Poetics, Bharata’s elaborations define dramaturgy as imitation of actions. Dhananjaya’s Dasarupaka (tenth century) expanded this definition to an imitation of a state or condition (avastha). For Bharata, a play had five stages: beginning (arambha), effort (prayatna), possibility of attainment of the object (praptyasa), certainty of attainment (niyatapti), and fruition (phalagama). As opposed to Aristotle’s stipulation on the unity of time for the whole play, Bhar-ata wanted only an act to be within a day. A play consisted of the primary (adhikarika) and subsidiary (prasangika) plots. Spectacle for Bharata not only meant dresses and makeup, as it is for Aristotle, but also meant gestures and involuntary states like tears and tremor. Despite the divine order at the beginning of Natyasastra on the comprehensive representation of human beings in drama, most of the Sanskrit plays were about characters with royal or divine or mythic origins. Thus, if we should go by the Aristotelian definitions of a comedy, which is supposed to be about inferior characters, and of a tragedy, which is about distinctive characters, most of the Sanskrit plays should be considered tragedies, because most of the protagonists in Sanskrit dramas were ideal types who inspired the viewers to emulate them (Dwivedi 1969, 18-28; Coomaraswamy 1956, 44). Critics have argued that such typical characters in Sanskrit plays dramatized a well-defined and ordered reality that always moved toward a happy end. Such a tradition has been contrasted with the Western heritage, in which plays would often foreground the separation between the self and external forces (Dimock 42-50), either because of the protagonist’s weakness, as in Aristotle’s views on tragedy, or because of the tragic situation, as in Northrop Frye’s interpretation of tragedy in Anatomy of Criticism. These observations do not mean that the common and the low characters were not represented in classical Sanskrit plays at all. Dramatic types like Prakasana, Prahasana, Bhana, and Vithi depicted social life of lower order with invented plots as opposed to the typical plots in legendary and heroic plays. Other genres like novels (akhyayika), too, portrayed common life, but most of such works have been lost beyond recovery (Chaitanya 1975, 287, 375).

Modern Poetry and Drama

The new intellectual atmosphere that prevailed during the British rule in India brought with it an aesthetic thrust in journalistic activities (Dwivedi’s Sarasvati is the best-known literary journal) and a political awareness in the literary world that worked as powerful forces in gaining political independence in 1947. Without weakening its basis in the traditional principles of Sanskrit aesthetics, literatures of modern India have taken different shapes and explored new possibilities. Poets in Hindhi, Bengali, and other regional languages have manipulated the classical models of religious (bakhti) and romantic poetry with a new temper. The mingling of sensuous and religious values and the celebration of different rasas continue to dominate poetry written in various languages of the country. In modern times, the classical poetics, on one hand, has defined regional prose and poetry in India, and, on the other, it has been adapted, expanded, and even radically reformulated for various aesthetic, social, and political agendas in contemporary literatures. Exposure to Western modes of thinking, too, has changed social and individual values, often creating a fine combination of Oriental and Occidental possibilities. The changing social hierarchies, too, have shifted the ideological undercurrents of the discursive practices. Adil Jussawalla’s remark that modern writing “reflects the Indian petty bourgeoisie’s present inability to find a dynamic role for itself in a society which is slowly transforming itself from the semifeudal to the capitalist” (Jussawalla 1974, 34) only foregrounds the complexities that have emerged from such a problematic social situation.

The ideas of Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), the poet, novelist, and dramatist, at once recapitulate and reformulate some of the fundamental concepts of Sanskrit poetics. For example, his claim that the emotional energy that is not exhausted by the question of self-preservation finds its outlet in art (1945, 11) would remind one of the focus on the superabundance of emotions in rasa and a celebration of spiritual life in Sanskrit poetry. But the sense of alienation spurred by an acute awareness of the evils of existence, “when thrones have lost their dignity and prophets have become an anachronism, when the sound that drowns all voices is the noise of the marketplace,” brings to Tagore’s poetry a modern temper that is not exactly congenial to Sanskrit poetry and an idealist resilience that is typically identified as Indian. Tagore has also projected unique characters in his plays who deviate from the traditional types and insisted on the problematic nature of language and life in his prose writings. As he expresses it in Reminiscences, clarity is not the important function of language, and an understanding of a consciousness is difficult (72). Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950), too, has been an influential literary figure, whose The Future Poetry encompasses most of his ideas on poetry and spiritual life. Poetry, for Aurobindo, is an expression of the highest level of self-realization. Poetic intensity springs from spiritual vision behind words (1953, 22). The spiritual significance of poetry does not mean a separation of aesthetics from physical life because, for Aurobindo, poetry mediates between “the immaterial and the concrete, the spirit and the life” (288). This transcendental role of poetry is not at the cost of what Sanskrit poetic tradition has considered to be aesthetically paramount: for Au-robindo, delight is the essence of existence, and, for a poet, beauty is more important than truth and even life itself (331). Ananda K. Coomaraswamy is another writer who has eloquently mediated between the East and the West on literary and religious matters by identifying common elements in both traditions and interpreting classical concepts in the light of Western formulations.

The nonconformist and dynamic spirit of modern literatures in India can be exemplified by the modern thinking that Tagore and other writers introduced to the country and the ways in which their own ideas were rejected by, for instance, the Bengali poets, such as Buddadeva Bose, Jibanananda Das, Nazrul Islam, and many others (Kripalani 1971, 87-95). Classical Hindi poetry, once confined to romantic descriptions of female figures and celebration of Krishna’s dalliance with his countless lovers, now includes thematic and formal experiments. Instead of describing nature mostly as a background for the emotions of characters, modern Hindi poetry recognizes the beauty and the value of the physical world in its own right. Most important, poetry has come to be defined in terms of the subjectivity and the myriad voices of the poet rather than in terms of hidebound aesthetic conventions and social ideals (Schomer 1983, 19-43). Modern Indian literature—in various genres, such as short stories and drama—has increasingly become realistic in recognizing the demand for recording the experiences of the common and the underprivileged and, as Mulk Raj Anand notes, the many paradoxes that are characteristic of such a complex society (Anand and Rao 1986, 227-32). The infiltration of Western ideas through an exposure to other cultural modes and the increasing emigration of Indian writers to other countries have created an awareness of the complexity of the empirical and aesthetic issues. For some writers in India, such a foreign influence even seems imperative. Gopalakrishna Adiga, a Kannada poet, claims that Indian writers should go to T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden to inject the native poetry “with the blood of reality” (Amur, 1979, 69). Many Indian poets have also used unconventional moods, such as a consciousness of emptiness and aimlessness.

Like poetry, modern Indian drama has derived its identity from Sanskrit plays and dramatic theories, but the thematic content and technical innovations in contemporary Indian plays show an assimilation of native and Western traditions. To a great extent, Western playwrights like William Shakespeare, Bernard Shaw, Eugene O’Neill, and Henrik Ibsen have shaped the contemporary theater in India. With the social awareness that led to the political freedom of the country, Indian drama transcended its early obsession with mythological themes to a sensitivity to social themes such as individual freedom, women’s plight, and economic oppression; it also found new ways of adapting the classical themes to the sensibilities of the modern audience, which wants more realistic portrayals. Girish Chandra Ghosh (1844-1911), D. L. Roy (1863-1913), K. P. Khadilkar (1872-1948), R. G. Gadkari (1885-1919), and Agha Kashmiri (1879-1935) are some of the well-known names in contemporary drama. There is considerable interaction among playwrights and producers of various languages. Regional plays get translated and enacted in other Indian languages. For example, Rajinder Nath has been bringing dramas from other languages for the Hindi audience, and Narayan Panikkar has translated classical dramas in Sanskrit to Malayalam, a language spoken in the state of Kerala, with the folk elements of the state. Journals like Enact, Sangeet Nataka (both published from Delhi), Quarterly Journal (published from Bombay), and Marathinatyasamiksha have made professional and critical exchanges on theater possible. Local clubs and societies on drama have created a popular support for drama as both an art and an entertainment. The National Academy of Music, Dance, and Drama, with federal help, has been a tremendous support to drama since 1954.

Vijay Tendulkar, a Marathi playwright, has been one of the most successful and controversial since the 1950s. His plays, like Shantala! Court Chalu Ahe (Silence! The Court Is in Session, 1967), expose the frozen values with which social forces marginalize individuals with unhomogenized behaviors and assumptions. C. T. Khanolkar is another Marathi dramatist whose plays, such as Ek Shoonya Bajirao (Bajirao the Cipher, 1971), exhibit unconventional plots and an awareness of the problems of artists. Girish Karnad is known to the outside world for his plays, like Tughlaq. Tughlaq, the fourteenth-century Muslim ruler of India, has traditionally been considered a political failure. But Karnad’s play sees in the character a modern symbol of a bold derelict fraught with conflicts in an unsympathetic world. Theater in Karnataka has found innovative dramatists like Adya Rangacharya, Kailasam, and Shriranga. Rangacharya has used symbols and humor in his numerous plays. His plays, like Shokachakra (1952), also demand a new social structure devoid of any hierarchization.

Thus, there has been a complex but unbroken aesthetic tradition in India. Sanskrit aesthetics is significant in encompassing diverse emotions and codifying them for artistic expressions; it is also quite sophisticated in enumerating poetic theories that show the unifying and stabilizing role of art. As Thomas Munro explains it, Indian aesthetics from its Sanskrit origin onward has created a connection between a metaphysical worldview and the empirical life (1965, 75). Compared with the ongoing debates on the relationship between literature and philosophy in the writings of Richard Rorty, Jacques Derrida, and others in the West, Indian poetics has never lost sight of the common ground among the aesthetic, religious, and intellectual levels of existence. Anticipating even the modern literary ideas with metaphysical orientations, like Heidegger’s elaborations on art and Being, Sanskrit hermeneutics gives a poet complete liberty by systematizing all possible moods and themes in art within a cosmic awareness of existence. Indian poetics is also secular in elevating the poet as God (Prajapati), who subsumes the sensuous within the pious and the ethical within the artistic. All experiential distinctions disappear, and different systems, such as the poetic, religious, and moral, become one in the artistic world that Indian aesthetics celebrates.