Kavya and Indian Poetics – Part Two

12 Jul

Continued from Part One

[I could not arrange the topics in a sequential order (krama) . You may take these as random collection of discussions; and, read it for whatever it is worth. Thank you.]

 Kavya – Rise and Decline



Kavya literally means the creation of a Kavi, which term derived from ‘kru-varne’ denotes one who describes; and, it is generally taken to mean a poet. The term Kavi in the Vedic context, however, meant a Rishi, a Drastara (seer) who through his intuition envisions (Darshana) the true nature of entities and their varied states of being (vicitra-bhava-dharmamsa-tattva-prakhya). Later, according to Yaska, the great Etymologist, the term Kavi came to denote, comprehensively, all those who express themselves through their intuitional (artistic) creations . The creative expression could be through words, color, sculpture, sound, or any other form, so long it flows out of intuition (prathibha) and manifests in an enjoyable form, to the benefit of all beings. Kavitva (poetry) thus , basically ,  encompasses in itself all forms of art expressions.

[ In fact , the concept of Kavi was raised to sublime heights. The Rig Veda addresses the Creator  of the Universe as the Supreme Poet (kavir manishi paribhu swayambhuh) who conceives the grand design and expresses himself spontaneously through his creation. He is the seer, the thinker who expands his consciousness to encompass the entire Universe (Vishwa_rupaani_prathimancha_kavihi). The creator, the kavi, through his all-pervasive consciousness becomes one with his creation. ]

In the later times, the scope of the term Kavi was narrowed down to mean an author who creates Kavya. Here also , it was said that one cannot be a Kavi unless one has the faculty to envision (Darshana) and to see that which is beyond the obvious, lifting the veil of the apparent (Drasta).

Kavya in the sense of poetry during the time of Natyashastra (first or second century BCE) was just an ingredient of Drama.

During the time of Natyashastra, Drama enjoyed the preeminent position; and was respected as being the highest form of art expression. All faculties, right from architecture, stage craft, painting, costumes, makeup and even poetry, music, dance etc were treated as the elements that contribute to a credible dramatic performance. It was only much later that each of these arts developed into independent disciplines gaining more depth and spread.

In the later times, a complete turnaround came about; and, Drama was classified as one of the forms of Kavya. And, even here, for some period of time, Drama was treated as the most delightful form of Kavya – Kavyeshu Natakan ramyam. Perhaps this followed a sort of gradation of poetic experience. It was said; that to include Prose under Kavya  might sound good as a rhetorical principle.  But, the restrictions of Chhandas, rhyme etc do limit the scope as also the appeal of the prose-Kavyas. And,  for similar reasons , just as the metrical Kavya has advantage over prose, so the ‘recited poem’ and Drama have an advantage over metrical Kavya , as they both enjoy the benefit of the musical effects of the sounds that enhance the  beauty of presentation, and hence  the pleasure of the listener . The Drama scores over the ‘recited poem’ because it has the additional power to bring in the embellishment of spectacular the visual effects; hence, Kavyeshu Natakam ramyam.

But, with the decline of Drama, the Dramaturgy became stagnant after Bharata till about 13th or 14th century, that is until scholars such as Dhanajaya, Sagaranandi, Ramachandra-Gunachadra and Simhabhupa came to its rescue by writing treaties. Among these, Dhananjaya’s Dasa Rupaka is an outstanding work.

Mammaṭācārya  (11th century) explained that Kavya  meant poetry, prose , drama, music as also  dance  i.e. all those forms of art  which delight  and touch the inner most chord of human sensitivity . That was before; dance and music again branched out.

Kavya is very often translated as poetry. This is rather imprecise, because in Kavya both poetry (Padya) and prose (Gadya) are employed. The two – Padya and Gadya – are also used in Drama , Champu Kavya , as also in technical texts and treatises.

Ideally, Kavya has no restriction of languages or its forms . Kavya need not always have to be in Sanskrit. It could as well be in Prakrit any other group of regional languages, including Sinhalese, Javanese. As the scholar Sheldon Pollock says , the languages of the Kavya  termed such as Sanskrit, Prakrit, Apabhramsa or whatever , all refer to social and linguistic characteristics and not to particular people or places; and , least of all the structure and internsic merit of the work.


In fact, the early phase of the Kavya was dominated by Prakrit which was spread across many regions of India. It is only towards the end of the first century or the beginning of the second century that the Sanskrit Kavya began to flower in earnestness.

To say a few word about Prakrit;  the term is said to be derived from Prakrut, meaning natural (or the original as opposed to Vikrti, the modified) .  Another explanation says that Prakrit is the common name given various dialects which sprang up in the early times  in India from the corruption of Sanskrit (Prakritih , tatra –bhavam tata agatam va Prakritam– Hemachandra 13th century). In any case, Prakrit  was the language of the common people ; spoken by the social and cultural groups, other than  the elite. The earliest known Prakrit Grammar is Prakrita Prakasa ascribed to Vararuchi (first century).

Prakrit is a comprehensive term covering a group of regional languages and dialects.  In Vararuchi’s Grammar, only four varieties of Prakrit are mentioned: Maharastri, Paisachi, Magadhi and Suraseni.   The later Grammarians expanded the list. Prakrit, thus, would include what is now known as Pali (language of the Tripitakas); Magadhi (language of Magadha) and Ardha-Magadhi (language of the Jain texts); Sauraseni (language of the Matura region) ; Lati( language of Lata the southern  region of Gujarat);  Gaudi ( language of Eastern India and Bengal)  and Maharstri (earlier form Marathi) etc.

Because of the lack of strict rules governing these languages they were more relaxed in their nature; and, rather experimental in their usage.

Prakrit was also the language employed in the early centuries of literacy (c. 250 BCE – 250 AD.) for public inscriptions and Prashasti (praise-poems), until it was displaced, rather dramatically and permanently, by Sanskrit.

Then there were Paisachi and Apabhramsa two other forms of Prakrit. Paisachi, as Prof. A K Warder explains, was a dialect which appears to have been current, say between fourth century BCE and first century AD, in the region lying between Avanti (Ujjain) and the Godavari basin.  Besides that two other explanations are offered to indicate the sources of Prakrit  : one mentions the sub-Himalayan region, from Kashmir valley to Nepal/ Tibet; and, the other mentions Kekeya, the region on the east banks of the Indus River.

According to A K Warder; linguistically and historically, Paisachi, Pali and the language of the Magadha-inscriptions form a closely related group representing what may be called early Prakrit that was current between 4th century BCE and second century BCE; early Magadhi also belonged to this group.

The nouns and verbs in Prakrit forms ( Suraseni, Apabramsa, Magadhi, Ardha-Magadhi and Maharastri) follow that of Sanskrit , with local variations. For instance ; see the various forms of Sanskrit Putra ( son ) and Prakrit Putta :


(Source: :Prakrit / by George Abraham Grierson (1911) )

From the fragments of Paisachi of the Brhadkatha and those  from works of Vararuchi the Grammarian (Ca.1st century) that have survived, it appears, Paisachi resembled what came to be known as Pali, though distinct in minor details. It is said; the Paisachi went into decline mainly because the Shatavahana emperor (around first century BCE and first century AD) totally despised it, calling it low or vulgar Prakrit.

By about the first century, the Prakrit – the intermediate or unclassified – was replaced in speech by a sort of vernacular (Desi) called Apabhramsa. Historically , it is treated as the later form of Prakrit; but, rather as a corrupted form of Prakrit. And again, there were several forms of Apabhramsa; and, the major form of it was the one spoken in the Sindhu region, hence known as Saindhava.  Some regard Apabhramsa as the early phase of modern Indo-Aryan languages. Most of the texts in Apabhramsa belonging to the first millennium (say, up to 1000 AD) are lost. But some fragments or illustrations  of Apabhramsa lyrics  have survived  , for instance , in  the anthology  ( muktaka  or kosa) of the Prakrit lyrics of Satavahana ; in the act Four  of Kalidasa’s drama Vikramorvasiya ( early fourth century) ; in Puspadanta’s Mahapurana  (mid tenth century) ; in Raja Bhoja’s  Srñgaraprakasa ( eleventh century) ; and in Chalukya King Someswara’s Manasollasa ( twelfth  century) . Many of these citations are , in fact , erotic stanzas of a sort familiar to  the Prakrit tradition. And they strive to create a rural , homely and amorous ambience.

As Prakrit gained strength, it branched into independent languages; and, accumulated greater expressive power.  At the same time, Sanskrit began to decline steadily and losing its fluidity.

[In fact, Bhartrhari (Ca.450 CE) laments that the social influence of Prakrit was extremely great and was a threat to the historical tradition of Sanskrit Grammar. The schools of Sanskrit Grammar had fallen into disarray; and , in addition study of Prakrit was also flourishing.]

The period spanning between Bharata ‘s Natyashastra (say second century BCE) and the fourth century AD, could be said to be the period of Prakrit, in all its forms. Not only was Prakrit used for the Edicts and the Prasastis (praise-poems), but it was also used in writing poetical and prose Kavyas. The inscriptions of Asoka (304–232 BCE) were in simple regional and sub-regional languages; and, not in ornate Kavya style. The inscriptions of Asoka show the existence of at least three dialects: the Eastern dialect of the capital which perhaps was the official lingua franca of the Empire; the North-western;  and , the Western dialects. And much before Asoka, the Buddhist cannon (Tripitaka) and the Jataka tales were written in Prakrit forms, the then spoken language of the people.

In the period after Asoka, a number of Prakrit forms came to fore. Here, we find the old Ardha-magadhi, old Sauraseni and the Magadhi, besides Paisachi which perhaps was the language of the Vindhya region. There is an abundance of poetic works composed in Prakrit during the period of Satavahanas (say from 230 BCE to 220 AD). It seems that even during the period between Second century BCE and the First century AD, Prakrit was the language of the Royal Courts. The poetry of this period is represented by the Anthology Gatha-sattasai (the seven hundred songs) attributed to King Haala of the Satavahana dynasty (c. third century) ; and by the Brhad-katha of Gunadya (in Paisachi).

Rise of Kavya

The Arthashastra  ( dated somewhere between 150 BCE – 120 CE)  which reflects the conditions obtaining in the Royal Courts of its time  mentions  a host of Court employees such as : Sutas, Puranikas, Magadhas ( those who herald ) and Kusilavas  ( chroniclers , bards and singers) . There is even the mention of monthly honorariums granted to teachers and pupils (Acharyah Vidyavantas cha).  But, strangely, there is no mention of a court poet.   And, among the literary works mentioned in Arthashastra there is no mention, anywhere, of Kavya. Further, no Kavya of note belonging to the period between the 2nd century B.C. and the early  2nd century A.D. has come down to us.

It was perhaps towards the end of this period that the Kavyas seemed to develop.  The Buddhacharita, the Kavya of Asvaghosa (Ca.  First century); the plays of Bhasa (First or Second century) belong to what could be called as the pre-classic period of early ornate Kavya period.  These are perhaps the earliest known Kavya-poets of eminence. And, Kavya as ornate court poetry perhaps blossomed in the courts of Western Ksatrapas (35–405) who ruled over the western and central part of India; and, during the reign of Kushanas, particularly in the second century AD. But, the dates of the works of this period cannot be ascertained with any certainty.

The later Sanskrit writers tried to bring in the informal flavor of Prakrit into their works. (And, another reason could be that the Sanskrit authors too had to come to terms with the changes taking place within the society they lived.) Some major writers such as, Kalidasa, Bhavabhuthi, Dandin, Vishakhadutta and Banabhatta made some of their local characters speak in Prakrit, just to usher a sense of reality into their dialogues. Dandin went a step further by grafting a theory of Riti, by legitimizing the Prakrit influence on Sanskrit. Writers like Rajashekara, Hemachandra, and Jayadeva, though scholars of Sanskrit coined fresh Prakrit terms and phrases for expressing new ideas.  Thus, whatever may have been their original regional specificity, by the time of Bhamaha and Dandin ( 6-7th century)  both the literary Prakrit and Apabhramsa were no longer treated as tied to a  particular place; but , were regarded  as varieties of  languages in their own right.

Therefore, Anandavardhana (Ca. 850) while drafting a new theory of Kavya made use of materials that had not been previously subjected to critical scrutiny. And, among such material were the Prakrit songs (gatha) from perhaps the second or third century. It is said; the informal and sensitive Prakrit lyrics helped Anandavardhana to appreciate how the meaning of the work as a whole resides in an emotional content (Rasa); and, how that can be effectively communicated only through suggestion (Dhvani).

And, Kshemendra (mid eleventh century), also from Kashmir, advises the aspiring poets of talent to “listen to the songs and lyrics and rasa-laden poems in local languages . . . to go to popular gatherings and learn local languages,”

For a short period, there was a practice among the writers to compose Kavyas both in Sanskrit and in Prakrit. For instance; Rajasekhara the author of Kavyamimsa, composed one play wholly in Prakrit; Visvanatha (first half of the fourteenth century), a literary theorist, wrote one Prakrit Kavya besides his Sanskrit works; ; and Anandavardhana, in addition to a courtly epic in Sanskrit, wrote a text in Prakrit “for the education of poets” , most likely a textbook on aesthetic suggestion. Muñja, king of the Paramaras who was  Raja Bhoja’s uncle (Ca.  996), appears to be the only Sanskrit poet who produced a serious body of verse in Apabhramsa as well as in Sanskrit (both only fragmentarily preserved).

Although the number of Prakrit Kavyas tapered out, popular tales, songs and verses set in simple, natural and delightful styles continued to be composed in good numbers.  For instance; Kouhala (Ca.800), in his delightful Maharastri romance Lilavali, pictures a conversation between a youth and his Love. She goads her lover to  narrate a tale. The helpless young man pleads his ignorance: “Ah, my love, you will make me look ridiculous for my lack of learning in the arts of language. Far from telling a great tale, I should in fact keep silent.” She  does not give up , but cajoles him :  “Oh , come my beloved , tell me any story in clear Prakrit that I can understand. Why do we have care for rules and heavy words?  So tell me a  delightful tale in Prakrit, easy to understand which simple women love to hear. .”

In the biography of Yasovarman of Kanyakubja (Ca. 725) the poet defends the virtues of Prakrit, saying: “From time immemorial in Prakrit alone, that one could combine new content and mellow form. . . . All words enter into Prakrit and emerge out of it, as all waters enter and emerge from the sea”. And, he laments “…. many men no longer understand [Prakrit’s] different virtues; great poets [in Prakrit] should just scorn or mock or pity them, but feel no pain themselves.”

The golden age of Kavya

The golden age of ornate court Kavya was the stretch of about 125 years (from 330-455) during the reign of the Gupta dynasty (approximately between 350 and 550 AD). This was also the age of Kalidasa (say, between 375 and 413 AD) –  acknowledged as the greatest of poets. The other great poets and scholars said to belong to this golden age of the Gupta Era were : Matrgupta; Mentha or Hastipaka; Amaru.  They were later followed by other distinguished poet–scholars like Bhartrihari (450-510); Varahamihira (505-587); Bhatti (about 600 AD); and, Bharavi (Ca.6th century) .

Then there was the Emperor Harsavardhana of Thanesar and Kanauj who ruled from 606 to 647 AD. And, Banabhatta his Court poet immortalized his patron in his historical romance Harshacharita. And, Magha (Ca. 7th century) a poet in the Court of King Varmalata of Sharmila (Gujarat/Rajasthan)   created undoubtedly one of the most complex and beautiful poetic works, the Shishupala-vadha. He was followed by   Bhavabuthi the playwright and poet in the court of the King Yashovarman of Kanauj (Ca.750 AD).

Around the seventh century , the convention was invented (and quickly adopted everywhere) of prefacing a literary work with a eulogy of poets past (kaviprasamsa). Bana, author of the Harsacarita (c. 640), the first Sanskrit literary biography that takes a contemporary as its subject, seems to have been the first to use it. This is not to say that earlier writers never refer or allude to predecessors. In a well-known passage in the prologue to Kalidasa’s drama Malavikagnimitra, an actor complains to the director, “How can you ignore the work of the great poets—men like Dhavaka, Saumilla, Kaviratna— and present the work of a contemporary poet like Kalidasa?” to which the director famously replies, “Not every work of literature is good just because it is old, or bad just because it is new.”


(The Old is not necessarily admirable; and the New always not despicable; the wise discriminate and decide; fools let others decide for them. – Kalidasa, Act-I, Malavikagnimitra)

Such kaviprasamsa-s, apart from paying homage and expressing one’s appreciation of the past-poets appreciation served other purposes as well. To start with, it was a way of familiarizing the past Masters, even those who have faded out of peoples’ memory. It was also indicative of the author’s affiliation to a linage (parampara) of his predecessors. For instance; Bana’s praise-poems or Eulogy (kaviprasamsa) offers a broad view  of the main varieties of Kavya that were current during his time; the foremost representations among each of those varieties that the author he appreciated most. Bana’s tributes to his elders include : in the  class of  the tale (katha) in Sanskrit prose (or Prakrit or Apabhramsa verse) was the Sanskrit work Vasavadatta of Subandhu (c. 600);  in the prose biography (akhyayika) , it was the lost Prakrit work of Adhyaraja; in the Sanskrit court-epic (mahakavya) , it was , of course, Kalidasa ;  and, in  the class of Prakrit court-epic (skandhaka) , it was Pravarasena ;  in the Sanskrit, Prakrit, or Apabhramsa lyric or anthology of lyrics (muktaka and rosa), it was  the Prakrit collection of Satavahana; and , in the drama (nataka) it was indeed  the match-less  Bhasa . 

And, amidst the conspicuous absence of any sort of Literary Criticism in the early periods of Kavya, such kaviprasamsa-s , as of Bana , provide a glimpse or a window-view into the standards that the authors adopted  to form  literary judgment over their predecessors works. It was also indicative of the values and merits that the writer himself cherished to look for in a Kavya. And, yet the criteria for selection the work were not clearly stated. Some of those virtues could perhaps  be : the beauty , elegance , charm of the language; command over the language  that splendidly brought out just the right meaning that author intended ; lucid and  sparkling expressions and phrases; the emotive content; vivid descriptions that graphically captured the locale as also the mood of the situation; the delight(Rasa) that it provides to the reader; and, the ways that the Kavya benefits the reader (Kavya-prayojana).

Having said that let me also mention that such kaviprasamsa served only a limited purpose. It was, at best , an appreciation; not an appraisal of the literary merits of a Kavya or its elements such as the  plot, characterization, or voice (Dhvani ) etc.  It did not also give even a clue to the chronology of the authors or the works.

With the passing of those wonderfully well gifted, creative, brilliant poet-scholars, the golden age or the  classical age of Kavya may be considered to have come to an end.

Rise of Sanskrit

The rise of Sanskrit as a medium of Kavya and other forms of literary works, and the fall of Prakrit are in some way related.

With the establishment of mighty Empires that stretched from Afghanistan in the West to the far ends of the East, the power and influence of Indian Empire, its culture, art, philosophy and literatures spread across to the lands beyond the Himalayas and across the seas. The religious scholars, particularly the Buddhists from China, Tibet and Far East travelled across many regions of India to study and to gather texts to be later translated into their own languages.  Their medium of study was invariably Sanskrit, which was written and spoken by most Indian scholars, in almost the same manner. One could say that Sanskrit was India’s language up to about the tenth century. It was in Sanskrit that Indian scholars discussed with the visiting scholars; and, it was also the language of its international diplomacy.

From the second century, and increasingly thereafter, Sanskrit came to be used for public texts, including the quite remarkable Kavya-like poems in praise of kingly lineages (Vamshavali). Prior to that , for about four centuries , say from 250 BCE  it was only the Prakrit that was used for inscriptions, whether for issuing a royal proclamation, glorifying martial deeds, commemorating a Vedic sacrifice, or granting land to Brahman communities.

Similarly, the early Buddhist Canon containing the discourses delivered by the Buddha and other Buddhist texts say up to first or second century of the Common Era were in Pali, a form of Prakrit.  Likewise, the religious texts of the Jains were composed mostly in Ardha –Magadhi, also a form of Prakrit.  These and others, in general, began to adopt Sanskrit for both scriptural and literary purposes.

Later, after the second century AD, large number Buddhist scriptures came to be written in Sanskrit (although the Buddha had insisted that his teachings be in the language spoken the common people). And, thereafter it became a practice to compose texts in Sanskrit. By about the Middle Ages, considerable numbers of eminent Buddhist scholars , who wrote their religious or secular texts in Sanskrit,  had gained renown across all Buddhist countries .  Just to name a few: Dharmakirti (c. 650); Ratnasrijñana (900); Dharmadasa (1000?), Jñananasrimitra (1000) and Vidyakara (1100).

The Jains who earlier composed their texts in a form of Prakrit also switched over to Sanskrit. For instance, take the case of Jains in Karnataka  who  created great Sanskrit poetic works like Adipurana of Jinasena , the Champu Kavyas ( mix of poetry and prose) of Somadevasuri and Prince Yasotilaka. At the same time , they wrote new work in Kannada (Pampa’s courtly epics of the mid-ninth century) and Apabhramsa (Puspadanta’s Mahapurana of 970).

The reasons that prompted the writers, even those writers on philosophy and religion, were many ; but, mostly , they were related to the changed circumstances and the eminent position that Sanskrit had secured, by then, not only in India’s neighboring countries but also in the far off lands.  Sanskrit had extended far beyond the Sub Continent, into Central Asia and as far as the islands of Southeast Asia.

At the same time, neither Prakrit nor Apabhramsa, nor any of the regional-language literature, could command such wide readership or audience. They were in no position to compete with Sanskrit, internationally. Although works of great merit were produced in these languages, they could not reach the readers beyond the limits of their vernacular world. They were hardly known in the outside world.

[ In a way of speaking, in terms of the literary and spoken means of communication in the present-day India – internally and internationally , English could be said to have replaced Sanskrit. And, in the visual media , Bollywood movies enjoy a wider reach and greater appeal than the regional films (however well they might be  made)]

The Sanskrit works, on the other hand, enjoyed readership even outside India. For instance; the works of the great Buddhist Sanskrit poets, such as, Asvaghosa (second century) and Matrceta (not later than 300), were read not only in Northern India but also in much of Central Asia. In Qizil and Sorcuq (in today’s Xinjiang region of China), manuscript fragments were found bearing portions of Asvaghosa’s dramas and his two courtly epics, Saundarananda and Buddhacarita.

Such wide range of circulation was possible not merely because of the influence that Buddhism commanded in those countries, but also because of  the universal acceptance of Sanskrit language and recognition of its aesthetic power and beauty.

The  non-religious Sanskrit poetry  spread as far as up to Southeast Asia, where by the ninth or tenth century at the latest, literati in Khmer country were studying masterpieces such as the Raghuvamsa  of Kalidasa; the Harsacarita , the early-seventh-century prose of the great writer Bana; and , the Suryasataka of the latter’s contemporary, Mayura.

Therefore, any writer of merit – whether religious or secular – aspiring for wider readership, more serious attention and greater fame, naturally opted to write in Sanskrit. And, his Sanskrit work had a better chance of acquiring an almost global readership and following among erudite, aesthetic Sahrudaya –s.

Therefore, the desire to reach out to a larger audience and to acquire recognition from the worthy peers , seems to have prompted aspiring writers to compose in Sanskrit . Such works covered a wide range of subjects – from Grammar, Chhandas, Alamkara, and poetic conventions to study of character, narratives, plots, and the organization of elements that create the emotional impact of a work – such as Rasa etc.

Decline of Kavya

Though Sanskrit in some form or other lingers on in today’s India, what is undeniable is that it’s vital signs have grown very weak.

The reasons for the rapid decline of Kavya are many; and, some of them complement each other. Perhaps the most telling blow was the political instability and virtual anarchy in North India following the invasion of Muslim forces starting from the tenth or the eleventh century. The Royal Courts and the systems that supported the growth of Kavya were totally destroyed; and were never revived. The Kavya and its creators were truly orphaned.

And, even when the Sanskrit poets secured patronage in some Royal Courts, their Kavya became inward looking and dispirited, having lost connection with the society at large. Virtually all the Court poetry was about caritas (poetic chronicles) , vijayas (battles fought and won ) , or abhyudayas (accounts of success), detailing this campaign and that military victory. The poets, as paid employees of the Court, were duty bound to praise their Masters.

Sheldon Pollock in his very well researched and presented  scholarly work Sanskrit Literary Culture from the Inside Out , examines the state of Kavya in the later times with particular reference to the Courts at Kashmir , Vijayanagar and Varanasi. I will try to summarize his views, briefly.

Sanskrit literary culture in Kashmir, commenced by about the sixth century; and by the middle of the twelfth century it reached its zenith, with more innovative literature being written than perhaps anywhere else in the region. By the end of the twelfth century , the orderly life in urban Kashmir suffered   near total dissolution. And, after the establishment of Turkic rule in Kashmir, around 1420, the literary culture was totally shattered. No Kashmiri Sanskrit literature was ever again created or was it circulated outside the valley, as it used to do. Many of its important literary works  survived only through recopying in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; but, virtually all of those originated from the twelfth century or earlier.

As regards Vijayanagar (1340–1565) in Karnataka, though the Literature, in general, did enjoy Royal patronage, the energy of Sanskrit Kavya slowly depleted. In Vijayanagara, Sanskrit was not dying rapidly as it did in Kashmir.  Sanskrit learning in fact continued during the long existence of the empire, and after. But, the spirit of the Kavya was somehow lost. Vijayanagara’s Sanskrit literature, as Sheldon Pollock says, presented a picture of an exhausted literary culture. It seemed as though the Court culture insulated the poets from the simple pleasure and pains of the ordinary day-to-day life of common people. Their poetry was mostly about singing the glory of their Royal patrons. Such Sanskrit poetry was socially irrelevant; but was supported by Court as sort  of   state enterprise.

Of the Sanskrit literary works of the Vijayanagara times, with rare exception, not a single one is recognized as great, and continued to be read after it was written. Most of its Kavyas were did not circulate to any extent beyond its region; nor did they attract serious commentaries, nor included in a credible anthology.

In contrast, the literature in regional languages – Kannada and Telugu- flourished during these times.  For instance; . Kumaravyasa’s Kannada Bharata (c. 1450) not only circulated widely in manuscript form but also continues to be  recited all over the Kannada-speaking world, as the Sanskrit Mahabharata itself had been recited all over India a thousand years earlier.

The Maratha court of Tanjavuru in the early eighteenth century was an active cultural centre in the South. Its Sanskrit scholarship as also that in regional languages was indeed of a high order. But, the Sanskrit literary production, while prominent, appeared  to have remained wholly internal to the palace. Not a single Sanskrit literary work of the period transcended its moment in time.

In the south as in the north, Sanskrit writers had ceased to make literature that made history. The Kavya of these later times seemed have been drained of vitality.   There seemed to be neither enterprise nor enthusiasm. What was strange was that the authors of Court-epics did not show much zeal to invent fresh themes. Most found it adequate to re-narrate the familiar myths and legends in their own characteristic styles.

As Sheldon Pollack puts it :  Sanskrit literature ended when it became a practice of repetition and not renewal, when the writers themselves no longer evinced commitment to a central value of the tradition and a feature that defined literature itself: the ability to make literary newness, “the capacity,” as a great Kashmiri writer put it, “to continually re-imagine the world.”

Literary criticism

The practical literary criticism of the type that we are familiar with today, discussing and analyzing issues such as the plot, catheterization, style of presentation, poetic content, its freshness , arrangement of chapters, the validity of the work etc did not for some reason develop in the Kavya tradition. The references to to earlier works would either to praise them very highly (Kavai-prashamsa) or to condemn it outright. The sense of balance in their approach somehow seemed to be lacking.

Question of the sense of History

Then there is the question of the sense of History. It is not that the ancient Indian authors did not have taste for history; but, they did not seem to cultivate taste to chronicle the historical events and facts objectively. Although Bhamaha (early seventh century) drew a distinction between historical and fictional genres (akhyayika and katha), such distinction was hardly ever maintained. In the Indian tradition, the historical writing was usually a branch of Kavya. For instance, the Rajatarangini by Kalhana (Ca.1150) which chronicles the Royal linage of Kashmir is regarded by some as History. But Kalhana himself explicitly identifies his work as a Kavya; and , he affiliates it with literature by frequently citing earlier poems that had achieved the synthesis of literature with History. Moreover, the work was regarded as literature by his contemporaries.

What was surprising was that Anandavardhana (Ca. 850) counseled poets to alter any received historical account that conflicted with the emotional impact they sought to achieve. Thus, according to him, one can and should change fact to suit the dominant Rasa of the work.

The problem appeared to be that Chronology was malleable and was horribly mixed up. And, the events were not sequenced in the order they occurred. The other was the woeful lack of the critical approach.  The ancient authors did not seem to cultivate taste for criticism of the historical truths.

The  reason for such flexible approach could be that the author would invariably be serving as an employee of the King as his  Court poet, who was asked  to write the about the glory of his King’s  ( patron’s) predecessors. In the circumstances, the Poet would not go into analysis of the circumstances, critically examine historical facts; but, was duty bound to praise his patron and his ancestors. And, while writing the ‘History ’ (itivritta of heroes of the Nayaka), the poet would also try to exhibit his poetical skills in extolling his subjects by treating them as heroes (Nayaka) investing them with unbelievable virtues . And, in the narration , he would also try  make room  to entertain and to instruct as a Poet, to teach morals and to generalize the course of human destiny.

Some examples of the works of this genre are Banabhatta’s Harshacharita (7th century) about the life and times of King  Harshavadhana ; Vakpathi’s Prakrit work Gavdavaha ( 8th century) about King Yashovardhana of Kanauj; and, Bilhana’s Vikramankadevacharita (12th century) woven around the dynasty of Chalukya kings , and specially about his patron Vikramaditya VI.

Bilhana, in particular, rewarded his patron by mixing mythology with the chronicles of the Chalukya dynasty.  He makes an epic out of a historical theme. He commences with the allusion to gods who out of benevolence create the Chalukya dynasty in order to ensure and maintain safety of the world.

Continued in Part Three ->




Sources and References

I gratefully acknowledge these and other wonderfully well researched  works of great merit

Glimpses of Indian Poetics by Satya Deva Caudharī

Indian Poetics (Bharathiya Kavya Mimamse) by Dr. T N Sreekantaiyya

Sahityashastra, the Indian Poetics by Dr. Ganesh Tryambak Deshpande

History of Indian Literature by Maurice Winternitz, Moriz Winternitz

A History of Classical Poetry: Sanskrit, Pali, Prakrit by Siegfried Lienhard

Literary Cultures in History by Sheldon Pollock

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Posted by on July 12, 2015 in Kavya, Sanskrit


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