Kavya and Indian Poetics – Part Five

25 Jul

Continued from Part Four

[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.]

Language of Kavya

Prose is often concerned with the day-to-day experiences and speaks in the common language. But, when those words and expressions walk into poetry, they acquire a totally different nature. The common words (prasiddha) are transformed into suggestive expressions that are less known outside of poetry (a-prasiddha). This is akin to the movements in classical dance where a simple thing such as walking as in common life (loka dharmi) is transformed into idioms of dance expressions (natya dharmi). Similarly, in poetry, If the common language is understood by all (loka dharmi), the poetic expressions are relished by Sahrdaya, the cultured ones (kavya dharmi).

As regards the distinctions between language of poetry and the language of everyday, the earliest modes of such distinctions were of course the meter (chhandas), enlivening of the text with innovative and decorative phrases (Alamkara) along with detailed descriptions of the emotions as also of the surroundings. Kavya also makes abundant use of metaphors; the repetition of conventional patterns and images; and, of long winding unusual expressions. And, naturally, such poetry does not yield itself at the first glance or reading. It needs to be savored slowly in small measures, over and over again.

The technique of poetry makes use of different devices in various ways. But, to ensure that poetry retains its own natural language-flow, usually, it   avoids use of banal words.  In order to just avoid the over-used words, the poets often try being innovative and create words, phrases and expressions that are striking and rather unusual. The various forms of metaphors and similes thus created leads to a broadening of the perspective and produces a multiple view of the subject in an artistic manner. Not only the poets reveal familiar subjects in a new light, but they also reveal truths that hitherto were not quite obvious. They also unfold relationships and beauties that are either not present in ordinary life or else remain unrecognized.


Kuntaka (10th century) in his Vakrokti-jivita finds Bhamaha’s definition of Kavya – Sabdarthau sahitau Kavyam– ‘Poetry is composed of word and meaning together’ – rather inadequate.

Kuntaka remarks:  the mere fact that word and meaning exist together cannot be the defining characteristic of poetic expression; for it is what characterizes all linguistic expressions whether be it prose, poetry or whatever; no linguistic expression is possible without it.

Therefore, Kuntaka observes, the language of poetry is a special kind of Sahitya – Visistam evah sahityam abhipretam.  Its uniqueness consists in the fact that the word and the meaning have equal importance: – Anyu-nana-atiriktatva. They ‘vie with each other’ – paraspara sparsparditva; they are united like two intimate friends – suhrudva iva samgatau; and,  they  delight in  the beauty of each other – parasparasya sobhaya bhavataha.  

samasarvaguṇau santau suhṛdāv iva saṅgatau / parasparasya śobhāyai śabdārthau bhavato yathā // VjivC_1.18 //

The relation between words in Kavya is indeed unique .  Their  harmony resides  in the creative genius  (pratibha) of the poet ; and, is  realized in an inspired  poetic instant (tat-kalo-likhita)  while on the sublime  road of poetry (alaukika kavya-marge)  i.e. of poetic activity (kavi-karma-vartmani) . Such inspired poetry enchants the minds of the sensitive readers or listeners (chetana-chamatkarita, sahrudaya-ahladakarita).

Although several other words might possibly be available for expressing a single  idea, the expression chosen by a gifted poet  is exceptional and irreplaceable

sabdo vivakshit-arthai-kava-vacahako ‘nyesu satsv api.

Kuntaka illustrates how there is accord not only between the words and their meanings, but also between the words themselves; and between the meanings themselves – in fact, among all the constituent elements poetry.  He gives examples from the works of great poets such as Magha and Bhavabhuti.

Kuntaka shows how such accord results in the musical quality of poetry.  He remarks; like music, poetry is that which, by virtue of the beauty of tits expressions, its composition, fills the hearts of the connoisseurs with delight instantly, even when its meaning has not been pondered:

aparyalocite ‘py arthe bandha-saundarya-sampada / gitavad dhrdayahliidarh tadvidam vidadhati yat // VjivC_1.37 //


Poetry is a more liberated form of expression as compared to prose. One cannot easily define poetry.  Poetry discards the rigidity, the disciplines and the correctness of the structure prescribed by the grammar. Poetry enjoys the voluptuous malleability and freedom with words and sounds; it bends and twists them in any number of ways. Its concern is not so much with the correctness of form than with the sensitivity, refinement and brevity in expression of a range of thoughts, feelings and human emotions of joy, sorrow, grief, hope, despair, anger and fulfillment.

Poetry can be subtle and suggestive. The imagery that poetry evokes can hardly be captured in words. What is unsaid in poetry is more evocative than the explicit.

Grammar (Vyakarana) concerns itself with the arrangement of words into sentences. It does not, however, account for the pattern of meanings. The poetry is  also much concerned with the arrangement of words. But, in addition , it does strive to convey a meaning. The poetic beauty does not solely dependent on the strict order of words or other conventions. It in fact goes beyond regulated regimens.

Poetry, in the Indian traditions, is often called ‘vyakaranasya puccham’ – the tail piece or the appendix of Grammar. The Grammar determines the correctness of the words and their arrangement within a sentence. The poetry is however more concerned with the appropriateness and mutual relations among the words.  The poetry, as far as possible, follows Grammar. But , when it find the rules of Grammar too constrained or suffocating , it switches over to other means of expressions that are more appropriate or conducive to its natural flow; or , it invents its own means.

At times, when those inventive expressions of poetic suggestions are so charming and become so popular, they walk into Grammar per se.  Scholars like Nagesha Bhatta say that Grammarians must necessarily accept (svikara avashyakah) the power of suggestion (Dhvani)

– vyakarananamapi etat svikara avashyakah).

It is , therefore, often said that the poets enjoy a rare privilege; and a certain liberty that others cannot claim. They seem to have the licence to wield the language in any manner they choose, appropriate to their work. In a way of speaking; a poet can typically write ‘against the natural language’; breaking conventions , transgressing grammatical rules , and saying what could not have been said ordinarily .

Thus, Poetry has the power to set us free from the limited confines of our own set rules. Poetry represents the world as a man chooses to see it. Poetry is Truth, but not necessarily reality.

Poetry is a search for syllables to express an unknown. It is both direct and indirect ; and, is  universal. It appeals to the heart. It finds its echo in another heart. Poetry is the heart talking through the mind.


The complex web of words and meanings capable of being transformed into aesthetic experience is said to have certain characteristic features. These are said to be Gunas and Alamkaras. These – words and meanings; Alamkara; Gunas; and, Rasa – though seem separable are in fact fused into the structure of the poetry. Poetics accounts for the nature of these features and their inter-relations

That is to say that poetry creates for itself a language which has a character of its own (Riti, Marga). It might, if it so chooses, depart from the ordinary day-to-day common usage. With that the poem aims at a definite stylistic effect (vishista). The poet arranges his material or the building-bricks in a non-standard fashion, in a manner that is different from the ordinary usage.

As Vamana points out, it is the creative process that involves using word-order (pada-charana) in peculiar or specialized (Visista) ways that possess certain characteristics (Kavya-alamkara). Vamana puts forth the view that such special characteristics (Visesha) of a Kavya are mainly derived from the fact that the poet deliberately attempts to create a fresh or ingenious style of depiction with his unique expressions. The poetic language wears a clock or a veil, so to say.

This unique virtue of poetry provides space for experimentation. For instance; Bhamaha indulged in vakrokti, a twisted way of expressing a thing; Dandin brought in Samdhi-guna; and Udbhata introduced the secondary expressions (amukhya-vyapara). Such hitherto unknown or unusual terms necessarily called for explanations or indication (lakshana) in order to be understood.

In the process, Vamana and others lay much emphasis on the style (Riti or Marga); and, regard it as the most essential virtue of a Kavya. But, such views are not generally accepted, because Riti is but one among the ten traditionally recognized essential elements of a Kavya; and Riti(style ) is not everything that one looks for in a Kavya.

This has reference to the mistaken notion that Kavya is all about high-flown language. For instance; Bhatti takes pride in stating that his poems would not be intelligible to people who are not scholars. This wrong perspective arose probably from the fact that the grammatical and lexicographical sciences as well as the philosophical discipline had attained a high water-mark of respect with the learned people who alone could be the judges of poetry.  It had also something to do with the vain culture of Court-poetry where the rival poets threw challenges at each other in the form of abstruse verses. The failure to solve the puzzle-like verses invariably ended in humiliation.

This high-brow and twisted view of poetic language however, was not universal. Bhamaha urged that kavya should be written in such a manner as to be intelligible even to those who have no learning or general education. Later, Vamana who examined the whole issue said that the poetic beauty does not exist merely in twisted or unusual expressions; but, in the intrinsic merit (guna) of the poetry itself. Then he said, the ultimate object of good poetry in rasa, the enjoyment.

Thus, the general view is that in order to enable his text not only to convey   but also to dress its narration in an artistic manner , the poet might  reasonably  use complex expressions and  structures. But yet, he should not lose sight of the fact that the natural language is the foundation of good  poetry.

The popularity of Ramayana among the common people is the standing testimony to this truth. In spite of the high regard for finer poetry, Indians have always considered the simpler Epic of Ramayana as an ideal Kavya.


The poetic way of expression is employed both by the literary and the non-literary works.  The non-literary works though in poetic form are not regarded as Kavya per se. For instance; presentation of Astronomy in Varahamihira’s Panchasiddhantika. or his Brihadjataka ; or of the Algebra in Bhaskara’s Lilavathi contain many verses (click here for its review), beautiful descriptions of nature and of poetic merit that they almost are Kavya. Similarly, Suryapandita’s work on Astronomy (Bhaskara-bhushana) has beautiful verses praying to Sun god.  There are also numbers of philosophical works elucidated in poetry.

[ Let me digress for a while:

Acharya Varahamihira was one of the greatest astrologers of ancient India. Belonging  to the 6th century CE of the Gupta Age; he composed numerous texts on astrology and allied subjects. Among his notable works is the Brihat Samhita, which is an extraordinary treatise on not just astrology but a host of other subjects from architecture to agriculture, from meteorology to physiognomy, from economics to dental hygiene

Varahamihira also “known as Varaha or Mihira, was considered to be one of the ‘nine gems’ or Navaratnas of king Vikramaditya or Chandragupta II’s court. He was a famous astrologer, astronomer, philosopher, scientist, mathematician and poet.

 There are several legends and folk tales associated with him, which attest to his popularity not just in ancient India, but also in the subsequent times.

There is some contention about his date of birth, but Varahamihira was born Circa 500 CE in Kapittha and died in Avanti (Ujjain) in 587 CE

He was the son of Adityadasa, a sun-worshipping Maga-Brahmin and an astrologer. Varahamihira learnt astrology from his father and mastered the Vedas and after a meeting with the great mathematician, Aryabhata at Kusuma-Pura, he became interested in astronomy

Often referred to as the Prince of Indian Astronomers, Varahamihira’s major works are in the field of astronomy and astrology. He famously composed Pancha-siddhantika, and other works like Yoga-Tantra-Brihat-Jataka; Laghu -Jataka; Brihat-yatra; Brihat-Vivaha-patala; Swalpa-vivahapatala; and  the Brihat-Samhita.

The Pancha-siddhantika is his most famous astrological work; for, it gives valuable references to five contemporaneous astronomical works, viz. Pitamaha, Romaka, Paulisha, Vaashishtha and Surya

Of these, Romaka and Paulisha are known to be references to Roman and Greek schools of thought, which Varahamihira himself preferred

In the foundation of these five systems, he devised three branches or Skandhas. These were, Siddhanta and Ganita (theory and mathematics); Hora and Jataka (horoscopy and natal astrology); and, Samhita (collection), a branch which dealt with all other aspects of knowledge. It is to this third branch that the Brihat Samhita belongs.

The Brihat Samhita is truly the magnum opus of Varahamihira (the great 6th century scholar). He deals with a dizzying number of subjects in this encyclopedic treatise and gracefully condenses knowledge from all important walks of life for future generations. scholars and laymen alike stand to benefit from the study of this text, for it has both -scientific and literary merit.

Varahamihira has displayed his poetic genius even in the treatment of a highly technical subject.  He is not pedantic or verbose in diction nor monotonous in versification…. his diction is lucid, charming and elegant.

For more on Brihat Samhita , please do read the research paper of Dr. Urmi Chanda : Brihat Samhita: The magnum opus of Varahamihira ]


Even in the non-technical works, the materials of Shastra and Itihasa very often overlap. The materials of Shastra can appear in Itihasa, as they frequently do in the Mahabharata or in a kavya. Similarly, the materials of Itihasa can appear in kavya, as in the Harshacharita of Banabhatta.  And, many masters of systematic thought across the religious and philosophical spectrum wrote kavya, often very un-philosophical kavya.

Sanskrit Poetics approves role of Kavya as a vehicle for imparting instructions. But, Kavya need not always deal with learned matters. In fact, too much learning will affect the appeal of a poem. It might turn preachy. There are therefore short poems or couplets that in a capsule form impart moral codes (Niti), wisdom and erotic (Sringara). The most well known poems of this genre are Bhartrhari’s sets of stanzas on Sringara and Vairagya.

Although the words used in Kavya and in the non-lterary Shastra works are the same they do not evoke the same joy or other emotions

Kshemendra makes a distinction between Kavya and Shastra; that is between the purely poetic works and other subject oriented works that are in poetic form. And he also mentions of works that fall in the intermediate zone: Shastra-kavya – poetry that is also technical; and, Kavya-shastra – a technical work that is also poetry.

Basically, Shastra is informative in its character and its style is textual; Kavya, on the other hand, is complex in its structure, employing a language of its own, embellished with artistic metaphors, similes and unusual expressions.

The non-literary work might use, within reasonable bounds, flowery or artistic language or aim at achieving a definite stylistic effect (vishista).But; it would be a mistake if it gets its priorities wrong. It should be more focused on its primary objective which is imparting information, instructions and knowledge, than on seemingly artistic flourish of its language. That would be, as they say, counting the trees but loosing the woods, which is laying premium on minor detail but missing the big picture.


Raja Bhoja (1011–1055) states: another way by distinguishing kavya from ordinary language is in terms of directness. Ordinary language is the direct language of Shastra and everyday life; kavya, in contrast, is the indirect language abounding in descriptions, but, its statements do not prescribe action. Its way of saying is  indirect , indirection (Vakrokti) — an unique manner of expression. 

Raja Bhoja says: Do not read kavya the way you read Shastra, Purana, or the Vedas; do not be concerned (except insofar as it is a source of pleasure) about a breach between what is said and what is really meant; about its relation with an actual world;   and about information or injunction. And do not expect the language of the kavya to be like ordinary language; its purposes are different.

According to Bhoja, all kinds of texts—science, narratives of things, including Shastra and Purana, have the capacity to teach us something by prescribing (Vidhi) or prohibiting  action (Nishedha) of some sort. Bhoja calls this the educative function.

But, Kavya neither prescribes nor prohibits any sort of action; nor does it quote the past authorities in support of its suggestions. It does not expressly enjoin or define appropriate action. Its relevance resides precisely in its own utterances (Ukti).

The Shastra and the Vedas act like a master in commanding (Prabhu Samhita) ; the texts of the wise sages are  like a counseling  by a friend in (Mitra Samhita) ;and,  kavya’s Ukti (utterances) are  like sweet whisperings  of the beloved (Kanta Samhita) . Kavya’s ways are endearing and more persuasive.


The Veda is set apart from the domain of Kavya, for various reasons.   The Vedas impart instructions in regard to true knowledge and right action (Dharmavidhi). Imparting knowledge and instructions are its primary functions; and the question of language, however meticulous, is secondary. The role of language in Veda does not seem to be as crucial as it is in a Kavya. At the same time, Kavya too instructs, in its own way; but without commanding the reader to act in a certain manner.

The Vedas are believed to be intuitive perceptions (Darshana) as envisioned by the seers (Rishi). They are direct; and, its authors transmit their vision, in its pristine purity, perfectly, by expressing exactly what they mean. However, in the kavya, as in everyday life, we often employ metaphorical language, which may give out multiple meanings.  But no such divergence occurs between verbal intention and the Truth as depicted in the texts of the Rishis. .

Elements of kavya are doubtless present in the Veda itself (Sruti) as also in   the Smruti (Vedic texts remembered),    in the narratives of the events that occurred in the past (itihasa), and in ancient lore (purana).  But such poetic elements are incidental to the principal objects of those texts; and, therefore are not of prime importance to their traditional readers or listeners.

There are also other difference between the Vedic poetry and Kavya. The language of the Vedas is different from the classic Sanskrit of the post-Panini era. The imagery and poetic vocabulary too are different. For instance; you do not find in the Samhitas descriptions of young , beautiful  adorable girls through pet idioms that became common in the Kavya works : moon-like or lotus-like face; fleeting eyes of a gazelle; narrow waist; gait like that of a swan etc. There are also no poetic conventions or symbolisms   in the Samhita that speak in terms of: a Chakora bird which is nourished by moon beams; a Chataka bird which feeds on rain-drops; or, Chakravaka which is ever faithful and pining for its partner.

The two ideas seem to be present here:  (i) what makes kavya different from everything else has essentially to do with language itself; (ii)   and, accordingly, literary analysis must center on language. These are two presuppositions that span the entire history of kavya theory and profoundly influenced its production.

A K Warder, in his Indian Kavya Literature (vol. One) explains the distinctions between the literary and non-literary works, particularly those on philosophical subjects. And, the dictions he mentions can very well cover the technical works:

 “Kavya is distinguished from philosophy and most scriptures, in that it is centered in man. As compared with philosophy, which may also be humanist in outlook, Kavya is an art form, presenting its truths and its comments through images and individual characters. The humanism of Kavya differs from that of the critical and analytical schools of philosophy in its endless riches of concrete details, which aims to present by examples the infinite variety of particular times, places, persons situations and actions. Its subject matter is human experiences of life, accumulated over thousands of years, an epic of humanity which is not available to us in any other form. This experience is presented in terms of human emotions: the reactions of the people to situations in life’.

lotus design

Continued in

Next Part



References and Sources

Literary Cultures in History by Sheldon Pollock

Indian Kavya Literature (vol. One) by A K Warder

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Posted by on July 25, 2015 in Kavya, Sanskrit


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