Category Archives: Kavya

Kavya and Indian Poetics – Part Eleven


Continued from Part Ten

[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.]



The  Court Poet

So far in the series we have talked about Poetry (Kavya) and the Poetics (Kavya Shastra), let us round up the discussion with a few words about the Poet (Kavi) himself.

Poetry in India, of course, is very ancient; and has been in vogue even from the Vedic times. In the context of Rig Veda, Kavi refers to one who through his intuitional perception (prathibha), sees the unseen (kavihi-krantha-darshano- bhavathi) and gives expression to his vision (Darshana), spontaneously, through words. He is the wise Seer. It was said: one cannot be a Kavi unless one is a Rishi (naan rishir kuruthe kavyam). However, not all Rishis are Kavi-s. A Kavi is a class by himself.

But, the Kavi, the Poet, we are referring to in the series and here is not the Vedic Kavi. He is far different from the Vedic Kavi in almost every aspect; and, is vastly removed from him in space, time, environment, attitude, objective etc.  And, his poetry is neither a Rik nor a mantra; but, is a cultivated art ornate with brilliance and flashing elegance.

The Sanskrit poet who creates Kavya is neither a Rishi nor a seer; but, he is very much a person of the world who has taken up writing as a profession to earn his living. He usually sprang from a class that possessed considerable cultural refinement. And, Sanskrit being the language of the academia and the medium of his work, he was well versed in handling it.  

He is urbane, educated and is usually employed in the service of a King. Apart from writing classy poetry, his other main concern is to please and entertain his patron. He is very much a part of the inner circle of the Court; and, is surrounded by other poets and scholars who invariable are his close rivals in grabbing the King’s attention and favors.

During those times, a Great King would usually have in his service a number of poet-scholars who vied with each other to keep the King happy and pleased. Their main task was to entertain the King. Apart from such Court poets, there were a large number of wandering bards who   sang for the common people. They walked through towns and villages singing songs of love and war. Of course, their recitations were not classy or of the standard of the court poet-singers.

As Vatsayana (in his Kama sutra) describes, the Court poet, generally:  is an educated suave gentleman of leisure having refined taste and versatility; fairly well-off; lives in urban surroundings (Naagara or Nagarika); loves to dress well (bit of a dandy, indeed- smearing himself with sandal paste, fragranting his dress with Agaru smoke fumes, and wearing flowers); appreciates art, music and good food; and, loves his occasional drink in the  company of friends and courtesans.

A Court poet, sometimes, is also portrayed as rather vain, nursing a king-sized ego; and, desperately yearning to be recognized and honored as the best among all the poets in the Royal Court.

Thus, his attitudes find expressions in various ways – outwardly or otherwise. The dress, polished manners and cosmetics all seemed to matter. But, more importantly, it seemed necessary to have  a sound educational foundation, idioms of  social etiquette , and a devotion to classical literature (Sahitya)  , music (Samgita) and other fine arts (lalita kala).  Though his Poetry was developed in the court, its background was in the society at large.


The Poet

Rajasekhara an eminent scholar, critic and poet, was the Court poet of the Gurjara – Prathihara King Mahendrapala (Ca.880 to 920 AD) who ruled over Magadha. In his Kavyamimamsa, which is virtually an Handbook guiding aspiring poets, Rajasekhara outlines the desirable or the recommended  environment, life-style, daily routine, dispositions etc for a poet,     as also the training and preparations that go to make a good poet.

Sanskrit Kavya, in middle and the later periods, grew under the patronage of Royal courts. And, sometime the King himself would be an accomplished scholar or a renowned poet.

According to Rajasekhara, many of the poets depended on the patronage of local rulers and kings. Among them, the more eminent ones were honored as Court-poets (Asthana Kavi).  Those who performed brilliantly  endeared themselves to the king; and, were richly rewarded  . There was, therefore, a fierce rivalry among the poets in the King’s court to perform better than the next poet;  and , somehow,   be the  king’s favorite.

A successful poet would usually be a good speaker with a clear voice; would understand the language of gestures and movements of the body; and would be familiar with other languages  , arts as well.

An archetypical picture of a poet that Rajasekhara presents is very interesting. The Kavi, here, usually, lives in upper middle class society that is culturally sensitive. His house is kept clean and comfortable for living. He moves from places – changing his residence – about three times in an year, according to the seasons. His country residence has private resting places, surrounded by antelopes, peacocks and birds such as doves, Chakora, Krauncha and such other. The poet usually has a lover (apart from his wedded wife) to whom he addresses his love lyrics.

As regards the daily life of the poet, Rajasekhara mentions the Kavi would usually be a householder following a regulated way of life such as worshipping at the beginning of each day, followed by study of works on poetics or other subjects or works of other poets. All these activities are, however, preparatory; they stimulate his innate power of creativity and imagination (prathibha). His creative work proper (Kavya-kriya) takes part in the second part of the day.

Towards the afternoon, after lunch, he joins his other poet-friends (Kavi-ghosti) where they indulge in verse-riddle games structured around question-answers (Prashna-uttata). Sometimes, the poet discusses with close friends the work he is presently engaged with.

In the evening, the poet spends time socializing with women and other friends, listening to music or going to the theater.   The second and the third parts of the night are  for relaxation, pleasure and sleep.

Of course, not all poets followed a similar routine; each had his own priorities.  Yet; they all seemed to be hard-working; valuing peace, quiet and the right working conditions.

There were also those who chose to write when moved or inspired or during  their leisure . They were, as Rajasekhara calls them, occasional poets (data-vasara). Among them was a class who wrote only on occasions (prayojanika) to celebrate certain events.

Rajasekhara also mentions of those poets who were totally devoted to their poetic work. They invariably shut themselves from daylight (asuryamupasya), dwelling in caves or remote private homes away from sundry noises and other disturbances

As regards the poet’s writing materials and other tools, Rajasekhara mentions that the writing materials are almost always within the reach of the poet; and, are contained in a box. The contents of the box were generally:  a slate and chalk; a stand for brushes and ink-wells; dried palm leaves (tadapatra) or birch bark (bhurjapatra); and an iron stylus (Kantaka). The common writing materials were palm leaves on which letters were sketched with metal stylus. The alternate writing surface was the birch bark cut into broad strips. The slate and chalk was for preparatory  or draft work.


What does it take to make one a ‘good’ poet

There is an extended debate interspersed across the theories of Indian Poetics speculating on what does it take to make one a good poet.

Dandin mentions the requisites of a good poet as:  Naisargika Prathibha natural or inborn genius; Nirmala-shastra – jnana clear understanding of the Shastras; Amanda Abhiyoga ceaseless application and honing ones faculties.

Bhatta-tauta   explained Prathibha   as the genius of the intellect which creates new and innovative modes of expressions in art poetry – Nava-navonvesha –shalini prajna prathibha mathah

Rudrata and Kuntaka add to that Utpatti, the accomplished knowledge of the texts and literary works; and, Abhyasa, constant practice of composing poetic works.

According to Vamana, Utpatti includes in itself awareness of worldly matters (Loka-jnana); study of various disciplines (Vidya) ; and , miscellaneous information (Prakirna).

Vamana also mentions: Vrddha seva – instructions from the learned experienced persons;   Avekshana– the   use of appropriate words avoiding blemishes by through study of Grammar; and ; Avadhana – concentration or single pointed devotion to learning and composing as other the other areas of study and learning.

Thus, to sum up, most seem to agree that the natural inborn genius is the seed out of which poetry sprouts (Kavitva-bijam prathibhanam – Vamana. K.S.13.6); and that talent needs to be nurtured and developed through training Utpatti (detailed study of  Grammar, the literarily works and scriptures as also of  knowledge of worldly matters) ; and  Abhyasa , Abhiyoga, Prayatna (constant practice of composing poetry) .

An aspiring poet gifted with natural talent would do well to sincerely  follow the prescribed regimen either on his own or , better still, under the guidance of a well-informed teacher who himself is a poet or a learned scholar.


The great scholar Abhinavagupta (Ca.950-1020 AD) in his Lochana (a commentary on Anandavardhana’s Dhvanyaloka) says that Prathibha the intuition might be essential for creation of good poetry. But, that flash of flourish alone is not sufficient. Abhinavagupta explains that Prathibha is inspirational in nature; and, it does not last long; and it also, by itself or   automatically, does not transform into a work of art or poetry. There definitely is a need of a medium  that obeys  objective laws (which he calls unmeelana –shakthi) ; and, which sustains, harnesses and gives form and substance to those fleeting moments of inspiration. Apart from that, the aspiring poet has to study hard, broaden his intellect, hone his skills and practice his craft diligently.  It is only then, he says, a poetic work can bring forth refined, lively and forceful expressions that delight all.



Rajasekhara, just prior to Abhinavagupta, had also emphasized the importance of training and preparation in the making of a poet.  He treats the subject in a little more detail.

He mentions that the cultivator of Sanskrit poetry, variously known as Kavi, Budha or Vidwan, is not born as poet; nor is he self taught. Anyone gifted with talent (Prathibha) to create poetry and determined to become a poet should be prepared for detailed education (Utpatti)  spread over long years of hard work (abhiyoga, prayatna), study (Abhyasa) with  ceaseless dedication (Shraddha) . He should have the strength of mind not to be enticed away from his chosen path; and should pursue the study of Kavya in all its forms and layers with single-pointed (Ekagra) devotion.

Rajasekhara remarks there is no merit in becoming a half-baked poet. If one is truly sincere to his intention, then one should strive to become a professional poet of  true class . He should make that as his life-ambition, the ultimate goal in his life; and, should be prepared to make whatever sacrifices it demands.

The ardent learner is advised to seek guidance from a professional, learned teacher (Upadhyaya) and study under him the basic subjects of phonetics such as Vyakarana (Grammar) , Nirukta (Etymology) , Kosha (lexicon) , Alamkara (ornamentation) and Chhandas ( poetic meters) along with standard works on Kavya Shastra (Poetics).  Apart from studying these subjects individually, they should be studied with special reference to classic works of Kavya that have been written according to the formats and disciplines prescribed in texts of Kavya Shastra.

The study of the works of the Master would help the student to gain wholesome appreciation of the poetic process, the techniques of various forms of poetry and their components, such as meter (Chhandas), grammar (Vyakarana) , embellishments (Alamkara) etc. He should try out the principles he learnt by applying them to practice-poems (Abhyasa kriti) to be crafted as a part of his learning process.

The training included exercises to improve the student’s literary and the non-literary vocabulary, use of right words, picking the apt terms among the various synonyms; developing metrical skill; finding the most appropriate expression for each attribute, the most suitable simile, etc; and, creating verbal structure according to syntax within the rhythmic framework.

The preparation and the training would also include gaining familiarity with various branches of learning, such as: art (Kala), music (samgita), erotic’s (kamasastra), logic (nyaya), state craft (arthasastra) as also of the  natural world of mountains, oceans, trees , birds  and animals etc . He could also gain an understanding of sciences, astronomy, gemology etc. And, of course, familiarity with such important sources of literary material as the Epics Ramayana and Mahabharata as well as with the Puranas was also essential

The object of such elaborate training was to ensure that the student learnt to work at his text in a deliberate manner respecting the host of rules and norms that govern Kavya; and also to ensure that his poetic compositions grow out of a clear thought process based on a free but carefully made choice of all the elements. Far more important was the organization and co-ordination of these elements to give the composition the quality of a work of art.

Thus, at the end, very little would separate the connoisseur and critic from the writer of kavya.




 While on the subject of ‘The Poet’, I cannot resist talking about the redoubtable Banabhatta. Let’s dwell on him for a while.

The Sanskrit poets are generally reticent when it comes to their personal details. Some might perhaps give out frugal particulars such as the names of their parents, their Gotra and the village they came from. Beyond that, hardly any information that might throw light on the cultural and social life of their period is given out. Sometimes, even the simple task of ascertaining their period, by itself, becomes a minor exercise.

A notable exception to such general practice was Banabhatta, a versatile scholar and poet, a contemporary and a close associate of King Harsha Vardhana of Thaneshvar and Kanuj, who ruled over North India from 606 to 647 A D.  Banabhatta’s fame rests on his remarkable romantic prose work Kadambari, perhaps the world’s first Novel; and on Harshacharita a glorified biography of his friend and patron King Harsha Vardhana.

kadambari_of_banaBanabhatta, sadly, passed away before he could complete his magnum opus Kadambari woven into complicated, interrelated plots   involving two sets of lovers passing through labyrinth of births and re-re-births. It was later completed by his son Bhushanabhatta.

 [ Please click here for Kadambari, with a scholarly introduction and translation, as rendered by  by Prof. C M Ridding, formerly scholar of Griton College, Cambridge; published by the Royal Asiatic Society, London , 1896 ]

Banabhatta gives glimpses of his early life and youth in the introductory verses of his Kadambari and in the first two Ucchavasas of the Harshacharita. And, in the third Ucchavasa of Harshacharita he describes how he came to write that work.

His story is truly amazing.

Banabhatta mentions that he was born to Chitrabhanu and Rajadevi of Bhojaka Brahmin family, which was rich in wealth and in learning, belonging to Vatsyayana Gotra. They lived in the village of Pritikuta on the banks of Hiranyabahu (the Sona River) which raises in the Vindhya hills and flows through the Dandaka forest. The scholars opine that the ancestral home of Banabhatta might have been  in the region of Madhya Pradesh from where the Sona river rises . From here , Banabhatta , later , went to the court of King  Harshavardhana in Kanyakubja (Kanuj) in Uttar Pradesh.

Bana lost his mother Rajyadevi at a tender age. He was brought up by his father Chitrabhanu who was learned in scriptures and in literature. Chitrabhanu played a large part in molding his interests ; and,  remained a great influence even in the later years . But, sadly, Bana lost his father while he was just about fourteen years of age. He felt his father’s absence very deeply and missed him sorely.

The death of his father left the clueless young Bana just stepping into adolescence rather rudderless. He came into wealth and money with none to guide him. After recovering from anguish and sorrow, he found life rather hollow and boring; grew more and more impatient by each day; and got into irregular life of nasty habits.  Bana   went totally astray indulging in carefree, reckless, restless life in the company of a most weird bunch of friends.

His motley crowd  of friends, medley of varied talents, came from an amazing assortment of backgrounds , various classes of life and professions. Bana, in fact, names about forty-four of his friends, some them of dubious character. His friends circle included poets, singers, actors, story tellers, physicians, jugglers, goldsmiths, potters, Jain monks, Buddhist nuns, shampooers, gamblers, snake doctors and so on. There were also many women in the group.

For instance ,  he mentions that among his friends , Candasena and Matrsena  were born out of a Brahmin father and a Sudra mother; Isana, Rudra, Venibhadra  and Narayana were poets; Bharata was a composer of songs; Govinda was a writer; Susivana was a panegyrist (an orator who delivers eulogies or panegyrics); Mayuraka was a snake-charmer ; Viravarman was a painter; Kumaradatta was a varnisher; Jimuta was a  drummer; Somila , Grahaditya  were singers; Jayasena was a story teller; Madhukara and Paravata were pipers; Darduraka and Tandavika were dance teachers; Sikkhadaka was an actor; Chandaka was a physician; Akhandalaka and Bhlmaka were  dice players (gamblers); Viradeva was a  Jain  monk;  Cakoraka was a juggler ;  Karalakesa was a magician ; and Vakaragoha was a snake doctor (Visha vaidya)  so on.

There were also many women among his friends.  Among them :  Mayuraka was the daughter of a forest-man; Anangavana and Suchivana  were born in family of Prakrit poets;  Chandaka was the seller of betel leaves;  Sudrati was an artist;  another Chandaka was a physician  ; Karangika was an  independent artisan; Keralika was massage girl; Haramika was a dancing girl; Karangika, the maid of honor ; and, Sumati  and Cakravakika were  Buddhist  nuns.

After the excitement the of a fling at wild and reckless living wore off, Bana set out to take a look at the world; and took along with him a colorful   bunch of his friends and his two half brothers. He aimlessly wandered across many countries,  in an irresponsible manner.

The good outcome of his travels was that during the sojourn   , he studiously attended a number of assemblies (gosthl) of poets and connoisseurs; and, other scholarly circles (mandala). As he said: he paid visits to Royal courts; submitted his respects to ‘the Schools of the wise’; attended ‘assemblies of able men deep in priceless discussions’; and, ‘plunged into circles of clever men endowed with profound natural wisdom’.

Bana gained a great deal of experience during these febrile years of wandering. That gave him a direct experience of life outside of his closed circle.  That helped him to gain an insight into life, its nature and an understanding of the many-sided world filled with men and women of various manners of behavior. His travel experiences widened his horizons; and,  also   ignited the poetic genius latent in him.

Bana returned home a much more mature, wiser and determined.

On his return, he was surprised to see his home taken over by host of his relatives; most whom sporting long brown hair like wisps of fire had their forehead besmeared with ashes. Worse still, the house choked with smoke emanating from Homa kunda (fire-altar),  was echoing with Vedic chants. The smoke of the clarified butter had darkened the foliage of trees. The backyard of the house marked by hoofs of cows was filled with remains of Kusa grass;  littered with pieces of wood and cow dung. The whole ground was rendered brown by the sacrificial offerings.

Inside the house, the floor was littered with puffed rice, nivara paddy rice cakes, mats made of dark deer skins; branches of fig leaves were hanging by the pegs on the wall. At many places, the soma-juice was oozing out of the hollows in the wood. The children with little tufts were running around the house; and , some sat on different sides  of the altar watching  , curiously, what was going on.

That was rather too much for Bana to take in. He, definitely, was very uncomfortable with the scene as also by those who filled it.

Bana then promptly went back to his country house in the mango grove outside of the village. His friends were overjoyed with his return, clasped him to their hearts; and, celebrated the joyous reunion by drinking, dancing and singing all night. As Bana said, the reunion with his long last childhood friends was like the joy of the highest release (moksha).

Bana, thereafter, spent some of the most enjoyable days of his life amidst his friends.

One summer afternoon while Bana was lazing under the shadow of a mango tree, a messenger delivered him a letter from Krishna the brother of King Harshavardhana. In that, Krishna urged Bana to posthaste call on the King who was camping at Manitara. Accordingly, Bana promptly set out meet the mighty ruler.  He  travelled two days and one night and reached Manitara on the third day; and sought audience with the King. And, that meeting with the King changed the course of Bana’s life, in a very healthy way.

The King, who had heard of the wayward ways of the spoilt youth, was rather reluctant to talk to him. He even tried to reproach the young Brahman for wasting his wealth, heath and youth; and, smearing the fair name of his family.

But, as they conversed, the atmosphere cleared ; the two came to  like each other and, became sort of friends. And, in time Banabhatta won the  regard of the Emperor who became his patron.

It seems, Bana spent some considerable time with King Harshavardhana.

When Bana later revisited his Prithikuta one autumn, he was besieged by his friends who lustily cheering , demanded accounts of King Harsha, his stay in the Capital and other interesting experiences he had.

To comply with their wishes, Bana tells us, he began writing  the great biography of Emperor Harshavardhana. That was how Harshacharita came to be written. Harshacharita narrates Harsha’s  rise to power and glory; and ends with his conquest of the world. The work is a sophisticated, erudite display of Banabhatta’s descriptive and poetic genius.

[ Please click here for The Harsa-Carita of Bana; Translated by Edward Byles Cowell and F.W. Thomas; Published under the patronage of The Royal Asiatic Society, London – 1897] 

Later on, Banabhatta married and led a happy married life. He settled down in the Court of King Harshavardhana as his poet and confidant,

What rescued Bana from the abyss of depravation were his poetic genius and the moderating influence of his patron King.

Banabhatta’s regret was that he could not complete his Kadambari an intricate work spread over a large canvas. His son Bhushanabhatta, who by then had grown up, did complete the third and the last part of Kadambari’s elaborate structure.

Bhushnabhatta wrote:

I bow in reverence to my father,

Master of speech.

This story was his creation,

A task beyond other men’s reaches.


The world honoured his noble spirit in every home.

Through him I, propelled by

Merit, gained this life.


When my father ascended to heaven

The flow of his story

Along with his voice

Was checked on earth.


I , considering the unfinished work to be

A sorrow to the good,

Again set it in motion-

But out of no pride in my poetic skill.


(Translation of Prof. Gwendolyn Layne, University of Chicago)



Sources and References

A history of Sanskrit literature – Classical period – Vol. I  – by  Prof. S. N. Dasgupta

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

Glimpses of Indian Poetics by Prof. Satya Deva Caudharī

Indian Kāvya Literature: The bold style (Śaktibhadra to Dhanapāla) By Anthony Kennedy Warder

Kadambari – translated by Prof. Gwendolyn Layne

Banabhatta – His Life and Literature by S V Dixit



Posted by on September 9, 2015 in Kavya, Sanskrit


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Kavya and Indian Poetics – Part Ten

Continued from Part Nine

[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.]

Kavyasya Atma – the Soul of Poetry


Another line of speculation that is unique to Indian Poetics is to muse about the soul (Atman) of Poetry. Every literary endeavour was regarded a relentless quest to grasp or realize the enigmatic essence that inhabits the Kavya body.

As Prof Vinayak Krishna Gokak explains in his An Integral View of Poetry: an India Perspective:  Poetry in its manifestation resembles the series of descending arches in a cave. It is dim lit, leaving behind the garish light of the day, as we walk into it. And as we begin to feel our way, we detect another passage, leading to yet another. But, we do know that there is light at the other end. And, when we have passed through the archways, we stand face-to-face with the ultimate mystery itself. This seems to the inner core, the essence and the fulfillment of poetry. It is the Darshana, perception, of Reality

Then he goes on to say:  When we say the poet is inspired, we mean that he had a glimpse of Reality, its luminous perception. It is this perception that elevated him into a state of creative excitement. Such vision is the intuitive perception. It reveals the many-splendored reality that is clouded by the apparent. It is the integral experience in which the intuitive and instinctive responses are in harmony.

But, this intuitive perception in poetry is rarely experienced in its pristine purity. It is colored, to an extent, by the attitudes, the experiences and the expressions of the poet. The attitude seeps into the structure of words, phrases, rhythms that give form to poetry. The attitude forms the general framework of the poetic experience.

The soul of the Kavya is truly the poet’s vision (Darshana) without which its other constituents cannot come together.


Thus, the inquiry into the appeal of the Poetry was meant to suggest a sort of a probe delving deep into the depths of Kavya to seize its essence. It was an exploration to reach into the innermost core of the Kavya.  The term used to denote that core or the fundamental element or the principle which defines the very essence of Kavya was Atma, the soul. In the context of Kavya, the concept of Atma, inspired by Indian Philosophy, was adopted to characterize it as the in-dweller (Antaryamin), its life-breath (Prana), its life (Jivita) , consciousness (Chetana) ; and to differentiate it from the  exterior or the body (Sarira) formed out of the words. That is to say; while structure provided by the words is the physical aspect of Kavya, at its heart is the aesthetic sensitivity that is very subtle and indeterminate.

In the Indian Poetics, the term Atma stands for that most elusive factor which is the highly essential, extensive factor illumining the internal beauty of Kavya. Though one can talk about it endlessly, one cannot precisely define it. One could even say, it is like a child trying to clasp the moonbeams with its little palms.   It is akin to consciousness that energizes all living beings (Chaitanya-atma). Its presence can be felt and experienced; but one cannot see its form; and, one cannot also define it in technical terms


In the Kavya-shastra, generally, two types of texts are recognized: Lakhshya grantha and Lakshana grantha. The tests that describe the characteristics of good poetry and define the technical terms of Kavvya shastra are the Lakshana granthas. These outline and define the concepts and illustrate them with the aid of citations from  recognized and time-honored works of poetry or drama, composed by famous poets. Sometimes, the author of a Lakshana grantha would himself compose illustrative model pieces,  as examples.

Lakshya Grantha is  a creative work of  art , the Kavya , in the form of a poem or a drama , generally, following the prescriptions of the Lashana granthas.

Various thinkers and writers of the Lakshana granthas, over a long period, have put forward several theories based on their concept of the essential core , the heart or the soul of the  Kavya (kavyasya Atma). While the authors like Bhamaha, Dandin, Udbhata and Rudrata focused on Alamkara; Vamana emphasized the concept of Riti. However, it was Anandavardhana who changed the entire course of discussion by introducing the concept of Dhvani.  But, , Dhananjaya the author of Dasharupaka and its commentator Dhanika , as also  Mahimabhatta the author of Vyaktiviveka , firmly opposed the concept of Dhvani.

Let’s see some of these in a summary form before we get into a discussion:

Author Lakshana Grantha Atma
Bharata Natyashastra Rasa
Bhamaha Kaavya-alamkara Alamkara
Dhandi Kaavya-adarsha Dasha (ten ) Gunas
Vamana Kaavya-alankara-sutra Reeti
Anandavardhana Dhvanya-loka Dhvani
Kshemendra Auchitya-vicharachara Auchitya 
Mammata Kavya-prakasha Dhvani
Kuntaka Vakrokti Jivitam Vakrokti


Traditionally, the Kavya was defined by Bhamaha as Sabda-Artha sahitau Kavyam (KA.1.15) – the combination or a complex of words and their meanings. His explanation also implied that word and sense in a Kavya must be free from blemishes (nirdosa) .  Bhamaha then extended his explanation to bring in the element of Alamkara; and, said: Kavya is the happy fusion of Sabda and Artha which expresses Alamkaras relating to them

Sabda-abhideya-alamkara-bhedadhistam dvayam tu nah I Sabda-Artha sahitau Kavyam (KA.1.15).

Dandin also said the body of Kavya is a group of sounds which indicates the desired effect or the desired import of the poet

Sariram tavad ista-artha vyvachinna padavali (KA 1.10b).

But, the later Schools pointed out that Bhamaha and Dandin seemed to be talking about the body of Kavya, but not about the Kavya itself. And, their   definition of Kavya is centred on the external element or the body of Kavya; but, it misses the spirit or the soul of the Kavya.  The basic idea, here, was that Kavya is much more than a collection of words; it is about the vision of the poet and the aesthetic delight it presents to the reader.

It was argued that if the structure of words (Pada-rachana or Padavali) could be taken as the body (Sarira) of the Kavya, then it is separate or different from its soul (Atma) which is its   inner–being. Further, Padavali – the group of words – by itself and not accompanied by sense is not of great merit.

Thus, a clear distinction was sought to be made between the body and the spirit or the soul which resides within it. And from here, there began a quest for the soul of Kavya (Kavyasya Atma).

As regards the meaning (Artha) conveyed by words in the Poetry, it was also examined in terms of its external and internal forms. It was said; the language and its structural form lead us to meaning in its dual forms. Thought in poetry manifests itself in two ways: as the outer and the inner meaning. The Outer meaning dominates poetry through its narration. Yet, it permits inner meaning to come into its own through its narrative patterns or poetic excellence. The Outer meaning plays somewhat semi transparent role in poetry.  It achieves its fulfillment when it becomes fully transparent revealing what lies beneath it.

The inner meaning of poetry is embodied in it’s suggestive, figurative or expressions evoking Visions.  It reveals the moods, the attitudes and the vision of the poet expressed with the aid of imagery and rhythm. “Such vision is the intuitive perception. It reveals the many-splendored reality that is clouded by the apparent”.


It was perhaps Vamana the author of Kavyalankara-sutra-vrtti who initiated the speculation about the Atman or the soul of poetry. He declared – Ritir Atma kavyasya – (Riti is the soul of Poetry). Vamana’s pithy epithet soon became trendy; and, ignited the imagination of the champions of other Schools of poetics. Each one re-coined Vamana’s phrase by inserting into it (in place of Riti) that Kavya-guna (poetic virtue) which in its view was the fundamental virtue or the soul of poetry.

For instance; Anandavardhana said Dhvani is the Atma of Kavya; Visvanatha said Rasa is the Atma of Kavya; while Kuntaka asserted that Vakrokti as the Jivita – the life of Kavya. Besides, Rajasekhara (9th century) who visualized literature, as a whole, in a symbolic human form (Kavya Purusha) treated Rasa as its soul (Atma).


Although Vamana was the first to use the term Atma explicitly, the notions of the spirit or the inner-being of Kavya were mentioned by the earlier scholars too, though rather vaguely.  They generally talked in terms Prana (life-breath) or Chetana (consciousness) and such other vital factors in the absence of which the body ceases to function or ceases to live.

[ But, those epithets, somehow, seemed to suggest something that is essential, but not quite inevitable.]

For instance; Dandin had earlier used the term Prana (life-breath) of the body of poetry which he said was the Padavali (string of words or phrases) – Sariram tavad istartha vyavachhina padavali (KA-1.10). He also used Prana in the sense of vital force or vital factor (say for instance: iti vadarbhi –margasya pranah).

Udbhata who generally followed Dandin, in his Alamkara-samgraha, a synopsis of Alamkara, stated that Rasa was the essence or the soul of Kavya.

While Dandin and his followers focused on Sabda Alamkara, Vamana (Ca.8th century) raised questions about the true nature of Kavya; and said Ritiratma Kavyasya – the soul of the poetry abides in its style – excellence of diction.

Anandavardhana said: all good poetry has two modes of expression – one that is expressed by words embellished by Alamkara; and the other that is implied or concealed – what is inferred by the listener or the reader.  And , this implied one or the suggested sense, designated as Dhvani (resonance or tone or suggestion) , is indeed  the soul of Kavya: Kavyasya Atma Dhvanih.

A little later than Anandavardhana, Kuntaka (early tenth century) said that indirect or deflected speech (Vakrokti) – figurative speech depending upon wit, turns , twists and word-play is the soul of Kavya. He said that such poetry showcases the inventive genius of the poet at work (Kavi-karman).

[The complex web of words (Sabda) and meanings (Artha) capable of being transformed into aesthetic experience (Rasa) is said to have certain characteristic features. These are said to be Gunas and Alamkara-s. 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

All theories, one way or the other, are interrelated; and, illumine each other.  The various aspects of Kavya starting from making of poetry (kavya-kriya-dharma) up to the critique of poetry (kavya-mimamsa)  and how human mind perceives and reacts to it, was the main concern for each theory. ]



Alamkara denotes an extraordinary turn given to an ordinary expression; which makes ordinary speech into poetic speech (Sabartha sahitya) ; and , which indicates the entire range of rhetorical ornaments as a means of poetic expression. In other words, Alamkara connotes the underlying principle of embellishment itself as also the means for embellishment.

According to Bhamaha, Dandin and Udbhata the essential element of Kavya was in Alamkara. The Alamkara School did not say explicitly that Alamkara is the soul of Poetry. Yet, they regarded Alamkara as the very important element of Kavya. They said just as the ornaments enhance the charm of a beautiful woman so do the Alamkaras to Kavya: shobha-karan dharman alamkaran prakshate (KA -2.1). The Alamkara School, in general, regarded all those elements that contribute towards or that enhance the beauty and brilliance of Kavya as Alamkaras. Accordingly, the merits of Guna, Rasa, and Dhvani as also the various figures of speech were all clubbed under the general principle of Alamkara.

Though Vamana advocates Riti, he also states that Alamkara (Soundarya-alamkara) enhances the beauty of Kavya. Vamana said Kavya is the union of sound and sense which is free from poetic flaws (Dosha) and is adorned with Gunas (excellence) and Alamkaras (ornamentation or figures of speech).

According to Mammata, Alamkara though is a very important aspect of Kavya is not absolutely essential. He said; Kavya is that which is constructed by word and sentence which are (a) faultless (A-doshau) (b) possessed of excellence (Sugunau) , and (c) in which rarely a distinct figure of speech  (Alamkriti) may be absent.


Vamana called the first section (Adhikarana) of his work as Sarira-adhikaranam – reflexions on the body of Kavya. After discussing the components of the Kavya-body, Vamana looks into those aspects that cannot be reduced to physical elements. For Vamana, that formless, indeterminate essence of Kavya is Riti.

Then, Vamana said; the essence of Kavya is Riti (Ritir Atma Kavyasya); just as every body has Atma, so does every Kavya its Riti. And, Riti is the very mode or the act of being Kavya. Thus for Vamana, while Riti is the essence of Kavya, the Gunas are the essential elements of the Riti. The explanation offered by Vamana meant that the verbal structure having certain Gunas is the body of Kavya, while its essence (soul) is, Riti.

Riti represents for Vamana the particular structure of sounds (Vishista-pada-rachana Ritihi) combined with poetic excellence (Vishesho Gunatma) . According to Vamana, Riti is the going or the flowing together of the elements of a poem

Rinati gacchati asyam guna iti riyate ksaraty asyam vanmaddhu-dhareti va ritih (Vamana KSS). 

The language and its structural form lead us to the inner core of poetry. And, when that language becomes style (Riti), it absorbs into itself all the other constituent elements of poetry. It allows them, as also the poetic vision, to shine through it.

Vamana, therefore, accorded Riti a very high position by designating Riti as the Soul of Kavya –Ritr Atma kavyasya Sareerasyeva (I.2.6) – Riti is to the Kavya what Atman is to the Sarira (body). Here, it is explained that in his definition of Riti, Pada-rachana   represents the structure or the body while Riti is its inner essence. Through this medium of Visista Padarachana the Gunas become manifest and reveal the presence of Riti, the Atman.


Kshemendra – wrote a critical work Auchitya-alamkara or Auchitya-vicharachara (critical research on proprieties in poetry), and a practical handbook for poets Kavi-katnta-abharana (ornamental necklace for poets) – calls Auchitya the appropriateness or that which makes right sense in the given context as the very life-breath of Rasa – Rasajivi-bhootasya. He said Auchitya is the very life of Kavya (Kavyasya jivitam) that is endowed with Rasa (Aucityam rasa siddhasya sthiram kavyasya jivitam).

According to Kshemendra, all components of Kavya perform their function ideally only when they are applied appropriately and treated properly. “When one thing befits another or matches perfectly, it is said to be appropriate, Auchitya”:

(Aucityam prahuracarya sadrasham kila; Aucitasya ka vo bhava stadaucityam pracaksate).

It said; be it Alamkara or Guna, it will be beautiful and relishing if it is appropriate from the point of view of Rasa; and, they would be rejected if they are in- appropriate. And, what is normally considered a Dosha (flaw) might well turn into Guna (virtue) when it is appropriate to the Rasa

But, many are hesitant to accept Auchitya as the Atma of the Kavya. They point out that Auchitya by its very nature is something that attempts to bring refinement into to text; but, it is not an independent factor. And, it does not also form the essence of Kavya. Auchitya is also not a recognized School of Poetics.


Kuntaka defined Kavya on the basis of Vakrokti, a concept which he developed   over the idea earlier mentioned by Bhamaha and others.  According to him, Kavya is the union of sound, sense and arranged in a composition which consists Vakrokti (oblique expressions of the poet), delighting its sensible reader or listener –

(Sabda-Artha sahitau vakra Kavi vakya vyapara shalini I bandhe vyavasthitau Kavya tat ahlada karini:  VJ 1.7).

Kuntaka also said that  the word and sense, blended like two friends, pleasing  each other, make Kavya  delightful

Sama-sarva gunau santau sahhrudaveva sangathi I parasparasya shobhayai sabdartau bhavato thatha  II .

Kuntaka, declared Vakrokti as jivitam or soul of poetry. By vakrokti, he meant the artistic turn of speech (vaidagdhyam bhangi) or the deviated from or distinct from the common mode of speech. Vakratva is primarily used in the sense of poetic beauty. It is striking, and is marked by the peculiar turn imparted by the creative imagination of the poet. It stands for charming, attractive and suggestive utterances that characterize poetry. The notion of Vakrata (deviation) covers both the word (Sabda) and meaning (Artha). The ways of Vakrokti are, indeed, countless.

Vakrokti is the index of a poet’s virtuosity–kavi kaushala. Kuntaka describes the creativity of a poet as Vakra-kavi–vyapara or Kavi–vyapara–vakratva (art in the poetic process).  This according to Kuntaka is the primary source of poetry; and, has the potential to create aesthetic elegance that brings joy to   the cultured reader with refined taste (Sahrudaya).

According to Kuntaka, Vakrokti is the essence of poetic speech (Kavyokti); the very life (Jivita) of poetry; the title of his work itself indicates this.


Rasa (the poetic delight) though it is generally regarded as the object of Kavya providing joy to the reader rather than as the means or an element of Kavya , is treated  by some as the very essence of Kavya.

Yet; Indian Aesthetics considers that among the various poetic theories (Kavya-agama), Rasa is of prime importance in Kavya. And, very involved discussions go into ways and processes of   producing Rasa, the ultimate aesthetic experience that delights the Sahrudya, the connoisseurs of Kavya.

The Rasa was described as the state that arises out of the emotion evoked by a poem through suggestive means, through the depiction of appropriate characters and situations and through rhetorical devices. The production of Rasa or aesthetic delight was therefore regarded the highest mark of poetry.  It was said – The life breath (Prana) of Kavya is Rasa.

Further, Poetry itself came to be understood as an extraordinary kind of delightful experience called Rasa. It was exclaimed: Again, what is poetry if it does not produce Rasa or give the reader an experience of aesthetic delight?

Rasa is thus regarded as the cardinal principle of Indian aesthetics.  The theory of Rasa (Rasa Siddhanta) and its importance is discussed in almost all the works on Alamkara Shastra in one way or the other. The importance of the Rasa is highlighted by calling it the Atman (the soul), Angin (the principle element), Pradhana-Pratipadya (main substance to be conveyed), Svarupadhyaka (that which makes a Kavya), and Alamkara (ornamentation) etc.

Mammata carrying forward the argument that Rasa is the principle substance and the object of poetry, stated ‘vakyatha rasatmakarth kavyam’, establishing the correlation between Rasa and poetry.

Vishwanatha defined Kavya as Vakyam rasathmakam Kavyam – Kavya is sentences whose essence is Rasa.

Jagannatha Pandita defined Kavya as: Ramaniya-artha prathipadakah sabdam kavyam ; poetry is the  combination of words that provides delight (Rasa) . Here, Ramaniyata denotes not only poetic delight Rasa, pertaining to the main variety of Dhvani-kavya, but also to all the ingredients of Kavya like Vastu-Dhvani Kavya; Alamkara-Dhvani –Kavya, Guni-bhutha –vyangmaya-kavya; Riti; Guna, Alamkara, Vakrokti etc.


[While talking about Rasa, we may take a look at the discussions on Bhakthi Rasa.

Natyashastra mentions eight Rasas (not nine). These Rasas were basically related to dramatic performance; and Bhakthi was not one of those. Thereafter, Udbhata (9th century) introduced Shantha Rasa. After prolonged debates spread over several texts across two centuries Shantha was accepted as an addition to the original eight.

But, it was Abhinavagupta (11th century) who established Shantha Rasa as the Sthayi-bhava the basic and the abiding or the enduring Rasa form which all Rasas emerge and into which they all recede. His stand was: one cannot be perpetually angry or ferocious or sad or exited or erotic, at all the time. These eight other Rasas are the passing waves of emotions, the colors of life. But, Shantha, tranquility, is the essential nature of man; and it is its disturbance or its variations that give rise to shades of other emotions. And, when each of that passes over, it again subsides in the Shantha Rasa that ever prevails.

During the times of by Abhinavagupta and Dhanajaya, Bhakthi and Priti were referred to as Bhavas (dispositions or attitudes); but, not as Rasas. Even the later scholars like Dandin, Bhanudatta and Jagannatha Pandita continued to treat Bhakthi as a Bhava.

[Later, each system of Philosophy or of Poetics (Kavya-shastra) applied its own norms to interpret the Rasa-doctrine (Rasa Siddantha) ; and in due course several Rasa theories came up. Many other sentiments, such as Sneha, Vatsalya; or states of mind (say even Karpanya – wretchedness) were reckoned as Rasa. With that, Rasas were as many as you one could identify or craft (not just nine).]

It was however the Gaudiya School of Vaishnavas that treated Bhakthi as a Rasa. Rupa Goswami in his Bhakthi-Rasa-amrita–Sindhu; and the Advatin Madhusudana Sarasvathi in his Bhagavad-Bhakthi Rasayana asserted that Bhakthi is indeed the very fundamental Rasa. Just as Abhinavagupta treated Shantha as the Sthayi Rasa, the Vaishnava Scholars treated Bhakthi as the Sthayi, the most important and the abiding Rasa.

Their texts described twelve forms of Bhakthi Rasas – nine of the original and three new ones. Instead of calling each Rasa by its original name, they inserted Bhakthi element into each, such as: Shantha-Bhakthi-Rasa, Vira-Bhakthi-Rasa, Karuna-Bhakthi-Rasa and so on. They tried to establish that Bhakthi was not one among the many Rasas; but, it was the fundamental Rasa, the other Rasa being only the varied forms of it. The devotee may assume any attitude of devotion like a child, mother, master, Guru or even an intimate fiend. It was said “Bhakthi encompasses all the Nava-rasas”.

Bhakthi, they said, is the Sthayi (abiding) Rasa; and it is the original form of Parama-Prema (highest form of Love) as described in Narada Bhakthi Sutra. What constitutes this Love is its essence of Maduhrya (sweetness) and Ujjvalata (radiance).

Although, an element of individualized love is involved in Bhakthi, it is not confined to worship of a chosen deity (ista Devatha). The Vedanta Schools treat Bhakthi as a companion of Jnana in pursuit of the Brahman. They hold that Bhakthi guides both the Nirguna and the Saguna traditions. Just as Ananda is the ultimate bliss transcending the subject-object limitation, Bhakthi in its pristine form is free from the limitations of ‘ego centric predicament’ of mind. And, both are not to be treated as mere Rasas.

Bhakthi is that total pure unconditional love, accepting everything in absolute faith (Prapatthi).

Now, all Schools generally agree that Bhakthi should not be confined to theistic pursuits alone; it pervades and motivates all aspects human persuasions including studies, arts and literature. In the field of art, it would be better if the plethora of Rasa-theories is set aside; because, the purpose of Art, the practice of Bhakthi and the goal of Moksha are intertwined.

Therefore, it is said, it is not appropriate (an-auchitya) to narrow down Bhakthi to a mere Rasa which is only a partial aspect. Bhakthi is much larger; and it is prime mover of all meaningful pursuits in life.]


Dhvani and Rasa-Dhvani

With the rise of the Dhvani School, the elements of Rasa and Dhvani gained prominence, and superseded the earlier notions of poetry. And, all poetry was defined and classified in terms of these two elements.

Anandavardhana said: all good poetry has two modes of expression – one that is expressed by words embellished by Alamkara; and the other that is implied or concealed – what is inferred by the listener or the reader.

The suggested or the implied   sense of the word designated as Dhvani (resonance or tone or suggestion) through its suggestive power brings forth proper Rasa. Abhinavagupta   qualified it by saying:   Dhvani is not any and every sort of suggestion, but only that sort which yields Rasa or the characteristic aesthetics delight.

For Anandavardhana, Dhvani (lit. The sounding-resonance) is the enigmatic alterity (otherness) of the Kavya-body- Sarirasye va Atma ….Kavyatmeti vyavasthitam (as the body has Atma, so does Dhvani resides as Atma in the Kavya)

Anandavardhana regarded Dhvani– the suggestive power of the Kavya, as its highest virtue. The Alamkara, figurative ornamental language, according to him, came next. In both these types of Kavya-agama, there is a close association between the word and its sound, and between speech (vak) and meaning (artha). The word is that which when articulated gives out meaning; and meaning is what a word gives us to understand. Therefore, in these two types of Kavya there is a unity or composition (sahitya) of word (sabda-lankara) and its meaning (artha-lankara).

Anandavardhana‘s definition of Kavya involves two statements: Sabda-Artha sariram tavath vakyam; and, Dhvanir Atma Kavyasa – the body of poetry is the combination of words and sounds; and; Dhavni, the suggestive power is the soul of the poetry. Here, Anandavardhana talks about poetry in terms of the body (Sabda–artha sariram tavath vakyam) and soul of the Kavya (Dhvanir atma Kavyasa). And he also refers to the internal beauty of a meaningful construction of words in the Kavya. And, he declares Dhvani as the Atma, the soul of poetry.

The Dhvani theory introduced a new wave of thought into the Indian Poetics. According to this school, the Kavya that suggests Rasa is excellent. In Kavya, it said, neither Alamkara nor Rasa but Dhvani which suggest Rasa, the poetic sentiment, is the essence, the soul (Kavyasya-atma sa  eva arthaa Dhv.1.5).

Anandavardhana maintained that experience of Rasa comes through the unravelling of the suggested sense (Dhvani). It is through Dhvani that Rasa arises (Rasa-dhavani).  The experience of the poetic beauty (Rasa) though elusive, by which the reader is delighted, comes through the understanding heart.

Then, Anandavardhana expanded on the object (phala) of poetry and how it is achieved (vyapara). The Rasa which is the object of poetry, he said, is not made; but, it is revealed. And, that is why words and meanings must be transformed to suggestions of Rasa (Rasa Dhvani).

The Rasa Dhvani, the most important type of Dhvani, consists in suggesting Bhava, the feelings or sentiments. In Rasa Dhvani, emotion is conveyed through Vyanjaka, suggestion. Rasa is the subject of Vyanjaka, as differentiated from Abhidha and Lakshana.

Anandavardhana in some instances considers Rasa as the Angi (soul) of poetry. Its Anga-s (elements) such as Alamkara, Guna and Riti seem to be dependent on this Angi.

Thus, the principle of Rasa Dhvani is the most significant of the Kavya dharma, understanding Kavya. And, the Rasa experience derived from its inner essence is the ultimate aim of Kavya. Hence, the epithet Kavyasya Atma Dhvani resonates with Kavyasya Atma Rasah.

Anandavardhana regarded Rasa-Dhvani as the principal or the ideal concept in appreciation of poetry. He said that such suggested sense is not apprehended (na vidyate) by mere knowledge of Grammar (Sabda-artha-shasana-jnana) and dictionary. It is apprehended only (Vidyate, kevalam) by those who know how to recognize the essence of poetic meaning (Kavya-artha-tattva-jnana) – Dhv.1.7

The confusion and chaos that prevailed in the literary circles at that time prompted Mammata to write Kavyaprakasha , to defend and  to establish the Dhvani theory on a firm footing ; and, also to  refute the arguments of its  opponents.

Abhinavagupta accepted Rasa-Dhvani ; and expanded on the concept by adding an explanation to it.  He said, the Pratiiyamana or implied sense which is two-fold:  one is Loukika or the one that we use in ordinary life; and the other is Kavya vyapara gocara  or one  which is used only in poetry.

He also termed the latter type of Rasa-Dhvani as Aloukika, the out-of–the world experience. It is an experience that is shared by the poet and the reader (Sahrudaya). In that, the reader, somehow, touches the very core of his being. And, that Aloukika is subjective ultimate aesthetic experience (ananda); and, it is not a logical construct. As Abhinavagupta says, it is a wondrous flower; and, its mystery cannot really be unraveled.

One can hardly disagree with Abhinavagupta. The concept of Kavyasya-Atma, the soul of Poetry is indeed a sublime concept; and, one can take delight is exploring layers and layers of its variations. Yet, it seems, one can, at best, only become aware of its presence, amorphously; but, not pin point it. Kavyasya-Atma, is perhaps best enjoyed when it is left undefined.

Happiness is such a fragile thing!! Very thought of it disturbs it.



in the

Next Part

Sources and References


An Integral View of Poetry: an India Perspective by Prof Vinayak Krishna Gokak

Glimpses of Indian Poetics by  Dr. Satya Deva Caudharī


Posted by on September 5, 2015 in Kavya, Sanskrit


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Kavya and Indian Poetics – Part Nine

Continued from Part Eight

[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.]


After the Riti School of Poetics  propagated by Vamana, we should have, in the chronological order, dealt with the Dhvani elaborated by Anandavardhana. Since we have already talked about Dhvani, Rasa and Rasa Dhvani in the earlier installments of the series (Part four) , let’s move on to Vakrokti.



The concept of Vakrokti has been running like a thread in the Indian Poetics from its very early times (6th-7th centuries); but was vaguely discussed as one of the secondary aspects by all the Schools of Kavya Shastra. It was however developed into a full-fledged theory of Poetics by the great Scholar Rajanaka Kuntaka of Kashmir who is said to have lived during the period between the middle of the tenth century and the middle of the eleventh century. He definitely was later than Anandavardhana (820–890 A D) the author of Dhvanyaloka, a landmark work that establishes the doctrine of Dhvani, the aesthetic suggestion. Kuntaka was perhaps a younger contemporary of the great Abhinavagupta (Ca. 950 – 1020 AD) or a contemporary who perhaps was relatively unknown or one who was yet to be adequately recognized by the Poetic scholars. Although Abhinavagupta in his Lochana (or formally, Dhvanyālokalocana – Illustration of Dhvanyāloka) refers to various views related to Vakrokti (atha sa kavya-jivitatvena vivaksita etc), he does not mention Kuntaka or the Vakroktijivita-kara by name.

However, in the later periods, Kuntaka came to be honored as one of the original thinkers in the field of Indian Poetics; and, his Vakrokti-jivita is recognized as a brilliant work that brings critical insight into investigation of Poetic elements. He is lauded for his systematic analyses of the principles of Poetics and their implications.  His Vakrokti-jivita establishes the Vakrokti School which attempts to define Kavya in terms of its distinctive (vakra) expressions that are characteristic to poetry and to the essential principle of poetry itself (Alamkara – samanya –lakshana). His concept of Vakrokti brings within its comprehensive scope all known kinds of imaginative , innovative turns (ukti-vaichitrya)  and modes of suggestive indirect (vakra)  expressions (bhaniti-prakara)  that are unique to poetry (away from the banal words) created by the skill ( vaidagdhya or kavi-kaushala) of a poet gifted with inborn genius (prathibha).

Kuntaka explains Vakrokti as the artistic turn of speech (vaidagdhyam bhangi) or the deviated or distinct from the common mode of speech. Vakratva is primarily used in the sense of poetic beauty. It is striking, and is marked by the peculiar turn imparted by the creative imagination of the poet. It stands for charming, attractive and suggestive utterances that characterize poetry. The notion of Vakrata (deviation) covers both the word (Sabda) and meaning (Artha). The ways of Vakrokti are, indeed, countless. Vakrokti is the index of a poet’s virtuosity–kavi kaushala. Kuntaka describes the creativity of a poet as Vakra-kavi–vyapara or Kavi–vyapara–vakratva (art in the poetic process).  This according to Kuntaka is the primary source of poetry; and, has the potential to create aesthetic eligance  that brings joy to   the cultured reader with refined taste (Sahrudaya).

While Anandavardhana emphasized the object and delight of poetry from readers’ point of view, Kuntaka brought a sense of balance into poetic appreciation by highlighting the poet’s own point of view.  He attempted to outline the poetic process (Kavi vyapara), the genius-at work (kavi – karma)  , and the mysterious process of how the Kavya takes shape in the poet’s mind and emerges as a thing of great beauty. .

Another important aspect of Kuntaka’s work is the holistic view it takes of the Kavya. According to Kuntaka, the words, their meanings, the poet and the reader are all integrated into a fabulously rewarding poetic experience; one cannot be artificially separated from the other.

The concept of Vakrokti, as elaborated by Kuntaka, is unique to Indian poetics. The western literary criticism has no notion that is either equivalent or that corresponds to it.



The term Vakrokti is composed of Vakra + Ukti, where the latter (Ukti) derived from Vac-paribhashane can easily be taken to mean a poetic expression, a clever speech or a pithy statement. It is however the former component (Vakra) of the term Vakrokti, evoking diverse  shades of meanings and suggestions, that is widely discussed and interpreted in various manners.

In the classic Sanskrit poetry, the word Vakra has often been used in the sense of a ‘curvilinear nature’ (vakratva) of an object or an expression that suggests or evokes a sense of delicate beauty. For instance, the great poet Kalidasa in his Kumarasambhava (3.29) uses the term Balendu-vakrani  ( बालेन्दु- वक्राण्यविकाशभावाद् बभुः पलाशान्यतिलोहितानि Ku.3.29) to describe the palasa flower buds that are curved (vakrani) like the just emerging crescent moon (Balendu). Here, Vakra implies the loveliness of the curve that enhances the grace and elegance of the palasa buds and of the crescent moon.


[Interestingly, Kuntaka also employs the phrase Balendu-sundara –samsthana-yuktatvam, itaratra rudyadi vaichitram (2.35) – like the delicate beauty of crescent moon – to explain the terms that are commonly associated with Vakrata.]

There is also a term Vakra-smita which suggests the gentle mischievous smile that plays tantalizingly at the curve of the lips (Vakrosthika).

The curly hairs coiled into lovely rings hanging down a handsome forehead are compared to the gentle curves of a river flowing placidly (Urmimat) along the plains. The loveliness is not just  in the curve (vakratva) but it  is more in the images of grace and beauty it evokes.

Similarly, a poetic expression that is uncommon, indirect, evasive and deviant or curved (vakra) does not become attractive unless it brings forth a sense of delight and beauty that gladdens the heart of the reader (sahrudaya). It is only then an indirect expression could be termed as Vakrokti.

Elsewhere, Bana Bhatta in his Kadambari terms the Vakra or crooked way of speech as Parihasa-jalpita, the good humored banter or leg-pulling

Otherwise, the Dictionary meaning of Vakrokti is variously: oblique, evasive, crooked, bent, curved, curling, indirect, roundabout, cruel, retrograde, dishonest etc




In the Schools of Indian Poetics, Bhamaha (Ca.7th century) was perhaps the earliest to mention  Vakrokti, as a concept.   And, down the centuries discussions related to Vakrokti were carried out by Dandin, Vamana, Rudrata, Kuntaka, Abhinavagupta and Raja Bhoja among others. But, there is a marked divergence in their understanding of the concept, in their treatment and in their presentations as well.

For instance; the early scholars of Poetics – Bhamaha, Dandin and Vamana – treat Vakrokti to imply modes of expressions which evoke or reveal  the beauty that is inherent in the structure of words (Sabda-almkara).

Bhamaha regards Vakrokti not as an Alamkara, but as a characteristic mode of expression which underlies all Alamkaras; and, as that which is fundamental to Kavya.

Dandin distinguishes Vakrokti from Svabhavokti – the natural way of narration- and assigns priority to the latter.

Later , Rudrata treats Vakrokti as a mere play of words or pretended speech in which a word or a sentence meant by the poet in one sense is understood by the reader in quite another sense, either because it is uttered with a peculiar intonation (kaku) which changes the meaning , or because the words carry more than one meaning (slesha).

Vamana differs from Rudrata and treats Vakrokti as an aspect of Artha-alamkara where the indicated sense (lakshana) is brought out or amplified by taking help of similarities (sadrushya). Thus, Vakrokti, in his view, is basically a metaphor (Sadrushya –laksnana- Vakroktihi).

Thus, while Bhamaha and Dandin use the term in an extended sense; Rudrata and Vamana limit its relevance to a particular figure of speech, be it Sabda-alamkara or Artha-alamkara.

It was Kuntaka who fully developed a unique theory of Poetics based upon Bhamaha’s explanation of Vakrokti as the distinguishing characteristic of all Alamkaras (Alamkara-samanya-lakshana). He expanded the concept to denote selection of words and phrases, as also turning of ideas that are peculiar to poetry. He tries to keep the matter-of-fact, day-to-day speech away from the language of poetry.

Let’s take a look at their views in a little more detail.



Bhamaha treats Rasa as an aspect of Alamkara, Rasavat (lit. that which possesses Rasa). According to him, the suggested sense (vyangyartha), which is at the root of Rasa, is implicit in the vakrokti. However, Bhamaha did not elaborate on the concept of Vakrokti; he did not define Vakrokti; and, he did not also regard Vakrokti as Alamkara. He did not also consider Vakrokti as a synonym for Alamkara. He meant Vakrokti as an expression which is neither simple nor clear-cut; but, as one which is evasive or rather ambiguous (vakra).  Vakrokti , according to him, is  a poetic device used to express something extraordinary and has the potential to provide the aesthetic experience of Rasa.

Bhamaha was the champion of the Alamkara School; and, regarded Alamkara as the most essential element of poetry. He implicitly argued that Alamkara exemplifies the nature of poetry, which is characterized by the composition of speech (Sabda) and its meaning (Artha) in an ‘oblique’ (vakra) manner.  It is not only what you say but also how you say it that matters.

Though Bhamaha did not explicitly define Vakrokti, he spoke  about it in connection with Atishayokti (hyperbole), a form of Alamkara which he explains as one that excels , that which is distinct from ordinary speech , and that which transcends common usage of the of words (Lokathi-krantha-gochara vachah). It is only through these, he said, the ordinary is transformed to extraordinary.  This might be taken as his indirect way of explaining Vakrokti.

[Kuntaka appreciates Bhamaha’s views on Atishayokti one of the essential elements of Alamkara; and , he takes it as supporting his concept of Vakrokti ( Vakrokti –vaichitrya or Vichitra-marga). He says both the modes- Atishayokti and Vakrokti– represent departure from conventional usage (prasiddha-vyatirekitva). ]

Thus, Bhamaha’s Vakrokti is a striking expressive power (a quality of all Alamkaras), a capacity of language to suggest indirect meaning along with the literal meaning. It is the mode of expression that gives rise to Alamkara. He took Vakrokti as a fundamental principle of all modes of Alamkaras imparting beauty to their expressions (Vacham vakratha-sabdoktir-alamkaraya kalpate). He wonders and questions: What is poetic beauty – Alamkara- without Vakrokti (Ko alamkaraanya vina?)

Vakrokti  contrasts with Svabhavokti, the matter-of-fact statements, the common ways of speech. Bhamaha underplays the role Svabhavokti in poetry. He argues that it is the Vakrokti which articulates the distinction between the languages of poetry from the conventional forms of speech – (yuktam vakra-svbhavokthya sarvamevai tadishyate – Kayalamkara: 1, 30).

Bhamaha states that Vakrokti is an essential element of poetry. Bhamaha regards Vakrokti as the core of all poetic works, as also of the evaluation and appreciation of art in general. According to him, all types of Kavya-s should have Vakrokti as Samanya lakshana. It is through Vakrokti the meaning of the poetry flashes forth; and, therefore, Vakrokti must adorn all forms of poetry like epics, Drama etc.




Both – Bhamaha and Dandin – agree on the central place accorded, in Kavya, to Alamkara  which lends beauty (Kavya-shobha-kara-dharma). Both hold that the mode of figurative expression (Alamkara), diction (Riti), grammatical correctness (Auchitya), and sweetness of the sounds (Madhurya) constitute poetry. Both deal extensively with Artha-alamkara that gives forth    amazingly rich meaningful expressions.

Dandin, however, differed from Bhamaha on certain issues. He gave far more space to the discussion on those figures of speech that are defined as phonetic features (Sabda-alamkara) e.g. rhyme (Yamaka) than does Bhamaha.

[This distinction is basic to all subsequent Alamkara related discussions. Their differences on this point do not lie chiefly in the kind or quality of Alamkara; but seems more to do with function of the organization and presentation of the materials.]

Dandin did not also agree with the idea that there is no Alamkara without Vakrokti.  And he also did not agree with the statement that Savbhavokti, natural expressions, has no importance in Kavya.  He said, the Alamkara, the figurative expressions could be of two kinds – Svabhavokti and Vakrokti; and that the former takes the priority (Adya.Alamkrith).

In fact, Dandin divides Kavya into two speech patterns:  Svabhavokti and all the rest (collectively called Vakrokti), thus restricting the significance of Vakrokti. He  says Svabhavokti  cannot be ignored in a Kavya. Dandin defines and illustrates three types of Svabhavokti and argues that Svabhavokti could very well be treated as an Alamkara. He rejects the idea that Svabhavokti does not constitute Alamkara.

Dandin  points out that the natural way of explaining – ‘telling as it is’ – Svabhavokti, is one of most essential modes of expression in all types of texts  including philosophical or scientific treatise. And, Svabhavokti is a very highly desirable (ipsita) virtue (guna) in the Kavya also; and could be employed effectively , depending on  the context.



Kuntaka prefaces his work Vakrokti –jivita with a pithy statement of objective. Here, he mentions that the purpose of his writing the book was to establish the idea of vaichitrya which has the potential to reveal  an  extraordinary, out-of-the-world (lokottara) charm inherent in poetry (lokottara–chamatkara-kari-vaichitra-siddhaye).  He agrees there  might be many commonly used words (Svabhavokti) that could possibly convey a certain sense. But, he argues,  it is only the  meaning-laden poetic expression alive and throbbing with charm (Alamkara), in its own peculiar (Vakra) style (Riti) that can suggest (Dhvani)   the true import of a poet gifted with genius (prathibha) and   bring  joy to the heart of a sensitive reader (Sahrudaya) . It is a delightful poetic experience   in which the poet and the reader are equal partners.  This, in a way, could be said to sum up the nature of Vakrokti in Kavya. And, these ideas form the core of Kuntaka’s theory of Poetics.

In his work, the phrases such as Vakratva, Vakra-bhava etc   become synonymous with Vaichtrya (striking or charming presentation). Kuntaka explains that Vakratva or Vaichtrya consist unusual expressions which are different from the commonly accepted mode of speech, such as the ones we find in Shastras and other texts. Vakratva is thus a deviation from the matter-of-fact manner of narration or from the one that is generally used in day-to-day transactions. Vakratva or Vakrokti is employed to achieve a remarkable, extraordinary (lokottara) effect that enhances the quality and attractiveness of a Kavya.

The Vakrata created by the Kavi-vyapara is classified into six categories as it appears in the arrangement of the letters (Varna vinyasa), in the parts of the word (Pada), in a sentence (Vakya), in a specific topic (Prakarana) or in the whole composition (Prabandha). These six elements together cover all the elegance of Sabda and Artha lamkaras; the precision of grammatical affixes, termination etc ; the diction of the Riti; Gunas- the desirable virtues and merits of poetry; the element of Rasa , the joy of reading poetry . According to Kuntaka, it is this six-fold Vakrokti that distinguishes poetry from other types of narrations; and, in turn , these hold the vital essence of a Kavya.


Kuntaka refers to the conventional definition of Kavya which states that the friendly coexistence of words and meaning is indeed Kavya (Sabda-artha sahitau Kavyam). But, he qualifies that statement by saying that such alliance of word and meaning must have some special, remarkable or outstanding qualities which he calls Vakratva or Vaichitrya. Kuntaka says: Poetry is composition where the  word and meaning  are harmoniously organized into a structure by the operation of Vakrokti, providing delight to the reader. According to Kuntaka , Vakrokti is the essence of poetic speech (Kavyokti); the very life  (Jivita) of poetry; the title of his work itself indicates this.

Kuntaka describes Vakrokti as Vaidagdhya-bhangi-bhaniti suggesting  that Vakrokti is a ‘clever or knowing’ mode of expression (bhaniti) characterized by peculiar turn (bhangi or Vaichiti) brought forth by the skill of the poet (Vaidagdhya or Kavi-kaushala).

Thus , it seems that Kuntaka’s concept of Vakrokti is  something that brings within its comprehensive scope all known kinds of imaginative , innovative terns (ukti-vaichitrya)  and modes of suggestive indirect (vakra)  expressions (bhaniti-prakara)  that are unique to poetry (away from the banal words) created by the skill ( vaidagdhya or kavi-kaushala) of a poet gifted with genius (prathibha).


Kuntaka also attempts to bring under the umbrella of Vakrokti the other elements of Poetics (Kavya-agama).

Kuntaka says that Vakrokti governs all the Alamkaras ; and he takes Alamkara to mean abhidana-prakara-visesha.  He asserts that Alamkaras cannot be externally or artificially added on to poetry; the poetic speech by itself is an Alamkara.  And, in fact, he describes, the Alamkaras as Vakya-vakratva. According to him, what are called as Alamkaras are nothing but different facets or aspects of Vakrokti.

Similarly, in regard to Rasa, he accepts the importance of Rasa; but, regards it as a particular way of realizing Vakratva in a Kavya.

In a like manner, Kuntaka accepts the concept of Dhvani, the power of suggestion; and, its importance, in a Kavya. But, he does not consider it as an independent element of Poetics (Kavya-agama). He does not also regard Dhvani as ‘the soul of the poetry’ (Kavyasaya Atma).  Kuntaka treats Dhvani as a particular form of Vakrokti by naming it as Upachara-vakrata, the suggestion based upon indication.


Kuntaka takes care to mention that Vakra or Vaichitra does not mean wild, eccentric or outlandish expressions that might disturb or annoy the reader. He asserts that the inventive expressions and phrases that a skillful poet creates out of his imagination should be pleasing, cultured and merited to delight the reader in a healthy way (tadvid-ahlada-kari).

Kuntaka says it would be incorrect   to presume that all Kavyas are appreciated by all types of people for a single reason. Different types of Kavyas holds different types of appeal to different sorts of people for  whole sets of different reasons. Over generalization is indeed simplistic. As he puts it; there could be a hundred and one reasons for the appeal of different Kavya-s to readers of different tastes.

Kuntaka therefore does not totally reject the Svabhava or the common way describing emotions, events and objects. Kuntaka holds that vastu–svabhava has its own simple, natural beauty; and, Svabhavokti is ornamented (Alamkarya) in its own fashion.  He brings Svabhavokti under the scope of a special kind of Vakya-vakrata in which the svabhava (character) of the subject matter – whether be it sahaja (natural) or aharya (artificial or made-up) – could be described in an elegant way (sukumara –marga).

In the Sukumara-marga the poet’s natural eloquence finds abundant scope (Satisaya) to bring out the sweetness (Madhurya), clarity (Prasada), loveliness (Lavanya) and fluency or smoothness (Abhijata).

Kuntaka mentions two other two other styles: Vaichitrya and Madhyama. The Vaichitrya –marga dominated by peculiar types of Alamkaras is regarded a rather difficult style demanding more skill and maturity of treatment. The Madhyama –marga is the style that stands midway between the Vaichitrya and Sukumara Margas combining the good features of the other two styles (Ubhayatmaka).


In that context, Kuntaka emphasizes that what is essential in a Kavya is the genius of the poet to transform – through his skill, imagination and creativity- that which t is ordinary into something extraordinary; and, present it as a wonderful object of great beauty bringing  joy to the heart of the reader. He believed that the poet’s genius cannot be categorized (kimapi or kopi).  The true poetic genius is ever resourceful rejuvenating itself all the time (nava-navonmesha shalini prathibha).

Kuntaka illustrates the phenomenon of transforming the mundane into something out of the ordinary (lokottara) by comparing the task of the poet (kavi vyapara) in creating his poetry with that of the painter in the creation of his Art. Just as the poet works with words in their innumerable forms, so also the artist paints a picture using various materials, lines, colors, tones and shades etc (vākya-vakratā – 111.4).

Kuntaka extends the analogy by saying that none of the materials that a painter employs is an object of beauty per se. For instance; the canvass, chalk, paint etc   are all commonplace, drab things. The painter uses all those different items; and none of that is elegant.  It is his genius that creates matchless beauty out of such ordinary things. Further, a painter conceives a picture in his mind and gives it a substance on the canvass by  use of variety of strokes, different colors, varying shades etc. Though he paints the picture stroke by stroke, part by part he visualizes the image in his entirety. The viewer too, rightly, takes in, absorbs the picture and its spirit as a whole, as an integral experience.

Similarly when we perceive a piece of cloth our cognition is of the cloth as whole; and it is quite distinct from the particular threads and colors involved.

The poetic process (Kavya karma) too is similar. The poet uses different means, rhetoric and other qualities of word and meaning, style (Riti); but, the beauty does not reside in any one of them singly. The real loveliness beauty and is created by the magic touch of the poet’s own genius. Art is what gives form and beauty to matter. Kuntaka’s approach to Poetics was that of an artist. Further, the Kavya, just as a painting, is much more than the sum of its parts.

Dr. K . Krishnamurthy explains this phenomenon in the  scholarly fashion  :Vakrokti is not just an out of the way expression or a poetic turn; it is the masterly art underlying every element of poetry and involving effortless and spontaneous transformation of prosaic raw materials into things of consummate beauty (New Bearings of Indian Literary Theory and Criticism).


It is said that Kuntaka ‘s views on the poetic process and on the integral nature of Kavya  were inspired by the holistic theory of Bhartrhari (Ca.5th century) put forward in his remarkable work Vakyapadiya. In his doctrine of Sphota , Bhartrhari explaining the relations that exist between the word (pada) and the sentence (Vakya) argues that a sentence is an unbreakable whole , the meaning of which flashes forth only after it is completely uttered (Vakya-sphota). The words are but a part of the whole; and have no independent existence; and, are understood only in the context of a completed sentence. Thus, Bhartrhari asserted that the whole is real while parts are not, for they are constructs or abstracted bits. The natural home of a word is the sentence in which it occurs.

Kuntaka, at places, does refer to the arguments of Bhartrhari.  He believed that a poem is an all-comprising thing of beauty; an organic entity. One cannot truly separate the ornament (Alamkara) from that which is adorned (Alamkarya); the joy of creation from the enjoyment of poetry. Thus, the words, their meanings, the Alamkara (ornament), the Alamkarya (that which is ornamented), the poet and the reader are all integrated into a fabulously rewarding poetic experience. The beauty consists in their wholeness; endearingly delighting in each other’s elegance. One cannot artificially separate them. Kuntaka, therefore, is often described as a holist.


Kuntaka was aware of the theory about the suggestive power of poetry (Dhvani) that was introduced by Ānandavardhana. But, Anandavardhana’s emphasis was on the enjoyment (Rasa) that a reader derives by unraveling the poet’s intention through its suggestive power (Dhvani).

One could argue that Anandavardhana’s doctrine is loaded rather heavily on one side. It is the reader who is suggestible. His theory does not seem to put premium on poetic genius and the mysterious process of creating poetic beauty.

Kuntaka seeks to take a perspective view of things. He does appreciate the the ‘reader’s-side’ of the picture; why and how they enjoy poetry; and the importance of their experience or enjoyment of poetry. He does recognize that the joy it brings to the hearts is indeed the object of poetry.

At the same time, Kuntaka intended to present a balanced or an alternate view of the picture.  He looked at poetry from the poet’s own point of view.  He attempted to outline the poetic process (Kavi vyapara) – how the Kavya takes shape in the poet’s imagination and emerges as a thing of beauty. He forcefully proposed: that instead of merely looking for poetic words and expressions that suggest meanings and evoke emotions of love, etc., in the readers, one can could very well, also, appreciate and take delight in the wonderful poetic-genius-at work (kavi – karma) which creates poetic expressions of matchless beauty suggesting evocative poetic meanings that lovingly bind into each other like ardent lovers. The beauty of poetry cannot be compartmentalized; it is integral to poetry; and, resides in the harmony of its wholeness.


The importance of Kuntaka’s work lies in that it brings a fresh perspective to the appreciation of Kavya. In several places he refuses to follow conventional explanations.  His style of writing is lucid, precise and yet vigorous.  It is marked by elegance and sensitivity. Whatever be the reactions to the rather strange sounding name he assigns to his theory of Poetics, one has to appreciate his brilliance, literary acumen and critical insight he brings into investigation of Poetic virtues. He systematically analyses the principles of Poetics and their implications. His concept of Vakrata is doubtless an important contribution to the body of Poetics (Kavya Shastra).

What Kuntaka did was to extend and systematize the Alamkara theories of Bhamaha and Udbhata, and provide it with fresh interpretations.  Though he respected the views of the Old Masters he did not take them in as a whole without questioning   . He brought his own priorities, judgments and interpretations. His Vakrokti lends a new but unexpected dimension to the theory of Alamkara. His theory Vakrokti is unique, as it attempts to bring under its fold all the essential principles of Poetics.

It is rather unfortunate that the later Sanskrit Poetic tradition did not accord Kuntaka and his doctrine the attention and importance they deserved. It was perhaps the emotional appeal of Dhvani and the overwhelming influence exerted by Anandavardhana and Abhinavagupta that sidelined Kuntaka’s concept of Vakrokti and its implications. Kuntaka’s was a lone voice. His isolation could also be because by then the Poetics was taken over by philosophers who dealt with the philosophy of Grammar and Grammar of philosophy. The aspects of suggestive expressions, poetic genius and the process of creating poetry were not further developed by orthodox writers.




 Continued in

Next Part



Sources and References

  1. Vakrokti Jivita of Rajanaka Kuntaka: Edited and commented by Prof. Susil Kumar De
  2. Sanskrit Poetics as a Study of Aesthetics by Prof. Susil Kumar De
  3. The Concept of Vakrokti in Sanskrit Poetics: a Reappraisal by Suryanarayana Hegde
  4. Vakrokti and Dhvani Controversies about Theory of Poetry in Indian Tradition by Bimal Krishna Matilal
  5. 5. A Comparative Study of the Indian Poetics and the Western Poetics by Mohit Kumar Ray
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Posted by on August 31, 2015 in Kavya, Sanskrit


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Kavya and Indian Poetics – Part Eight


Continued from Part Seven

[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.]

Udbhata and Vamana

The scholars of the early period of Indian Poetics, somehow, seem to come in pairs. It was Bhamaha and Dandin followed by Udbhata and Vamana; and then came Anandavardhana and Abhinavagupta.

Udbhata and Vamana were both said to be in the service of King Jayapida of Kashmir (Ca. 776-807 AD). Udbhata followed Bhamaha while Vamana followed Dandin. They developed upon and expounded the distinctive features of Dandin and Bhamaha; as also upon the differences that separate the two.

Udbhata is said to have written a commentary titled Bhamaha-vivarana (also called Kavya-alankara-vivrti), on Bhamaha’s Kavyalamkara. It is believed that he also wrote a commentary on Bharata’s Natyashastra. Both the works are now not available. He is also credited (by some) with a Kavya: Kumarasambhava. What has come down to us is his Kavya-alamkara-sara- samgraha (a synopsis of the essence of Kavya Alamkara) clarifying the position of Alamkara principles that govern the Kavya.

And, Vamana in his Kavya-alamkara–sutraVritti expanded on the concept of Gunas dealt in Dandin’s work; and, at the same time, he underplayed the importance of Alamkaras. Vamana’s work, unlike that of his predecessors, is in the Sutra format interspersed by couplets or aphorisms (Karika). Because of that, his work marks a phase in the history of Sanskrit Poetic literature. The illustrations he provides are chosen from the works of the previous authors. A commentary on Kavya-alamkara–sutraVritti titled Kavi-priya is also credited by some sources to Vamana

Though Udbhata and Vamana were contemporaries, and were both employed in same Royal Court, each does not mention the other by name while criticizing the other’s views.

Their predecessors – Bhamaha and Dandin – generally dealt with Alamkara as figurative speech; Udbhata and Vamana, however, treat Alamkara as a poetic principle; and, talk in terms of its theories. Thus, in different ways, Udbhata and Vamana represent the initial efforts to organize the concept of poetic diction under theoretical principles.  Both authors, however, continued the major thrust of the Alamkara or Alamkara–oriented tradition of speculation.



Udbhata’s Bhamaha-vivarana, which is an explanation or commentary on Bhamaha’s Kavyalankara is said to have dealt mainly with Alamkara. In his explanations, he generally followed Bhamaha and his definitions of certain Poetic principles. The Alamkaras that Udbhata talks about in his Kavya-alamkara-sara-sangraha are almost the same as those mentioned by Bhamaha in his Kavyalankara. Udbhata’s work gained great fame; almost overshadowing the original work of Bhamaha, perhaps because he remained focused on Alamkara and did not deviate into discussions on Guna / Dosha (grammatical purity) or such other elements of Kavya.

He expanded on the forms of Alamkara mentioned by Bhamaha. For instance; Bhamaha mentioned one kind of Atishayokti (hyperbole) while Udbhata distinguishes four varieties of it. Similarly, in place of Bhamaha’s two forms of Anuprasa (Alliteration), Udbhata describes four. He adds Drastanta (illustration) and Kavya-lingana (poetical reasoning- where the sense of a sentence or of a word is represented as a cause of something of which it becomes an attribute) to the forms of Alamkara-s mentioned by Bhamaha.  While dealing with the varieties of Anuprasa, Udbhata recognises three different Vrttis or modes of expression. His classification of Alliterations into three classes was based on the ‘aural-effects’: primary alliterations classed as elegant (upa-nagarika); ordinary (gramya), and harsh (parashu).

Udbhata also brought into his work the element of analysis of the principles involved in the concepts. He explains the grammatical basis for different forms Upama (Similes). Here, he illustrates the forms of resemblance as qualified by different suffixes like – vat, -kyac, -kalpap etc. He also differs from Bhamaha on some minor points.

[ As regards the grammatical basis for the concept of  Upama (similes), it may be mentioned that a general theory of comparison was in existence even before the time of the Kavyas. The grammarian Panini (Asthadhyayi; 2.3.72; 3.1.10) uses the four elements of comparison: the subject of comparison (upameya or upamita); the thing with which it is compared (upamana); the property of similarity (samanya, or samanadharma); and the grammatical indicator of comparison (samanya-vacana or dyotaka). These were perhaps basic or general concepts; but, not full-blown rhetorical theories of poetics.

 The technical terms used for describing the process involved in bringing out comparisons in a Kavya, also seemed have links with poetics in Yaska’s Nirukta. Yaska (Nirukta 3.13) discusses an idea about upama or simile, which he attributes to Gargya: upamāyad atat tat sadrśam, ‘Not that, but like that’ – the illustration provided merely suggests some aspects of resemblance to properties in the subject; but it is not identical to the subject.

That is to say that similes and allegory  do perform useful functions in a Kavya; but, they have their limitations. It is another way of suggesting that an allegory is untidy or incomplete in that there is always a residue of meaning that cannot be taken up by an allegorical Interpretation.

Yaska and Panini were perhaps concerned with semantic properties of language. Panini used these terms to explain grammatical constructions that create similarities, such as compounds, suffixes, and so on. But, Yaska seemed to be focused on the question whether the subject of comparison (upameya) is greater or less than its compared (upamana).

In both cases, however, there is a sense of commonality (sadharana –dharma) that bridges the subject (Upameya) and the object picked up for comparison (Upama); and, the necessity of balancing both the meanings in the comparison, explicitly or otherwise.

And during the later periods of the Kavya, comparisons were  not  tied down or limited  to mere terms or expression, but were extended and  stretched over to sentences and even to chapters.]

Udbhata’s contribution to the theory of Rasa (Rasa-vada) is more significant. He improved upon the elements of Rasa enumerated by in Natyashastra. In his Kavya-alamkara-sara-samgraha while discussing Rasa-vada-alamkara, the principles of Rasa in conjunction with the theories of Alamkara, he included the Shanta Rasa (tranquilty) to the eight Rasa-s mentioned by Bharata. Later, Abhinavagupta elaborated on the theories of Rasa and accepted Shanta, suggested by Udbhata, as the primary or the fundamental Rasa from which all Rasa-s arise into which all Rasa-s subside.

The seeds of the Alankara doctrine as in Bhamaha’s work thus flower in Kavya-alamkara-sara-samgraha of Udbhata. The notion of Rasa is, comparatively, more developed in Udbhata’s work   than in that of his predecessor. It was Udbhata who brought out a clear distinction as also the relation between Rasa and Bhava. According to him, Bhava is a particular state of mind or emotion; Anubhava (that which follows Bhava) is the external manifestation or expression of that Bhava; and, Rasa is the aesthetic delight or experience caused by Anubhava.



Vamana is held in high esteem among the major scholars in the early Indian Poetics. His Kavyalankara-sutra-vrtti is a very significant work that comes up with original ideas and concepts.  It is regarded as the earliest attempt at evolving a philosophy of literary aesthetics.

The Kavyalankara-sutra-vrtti is divided into five Divisions or topics (Adhikarana),   each of which consist two or three chapters (adhyaya). There are in all twelve Adhyayas. The first Adhikarana (having three chapters: Prayojana pariksha; Adhikari chinta; and Kavya-kanti) deals with the need or prayojana of Kavya ; characterises the nature of those who are fit for studying Alamkaras, and declares that style is the soul of poetry. The second Adhikarana (having two chapters: Pada Dosha and Vakya Dosha) is about the defects of words, sentences, propositions and their meanings. The third Adhikarana ( having two chapters : Guna-alamkara- vivechana; and Sabda–Guna nirupana)  discusses the aspects of  Gunas ; and , the fourth Adhikarana ( having three chapters : Sabda-Alankarika  vichara ; Upamani nirupana ; and , Upama prapancha nirupana) deals with Yamaka , Anuprasa, Upama and such other Alamkaras.  The fifth Adhikarana (having two chapters: Kavya samaya; and Sabda shodhana) is devoted to poetical conventions, observance of the rules of sandhi, necessity of grammatical purity and the like. The last chapter also deals with the purity of words.

Just as Udbhata followed Bhamaha, Vamana followed Dandin. But, unlike Udbhata, who focused on a single principle for inquiry (Alamkara), Vamana attempted to find a way of covering under a single organized whole the various principles that had been discussed by his predecessor Dandin. He brings into his work an analytic interest to the study of poetry attempting to offer rational explanations of the principles involved in the subject. Further, he introduces fresh concepts and ideas into the theory of Poetics.

Guna and Alamkara

Though Vamana elaborated upon the ideas put forward by Dandin, he does markedly differ from Dandin on several issues. For instance; Dandin uses the term Alamkara in the sense of embellishment or ornamentation that decorates the body of Kavya. Alamkara in Dandin’s work is not the principle but Soundaryam, beauty of the expression or figurative speech.  Vamana, on the other hand, generalizes Alamkara as a theoretical principle.  Further, though Vamana uses some of the older names of Alamkaras, such as, visesokti, rupaka, or aksepa, he gives entirely different meanings. And in all he describes thirty-three Alamkaras.

Vamana opens his work with the famous quote pithily catching his view of Kavya: Kaavyam graahyam alankaaraat; Soundaryam alankaarah – A Kavya becomes agreeable on account of Alamkara; and, Alamkara means Beauty. Thereafter, he outlines the notions of merit or Guna and Alamkara; and, links Alamkara with Guna in a Kavya.

Earlier, Bhamaha had said that Kavya is made out of words and meaning (Sabda Artha sahitau Kavyam) . Perhaps, Bhamaha himself was aware of the limitations of his definition; and, therefore he added on to it the element of beauty by way of elegant figures of speech. Vamana, however, differed from Bhamaha; and said that Kavya is an organic whole composed of elements where Guna (quality or poetic excellence) and Alamkara (the principle of beauty) are also vital to it. Thus, Kavya has two dimensions: the substance (Vastu) of which it’s made (words and meaning); and the value of beauty for which it is made (Guna and Alamkara). The merit of Vamana’s theory lies in coordinating this principle with other elements of Kavya.

Vamana says: the special features that create beauty (shobha) of Kavya are the Gunas (Kavya-shobhayah kartaro dharmah Gunah). And, those elements that enhance or brighten that beauty are the Alamkaras (Taditasya–hetavastu Alamkarah). Of the two, the former (Guna) is highly essential (nitya) for a Kavya (Purve niyatah). According to him there can be no luster in the Kavya without Guna (tair vina kavya sobha anupapatteh ). Thus, Vamana assigns greater importance to the notion of Guna or stylistic element or poetic excellence; and, Alamkara comes next.  In the process, Vamana attempted to clarify the distinction between Guna and Alamkara.

Though Vamana retained the ten Gunas enumerated by Dandin (1. Ojas:  vigour or brilliance of long compounds; 2. Prasada:  clarity and lucidity; 3. Shlesha:  well knit composition skilfully employing many shades of meanings; 4. Samata:  evenness of sound within a line; 5. Samadhi:  ambivalence through the use of metaphors; 6. Madhurya:  sweetness in the refinement of expression; 7. Sukamarata: soft and delicate; 8. Udaratva:  exaltation or liveliness; 9. Arthavyakti: directness avoiding obscure words, pun etc; and, 10. Kanti: glow or luminous elegant turns of phrases or grace), he modified their names, and also increased the number of Gunas to twenty.  He also explained the Gunas in his own manner.

While retaining the ten traditional Gunas, Vamana created  two sets of the same ten Gunas under two broad heads: Sabda-Gunas (qualities relating to words) and Artha-gunas (qualities relating to sense or meaning).  These two classifications are sometimes referred to as the subtle (Artha Sarira) and gross (Sabda Sarira) bodies of Kavya.  That again harks back to the two basic concerns of the Sanskrit Poetics -Sabda and Artha – the word and its meaning; the first is about how the word is treated in the text, and the other is about the shades or the layers of meaning that the word is capable of revealing. Both, Sabda and Artha brighten the beauty (Kavya shobha) and enhance the quality of Kavya. And, the distinctions of the two groups as marked by Vamana helped to clear some of the vagueness in the definition of Guna as offered by Bharata and Dandin.

Vamana attempts to explain each Guna in terms of both Sabda and Artha. For example, Prasada (clarity and lucidity) as a Sabda-Guna, according to him, means readability (saithilya) of the text; and, as Artha-guna it means propriety (auchitya) of sense.

Generally, Vamana treats Guna-Dosha as relative concepts.  Along with excellent Gunas that shine brilliantly, there could be some whose luster has dimmed and do not fit well into the context. At the same time, there could be defects (Dosha) which cannot boast of any redeeming feature; but yet, somehow,  turn  into merits because  the context desperately  needs such expressions.

As Dandin says, collyrium (a kind of dark eye shadow) is not a thing of beauty in itself; yet, it endows glamour and luster to the sparkling eyes of a beautiful woman.

Elsewhere, it is mentioned that Nir-doshatva or faultlessness is itself a Guna. Thus Gunas and Doshas are not absolute entities. Their merits or defects are relative; and, each, in its turn, enhances or diminishes the beauty of the composition depending on the context in which it is placed.


As regards Rasa, Vamana accords it a comparatively a higher position than his predecessor did. He abandoned the approach of Bhamaha and Dandin who treated Rasa as a subsidiary element (Rasavat) of the verse. Instead, he treated Rasa as an aspect of Guna which is considered essential to Kavya. And, within the Guna, he assigned Rasa the virtue of of Kanti (glow or brightness) and classified it under Artha Guna. Vamana did not however accord an independent status to Rasa.

The later Schools criticized Vamana for treating ‘unfairly’. They pointed out that Vamana erred in failing to recognize the merit of Rasa which is the ultimate poetic experience. It was argued that Rasa should have been accorded an independent status , if not the prime status.


Dandin had earlier highlighted two styles (Marga) of presenting a Kavya: Vaidarbhi and Gaudi, each having its special characteristics. To that, Vamana added Panchali. (And, much later, Rudrata added Lati as the fourth Riti, while Raja Bhoja in his Srngaraprakasa added Avantika and Magadhi as other styles.) All these names perhaps suggest styles that were characteristic to those geographical regions. According to Vamana, only the Vaidarbhi Marga, which he approves, has all the twenty Gunas – sweet as the notes of the lute. According to Vamana, the Gaudiya is marked by Ojas (vigour) and Kanti (grace) , but it lacks Madhurya  (sweetness) and Saukumarya ( delicacy) plagued by long winding compounds and bombastic words. And, Panchali, he says, while it has Madhurya and Saukumarya, it is devoid of Ojas and Kanti.  He remarks that the difference between Vaidarbhi and other modes (Gaudi, Panchali etc) is analogous to differences between silken thread and jute fiber (I.2.11-18).

As said, Dandin had named certain literary styles as Marga-s (say, Vaidarbhi and Gaudiya Marga). Vamana not only modified the concept of style, but also renamed Marga as Riti – style or diction.  Riti, according to him, is a particular mode or organization of verbal structure that is different from common usage –   Visista pada-racana – having the excellences of Gunas. He, in fact, calls this structure or arrangement of words as Viseso Gunatma (1.2.8) – a combination of various Gunas.   Thus, though he inherited the idea of Marga from Dandin, Vamana integrated it with the notion of Guna, the poetic excellences. And, his idea of Riti brought into its fold other modes of analysis and poetic principles, particularly Alamkara, to create a holistic view of poetry. Vamana is revered as the originator and exponent of the Riti School.

Riti is not just diction or style; and it could mean rhythm as well. Prof.SK De ( in his Sanskrit Poetics) explains : it should be observed that the term Riti is hardly equivalent to the English word style, by which it is often rendered, but in which there is always a distinct subjective valuation. … Riti is not, like the style, the expression of poetic individuality as is generally understood by western criticism, but it is merely the outward presentation of its beauty called forth by a harmonious combination           of more or less fixed ‘literary excellences (Gunas)’.

Riti represents for Vamana the collection of Gunas in harmony with faultless (A-doshau) Alamkara-s   that produce Soundaryam (or Shobha) of Kavya. Paka (maturity) is another term that Vamana introduced to denote Shobha or the natural beauty of the thing described. It is this Paka, the inexplicable delight that the Sahrudaya enjoys.

(Udayati  hi  sa  taadrik  kvaapi  vaidarbha  reetou  sahridaya  hridayaanaam  ranjakah koopi paakah.)

The language and its structural form lead us to the inner core of poetry. And, when that language becomes style (Riti), it absorbs into itself all the other constituent elements of poetry. It allows them, as also the poetic vision, to shine through it.

Vamana , therefore, accorded Riti a very high position by designating Riti as the Soul of Kavya – Ritr Atma kavyasya Sareerasyeva (I.2.6) – Riti is to the Kavya what Atman is to the Sarira (body). Here, it is explained that in his definition of Riti, Pada-rachana   represents  the structure or the body while Riti is its inner essence. Through this medium of Visista  Padarachana  the  Gunas  become  manifest and reveal the presence of Riti, the Atman.

As Riti, according to Vamana, is the essence (soul) of Kavya, so the Gunas are the essential elements of the Riti. That is to say; the Gunas, being essential to Riti, are the inseparable property of poetry; whereas, the Alamkaras being only external ornamentation to the body of poetry are not recognised as inseparable property of poetry.  In other words:- the Gunas are inherent to poetry (Samavaya-samvandha) ; and,  the Alamkaras are merely connected with poetry (Samyoga-samyandha).

The explanation offered by Vamana meant that the verbal structure having certain Gunas is the body of Kavya, while its essence, Riti, is the soul of Kavya. Thus, Vamana independently introduced the concept of Atman (soul) into the Kavya composition. The earlier scholars had not discussed or visualized the ‘soul’ (Atman) of Kavya. The later authors followed the lead provided by Vamana and started visualizing Kavya and talking about it in terms of the body (Sarira) and soul (Atman) of poetry.

With the heightened position of Riti as the essence of Kavya, the Alamkara had to take a secondary place. The Alamkara, the decorative ornamentation of the verbal structure or the charm of expressions came to be looked upon as the external features that beautify (saundaryam alankarah) the body of Kavya – kavyam grahyam alankarat. Thus, it is quite feasible for a good Kavya to subsist without Alankaras, which are extraneous elements; but not without Riti its very soul. Thus, a clear distinction emerges between Guna /Riti the poetic excellence which is the soul and the Alamkara the ornamentation which is the body of Kavya.

 [The later critics , of course, wondered, how Gunas could be any more ‘inherent – Samavaya-samvandha’ than the Alamkara in a poetic expression, if they are present or absent as required for the differentiation that Vamana made in the styles  (Riti) that he highlighted.]

Literally interpreted, this doctrine means: the Alamkara-s are just imposed on the   body of Kavya which is already ‘ensouled’   by Guna-s the poetic excellences or qualities. That is; the body and soul are distinct. The soul is not perceptible to the senses or to the onlookers. But, the soul resides in the body; and reveals itself through body and lends the body its life and a purpose to exist.

Whatever be the views adopted / accepted  or rejected  by the later scholars, it was Vamana who first brought into discussion the concept of soul and tried to make a distinction between the body (structure) and soul (essence) of poetry. He also attempted to define Kavya with reference to specific verbal structures possessing certain specific virtues (such as beauty, Soundaryam or Shobha) that hold within its bosom the essence of Kavya; and that essence, according to Vamana is Riti. As he explains, Riti is the flowing together of all the essential elements of Kavya – :

Rinati gacchati asyam guna iti riyate ksaraty asyam vanmaddhu-dhareti va ritih (Vamana KSS).

Thus, Vamana is the first Alamkara writer (Alamkarika) to bring a sense of balance into his School.  Till his advent, the Alamkara School was engrossed with elegant expressions of   poetic beauty; and, they seem to have missed the aspect of the inner essence of Kavya. Vamana brought into discussion the aesthetic effect as something other than an appreciation of alluring word-play.  He also makes the process of understanding the purpose or the intentions of the poet himself as central to poetic appreciation. If the poet and the reader, in harmony, commonly share the poetic delight that would be the  greatest fulfillment of the Kavya.  He thus broadens his inquiry by bringing together the poet and the reader, and also by including the proper effect of poetry seen as a coordinated outcome or flowering of   all the elements of poetry. With his concepts of Riti and Guna we move almost close to the essence of poetry.


Vamana’s mode of thought – forging a dualism between the soul and the body of Kavya, between the qualities of the soul and the ornaments of the body – paved way for the advent of a theory in the ninth century, which since then has dominated Sanskrit poetics and literary criticism: the theory of suggestion (Dhvani). The Dhvani School propagated by Anandavardhana retains the distinction between the body and soul of Kavya. But, here the soul is Dhvani, the suggestive power of poetry, and not Riti the diction.

With the emergence of later Schools, the concept of Riti came under attack. The theory of Riti suffered a setback , as the proponents of the Dhvani School asserted that the heart of all art-forms – drama, poetry, music or art- is one and the same –  the aesthetic experience of the Sahrudaya – the cultured reader or listener.

The Dhvani School argued that although Vamana said that Riti is the soul of poetry, it does not go into the inner depths of Kavya. Riti, at best, is an arrangement of words and meanings characterized by various Gunas. A particular Guna might be appropriate in a specific context. The verbal compositions could be tight knit and high flowing in a given context; but, a simple, lucid narration might be appropriate in another situation. One may admire grandeur in one situation; and simplicity in another. It is the context that decides appropriateness of style.  This is an essential aspect of any Kavya. The Riti School, somehow, seemed to have missed this point.

[Although Anandavardhana did not support the theory of Riti, he reduced the ten Gunas stated by Vamana into three; and, equated them to the three Ritis put forward by Vamana. Anandavardhana did not go further in analyzing the Guna doctrine.

Mammata following Anandavardhana, discussed the doctrine of Guna in his Kavyaprakasa; and, remarked  that the ten Gunas defined by Dandin and Vamana were  nothing but some Alamkaras ; and,  some of them could be treated as the  reverse of the Doshas.]

It is true, they said, that Alamkara – the figures of speech, and Riti – the  distinctive verbal compositions , do lend a charm to Kavya.  But, that represents the body of Kavya while its essence or soul is Rasa.  And, the essential objective of Kavya is Rasa, the experience of the Sahrudaya – the cultured reader or listener. It is for the delight the Sahrudaya that Kavya is created. They also pointed out that the Riti School seemed to have missed the involvement of the reader in the process of poetic experience. And, that perhaps is the reason, they said, why the advocates of Riti could not assign Rasa its due place in poetics

The Dhvanyaloka of Anandavardhana expanded on the object (phala) of poetry; and, how it is achieved (vyapara). The Rasa, it said, is the ultimate enjoyment by the reader; such enjoyment is the object of poetry. According to Anandavardhana, Rasa is not made; but, it is revealed; and its revelation is best when done through Dhvani, the power of suggestion. And, that is why words and meanings must be transformed to suggestions (Dhvani) of Rasa.

There was however some respite to the Riti SchoolDespite the overwhelming importance accorded to suggestion and to the suggestion of Rasa, the Dhvani School could not ignore the relevance of expression (Riti). It was pointed out by other critiques that a worthy poet who carefully seeks the suggested sense (Dhvani) has necessarily to rely on apt words in order to covey the suggestion.

It was also pointed out that suggestion (Dhvani) can hardly be evoked by mere mention of a name or a term. It needs a certain environment. The sense of ‘suggestion’ has to arise out of the contextual factors backed by appropriate descriptions. These include the literary meaning as also the suggestive possibilities of the expression such as: the sound echoing the sense, rhythm, imagery and symbols. All these devices are to be used for helping to evoke the right response in the mind and the heart of the reader.  Such environment for evoking Dhvani , it was pointed out, is nothing but Riti.  Thus , it is only through Riti that the language acquires a limitless suggestive power. Eventually Dhavni, however lauded, which aims to evoke emotional response or enjoyment of the listener or the reader (Rasa)  has inevitably to depend on  Riti for its manifestation.

As regards Alamkara, they said, it might belong to body of Kavya, but to a gifted poet it comes spontaneously without much effort; and, that does help the suggestion of Rasa. As Vamana said, Kavya springs (Kavya bija) from poets creative genius (pratibha). It is the beautiful mind that gives birth to beautiful expressions; and beautiful expressions bring forth beautiful suggestions. And, all suggestions need not be poetic.

The doctrine of Riti, despite its limitations, is truly a major contribution to the study of literary compositions. During the recent times it attracted much attention as it was recognized that the theory of Riti has close affinities with modern day stylistic studies of literature.

Lotus pond

Continued in

Next Part


Sources and References

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

The Philosophy of the Grammarians, Volume 5 By Harold G. Coward

A Comparative Study of the Indian Poetics and the Western Poetics by Mohit Kumar Ray

A history of Indian literature. Vol. 5, Scientific and technical …, Volume 5 by Edwin Gerow

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Kavya and Indian Poetics – Part Seven

Continued from Part Six

[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.]


Indian poetics – Kavya Shastra

It is customary to begin the history of Indian poetics with Natyashastra. Out of its thirty six chapters, two chapters deal with Rasa-bhava (Ch 6 & 7) and Alamkara-guna (Ch 16). The other chapters touch upon related topics, such as: plot (Ch 19), genre (Ch 18, 20), meter (Ch 15). By and large, the text relates to dramaturgy in its practical applications. The aspects of Poetics that appear in the text , of course, are not directly related to Kavya. In Natyashastra, the nature of poetry as outlined in it is incidental to the discussions on Drama; and, it does not have an independent status.

The Indian poetics effectively  takes off from Kavya-alamkara of Bhamaha (6th century)   and Kavyadarsa of Dandin (7th century).  There seems to be no trace of Kavya-s during the long centuries between Bharatha and Bhamaha. There are also no texts available on Kavya-shastra belonging to the period between the Natyashastra of Bharata and Bhamaha (6th century). Perhaps they were lost even as early as 6th century. The early phase of Indian Poetics, the Kavya-shastra, is represented by three Scholars Bhamaha, Dandin and Vamana.

The intervening period, perhaps, belonged to Prakrit. Not only was Prakrit used for the Edicts and the Prasastis, 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.

By about the sixth or the Seventh century the principles of Poetics that Bharata talked about in his Natyashastra (first or second century BCE) had changed a great deal. Bharata had introduced the concept of Rasa in the context of Drama He described Rasa in terms of taste or relish, as that which is relished (Rasayatiti Rasah) ; and , regarded it as an essential aspect of a Dramatic performance.  He said that no sense proceeds without Rasa (Na hi rasadrte kaschid- arthah pravartate).He did not, however, put forward any theories about the Rasa concept. He did not also elaborate much on Alamkaras, the figures of speech which he mentioned as four: Upama, Dipaka, Rupaka and Yamaka. Later writers increased it vastly. Rajanaka Ruyyaka named as many as 82 Alamkaras.

As the concepts of Rasa and Alamkara were transferred to the region of Kavya, several questions were raised:  why do we read any poetry? Why do we love to witness a Drama? What is it that we truly enjoy in them? What makes poetry distinctive as a form and what distinguishes good poetry from the bad? And so on.  Ultimately, the answer could be that we love to read or listen to a poem, or see a Drama because doing so gives us pleasure; and, that pleasure is par excellence, unique in itself and cannot be explicitly defined or expressed in words.

But, unfolding of the Indian poetics or the study of the aesthetics of poetry came about in stages. Generally speaking, the development of Sanskrit literary theory is remarkably tardy.

The Organized thinking about Kavya seems to have originated with the aim of providing the rules by which an aspiring writer could produce good Kavya.


Kavya–agama, the elements of Poetics

The Indian aesthetics takes a start from Natyashastra, winding its course through the presentations of Bhamaha, Dandin and Vamana, and later gains vastness in writings of Anandavardhana, Abhinavagupta, Vishwanatha and Jagannatha Pandita.

These scholars are, generally, classified as originators of ideas; compilers and commentators. Among the scholars over the centuries, Bharatha, Bhamaha, Vamana , Anandavardhana and Kuntala could be called originators of poetic principles or elements. The compilers were: Mammata, Vishwanatha and Jagannatha. And among the commentators; Udbhata, Bhattaloa, Srismukha, Bhattanaya, Bhattatauta and Abhinavagupta are prominent.

Of the three scholars of the older School of Poetics – Bhamaha, Dandin and Vamana – Bhamaha (6th century) son of Rakrilagomin is the oldest of the three; and, is held in esteem by the later scholars.


Books on Poetics have been written in three forms: in verse, in Sutra-form and in Karika.

Verses:  Bharatha, Bhamaha, Dandin, Udbhata, Rudrata, Dhananjaya, Vagbhata I , Jayadeva , Appayya Dikshita and others

Sutra vritti: The principles and concepts are written in concise Sutra form. the explanations are followed in the commentary. Initially, Vamana and Ruyyaka adopted this form. Some others in the later times almost followed it: Vagbhatta II , Bhanumisra , Jagannatha et al.

Karika: In crisp verses or couplets. Anandavardhana, Kuntaka, Mammata, Hemachandra, Vishwanatha and others adopted Karika form. Their basic statements are in Karika , while their explanations are  in prose.


Before we talk about the stages in the development of Indian Poetics let me mention, at the outset, the elements of Poetics in a summary form. Later we shall go through each stage or each School in fair detail.

The elements of Poetics or Kavya-agama are said to be ten: (1) Kavya-svarupa (nature of poetry); causes of poetry, definition of poetry, various classes of poetry and purpose of poetry; (2) Sabda-Shakthi, the significance of words and their power; (3) Dhvani-kavya , the poetry suggestive power is supreme ; (4) Gunibhuta-Vangmaya-kavya , the poetry where suggested  (Dhvani)  meaning is secondary to the primary sense; (5) Rasa: emotive content; (6)  Guna: excellence of poetic expression ; (7)  Riti ; style of poetry or diction; (8)  Alamkara : figurative beauty of poetic expressions ;(9)  Dosha ; blemishes in poetic expressions that need to be avoided; and , (10)  Natya-vidhana the  dramatic effect or dramaturgy. At times, the Nayaka-nayika-bheda the classification of the types of heroes and heroines is also mentioned; but it could be clubbed either under Rasa or Natya-vidhana.

Of these, we have already, earlier in the series, familiarized ourselves with the elements such as the causes, the definition, various classes as also the purposes of Kavya.  We have also talked about Sabda (word) and Artha (Meaning) as also the concepts of Dhvani and Rasa.  We shall in the following paragraphs talk about the other elements of Kavya such as Alamkara, Guna/ Dosha, Riti, Dhvani , Vakrokti Auchitya, etc.

Then again, the whole of Poetics broadly developed into eight Schools: Rasa, Alamkara, Riti, Guna/Dosha, Vakrokti, Svabhavokti, Auchitya and Dhvani. We shall briefly talk about these elements a little later.

Although the concepts of Rasa and Alamkara could be traced back to more ancient periods, it was Bharata who applied those concepts to the theory and practice of Drama.   In a similar manner, the notions of Riti and Guna were adopted into Bharata’s ideas of Guna and Dosha. He implied, although not explicitly, that the style must be appropriate with the matter presented and with the prevailing mood of a particular situation.

Bharata’s notions of Guna (merit), Dosha (defect), Riti (style) or Vakrokti (oblique poetry or deviations) , Savabhavokti (natural statements) , Auchitya ( propriety) etc. were fully developed by the later scholars such as Bhamaha, Dandin , Vamana and Kuntaka , although with slightly varied interpretations of the ideas suggested by Bharata.

Over the centuries , though many schools (sampradaya) developed in the field of Indian poetics , each was not opposed to the others. Each Sampradaya propagated its own pet ways of poetry at the same time making use of the expressions of other schools as well.  For instance : Bharata spoke , in particular ,  about Rasa; Bhamaha of Alamkara; Vamana of Riti; Anandavardhana of Dhvani; Kuntaka of Vakrokti; and Kshemendra of Auchitya (relevance). The later poets saw all of those as varied expressions of poetry that are not in conflict with each other. But , three things – Rasa , Guna and Alamkara – are accepted universally by poets of all schools.

But, let me give here an abstract in the words of Prof. Mohit Kumar Ray ( as given in his A Comparative Study of the Indian Poetics and the Western Poetics )

To sum up; all theorists agree that the language of poetry is different from the language of prose. They also agree that sound and sense are the two main elements of poetry; and that poetry is born when they are blended harmoniously together. The speculations about how this blending can be brought about leading to different schools _ Alamkara, Riti, Svabhavokti, Dhvani, Vakrokti etc

But, neither Alamkara nor Riti nor Vakrokti etc by itself, individually, accounts for poesies of a poem. An Alamkara cannot be super-added. It must be integral to the poem. Similarly, a particular style, all by itself, cannot make a Kavya. It must be in keeping with the cultural level of the poet and the reader as also with the nature of the thought-content of the poem. There are various factors that go to determine the style.

Again, a deviation or stating a thing an oblique way cannot make a Kavya. What is stated should be in harmony with the predominant passion or Rasa of the work.

In other words, the production of Rasa demands the use of all or some of the elements of the poetics depending upon the appropriateness or the nature of the idea envisioned in the Kavya; because, a Kavya is an organic unity. We must have suggestion, we may have elegant figures of speech or deviation also ; we may even have an attractive unique style and so on . But all these elements must be integrated into the matrix of the Kavya.

What is poetry if it does not produce Rasa or give the reader an experience of aesthetic delight?


The Indian Poetics


Of the various poetic Schools, chronologically, Rasa is taken as the oldest because it is discussed in Natyashastra, where, Rasa meant aesthetic appreciation or joy that the spectator experiences .  As Bharata says , Rasa  should be relished  as an emotional or intellectual  experience : na rasanāvyāpāra āsvādanam,api tu mānasa eva (NS.6,31) .The Nāṭyashāstra states that the goal of any art form is to invoke  such Rasa.

Bharata’s theory of  Rasa was crafted  mainly in the context of the Drama.  He was focused on the  dancer’s or actor’s performance and effort to convey her/his  own experiences to the spectator , in order to create aesthetic appreciation or enjoyment  of the art in the heart and mind of the spectator.  Bharata elaborated the process of producing  Rasa in terms of eight Sthayi Bhavas the principle emotional state expressed with the aid of Vibhava ( the cause) and Anubhava ( the enactment)  ; thirty-three Vyabhicāri  (Sanchari ) bhāvās,  the transient emotions; and, eight Sattivikbhavas , the involuntary physical reactions.  These  various Bhavas involved expressions through words (Vachika), gestures (Angika) and other representations (Aharya), apart from involuntary body-reactions (Sattvika).  Such elements employed to convey the  psychological state of the character thus  , in all  , amounted to forty-nine or more . 

The famous Rasa-sutra or basic “formula”,  in the Nāṭyashāstra, for evoking  Rasa, states that   the vibhāva, anubhāva, and vyabhicāri bhāvas together produce Rasa : tatra vibhāvā-anubhāva vyabhicāri sayogād rasa nipatti

Thus, Bharata’s concept  and derivation of Rasa was mainly in the context of the Drama. That concept  – of the enjoyment by the recipient spectator- as also his views on the Gunas and Dosha that one must bear in mind while scripting and enacting the play , were later  enlarged , transported  and adopted into Kavya as well.

In the context of the Kavya, though Rasa is all pervasive, it has been enumerated separately, because Rasa, which came to be understood as the ultimate aesthetic delight experienced by the reader/listener/spectator, is regarded as the touch-stone of any creative art. Rasa has, therefore, been discussed in several layers independently as also in relation to other aspects of poetic beauty : the number of Rasa, each type of Rasa,  nature of aesthetic pleasure of each of type Rasa, importance of Rasa, its association with other Kavya-agamas and so on. Some accepted Rasa as Alamkara (Rasavath), while others regarded it as the soul or spirit of any literary work.

Both in Drama and in Kavya, Rasa is not a mere means but is the desired end or objective that is enjoyed by the Sahrudaya, the cultured spectator or the reader. In the later texts, the process of appreciation of Rasa became far more significant than the creation of Rasa. The poet-scholars like Bhamaha and his follower took to Rasa very enthusiastically. Later, Anandavardhana entwined the concept of Dhvani (suggestion) with Rasa.

Indian Aesthetics considers that among the various poetic theories (Kavya-agama), Rasa is of prime importance in Kavya.  And, very involved discussions go into ways and processes of   producing Rasa, the ultimate aesthetic experience that delights the Sahrudya, the connoisseurs of Kavya.

Again, what is poetry if it does not produce Rasa or give the reader an experience of aesthetic delight?

Rasa is therefore regarded as the cardinal principle of Indian aesthetics.  The theory of Rasa (Rasa sutra) or the realization of Rasa  (Rasa Siddhanta) is discussed in almost all the works on Alamkara Shastra in one way or the other. The importance of the Rasa is highlighted in Alamkara Shastra, by calling it the Atman (the soul), Angin (the principle element),  Pradhana-Pratipadya ( main substance to be conveyed), Svarupadhyaka ( that which makes a Kavya), and Alamkara( ornamentation) etc.


The Alamkara School is said to have its origins in the works of Bhamaha and Dandin.  It appears the two scholars were not separated much either in time or in location; and yet it is hard to ascertain whether they were contemporaries. But, they seemed to have lived during a common period (6th or 7th century) or the time-interval between the two was not much. But, it is difficult to say with certainty who was the elder of the two, although it is assumed that Bhamaha was earlier. Generally, it is believed that Bhamaha lived around the late sixth century while Dandin lived in the early seventh century.

It could be said that the early history of Sanskrit poetics started with the theory of Alamkara that was developed into a system by Bhamaha and later by Dandin. It is however fair to recognize that their elaborations were based in the summary treatment of poetics in the 16th chapter of Natyashastra. The merit of the contributions of Bhamaha and Dandin rests in the fact that they began serious discussion on Poetics as an independent investigation into the virtues of the diction, the language and Alamkara (embellishments) of Kavya; and, in their attempt to separate Kavya from Drama and explore its virtues.

[In their discussions, the term Alamkara stands for both the figurative speech and the Poetic principle (Alamkara), depending on the context. That is to say; in their works, the connotation of Alamkara as a principle of embellishment was rather fluid. Though Alamkara was the general name for Poetics, Alamkara also meant the figures of speech like Anuprasa, Upama etc. And the concepts of Rasa, Guna, Riti were also brought under the umbrella of Alamkara. ]

Bhamaha’s Kavyaalamkara and Dandin’s Kavyadarsha are remarkably similar in their points of view, content and purpose. Both try to define the Mahakavya or the Sargabandha. Their methods focus on the qualities of language (Sabda) and the meaning (Artha) of poetic utterances. Again, the format of their works is also similar. They often quote one another or appeal to a common source of reference or tradition. There are similarities as also distinctions between the views held by the two. At many places it seems one is criticizing the other without however naming. It is as though a dialogue had developed between the two authors. The major thrust of both the works pursues a discussion on the distinctive qualities (Guna) of Alamkara and debilitating distractions (Dosha) of poetic expressions.

Both the authors discuss the blemish or Dosha – the category that had come to represent the inverse of Alamkara, such as Jati, Kriya, Guna and Dravya.  They held the view that just as certain Gunas or merits enhance the poetic effects, so also certain blemishes- both explicit and implied- destroy the poetic excellence. .

But, they also pointedly disagree on certain issues. For instance; Dandin appears to reject Bhamaha’s views on the differences between the narrative forms of Katha and Akhyayika (1.23.5) ; and he also seems  to argue against Bhamaha’s views that poetry must  have  Vakrokti . Bhamaha gives prominence to Alamkara, though he considered Rasa as an important element. According to him, all types of Kavya-s should have Vakrokti (oblique expressions) – as Samanya lakshana, Atishayokti (hyperbole) expressions transcending common usage of the of words (Svabhavokti) . It is only through these , he said, the ordinary is transformed to extraordinary.  Dandin differed from Bhamaha.  He did not agree with the idea that there is no Alamkara without Vakrokti and that Savbhavokti, natural expressions, has no importance in Kavya.  He said, the Alamkara, the figurative expressions could be of two kinds – Svabhavokti and Vakrokti; and the former takes the priority (Adya.Alamkrith).

[Vakrokti has no equivalent in the western literary criticism. Vakrokti could be referred to as ‘oblique or indirect’ reference.  It could also mean irony / ambiguity/ gesture/paradox / tension or all of them put together.]

Bhamaha did not speak much about the aspect of Guna. He briefly touched upon Madhurya (sweetness) , Ojas (vigor) and Prasada (lucidity) ; and , he did not even name them specifically as Guna-s.Further he did not see much difference between Madhurya and Prasada :

Madhuryam abhibanchanti prasadam Ca samedhasah/ Samasavanti bhuyansi na padani prajunjate /KA.Ch.11/

Dandin, on the other hand, devoted almost the entire of the first chapter of his Kavyadarsa to the exposition of two modes of poetic expressions, which for some reason named them as :  Vaidarbhi and Gaudi .He seemed to favor the former –Vaidarbhi. According to Dandin, the ten Gunas are the life of the Vaidarbhi mode of expression – Slesha, Prasada, Samata, Madhurya, Sukumaratva, Arthavyaki, Udaratva, Ojas, Kanti and Samadhi.

Both – Bhamaha and Dandin- seemed to be   concerned with Kavya-sarira or the body of poetry. Both recognized that Kavya is essentially about language; and that language is caught in a rather small compass. They seemed to argue that Kavya, however extensive, is knit together by its building-blocks – individual verses. Thus, the stanza is the basic unit of composition (Varna-vrtta metrics). And, every stanza has to strive towards perfection.  They held that for achieving such perfection, it is essential that there should be a   happy confluence of Sabda (word) and Artha (meaning) that produces a beauteous  form (body) – Kavya-sarira – Sabda-Artha-sahitau-Kavyam- They also said that Alamkara, the poetic figures of speech, are essential ingredients of this harmony.


During the period of Bhamaha and Dandin, the plot of the Kavya was seen as its body.  That, somehow, seemed to suggest that what is said is not as important as to how it is said. The artistic expressions – ornate language, polished phrases seemed to be the prime issue. Therefore, the forms of Alamkara such as rhetorical figures of speech, comparisons, rhythms and such others gained more prominence.

In other words, they believed that Kavya is a verbal composition conveying a definite sense. It must be presented in a charming manner, decorated with choosiest rhetorical devices or figures of speech – Sabda-alamkara and Artha-alamkara.

The fundamental idea appeared to be that every notion can be expressed in infinite number of forms. Mastering the language means being able to use the largest possible number of variations. Kuntaka in his Vakrokti- jivita  (Ca. 10th century)  says the :  the Real word is that which is chosen out of a number of possible synonyms  and that which is capable of  expressing  the desired sense most aptly. And the real sense is that which by its alluring nature ,delights  the mind of the Sahrudaya ( person of taste and culture)

Sabdau vivaksitartha kavachakautheyshu sathvapi  I  arthah sahrudaya ahladkari sva spanda sundarah  II V.J.1.9

In the process, distinctions are made between figures of sound (Sabda-alamkara) and the figures of sense (Artha-alamkara).  In the Sabda-alamkara many and varied options of paraphrasing are used. Here, the option to express something in an obvious, simple and clear manner i.e. to say exactly what one means, is avoided. Such plain statements are considered Gramya (rustic) in contrast to urbane and refined (Nagarika) expressions. For instance; Bhamaha gives prominence to Alamkara, though he considered Rasa as important element. According to him, all types of Kavya-s should have Vakrokti (oblique expressions) , Atishayokti (hyperbole)  expressions transcending common usage of the of words (Svabhavokti) . It is only through these the ordinary is transformed to extraordinary.

Thus, the concept of Alamkara denotes that which transforms ordinary speech into an extraordinary poetic expression (Sabartha sahitya). The term Alamkara stands for embellishment itself as well as the means for embellishment.

As the Alamkara concept began to develop into a system there appeared endless divisions and sub-divisions of these Alamkaras. In the later poetics, Alamkara is almost exclusively restricted to its denotation of poetic figures as a means of embellishment.

During the later periods of Indian Poetics, the Alamkara School was subjected to criticism. It was said that the Alamkara School was all about poetic beauty; and, it seems to have missed the aspect of the inner essence of Kavya. the later Schools  , therefore, considered Alamkara as a secondary virtue .  They declared that Poetry can exist without Alamkara and still be a good poetry.

Although the concept of Alamkara was played down in the later periods, its utility was always acknowledged as the Vishesha or quality of Sabda and Artha.


Both – Bhamaha and Dandin- agree on the central place accorded, in Kavya, to Alamkara, figurative speech. Both held that the mode of figurative expression (Alamkara), diction (Riti) , grammatical correctness (Auchitya) , and sweetness of the sounds (Madhurya) constitute poetry. Both deal extensively with Artha-alamkara that gives forth    striking modes of meaningful expressions.  Dandin, however, gives far more space to the discussion on those figures of speech that are defined as phonetic features (Sabda-alamkara) e.g. rhyme (Yamaka) than does Bhamaha.

This distinction is basic in all subsequent Alamkara related discussions. Their differences on this point do not lie chiefly in the kind or quality of Alamkara; but seems more to do with function of the organization and presentation of the materials.

Let’s take a look at each of their works.



Bhamaha’s work, called Kavyalankara or Bhamahalankara consists of six Paricchedas or chapters and about 400 verses. They deal mainly with the objectives, definition and classification of Kavya,  as also with the Kavya-agama the elements of the Kavya , such as,  Riti ( diction), Guna ( merits) Dosha ( blemishes ) , Auchitya  (Grammatical correctness of words used in Kavya ) and mainly with  the Alamkara the figurative expressions .

The object of Kavya, according to Bhamaha, is chiefly twofold, viz. acquisition of fame on the part of the poet and delight for the reader.

While defining Kavya, Bhamaha says – sabdarthau sahitau kavyam; word and sense together constitute Kavya. This definition obviously focuses on the external element or the body of Kavya. His explanation implied that word and sense in a Kavya must be free from blemishes (nirdosa) and should be embellished with poetic ornamentation (salankara). 

Bhamaha lays great stress on Alamkara, the figurative ornamentation. In his opinion, a literary composition, however laudable, does not become attractive if it is devoid of Alamkara, embellishments. Alamkara, according to him, is indispensable for a composition to merit the designation of Kavya. Bhamaha is, therefore, regarded as the earliest exponent, if not the founder, of the Alamkara school of Sanskrit Poetics.

Bhamaha divides his Alamkara in four groups that are represented as layers of traditional development (Anyair udartha). They are similar to those four mentioned by Bharata (Upama = comparison; Rupaka = metaphorical identification; Dipaka = illuminating by several parallel phrases being each completed by a single un-repeated word; and, Yamaka = word-play by various cycles of repetition). In addition there is the alliteration (Anuprasa). Bhamaha in this context mentions one Medhavin who perhaps was an ancient scholar who wrote on the Alamkara theory. The four groups that Bhamaha mentioned perhaps represent earlier attempts to compile Alamkara Shastra.

Bhamaha also talked about the other elements of Kavya such as Vakrokti and Riti, however, without much stress. And, he treated both these as supplements to Alamkara, the principal element of the Kavya. Bhamaha regarded Vakrokti as the charm of expression that aids Alamkara. He did not attach much importance to Riti or mode of composition; because, in his opinion, the distinction between the Vaidarbhi and the Gaudi Riti is of no consequence. He however, introduces the notion of Sausabdya, the grammatical appropriateness in poetry- which relates to the question of style .in general, rather than to any theory of poetics. His rejection of the usefulness of the Riti and the Marga analysis of poetry perhaps accounts for his comparatively lighter treatment of the Gunas of which he mentions only Madhurya, Ojas and Prasada.

Bhamaha, in fact, rejects the Guna approach as being ‘not-trustworthy’. He is a thorough Alamkarika. His concern is with the form of poetry; and, not so much with its variations. He is also believed to have held the view that Gunas are three (and not ten) ; and,  are nothing but varieties of alliterations.

As regards Rasa, Bhamaha again links it to Alamkara. He treats Rasa as an aspect of Alamkara, Rasavat (lit. that which possesses Rasa). According to him, the suggested sense (vyangyartha), which is at the root of Rasa, is implicit in the vakrokti. Bhamaha did not however elaborate on the concept of Vakrokti. He meant Vakrokti as an expression which is neither simple nor clear-cut; but, as one which has curvature (vakra). He took it as afundamental priciple of poetic expression .[ It is not clear whether or not Bhamaha regarded Vakrokti as Alamkara]  Vakrokti is explained as an expressive power, a capacity of language to suggest indirect meaning along with the literal meaning. This is in contrast to svabhavokti, the matter-of-fact statements. Vakrokti articulates the distinction between conventional language and the poetic language. Vakrokti is regarded as the essential core of all poetic works as also of the evaluation and appreciation of art in general. Thus, vakrokti is a poetic device used to express something extraordinary and has the inherent potential to provide the aesthetic experience of Rasa.

Thus the seeds of Vakrokti, Riti, Rasa and Dhvani which gained greater importance in the later periods can be found in Bhamaha’s work.

However, the critics of Bhamaha point out that Alamkara-s of Bhamaha are nothing but external elements; and that he seemed to have bypassed the innermost element the Atman (soul) of poetry.


Dandin’s Kavyadarsa (7th century) is a very influential text. And , it covers a wide range of subjects  concerning the Kavya , such as : the choice of language, and its relation to the  subject matter; the components or the  elements of Kavya : the story (kathavastu) ;  the types of descriptions and narrations that should go into Mahakavya also known as  Sargabandha (Kavya , spread over several Cantos); the ways (Marga) of Kavya, regional styles characterized by the presence or absence of the expression-forms (Guna); various features of syntax and semantics; factors of Alamkara- the figurative beauty of expressions; and  the Alamkara-s of sound  (Sabda) and sense (Artha).

Dandin in his Kavyadarsha said every poem needs a body and Alamkara. By body he meant set of meaningful words in a sentence to bring out the desired intent and effect.  Dandin clarified saying ; now, by body (sariram), I mean a string of words (padavali) distinguished by a desired meaning (ista-artha) – sariram tadvad ista-artha vyvachinnapadavali. In the succeding Karikas, Dandin , under the broad head Sariram discusses such subjects as meter, language, abd generes of portic compositions ( epic poems, drama etc.,) ,and the importance of such categories. 

Such words putting forth the  desired meaning could be set either in poem (Padya) , prose (Gadya) or mixture (Misra) form. In his work, he talks mainly about Alamkara-s that lend beauty and glitter to the Kavya- Sabda-alamkara and Artha-alamkara. The first covers natural descriptions, similes (Upama) of 32 kinds, metaphors (Rupaka) , various types of Yamaka (poetic rhymes)  that juggle with  syllables and consonants . Among the Artha-alamkara is Akshepa that is to say concealed or roguish expressions, such as hyperbole (Atishayokti) , pun or verbal play  producing more than one meaning (Slesha) , twisted expressions (Vakrokti).

Dandin is, generally, accused of attaching more importance to the elegance of the form and to erudition than to creative faculty. I reckon , that is rather unfair. He was attempting to  draw a clear  distinction between  kavyasarira and Alamkara.

Dandin, like Bhamaha, belongs to what came to be known as Alamkara School.  But, his emphasis is more on Sabda-alamkara, the ornaments of sound (Sabda), which is not prominent in Bhamaha. The bulk of the third Pariccheda of his Kavyadarsa is devoted to an exhaustive treatment of Chitrakavya ( which later came to be labeled as Adhama – inferior- Kavya  )   and its elements of  rhyming ( Yamaka) , visual poetry (matra and Chitra) and puzzles (Prahelika).

With regard to Rasa, Dandin pays more importance to it than did Bhamaha. While dealing with Rasa-vada-alamkara, the theory of Alamkara combined with Rasa, he illustrates each Rasa separately. Dandin pays greater attention to Sabda-almkara than does Bhamaha. Dandin says : thanks to the words alone the affairs of men progress ( Vachanam eva prasadena lokayatra pravartate – Kavyadarsha

Dandin also gives importance to alliteration (Anuprasa), which he discusses under Madhurya Guna, the sweetness or the alluring qualities of language. Alliterations and rhyming (Yamaka) were not ignored by Bhamaha (they were, in fact, his first two types of Alamkara); but, treated lightly.  In comparison, are accorded full treatment in Dandin‘s work.

Bahamas, as said earlier, mentions just four types of Alamkara-s such as: Upama, Rupaka, Dipaka and, Yamaka. He does not, however, go much into their details.  Dandin, on the other hand, while accepting the same figures as Bhamaha, explores the variations provided by each figure internally. He notices thirty-two types of similes (Upama) as also various other forms of Rupaka (Metaphors), etc.  This effort to look at Alamkaras in terms of ‘sound-effects’ than as theoretical principles was rejected by subsequent authors.

One of the criticisms leveled against Dandin is that he uses the term Alamkara in the limited sense of embellishment rather than as a theory or principle of Poetics.  He defines Kavya in terms of its special features: Kavyam grahyam Alamkarat. Alamkara here is not the principle but Soundaryam, beauty of the expression.

Dandin devotes a section of the first chapter or Pariccheda, to the ten Gunas or qualities mentioned by Bharata.

Slesah prasadah samata samadhir madhuryamojah Padasaukumaryam/ Arthasya Ca vyaktirudarata Ca kantisca kavyasya Gunah dasaite //NS.17.95//

But, Bharata had not discussed  much on the  Guna-doctrine; and nor did  he  state whether they belonged  to Sabda or Artha; nor in what relation they stand in poetry. He merely stated  that ten Gunas are the mere negation of Dohsa

Dandin  went on and  said the Gunas that make beautiful are called Alamkara  ; and, he included the Gunas dear to him under Alamkara. (Kavya shobha karan dharman alamkaran pracakshate- KD 11.11).

[But, he does not seem to consider Gunas and Alamkaras as identical; for the Gunas relate to the forms of language – say, sound or its capacity to produce a meaning ; but, not specifically to the categories of Alamkara.]

But Dandin qualified his statement by remarking that   Guna is an Alamkara belonging to the Vaidarbhi-Marga exclusively. Thus, it appears, in his view, Guna forms the essence or the essential condition of what he considers to be the best poetic diction. The importance of Gunas lies in their positive features. The contrary of a particular Guna marks another kind of poetry. Thus Ojas vigor (use of long compounds) marks the Gaudiya Marga; and, its absence marks the Vaidarbhi Marga.

It should be mentioned; Dandin elaborates a theory of two modes (Marga) or kinds of poetic diction or styles to which he assigns geographical names Vaidarbhi and Gauda. He mentions that excellences (Guna, like sweetness or lucidity) form their essence.

Iti vaidarbhamargasya prana dasa gunah smrtah/ Esamviparyah prayo drsyate gaudavartmani //KD.1.42//

But, such classification later became a dead issue as it was not logical; and many are not sure if such regional styles did really exist in practice. Only Vamana took it up later; but, diluted it.

Dandin also mentions Vakrokti; but, he does not treat it as essential to Alamkara.

Chapter five of Kavyadarsa is an inquiry into poetic defects (Dosha) that spring from logical fallacies. It is based in the view that there is a limit to the poet’s power to set aside universal laws of reasonable discourse .The poet does not wish to speak nonsense; his ultimate declaration should be  as rational and as reasonable as that of any other person . Poetry does not therefore lie in the poet’s intention as such, but the unusual means he adopts to convey his meaning. This line of argument puts poetry properly on both sides of what is logical and what is illogical.


The older School (Prachina) – of Bhamaha, Dandin, Vamana and others – dealt with natural or human situation idealized by the poet for its own sake. The attention of the Prachina School was focused on ornamented figures of speech (Alamkara) and the beauty (sobha, carutva) of the expression or on the ‘body’ of poetry.

The Navina School represented by Anandavardhana (9th century) and his theory of Dhvani mark the beginning of a new-phase (Navina) in Indian Poetics.  It pointed out that the reader should not stop at the expression but should go further into the meaning that is suggested, or hinted, by it. The Navina School laid more importance on the emotional content (Bhava) of the Kavya. But, here, the emotive element was not directly expressed in words (Vachya) ; but , had to be grasped by  the reader indirectly (Parokshya ) through suggestions. Yet, through the description of the situation the reader understands the emotion and derives that exalted delight, Rasa.

Here, the words (Sabda), explicit mean (Vakyartha) the body (Sarira) of the Kavya. The subtle, suggested essence of the Kavya that resides within and is extracted with delight by the cultured reader (Sahrudaya) is the Dhavni.

Thus the evolution of the Navina School marks a transition from the ‘outer’ element to the ‘inner’ one, in regard to the method, the content and appreciation of the Kavya. The criteria, here, is not whether the expression sounds beautiful; but, whether its qualities (Guna) are adequate (Auchitya) to lead the reader to the inner core of the poetry.

Lets talk about these and other elements of Kavya in the subsequent issues.


Continued in

The Next Part

Sources and References

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

The Philosophy of the Grammarians, Volume 5 By Harold G. Coward

A Comparative Study of the Indian Poetics and the Western Poetics by Mohit Kumar Ray

A history of Indian literature. Vol. 5, Scientific and technical …, Volume 5 by Edwin Gerow

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Kavya and Indian Poetics – Part Six

Continued from Part Five

[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.]


Can Kavya be defined?

It is said; Adi Kavi Valmiki after pronouncing his first (Adi) Sloka cried out in amazement; what is this that is uttered by me (Kim idam vyahtham maya …!). His exclamation – Kim idam – what is this? – is a perpetual question in Kavya-shastra and, has prompted endless debates over the centuries.

What, then, is this wonderful thing called Kavya?

Many have tried to explain what Kavya is?

The following explanations  of Kavya , as put forward by various scholars, is quite interesting:

: – Saba- arthau -sahitau Kavyam – Poetry is word and meaning (Bhamaha, Kavyalankara 1.6);

: – Nanu Sabda-arthau Kavyam – Poetry is word and meaning (Rudrata, Kavyalamkara 2.1);

:- Tad adosau Sabda-arthau sagunya alamkriti punah kvapti – this poetry is word and meaning , without blemishes, adorned with excellences , sometimes without the Alamkaras, figurative expressions.(Mammata , Kavyaprakasa 1.4);

:- Adosau sagunau sa-alamkarau cha sabda-arthau Kavyam – Poetry is word and meaning , without blemishes, furnished with excellences and Alamkara figures of speech ( Hemachandra , Kavyanushasana  1) ;

:- Sadhu-sabda-artha-samdarbham  guna-alamkara-bhushitam , sphuta- itirara- sopetam Kavyam  kurvita kirtaye – Let the poet ,with the object of gaining fame, compose Kavya intertwining word and meaning , and decorated with excellences and figures (Alamkara) and other poetic  sentiments in a clear style  (Vagbhata , Vagbhata-alamkara 1.2);

: – Sabda-arthau- nirdoshou sagunau prayah alamkarau Kavyam – Poetry is word and meaning; without faults, furnished with excellences and – often – with Alamkara, figurative speech (Vagbhata, Vagbhata-alamkara 1; and Kuntaka, Vakroktivijaya 1.7);]


In addition, Kuntaka came up with a detailed explanation. According to him, the word (Sabda) alone is not the body of poetry, but it is the happy fusion of word and sound which stands for ‘the body’ :  Sabdartyha sahitau kavyam. Kuntaka says the word (Sabda) and sense (Artha) , blended like two friends, creating each other, make Kavya delightful

Sama-sarva gunau santau sahhrudaveva sangathi I parasparasya shobhayai sabdartau bhavato thatha II

Further, Kuntaka says that the Real word is that which is chosen out of a number of possible synonyms and expresses the desired sense most aptly.  And, the real sense is that which by its own alluring nature causes pleasure in the mind of the Sahrudaya  (person of taste and culture)

Sabdau vivaksitartha kavachakautheyshu sathvapi I arthah sahrudaya ahladkari sva spanda sundarah II V.J.1.9

The togetherness of the word and sense is nothing but a captivating state which creates in the mind of the reader or the listener poetic delight which is exactly what is desired by the poet himself, neither less nor more

Sahitya manayo shobha shalitam prati kashyasau I Atyunna na athiriktha manoharinya vasthithihi II V.J.1.17


Then again, the scholars of the later period attempted to come up with a technical ‘Definition’ of Kavya , in place of  ‘explanations’. When the Poetic scholars set out to define Kavya, they set for themselves certain norms, parameters and ground rules. And, also decided to keep out the Drama (which they considered it as Agama-antara, a different tradition) out of the purview of Kavya, for the limited purpose of arring at a definition; and, similarly, the non-literary forms of Kavya were also kept aside.

According to the rules so framed:  any definition of Kavya should be free from three kinds of flaws (Dosha): it should not be too terse, covering too little (A-vyapti); it should not be too verbose, saying more than what is needed (Ati-vyapti);  and , it should nor be improbable or incompetent (A-samartha).  Therefore, any definition of Kavya had to be brief, precise and easy to understand; it should be definite without shadow of alternatives; and, should, as far as possible, be free from technical terms that need further explanations.

But, Kavya, I reckon, cannot of course be defined with precision;  or be  presented in a capsule as a well knit, and packed accurate pellet of information.

Each generation of Poet-Scholars, right from Bhamaha to Jagannatha Pandita tried to define Kavya. They, at best, tried to draw its clear picture. Their attempts could be termed as explanations, circumscribed by their understanding, rather than as definitions.

The explanations offered by those scholars, nevertheless, help us to gain some insight into the nature and role of elements of poetry; and their mutual relationships. All those scholars base their explanations in certain technical terms and elements (Kavya-agama) each having its own connotation: Sabda, Artha, Rasa, Alamkara, Riti, Dhvani, Vakrokti, Dosha, and, Dhvani.

Bhamaha (6th century) said:  ‘Kavya is where the Sabda (word) and Artha (its meaning) are harmoniously combined – Sabda-Artha sahitau Kavyam .But, that was not regarded by many as an ideal explanation, since it does not specifically pertain to Kavya; and can  be extended to cover even non-literary or technical works.

Bhamaha then extended his explanation to bring in the element of Alamkara; and, said: Kavya is the happy fusion of Sabda words and Artha which expresses Alamkaras relating to them – Sabda-abhideya-alamkara-bhedadhistam dvayam tu nah I Sabda-Artha sahitau Kavyam (KA.1.15). It was not clear whether Bhamaha meant Alamkara as the poetic principle or as the ornamental figures of speech. Further, the term Alamkara itself needs to be explained. Hence, this definition was not considered ideal.

Dandin says the body of Kavya is a group of sounds which indicates the desired or the happy aim intended by the poet – Sariram tavad ista-artha vyvachinna padavali (KA 1.10b). Here, the term ista-artha the desired effect or the desired import of the poet is rather too vague; and needs to be explained. Further, Dandin seemed to be defining the body of the Kavya rather than the Kavya itself. And, Padavali – the group of words – by itself and not accompanied by sense is not of great merit.

Vamana said Kavya is the union of sound and sense which is free from poetic flaws and is adorned with Gunas (excellence) and Alamkaras (ornamentation or figures of speech). Here, it was pointed out that the poetic excellence (Gunas) might be an essential aspect of a Kavya; but, the same cannot be said about Alamkara, the figure of speech.

Then again, Vamana said; the essence of Kavya is Riti (Ritir Atma Kavyasya). Riti represents for Vamana the particular structure of sounds (Vishista-pada-rachana Ritihi) combined with poetic excellence (Vishesho Gunatma). According to Vamana, Riti is the going or the flowing together of the elements of a poem – Rinati gacchati asyam guna iti riyate ksaraty asyam vanmaddhu-dhareti va ritih (Vamana KSS).  But, Vamana’s definition involves technical terms that need to be commented upon offering explanations. Hence, it is not an ideal one.

Anandavardhana‘s definition of Kavya involves two statements: Sabda-Artha sariram tavath vakyam; and, Dhvanir Atma Kavyasa – the body of poetry is the combination of words and sounds; and; Dhavni, the suggestive power is the soul of the poetry. Anandavardhana talks in terms of the body and soul of the Kavya. And he also refers to the internal beauty of a meaningful construction of words in the Kavya. But, Dhvani is a highly technical term, needing much explanation. This definition again   was not treated as an ideal one.

Kuntaka defined Kavya on the basis of Vakrokti, a concept which he himself put forward.  According to him, Kavya is the union of sound, sense and arranged in a composition which consists Vakrokti (oblique expressions of the poet), delighting its sensible reader or listener – (Sabda-Artha sahitau vakra Kavi vakya vyapara shalini I bandhe vyavasthitau Kavya tat ahlada karini VJ 1.7). Kuntaka also said that  the word and sense, blended like two friends, creating each other, make Kavya  delightful – Sama-sarva gunau santau sahhrudaveva sangathi I parasparasya shobhayai sabdartau bhavato thatha  II .  These definitions too are not acceptable because Vakrokti, like Alamkara, Riti and Dhvani is again a technical term.

According to Mammata, Kavya is that which is constructed by word and sentence which are (a) faultless (A-doshau) , (b) possessed of excellence (Sugunau) , and (c) in which rarely a distinct figure of speech  (Alamkriti) may be absent. This definition was attacked by many, pointing out that it is impossible to compose a Kavya without a single blemish; and not a single Kavya would satisfy Mammata’s requirement. Further, it was remarked that the adjective Alamkriti doesn’t seem to be quite appropriate as it merely enhances the quality of a Kavya, but is not an essential aspect of Kavya. And, Mammata has employed number of technical terms like : Dosha, Guna, and Alamkara , which again need to be explained ; and , it also includes an alternate view like ‘Alamkriti punah kvapi. Thus Mammata’s definition was also rejected.

Vishwanatha briefly defined Kavya as Vakyam rasathmakam Kavyam – Kavya is sentences whose essence is Rasa. But, here, Rasa is a technical term which has multiple explanations. And, many said Kavya cannot merely be sentences or collection of words; there has to a happy fusion of word (Sabda) and sense (Artha). Hence, this definition also fell short.

Jagannatha Pandita defined Kavya as: Ramaniya-artha prathipadakah sabdam kavyam ; poetry is the  combination of words that provides delight. Here, Ramaniyata denotes not only poetic delight Rasa, pertaining to the main variety of Dhvani-kavya, but also to all the ingredients of Kavya like Vastu-Dhvani Kavya; Alamkara-Dhvani –Kavya, Guni-bhutha –vyangmaya-kavya; Riti; Guna, Alamkara, Vakrokti etc.

This definition covering all aspects of poetics covers  a wider field than Rasa which is limited to certain criteria. Moreover, the word Ramaniyata is not a technical term, but it covers all the essentials of a Kavya.

Jagannatha Pandita’s definition of Kavya as : Ramaniya-artha prathipadakah sabdam , seems almost nearer to the ideal.

But, I reckon, Kavya is best left un-defined, not put into a straightjacket.   Leaving it to the delight and enterprise of each reader or listener to work out his own levels of appreciation, derive the sense he sees as the best and enjoy the experience of Kavya in his own way seems to be better approach.


 Cause of poetry (Kavya hetu)

According to Rajasekhara , the poet is endowed with Karayitri Prathibha the creative genius while the reader or listener is to have Bhavayitri Prathibha the faculty for appreciation of good poetry; obviously, the poet posses both the faculties.

The Kavi Prathibha the creative intuition is the essential without which no creative art is possible.

The scholars have tried to present other factors that might be responsible for outflow of poetry (Kavya hethu).

Dandin mentions three causes of poetry: Naisargika Prathibha natural or inborn genius; Nirmala-shastra –jnana clear understanding of the Shastras; Amanda Abhiyoga ceaseless application and honing ones faculties.

Rudrata and Kuntaka also mention three causes:  Shakthi, the inborn intellectual brilliance; Utpatti, the accomplished knowledge of the texts and literary works; and, Abhyasa, constant practice of composing poetic works.

Vamana says three causes of poetry are: Loka, knowledge of the worldly matters, norms of behavior; Vidya. learning of various disciplines; and Prakirna  , miscellaneous ,  that is six causes : Lakshajnata , study of the texts; Abhiyoga, practice ;Vrddha seva , instructions from the learned experienced persons;  Avekshana, the   use of appropriate words avoiding  blemishes;  Prathibhana, the  inborn poetic genius ; and Avadhana, concentration or single pointed devotion to learning and composing.

Mammata puts forth the following as the three causes of poetry, while doing so he included the causes mentioned by Vamana: inborn intuitive power; proficiency in worldly conduct as also the study of scriptures and standard literary works; and, practice of composing poetic works through the help of some persons proficient in this art.

In the ‘causes of poetry’ (Kavya hethu) mentioned above, while Utpatti and Abhyasa stand for  the constant learning-effort  and refinements that polish the poetry , the terms Shakthi or Prathibha,  is explained in various ways.

According to Rudrata, Shakthi or Prathibha is that essential factor through which the poet spontaneously presents any subject matter that haunts him or occupies his mind, using appropriate expressions.  This explanation seems to  lay more stress on the external form of poetry. Therefore, Bhatta-tauta brought in the most essential internal factor ‘ He explained Prathibha , in his often quoted words,  as the genius of the intellect which creates new and innovative modes of expressions in art poetry –  Nava-navonvesha –shalini prajna prathibha mathah.

Vamana said, Prathibha is the seed for creating Kavya : Kavitva-bijam prathibhanam (K.S.13.6)

Kuntaka and Mammata tried to explain the very basis of the Prathibha. Kuntaka said: the faculty of creating a poetic work is an unique intellectual power, which gains maturity due to the inborn and acquired impressions (Samskara paripaka prouda prathibha) gathered in poet’s life-time.

Mammata, adding, said: Shakthi is the intellectual power that could be said to be  a sort of a mass of  impressions serving as a seed for sprouting of poetic work: Shakthih kavitva bija-rupah samskara vishesha (Kavyaprakasa 1.3)

Both these scholars suggest that Prathibha or Shakthi is essentially an inborn talent or genius; and, it cannot be acquired artificially or by mere hard work.

Hemachandra also accepts Prathibha as the prime cause of poetry; but says, that such essential inborn poetic gift should be refined and honed or chiseled by intellectual application (Utpatti) and constant practice (Abhyasa) .

The other factors that go into creation of a good Kavya include Utpatti and Abhyasa. Utpatti stands for detailed study of literarily works and scriptures as also for knowledge of worldly matters. Through it, the natural (Sahaja) or inborn Prathibha gets refined, precise and capable of understanding the essentials of poetry as also of life. And, Abhyasa is constant practice of writing and creating poetry.

The general view appears to be that Prathibha is the most essential factor for creation of Kavya (Kavya hetu) but it needs to be refined and polished by Utpatti and Abhyasa.

Then there is also the question whether the cause of poetry (Kavya hetu) could be the same as the fruits of benefits of poetry (Kavya prayojana) , such as achieving  riches or fame or poetic pleasure etc. The opinion, in general, appears to be negative. The reason adduced is that , the Kavya hetu the cause of poetry  is prior to composition of poetry, while Kavya prayojana , the fruits of poetry come after the Kavya is composed and read by others.  But, at times, the fruits of a Kavya may act as an incentive and spur the poet to compose more and better poetry.


The purpose of Kavya

While the earlier theorists on poetics – Bhamaha , Dandin and Vamana-  state that the objectives of poetry are the renown (Kirti) won by the poem and its poet; and , enjoyment (Priti) enjoyed by the readers or the listeners of the poetry. The later sets of critics add instructions (upadesha) as one of the other virtues of a good poetry.

While composing poetry, a poet experiences aesthetic pleasure as a poet. And, after that, while reading or witnessing his own composition he feels aesthetic delight as a Shrudaya.  But, in a situation when he does not feel aesthetic pleasure due to some reason, he is neither a poet nor a reader, but an ordinary person.

The purpose of Kavya is to communicate, and to communicate effectively. The ultimate aim of poetry is to provide a sort of aesthetic rupture – Rasanubhava. Its said; Sadah parnivrtutti, the unalloyed joy is the foremost purpose of poetry . The suggestions offered in a persuasive manner, the kantha samhitopadesha comes only next.

These experiences are related both to the poet and to the Sahrudaya, the reader or spectator , either directly or indirectly.





Next Part


Sources and References

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

The Philosophy of the Grammarians, Volume 5 By Harold G. Coward



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Posted by on July 26, 2015 in Kavya, Sanskrit


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Kavya and Indian Poetics – Part Five

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

Poetry 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.  

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 / /


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 fulfilment.

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 on the other hand is much concerned with the arrangement of words. But, 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).

 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 direct and 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 Brahmasamhita; or of Algebra in Bhaskara’s Leelavathi contain many verses, beautiful descriptions of nature and of poetic merit that they almost are Kavya. Similarly, Suryapandita’s work on Astronomy (Bhaskarabhushana) has beautiful verses praying to Sun god.  There are also numbers of philosophical works elucidated in poetry.

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 ( utterences) 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

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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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