Category Archives: oral traditions

Kavya and Indian Poetics – Part Three

Continued from Part Two

[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.]

 Classifications of the Kavya

Kavya chart bold

Kavya has been classified into  incredible number of different  categories.

Agnipurana classifies Vangmaya (everything that is expressed in words, i.e. literature) in several ways: Dhvani, Varna, Pada and Vakya (Ag. pu. 327.1); and  into Shastra, Itihasa and Kavya (Ag.pu.327.2).

And later, Vangmaya was again classified into Shastra (Veda, Purana and even Epics) and Kavya.

Shastra , in turn , has again been classified into Apaurusheya and Paurusheya.


In the Literary traditions

 (a) Shravya and Drshya

 In the literary traditions, even from the very early period, Kavya was classified in several different ways. The usual means were (a) by language; (b) by whether it was poetry or prose or a mixture of both; and (c) by the literary form.

And, to start with, Kavya was said to be either oral – Shravya (one that is listened to) or Drshya or Prekshya (one that is seen, visual comprehension). This was the primary differentiation.

Here, Drshya generally stands for Drama (Nataka) and Dance-drama (Geya-nataka) the visual comprehension of a theatrical performance; and, the Shravya covers the entire range of lyrical and epic poetry in general. And some times, in a narrow sense, the Shravya is itself known as Kavya. That might be because; in the ancient times the Epics were narrated or recited before a gathering of ardent listeners. And, individual poems or their stanzas, in most cases, gained popularity among the common people who enjoyed listening to them. The boundaries between the oral and written poetry was never clear. Yet, the oral traditions seemed to have a strong influence over written versions.  And, in fact, even during the medieval times the written texts were corrected with reference to its oral version.

[However, as the classical poetry grew more complex and more elaborately structured, it became rather difficult to rely only on the oral rendering. Reading or studying a text gradually replaced listening as the commonest means of enjoying Kavya.]

But, the distinction of – Shravya and Prekshya– is not strictly observed. For instance; Drama (Nataka) is at once a Kavya- prose and poetry-  that can be read (Shravya) and that be witnessed (Drshya) on the stage. Drama is, in fact, regarded as the most enjoyable of all the forms of Kavya (Kavyeshu naatakam ramyam).

Another is the Chitra-Kavya, where the words of the poetry are woven into figures and diagrams (Chiyrabandha) , that can be seen and read is at once a Shravya and Prekshya.

[For more on Chitrkavya: please check here :]

Coming back to Drama, the Drshya Kavya, it again was classified into two classes: Major (Rupaka) and Minor (Upa-Rupaka). Abhinavagupta explains Rupam as that which is seen by the eyes and the works containing such matter is Rupani or Rupaka. Dhanika while commenting on Dhanajyaya’s Dasarupakam explains that the terms Natyam, Rupam and Rupakam can be treated as synonymous.

Vishvanatha in his Sahityadarpana gives a list with  examples of  these  varieties:

Major (Rupaka): (1) Nataka ( e.g. Abhijnana-Shakuntalam of Kalidasa); (2) Prakarana (e.g. Malathi-Madhava of Bhavabhuthi); (3) Bhana (e.g. Karpuracharita of Vatsaraja); (4) Vyayoga (e.g. Madhyama-Vyyoga of Bhasa); (5) Samavakara (e.g. Samudra-manthana of Vatsaraja); (6) Dima (Tripuradaha of Vatsaraja); (7) Ihamrga ( e.g. Rukminiharana of Vatsaraja); Anka or Utsrstikanta (e.g. Sharmista-Yayathi) ; (9) Vithi (e.g. Malavika) and (10)  Prahasana (Mattavilasa of Mahendravarman).

[Dhananjaya’s Dasarupakam lists a slightly different ten forms]

Minor types of Drama (Upa-Rupaka)  : (1) Natika (e.g. Ratnavali of Sri Harsha); (2) Trotaka (e.g. Vikramorvasiya of Kalidasa); (3) Ghosti (e.g. Raivatamadanika); (4) Natyarasaka (e.g.Vilasavathi );(6) Prasthana (e.g. Srngaratilaka); (7)Ullapya ( e.g. Devimahadeva); (8) Kavya (e.g. Yadavodaya); (9)  Prenkhana (e.g. Valivadha); (10) Rasaka (e.g. Menakahita); (11) Samlapaka (e.g. Mayakapalika); (12) Srigadita (e.g. Kridarasatala); (13) Silpaka (e.g. Kanakavathi-madhava); (14) Vilasika ; (15) Durmallika (e.g. Bindumathi); (16) Prakaranika; (17) Hallisa (e.g. Keliraivataka); and (18) Bhanika (e.g. Kamadatta).


(b) Padya – Gadya – Champu

There is another classification based in the form in which a work is composed: works written in Padas (metrical poetry, padya); Gadya (prose); and Misra or Champu (in various mixed forms, partly in verse and partly in prose). And, in Drama too the dialogues in prose are interspersed by lyrical songs.

Earlier, from Bhamaha (Ca.7th century) to Rudrata (Ca. 9th century), literature was classified either as poetry or as prose. The poetry was ‘nibaddha-mukta’ (unfettered) and prose as ‘sarga-bandha’ (structured into divisions or Cantos).


Works in Prose, generally, narrated romantic tales, prose romances etc. Such prose Kavya is categorized as (i) Katha, a narration in the form of story, fiction (e.g. Kadambari of Banabhatta; Dasakumara-Charita of Dandin, and Vasvadatta of Subandhu); and as (ii) Akhyayika, almost a non-fiction, historical narrative recounting the deed of Kings and heroes of old (e.g. Harshacharita of Banabhatta).

A distinction between historical and fictional genres (Akhyayika and Katha) was drawn as early as Bhamaha (seventh century), who contrasts Katha (imaginary tales) narratives with Akhyayika “that celebrate the real events of gods and others”.  These traditional categories often overlap each other. Historical facts were often treated as malleable material that could be molded in any manner to suit the desired impact of the text. Such supposedly historical narratives generally dealt with the contemporary Kings and their ancestors composed under Royal patronage; and, such Courtly works were meant, mainly, to please the patrons.

Katha is again of two types: complete story (Sakala katha) or a description of an episode (Eka-desa-varnana) called Knanda Katha. Here again, Katha was made into two other classes: those based on invented or fictional themes (Utpadya or Kalpita); and, those based on themes derived from well-known sources such as history (Itihasa) and legends (Purana).

The most well known among the Katha (stories) or fictional narrations themes (Utpadya or Kalpita) are the Brhat-katha of Guṇaḍya originally in Paisachi (a form of Prakrit) retold in Sanskrit by Somadeva (11th century) as Katha-saritsagara; the collection of moral tales or fables Pancha-tantra and Hitopadesa; and, the collection of highly entertaining stories or tales include the Vetala-pancavisatika, Sukasaptati   and Sihāsana-dvatrim-sātika.

 Then there is the Kādambarī of Banabhatta  ( 7th century) which describes the affairs of two sets of lovers through a series of incarnations, in which they are constantly harassed by a cruel fate.

 Another fine example of tales is the eminently readable Dasa-kumara-carita by Daṇḍin (6th-7th centuries), in which, within the framework of a boxing story, the picaresque adventures of ten disinherited princes are described in prose.


 The third genre Champu, with alternate narrations of prose and verse allows the poet greater ease or   felicity of expression. It affords the poet ample opportunities to display not only his erudition but also his command over prose as also over the verse form.

The Champu was usually a full-fledged composition of epic proportions. The Champu used metrical and non-metrical language with more or less equal prominence. The prose too was ornate and almost lyrical.

A narrative mixed in prose and verse has many examples. Sanskrit Drama too was a mixture prose and verse. Among the literary works there are many well known Champu Kavyas; for example:  Nalachampu of Trivikrama, and Ramayana Champu, Bhojachampu and Bhagavatachampu by Abhinava Kalidasa. The Prabandha or the prose in ornate style is also interspersed with verses.

The Jain writers used Champu for religious texts, while the Bengal Vaishnava School wrote Champu Kavyas relating to Krishna. The Bhoja-prabandha of Ballalasens (16th century) narrates stories of King Bhoja. The Jain Prabandhas are semi-historical works; a curious mix of legends and anecdotes.

A subject treated in prose romance was also, sometimes, rendered in Champu form. For instance; the Vasavadatta of Subandhu a work in prose   was rendered in Champu as Vasavadatta Champu.

The Champu and Prabandhas forms of literature appear to have been popular in South India, even during the later times. The Champu form of narration continued to grow with religious and biographical themes.  For instance; the political affairs of contemporary Deccan and Karnataka as well as Anglo-French conflicts form the theme of Anandaranga-champu of Shrinavasa. And, there was the Devashankara’s Purohit’s Alamkara-manjusha, which praises the achievements of Peshwa Madhav Rao I.

The longer compositions, be it Prose or Verse or the mixed Champu, all  share a few common features. They all treat a unified theme and develop it in all its fullness, spread over chapters or junctures (Sandhi) or stages in the development of the theme, following a proper sequence of events. In that sense, they resemble a Drama.


(c) Sanskrit –Prakrit -Misra

At later times, another type of classification was brought in by scholars such as Bhamaha (6th – 7th century) who classified all poetry as (i) Sanskrit; (ii) Prakrit ( local or regional languages commonly spoken) or (iii) Apabramsha (dialects prevalent  before the rise of the modern languages ) . Dandin (6th -7th century), added one more category: Misra, a work written in a mixture of languages.

In the 8th-9th century, Rajasekhara, in his Kavya-mimamsa, a work devoted to literary theory, notes three important features of Indian literature: (i) It is composed in many languages including dialects and the speech of small communities; (ii) while having a distinct Indian character, it has immense regional variety of forms and themes; and (iii) it is worldly and concerns the travails of ordinary human life.

In his invocation to Lord Shiva, from whom Kavya is believed to have originated, Rajasekhara compares the various aspects of Kavya to the different organs of Shiva (Shivaroopa). Following his interpretation if one compares Shiva to a Kavya Purusha, i.e.  to a human form, one could say that Sabda (words) and Artha (meaning) constitute body (trunk) of the Kavya Purusha  .  Of the languages, Sanskrit is his face; Prakrit his arms; Apabhramsa his waist; and, Paisachi his   feet. The mixed (Misra) languages are his chest.  Kavya Purusha, just as Shiva, is sweet, graceful; is having composure (Sama) pleasant nature  (prasanna), melody (madhura) as also vigor  (Ojas) and liberal (Udara) . His voice is noble. Rasa is his soul (Atma) ; and,  Vritha its hair. His verbal quirks are dialogues (questions and repartees, riddles (Prahelikas) and Samasya (problems). Kavya Purusha is decorated with alliterations (Anuprāsa) and similes, Upama (sabda, artha, Alamkaras)- (Rājaśekhara, Kāvyamīmā, Chapter 3)

Rajasekhara also says that a poet has to learn to compose Kavya in Sanskrit as also in Prakrit. His Prakrit composition has to be according to his own outlook, taste and talent. But, he should pay particular attention to the Vachya-Vachaka relation of Sabda and Artha. And, while handling more than one language, assigning meanings (Artha) has to be done with great care; and the poetry that flows from such careful process   would stand any test.

Drama, even in its earliest times, had been multi lingual, written in a mixture of languages. Here, the rural and certain other characters spoke not in chaste Sanskrit but in their own Prakrit or Apabhramsa dialects.  Among the Kavyas, an early example of the use of Apabramsha is the Vikramorvashiyam of Kalidasa, when Pururavas asks the animals in the forest about his beloved who had disappeared. Compositions in Apabhramsa continued (particularly in the Sindh region – Saindhava) until Vikram Samvat 1700 (about 1643 AD), when Bhagavatidasa wrote Migankaleha Chariu.

Even much earlier to that, in Natyashastra (around second century BCE) the Dhruva songs sung by women were generally in Prakrit. Natyashastra also  discusses the features of the Dhruva songs composed in regional dialects ; and , in that context mentions seven known dialects  (Desha-bhasha) of its time : Māgadhī,  Āvantī,  Prācyā, Śaurasenī,  Ardha-māgadhī,  Bāhlikā  and  Dākiātyā  (NŚ 5.17-48).

Śaurasenī was the language spoken around the region of Surasena (Mathura area). And, in the play the female characters, Vidūṣaka (jester), children, astrologers and others around the Queens’ court spoke in Śaurasenī. It was assigned a comparatively higher position among the Prakrit dialects.

In comparison, Magadhi , the dialect of the Magadha region in the East , was spoken in the play by lesser characters such as servants, washer -men, fishermen, , barbers ,doorkeepers , black-smiths, hunters  and by the duṣṭa (wicked)  . Even otherwise, the people of Magadha as such were not regarded highly and were projected in poor light.

In some versions, there is a mention of Mahārāṣṭ also. It was a language spoken around the river Godavari and according to linguists; it is an older form of Marāṭhī. In some plays, the leading-lady and her friends speak in Śaurasenī, but sing in Mahārāṣṭ.

It is said; in the earliest times the Sanskrit as a spoken language had at least three distinct dialects: Udichya (North West), Madhyadesya (Mid region) and Prachya (East). It is believed that the Classical Sanskrit, as refined by Panini, was based primarily in Udichya and Madhyadesya dialects.

The forms of Prakrit such as Magadhi, Ardha Magadhi and Apabhramsa were dominant in the East, up to the beginning of the 4th century AD. Most of the literary works during the early period were in Prakrit. Apabhramsa was of considerable importance till about 150 BCE. The earliest reference to Apabhramsa is found in Mahabhashya of Patanjali. It appears that Apabhramsa was not the name of any particular language but was used to denote all deviations from the normal Sanskrit.

 It was only by about the second century AD   more and more works, including those of Buddhists and Jains, came to be written in Sanskrit.

Following that period, some regional languages (Desi Bhasha) became vehicles of the living thought and emotions of the people. The literary activities in these languages picked up . And, lyrical poetry was composed in a mixture of languages- Sanskrit and Regional. There were of course number of great Kavyas in regional languages like Tamil, Kannada, Telugu, and Malayalam and others. Here too the Poetic traditions of the Sanskrit language were closely followed.


 (d) Literary and the non-literary works

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 Bhakara’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.

Sanskrit Poetics endorses the role of Kavya as a vehicle for imparting instructions. While the earlier theoreticians – Bhamaha, Dandin and Vamana- count the renown or fame (Kirti) won the poem and enjoyment (Priti) of the reader among aims of the Kavya, the later poets include instructions (Upadesha) as n additional aim. They also say that unlike scriptures (Prabhu samhita), the Kavya instructs in a gentle and persuasive voice, just as the sweet whispering of the beloved in to ones ears (Kantha-samhita).

At the same time, it would be incorrect to count educational or instructive poetry, religious hymns or narrative literature as Kavya. That is to say, it is not the mere outer form that decides the poetic merit of Kavya.

And, Kavya need not also always have to 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.

Kshemendra (11th century) makes a distinction between Kavya and Shastra, that is, between the purely poetic works and the 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.

This distinction, some regard, as useful, because a certain technical work may also provide good poetry while imparting knowledge. But, at the same time, a Kavya might also be sung as a stotra (e.g. Gitagovinda of Jayadeva).

Basically, Shastra is informative in its character and the 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.

In order to allow his text not only to convey information but also to convey it in an artistic manner, the author-poet uses complex structures. But yet, the natural language is the foundation of the poetry. Although the words used in Kavya and in the non-literary Shastra works are the same they do not evoke the same joy or other emotions.

The poetry, on the other hand, creates for itself a language which has a character of its own (Riti, marga). It might depart from the ordinary day-to-day common usage. With that the poem aims at a definite stylistic effect (vishista). The poet arranges his building-bricks in a manner that is different from that of a non-literary work.

The poet assembles his material in a non-standard fashion; and as Vamana points out the creative process involve using a word-order (pada-charana) in peculiar or specialized (Visista) ways that possess certain characteristics (Kavya-alamkara). Vamana puts forth the view that that the 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.

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 style is not everything that one looks for in a Kavya.


(e)  Mahakavya – Laghukavya

The other major division of lyrical poetry was to categorize Kavya into: (i) Mahakavya, long poems structured into chapters, following all the prescribed regulations of classical poetry; and, (ii) Laghu-kavya, shorter poems or poetry of the minor form.

Bhamaha and Vamana describe these forms as Nibaddha (cohesive poetry) and A-nibaddha (non-cohesive poetry).  Nibaddha which is equated with Mahakavya includes both the long poems (in verse, prose or a mixture of the two) as also Drama. A-nibaddha equated with Laghu-kavya covers all kinds of short poems say of one or two stanzas.

Mahakavya is the elaborate court epic  kavya in classic style narrating a noble story element (kathavastu) of sublime characters   spread over several cantos (Sarga-bandha ) adorned with eighteen types of descriptions (asta-dasha-varnana), with well chosen forms (guna) of expression, syntax, and graces of rasa and beauty (alankara) and endowed with  eloquent imagination; and , at the same time,    satisfying all the norms and principles  (kavya-lakshana)   prescribed  for a Maha-kavya by the Kavya -shastra texts   . Apart from these, it must promote and further the cause of the Dharma.

The Laghukavya comprises within it several: Muktaka – single stanza poem; Yugala -two stanza poem; Sandanitaka (or Vishesaka) = three stanza poem; Kapalaka = Four stanza poem; Kulaka – five to fifteen stanza poem; Samghata = series of stanzas; Kosha (treasure) – collection of stanzas; and Khanda-kavya- short poetic work.

Dandin in his Kavyadarsa gives an elaborate definition of Mahakavya, the summit of Kavya genre:

The composition in Cantos (Sargabandha) begins with a benediction (Mangala), or a salutation or an indication of the plot. It is based on a traditional narrative, or on a true event from one or the other sources. It deals with the fruits of the four aims of life (chatur-vidha phala Purushartha). Its hero is skillful and noble (Dhirodatta). Adorned (Alamkara) with eighteen (ahsta-dasha varnana) types of descriptions including that of  cities (nagara) , oceans(sagara) , mountains (shaila) , seasons (vasantadi ritu), the raising of the sun and moon(chandra-surya udaya –asthamana), ,playing in pleasure-parks (vana vihara ), (udyana),  and in water (jala krida) , drinking parties and the delights of love-making(madyapana surata), weddings (vivaha),   , the separation of lovers(viraha), , discussions with the wise (vipralamba) , , the birth of a son (putrodaya)  , state-craft (raja-mantra),gambling or sending messengers  (dyuta), wars   (yuddha),  campaigns (jaitra-yatra), and accomplishments of the hero (nayaka abyudaya);  not too condensed; pervaded with Rasa ( aesthetic mood) and Bhava ( basic emotion) ; with Cantos that are not overly diffuse , in meters that are pleasing to hear, with proper junctures , and ending with different meters ( that is, meters different from the main or the carrying meter of the Canto) ; such a Kavya pleasing to the world and well ornamented (Sadalamkriti) will last until the end of creation. Even if it lacks some of these features, a Kavya does not become bad, if the perfection of the things that are present delights the connoisseurs (Sahrudaya).”

The ultimate test of a classic poet is Mahakavya, presented as a splendid unity of descriptive and narrative delight. Its long narrative has to be structured into Cantos (Sargabandha) rendering the theme in sequential junctures (Samdhi). The earliest surviving Kavya is Buddhacarita by Ashvaghosa (first century). Some of the renowned Mahakavya-are: Raghuvaśa and Kumārasambhava by Kalidasa; Kirātārjunīya by Bharavi; Śiśupāla-vadha by Māgha; Naiśadha-carita by Sri-Hara; and, Bhaṭṭikāvya, by Bhaṭṭi.

Unlike the prose narrative (Katha and Akhyayika) and the mixed genre of Champu or Drama, the Makakavya is a poem composed entirely of quatrain-like Kavya stanzas. The Kavya poet arranges his or her in variety of elaborate meters, usually keeping the single ‘carrying’ meter up to the end of the Canto.

The characteristics of a Mahakavya may generally be treated as falling under two broad heads: essential and non-essential or formal. The essential characteristics are based on three constituents of Kavya: plot (Vastu or Itivrtta), the hero (Netr or Nayaka) and the main emotional content that it aims to portray (Bhava).

The plot must not be entirely fictitious; but must have a base in history or in Purana. The hero must be accomplished person of very high linage, a very noble person (Dhirodatta). The delineations of various sentiments and emotions are the third characteristic.

The non-essential characteristics are many; and, they generally apply to the techniques of narration and descriptions. A list of such characteristics includes that the number of Sarga should not exceed thirty but should not be less than eight. The number of verses should not be less than thirty but should not exceed two hundred. The last two or three verses of a Canto should be composed in a different meter or meters.

These characteristics are not essential. They may or may not be present in a Kavya.(e.g. The Haravijaya has more than fifty Cantos; some Cantos of Naisadhiyacharita contains more than two hundred verses; and the first Canto of the Bhattikavya has only twenty-seven verses).


Among the Laghukavya-s, a comparatively more detailed form is Khanda Kavya, which takes an independent position between Laghukavya and Mahakavya.

Kavya consisting one Section (Khanda) is called Khanda Kavya. It is different from a series of stanzas (Samghata). Khanda can employ themes much more freely and it usually narrates a story; or it might sometimes provide a background to the narrative. The classic examples of Khandakavya are: Kalidasa’s Meghadutam having about just over one hundred stanzas and Bilhana’s Chauri-surata-panchasika (fifty stanzas concerning secret enjoyment of love-act).

The other forms of Laghukavya generally comprise : Muktaka – single stanza poem; Yugmaka ( also called Yugma, Yugala or Yugalaka) – two-stanza poem; Sandanitaka ( or Visesaka) – three stanza poem; Kapalaka – four –stanza poem; Kulaka – five to fifteen stanza poem; Samghata – series of stanzas;  and, Kosha – collection of stanzas

In Yugmaka, the pair, two stanzas are closely linked by both syntax and content. Both the Mukataka and Yugmaka show a clear tendency to be constructed on one sentence –one –stanza principle.

If the number of stanzas exceeds two  Sandanitaka ( the chain) , Kapalaka ( the group) or Kulaka (the multitude)  are the terms used , in a narrow sense, are the names given to poems of three , four or four or five to fifteen  stanzas respectively.

Samghata (the junction) is a sort of longer poetry all written in the same meter, dealing with one single theme through the whole series of stanzas: a mountain , a season, a wedding , a battle etc.

The Kosha (treasure) on the other hand is longer and heterogeneous. These perhaps could be called Anthologies; and these form an important category in Sanskrit and Prakrit literature. They are collections of Muktakas selected from various sources, arranged as per a theme or in a random fashion.

The single stray verse (Mutaka) containing a single line of thought, emotion or expression or description or a summary is very often used in all types of Kavyas. It is either used at commencement of the Kavya either as benediction (Mangala) or to pay homage to the earlier Masters of the tradition or to summarize the theme that is going to be presented or the mood  of the Kavya itself . These single stanza poems could be compared to Indian miniatures; both present selected fields of animate and inanimate reality typical of the art in question.

The single unit of two or more stanzas in the same meter or in alternate meter (Paryaya Bandha)


(f)  Dhvani – Guna – Chitra

Anandavardhana (Ca. 850 AD) in his Dhvanyaloka chose a different type of classification. He graded the Kavya into three classes (a) Dhvani-kaya (the poetry that suggests) as the true Kavya, the best (Uttama), where Dhvani the unspoken suggestive element is dominant; (b) the second, Gunibhuta-vamgmaya-kavya (well endowed descriptive poetry, as the middle (Madhyama) where Dhvani is secondary to Alamkara, and serves as a decoration for the spoken or expressed meaning; and (c) and Chitrakavya (poetry that structured into various patterns or drawings) as the least (Adhama) which depends entirely on verbal play for  its elegance and elaboration, and where Dhvani the suggestive power of poetry is absent.

Anandavardhana believed that 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 , in  the implied one –  the Dhvani – lies the soul of the poetry.

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, 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).

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

Anandavardhana’s classification is generally accepted and has come to stay. But, what has changed is the types of discussions around it. The later discussions are more pointed and specific.

Let’s talk about the concepts of Sphota, Dhvani and Rasa in the next segment.


 Continued in

The Next Part

Sources and References

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

Glimpses of Indian Poetics by Satya Deva Caudharī

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

Sahityashastra, the Indian Poetics by Dr. Ganesh Tryambak Deshpande

History of Indian Literature by Maurice Winternitz, Moriz Winternitz

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

Literary Cultures in History by Sheldon Pollock

ALL Pictures are from Internet

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Posted by on July 21, 2015 in Kavya, oral traditions, Sanskrit


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Oral Traditions

Oral Traditions

1. The essence of all religions and spiritual paths has come down to us mainly through oral traditions. It was passed on from generation to generation by speaking or singing them to one another, to their children and to their children’s children. The traditions were safeguarded, kept alive and revitalized by the teacher or the story teller or the singing minstrel.

1.1. Besides carrying the core of the doctrine, the oral tradition was luscious with song, poetry, myth, parable and wonder. These appeared to have had a more lasting and a stronger impact than did the codes, dogmas and the formal texts. Consequently, the great stories have become a part our collective- psyche.

2. Let’s take a look at the other worlds before we reach the classical oral traditions of India.

2.1. In the western world, most people, regardless of their religious affiliations, are familiar with the events in the life of Jesus – his forty days  in the desert; or changing water in to wine; or his last supper and his crucifixion. Similarly, the events in the life of the historical Buddha are also well known. His life as a prince shielded from harsh realities of life; his renunciation; his enlightenment under the Bodhi tree; his perambulations teaching Dharma and his death have been celebrated in song, dance and visuals.

2.2. The stories of the great ones bring alive, to us, their teachings and traditions. Jesus, in turn, used parables as vehicles to convey his message. His parables were simple stories that brought his tenets closer to the lives of ordinary men and women. The Buddha too had earlier employed such teaching methods.

2.3. Tibetan Buddhism, in contrast, has a more interesting and a complex method of storytelling. The Termas  of the Tibetan Buddhism  are, in fact, texts in disguise .They are the stories of wonder and awe, concealing within their womb the seeds of true message.  Such termasare said to be time-coded, waiting for a designated adept (treasure-gatherer) to reveal itself.

2.3. In Sufism, the clever and entertaining fables of a beloved – seemingly foolish  Mullah Nasruddin demonstrate the stupidity of self obsessions of the humans, in a manner  that all could recognize and enjoy. The Sufis told stories, made jokes, entertained and offended human sensibilities by holding a mirror to their frailties, in a way that no other one did.

3. In Zen Buddhist tradition, the stories and koans have been in use, for a longtime, as a tool for training the mind ( or dissolving the mind). Koans are designed not to reveal their meaning to the student easily and instantly; but, to throw his mind in to a vortex and a crisis .That crisis should be so intense and overpowering as to break   through the barriers of reason and barge into non-conceptual, direct apprehension of reality, the Satori.  Such Satori would occur, unexpectedly, in a flash after years of struggle trying to “understand” it.

3.1. Entertainment never was (or is) the object of a koan. One can still read the stories and be amused; but, that is not why the koans were narrated. Within a Zen tradition, the teaching-stories were preserved and passed on a lineage as a part of its training traditions. There is a certain simplicity and purity about those stories; and, they have to be placed, essentially, within the student –teacher relationship and in the context of sadhana.  The story finds its fulfillment in the satori attained by the student.

3.2. Going back into the Zen history we find that  the seeds of the Zen were in the Dhyana school of Bodhidharma who discouraged mere book learning. He said, Dhyana is not an intellectual exercise one can learn from books. Instead, it’s a practice of studying mind and seeing into one’s nature. The face-to-face transmission of the Dharma was important. That meant, the student and the teacher have to work together face –to – face. That made the student –teacher relation and interaction critical to its success.


4. Before we come to the classical oral heritage  of India, let us briefly talk about that fabulous folk tradition of India.

The folk oral traditions of India go back into timeless antiquity. The heroes and heroines of the bygone eras are kept alive through songs and dances of simple rustic people. The nomadic tribes that wandered far into distant valleys in search of pastures and waterholes to tend their herds burst out into poignant soulful songs pining for their beloveds and yearning for the smells, sounds and feel of their motherland. Nehru, in his Discovery of India talks about how tribes that had drifted apart long ago, recognized each other through their songs, after centuries of separation.

4.1. The two major epics that shaped the Indian sensibility, the Ramayana and Mahabharata, were preserved and spread as oral epics. The Suthas narrated and sang the glory of its heroes and heroines in divine fervor. Even to this day the tradition of devote groups of listeners gathering around a sutha to listen to the ancient stories, rather than read the epic poems themselves, is still alive.

5.1. Though poetry is easier to remember than prose, the oral tradition in Indian literature was not confined to poetic literature. Indian story telling has been molded to suit oral form right from the very beginning of narrative fiction in India. The stories in the Kathasaritasagara and the Jathaka are structured for oral rendering by wandering minstrels.

5.2. India owes a lot of its rich tradition of story telling to its tribal people.

The tradition of story telling evokes pictures of weary travelers, at the end of a long day’s hard journey, gathering around a fire lit on the sands of a river bank under the starry night, listening with rapt attention and amusement to the stories of wonder and awe of distant lands inhabited by exotic people, narrated by an elder, in magical soothing voice with theatrical and lyrical interludes. With each re-telling, the stories gathered additional narrative, becoming more circuitous to enhance the drama of the live recitation.

The power of the spoken language to ignite the listener’s imagination and transport him to the world of ideas, dreams, myths and fables, is truly amazing.

As a professor of Mass communication remarked, “In the saying of the word, something is also done, and cannot be undone. Indian literature is full of tales in which a word was misused, uttered capriciously or wrongly, with mischievous or even disastrous consequences. And, in some ways the power of words can be seen as magic; but this is not mere magic. “

6. The period around and after the 10th Century, was the glorious period of Indian oral heritage. The groups of inspired poets, charged with devotion and love – Nanak, Dnyaneshwar, Eknath,  Tukaram, Kabir, Mira, Allamaprabhu, Akkamahadevi, Purandara Dasa, Narsi Mehta, Surdas and a hoast of others known as the bhakti poets, sang.  pouring out some of the very best poetry in the Indian literary history. They created poetry of abiding beauty in the languages spoken by the people.

Before that the Alwars and Nayanmaars of South India sang in pristine Tamil; and charged with devotion and dedication, poured their hearts out to their gods in musical ecstasy,

6.1. The songs of all those bards, permeated with fragrance of devotion, also carried love and concern for their fellow beings. They tried to guide and steer their brethren away from ignorance and superstition. Their messages   were a challenge to the established theology and social order. The lines and verses of their poetry, easy to remember and recite , have an amazing range and depth of philosophic, social and moral concerns. In many instances they held their communities together and brought about social integration. Those songs are relevant, even today; and are sung in the villages and cities. Their influence is so profound and pervasive that those songs are now a part of our collective psyche.

7. 1.There has never been a central agency or an organization in India to monitor or diffuse cultural values among its people. The spread of cultural values has always been, at the grass root level, by countless iterant, unassuming bards, fakirs, saints many of them outlandish and exotic. They came from all segments, all divisions of the society. They came from different regions, different religions, different sects and sub sects. They roamed about the countryside without any expectation or reward .They preached and lived what they believed. Those nameless, non-conforming selfless savants have been the guardians of Indian culture.

7.2 . Lets briefly talk about one such group of unassuming bards; the Bauls of Bengal. They belong to a fabulous folk tradition, which has a history that stretches back to about seven hundred years. Their tradition is a delightful amalgam of bhakthi of Vaishana School, tantra of Shajiya Buddhism and the mysticism of the Sufis. The Baul synthesis is characterized by four elements: there is no written text and therefore all teachings are through song and dance; God is to be found in and through the body and therefore the emphasis on kaya (body) sadhana, the use of sexual or breath energy; and, absolute obedience and reverence to Guru.

7.3. Bauls are easily noticeable by their attire, demeanor and way of living. They are wanderers, beggars, poets and musicians praising God in song, dance and mystical poetry. The message of the Bauls is encoded in their song and poetry; and is accessible through the appreciation and understanding of its rich symbolism.

7.4. Baul singer though romanticized in folk art, music and poetry, is a part of the fast vanishing tribe. As wanderers and beggars Bauls are looked down upon; are considered vagrants in polite society; and kept away as heretics by the orthodox. Their religious life is not bound by conventions and rules; but springs from intuition and lived-relationship with the divine. Bauls life is permeated with the fragrance of a passionate yet profound reliance upon the Beloved, the personal god within. The celebration of that relationship with all its ecstasy and heartbreaking agony is the lifeblood of a Bauls existence.

8. 1. As regards other forms of folk art and drama in particular, they continue to thrive in most Indian languages. Even during the ancient times the Sanskrit drama made a generous use of folk elements and folk dialects.

8.2. In the present day, the Kannada and Tulu languages have the Yakshagana theatre, the Gujarati language has the Bhavai theatre and the Marathi has the Tamasha performances. These regional forms do not have a fixed and written text to support the performance. They are spontaneous and depend on improvisation by the actors. And for that reason, when compared to plays with written scripts, they are closer to the audiences. That does not mean they are primitive forms of drama; on the contrary they are sophisticated in technique, presentation and performance.

8.3. The plays of modern Indian playwrights such as Girish Karnad, Habib Tanvir and others are rooted in the oral traditions of literature. They are less marked by the influences of the west and are closer to Indian culture and tradition.

8.4. Even today, access to traditional knowledge of subjects like art, music, grammar or   philosophy is widely held to require a direct oral transmission from   master to pupil.  In India, it is this oral tradition that is held to embody   the pure transmission of music;  its teachers and students, alike, are still not comfortable in reducing musical sounds in to written notations.

8.5. Among the many traditions (parampara) inherited in India, the tradition of Vishwakarma (the sculptors and architects) is unique. The principles , rules , measurements , proportions as also the aspects of expression of the deities to be sculpted are described in Shilpasastra, Natyasastra and various other texts; and all of which are in Sanskrit. The scholars who could read those texts knew next to nothing about sculpture. While, the Shilpis who actually carved the images had no knowledge of Sanskrit or access to the texts; and therefore could not know the texts or interpret the shlokas. This dichotomy was bridged by the generations of Shilpis who through experience learnt the craft, imbibed its principles and concepts; and passed them on to their succeeding generations and to their disciples

The mode of transmission of knowledge of this community was both oral and practical. The rigor and discipline required to create objects that defy time and persist beyond generations of artists, has imbued this tradition with tremendous sense of purpose, and zeal to maintain purity and sensitivity of its traditions; and to carry it forward. This has enabled them to protect and carry forward the knowledge, the art and skills without falling prey to the market and its dynamics.

8.6. India’s age-old love for the oral found a powerful means of expression in cinema. Indian cinema, with descriptive passages than narrative sequences; as also studded with songs and dances; and with the story always ending on a happy note with the Good and Love triumphing over the bad guys and the Loveless., is more akin to folk tales than to what cinema is in the western world.

9. 1. The most amazing of all the oral traditions preserved in India are the oral traditions of the Vedas.

“The three worlds would have merged in darkness had there been no light called Sabda” said Acharya Dandin (6th century) the celebrated author of prose romance and an expounder on poetics.

9.2. For Indian thinkers, language was primarily the spoken word or speaking itself (vaak). Indian philosophy has been even more emphatic than Western thought with regard to the priority of the oral over the written. The tradition in both Hindu and Buddhist philosophy has been to correct the written text with the oral. It is the oral word, carefully memorized, guarded by the discipline of the prathi_shakins, and passed down from teacher to student through succeeding generations that has remained authoritative and authentic in India.

Not merely that; the meaning or the purport of a term in a  text  is derived and explained based on its precise pronunciation. Because, the written word, inscribed on a surface,  is unable to bring out the various shades of the term . For instance, Sri Sayanacharya offered several interpretations to the term ‘Asat’. He explains, the form of Asat – with ascent of the first syllable – in many ways :  in the sense of untruth ‘ (asatya); and once each in the senses of ‘ inauspious ‘ (ashubha); ‘ un-manifest (avyakrta), and ‘ indescribable ‘ (nirupdkhya) . The form of Asat –without ascent- is understood as to mean:  ‘ goes or reaches ‘ (gacchati, prapnoti), and ‘ fruitful (phala-sadhana-samarthah).

Sri Sankara commenting on symbols and reality, curiously remarks, “ We see that the knowledge of the real sounds  a, aa, e, ee  etc., is reached by means of the unreal written letters.”(B.S. 2.1.14). He perhaps was suggesting that the spoken language is the real language.

9.3. The ancient Indian philosophers and Grammarians just loved elaborate discussions on all aspects of the spoken word: its origin in the mind and body of the speaker; its articulation; its transmission; the grasp of the sound and the essence of the word by the listener; its ultimate reception by the speaker’s intellect and such other related issues.

9.4.Each of the major schools of Indian philosophy such as Mimamsa, Tantra, Yoga and Prabhakaras viewed and interpreted the origin and nature of the Universe by exploring the nature and manifestations of the sound. They built elaborate philosophical edifices around the concepts they evolved during that process. Those traditions considered sound as one of the most important principles of existence; as the source of matter and as the key to be free from it. They described Sound as the thread-like link between the material and spiritual realms.

Panini’s Astadhyayi, the Grammar, is also based on the sound of spoken Sanskrit.

9.5. The French philosopher Jacques Derrida said: The spoken word is given a higher value because the speaker and listener are both present to the utterance simultaneously. There is no temporal or spatial distance between speaker, speech, and listener, since the speaker hears himself speak at the same moment as the listener does. This immediacy seems to guarantee the notion that in the spoken word we know what we mean, mean what we say, say what we mean and know what we have said.

It is only of late we have come to regard that speech and writing are expressions of one and the same language; and that language can be best understood by combining both the form and content of writing.

10. 1. Perhaps the most salient feature of ancient Indian linguistic culture was the concern for the preservation of sacred texts and the purity of the language in which they were composed. This concern arose out of the willingness of the society not only to commit the resources (time, effort, energy,  enthusiasm and material resources) for this transmission, but also to the development of a technique that would guarantee the purity , entirety  and constancy of the texts. The decision or strategy devised was to commit the sacred texts to memory and to transmit the sacred texts orally, but in a highly controlled way that was rightly felt to be the only way to avoid the introduction of error into the texts. As anyone who has witnessed a demonstration of this technique can attest, the outcome seems to be fairly foolproof, better anyway than via literacy and handwritten transmission, where scribal error and individual additions and emendations can often be introduced.

10.2. Tradition accepts that Rishi Veda_Vyasa categorized and compiled four Vedas by splitting the primordial single Veda and rendered the Vedas more amenable to study and to memorize. The task of preserving and perpetuating each branch of the Veda, in its entirety and purity , was assigned to a specified Shakha (meaning branch).The followers of each Shakha , identified as Shakins of that particular Vedic school, were responsible for preserving their assigned part of the Veda. Followers of each Shakha would learn and preserve one the four Veda Samhitas along with their associated Brahmana, Aranyaka, Upanishads and the Sutras such as Grhyasutra and Shrautasutra. Only a small number of these Shakhas have survived; the prominent among them are Sakala and Baskala. [For more on Shakas, please see the link in the comments section]

It is astounding that large bodies of Vedic texts could be preserved in oral traditions for over thousands of years, safeguarding their purity and entirety.

10.3. In order to achieve this difficult task, an elaborate and a meticulous system of recitations were devised. These systems of discipline with their checks and balances , ensured the correctness of a text including the correct sequence of its words; purity of the language; exact pronunciation of the words; precise stress on syllables ; measured pause between syllables; appropriate tone, accent, modulation and pitch of recitation; proper breath control etc. Shiksha one of the six Vedangas (limbs of Veda) that dealt with phonetics and phonology of Sanskrit, laid down rules for correct pronunciation of Vedic hymns and mantras. Please click here.

10.4. Along with this, several patterns of Vedic chants were devised to ensure complete and perfect memorization of the text and its pronunciation including the Vedic pitch accent. These patterns called Pathaas ensured correct recital of the Veda mantra by weaving the mantras into various patterns and complex combinations of such patterns. There are eleven acknowledged patterns or Patahaas Viz. Samhitha or vakhyaa, padaa, krama, jataa, maala, Sikhaa, rekhaa, dhvajaa, dandaa, rathaa and Ghana. Please see the links in the comments section

10.5. Among these, The Samhita Paathaa and Pada Paathaa are natural (Prakrithi) way of reciting the words of the mantras, in their normal sequence. The rest are Vikrithi (or artificial) Paathaas. Recently mathematical series have been devised to work out the Krama, Jata and Ghana Paatha patterns. For more on this and for greater details on Paathas please click see the link in the comments section.

10.6. By applying such stringent methods of learning and complicated patterns of recital, each generation committed to memory long passages of its assigned texts through incessant practice spread over a number of years, retained the form and content of the texts in their pristine purity; and  succeeded in transmitting it, orally, to the next generation. This was how the Vedic texts were retained in oral form, uncorrupted, over the centuries. It was an act of intense reverence, dedication and love.Rarely has any other oral tradition of poetry been so venerated and so well preserved as the Vedic tradition.

11. 1. Because the regimen was already so well established the epics too were committed to the oral tradition. In the mantra tradition, orality was best suited to preserve the purity and the secrecy of the sacred syllables. The primary purpose here was to talk to gods and not merely to know what gods had spoken. The mantra had therefore to be learned in a proper way from/by a proper person and pronounced in a proper manner. Writing the syllables and words on paper (stone , copper , bark or whatever) would not therefore be a substitute for learning  and pronouncing the mantra  properly. The efficacy of precisely articulated sounds is believed to be in its power to invoke gods and spirits.

As my friend Shri DSampath says the mantras and the dhyana slokas have audio – visual dimensions to them, to enable better retention. And , knowledge transfer in such cases would be  effective when it is oral.

12.1. It was however in the Sutras – the pithy, unambiguous, aphorisms laying out all the essential aspects of each topic and dealing with all aspects of the question, free of repetitiveness and flaw – the oral tradition functioned as key to open a vast treasure

12.2.. Sutra literally means a thread but technically it meant in the ancient Indian context, an aphoristic style of condensing the spectrum of thoughts of a doctrine into terse, crisp, pithy pellets of compressed information that could be easily committed to memory. They are analogous to synoptic notes on a lecture; and by tapping on a note, one hopes to recall the relevant expanded form of the lecture. Perhaps the Sutras were meant to serve  a  similar purpose. A Sutra is therefore not merely an aphorism but a key to an entire discourse on a subject. Traditionally, each Sutra is regarded as a discourse rather than a statement.

12.3. Problems arose when the sutra-concept was overdone and often carried to its extremes. It is said a Sutrakara would rather give up a child than expend a word. The Sutras often became so terse as to be inscrutable. And, one could read into it as many meanings  as one wanted to.

It was left to the genius of the commentator; the Bashyakara to pinpoint Vishesha Vakya the exact statement in the Vedic text referred to by the sutra; to maintain consistency in treatment – in the context and spirit of the original text; to bring out the true intent and meaning of the Sutrakara’s reasoning and conclusions. It was therefore said, each according to his merit finds his rewards. But, it was here the written and printed texts came to rescue of the teachers and learners, alike.

13.1. The oral method of preserving and communicating knowledge had a fatal flaw. There are instances where the collective wisdom of a race acquired throughout the centuries was ruined and  wiped out of existence  in a flash by catastrophes, earthquakes, tsunamis , war or whatever. Those unfortunate occurrences demonstrated time and again the risks involved is storing the racial memories in a line of individuals.

13.2. The inevitability of the spoken word has also vastly diminished in today’s world. The reliance on spoken word is no longer necessary, nor it is always possible; and in a large number of instances it is treated not merely as unreliable but also relegated to the status of non-communication. Even in the field of literature oral literature was seen as a sign of cultural backwardness.

14.1. It would be wrong to assume that one type of communication is superior to the other. Each has its strengths and weaknesses. The spoken word can be beautiful and soul stirring in a way that the written word can never be; it alone is capable of preserving the purity of the word, its sound and its form. On the other hand, the written word preserves thoughts in a very meticulous manner for dissemination and further study; and it surely can be disbursed more easily. Each tradition has its value and its place in the scheme of things.

14.2. The unique feature of the Indian classical literature is the interaction between the oral and written texts, Sheldon Pollock in his The Language of the Gods writes:

In contrast to Veda and its strictly oral transmission,    large post-Vedic literatures were expressed in writing. Nevertheless, writing did not extinguish the spoken word. Rather, we find new performing styles; recitatives in simple meters without accentuation, songs and dramatic staging.

None of this should be taken to suggest that the rise of the manuscript culture in India, whether diachronically or synchronically viewed, entailed a clean and permanent break between the oral and the written. To the contrary, the ongoing interaction of the oral and literate constitutes one of the most remarkable and unique features of Indian literacy culture.

That is to say; the oral and written texts are relevant and important in their own context. While the Vedic oral rendition has its own status, there would have been no effective distribution of Puranas and epics without the written texts.

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References and Sources:


1. Paragraph 10.2: For Shakhas please click here:

2. Paragraph 10.3. For Shiksha Please click on:

3. Paragraph 10.4. For eleven acknowledged methods of pathas , please click on:

4. Paragraph 10.5. For mathematical series devised to work out the Krama, Jata and Ghana Paatha patterns please click on :

5. Sources and References:

Unbroken Chain of Oral Tradition by Dr. Harischandra Kaviratna

“Speech versus Writing” In Derrida and Bhartṛhari by Harold G. Coward

Mass Communication in Ancient India

Telling a Ramayana by G N Devy


Posted by on September 13, 2012 in General Interest, History, oral traditions


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Rishis of the Rig Veda and oral traditions of the Vedas

This post is in response to comments and queries from Kaveriyamma. Those related to the Rishis of the Rig Veda, their linage, the female Rishis and the oral tradition.


A Rishi in Rig Veda is an author of a Rik, a mantra.  It is not a product of his reasoning or intellect, but of an intuitive perception. He envisioned the entities beyond the range of human senses,concived the self evident knowledge (svatah pramana) and realized the Truth by direct intution. Vamadeva , a Rishi in one of his hymns (RV 4.3.16) describes himself as the illumined one , expressing the Truth reveled to him(ninya vachasmi).

The term Rishi is defined as “rishati jnānena samsāra-pāram” meaning one who goes beyond the mundane world by means of knowledge. Further, some scholars think the root ‘drish‘ (sight) might have given rise to root ‘rish’ meaning ‘to see’.

Rishi is therefore a wise seer, a drastara, one who visualizes a mantra. He is also the one who hears. The seers were the “hearers of the Truth” (kavayaha sathya srutah) .Sri Aurobindo described Shruthi as “divine recordings of cosmic sounds of truth” heard by the Rishis.The Vedas are thus Shruthis , revealed scriptures. That is the reason , the Vedas are Apaurusheya , not authored by any agency.

Amarakosha, the Sanskrit lexicon, gives the synonym for the term Rishi as satyavachah, the one who speaks truth. A Rishi in the Rig Veda is a sage who realized the truth. However all sages are not Rishis; just as not all Rishis are Kavis.

(For more on Kavis, please see Kavi, Rishi and the Poet ).

Yasca_charya makes a significant  classification even among the Rishis.He draws a clear distinction between a Sakshath_krutha_Rishi , the seer who has the direct intutional perception; and the Shrutha_rishi , the one heard it from the seeres and remambered what he heard.

The Srutha_rishi is like the mirror or the moon that basks in the glory of the sun .The moon and the mirror both take in the glory of the sun and put forth the shine to the world in their own way. Similarly, the Srutha_rishi obtained the knowledge by listening to the Sakshath_ Krutha_ Rishi, and more importantly by remembering what he heard. The bifurcation of the Vedas/Upanishads on one hand (as Shruthi, as heard) ; and the Vedangas, Shastras, Puranas, Ithihasa etc. on the other (as smriti, as remembered) , stems from the above concept.  Smriti, in general, is secondary in authority to Shruti .

Rig Veda mentions about four hundred Rishis and about thirty of them were women. Before going into their names and other details, let us, briefly, talk about the mantras.


Poetry raised to its sublime heights is mantra to which a Rishi gives utterance. The Rishi visualizes a magnificent idea, through intuitive perception, crystallizes it and gives it an expression. . One cannot be a sublime poet unless one is a Rishi (naan rishir kuruthe kavyam).  Badarayana Sutra (244:36) says Rishi not only lives the mantra but also is the essence of it.

A mantra is usually prefaced by a segment made of three components, mentioning the Rishi who visualized the mantra, the Deva or the Devatha who inspired the mantra or to whom the mantra is addressed; and the metrical form of the mantra. Every time, one meditates on the deity uttering its mantra with devotion; one recalls its Rishi with reverence and gratitude. For instance, the most celebrated Gayatri   mantra which appears in Rig Veda at 3.62.10 is prefaced by a short description, Vishvamitra risihi, Savitha devatha, Gayatri chandaha, which says that the mantra was revealed to Rishi Vishwamitra; the illuminating spirit behind the mantra was Savitha Devatha from whom everything comes into being ; and it was conveyed to the Rishi in Gayatri chandas (a metrical form having three lines of 8 syllables each, a total of 24 syllables). Before one meditates on goddess Gayatri uttering her mantra, one submits salutations to its Rishi, Vishwamitra.

Yaska_charya also mentions that mantras have three layers of meaning (traye artha).The essential power of the mantras are to transport us to the world of ideas beyond the ordinary and to experience the vision that the Rishi had.

BOOKS of Rig Veda

The Rig Veda contains 10,552 mantras; grouped into 1, 028 Sukthas each of roughly ten mantras, spread over ten Mandalas (Books).The Mandalas are of uneven size. These mantras are authored by about 400 Rishis of whom about 30 are women. Each Rishi is identified by two names – his/her personal name and the name of his/her father or teacher or lineage. For instance, the first Suktha of Rig Veda was revealed to Madhuchchanda Vishwamitrah meaning that he was the son or the disciple of Vishwamitra; the Gayatri mantra was revealed to Vishwamitra Gathin meaning Vishwamitra was the son of Gatha. It also indicates whether the Rishi was a man or a woman; for instance, Ghosha Kakshivali (RV 10.39-40) was the wife of kakshivan another Rishi.

A   Rishi could be a man or a woman, could be a celibate or a householder or unmarried.

As mentioned, each hymn of the Rig Veda is attributed to a Rishi. Of the ten Mandalas (Books) six Mandalas, numbering from 2 to 7 are homogenous in character and are considered the oldest parts of the Rig Veda. Each of these six books was composed by a Rishi and by members of his family / disciples and of his Gotra. These Mandalas (2-7) are therefore often called Family Books. On the other hand, the books 1, 8 and 10 were not each composed by a distinct family of Rishis but by different individual Rishis. The Books #1 and 8 are almost Family Books as a majority of their hymns are composed by the family of Kanvas and many hymns are found in both the Books.  The Book # 9 is different from the rest; all the hymns therein are addressed to Soma (while not a single hymn is addressed to Soma in the Family Books) and by groups of Rishis. The tenth Book is a collection of various earlier and later hymns.Book # 10 appears to be of a later origin and of a supplementary character. The Books # 1 and 10 are the latest and the longest Books together accounting for about 40 percent of the bulk of the Rig Veda.

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There are certain texts called Anukramani (also called Anukramanika) which serve as Index to the Rig Veda and provide basic information about each hymn of the Rig Veda. The most well-known of the Aukramani is Katyayana’s sarvanukramani and is dated around the second century. The entries in the texts mention about each hymn specifying, the name of the Rishi who   authored the hymn; the Devatha who inspired or to whom the hymn is addressed; and the Chandas or the metre of the hymn. They are extremely useful in historical analysis of the Rig Veda.For more on Anukramanis, please see .

The following table indicates the number of hymns in the rig Veda, attributed to some main families.

Family No. of


Angirasa 3,619
Kanva 1,315
Vasistha 1,267
VIshwamitra 0,983
Atri 0,885
Brighu 0,473
Kashyapa 0,415
Grtsamanda 0,401
Agasthya 0,316
Bharata 0,170

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As regards female Rishis (Rishikas), about 30 of them are named in the Rig Veda. To name some of them: : Ghosha Kakshivati , Dakshina Prajapathya ,Vishvavara Atreyi,  Godha, Apala Atreyi, Yami Vivasvathi, Lopamudra, Romasha Svanya, Aditi Dakshayeni, Ratri Bharadwaja , Vasukra Pathni , Surya Savitri, Indrani, Sarma Devasuni ,   Urvashi, Shashwati Angirasi, Sri Laksha and others .

Lopamudra , a great Rishika in her own right , was the wife of Rishi Agasthya and Ghosha Kakashivati was the wife of another Rishi kakashivan . Daughters of the Rishis Bharadwaja , Angirasa and Atri were also Rishikas.Vishvavara, Romasha and Vach Ambrini stood out as other Rishikas of merit.


Tradition accepts that Rishi Veda_Vyasa categorized and compiled four Vedas by splitting the primordial single Veda and rendered the Vedas more amenable to study and to memorize. The task of preserving and perpetuating each  branch of the Veda, in its entirety and purity , was assigned to a specified Shakha (meaning branch).The followers of each Shakha ,  identified as Shakins  of that particular Vedic school, were responsible for preserving their assigned part of the Veda. Followers of each Shakha would learn and preserve one the four Veda Samhitas along with their associated Brahmana, Aranyaka, Upanishads and the Sutras such as Grhyasutra and Shrautasutra. Only a small number of these Shakhas have survived; the prominent among them are Sakala and Baskala. For more on Shakas, please see:

It is astounding that large bodies of Vedic texts have been preserved in oral traditions for over thousands of years, safeguarding their purity and entirety. How our ancients could successfully achieve such an unbelievable task, is truly remarkable.

In order to achieve this difficult task, an elaborate and a meticulous systems of recitations were devised. These systems of discipline with their  checks and balances , ensured the correctness of a text including the correct sequence of its words; purity of the language; exact pronunciation of the words; precise stress on syllables ; measured pause between syllables; appropriate tone, accent, modulation  and pitch of recitation; proper breath control etc. Shiksha one of the six Vedangas (limbs of Veda) that dealt with phonetics and phonology of Sanskrit, laid down rules for correct pronunciation of Vedic hymns and mantras.

Along with this, several patterns of Vedic chants were devised to ensure complete and perfect memorization of the text and its pronunciation including the Vedic pitch accent. These patterns called Pathaas ensured correct recital of the Veda mantra by weaving the mantras into various patterns and complex combinations of patterns. There are eleven acknowledged patterns or Patahaas Viz. Samhitha or vakhyaa, padaa, krama, jataa, maala, Sikhaa, rekhaa, dhvajaa, dandaa, rathaa and Ghana.

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The salient features of a few main Paathaas are as under:

Vakhya Pathaa or Samhitaa Pathaa: To recite the mantras in a straight sentence.

Pada Paathaa: to recite the mantras, word by word, instead of joining the words; to acquaint the student with the words in the text.

Krama Paathaa: the first word of the mantra is added to the second, the second to the third, the third to the fourth and so on, until the whole sentence of the mantras is completed. The order of words will be 1-2; 2-3; 3-4; 4-5 and so on. This helps to fix the words in their proper position and sequence. It also helps the students to understand changes occurring in swara in such a combination. The person who is well versed in reciting the Krama Paathaa is known as “Krama Vit.”.

Jata Paathaa: the first two words are recited together and then the words are recited in a reverse order and then again in the original order. Jata Paathaa is a play by twisting the Krama Paatha:   Krama + Inverse of Krama + Krama = jataa. The order will be 1-2-2-1-1-2, 2-3-3-2-2-3, 3-4-4-3-3-4, 4-5-5-4-4-5 and so on

Ghana Paathaa: This is one of the most popular form of recitations and requires years of learning and practice. A scholar proficient in recitation in this format is honored as Ghana_ paathi. In Ghana Paathaa the combination will be: 1-2-2-1-1-2-3-3-2-1-1-2-3  2-3-3-2-2-3-4-4-3-2-2-3-4, 3-4-4-3-3-4-5-5-4-3-3-4-5 and so on till last pada ends in that sentence. This is a complex combination of Jata Paatha and Pada Paatha in the following order:   jataa + 3rd Padaa + Inverse of 3 Padaas + 3 Padaas in Straightway = Ghana Paathaa.

The Samhita Paathaa and Pada Paathaa are called Prakrithi (or natural) Paathaas, as the words of the mantras occur in normal sequence. The rest are called Vikrithi (or artificial and not natural) Paathaas. Recently mathematical series have been devised to work out the Krama, Jata and Ghana Paatha patterns. For more on this and for greater details on Paathas please visit

By applying these stringent methods  of learning and complicated patterns of recital, each generation committed to memory long passages of its assigned texts through incessant practice spread over a number of  years, retained the form and content of the texts in their pristine condition and transmitted, orally, to the next generation. This was how the Vedic texts were retained in oral form, uncorrupted, over the centuries.


Posted by on September 4, 2012 in Indian Philosophy, oral traditions, Rigveda


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