Tag Archives: Kavya shastra

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,seated comfortably  (tatra yathāsukhamāsīnaḥ kāvyagoṣṭīṃ pravarttayed) 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 – antarāntarā ca kāvyagoṣṭhīṃ śāstra-vādā-nanujānīyāt.

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. They were of four kinds: caturvidhaścāsau/asūryampaśyo,niṣaṇṇo, dattāvasaraḥ, prāyojanikaśca /

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 – dattāvasaraḥ, prāyojanikaśca.

Rajasekhara also mentions of those poets who were totally devoted to their poetic work. They invariably shut themselves from daylight (asūryampaśyo), 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 (tāḍipatrāṇi) or birch bark (bhūrjatvaco); and an iron stylus (kaṇṭakāni). 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.

tasya sampuṭikā saphalakakhaṭikā, samudgakaḥ, salekhanīkamaṣībhājanāni tāḍipatrāṇi bhūrjatvaco vā, salohakaṇṭakāni tāladalāni susabhmṛṣṭā bhittayaḥ, satatasannihitāḥ syuḥ /


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.

[Banabhatta is also credited with some other, lesser known, works.  It is said; Banabhatta composed a devotional poem Candisataka, of one hundred and two stanzas, in praise of goddess Chandi. Further, Parvathi-parinaya, a drama in five acts describing the marriage o f Siva and Pravathi; and, another drama, Mukutataditakam concerning the conflict between Bhima and Duryodhana, are also ascribed to Banabhatta. But, nothing much is known about these works.]

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.

In this marvellous complex texture, men and demigods; the earth and the regions beyond; the natural and the supernatural; love and curses, are all blended naturally. There are also amazing transformations of gods into demigods; demigods into men; men into animals and birds. Their relations persist and continue over   successive births. They create unusual situations that make the author to construct intriguing devices to advance the development of the plot.

There is a well-known, interesting adage with a play on words: Kādambari rasajnānām āhāropi na rochate- while savouring ‘Kādambari‘ – the book, readers lose interest in (eating) food (Kādambari).

Bana, especially, in his Kadamabari, was celebrated  for  his rich  figurative speech; his command over  language;  his clever use of words;  and,  his  deep understanding of human nature. His descriptions are amazing; his similes and metaphors are matchless; and, even his critics could not help admire, exclaim Bana’s brilliance. He had a unique  manner of describing even the most familiar things in life. For instance; look at the ingenuity in scripting the  love-message that Princess Kadambari sent to her lover:

“What message can I send to you?   If I say: ‘You are very dear to me’, that would be a needless repetition;  If I say: ‘I am yours’ , that would be a childish prattle; In case I say: ‘I have deep affection for you’, that would  be improper for a Queen;  I cannot say:  ‘Without you I cannot live’, because that would be rather untrue;   If I cry out: ‘I am overtaken by Cupid’, that would sound silly ; I cannot, of course, say :  ‘I have been forcibly abducted’,  that would be sheer helplessness  of a captive girl; ‘ If I insist : You must come at once ‘, that might be construed as arrogance ;   If , on the other hand, I offer myself and say : ‘I will come to you of my own accord’, then I could be mistaken to be a horny , fickle minded  woman; If  I submit , imploring : ‘This slave is not devoted to anybody else, but to you alone’, then that would amount to demeaning myself , a Queen;   If I make a pretext  : ‘I do not send messages for fear of refusal’, that would be a rather senseless excuse  lacking trust in you;  If I beseech you wailing : ‘I shall suffer terrible pains in case I lead an undesired life’, that would suggest that I am weak and lacking conviction in myself; and, If I finally declare :  ‘You will come to know of my love through my death’, that would be pointless”. [History of Indian Literature by Moriz Winternitz (page 409)]


[ 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. Chandrasena and Matrsena were his half-brothers. And, Ganapathi, Adipathi, Tarapathi and Shyamala were his parental cousins..

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 .

Bana’s teacher was said to be one, Bhravu . Banabhatta, at the commencement of his Kadambari, submits his salutations to his teacher Bhravu, who was also respected by the kings of the Mukharin dynasty – (namami bharvos-carana-ambuja-dvayam  sasekharair moukharibhih krtarcanani). The commentator, Bhanuchandra, however, mentions that Banabhatta’s teacher was known as Bhatusa or Bhartsu.

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; Rudra, Venibhadra  and Narayana were poets; Isana was song writer in Prakrit; Bharata was a composer of songs set to music ; Govinda was a writer; Sudrsti was a reader of letters; Susivana was a panegyrist (an orator who delivers eulogies or panegyrics); Mayuraka was a snake-charmer ; Viravarman was a painter; Kumaradatta was a varnisher; Damodara was, a potter ;   Kumaraan was a manufacturer of dolls; Carmkara and Sindhusena were goldsmiths;  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; Mandaraka was a physician; Akhandalaka and Bhlmaka were  dice players (gamblers); Vihamgama was an alchemist;  Lohitaksa was  a treasure-seeker ; Tamracuda was a shaiva  ascetic; 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;  Harinika was a dancer; Sudrati was an artist;  another Chandaka was a physician  ; Karangika was an  independent artisan; Keralika was massage girl; Karangika, the maid of honor ; and, Sumati  and Cakravakika ( the elderly)  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; enabled him to depict in his works the pictures of  varied  characters in real   life; and, it  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; and , was  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;and, the 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 with  the  persons 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 traveled 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 One

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


Kavya Shastra


The Indian Poetics over the centuries was known by different names at different stages of its development.  Valmiki in his Epic, Ramayana, refers to Poetics as Kriya-kalpa (kriya-kalpa vidashcha kavyavido janan– Uttara Kanda.93.7).  Lalitavistara Sutra a Buddhist text believed to belong to the first or second century explains the term Kriya–kalpa as the rules  for creating poetic works  (Kavya-karana-vidhi) ; and says that  the term means  Kavya-alamkara , the poetics (kriya–kalpa iti kavya-karana-vidhi kavya-alamkara ithyarthaha).  Vatsayana  (Ca. second century) in his famous Kama sutra , while enumerating the fourteen types of arts (Kala) that a cultured urbane  person (Nagarika)  should cultivate , also uses the terms  chando-jñānamKavya-kriya-kalpa   to denote the Poetics (Kama sutra.1.3.15). The poet Dandin (6th-7th century) in his Kavyadarsha, a handbook of classical Sanskrit Poetics, calls Poetics as Kriyavidhi, the rules of poetry ( vācāṃ vicitra-mārgāṇāṃ nibabandhuḥ kriyāvidhim // 1.9 //)

But, by the time of Bhamaha (Ca.6-7th century) the term Alamkara or Alamkara shastra was in wide use.  It was believed that Alamkara the figurative speech or ornamentation was the principle virtue that lent Kavya its grace and brilliance (Kavya-shobha-karaan dharman alamkaran prachakshte). The titles of the books, of  his period and thereafter , on Poetics, therefore, were centered upon the term Alamkara , such as: Kavyalamkara (by Bhamaha, Ca.6- 7th century) ; Kavya-alamkara-sara- Samgraha (by  Udbhata – 8th century) ; Kavya-alamkara- sutra-vritti (  by Vamana Ca. 8th ) and Kavya-alamkara ( by Rudrata – c. 9th-century ) .

The tendency to describe Poetics in terms of Alamkara went on for a considerable period of time. Though Alamkara was the general name for Poetics, the term Alamkara  referred  both to one of the principles of Poetics and  also to the specific expressions of   figures of speech like Anuprasa, Upama etc. And the concepts of Rasa, Guna, and Riti were also brought under the overall ambit of Alamkara principle.

Rajashekhara  ( 9th -10th  century)  the poet and scholar  treated  Poetics  as a Shastra; and , he named Poetics as  Sahitya Vidya . And the poets who followed Rajasekhara began to describe Poetics as Sahitya.  For instance;   Vishwanatha named his book on Poetics as Sahitya-darpana ; Ruyyaka titled his book as sahitya-mimamsa ; and, Bhojaraja called Poetics as Kavya shastra.

[Sahitya generally represents the notion of literature – everything preserved in writing, or even in speech; but, here, practically it was a synonym for Kavya. (Perhaps Vangmaya – things made of language) could be a better term) ]

Thus, over the long period, from time to time, the Shastra of Poetics had been called variously  as Kriya-kalpa; Kavya-karana-vidhi; Kavya-kriya-kalpa; Kriya-vidhi; Alamkara Shastra; Sahitya Vidya and Kavya shastra.

The terms Kriya–kalpa, Kavya–vidhi etc went out of use quite early. And, the scope of the term Alamkara, since the time of Anandavardhana  (Ca.10th  century)  got restricted to one of the elements of poetry , which is  the ornamentation and figures of speech like Anuprasa , Upama etc ; and,  it was scarcely used in its  wider sense of poetics.

The term  Sahitya which etymologically means to put together in the sense of  composition , coordination , balance , concord and contact , in recent times,  is used to cover all forms of literature (vangmaya) . It covers even Grammar, philosophy, logic, etymology, technical subjects like medicine , Law  etc; apart from  prose, poetry drama etc.

Therefore, the scholars generally opine that for Poetics, the term Kavya shastra seems more suited ( though some employed the grandiose term Kavya Mimamsa)  ; particularly since the term Kavya includes prose, poetry, Drama and all other forms of creative writings.  Besides, the suffix Shastra (Sahsanath shasanam) signifies the theory of practice as also the practice of theory. Further, the term Kavya Shastra sounds better than Kriya, Kapla, and Vidhi etc. And, Kavya Shastra was therefore used by writers like Bhamaha, Dandin, Vamana, Rudrata, Rajasekhara and others to denote Poetics. Since the Indian Poetics began to take a systemic form during the times of Bhamaha and Dandin, attempting to expound the essence of Kavya, its aesthetics and style and lucidity of composition etc, we may as well adopt their nomenclatures.  That is one view. And, there are other views too.


According to Dr. G.T. Deshpande (Bharathiya Sahityashastra, The Indian Poetics), the Indian Poetics developed in stages over a period of about two thousand years.  During these long centuries , the Indian Poetics attained maturity. He enumerates six stages of development : Kriyakalpa (around 2nd century BCE) ; Kavyalakshana (from Bharata up to 6th century AD) ; Kavya-alankara (600 AD to 850 AD) ;  Sahitya (say from 850 to 1100 AD); and, Sahitya-paddathi (1100 AD – 1650 AD).

Bharata’s Natyashastra , according to Dr. G.T. Deshpande , represents the first stage of Indian poetics (Kriyakalpa) where the diverse elements of arts, literature, music, dance, stage management and cosmetics combined harmoniously to successfully produce an enjoyable play- Drshya-kavya.

During the next (second) stage (Kavyalakshana) the poetics grew independent of the theatre. The discussions during this period were mostly regarding the general nature of Kavya. This period is marked by the works of Bhamaha and Dandin, say up to 600 AD.

In the third stage (Kavya-alankara)   stretching from Bhamaha and Dandin up to Rudrata, say from 600 AD to 850 AD, the concepts of Alankara (embellishments) Gunas (characteristics) and Rasa gained a little more clarity. The characteristic beauty (Saundaryam or Shobha) associate with poetry and the means of creating highly enjoyable poetry came into discussion.

The fourth stage (Sahitya) was the period of analysis and understanding the basic concepts of literature and Grammar. This was the period from Mammata to Anandavardhana (say from 850 to 1100 AD). The questions raised during this period, basically, were : ‘What is truly Sahitya (literature)?’ ; ’Does it merely mean a combination of words and meanings? Or, is there anything more to it?’ ; ‘What are the special features of poetry?’ ;  ‘ Do the words in the poetry convey the same meaning as anywhere else?’ ; and ,  ‘How is the meaning  (Artha) of  poetry conveyed?’ etc.

It is in this period, the poetics (Kavya) became independent of the earlier concepts of Alamkara, Dvani etc.

And, the sixth stage (Sahitya-paddathi) was the methodical study of the poetry  in all its aspects . It was the period that stretched  from 1100 AD – 1650 AD, say ending with Jagannatha Pandita.



Main concerns – Sabda and Artha

One of the problems that engaged attention of the Grammarians and the philosophers alike was the subtle relation between the linguistic element (Sabda) and its meaning (Artha).  Sabda can roughly be understood as word, a sound, a meaningful unit of speech. Patanjali explained the term Sabda as that which when articulated gives out the meaning or intent the of the speaker.  And, Mandana Misra, in his Sphotasiddhi said: Sabda is the cause that produces the intended meaning.

According to Bhartrhari (4th or 5th century) “There is no cognition without the operation of words. All knowledge is illumined through words’’. In Bhartrhari’s scheme of things, the problem of meaning is basic. It is through the meaning conveyed by the words that knowledge is experienced.” “It is only the thought as expressed in words that can be understood, communicated and criticized. A language grows with the thought; or rather the thought grows with language. In the ultimate analysis they might even be identical.”

Two main concerns of the Sanskrit Poetics seemed to be: the word, and its meaning. The first one concerns how the word is treated in the text; and, mainly how it is formally used. It could be the elaborate embellishments (Alamkara) artistically arranged to enhance the beauty of the presentation; or it could be the elegance of the diction or even oblique ways of twisting. The other is about the shades or the layers of meaning that the word is capable of revealing. Generally, it was about the ways (vyapara) of achieving the objectives (phala) of the poet and his poetry.

The late-tenth-century philosopher and literary theorist Abhinavagupta felt that Kavya is not just about meaning, it is something more than that ; and, he put it  directly: “It is not the mere capacity for producing meaning as such that enables a text to be called Kavya. And that is why we never apply that term to everyday discourse or the Veda.”

Raja Bhoja (1011–1055) in his Srngaraprakasha says, that of the things made of language (Vangmaya) Kavya is one species. The elements that make the language are the words and meanings. And, word and meaning when  harmoniously  composed (sahitau) constitute Kavya. . Thus Kavya is a composition ( unity , sahitya) of word and meaning.

Then he goes on to say:

What, however, does the word “word” signify? It is that through which, when articulated, meaning is understood, and it is of twelve sorts, starting with base and affix and ending with sentence, section, and whole work.

“Meaning” is what a word gives us to understand, and it is of twelve sorts, starting with action and tense and ending with word-meaning and sentence-meaning.

And last, “composition” signifies the coordinated relation between word and meaning; and it, too, is of twelve sorts, starting with denotation and implication and ending with avoidance of faults, employment of expression-forms (guna), connection with factors of beauty (alañkara), and presence of rasa.

King Somesvara III (around 1130) of the Kalyana Chalukya dynasty in his Manasollasa, an encyclopedic work, says:

Words make up the body of a literary text, meaning is its life-breath, tropes its external form, emotional states and feelings its movements, meter its gait, and the knowledge of language its vital spot. It is in these that the beauty of the deity of literature consists.

Manasollasa vol 2-page 171 ( 225) verses 205-206

The scholars of Poetics, of course, need to be concerned with the beauty and elegance of expression; but, at the same time they also need to be exercised over the sense that such arrangements of words would produce. The Poetic-scholars realized that neither logic (Nyaya) nor Grammar (Vyakarana) would provide them with right answers. The position, simply put, is :

poetry in any of its forms does need words; and the arrangements of those words, however clever or elegant, do have to convey a sense or meaning. The poetic beauty does not solely dependent on the strict order of words or other conventions. It in fact goes beyond regulated regimens. It is only the right or judicious combination of the two – Sabda and Artha- that produces relishing aesthetic expressions and suggestive poetry. The ultimate merit of a Kavya is in its enjoyment (Rasa) by the Sahrudaya the reader endowed with culture and taste.

Now, regarding words:  according to Indian Poetics, a word has three functions: it signifies or denotes (abhida); it indicates (lakshana); and it suggests (vyanjana).  The meaning that is comprehended immediately after the word is uttered is its primary meaning (mukhya-artha). The meaning thus conveyed and its relation to the next word and its own meaning is a mutual relation of the signifier and the signified (vachya-vachaka). The power that creates the relation among words is Abhida-vyapara, the power of denotation or sense. The suggestive power of the word is through Vyanjana-artha.

The meaning of a word or a sentence that is directly grasped in the usual manner is Vakyartha (denotation or literal sense); and, the power of the language which conveys such meaning is called Abidha-vritti (designating function). The term Sabdabodha ‘verbal comprehension’ or ‘verbal cognition’ is also used at times. It is intended to denote meaning of a sentence as understood by the listener.

In certain cases where a particular word is not capable of conveying the desired sense, another power which modifies that word to produce the fitting or suitable meaning is called Lakshana-vritti (indicative function).

The primary sense Vakyartha is the natural (Svabhavokti) and is the easily comprehended sense of the word. When the perception of the primary sense is obstructed, the word conveys the sense other than the primary sense; but, the two meanings (somehow) seem related.  Thus, the secondary sense (lakshana) could even be called an unnatural meaning (Vakrokti) of the word.

For instance; when the word Purusha is uttered, one immediately understands it as a reference to a male member of the human race. It is the primary sense of the word. It might refer to an individual or to a generic attribute. In any case; the word Purusha and its meaning are related. It is a signified–signifier relationship; one pointing towards the other. This relationship is termed Abhida.

However, in the world we live, we do not always use a word only in its primary sense. Many times, the word in its primary sense may not be adequate.  Then, we attempt to attribute a sense to the word that is different or distinct from the primary sense. This would be secondary sense – lakshanika or lakshyartha – of that word. The word in its secondary sense is called lakshana. The relationship between the secondary sense and the word is described as lakshya-lakshya sambandha

Such process of superimposition (aropita) is called lakshana or indication. The three: the obstruction caused due to incompatibility of primary sense; the connection between the primary and the secondary sense; and, the convention (rudi) – are all interrelated. Here, there ought to be some justification for switching over to the un-natural meaning of the word; and, it should be generally acceptable (or should have gained currency in the common usage).

The indication (lakshana) is thus of two types: one, sanctioned by usage (rudi-lakshana); and , the other , where the speaker uses it for a specific or a specialized purpose (prayojanavato lakshana).

lotus design

As regards the Grammarians’ point of view, of the three functions of the word, the secondary or the indicative Lakshana-vritti is the most important and popular.  Three conditions for Lakshana are generally accepted by all schools of Grammar.

The first is the incompatibility or inconsistency of the primary meaning in the context, which produces a break in the flow of thought, forcing the listener to think in order to understand what the speaker would really have meant by the uncommon usage and why he has used the word in an irregular way.  The inconsistency could be either because of  the impossibility of associating the normal meaning with the other word meanings of the sentence ; or  it could be because  of the normal meaning’s unsuitability in the context.

The second condition is about the kind of relation between the primary (normal) meaning of the term and its meaning as intended by the speaker in a given context. This relation can be one of proximity to the alternate ( contrary) meaning or one of similarity or of mixed quality. The latter type is called Gauni Lakshana which the Mimamsakas treat as an independent function called Gauni. According to Mimamsakas, the real Lakshana is only of the first type, a relation of proximity with contrariety (oppositeness).

The third condition could either be acceptance of its meaning in common usage ; or it could be a meaning derived from the root of the word (Dathu) for a  special purpose intended for introducing the Lakshana. All faded metaphors (nirudha lakshana) fall into the former category, and metaphorical usages, especially by the poets, fall into the latter.

[ The common examples given here are of Pankaja which in common usage means lotus; but literally means something born out of slush. The other is  the Ashva-karna a type of leaf , but literally the ears of a horse. In all such cases , it is the meaning in common usage that is  generally accepted ; and the literal meaning is treated as faded metaphor.]

[The Great Grammarian Panini did not accept Lakshana as a separate function in language. He did not consider the incompatibility etc on which the Lakshana was based by other Grammarians as quite relevant from the point of view of Grammar. The sentences such as:’ He is an ass’ and ‘He is a boy ‘are both correct grammatically. Panini’s Grammar provides some popular examples of Lakshana; like ‘the village on the river’ (gangayam ghosah) by considering proximity as one of the meanings of the locative case. Similarly, Panini does not mention or provide for the condition of yogyata or consistency, which is considered by the later Grammarians as essential for unity of sentence. The expression Agnina sinchati (He sprinkles with fire) is grammatically correct, though from the semantic point of view it may not be quite proper, because sprinkling can be done only with liquid and not with fire.]

It does not mean that some words are merely vachaka and certain others are only Lakshya, and so on. The use of words, their role and the intended effect are context sensitive. The same word could be employed in any number of ways; each performing its role its own context. All the shades of meaning are necessary and relevant in poetry; but, each in its own context.


Similarly, Riti, as put forward by Vamana, is an arrangement of words and meanings characterized by various Gunas. A particular Guna might be appropriate in a particular context. The verbal compositions could be tight knit and high flowing in a given context; but , a simple , lucid narration might be appropriate in  an  another situation. One may admire grandeur in one situation; and simplicity in another. It is the context that decides appropriateness of style.

Rajasekhara, therefore, says:  A sentence is an arrangement of words which embodies the content that the speaker wishes to convey

(pada-nama-abidhita-arthagrathanakarah sandarbhah vakyam – Kavyamimamasa (22) of Rajasekhara).

For instance; take the word Mother. The word in its primary sense is woman who has given birth to a child. In the specific context when one says ‘Kausalya is the mother of Rama’ you are referring to a particular person. And when one says , ‘necessity is the mother of invention’, one is not referring to a physical mother but to suggest the sense of ‘origin’. Here, the primary sense of the term does not work. Similarly, when the Saint Ramaprasad calls out to Devi in anguish as Mother, it suggests the intensity of his devotion and the depth of his longing for her love and protection. Devi is not the physical mother but a projection of the universal Mother principle as also the specific Mother deity. It is said; the  vibrations of the suggested meaning of the word are indeed truly powerful.

lotus design

Then, there is the most interesting and much debated Vyanjana-artha which is the suggested sense or the essence of the word. This is founded in the principle that   the meaning of word is not limited to its literal sense; the word has the power to reach far beyond the obvious. In poetry, the word acquires another power Vyanjana-vritti the suggestive function. It is the    power which activates the potential hidden in the word. And, the word acquires a new glow. Through the suggestive function of the word, a new meaning emerges, transcending the obvious literal sense, far more beautiful and sensitive.

The word which connotes the suggested sense (through the suggestive function Vyanjana –vritti) is named Vyanjaka. The relationship between the suggestive word and the suggested meaning (Vyanjana-artha) is described as vyangya-vyanjaka sambandha.

The suggestive word, the suggested meaning, the power of suggestion; and their mutual relationship are virtually the lifeblood of Indian poetics.  In fact, this is what that distinguishes poetry from other forms of literature.

The suggested sense Vyanjana-artha, which, though not explicit, becomes the object of awareness is regarded the essence of poetry. The Dhvani School put forward by Anandavardhana, brought focus on the potential power of the word in a Kavya. Here, the word (Sabda) together with  its literal sense  (Vakyartha )  is said to form the body of Kavya , it is its  cloak .  But, the essence of poetry is elsewhere; it is not directly visible; and, that essence is the suggested sense of the word (Vyanjana-artha).

It other words: it is not the direct literal and obvious meaning that is explicit in poetry, but it is the suggested, indirect and emotive meaning that matters.  Hence, though the words of a Kavya and their  the literal sense must be given their due importance , they are  but a medium for emotive and indirect meaning flash forth . In good poetry, this suggested meaning dominates over the words and their literal meaning. As Anandavardhana put it: The latter are compared to a woman’s  body and the former to her grace and beauty which is a subtler manifestation  and a more profound meaning of the womanhood.

The primary meaning can be understood by all. But, the suggested meaning is understood only by those who are gifted with some imagination and a sort of intuition.

Here, the mere knowledge of the word alone is not enough to understand and enjoy the poetic import or the essence of the Kavya. It needs intuition or Prathibha.  Mammatacharya calls Prathibha as – nava-navaonvesha-shalini prajna – the ever inventive and resourceful intellect. Prathibha is also called, at times, as Vasana.  Only those endowed with Prathibha can truly enjoy the essence and beauty of Kavya. That is why, it is remarked,  the Grammarians (unlike the goodhearted cultured reader the Sahrudaya) cannot truly appreciate and enjoy the Rasa of good poetry. They are incapable of looking beyond what appears obvious.

Anandavardhana, therefore, says 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

It is said; in the highest class of Kavya, the denoted meaning (Vakyartha )  and  the denoting meaning (Lakshyartha)  is subservient to  revealing the suggested sense word (Vyanjana-artha); and , it is  called Dhvani by the scholars – Dhv.1.13

The suggested sense of the word designated as Dhvani (resonance or tone or suggestion) is regarded Anandavardhana as the soul of Kavya : Kavyasya Atma Dhvanih.

[The concept of Dhvani was said to be inspired by the ancient doctrine of Sphota. The term Sphota signifies:  bursting; opening; expansion; disclosure; the eternal and imperceptible element of sound and words; and , is the real vehicle of the idea which bursts or flashes on the mind when a sound is uttered.

Nagesha Bhatta identifies Vedic Sage Sphotayana, mentioned by Panini in one of his rules, as the originator of Sphota theory. Bhartrhari, however, states that Audumbarayana (mentioned by Yaska) had put forth views similar to the Sphota concept. In any case, the original idea of Sphota seems to go back to the Vedic age when Vak or speech was considered to be a manifestation of the all – pervading Brahman , and Pranava (Aum) was regarded as the primordial speech sound from which all forms of Vak were supposed to have evolved.

It was Bhartrhari (around 485 AD) in his great work Vakyapadiya (all about sentence and word) elaborated and established the Sphota doctrine in the realm of Grammar and in Philosophy.

According to Bhartrhari, the perfect perception is that in which there is identity between the object ( namely, words or the letters of sounds ) and the form of its cognition (namely, the Sphota) . This special kind of perception is held to be function of mind, rather than of the external senses.

This is a major subject; and deserves to be discussed separately.]

But, when one begins to talk of words (Sabda), naturally, it leads to Grammar (Vyakarana), which concerns itself with the arrangement of words into sentences. It does not account for the pattern of meanings.  The poetry on the other hand is not much concerned with the arrangement of words. But, it does strive to convey a meaning.

In the case of poetry, the arrangement of words (Sabda or pada) might be  logical but not necessarily grammatical. That is because; the poetic beauty does not solely dependent on the strict order of words or other conventions. It , in fact,  goes beyond regulated regimens. The unique virtue of poetry is that it provides space for experimentation, and to introduce hitherto unknown or unusual terms and expressions, regardless of their grammatical correctness. And at the same time , it was recognized  that the poetic beauty does not merely depend on ornate figures of speech or on the twisted or unusual expressions ; but , it is primarily  in the intrinsic merit of the poetry itself.

The combination of words or arrangement of words expressing the idea or the content which the poet intends to convey at a ‘single stroke’ is the sentence (Vakya) in the poetry. A sentence is defined by Rajasekhara as an arrangement of words which embodies the content that the speaker wishes to convey (pada-nama-abidhita-arthagrathanakarah sandarbhah vakyam – Kavyamimamasa (22) of Rajasekhara).

The meaning of a sentence expresses a complete idea. The sentence in poetry is called Vachana (Vakyam vachanam vyavaharanti – Kavyamimamsa). In poetry the terms Vakya, Vachana and Ukti are synonymous. A characteristic turn of expression attains the status of poetry (Ukti-visesah kavyam).

[Among the ancient Grammarians, neither Panini nor Gautama defined the sentence. Katyayana was perhaps the first to define a sentence. He called it ekatin, that which has one finite verb. Panini, however, seems to have held that a sentence can have many more than one finite verb.  The later Grammarians also seemed to accept Panini’s view. But, from Katyayana’s point of view such a sentence may be considered as a complex sentence made up of two or more sentences, but fundamentally forming one single sentence.]

The relation between Grammar and poetry is interesting. 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; and, the Grammar must necessarily accept poetic inventions (svikara avashyakah).

Continued in

Part Two 


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


Posted by on July 9, 2015 in Kavya, Sanskrit


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