What we purpose to do in this presentation is both an essay in cultural history, an attempted reconstruction of a past form of consciousness and at the same time an essay in cultural criticism, an attempted assessment of what that past has left behind in relation to present-day concerns.


            To this end we shall, to begin with (section I), present a thumbnail sketch of the rise and development of Classical Sanskrit poetics (CSP for short) and locate the sources of its cohesion and the sources of its discontinuities and divergences.


            Next (section II), we shall present a model of CSP that sets out the philosophical logic available to it, the network of key concepts, the major concerns, the major theses, and the major divergences.


            Finally (section III), we shall present a comparative assessment of the double, Indian and Western, heritage of the cotemporary Indian literary theorist in terms of the respective strengths and limitations of CSP on the one hand of Western poetics (together with its classical Greco-Latin heritage) on the other hand.    





Indian and Western scholars who have made a review of CSP over the centuries (2nd c. to 17th c. A.D., to be specific) usually end up emphasizing just the continuity and convergence or just the discontinuity and divergence. Considering the general agreement on the sophistication and long-standing vitality of the CSP tradition, this is a surprise. Normally one should expect of a tradition so characterized both convergence and divergence. I submit that CSP is true to this normal expectation.


            In spite of some notable problems of geography (how come most major poeticians are from Kashmir? Hoe fast was the diffusion of ideas? ), chronology (the beginning and crystallization  of the Bharata corpus , and the Dhvanyāloka corpus), and contact ( between Daņ∙in and Bhāmaha, acceptance of Bharata’s authority by  Daņ∙in and  Bhāmaha , Kuntaka and the Dhvani tradition), it is possible to present a thumbnail historical sketch for CSP. Typically, a branch of study (vidyā) that as assumed the form of a systematic discipline (shāstra) is held to originate in certain aphoristic and logically organized formulations in prose (sūtra) or verse (kārikā) constituting the agreed foundators (ākara-grantha) and attributed to a legendary if not mythical figure of antiquity (purāņapuruâha). Then  come the primary commentaries (vyākhyā) that not only elucidate and illustrate (v¤utti) but often enrich, justify, even subtly deviate (bhāâhya); the secondary commentaries are more pedagogical in intent. Finally come the compendia (sa´rahagrantha), either systematically organized with pedagogic intent (prakriyā-grantha) or loosely compiled with encyclopaedic intent (often included in the purāņas).


            CSP on the whole follows this scenario with some notable departures: it was relatively late in coming into its own, it is not too clear how it was related to classical Sanskrit dramaturgy (that is, how kāvya-shāstra was related to yashāstra), in the first phase of its history; the nearest thing we have to a foundation text are the yashāstra (earliest layer 2nd –4th c., present from 6th-8thc.) of Bharata (one or two authors?), which was probably not accepted as such by the earliest poeticians (Daņ∙in, Bhāmaha), and which is puraņa like in its loose shape and encyclopaedic intent, and the Dhvanikārikā aphorisms (700-750?, was Anandavardhana, ft. 850, merely the commentator or their author also ?), which come much later and which were accepted as foundational only by section of later and poeticians (granting that it was the most numerous section). Considering that many of the plays mentioned by Bharata by way of illustration do not survive one can perhaps speculate that Bharata comes at the end of some lost tradition. In any case Bharata sums up the theatre lore available at the time in respect of staging, dancing, singing, and playing instruments considering the literary art (kāvya) only as the source of the stage text (hya). The Dhavanikārikā corpus on the other hand deals with the literary art that is not associated with poem (prabandha-kāvya), the short lyric (muktaka), or sequences of short lyrics. The history of CSP in any case cannot wholly be separated from the history of Classical Sanskrit dramaturgy.


            In the first phase of CSP based on longer narrative poems we have Daņdin (700-50). Vāmana (800) with guņa as the key  concept; Bhāmaha (700-50), Udbhaa (800) with alaĆkara as the key concept; Rudraa (855-80) with hints of unifying both approaches with each other and with the rasa doctrine.



            The second phase of CSP shifts attention to shorter lyrics and increasingly assimilates dramaturgy based on classical Sanskrit drama. We have here the Dhvanikāra  ( ? 700-50), Ānanandavardhana  (850) with dhvani and rasa as key concepts; Rˇjashekara (900-50), Bhojarˇja (1010-55), Kâhemendra (11th c) with handbooks for the poets and poetdramatist (of these Kâhemendra offers aucitya as the key concept); Dhananjaya (924-96) with Dhanika, Sharadātanaya with the theatre handbooks; Vishņudharmottara (6-7c) and Agni Purāņas (7-9 c) that touch upon poetics and dramaturgy; Kuntaka (10th c) offering vakrokti as the key concepts; Lollaa (800-25), Sha´kunka (800-25), Nāyaka (10th c) accepting rasa as the key concept but rejecting dhvani.



            The third phase of CSP seems to have lost touch with a living theatre, assimilates the dramatist wholly to the poet, and (with some exceptions) accepts dhvani and rasa as the key concepts. The metaphysical impulse sometimes takes over from the critical impulse. We have here Tauta (10th c), Abhinavagupta (925-1025), who consolidate the synthesis; Mahima (1025-50), Rāmachandra and Guņachandra (12th c), who continue the critique of dhvani; Rūpagosvamin, (fl1525-50) and Madhusūdana (fl1550) who seeks to give a prominent place to bhakti as a poetic motive; and Mammaa (1050-1135), Ruyyaka (1135-50), Vāgbhaa I (1125-43) Hemachandra (1140), Vishvanātha (1300-50), Vidyānātha (1300-25) Vāgbhata II (probably 14th c), Appayya (1575-1600), Jagannātha (1600-50) in the main tradition with their handbooks.




            We are now ready to present a kind of theoretical model of CSP after a glance at the philosophical apparatus available to the classical Sanskrit thinkers.

            A discipline (saāstra) systematized the approved mode (vidhi) underlying any body of human activity (kriyā)—in the present context, the activity of writing poems and theatrical texts (kavi-karma), of presenting the play (prayog alaĆkara), and of enjoying the poem read (kāvyāsvāda) or the poem viewed as a play (nātyāsvāda).

            In the earliest phase, the thinker was content to present a bald prescription (or description) and accept a world in which the unseen was a unified field of energy  (shakti) to be associated with magic, myth, ritual. Later the duality was felt involving a clear decision as to the priority of the seen (laukika) or the unseen (alaukika) and a search for explanation (upapatti) of the norms (vidhi) was on. In the second phase attention was gradually shifted from kavikarma and prayogālānkāara to āsvāada and from the objects (vastu) to the processes (prakriyā); clear positions were taken; and the search for justification (pramāņa)of the explanation offered was on. In the third phase the New logic (nava nyaya) with its greater subtlety permeated the polemics and the sense of validity such gave way to conformity.

            When we observe an object (vastu) we distinguish between its relatively long-range, stable aspects (nitasvabhāva) and its relatively short range, mobile aspects (avasthā) and, further, between qualities (guņa, dharma) and relations (sayoga). When we observe a process (prakriyā) we distinguish between its long-range aspects (kriyā) and its short-range aspects (vyāpāra). The process is described in terms of the input or object subjected to it (viâhaya) that is capable of entering into it, the processor or agent (kartā) that is turned towards the object, the action flowing from their coming together (karma). The out put being the fruit of action (phalita). While some Indian thinkers, including theorists of dramaturgy and poetry; conceive of a process in terms of genetics (utpatti) and efficiency karcņatā), while others conceive of a process in terms of manifestation (abhivyakti) and the permeating energy (shakti) that charges the in put and the processor, brings about the action, and inheres in the out put. The output in term be the in put of the next process. One can see in this inseparability of things and happenings a manifestation of the unified ‘primitive’ sensibility that identifies the seen and the unseen.

            The theatrical process (nātyaprakriyā) is a linked chain of three sub-processes or actions each with in put, processor or agent, and out put:

(1)   Text-composition by the poet (kavikarma) whose in put is life observed (lokavritta), gent is the poet (kavi) with active imagination (kāravitri partibhā), and the out put is the text (pāhya).

(2)   Staging of the play (prayogālānkara) whose in put stagebale text (abhineya  pāthya), agent is the player’s troupe (natav¤inda), and output is the realized play (nātyavastu).

(3)   Enjoying of the play (nāyāsvāda) whose input is the enjoyable realized play (āsvādya nātyavastu), agent is the playgoers’ concourse (samājā), and output is the special joy of poetry (kāỵānanda).

The poetic process (kāỵaprakriyā) is likewise alinked chain of three sub-processes or actions each with its input, processor or agent, and output.

(1)   Text-composition by the poet (as earlier).

(2)   Taking in of the poem (kāyālankāra) whose input is the text (ṭhya) oharacterized by a solidarity between sound and sense (sahitatva), agent is the concourse of likeminded (sah*idtaya) readers with passive imagination (bhavayitri pratibha), and output is the realized poem (kāvyavastu).

(3)   Enjoying of the poem (kāvyāsvāda) (as with enjoying of the play examined earlier).

The permeating energy in either case is comparable to the life-giving sap of plants and the taste-activating beverage – it is called rasa (sap, taste, beverage – a multiple pun and metaphor).

The pervading mechanism is some kind of knowing (jµānavyapāra) through sign inference (anumāna from li´ga) and/or symbol communication (samketana from sanketaka) of this or that kind.

The idealized background cultural reality of the elite citizenry (nāgaraka) in concourse whose amusement (vinodana) often calls for intellectual discussion (shāstra-vilokana) or artistic enjoyment of poetry, the theatre arts, and the visual arts—all in close interrelationship.

Give this conceptual framework, what are the major questions that CSP addresses itself to and what are the main kinds of answers that CSP offers?

(1) What are the conditions in which the poet’s imagination (Kavi-pratibhā) operates at its best?

It is said to operate at its best when inward effort (mānasī-prakriyā) saves the composition from being derivative (anyasārasvata) and wholly engrossed in figurative language (ala¸kara¸a).  To this end it should be free from the shackles imposed by grammar, empirical evidence, logical inference, the testimony of sacred legend.  The world in a poem (kāvya-prtyakâha) are not to be measured by each other’s yardsticks.  The only norm it should observe is the internal norm of rightness (aucitya-viveka).  What induces the poet to undertake composition (kāvya-hetu) is the joy at hand (prīīand the fame in the offing (kīrti).

(2) What is the distinctive nature of the poetic use of language? What are the semiotic processes involved?

Language has three elements—sound (shabda), sense (artha), arrangement of these (bandha).  Among themselves they are harmonious—at their best, form and meaning are not only close (sahita) but interpenetrating (samp¤ikta).

But the resulting language departs from (vakrokti) and enhances (atishayokti) ordinary language.

Some say (Da¸∙in, Vāmana) that the qualities (gu¸a) adding up to certain models (rīti) are what counts.  Others say (Bhāmaha, Udbhaṭa) that the special turns of speech or figures that make language measure up (alankāra) are what counts.  Both agree that poetic language achieves a certain brilliance (ujjvalatā).

(3) What is the relation between the ordinary life (lokav¤itta) and life as it is recreated (pratibhāsa) in a poem or a play (yabhāva)?

The poetic language (ukti) or the theatre language consisting of poetry, staging, and gestures, and music go to shape the realized poem or play (vastu), which recreates (anukirtana) obliquely life observed (lokav¤itta).  The recreated life is patterned after ordinary life (loka-v¤ittānugāmī).

Ordinary life is located in people, various causes have interesting effects, outward expressions reflect inward stages.  We who are immersed in it get to know it somewhat.

The life in the poem is made possible by the projection (kṣhepa¸a, samarpa¸a) achieved by the poetic language or the theatre language—specifically we have the furniture consisting of virtual people (alambana-vibhāva).

Some say (Lollaṭa, Sha´kuka, Mahima) that recreated life imitates (anukara¸a) the text meanings (kavyārtha) and so arises out of it (utpatti) and becomes inferable (anumeya) from them.  Some say (Nāyaka, Dhananjaya, Rājashekhara) that the realized poem or play arises out of reenaction (anuvyavasāya) and so amenable to the empathy (bhavakatva-vyapara) in the reader or playgoer.  Some say (Dhvanikāra, Ānandavardhana, Abhinavagupta) that the process of recreated life manifesting (abhivyakti) the text meanings is fundamentally different from imitation and inference, which strictly belong to ordinary life.

(4) How does the recreation (anukīrtana) of the projected virtual furniture of people, rousing causes, outward effects, inward states lead to the fusion (bhāva-samudaya) of these elements into an overarching mood (sthāyibhāva) in the realized poem or play?   

While figurative language is essentially the capacity of language for meaning displacement (lakâhana-vyāpāra), poetic language according to some (Dhvanikāra and others) involves also meaning enrichment (vyaµjana-vyāpāra) of a special kind (alaukika-vyaµjanā)—it is special in that it depends on the recepient’s acuteness rather than the sender’s design, defies paraphrase (sākâhāt-shabda-nivedana), and operates without graduality (saĆlakâhyakramata).

Some say (Lollaa, etc., Nāyake, etc.) that this transition from recreation (anukīrtana) to fusion (samudaya) is only a matter of progressive strengthening (paripushti).  Some (Dhvanikāra, etc.) attribute it to the presence of a special kind of meaning enrichment (dhvani-vyāpāra) is another name of (alaukika-vyaµjanā-vyāpāra).


(5) How does the special enjoyment of a poem or a play come about?

When the overarching mood (sthāyībhāva) is communicated to the reader or playgoer and the poem or play is realized for him, he participates in the gratification in concourse (samārādhanā) involving immersion (raµjana) and transition from mundane insensitivity to oscillation between closeness (svaikagatabhāva) and distance (paragatabhāva), between pleasure (sukha) and misery (duĹkha).  This oscillation terminates in a state of rest (vishrānti) and inwardness (tadātmatā).  The energy  reaches the very inner being of the reader or playgoer (sattvodreka).

Some say (Lollata, etc.) that this transition from participatory gratification to the overtaking of the inner being is only a matter of progressive clarification (spaâhīkara¸a).  Some say (Nāyaka, etc., Dhvanikāra etc.,) that this transition is made possible only if the reader other playgoer is overtaken by a special kind of participation (sādhāra¸īkara¸a), which involves a meeting of hearts (h¤idayasaĆvāda) between the reader or playgoer on the one hand and the poet or other readers or playgoers or the virtual people in the recreated play on the other hand; a detachment from the particulars of the recreated world because of their representative nature (sāmānyagu¸ayoga); and a certain attentiveness (avadhāna) to the recreated world that prevents one from getting lost in it.

What is the end in view of the poetic or theatrical process (kāvyaprayojana)?

The immediate output is delight (ānanda).  But there is also a long-term output, namely, growth in mature discrimination (vyutpatti).  Discrimination of what?

Some emphasize discrimination or taste in respect of poems or plays in general; some emphasize discrimination or understanding in respect of life observed; and some emphasize discrimination in respect of the goals of man’s life (puruâhārtha).




We are now ready to move from cultural reconstruction to cultural discrimination.

The student of Classical Greek poetics will be struck by some specific parallels; the antithesis of linguistic brilliance (ujjvalata) and projected recreation (pratibhāsa) of life observed is comparable to man’s inclination to harmony and rhythm and to imitation (Aristotle, Poetics, Ch. 4, 1448 b 4-24); the problem of reconciling the oscillation to the terminal state of delight (Aristotle invokes catharsis).

The student of Western poetics will be struck by some specific parallels : the stipulation that effective projection calls for indirect presentation rather than direct saying (I am angry) (Sha¸kuka, dited approvingly by Abhinavagupta) is comparable to the antithesis between novelists that tell and that show (Warren Beach); the antithesis between ordinary language and oblique speech (vakrokti) is comparable to the antitheses naturalistic/stylized, traditional/innovative, functional/decorative; the antithesis between paraphrasable ordinary language and nonparaphrasable poetic language is comparable to the antithesis between allegory and poetic symbolism (Edgar Allan Poe and French Symbolists) and the rejection of the heresy of paraphrase (New Critics); the notion of distancing attention (avadhāna) in reception is comparable to the notions of psychical distance (Bullough) and Verfremdungseffekt (Brecht, under the influence of the Chinese opera)


But the contemporary assessment of DSP is far more than a matter of parallel-hunting.  Broadly one can make three claims:


(1) Western poetics up to and including the English tenment had moved in a certain direction.  Kant, Schlegel, Coleridge and others acutely sensed certain inadequacies in its excessive emphasis on the continuity between ordinary life and the aesthetic life.  CSP is strong precisely in this respect.  (That Western Indologists failed to perceive this strength and transmit the insight to Western literary thinkers is a case of an opportunity missed.)


(2) Correspondingly Indian poetics up to the Indian Awakening (1820-1920) had moved in a certain direction.  The Indian literary thinkers of the Awakening acutely sensed certain inadequacies in its excessive emphasis on shared harmony and transcendence of conflict and of the personal need and its almost total neglect of the other harmony of prose and of critical evaluation and interpretation of specific texts and the problems arising therefrom.  They looked to Western theories of tragedy, of style as personal expression, of lyric, and of prose to make good this gap.

(3) Modern consciousness whether Western or Indian is not content with the traditional emphasis whether Western or Indian on the elemental, universal, universal, archetypal and on the bold effect, and of course on decorum.  It has been exploring possibilities of self-examination, of chiaroscuro and shades of grey, of the highly personal or even abnormal—possibilities opened up by Shakespeare (Measure for Measure, Hamlet), Racine (Phédre), and others.  Finally, modern consciousness is acutely aware of the historical and the timely.  It is natural that contemporary Westerners and Indians may find traditional Western poetics and CSP wanting in these respects.


Finally, there are certain special felicities of CSP where Westerners have been floundering a good deal :

(1) The dulce and utile antithesis is neatly side-stepped by the doctrine of the dual fruit of ānanda and vyutpatti for the chaygoer/reader and prīti and kirti for the play wright/poet.  (Note further the distinction between fruit for the recipient and fruit for the maker.)

(2) Grammarians and poeticians have lived in peace; CSP has freely drawn upon linguistic insights of grammar, hermeneutics (ṁāmsā), logic (nyāya) and felt no compunction about marrying their daughters to linguists (to recall the inept rhetorical question put by the scholar-critic F.W. Bateson).  Grammar for them is the first among the shāstrarom.

(3) CSP has readily spoken of the world created in the poem and contrasted it both with the ordinary world and with the world as seen in the disciplines (kāvyapratyakâha, lokav¤itta, and shāstrapratyakâha).  Western poetics has not been able to sort this out until after the grip of mimesis on pre-Rumantic poetics was loosened.


(4) CSP has operated in a culture where the interaction and convergence between literature and other fine arts was a commonplace.


(5) CSP has readily spoken of the solidarity and interpenetration between form and content.


(6) For the last point one cannot do better than to quote-Langer (Feeling and Form, 1953, p. 323) : “The Hindu critics…..understand very much better than their Western colleagues the various aspects of emotion in the theatre, which our writers banefully confuse; the feeling experienced by the actor, those experienced by spectators, those presented as undergone by the characters in the play and, finally, the feeling that shines in the play—the vital feeling of the piece.  “One may add that CSP also understood better the aspects of emotion in respect of the narrative as also of the short lyrical poem.


It appears that the survival in classical Indian consciousness of some vestige of the ‘primitive’ doctrine of permeating energy transcending the duality between things and happenings, between the seen and the unseen, between mind and matter did some good to CSP and one hopes that CSP may do some good to contemporary Indian poetics too.




The literature on CSP is quite large.  The following is only a list of items that I have drawn upon or cited from for the present study.


Bedekar, D.K. Sahityavichara.  (Marathi) Bombay : Popular, 1964.


------The Revelatory character of Indian epistemology.  Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 29, 64-84, 1949.


------Some concepts based on revelatory epistemology.  ABORI, 39, 47-67, 1958.


Deshpande, P.T. Bharathiya sahityashastra.  (Marathi) Bombay : Popular 1958 ; revised 1963.  Hindi tr. by the same publisher.


Gerow, Edwin, Indian poetics.  Wiesbaden, W. Germany : Harrasssowitz, 1979.


Kelkar, Ashok R. Prachina bharatiya sahityamimamsa ; Eka akalana.  Paramarsha (Marathi) 1 : 1-2, 1-78, April-July 1979.  Reprinted as a book, Pune : Department of Philosophy, University of Poona, 1979.


Langer, Susanne K. Feeling and form…..New York : Scribner’s, 1953;London : Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1953.





            This was presented at a seminar at Dhvanyaloka, Mysore, January 1984 and published in The Literary Criterion  19:1, 1984; rptd in : A Common Poetic for Indian Literatures, Mysore : Dhvanyaloka, 1984.