SANSKRIT POETICS THEN AND NOW
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
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.
(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.
(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.
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
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
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 nā¶yashāstra), in the first phase
of its history; the nearest thing we have to a foundation text are
the Nā¶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 (pā¶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), Udbha¶a (800) with alaĆkara as the key concept; Rudra¶a (855-80)
with hints of unifying both approaches with each other and with the
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; Lolla¶a (800-25), Sha´kunka (800-25), Nāyaka (10th c)
accepting rasa as the key concept but rejecting dhvani.
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 Mamma¶a (1050-1135),
Ruyyaka (1135-50), Vāgbha¶a 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.
(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).
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.
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 (saṃyoga). 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.
theatrical process (nātyaprakriyā) is a linked chain
of three sub-processes or actions each with in put, processor or agent,
and out put:
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 (pā¶hya).
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
Enjoying of the play (nā¶yāsvāda) 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.
Text-composition by the poet (as earlier).
Taking in of the poem (kāyālankāra) whose input
is the text (pāṭhya) oharacterized by a solidarity between
sound and sense (sahitatva), agent is the concourse of likeminded
with passive imagination (bhavayitri pratibha), and output
is the realized poem (kāvyavastu).
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
induces the poet to undertake composition (kāvya-hetu)
is the joy at hand (prīīand the fame in the offing
(2) What is the distinctive
nature of the poetic use of language? What are the semiotic processes
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
But the resulting language
departs from (vakrokti) and enhances (atishayokti) ordinary
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
(3) What is the relation
between the ordinary life (lokav¤itta) and life as it is recreated (pratibhāsa)
in a poem or a play (nā¶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
(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 (Lolla¶a,
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
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 (spaâh¶īkara¸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
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
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
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
(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 (mīṁāmsā), 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.