This article is part 22 of 25 in the series Poets on Poetics: Literature as Sanskrit Poets See It


Among the works written by the great poet Bāṇabhaṭṭa, it is only in Harṣacarita that we come across thoughts on literary aesthetics. Although the introductory verses in Kādambarī contain a couple of statements on the art of poetry, they are not directly linked to poetic theory. Besides, they are not very illuminating. Therefore, Harṣacarita is our only source. And it does not disappoint us.

The poet has this to say about pilferers of poetry at the beginning of the work:   

अन्यवर्णपरावृत्त्या बन्धचिह्ननिगूहनैः।

          अनाख्यातः सतां मध्ये कविश्चौरो विभाव्यते॥ (1.6)

Changing his words (looks) and concealing the marks of composition (handcuffs), the poet-thief merges with respectable people and goes unnoticed.    

This is a verse filled with puns. Varṇa means a ‘word’ with respect to a poet and ‘facial colour or appearance’ with respect to a thief. Similarly, bandha-cihna means the ‘features of composition’ with respect to a poet and ‘scars left by shackles’ with respect to a thief. The import is straightforward – a thief turns pale fearing that somebody might recognize him; he conceals the signs of his confinement and tries to merge into the group of law-abiding citizens. A thief among poets, on the other hand, quickly changes the words and style of the original poem and comes to limelight in literary assemblies, claiming the work to be his own.

This verse by Bāṇa closely relates to the concepts of poetic similarity (sādṛśya), verbal theft (śabda-haraṇa) and emulation (upajīvitva) discussed by Ānandavardhana, Rājaśekhara and Kṣemendra.[1]

During Bāṇa’s time, poetic style was largely considered as a regional speciality. With time, gauḍī, vaidarbhī, pāñcālī and lāṭīyā emerged as the prominent styles; we find discussions on these in the works by Daṇḍī, Vāmana, Rudraṭa and Rājaśekhara. By the time Kuntaka appeared in the scene, the notion that styles are regional specialities had changed – theorists had established that a poet from any time and place can employ any style. The reason for this conclusion was the understanding that style is a function of the poet’s personality and mindset.[2] As a result, three styles emerged: vicitra (outlandish), sukumāra (delicate) and madhyama (moderate).

We can notice the origin of these styles in the following verse by Bāṇa:

श्लेषप्रायमुदीच्येषु प्रतीच्येष्वर्थमात्रकम्।

          उत्प्रेक्षा दाक्षिणात्येषु गौडेष्वक्षरडम्बरः॥ (1.7)

Northern poets have a liking for pun while southern poets prefer the figure of fancy. Eastern poets are bombastic in verbal sound while western poets stick solely to sense.  

Evidently, these observations are rooted in regionality. When the means to communicate and share information are not easily accessible, and as a result, give-and-take among provinces is rare, the natural mores of a particular region also become the characteristic features of art and literature that spring from it. We can notice the influence of such provincial features in the concepts of vṛtti and pravṛtti elucidated in the Nāṭyaśāstra. Although Bharata has maintained that vṛttis are conceptual and have little to do with regions, the names of the various vṛttis belie his stand and reveal that they too had provincial origins. On the other hand, pravṛttis are clearly region-specific, as evidenced by the explanation given by Bharata.  

If we take a slightly wider view of things, we understand that in any field of knowledge, a concept initially takes shape within a specific time and place. Eventually, it gets refined and assumes wider and wider connotations. If the concept is truly profound, it commands universal relevance. In the ladder of this conceptual evolution, Bāṇa has described an important rung.

Good poetry, according to him, has the following features:

नवोऽर्थो जातिरग्राम्या श्लेषोऽक्लिष्टः स्फुटो रसः।

          विकटाक्षरबन्धश्च कृत्स्नमेकत्र दुष्करम्॥ (1.8)

Fresh content, minute description that is neither offensive nor off-putting, effortless wordplay, lucid rasa and a captivating blend of words – it is tremendously difficult to achieve all these at once.    

This is an honest and meaningful submission. Fortunately for us, Bāṇa himself exhibits most of these qualities. Let us examine the scope of the poetic features he has upheld.

In Sanskrit Poetics, the term artha is used synonymously with rasa. In the present context, however, it does not mean rasa, because the poet has mentioned the latter separately. Nor is it merely the meaning of independent words. Instead, it connotes the theme or story of a poem. Fresh content here means a story that is new and interesting. Indian literature largely bases itself on themes drawn from the itihāsas, purāṇas and Bṛhatkathā. Bāṇa perhaps wanted poets to look beyond these themes and try their hands at telling original stories. What’s more, he practised what he preached. Unfortunately, later poets and aestheticians did not follow his lead. Creating a new story—a riveting and sublime story—is insanely challenging. A poet can endlessly fiddle with an existing theme and present it in a new garb; regardless, his work will be seen as an imitation. It is for this reason that Bāṇa has remarked, ‘utpādakā na bahavaḥ’ (1.5) – ‘there are not many original creators.’  

Indian aestheticians have applied the term jāti to the figure of speech, svabhāvokti. Describing a thing as is goes by the name of vārtā, and describing the same in a beautiful manner along with all its minute details is called svabhāvokti. It is well known that atiśayokti or hyperbole enjoys a prominent place in poetry. Svabhāvokti, too, deserves the same prominence. We can accommodate both under vakrokti. Although Daṇḍī has described the world of words as extending between svabhāvokti and vakrokti,[3] and although Bhoja has added rasokti to this list, the fact remains that every poetic expression is vakrokti and that all these expressions lead to rasa. It is safe to conclude that a composition bereft of vakrokti and rasa is not poetry. Seen in this light, it is clear that by jātiragrāmyā, Bāṇa means svabhāvokti that does not go down the slippery slope of vārtā – minute description that does not turn trite. Interestingly, Daṇḍī, his contemporary, has counted this very quality of agrāmyatā as the best among poetic embellishments.[4]

If a poet repeatedly employs svabhāvokti, beyond a point he would burden and bore connoisseurs with unwanted details. The poet should have an extensive understanding of the world to come up with a good svabhāvokti. Along with this, he should possess a keen eye for details. (These requisites apply to simile as well.) On the flip side, if a poet repeatedly employs hyperbole and fancy—figures that are largely based on imagination—poetry loses its natural charm. It would then be difficult to lead the story along new lines. Besides, svabhāvokti is the finest tool a poet can employ to sculpt the idiosyncrasies of various characters. In this way, jātiragrāmyā commands serious attention.

Next comes pun. It is no wonder that Bāṇa, the master of wordplay, has stressed its salience. By its very nature, pun is based on various kinds of learning; and so, employing it felicitously as an evocator of rasa is a challenge. It is wise to employ it alongside other figures of speech rather than independently. This is the reason why Daṇḍī has praised the potency of śleṣa, albeit in a different context.[5] When a poet uses pun in tandem with figures of sense, several charming embellishments appear: śliṣṭopamā, śliṣṭarūpaka, samāsokti and parisaṅkhyā. Discerning readers of Sanskrit literature would agree that Bāṇa has successfully employed all these figures of sense. When one uses pun primarily as a figure of sound, it helps produce yamakas and other wondrous verbal patterns. Such an exercise oftentimes becomes unintelligible. Therefore, it is better to use pun with figures of sense to evoke rasa rather than with figures of sound merely to evoke wonder. We can surmise that Bāṇa had thought on these lines. Going a step further, we can hazard a guess that the pun-filled composition of his predecessor Subandhu has stirred these thoughts in Bāṇa!      

Bāṇa further enjoins that rasa should be limpid and free-flowing throughout the work. Every aesthetician starting from Bharata has emphasized this aspect. Clarity in rasa does not only mean that love, humour and the other moods and sentiments are unambiguously brought out; it also means that every step in the poetic composition should bear an imprint of and be conducive to aesthetic experience. This is possible by suggestiveness. In other words, a poetic composition should not merely be verbal or semantic jugglery, but instead be a charming fusion of the causes and effects of emotion. Bāṇa unfailingly adopts this approach.

The next item in the list is a captivating sequence of words. This relates to style-specific aspects such as guṇa, rīti, vṛtti and śayyā. Indian aestheticians have made a thoroughgoing analysis of these concepts. Bāṇa’s intent could also relate to flow, the quality that keeps the readers hooked, which in turn involves metrical rhythm and musical elements ingrained in poetry. Every major language has its distinct nature, which manifests as tonal appeal in sound and idiom in sense. Readers readily respond to tonal appeal that is aligned to the natural rhythm of the language. Bāṇa’s use of the Sanskrit language provides ample evidence to this fact.

It is a sign of Bāṇabhaṭṭa’s limitless talent that the very qualities of his works are counted as the graces of great art. Incidentally, the present verse is a wonderful illustration of the dictum, ‘lakṣyaṃ dṛṣṭvā lakṣaṇaṃ kuryāt’ – ‘one should frame rules only after closely observing examples.’    

Following Vyāsa’s example, Bāṇabhaṭṭa bats for poetry that is human-centric:

किं कवेस्तस्य काव्येन सर्ववृत्तान्तगामिनी।

          कथेव भारती यस्य न व्याप्नोति जगत्त्रयीम्॥ (1.9)

What is the use of a work that does not pervade the three worlds like the Mahābhārata by giving expression to all kinds of human traits and events?

This is a classy jibe. At the very beginning of his work, Bāṇa has praised Vyāsa as the kavi-brahmā; and here we have a verse that further bolsters that honour. Indeed, Vyāsa’s envisioning of human nature should guide all poets. His composition, the Mahābhārata, provides scope for the delineation of all moods and sentiments while being dense and intense at the levels of form and content. This is yet another quality that poets must aspire to achieve. It is interesting to note that the aesthetician Rājaśekhara has expressed Bāṇabhaṭṭa’s intent in different words.[6]

To sum up, Bāṇa’s candid honesty and self-confidence have shored up his insights into literature, and have proven significant to connoisseurs.

[1] See: Dhvanyāloka, 4.11–13; Kāvya-mīmāṃsā, chapters 11–13; Kavi-kaṇṭhābharaṇa, 2.1

[2] कविस्वभावभेदनिबन्धनत्वेन काव्यप्रस्थानभेदः समञ्जसतां गाहते। (वक्रोक्तिजीवितम्, १.२४ वृत्तिः)।

[3] Kāvyādarśa, 2.362

[4] Kāvyādarśa, 2.62

[5] श्लेषः पुष्णाति सर्वत्र प्रायो वक्रोक्तिशु श्रियम्॥ (काव्यादर्शः, २.१६)

[6] एकस्य तिष्ठति कवेर्गृह एव काव्य-

मन्यस्य गच्छति सुहृद्भवनानि यावत्।

न्यस्याविदग्धवचनेषु पदानि शश्वत्

कस्यापि सञ्चरति विश्वकुतीहलीव॥ (काव्यमीमांसा, चतुर्थोऽध्यायः, पृ. १३)

To be continued.




Dr. Ganesh is a 'shatavadhani' and one of India’s foremost Sanskrit poets and scholars. He writes and lectures extensively on various subjects pertaining to India and Indian cultural heritage. He is a master of the ancient art of avadhana and is credited with reviving the art in Kannada. He is a recipient of the Badarayana-Vyasa Puraskar from the President of India for his contribution to the Sanskrit language.



Shashi Kiran B N holds a bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering and a master's degree in Sanskrit. His interests include Indian aesthetics, Hindu scriptures, Sanskrit and Kannada literature and philosophy.

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Evolution of Mahabharata and Other Writings on the Epic is the English translation of S R Ramaswamy's 1972 Kannada classic 'Mahabharatada Belavanige' along with seven of his essays on the great epic. It tells the riveting...

Shiva-Rama-Krishna is an English adaptation of Śatāvadhāni Dr. R Ganesh's popular lecture series on the three great...


ಮಹಾಮಾಹೇಶ್ವರ ಅಭಿನವಗುಪ್ತ ಜಗತ್ತಿನ ವಿದ್ಯಾವಲಯದಲ್ಲಿ ಮರೆಯಲಾಗದ ಹೆಸರು. ಮುಖ್ಯವಾಗಿ ಶೈವದರ್ಶನ ಮತ್ತು ಸೌಂದರ್ಯಮೀಮಾಂಸೆಗಳ ಪರಮಾಚಾರ್ಯನಾಗಿ  ಸಾವಿರ ವರ್ಷಗಳಿಂದ ಇವನು ಜ್ಞಾನಪ್ರಪಂಚವನ್ನು ಪ್ರಭಾವಿಸುತ್ತಲೇ ಇದ್ದಾನೆ. ಭರತಮುನಿಯ ನಾಟ್ಯಶಾಸ್ತ್ರವನ್ನು ಅರ್ಥಮಾಡಿಕೊಳ್ಳಲು ಇವನೊಬ್ಬನೇ ನಮಗಿರುವ ಆಲಂಬನ. ಇದೇ ರೀತಿ ರಸಧ್ವನಿಸಿದ್ಧಾಂತವನ್ನು...


“वागर्थविस्मयास्वादः” प्रमुखतया साहित्यशास्त्रतत्त्वानि विमृशति । अत्र सौन्दर्यर्यशास्त्रीयमूलतत्त्वानि यथा रस-ध्वनि-वक्रता-औचित्यादीनि सुनिपुणं परामृष्टानि प्रतिनवे चिकित्सकप्रज्ञाप्रकाशे। तदन्तर एव संस्कृतवाङ्मयस्य सामर्थ्यसमाविष्कारोऽपि विहितः। क्वचिदिव च्छन्दोमीमांसा च...

The Best of Hiriyanna

The Best of Hiriyanna is a collection of forty-eight essays by Prof. M. Hiriyanna that sheds new light on Sanskrit Literature, Indian...

Stories Behind Verses

Stories Behind Verses is a remarkable collection of over a hundred anecdotes, each of which captures a story behind the composition of a Sanskrit verse. Collected over several years from...