Bhallaṭa and Rājaśekhara

This article is part 27 of 27 in the series Poets on Poetics: Literature as Sanskrit Poets See It


Bhallaṭa is best remembered as the poet who put the genre of anyokti (allegorical verses) on the map. He composed a century of verses and elevated this genre, which was only a trickle before. To this day, his poem arguably remains the best of its kind. A verse from the opening section of Bhallaṭaśataka describes the nature of suggestive poetry in a memorable manner:   

बद्धा यदर्पणरसेन विमर्दपूर्व-

मर्थान् कथं झटिति तान् प्रकृतान्न दद्युः।

चौरा इवातिमृदवो महतां कवीना-

मर्थान्तराण्यपि हठाद्वितरन्ति शब्दाः॥ (3)

If we squeeze the juicy words of great poets with a view to extract their literal meaning, they give out a stream of suggestive meanings in addition. They are very much like tenderfoot thieves who, when beaten, hand over the money they had previously lifted, apart from the sum they were caught stealing.

The spin and sting in Bhallaṭa’s words stand a class apart. One shouldn’t take umbrage at him for speaking of poets and thieves in the same breath. The simile is in no way unfit. In the same manner as thieves hide away the articles they steal, poets cautiously conceal suggestive meanings. Signification is the wonderful way of ‘artful’ concealment. Further, poets exercise caution to not sound tiresomely literal in the process. When the right person—a police officer or a connoisseur—catches hold of such a thief and such a poet, the latter surely spills all his secrets. Bhallaṭa has expressed this idea at the same time as—perhaps even before than—Ānandavardhana, who gave a solid theoretical framework to poetic suggestion. By this we understand that the concept of suggestion was lodged in the hearts of poets and connoisseurs even before the advent of Dhvanyāloka.[1]


Rājaśekhara, a consummate polymath and polyglot, has left an indelible impression on Sanskrit literature. A large part of his literary output has not come down to us. Among the five extant works, four are plays and one is a work on Poetics. Of the plays, Karpūramañjarī composed in Prakrit belongs to the genre of saṭṭaka or sāṭaka. Let us examine a verse from the prologue of this play:  

अत्तविसेसा ते चिअ सद्दा ते चेअ परिमणमंता वि।

उत्तिविसेसो कव्वं भासा जा होइ सा होउ॥(1.7)

(अर्थविशेषास्त एव शब्दास्त एव परिणमन्तोऽपि।

उक्तिविशेषः काव्यं भाषा या भवति सा भवतु॥)

[Across various languages] meaning remains the same although words change and take on a new shape. And so, regardless of language, distinctive words constitute poetry.  

Rājaśekhara has made an insightful observation that helps us understand the literary milieu of ancient India: the essence of poetry remains the same across languages. Detractors typically say that Sanskrit rode roughshod over other Indian languages. While a few sanctimonious pedants might have stuck to Sanskrit and disregarded all else, the generality of Sanskrit poets and scholars was positively different.[2] The greatest exponents of the language were polyglots, and what’s more, they held emotional content above language. Rājaśekhara is one such exemplar. His observations are worth noting, for he was a poet and scholar proficient in several languages, and was not one to preach what he did not practise. His definition of poetry—uttiviseso kavvam—might have influenced Kuntaka in conceptualizing vakrokti.[3] There are hardly any other better descriptions of poetry.    

                     Rājaśekhara has further advocated harmony among languages in his other play, Bālarāmāyaṇa:

गिरः श्रव्या दिव्याः प्रकृतिमधुराः प्राकृतधुराः

सुभव्योऽपभ्रंशः सरसरचनं भूतवचनम्।

विभिन्नाः पन्थानः किमपि कमनीयाश्च त इमे

निबद्धा यस्त्वेषां स खलु निखिलेऽस्मिन् कविवृषा॥ (1.11)

Sanskrit, ‘the language of the Gods,’ is [refined and] ought to be heard, the various Prakrits are mellifluous by nature, Apabhraṃśa is striking, and Paiśācī is sweet. The ways of language are many and each is lovely in its own way. I, the author of this work, am a master of all these languages and can compose poetry in all of them.

According to Rājaśekhara, ‘kavirāja’ is a poet who can use a variety of languages with equal felicity through multiple genres. He was himself such an accomplished poet – a fact he has hinted at in the present verse, which describes the unique aspects of several languages. Kṣemendra, who followed Rājaśekhara in more ways than one, has made a similar observation: a budding poet should be acquainted with and develop love for all varieties of language.[4]

                    We learn that Rājaśekhara had composed an epic poem named Haravilasa. While the poem has not survived the ravages of time, a few of its verses have been preserved in anthologies. Let us examine one such verse from Sūktimuktāvalī:

कर्तव्या चार्थसारेऽपि काव्ये शब्दविचित्रता।

विना घण्टाघण्त्कारं गजो गच्छन्न शोभते॥ (4.12)

A poem might have profound content; it must still be bedecked with attractive words. An elephant that steps out without a jingling bell does not stand out.

Akin to a strong and supple body with unsullied traits of personality, a poem with immaculate form and content has a wholesome appeal – this has been the stand of all our major aestheticians. If we examine poetry at the level of form, we learn that words in their highest reaches are suggestive. While rasa-dhvani does not stand in need of specific words, the factors that bring about it depend on suggestive words. Because ancient Indian poets were keenly alive to this fact, they placed content at the highest pedestal but did not accord a low status to form.

                    Poetry appeals at three levels: sound, sense, both sound and sense. We can retain the appeal of sense—and not that of the other two kinds—in translations. The appeal of sound is exclusive to a language. Sanskrit poets have far surpassed their counterparts in other languages in harnessing the strength of their medium’s sound. Ancient writers who composed in other Indian languages followed the lead of Sanskrit poets and achieved similar results. Further, the appeal of sound is of two kinds: (1) the peculiar sound of letters and words that is independent of prose and verse, and (2) the sound dependent on verse, which stems from metrical rhythm. Rājaśekhara has drawn attention to both these kinds.

                    Classical Sanskrit poets seem to have had a pact among themselves: Content in poetry largely depends on creative imagination and is, for that reason, indefinite. Form, however, relies on erudition and is, for that reason, definite. Naturally, we cannot always create profound content. But let us strive to create an appealing form at any rate, for that surely grants a semblance of poetry to our compositions. Because these poets stuck to this unwritten pact, their compositions have withstood the test of time. The aural appeal of poetry attracts connoisseurs to a point and ensures they do not become averse to poetry. In other words, such poems hold the fort until a great composition emerges to command universal attention.

Modern poets are oblivious to these merits of form. There are some among them who are aware of these but dislike the grind involved in achieving mastery over form. Arrogance and lassitude have robbed their compositions of structural beauty. As we have seen, content is not in their control, but sound is. Unfortunately, modern poets have let the only thing slip away, which they could have potentially mastered. For these reasons, their compositions have lost the allure of poetry. It would not have been greatly worrisome if the loss were just this. What is a great cause for worry is: general readers fed with such unremarkable works develop a strong distaste for poetry.

These are some thoughts that Rājaśekhara’s verse spurred in me.

Let us bid farewell to Rājaśekhara with a sobering thought: Kāvyamīmāṃsā, his treatise on Poetics, outperforms his creative works. In the same manner, his observations on Poetics collected in Kāvyamīmāṃsā outshine those presented in his literary works.    

[1] The opening statement of Dhvanyāloka testifies this fact: “kāvyasyātmā dhvaniriti budhairyaḥ samāmnātapūrvaḥ.”

[2] Sanskrit playwrights employ a variety of Prakrits in their compositions. Sanskrit aestheticians starting from Bhāmaha and Daṇḍī have mentioned and discussed Prakrit. Vāmana, Ānandavardhana, Bhoja, Hemacandra and a host of other scholars have used Prakrit verses to illustrate cardinal concepts of Poetics. None among them has driven a wedge among languages. Au contraire, most have openly praised the unique features of various tongues. However, Prakrits and other provincial languages have at times cast aspersions at Sanskrit.

[3] वक्रोक्तिरेव वैदग्ध्यभङ्गीभणितिरुच्यते। (वक्रोक्तिजीवितम्, १.१०);

वक्रोक्तिः प्रसिद्धाभिधानव्यतिरेकिणी विचित्रैवाभिधा। (वक्रोक्तिजीवितम्, १.१० वृत्तिः)

[4] Kavikaṇṭhābharaṇa, 1.17

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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