After Kālidāsa, Bhāravi is perhaps the only poet who steered the ship of Sanskrit narrative poetry along a new route. Successive poets merely followed his lead. Known for investing words with profound meaning, Bhāravi has given some remarkable insights into poetics in his work, Kirātārjunīyam. Unsurprisingly, these insights mainly relate to the clarity and gravitas of poetic content. Let us examine this in some detail.
Yudhiṣṭhira allays Bhīma’s excitement and appreciates his eloquence:
विमला तव विस्तरे गिरां
स्फुटता न पदैरपाकृता
न च न स्वीकृतमर्थगौरवम्।
रचिता पृथगर्थता गिरां
न च सामर्थ्यमपोहितं क्वचित्॥
दनुमानेन न चागमः क्षतः।
प्रसभं वक्तुमुपक्रमेत कः॥ (2.26–28)
“Your unblemished intellect is reflected in your speech—which is free of grammatical slip-ups and logical fallacies—as in a clear, attractive and auspicious mirror.
“Your words are lucid, yet imbued with profound meaning. Each expression has its distinct meaning, yet the relative senses of various phrases are not made obscure.
“You have presented your argument forcefully. Your line of reasoning does not go against the scriptures. Indeed, no one else could’ve spoken as you have, [so convincingly and with such conviction.]”
These verses are eminently suited to the context within the poem. But they also make ample sense outside that context, when applied to poetics. It wouldn’t be incorrect to say that Bhāravi has given expression to his own literary ideals through this set of verses. Because he is a master of speech, even a submission of his personal conviction can be counted as the considered view of literary aesthetics.
According to Bhāravi, speech should be akin to a flawless, shiny mirror, which can perfectly reflect the speaker’s thoughts. Apart from this functional aspect, speech should possess the quality of benevolence. That is why the poet adds the adjective, ‘auspicious.’ From this we can extract a general guideline for literary artists: poets should first strive hard to hone their power of expression, to communicate their ideas to connoisseurs without any loss. Logical clarity, and honesty in emotion and intellect aid in this process.
The sum of these qualities can be thought of as the strength given to grammatically correct speech by the study of philosophy and love for the world. It follows that the poet should use his knowledge of the world and the various śāstras to secure the welfare of his own self and of the people at large. Even aestheticians have not described poetic expression in such an uplifting manner.
Basically, these verses are about the poet’s fidelity to truth. Truth expressed through the intellect is śāstra, and the same expressed through emotions is kāvya. If the poet is anchored in truth, it gives him a formidable personality, which in turn comes through as a distinctive style in poetry.
Bhāravi describes speech in a more direct manner in the second verse quoted above. He uses double negatives to convey his idea effectively. This roundabout expression accentuates the literary use of language. The beauty that such an expression evokes is evident. This is the way of both suggestion (dhvani) and oblique expression (vakrokti). Experiential concepts such as rasa and brahma can be described only in the neti-mārga, the way of negation. Indeed, there is no direct route to these concepts. The present verse also points to the clear-yet-unclear nature of poetry. The best of poetry transforms the concrete to the abstract and vice versa. Accordingly, poetic language should be lucid; yet lucidity should not be the whole of expression. Likewise, profundity of content should not burden the form; yet poetic form should not be feeble. This is akin to walking on the edge of a sword.
There is an indication here of the “apṛthagyatnatva” (requiring no independent effort) upheld by Ānandavardhana. Words gain power through their collective brilliance. The essence of poetry lies in its overall impression or import, which can only be felt and not explained. On the other hand, it is independent words that work to create the said impression. Although these words are complete in themselves, they should sub-serve the ultimate aesthetic impression. Bhāravi speaks of this in the second half of this verse. Words within a verse should sub-serve the import of the verse, and each verse should sub-serve the overall appeal of the poem. The ideal described by Bhāravi poses a great challenge in the composition of narrative poems. The tradition of Sanskrit poetry provides the proof for how poets have striven to achieve this ideal.
In this set of three verses, the first describes common speech and the second, poetic expression. The third verse captures the logical dimension of language. A great poet has the mindset to appreciate both śāstra and kāvya. Because Bhāravi was a great poet, it is no wonder that he has elucidated all the three facets of speech. Logic bereft of reasoning leads to fallacies. Logic that goes against the scriptures becomes baseless and ends up in perpetual regress. All expression should seek its rationale in the world and find its basis in universal experience. This is the highest objective for a work of śāstra or kāvya.
 We have here a character within a poem praising the eloquence of another character, and thereby giving insights into speech. The origin of this poetic device lies in Ādikāvya Rāmāyaṇa, where Rāma praises Hanūmān’s eloquence (4.3.27–33). This section relates to the science of pronunciation and the beauty of expression. Hanūmān is said to be proficient in the Vedas and grammar. His ability to pronounce every vowel and consonant perfectly, in accordance to its place of origin, is uncanny. There is an express mention of the Vedas because, back in the day, they were the sole repositories of most branches of learning. And coming to grammar, it is the science that dictates the correctness of expression at all times. If poets are imbued with these qualities, gaining mastery over melodic aspects such as figures of sound shouldn’t be too difficult. In this manner, the Ādikāvya has given insights into the training of poets (kaviśikṣā) in this small set of verses.
To be continued.