In the plays written by the great poet Bhavabhūti we find passages that not only reveal his personality and learning, but also his insights into literary aesthetics. Let us examine a few such passages. The poet presents the superior qualities of his creation in a verse that appears in Mālatīmādhava:
भूम्ना रसानां गहनप्रयोगाः
चित्राः कथा वाचि विदग्धता च॥(1.4)
A profound plot rich with all kinds of rasa, pleasing characters that embody friendship, subtleties of Kāmasūtra, riveting stories and ornate expression – [these are the unique features of this play.]
This verse enumerates almost all the features expected in a social play (prakaraṇa). Let us see how. Literary works should be rich with rasa. More importantly, the portrayal of rasa should stem from deep experience and remain true to it. The plot should take shape with incidents depicting human virtues such as love and kindness. Prominence should be given to such love that enthrals the audience and helps them contemplate on life in a serious manner. The poet can achieve these only through a riveting story and evocative descriptions. In this manner, the present verse involving rasa, character, plot and expression combines the features of a play such as sandhi, avasthā and artha-prakṛti with the features of a descriptive poem such as story and description. Indian aestheticians starting from Bharata have stressed the importance of these features that pan out parallelly. Sadly, vested interests continue to peddle the lie that the Indian aesthetic tradition never brings poems and plays under an integrated vision.
It is to Bhavabhūti’s credit that he has expressly mentioned Kāmasūtra, a branch of knowledge that is complementary to Nāṭyaśāstra (samāna-tantra). This aspect, too, is not unknown to our tradition. Unfortunately, even respected modern scholars such as Prof. M Hiriyanna, Prof. T N Sreekantaiya and Dr. K Krishnamoorthy have not elaborated on it. Western scholars bring up these topics mostly to ruffle feathers and not to understand and explain. Perhaps the reason for this lies in the excessive stress laid on prudishness in the Victorian Era, and in the rigid nature of Semitic cults. Fortunately for us, scholars such as Dr. V Raghavan and Dr. Radhavallabh Tripathi have made a close study of the inter-involvement of Nāṭyaśāstra and Kāmasūtra.
We can next examine the famous verse that Bhavabhūti aimed at his detractors:
ये नाम केचिदिह नः प्रथयन्त्यवज्ञां
जानन्ति ते किमपि तान्प्रति नैष यत्नः।
उत्पत्स्यतेऽस्ति मम कोऽपि समानधर्मा
कालो ह्ययं निरवधिर्विपुला च पृथ्वी॥ (Mālatīmādhava, 1.6)
Those who are indifferent to my work, let them know – my efforts are not for them. There will come along someone—why, he might be with us right now—who shares my spirit. The world is vast and time, endless.
Indian aestheticians mostly have not taken up this topic for discussion. The sole exception is perhaps Ānandavardhana’s words of assurance at the end of this work (Dhvanyāloka, 4.17). A talented poet need not hanker after connoisseurs who will possibly respect him; nor need he try to modify his mind-set and tailor his compositions to suit their tastes. In the endless expanse of time and space, perceptive readers existing anywhere and at any time can respond to his work positively. Such a stance shows us that the poet is true to himself. If he is not so, he would be unable to create unique, variform and valuable works. Unfortunately, untalented poets who are not true to themselves have gone on to produce a slew of unremarkable works. It would be prudent to call these ‘pretensions to poetry’ and not poetic works proper. Taking a parallel from music, we can understand that adhering to one’s mind-set is beneficial for a poet in the same way as sticking to one’s pitch (śruti) enables a musician to sing naturally, freely and evocatively. Needless, the poet who is true to himself must also be endowed with imagination and erudition, because otherwise it is likely that he would use ‘originality’ as an excuse to dish out mediocre compositions.
The next verse is proof for the fact that Bhavabhūti was both original and competent. And his competence was tempered by self-reflection:
यद्वेदाध्ययनं तथोपनिषदां साङ्ख्यस्य योगस्य च
ज्ञानं तत्कथनेन किं न हि ततः कश्चिद्गुणो नाटके।
यत्प्रौढित्वमुदारता च वचसां यच्चार्थतो गौरवं
तच्चेदस्ति ततस्तदेव गमकं पाण्डित्यवैदग्ध्ययोः॥(Mālatīmādhava, 1.7)
What is the use of boasting about one’s learning in the Vedas, Upaniṣads, Sāṅkhya and Yoga? They do not add any quality to a play. The real measures of scholarship and talent are felicitous expression, dignified diction and profound content.
Prodigious scholarship undoubtedly facilitates poetic creation. However, scholarship that does not play second fiddle to creativity is to that extent detrimental to poetry. Bhavabhūti hints at this aspect in the present verse. Indian aestheticians have carefully studied creativity vis-à-vis scholarship and have sounded the warning bell ages ago. But the poets who paid heed to them were few and far between. Bhavabhūti neither took to composing poetry because he lacked erudition, nor used erudition as a fig leaf for modest talent. He had both in abundance and knew where to place and how to use each of them. Ānandavardhana makes a pointed reference to this issue in his treatise.
In this verse, Bhavabhūti has described the cardinal features of poetry, those points upon which connoisseurs should focus their attention. Thus he has indirectly supplied a definition of poetry. And this is aligned to the ideal, śabdārthau sahitau kāvyam, ‘form and content together constitute poetry.’ Using the terms coined by Kuntaka, we can say that the prauḍhitva Bhavabhūti speaks of is related to ‘vicitra-mārga’ and udāratā to ‘sukumāra-mārga,’ which are outlandish and delicate styles respectively, as we have seen. These styles should aid and lead to profound content, which is rasa. Poetry is sure to take shape when scholarship and dedicated practice foster creative imagination and put together words and meanings.
Bhavabhūti repeatedly refers to the concept of śabda-brahma in his play Uttara-rāma-carita. The śuddha-viṣkambhaka portion of the second act and the concluding verse of the play present some of the most important of such references. What is remarkable is that the poet calls literature as the manifestation (vivarta) of śabda-brahma. Bhaṭṭa-tauta’s famous remark on poets appears as an extension of Bhavabhūti’s statement – “darśanād varṇanāccātha rūḍhā loke kaviśrutiḥ,” “a poet is known to the world by his creative vision and power of description.” In the present context, we can say that śabda-brahma is creative vision and its vivarta is description. Vivarta also includes the various types and genres of poetry. It follows that a poet is a ‘visionary’ who presents before the world the saguṇa form (manifested, imbued with attributes) of the nirguṇa-brahma (unmanifested, without attributes). For this reason, he should have a lofty personality. In sum, we can say that a poet has a great responsibility to discharge. Bhavabhūti deserves credit for according such a high place for poets and their work.
The poet uses the word vivarta in yet another occasion where he presents his original thoughts on karuṇa-rasa:
एको रसः करुण एव निमित्तभेदा-
द्भिन्नः पृथक् पृथगिवाश्रयते विवर्तान्।
नम्भो यथा सलिलमेव हि तत्समस्तम्॥(Uttara-rāma-carita, 3.47)
There is only a single rasa—karuṇa, pathos—but it takes different forms because it changes with circumstances. Water assumes the forms of whirlpool, bubble and wave, but in the end all of it is just water.
Several scholars have taken up this verse for discussion; they seem to suggest that according to Bhavabhūti, karuṇa is the only rasa. This verse has perhaps inspired later theorists such as Bhoja, Abhinavagupta, Hemādri, Vopadeva and Madhusūdana-sarasvatī to uphold śṛṅgāra, śānta and bhakti as the exclusive rasa. We must say that this an erroneous proposition, because but for śānta, the primordial rasa, no other rasa can claim exclusivity. A poet of Bhavabhūti’s learning and calibre perhaps would not have made this unsound claim. What then was his intent? Let us try to understand. This verse does not posit that karuṇa is the only rasa. Instead, it means that throughout the play, each of the characters such as Rāma, Sītā, Vāsantī and Tamasā embody a different facet of pathos, and thereby make it the prominent rasa of the play. If this were not so, pathos would have turned monotonous and lost its appeal.
The word vivarta is noteworthy from the standpoint of aesthetics – we observed that literature or poetry is the manifestation of śabda-brahma; in the same way, the various rasas are the manifestations of śānta-rasa.
In the last act of Uttara-rāma-carita, the playwright has employed the technique of garbhāṅka to unite Sīta and Rāma. What’s more, he has conceived this novelty as the concluding portion of Vālmīki’s Rāmāyaṇa. According to him, Vālmīki himself wished that his work should conclude as a play. In order to fulfil this wish, Bharta’s help was sought; he was requested to have a look at the manuscript and stage the final portion. The play thus produced was performed in the presence of Rāma, with the citizens of Ayodhyā as the audience. Sīta plays herself in this play. So do Gaṅgā and Bhūmi, who try to transform the onlookers’ minds.
Bhavabhūti seems to suggest that art should bring about a transformation in the minds of connoisseurs, over and above providing aesthetic joy. But art is not cut out for such purposes, for the aesthetic experience it provides is short-lived. It can never erase avidyā, as we have observed several times in this book. At best, it delinks the connoisseurs from desire and activity as long as they remain under its influence. It is however true that a sensitive connoisseur can derive positive inspiration from his experience of rasa, and can harness it as a means of upāsana (loosely, worship). Such a process cleanses the mind and paves the way for ultimate Self-realization. Though the probability of this happening is thin, one cannot say it is impossible.
That Bhavabhūti has drawn our attention to the transformative power of art is natural to his personality. A towering scholar of Vedānta and other śāstras, he is mainly a man of exalted and exuberant feelings. Because he had intense emotions and was sensitive to values, he could carve the poetic path described above. Bhavabhūti perfectly understood Sīta’s suffering and the ignoble acts that caused it. And instead of being indignant at Rāma, he pitied him, for he understood his predicament. By empathizing with both Sīta and Rāma, the poet could impactfully picture Rāma’s angst and the remorse felt by the citizens of Ayodhyā. If a poet attempts to reform the society directly, he will cause more harm than bringing about a positive change. Instead, he can create a work of art that assists discerning connoisseurs to recognize the need for such a reform. The medium best suited for this purpose is the visual play, because it effects a change more readily than a verbal poem. Bhavabhūti has accomplished all of these in the present garbhāṅka.
As in the case of the play Priyadarśikā, the people viewing the garbhāṅka get emotionally disturbed even here. This might appear as a fall from the standards of visual aesthetics; in reality, the characters and audience of the garbhāṅka provide joy to the connoisseurs who are savouring the main play, Uttara-rāma-carita. The way Rāma and Lakṣmaṇa respond to this situation makes us pity them profoundly. Rāma even swoons ultimately. Bhavabhūti has skilfully used all these elements to transform the minds of the audience in the garbhāṅka and of us, the actual connoisseurs. In sum, he has secured ‘poetic justice’ for Sīta.
Though this endeavour might appear very pleasing, it is not a great perspective on life. For this reason, we can conclude that the stand taken by Vālmīki and Kālidāsa is far more sound and sublime. Good art suggests how life ought to be; cheap art does not differentiate between the profound and profane in life. Great art, however, accepts life as it is and teaches that we should develop detachment while enduring harsh realities. It is perhaps for this reason that Indian aesthetics did not dwell on the ability of art to reform. On the flip side, the history of our languages has stood witness to gross attempts intended to turn literature into a handmaiden of religion, royalty and untrammelled indulgence. Compared to this, attempts to reform the society are far better. Besides, we can safely say that when a poet of Bhavabhūti’s eminence makes up his mind to reform the society, his innate emotional maturity prevents him from turning reckless. His is a bold attempt to experiment with an idea that Indian aesthetics had consciously left untouched.
 अव्युत्पत्तिकृतो दोषः शक्त्या संव्रियते कवेः।
यस्त्वशक्तिकृतस्तस्य स झटित्यवभासते॥ (ध्वन्यालोकः, ३.६ वृत्तिः, परिकरश्लोकः)
 तं भगवन्तमाविर्भूतशब्दब्रह्मप्रकाशमृषिमुपसङ्गम्य भगवान् भूतभावनः पद्मयोनिरवोचत् – “ऋषे प्रबुद्धोऽसि। वागात्मनि ब्रह्मणि तद्ब्रूहि रामचरितम्। अव्याहितं ज्योतिरार्षं ते प्रतिभाचक्षुः। आद्यः कविरसि।” इत्युक्त्वा तत्रैवान्तर्हितः। अथ स भगवान् प्राचेतसः प्रथमं मनुष्येषु शब्दब्रह्मणस्तादृशं विवर्तमितिहासं रामायणं प्रणिनाय॥ (उत्तररामचरितम्, द्वितीयोऽङ्कः, शुद्धविष्कम्भकः)
शब्दब्रह्मविदः कवेः परिणतप्रज्ञस्य वाणीमिमाम्॥ (उत्तररामचरितम्, ७.२०)
 The noted scholar of Indian aesthetics, Dr. K Krishnamoorthy has provided this insight into the present verse. See: Bhavabhūti (Kannada), p. 42
 The technique of garbhāṅka becomes effective or otherwise depending on the poet’s mind-set and the theme he has adopted. The garbhāṅka in Priyadarśikā, befitting the nature of a harem opera (nāṭikā), is light and lively, filled with laughter and love. On the other hand, the garbhāṅka in Uttara-rāma-carita, befitting Bhavabhūti’s grave personality and the lofty theme of the Rāmāyaṇa, is serious and haunting. The playwright Kṣemīśvara has taken a cue from Bhavabhūti and has employed this technique to great effect in his play, Naiṣadhānanda. But despite being based on the Rāmāyaṇa, Rājaśekhara's play Bālarāmāyaṇa presents a garbhāṅka that is ridiculous. Going by these examples, we can understand that the poet’s nature dictates the shape and substance of his composition much more than the theme.
To be continued.