Bhavabhūti was a Sanskrit poet par excellence. He lived in the eighth century CE. A thorough scholar of many branches of Indian learning, he composed three plays: Mahāvīra-carita, Mālatī-mādhava and Uttara-rāma-carita. All his works bear an indelible imprint of his personality – a feature rarely seen in Sanskrit poems. This essay attempts to sketch a portrait of the great playwright using the hues and strokes available in his works. It discusses his prodigious learning, the historical context of his plays, recurring motifs in his works and several style-specific aspects.
FIND YOUR VOICE is the advice that a budding poet receives often. Critics repeatedly encourage readers to find the poet’s voice – to identify places in a poem where the tone is most persuasive, promising or plangent. The voice is supposed to bring the poet and reader together. One would assume that this voice would be an active one. Turns out it is not. Not in ancient literature. Poets and authors in the past typically adopted an impersonal style. The passive voice was their fondest literary apparatus. Sanskrit writers used the passive voice to achieve concision and to ensure objectivity. The Sanskrit language yields well to sentence constructions in the passive voice. This was a factor in favour of littérateurs. Against this backdrop, a poet who is boldly self-assertive stands out. Bhavabhūti is one such poet. Although he has used the passive voice in the same proportion as his peers, the overall tone of his compositions is outrightly ‘active.’
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Bhavabhūti hailed from Padmapura, a city in the Vidarbha province of Southern India. He was immensely proud of his lineage. While most Sanskrit poets are silent about their biographical details, Bhavabhūti provides a wealth of information about himself and his ancestors. The things he chooses to describe give us an idea about what he truly valued in life – not material wealth, but knowledge and cultural heritage.
From the prologues of Mahāvīra-carita and Mālatī-mādhava, we learn that he was born into a family of vaidika-brāhmaṇas. His ancestors belonged to the Taittirīya branch of the Yajurveda. Their gotra was Kāśyapa and the family name, Udumbara. They had earned the epithet ‘caraṇa-guravaḥ,’ which suggests that they used to teach their branch of the Veda and possibly ran a gurukula for that purpose. They were devout, observed several Veda-vratas (loosely, vows), performed the soma-yāga and constantly maintained the five ritual fires. They were philosophers who professed and propagated the brahma-tattva as enshrined in Vedānta. People used to respect them as ‘paṅkti-pāvanas’ for their prodigious learning and austere lifestyle. A person by name Mahākavi was born in this family. He had the high distinction of performing the vājapeya-yāga. Bhavabhūti was born five generations later. His grandfather was Bhaṭṭa Gopāla, a person much respected for his erudition and spotless conduct. Nīlakaṇṭha and Jatukarṇī (also spelled Jātūkarṇī) were Bhavabhūti’s parents.
His ancestors studied the Vedas and contemplated on their knowledge only to ascertain the ultimate truth for themselves – to gain philosophical clarity. They earned material wealth only to perform iṣṭa and pūrta (Vedic rites, rituals and acts of public charity). They married only to take the lineage forward through children. They lived a life of tapas. In sum, these were people to whom everyone in the society looked up.
Bhavabhūti did not live off inherited glory. He carved a niche for himself by his poetic talent and extensive learning. Being the disciple of Paramahaṃsa Jñānanidhi, he was a master of the Vedas, Vedāṅgas, Nyāya, Vyākaraṇa, Sāṅkhya, Yoga, Mīmāṃsā and Vedānta. He was also proficient in Dharmaśāstra, Arthaśāstra and Kāmaśāstra. Āyurveda, Tantraśāstra and Mantraśāstra were a few other subjects of his interest. ‘Pada-vākya-pramāṇajña’ (proficient in grammar, Vedic exegesis and epistemology) and ‘vaśya-vāk’ (master of language) were his honorifics. In his case, they are more of descriptions than titles. ‘Śrīkaṇṭha’ was another title of his. Bhavabhūti proudly pinned all his learning as a badge on his chest. He was not a man of false modesty, as we shall see.
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The period of Bhavabhūti’s active literary activity was 700–730 CE. Bhavabhūti travelled from his hometown in Vidarbha to Padmāvatī in pursuit of a literary career. He finally settled in Kanauj under the patronage of King Yaśovarmā. During that time, Central and Northern India was home to Vaidikas, Bauddhas, Jainas, Kāpālikas and several other groups of people espousing various systems of belief, worship and philosophy.
During this period, king Nannarāja ruled Vidarbha. He belonged to the family of Rāṣṭrakūṭas, who were vassals of the Kalacūri and Calukya kings at various points. Because there was no sovereign ruler in Vidarbha, Bhavabhūti had to travel north in search of a patron. He eventually landed in Kanauj. In the same period, the intrepid king Lalitāditya ruled over Kashmir. The historical poem Rājataraṅgiṇī (4.134–44) tells us that he defeated Yaśovarmā and annexed Kanauj. Both these kings were patrons of the arts, literature and religion. Yaśovarmā was a gifted poet himself. Apart from Bhavabhūti, he had the Prakrit poet Vākpatirāja in his court. Unlike many contemporaneous poets, these two were supportive and appreciative of one another. Vākpatirāja openly acknowledged Bhavabhūti’s pre-eminence.
Going by these details, one is led to assume that Bhavabhūti enjoyed the camaraderie of fellow-poets, wrote leisurely and lived happily under the patronage of a cultured king. This is partially true.
Bhavabhūti got to experience royal comfort in the second half of his life. By that time, he had already composed all his three plays. It is likely that he wrote only standalone verses in the court of Yaśovarmā. Being closely acquainted with actors, choreographers and various theatre artists, he sought their help and staged his plays in the yātrā of Kālapriyanātha, the Sun deity at Kalpi.
It seems that Bhavabhūti first composed five acts of Mahāvīra-carita and staged it at Kalpi. Connoisseurs of the time did not receive it well. Bhavabhūti was so embittered by this lukewarm response that he left the play unfinished (at 5.46). Other poets wrote two more acts to complete the play in later times: Vināyakabhaṭṭa wrote the northern version, Subrahmaṇya wrote the southern one. When Bhavabhūti wrote his next play Mālatī-mādhava, he stunned his critics to silence. He did not hide behind a veneer of imagery in defending his self-worth:
ये नाम केचिदिह नः प्रथयन्त्यवज्ञां
जानन्ति ते किमपि तान्प्रति नैष यत्नः ।
उत्पत्स्यतेऽस्ति मम कोऽपि समानधर्मा
कालो ह्ययं निरवधिर्विपुला च पृथ्वी ॥ (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.
Something seems amiss. If the literary climate of the time was generally favourable, what made the critics turn hostile to the composition of such a learned playwright? It might be that Mahāvīra-carita was an aesthetic let-down, being a product of misguided literary effort. Spectators might not have liked the changes that the poet made to the Rāmāyaṇa story. After all, the spectators were largely a bunch of unlettered men and women who had gathered to witness the yātrā. The ‘festival crowd’ responds positively to the Rāmāyaṇa story that they know and own. If something new comes up, the spectators simply walk away. The crowd had its share of discerning viewers, too. They usually do not back a poet who takes undue liberties with the storyline of a civilizational emblem like the Rāmāyaṇa. This might have been the case. What is more probable is: Bhavabhūti might have had an axe to grind with contemporary poets and critics. Poets because they were wallowing in pre-set patterns and critics because they encouraged such poets. Here is evidence in point: Aestheticians delineating the nuances of plays hardly ever choose episodes from Bhavabhūti’s plays as examples. Harṣavardhana and Bhaṭṭa Nārāyaṇa are their go-to playwrights. Bhavabhūti is conspicuous by his absence because Harṣavardhana is his immediate predecessor and Bhaṭṭa Nārāyaṇa is almost his contemporary.
The scholar G K Bhat makes another plausible conjecture: Bhavabhūti belonged to a respectable family of learned brāhmaṇas. He was himself a towering scholar. And yet, he hobnobbed with actors who were looked down upon in those days. His immediate relatives must have been aghast by this break from settled family traditions. They must have vehemently criticized Bhavabhūti’s literary pursuits. “It is possible that the memory of bitter opposition from his own people never left Bhavabhūti even when he came to write his greatest work, the Uttara-rāma-carita.”
Bhavabhūti’s defiant will comes through in the fact that he went on to compose two plays and (possibly) numerous standalone verses even after receiving flak for his first composition. He might come across as an irascible, boastful man. Nevertheless, he has several virtues that are worthy of emulation. For instance, he wants critics to appreciate him for the right things. He is constantly on the lookout for learned criticism. If people commend his scholarly rigour, he is not entirely happy. He is primarily a poet and wants connoisseurs to comment on his poetic abilities:
यद्वेदाध्ययनं तथोपनिषदां साङ्ख्यस्य योगस्य च
ज्ञानं तत्कथनेन किं न हि ततः कश्चिद्गुणो नाटके ।
यत्प्रौढित्वमुदारता च वचसां यच्चार्थतो गौरवं
तच्चेदस्ति ततस्तदेव गमकं पाण्डित्यवैदग्ध्ययोः ॥ (Mālatī-mādhava, 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.
 अग्र्याः सर्वेषु वेदेषु सर्वप्रवचनेषु च। श्रोत्रियान्वयजाश्चैव विज्ञेयाः पङ्किपावनाः॥ (मनुस्मृतिः, ३.११४)
 अस्ति दक्षिणापथे पद्मपुरं नाम नगरम्। तत्र केचित्तैत्तिरीयाः काश्यपाश्चरणगुरवः पङ्क्तिपावनाः पञ्चाग्नयो धृतव्रताः सोमपीथिन उदुम्बरनामानो ब्रह्मवादिनः प्रतिवसन्ति। तदामुष्यायणस्य तत्रभवतो वाजपेययाजिनो महाकवेः पञ्चमः सुगृहीतनाम्नो भट्टगोपालस्य पौत्रः पवित्रकीर्तेर्नीलकण्ठस्यात्म-सम्भवः श्रीकण्ठपदलाञ्छनः पदवाक्यप्रमाणज्ञो भवभूतिर्नाम जतुकर्णीपुत्रः॥(महावीरचरितम्, १.४ गद्यम्)
भूरिश्रुतं शाश्वतमाद्रियन्ते ।
इष्टाय पूर्ताय च कर्मणेऽर्थान्
दारानपत्याय तपोऽर्थमायुः ॥ (मालतीमाधवम्, १.५)
 भवभूइजलहिणिग्गअकव्वामअरसकणा इव फुरन्ति। जस्स विसेसा अज्जवि विअडेसु कहाणिवेसेसु॥ (गउडवहो, ७९९)
(भवभूतिजलनिधिगतकाव्यामृतरसकणा इव स्फुरन्ति। यस्य विशेषा अद्यापि विकटेषु कथानिवेशेषु॥)
 तथैव च विचित्रवक्रत्वविजृम्भितं ... भवभूतिराजशेखरविरचितेषु बन्धसौन्दर्यसुभगेषु मुक्तकेषु परिदृश्यते ॥ (वक्रोक्तिजीवितम्, १.५२)
 भगवतः कालप्रियनाथस्य यात्रायामार्यमिश्राः समादिशन्ति॥ (महावीरचरितम्; १.१ गद्यम्); भवभूतिः ... कविमित्रधेयमस्माकमिति भवन्तो विदाङ्कुर्वन्तु॥ (महावीरचरितम्, १.४ गद्यम्); ... संनिपतितश्च भगवतः कालप्रियनाथस्य यात्राप्रसङ्गेन नानादिगन्तवास्तव्यो महाजनसमाजः॥ (मालतीमाधवम्, १.३ गद्यम्); भवभूतिनामा ... कविर्निसर्गसौहृदेन भरतेषु ॥ (मालतीमाधवम्, १.५ गद्यम्)
 Ref: Ānandavardhana’s call of caution:
सन्ति सिद्धरसप्रख्या ये च रामायणादयः। कथाश्रया न तैर्योज्याः स्वेच्छा रसविरोधिनी॥ (ध्वन्यालोकः, ३.१४ परिकरश्लोकः)
 Bhavabhuti, pp. 15–16
I owe an immense debt of gratitude to Śatāvadhānī R Ganesh. Apart from providing incredible insights into the works and personality of Bhavabhūti, he handheld me throughout this essay. I extend my heartfelt thanks to Prof. L V Shantakumari, G S Raghavendra, Sandeep Balakrishna and Hari Ravikumar for their valuable inputs. I am indebted to several scholars from whose valuable works on Bhavabhūti I have benefited immensely. Of them, I must name V V Mirashi and G K Bhat. While Mirashi’s work is instructive and comprehensive, Bhat’s book is insightful and eminently readable.
To be continued.