Śīlāditya Harṣavardhana

This article is part 21 of 27 in the series Poets on Poetics: Literature as Sanskrit Poets See It

Harṣavardhana has made a mark in the annals of Sanskrit literature with his three plays: Priyadarśikā, Ratnāvalī and Nāgānanda. Interestingly, the prologues of these plays are largely similar. Although there is no discussion here significant to literary aesthetics, we do find a verse that lays down certain fundamental tenets:

श्रीहर्षो निपुणः कविः परिषदप्येषा गुणग्राहिणी

लोके हारि च वत्सराजचरितं[1] नाट्ये च दक्षा वयम्।

वस्त्वेकैकमपीह वाञ्छितफलप्राप्तेः पदं किं पुन-

र्मद्भाग्योपचयात्समुदितः सर्वो गुणानां गणः॥ (प्रियदर्शिका, 1.3)

Śrīharṣa is a talented poet, this assembly of discerning connoisseurs unerringly grasps poetic qualities, Vatsarāja’s story is immensely popular, and we are adept at staging plays. Each of these suffices to bring the desired fruit. What could be better – owing to my good fortune, all these ingredients have now come together!

Harṣa here enlists the elements essential to produce, savour and propagate art. The primary cause of a play is the theme; the instrumental cause is the poet. The poet should be skilled enough to narrate and describe various emotions with vigour. A work of art thus takes shape, and the combined efforts of actors, singers, stage managers, et al take it forward. All these culminate and find fruition in the joy that connoisseurs experience.

Poets such as Kālidāsa had previously counted the poet and connoisseur among the essentials of art celebration, but had not specifically taken note of actors, stage managers and suchlike people who come together to stage plays. The monarch in Harṣa knew well the importance of ‘conveyors’ – people who bridge the producers and consumers. If he did not possess such knowledge, the production machinery in his State would have taken a hit. To build on the idea of a kingdom, it is evident that the plans and measures a king undertakes to secure the welfare of his empire reaches the subjects only through the concerted efforts of ministers, administrators and vassals. Harṣa deserves credit for drawing much-needed attention to the propagators of art.  

Śrīharṣa was skilled at writing plays. He had an impeccable knack for turning poetic lines into visually appealing dramatic scenes. Among the various stage techniques he has employed, the ‘garbhāṅka’ (‘play within a play’) is arguably the best. Harṣa has used this technique—which is not mentioned even in Nāṭyaśāstra—to give insights into topics vital to our present discussion: drama, literature and aesthetics.

In the garbhāṅka of the play Priyadarśikā (Act III) we witness Udayana and Vāsavadattā falling in love by their mutual interest in the lute – Udayana being the teacher and his beloved, the student. We learn that the author of this garbhāṅka is Sāṅkṛtyāyanī, an ascetic who helps Udayana in his romantic escapades. The guileless Vāsavadattā, oblivious to Sāṅkṛtyāyanī’s schemes, makes arrangements to have her play staged. In the performance, Udayana’s role was to be played by Manoramā, Priyadarśikā’s friend and Vāsavadattā’s maid. Priyadarśikā herself was to enact Vāsavadattā. Thanks to the web of trickery weaved by Udayana, Manoramā and Sāṅkṛtyāyanī, the king succeeds in playing himself in the play and thereby getting closer to Priyadarśikā’s heart. When the king, prompted by impulse, goes beyond the script and lapses into impromptu sweet-talk to lure Priyadarśikā, the innocent queen Vāsavadattā who was watching the play feels awkward and protests that she and her beloved had never behaved so indecorously. The all-knowing Sāṅkṛtyāyanī calms her by explaining away the king’s excesses. In this way, as the play within a play unfolds, another ‘drama’ opens up before our eyes!

The technique of garbhāṅka provides room for three levels of abhinaya. It appears that there is absolutely no one who sees this play as a play. Vāsavadattā swims against the waves of confusion, discomfiture and anger, while Sāṅkṛtyāyanī sails on the ship of all-knowing poise, determined to lead the situation ashore. Udayana is utterly delighted to outperform his ‘character’ and to milk the God-given opportunity to the fullest. Priyadarśikā, on the other hand, strives to play her part well, being wary of the queen’s watchful eye all the time. Her gut tells her that Udayana is himself playing his role, thus making her happy and shy at the same time.

Evidently, no one among the actors, producers and onlookers of the play is at ease. Nonetheless, the connoisseurs reading or viewing Priyadarśikā are in for a treat. Western dramatic theory posits that the performance of a play involves seeming internal contradictions. It is a proof of Śrīharṣa’s genius that though such contradictions fill this play, they find reconciliation ultimately.

Let us now observe a few finer details. When Udayana enters the stage instead of Manoramā, Vāsavadattā, not knowing she is being tricked, stands up involuntarily and exclaims: ‘jayatu jayatvāryaputraḥ’ – ‘victory to my husband!’ This is a peculiar instance of a person being confounded by truth. Had Manoramā played Udayana and had Vāsavadattā reacted in the same manner then, that would count as appreciation by a connoisseur of the actor’s skill. Were she to enjoy Udayana’s acting as one performed by an artist playing her husband, that would still count as the natural response of a connoisseur. Udayana then would not count as an actor. If Vāsavadattā were to mistake Manoramā for her husband and were she to offer her respects reserved for Udayana, that would be a mark of Manoramā’s skill at acting and the queen’s inability to rise beyond reality.[2] Vāsavadattā then would be far from an ideal connoisseur. On the other hand, had she recognized her husband absorbed in playing his role, that would be a natural, everyday event.

In the current situation, the queen, going beyond all the possibilities we have discussed, sees Udayana as an actor and yet regards him as her husband and ends up on her feet, eager to show respect. This remarkable scene throws a challenge to scholars of cognition, to ascertain which form of understanding this is – decisive (niścaya), confounded (saṃśaya), or based on similarity (sādṛśya). Indeed, we see an admixture of all these here. Experts of logic should find a solution to this riddle, which is much beyond ordinary aestheticians! Ultimately, connoisseurs are sure to have a hearty spell of laughter, awash as they are with hāsya-rasa.

In this manner, Śrīharṣa points at the meta-worldly nature of art by picturing various kinds of responses and reactions. It would not be off the mark to surmise that the playwright has provided abundant fodder to the theoreticians who followed him such as Lollaṭa, Śaṅkuka and Bhaṭṭa-nāyaka.

Let us get back to the scene. Upon seeing the perplexed Vāsavadattā, Sāṅkṛtyāyanī smilingly says: ‘My dear queen, don’t be all tensed up. This is only a play.’ When Udayana goes overboard in romancing with Priyadarśikā playing the role of Vāsavadattā, the queen takes offence and complains to Sāṅkṛtyāyanī: ‘bhagavatyā adhikaṃ kalpitaṃ kāvyam. na tasmin kāle āryaputreṇa ekāsane sahopaviṣṭā’ – ‘Revered madam, you’ve gone too far with the story! I didn’t share a seat with my husband in that situation.’ The amused ascetic replies: ‘āyuṣmati, īdṛśameva kāvyaṃ bhaviṣyati’ – ‘My child, this is how a play is!’ This statement is hilarious in the play’s context but is quite profound, for it throws light on the nature of poetic composition.

Vāsavadattā does not appear as a refined connoisseur throughout viewing the garbhāṅka. Unable to suspend personal thoughts and feelings, she sees an actual reflection of the world in art. And owing to this reason, she does not experience rasa. We see in her a typical layperson who has not a clue about art experience. Such people, regardless of their learning and worldly accomplishments, count as ignoramuses in art. The liberty that poets and artists take with their themes, despite following the codes of propriety, does not appeal to them; they find it distasteful. This is the reason why uninitiated people typically find art vulgar, dangerous and unscrupulous.

It is impossible to create rasa without taking creative liberties – of course adhering to aesthetic propriety. More often than not, things that appear repulsive in the real world are made attractive and agreeable in art. Indian aestheticians have drawn our attention to this ‘transformation of nature in art.’[3]

In this way, Sāṅkṛtyāyanī’s innocuous words uttered to put the queen at ease help poets and connoisseurs understand the secret of art. What’s more, these words ring true not only with profound works of art but also with commercial movies and books. We often hear movie stars remark that commercial films take ample liberty with reality. They might not be aware of the nuances of aesthetics we have elucidated thus far; they will certainly know the nature of art through personal experience.

Harṣavardhana’s insights into art are eminently worth noting.  

[1] Nāgānanda (1.3) has ‘bodhi-sattva-caritam’ in the place of ‘vatsa-rāja-caritam.’

[2] Technically termed deśa-kāla-viśeṣāveśa, this is one among the deterrents of rasa.

[3] अपारे काव्यसंसारे कविरेकः प्रजापतिः।

यथास्मै रोचते विश्वं तथेदं परिवर्तते॥ (ध्वन्यालोकः, ३.४२ परिकरश्लोकः)

यद्यत्रास्ति न तत्रास्य कवेर्वर्णनमर्हति।

यन्नासम्भवि तत्रास्य तद्वर्ण्यं सौमनस्यदम्॥ (भट्टतौतस्य; अभिनवभारती, सं. ३, पृ. ६९)

अस्तु वस्तुषु मा वा भूत्कविवाचि रसः स्थितः॥ (काव्यमीमांसा, नवमोऽध्यायः, पृ. ४६)

विनोत्कर्षापकर्षाभ्यां स्वदन्तेऽर्था न जातुचित्।

तदर्थमेव कवयोऽलङ्कारान् पर्युपासते॥ (व्यक्तिविवेकः, २.१४)

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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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...