Alaṅkāra-śāstra’s Debt to Early Indic Resistance Against Islam

This article is part 1 of 5 in the series Alankara-shastra and Islam
[Alaṅkāra-śāstra is often called the youngest among Indian sciences. Several factors substantiate this statement. Of them, the fact that Alaṅkāra-śāstra boarded the bus of proliferation just before invasive Islamic hordes acted as a collective contraceptive to prevent the birth of original ideas is perhaps the most important. In this series of articles, H A Vasuki juxtaposes two extreme opposites to great effect – the worst of times producing the best of results. This study presents a thesis-worthy body of evidence and insight and paves the way for further research in kindred disciplines. It is a must-read for everyone interested in Indian aesthetics and medieval history.—Editor]  

Of all the branches of knowledge that Bhārata has produced, a handful shall forever beckon the curious learner. They are:

  1. Pāṇini’s Vyākaraṇa (Grammar)
  2. Śaṅkara’s Advaita (Non-dualism)
  3. Alaṅkāra-śāstra (Aesthetics)

            Here, it is important to understand one key aspect. Though Vyākaraṇa, Advaita, and Alaṅkāra-śāstra have become synonymous with their greatest exponents, they are the fruits of a long tradition. To illustrate the point: Sanskrit had different schools of grammar and accordingly different usages across the subcontinent. What Pāṇini did was to come up with a scheme so elegant that could absorb and harmonize them all into a single whole that we know today. It is hard to overemphasize how important this contribution is. Because of this singular contribution, anyone today can read, understand, and interpret anything in Sanskrit originating anywhere in the Indian subcontinent in the past 2,500 years. This enabled a long and unbroken tradition of transmission and evolution of different branches of knowledge.

            Similarly, the subcontinent had a multitude of philosophical schools jostling with each other in a largely healthy intellectual tradition. Śaṅkara found the philosophical threads that could harmonize them all and became the greatest proponent of the Advaita school. Its success can be gauged by the fact that earlier philosophies almost never gained prominence again and newer ones were forced to address the challenge of Advaita even to be reckoned seriously. Even today, competing schools of philosophy are all essentially trying to engage Advaita in one way or the other.

            The crystallization of both Vyākaraṇa and Advaita happened in an era of relative peace, where external threats were an exception, not the norm. What we are going to talk of next—Alaṅkāra-śāstra or Aesthetics—crystallized in a much more precarious era. In fact, this article intends to show how the martial traditions of India—specially of the frontier Indic kingdoms of the North-West and Kashmir—ensured that we got those extra few centuries of turbulent peace to complete the crystallization of this branch of knowledge.

            At this point, we can step back a bit to appreciate the three branches of knowledge being discussed here. Each of them has been able to hold its own against anything the world has thrown at it right until our massively disruptive age of information. They are truly our invaluable contribution to the global repository of knowledge. In the context of Bhārata itself, these three branches indicate the maturing of our own civilization. The crystallization of Vyākaraṇa enabled a “lingua franca” for disseminating knowledge; the rigorous churning of the Vedic and Upaniṣadic knowledge and subsequent philosophical labours culminating in Śaṅkara gave the governing philosophical foundations for our culture. Once the philosophical foundations were settled, as though to celebrate it, the Indian mind moved on to settling the questions of Aesthetics. At this point, it is pertinent to note that very few cultures pass the stage of establishing truly philosophical foundations without stopping short at theological assertions. In fact, the intolerance of Semitic faiths is a direct result of this singular stagnation in their intellectual evolution.

Evolution of Indian Aesthetics

            It is a rare privilege for any branch of knowledge to start off with an unrivalled classic. Indian Aesthetics attained this privilege with the Nāṭya-śāstra, credited to Sage Bharata. Scholars argue that this work must have crystallized before 100 CE. It is an encyclopediac work on performing arts in general, with a particular preference to drama or stage. Considering the overtly practical nature of drama, this points to a long and hallowed history of the Indian stage. The central concepts of Nāṭya-śāstrarasa, vibhāva, anubhāva (aesthetic experience and the determinants and consequents of emotion)—were embraced and internalized by practitioners of all classical art forms. Nāṭya-śāstra distilled all human emotions into eight universal rasas, which also received universal acceptance. Nāṭya-śāstra lists thirty-six kāvya-lakṣaṇas (defining, charming elements of poetry), which evolved into arthālaṅkāras (figures of sense). In short, Nāṭya-śāstra provided the terminology of Aesthetics for practically all time to come. Also, it instantly established the first element of the rasa-dhvani-aucitya-vakratā quartet, which is essentially the summary and substance of Alaṅkāra-śāstra. All subsequent discussions of Alaṅkāra-śāstra centered around the nature and manifestation of dhvani and alaṅkāra. For these reasons, Nāṭya-śāstra attained reverential status and many commentaries are said to have been composed on it. Unfortunately, the only surviving commentary today is the one composed by Abhinavagupta in the tenth century CE.

            Simultaneous to the evolution of the tradition of Nāṭya-śāstra, Sanskrit and its regional cousins were also flowering: different branches of knowledge were being systematized, different schools of philosophy were rigorously discussing the basic questions of existence, and Indic Art and culture were evolving into a harmonious whole. By the end of the Gupta Golden Age, India had a large enough body of work in literature, sculpture, painting, and drama to analyze and settle the basic questions of Aesthetics. Perhaps fittingly enough, the sustained efforts to understand and explain Indian Aesthetics were pursued in Kashmir, the home of the famous Śāradā-pīṭha, surrounded by the mighty Himalayas, than in the classical capitals like Pataliputra, Ujjain or Kanyakubja. The earliest available work in this direction, Kāvyālaṅkāra, is by the Kashmir-born poet-scholar Bhāmaha, who is dated to the early part of the seventh century CE. Astonishingly enough, down south in Kancheepuram, a younger contemporary of Bhāmaha, by the name of Daṇḍī, produced an equally significant work Kāvyādarśa. These two works are the starting points to trace the stage of evolution of Alaṅkāra-śāstra. They also indicate a pan-Indic pursuit of Aesthetics even in the early times.

            At about the same time, in far-away Arabia, a warlord by the name of Mohammed had forged a new faith, whose followers were to become the most feared military power of the time and would go on to annex all of Arabia, most of Northern Africa and even push into Europe as far as France and Spain, all within a span of eight years after his death. However, this mighty war machine met its match on the north-western borders of Bhārata. For close to six centuries, the Indic kingdoms of north-western India would repel repeated waves of Islamic invasions and provide some of the greatest minds of Kashmir the time they needed to settle the basics of Indian Aesthetics once and for all. With the benefit of history, it is surreal to think that a few relatively less-known frontier Indic kingdoms were all that stood between absolute naked barbarism and a bunch of scholars meditating upon beauty, for about 570 years. In light of the subsequent destruction of Kashmir by Islamic zealots, this dogged resistance of Indic kingdoms to early Islamic invasions will always remain a debt that Indian Aesthetics shall never be able to repay. It is, however, a tragedy that the rest of India could not capitalize militarily on this dogged resistance – a blunder for which we continue to pay the price to this day.

Seventh Century CE

            As noted earlier, Nāṭya-śāstra had established the concept of rasa as far back as 100 CE. However, complex questions surrounding the processes behind the realization of rasa and art experience itself were wide open. To provide an analogy, Nāṭya-śāstra was like one of Srinivasa Ramanujan’s notebooks that have astonishing results known to be true but lack the proofs or the methodology to arrive at those results. The development and culmination of Indian Aesthetics would lie in resolving these questions of far-reaching consequences. While Nāṭya-śāstra had a predominant bias to the stage, the tradition we are tracing, starting with the works of Bhāmaha and Daṇḍī, had a predominant bias to classical literature. That the two streams eventually converged goes on to prove the essential unity underlying art experience in general.

            Bhāmaha’s Kāvyālaṅkāra and Daṇḍī’s Kāvyādarśa, coming from the opposite corners of the country, prove the fact that Alaṅkāra-śāstra was pursued actively across this vast country. Bhāmaha emphasized on vakrokti (oblique expression) and arthālaṅkāra. In his work, he has also described three guṇas (qualities), about forty different alaṅkāras, and ten doṣas (blemishes). He also emphasizes on the necessity of vakrokti or novelty in expression as a pre-requisite for aesthetic appeal. He makes it clear that this is required for all kinds of works – whether it is an epic poem or a standalone verse. Being a logician, he makes a caustic distinction between vakrokti and vārtā (reporting facts). According to him, in the absence of vakrokti, a poet is merely reporting facts. And hence, he says vakrokti is the pre-requisite for poetic beauty.

            Daṇḍī emphasized on guṇa (quality) and mārga (style). He also provided the characteristics of the different guṇas and mārgas. He differs significantly from Bhāmaha in many respects. Whereas Bhāmaha upholds the centrality of vakrokti, Daṇḍī upholds the centrality of svabhavokti. Daṇḍī lists ten guṇas and two mārgas, vaidarbhī and gauḍī. He upholds the vaidarbhī-mārga for its harmonious blend of the ten guṇas. He has also discussed doṣas and some concepts from the Nāṭya-śāstra. These two works, composed during the seventh century CE, created traditions of their own for the next two hundred years.

            While the poet-scholars of Kashmir were settling into lengthy debates on guṇa, mārga, and alaṅkāra, three Hindu kingdoms in the north-western borders of Bhārata—Sindh, Kabul (Kapisa) and Zabul (Jabala)—would see the commencement of a sustained cycle of hostilities with the Islamist hordes who would blink at no depravity in their “pious” task of uprooting idolatry. The kingdom of Zabul (Jabala) lay south of that of Kabul and just north of modern Baluchistan (Gedrosia), comprising the upper valley of the Helmand river. Seistan with its capital Zarang [Zaranj], which lay on the lake Zarah, formed a part of this kingdom. Its king was also Hindu and bore the title of ‘Shah’ or ‘Shahya.’ Between themselves, these Indic kingdoms held up the Islamic hordes for about 570 years. It is a veritable tragedy that an ungrateful posterity has not mainstreamed and celebrated their resistance. The earliest invasions were in the form of naval raids on Thana (near Mumbai), Barwas (Broach or Bharuch) and Debal (Karachi) starting from 636 CE. After a crushing defeat at Debal, the Islamists decided to try the land route through Makran (Baluchistan). But, despite their dogged pursuit, by the end of the century, Islamists had practically nothing to show for their efforts in Sindh. For the first time in the previous fifty years, the Islamist war machine had been stopped in its tracks. Their situation was even more dismal in Kabul and Zabul. Arab records refer to a line of kings known by the name “Ranbal,” who ruled Kabul and seem to have traumatised the Islamists. Although the Hindu kings seem to have had their share of setbacks, they regrouped quickly and held their ground. In fact, by the end of the seventh century, the Ranbals had inflicted a crushing defeat on the Islamists and extracted a ransom. This line of kings would eventually become better known as the “Shahi” dynasty. If Islamists had tasted early success like they did in Persia or Europe, they would have, in all likelihood, been nibbling away at Kashmir and Central India by the end of the seventh century CE. And Alaṅkāra-śāstra would probably end up still-born. But that was not to be.

Eighth Century CE

            The early part of the eighth century CE saw renewed efforts by the Islamists to conquer the frontier Indic kingdoms. After yet another failed invasion of Debal in 708 CE, with massive loss of men and material, even the Caliph is known to have grown despondent. It was then that Al-Hijjaj, the governor of Iraq, raised an army led by Mohammed Bin Qasim, his own son-in-law, to have another attempt at conquering Sindh. This time, in 713 CE, due to some incredulous strategic failures of Raja Dahir, the whole of Sindh, including Multan, came into Muslim hands. According to Al-Baladhuri, Qasim ordered a wholesale slaughter of the inhabitants for three days. The daughters of Raja Dahir were apparently sent as presents to Al-Hijjaj. With this, the Islamist war machine, with all its attendant depravities, was at the gates of Kashmir. The early attempts of Qasim to invade Kashmir were repelled by the Karkota king Chandrapida. Soon, Qasim was recalled and supposedly murdered by the new Caliph in 715 CE. After Qasim’s death, the Hindus of Sindh were known to have rebelled again and the new Governor Junaid had a task on his hand to just hold on to a small part of Sindh. In his quest for pushing forward into India, he suffered reverses against Nagabhatta-I of Ujjain, Avani-janashraya Pulakeshi of Gujarat, and most importantly for the purposes of this study, Lalitaditya Muktapida of Kashmir. To the great fortune of Kashmir, it was blessed with its greatest emperor when needed most. Scholars are unanimous in calling his thirty-six-year rule between 713 CE and 750 CE as the golden age of Kashmir. He extended his empire in all directions, freed Punjab from the Muslims, and for a time, ruled over the largest empire in India after the Guptas. Apart from being a military genius, he also was a great builder who built magnificent temples including the Martand Sun Temple. In his time, all ambitions of the Islamists to conquer Kashmir were comprehensively crushed. After his death, he was succeeded by his weak progeny, one of whom was Vajraditya. He ruled from 770 CE and is said to have sold many men to the Mlecchas, according to Kalhaṇa. Kalhaṇa also says that Vajraditya introduced into his kingdom practices that befitted only the Mlecchchas. It is known that Hisham, the Governor of Sindh during 768 CE–772 CE, raided Kashmir and secured many prisoners and slaves.[1] This rapid descension to chaos was checked by Lalitaditya’s grandson, Jayapida, who ascended the throne around 772 CE. His thirty-one-year rule was the last notable period of the Karkota dynasty.

(The author expresses deep gratitude to Śatāvadhānī Dr. R Ganesh for his insights into Alaṅkāra-śāstra over the years and for his critical review of this essay. Likewise, the author is also grateful to the young scholar Sri B N Shashi Kiran for his review and editing assistance.)

To be continued.

[1] It is to be noted that this first Muslim raid on Kashmir occurred when the evolution of Alaṅkāra-śāstra was only beginning. It could so easily have been still-born. But thankfully, that was not to be.





Vasuki is an electronics engineer and an IT professional. He is also a Sanskrit poet with a keen interest in Indian classical music and allied arts.

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इदं खण्डकाव्यमान्तं मालिनीछन्दसोपनिबद्धं विलसति। मेनकाविश्वामित्रयोः समागमः, तत्फलतया शकुन्तलाया जननम्, मातापितृभ्यां त्यक्तस्य शिशोः कण्वमहर्षिणा परिपालनं चेति काव्यस्यास्येतिवृत्तसङ्क्षेपः।


इदं खण्डकाव्यमान्तं मालिनीछन्दसोपनिबद्धं विलसति। मेनकाविश्वामित्रयोः समागमः, तत्फलतया शकुन्तलाया जननम्, मातापितृभ्यां त्यक्तस्य शिशोः कण्वमहर्षिणा परिपालनं चेति काव्यस्यास्येतिवृत्तसङ्क्षेपः।


इयं रचना दशसु रूपकेष्वन्यतमस्य भाणस्य निदर्शनतामुपैति। एकाङ्करूपकेऽस्मिन् शेखरकनामा चित्रोद्यमलेखकः केनापि हेतुना वियोगम् अनुभवतोश्चित्रलेखामिलिन्दकयोः समागमं सिसाधयिषुः कथामाकाशभाषणरूपेण निर्वहति।


अस्मिन् स्तोत्रकाव्ये भगवन्तं शिवं कविरभिष्टौति। वसन्ततिलकयोपनिबद्धस्य काव्यस्यास्य कविकृतम् उल्लाघनाभिधं व्याख्यानं च वर्तते।

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Evolution of Mahabharata and Other Writings on the Epic is the English translation of S R Ramaswamy's 1972 Kannada classic 'Mahabharatada Belavanige' along with seven of his essays on the great epic. It tells the riveting...

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...