Footprints of Scholarly Temerity in Sanskrit Literature - 7

This article is part 7 of 7 in the series Footprints of Scholarly Temerity in Sanskrit Literature

Previously we observed scholarly spats at the level of individuals. What happened when these debates were escalated to royal courts? Let us see.

Rāja-śekhara-sūri’s Prabandha-kośa records an episode of repartee between Hari-hara and Madana, the court-poets of Vīra-dhavala, the emperor of Gujarat:

Kavi-rāja’ (the best among poets) was Hari-hara’s honorific title. Wanting to trifle it, Madana said: 

हरिहर परिहर गर्वं कविराजगजाङ्कुशोऽस्म्यहं मदनः।

Hari-hara, do not gloat over your title. You’re an elephant and I’m the goad that subdues elephants!

Hari-hara immediately retorted:

मदन विमुद्रय वदनं हरिहरचरितं स्मरातीतम्॥

Shut up, Madana. It is beyond Manmatha to emulate Hari-hara’s (Śiva’s) conduct. (Recall what happened to Manmatha when he tried to play games with Śiva.)

To put an end to this row, Vastu-pāla, Vīra-dhavala’s minister, asked them both to compose a hundred verses each within an hour, describing a coconut tree. Madana emerged victorious in this competition. But Hari-hara did not take the defeat lying down. He took a jibe in the form of an allegorical verse:

रे रे ग्रामकुविन्द कन्दलतया वस्त्राण्यमूनि त्वया

गोणीविभ्रमभाजनानि बहुशः स्वात्मा किमायास्यते।

अप्येकं रुचिरं चिरादभिनवं वासस्तदासूत्र्यतां

यन्नोज्झन्ति कुचस्थलात्क्षणमपि क्षोणीभृतां वल्लभाः॥[1]

O naïve tailor, why do you while away your time weaving a hundred rags for which nobody cares? If you can, stitch a beautiful silk blouse from which classy queens never wish to part! 

Let us now turn toward an instance of debate through verses in an assembly of scholars. Around a hundred and twenty years ago in Nava-dvīpa, Vāsiṣṭha-gaṇapati-muni defeated Ambikā-datta in debate and earned the title Kāvya-kaṇṭha.[2]

Upon seeing Ambikā-datta seated on the stage examining all entrants, the curious Vāsiṣṭha-gaṇapati asked a person next to him: “Who is the examiner for today? He looks like a formidable scholar.” Hearing this, Ambikā-datta introduced himself:

सत्वरकवितासविता गौडोऽहं कश्चिदम्बिकादत्तः।

I am Ambikā-datta, a Bengali. I’m like the Sun in the art of rapid composition!

Since the examiner introduced himself through two lines composed in the Āryā metre, Gaṇapati did the same and completed the verse:

गणपतिरिति कविकुलपतिरतिदक्षो दाक्षिणात्योऽहम्॥

I am Gaṇapati, the chief among poets. I hail from the South and possess unparalleled competence.

Following this, Ambikā-datta posed four poetic challenges. Gaṇapati solved them all effortlessly. Wanting to test him further, the examiner asked penetrating questions about verses from Raghu-vamśa and Kāvya-prakāśa. Gaṇapati was required to answer in Sanskrit prose. While doing so, he used a masculine adjective to qualify a feminine noun. The examiner noticed this immediately and chided him for it: 

अनवद्ये ननु पद्ये गद्ये हृद्येऽपि ते स्खलति वाणी।

तत्किं त्रिभुवनसारा तारा नाराधिता भवता॥

Though flawless in verse, how is it that your speech slips in prose? Have you not devoted yourself to the Goddess of learning, the essence of the three worlds? 

In his excitement to chide Gaṇapati, Ambikā-datta himself committed a grammatical mistake! Out of his love for alliteration, he said ‘tri-bhuvana-sārā’ instead of the correct form ‘tribhuvana-sāraḥ.’ It was, therefore, Gaṇapati’s turn to chide: 

सुधां हसन्ती मधु चाक्षिपन्ती

यशो हरन्ती दयिताधरस्य।

न तेऽलमास्यं कविता करोति

नोपास्यते किं दयितार्धदेहः॥

Poems that mock nectar, dismiss the sweetness of honey, and snatch away the lure of the beloved’s lips don’t seem to adorn you presently. Tell me, now, do you not meditate on Ardha-nārīśvara [the embodiment of the inseparability of sound and sense]?

The enraged Ambikā-datta roared:

उच्चैः कुञ्जर मा कार्षीर्बृंहितानि मदोद्धत।

कुम्भिकुम्भामिषाहारी शेते सम्प्रति केसरी॥

O arrogant tusker in rut, stop trumpeting! The lord of the forest who tears apart the temples of elephants rests in the vicinity!

Although he composed this beautiful allegorical verse on the fly, the poet yet again erred in grammar. Gaṇapati pointed out that the word kumbhi-kumbha-miṣāhārī was incorrect and had to be replaced with kumbhi-kumbha-miṣā-hāraḥ. Not stopping at this, he composed an allegorical verse himself:

समासीनो रसाले चेन्मौनमावह मौकुले।

लोकः करोतु सत्कारं मत्त्वा त्वामपि कोकिलम्॥

If you’re seated on a Mango tree, O Crow, be quiet! Let everyone hail you by mistaking you for a cuckoo. 

Ambikā-datta was further incensed. He continued in the same vein, but in a different meter (Rathoddhatā):

ज्योतिरिङ्गणन किं नु मन्यसे

यत्त्वमेव तिमिरेषु लक्ष्यसे।

O Glow-worm, do not think high of yourself: you’re visible only in pitch darkness!

Gaṇapati added two lines to this to complete the verse:

किं नु दीप भवने विभाससे

वायुना बहिरहो विधूयसे॥

O Lamp, you burn bright within an enclosure. But alas, you’re put out by wild winds outside!

If these two were to continue in this manner, their verbal exchange would have probably turned into an exchange of blows! Sensing this, a scholar by name Śiti-kaṇṭha Vācaspati intervened and asked them both to conclude by composing a humorous verse each. As though waiting for the opportunity to open his mouth again, Ambikā-datta immediately composed the following verse. It was aimed not just at Gaṇapati, but all South Indians:

भट्टोऽखिलोऽट्टोपरि वारवध्वा

निपीय मध्वारभते विहारम्।

Giddy headed with excessive drinking, every Bhaṭṭa squanders away his time with courtesans!

Gaṇapati wasted no time in replying. He took a dig at Bengalis:

असुव्ययो वास्तु वसुव्ययो वा-

प्यमी न मीनव्यसनं त्यजन्ति॥

Even if their life is at risk and money at stake, these [Bengalis] never give up their addiction to fish!

Finally, Ambikā-datta acknowledged his opponent’s matchless felicity in extempore versification. Gaṇapati apologised for his audaciousness in challenging a scholar of his stature. Ambikā-datta retired with the following humorous verse:  

दत्तवानम्बिकादत्तनीतये गौडजातये।

मीनद्वयं विवादान्त्यपद्यपादनिवेशितम्॥

At the end of the verse marking the conclusion of this debate, this man has gifted two fish to all Bengalis represented by me!

Through this, the poet appreciated the figure of sound in Gaṇapati’s verse—amī na mīna-vyasanaṃ tyajanti.

Patrons of the arts would take great pleasure in honouring scholar-poets like Gaṇapati-muni. As marks of respect, they presented golden ornaments such as bracelets, anklets, and crowns. Showering gold coins and flowers on the scholar was not uncommon. Patrons would even go to the extent of weighing the poets and gifting them with gold of the same measure! Scholars would be decked with shawls made of rich brocades and taken on processions carried on a palanquin, elephant, or chariot. They would be presented with grants of land that remained in their family for multiple generations.

Such incentives naturally made people with poetic proclivities shape their skills to become scholarly poets. Says a well-known verse:

अवयः केवलकवयः केवलधीरास्तु केवलं कीराः।

कवयः पण्डितकवयस्तानवमन्ता तु केवलं गवयः॥[3]

Mere poets are but sheep, while mere scholars are just parrots. Scholar-poets are poets in the real sense. And those who denigrate them are wild cattle!

These poets must also express themselves in a bombastic manner. For:

कर्तव्या चार्थसारेऽपि काव्ये शब्दविचित्रता।

विना घण्टाघणत्कारं गजो गच्छन्न शोभते॥[4]

A poem rich with meaning must necessarily be embellished with exuberant diction. Bereft of jingling bells [that announce its arrival], even a tusker will not attract attention.


Reading through the foregoing rapid survey of scholarly poetry, we are left absolutely flabbergasted by the extemporaneity, ornateness, and subtlety of the verses. We can only marvel at the supreme confidence of Sanskrit poets that stemmed from prodigious learning and unimpeded creativity. This tradition has inspired similar poetic currents in the regional languages of India, in turn establishing the oneness of Indian ethos.

Present-day literature is beset with a host of problems. Poetry has given way to pamphlet-literature that is guided by socio-political activism in its rawest form. As a result, people today are totally oblivious to the intrinsic strengths of language and literature. Poets these days are doubtless self-assertive, but their works are hardly poetic. Our ancient poets demonstrated the process of converting pride into poetry. They did this by elevating bhāva to rasa. Modern poets will do well to derive inspiration from them.  

[1] Prācin-bhārat ke Kalātmak Vinod (Hindi), pp. 149–50

[2] All verses connected with this episode are taken from Vāsiṣṭha-vaibhava, pp. 28–32

[3] Subhāṣita-ratna-bhāṇḍāgāra, p. 33

[4] Sūkti-muktāvalī, p. 38





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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