Kṣemendra, Bilhaṇa

This article is part 30 of 30 in the series Poets on Poetics: Literature as Sanskrit Poets See It


Kṣemendra was a man of many talents who straddled the realms of śāstra and kāvya. Although he composed several works in both these genres, his attainments as a poet outshine his scholarly contribution. Kṣemendra’s thoughts on literary aesthetics embedded in poetic works, though not pathbreaking, have an intrinsic value as the utterances of a prolific author. Let us examine some.

The poet communicates his aesthetic intent at the beginning of the satirical work Deśopadeśa:

हासेन लज्जितोऽत्यन्तं न दोषेषु प्रवर्तते।

जनस्तदुपकाराय ममायं स्वयमुद्यमः॥ (1.4)

A person extremely embarrassed by ridicule will not commit an offence – once bitten twice shy. This is a service to the society. To render such service, I am composing this work that pokes fun at people.

Literary theorists know well that poets use their medium to instruct. Poetic instruction comes packaged in different ways, and ranges from direct didacticism to subtle suggestion. Kṣemendra perceived satire as a potent form of instruction. Endowed with effrontery and a biting wit, he composed humourous works that nudge—sometimes push—people in the right direction by mocking their faults and frailties. He is among the handful of ancient Indian poets who used satire to sanitize society. These poets thought it better to create fictional characters and suggest steps for course correction through them, than to lampoon actual people. Kṣemendra stands out among such poets—his predecessors—including Śūdraka, Śyāmilaka, Bhallaṭa and Dāmodaragupta. He deserves credit for inaugurating a new facet of literary aesthetics in India.

In the West, satire emerged as a literary medium in the time of Aristophanes and came to occupy a prominent position by the age of Renaissance. In this regard, our ancient literature fades in comparison. Our position would have been far worse if poets like Kṣemendra were not to be there. We must praise him for using poetry to instruct in a way that is not detrimental to rasa.

Let us next turn to Bṛhatkathāmañjarī. At the beginning of this work, Kṣemendra asserts that camatkāra (astonishment, literary relish) is the foremost cause of beauty in poetry:  

ओजो रञ्जनमेव वर्णरचनाश्चित्रा न कस्य प्रिया

नानालङ्कृतयश्च कस्य न मनःसन्तोषमातन्वते।

काव्ये किन्तु सतां चमत्कृतिकृतः सूक्तिप्रबन्धाः स्फुटं

तीक्ष्णाग्रा झटिति श्रुतिप्रणयिनः कान्ताकटाक्षा इव॥(1.1.4)

Sparkling style, wonderful turns of phrase, various figures of speech – these certainly bring joy to connoisseurs, but camatkāra towers over them all. Verses imbued with camatkāra are like the side-glances of girls – sharp and yet easy on the ear.

Kṣemendra has here drawn our attention to camatkāra, an idea distinct from turns of phrase, style, figures of speech and such concepts that beautify poetry at various levels. Camatkāra works above these explicit enhancers of beauty. It is best understood as the overall appeal of a standalone verse. Despite these positives, camatkāra comes under the purview of guṇībhūta-vyaṅgya and not rasa-dhvani because it holds skill over substance. While savouring a camatkāra-filled verse, we do not lose ourselves; we consciously appreciate the poet’s skill. Naturally, such a concept flowers well at the level of a standalone verse, or maybe a string of verses, but not an elaborate work. Therefore, we can gainfully employ this concept to analyze individual verses.

Dr. V Raghavan, who has traced the history of camatkāra, opines that it has its roots in cookery: “It appears to me that originally [it was] … and onomatopoeic word referring to the clicking sound we make with the tongue when we taste something delectable, and in the course of its semantic enlargements, camatkāra came to mean a sudden fillip to any feeling of a pleasurable type.”[1] He adduces evidence for this from Rāmacandra-budhendra’s commentary on the Yuddha-kāṇḍa of Campū-rāmāyaṇa authored by Lakṣmaṇa-sūri.[2] Interestingly, the word rasa also has its basis in cookery. Bhagavatpāda Śaṅkara has explained it as the pleasure derived from culinary flavours such as sweetness and sourness.[3] At this juncture there might arise the question: How is camatkāra different from rasa? The answer is simple: Rasa is experience of which the expression is camatkāra. And what demarcates experience and expression? The distinctions of knower (jñātṛ), the object to be known (jñeya) and knowledge (jñāna), which do not exist during experience, surface in the process of expression. Pure experience is the cornerstone of aesthetics.

Abhinavagupta, Kṣemendra’s guru, has profusely used the word camatkāra in his works on Poetics. Authors who followed him such as Viśveśvara and Jagannātha have used it, too. Kṣemendra himself has used it in Kavikaṇṭhābharaṇa.[4] All these scholars seem to have stretched its meaning a little too far. (Even the laity use this word in an extended sense.) The reason for this is their understanding of rasa as aesthetic relish and camatkāra as the ‘clicking sound’ connoisseurs make in response to such relish. Looking beyond these external adjuncts, we realize that rasa itself can account for both these processes. At the mundane level, the description would be: rasyanta iti rasāḥ, ‘rasas such as love, pathos and amazement are the objects of relish.’ And at a subtler level: rasanaṃ rasaḥ, ‘rasa is aesthetic relish.’ Using Bhaṭṭanāyaka’s term, we may say that camatkāra is at the level of bhogīkaraṇa, while rasa is an experience closest to our fundamental nature. In this backdrop the term camatkāra seems superfluous.

Kṣemendra has concluded two of his works, Rāmāyaṇamañjarī and Bhāratamañjarī, with remarkable verses that reveal the very heart of Vālmīki and Vyāsa. In these verses he upholds śānta (serenity) as the predominant rasa of our national epics, Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata, by citing reasons from the texts themselves. Prior to Kṣemendra, Indian aestheticians had discussed several issues related to śānta – whether it is a rasa or not, what is its basis in human feeling, what is its aesthetic expanse, and so on. Ānandavardhana and Ahinavagupta brought the discussion to a logical end: the former identified śānta as the predominant rasa in Mahābhārata and the latter upheld it as the foremost of rasas, the culmination of aesthetic experience. Kṣemendra followed their lead and went on to endorse it as the predominant rasa of Rāmāyaṇa as well. Even works filled with other sentiments such as valour, love and pathos culminate and find fruition in serenity – Kṣemendra’s observation to this effect is a capital contribution to Indian aesthetics. Let us now look at his verses:  

भोगार्हे नवयौवनेऽपि विपिने चीराम्बरो राघव-

स्तत्राप्यस्य परेण दारहरणं क्लेशस्तदन्वेषणे।

सम्प्राप्तापि जनापवादरजसा त्यक्ता पुनर्जानकी

सर्वं दुःखमिदं तदस्तु भवतां श्लाघ्यो विवेकोदयः॥(Rāmāyaṇamañjarī, p. 508)

Rāma had to wear tattered bark clothes and live in the forest in the prime of his youth, a time fit for enjoyment. In the forest, his wife was abducted, and he had to experience unspeakable pain in finding her. And after he found his wife, he had to abandon her because of calumny. Know this: all of life is strife and sorrow. May wisdom dawn upon you.

रत्नोदारचतुःसमुद्ररशनां भुक्त्वा भुवं कौरवो

भग्नोरुः पतितः स निष्परिजनो जीवन् वृकैर्भक्षितः।

गोपैर्विश्वजयी जितः स विजयः कक्षैः क्षिता वृष्णय-

स्तमात्सर्वमिदं विचार्य सुचिरं शान्त्यै मनो दीयताम्॥(Bhāratamañjarī, p. 851)

Duryodhana lorded over the whole world and enjoyed all its pleasures to the hilt. In the end, he fell with a shattered thigh on the battlefield; with nobody to attend on him, he was devoured by jackals even as he breathed. Arjuna, the invincible warrior, was defeated by mere cowherds. The Vṛṣṇis killed each other with dry grass. Contemplate on all this and seek refuge in peace.      

In Kṣemendra’s time, scholars believed that one can bring about serenity in poetry by describing hermitages of sages and saints, places of pilgrimage, and so on. However, he saw it emerge in the epics as a result of tumultuous human drama and value-conflicts. This is a great vision for which we should be forever grateful.



Bilhaṇa was a unique mix of poetic ability, scholarship and tenacity. Born in Kashmir, he toured the entire country, landed in the kingdom of the Cālyukya monarch Vikramāditya VI, won his patronage and went on to live the last phase of his life in Kashi. The first canto of his historical poem Vikramāṅkadevacarita discusses some concepts of literary aesthetics. Let us examine these.

At the outset, Bilhaṇa warns poets against plagiarists and asks them to not lose heart:


कर्णामृतं रक्षत हे कवीन्द्राः।

यदस्य दैत्या इव लुण्ठनाय

काव्यार्थचोराः प्रगुणीभवन्ति॥

गृह्णन्तु सर्वे यदि वा यथेष्टं

नास्ति क्षतिः कापि कवीश्वराणाम्।

रत्नेषु लुप्तेषु बहुष्वमर्त्यै-

रद्यापि रत्नाकर एव सिन्धुः॥(1.11–12)

Poets, listen to me: Guard this ‘nectar to the ears’ you’ve acquired by churning the ocean of literature. Plagiarists, like demons desiring to loot, are on the loose!  Or … I change my mind – let them loot all they like; it makes no difference to great poets. Although the deities have stolen numerous precious stones from the sea, it has not stopped being the source of gems.

These verses on plagiarism fall under haraṇa, a concept we have discussed multiple times in these pages. Plagiarists exist in all times, and they naturally get on the nerves of poets. Bilhaṇa, who had toured the entire country with a view to engage scholars in debate, knew the extent to which poets were jealous of one another, and how they sought to outperform their peers by resorting to plagiarism at times. The solution to this problem, according to Bilhaṇa, is to seek solace in pratibhā, the ability of poets to create new ideas endlessly. In the fourth chapter of Dhvanyāloka, Ānandavardhana has hinted at this solution that mostly appeals to poets and scholars settled in serenity, and not to ones wedded to boisterous or indolent ways.[5]

In another verse Bilhaṇa talks about novelty in poetry using a saucy idea:  

प्रौढिप्रकर्षेण पुराणरीति-

व्यतिक्रमः श्लाघ्यतमः पदानाम्।


वन्द्यानि कान्ताकुचमण्डलानि॥(1.15)

Poets should dare to go beyond old styles by employing ornate and forceful words. This is the way to go. Who doesn’t like the full breasts of voluptuous women that burst out of blouses! A busty woman is a pretty sight.

Poets who shake off old ways and chart a new course for positive reasons do not invite the ire of critics but endear themselves to them. Herein lies the originality of great poets, as evidenced from the best of world literature. While charting a new course, poets should anchor themselves to rasa; otherwise, they run the risk of traducing the tradition without offering a better alternative. While Bilhaṇa is not besmirched by this allegation, he is not wholly free from it either: he has spoken of a grand succession of words but not profound ideas. Apart from great poets such as Kālidāsa, Bāṇa and Viśākhadatta, most poets are tarred with the same brush. Aestheticians are no better either.

Poets should unabashedly submit themselves to constructive critics. In Bilhaṇa’s words:  


सचेतसां वैकटिकोपमानाम्।



रसध्वनेरध्वनि ये चरन्ति



कुर्वन्तु शेषाः शुकवाक्यपाठम्॥



परीक्षितं काव्यसुवर्णमेत-

ल्लोकस्य कण्ठाभरणत्वमेतु॥(1.19, 22, 24)

I submit my verse-gems to critics who are like jewellers. May they test my compositions with their intellectual tools. May the people who tread the path of rasa-dhvani and know the secret of vakrokti read my works. May the rest be content with parroting. May learned critics whet the gold of my work and certify it, and may it then adorn connoisseurs in the form of a necklace.

Time and tradition do not honour a poet who is insulated to criticism. Though aestheticians have proven this fact with their analyses and critiques, most of them have not emphasized it as a prerequisite of a poet. Rājaśekhara and Kṣemendra are among the exceptions.[6]

All in all, Bilhaṇa has made some valuable observations on Poetics.

[1] Studies on Some Concepts of the Alaṅkāra-śāstra. p. 294 

[2] चमदित्यनुकरणशब्दः। चमत्कारलक्षणं तु “सुखदुःखाद्भुतानन्दैर्हर्षाद्यैश्चित्तविक्रिया। चमत्कारः ससीत्कारः शरीरोल्लासनादिभिः॥” इति।

[3] रसो नाम तृप्तिहेतुरानन्दकरो मधुराम्लादिः प्रसिद्धो लोके॥ (तैत्तिरीयपनिषद्भाष्यम्, ब्रह्मानन्दवल्ली, ७.१)

[4] सा चाविघ्ना संविच्चमत्कारः। तज्जोऽपि कम्पपुलकोल्लासनादिविकारश्चमत्कारः॥ (अभिनवभारती, ६.३२); रसे सारश्चमत्कारः सर्वत्राप्यनुभूयते॥ (साहित्यदर्पणः, ३.३ वृत्तिः); वागर्थौ सचमत्कारौ काव्यम्॥ (चमत्कारचन्द्रिका, १.११); स्वविशिष्टजनकावच्छेदकप्रतिपादकतासंसर्गेण चमत्कारत्वं काव्यत्वम्॥ (रसगङ्गाधरः, १.१ वृत्तिः); न हि चमत्कारविरहितस्य कवेः कवित्वम्, काव्यस्य वा काव्यत्वम्॥ (कविकण्ठाभरणम्, ३.१ वृत्तिः) 

[5] The boisterous poet Jagannātha has a different solution. To guard against plagiarists, he compiled all his standalone verses and published them as an anthology (Bhāminīvilāsa, 4.45):

दुर्वृत्ता जारजन्मानो हरिष्यन्तीति शङ्कया।

मदीयपद्यरत्नानां मञ्जूषैषा कृता मया॥

[6] पितुर्गुरोर्नरेन्द्रस्य सुतशिष्यपदातयः। अविविच्यैव काव्यानि स्तुवन्ति च पठन्ति च॥ ... चतुर्थ एकाकिनः परिमितपरिषदो वा पूर्वाह्णभागविहितस्य काव्यस्य परीक्षा॥ (काव्यमीमांसा, पॄ. ५१–५२)

कृतसंशोधनं मुहुः ... व्युत्पत्त्यै सर्वशिष्यता ... स्वसूक्तिप्रेक्षणं दिक्षु ... पराक्षेपसहिष्णुत्वम्॥ (कविकण्ठाभरणम्, २.१२, १४, १६, १९)

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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சிவன். ராமன். கிருஷ்ணன்.
இந்திய பாரம்பரியத்தின் முப்பெரும் கதாநாயகர்கள்.
உயர் இந்தியாவில் தலைமுறைகள் பல கடந்தும் கடவுளர்களாக போற்றப்பட்டு வழிகாட்டிகளாக விளங்குபவர்கள்.
மனித ஒற்றுமை நூற்றாண்டுகால பரிணாம வளர்ச்சியின் பரிமாணம்.
தனிநபர்களாகவும், குடும்ப உறுப்பினர்களாகவும், சமுதாய பிரஜைகளாகவும் நாம் அனைவரும் பரிமளிக்கிறோம்.
சிவன் தனிமனித அடையாளமாக அமைகிறான்....

ऋतुभिः सह कवयः सदैव सम्बद्धाः। विशिष्य संस्कृतकवयः। यथा हि ऋतवः प्रतिसंवत्सरं प्रतिनवतामावहन्ति मानवेषु तथैव ऋतुवर्णनान्यपि काव्यरसिकेषु कामपि विच्छित्तिमातन्वते। ऋतुकल्याणं हि सत्यमिदमेव हृदि कृत्वा प्रवृत्तम्। नगरजीवनस्य यान्त्रिकतां मान्त्रिकतां च ध्वनदिदं चम्पूकाव्यं गद्यपद्यमिश्रितमिति सुव्यक्तमेव। ऐदम्पूर्वतया प्रायः पुरीपरिसरप्रसृतानाम् ऋतूनां विलासोऽत्र प्रपञ्चितः। बेङ्गलूरुनामके...

The Art and Science of Avadhānam in Sanskrit is a definitive work on Sāhityāvadhānam, a form of Indian classical art based on multitasking, lateral thinking, and extempore versification. Dotted throughout with tasteful examples, it expounds in great detail on the theory and practice of this unique performing art. It is as much a handbook of performance as it is an anthology of well-turned...

This anthology is a revised edition of the author's 1978 classic. This series of essays, containing his original research in various fields, throws light on the socio-cultural landscape of Tamil Nadu spanning several centuries. These compelling episodes will appeal to scholars and laymen alike.
“When superstitious mediaevalists mislead the country about its judicial past, we have to...

The cultural history of a nation, unlike the customary mainstream history, has a larger time-frame and encompasses the timeless ethos of a society undergirding the course of events and vicissitudes. A major key to the understanding of a society’s unique character is an appreciation of the far-reaching contributions by outstanding personalities of certain periods – especially in the realms of...

Prekṣaṇīyam is an anthology of essays on Indian classical dance and theatre authored by multifaceted scholar and creative genius, Śatāvadhānī Dr. R Ganesh. As a master of śāstra, a performing artiste (of the ancient art of Avadhānam), and a cultured rasika, he brings a unique, holistic perspective to every discussion. These essays deal with the philosophy, history, aesthetics, and practice of...


इदं किञ्चिद्यामलं काव्यं द्वयोः खण्डकाव्ययोः सङ्कलनरूपम्। रामानुरागानलं हि सीतापरित्यागाल्लक्ष्मणवियोगाच्च श्रीरामेणानुभूतं हृदयसङ्क्षोभं वर्णयति । वात्सल्यगोपालकं तु कदाचिद्भानूपरागसमये घटितं यशोदाश्रीकृष्णयोर्मेलनं वर्णयति । इदम्प्रथमतया संस्कृतसाहित्ये सम्पूर्णं काव्यं...


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।

Karnataka’s celebrated polymath, D V Gundappa brings together in the third volume, some character sketches of great literary savants responsible for Kannada renaissance during the first half of the twentieth century. These remarkable...

Karnataka’s celebrated polymath, D V Gundappa brings together in the second volume, episodes from the lives of remarkable exponents of classical music and dance, traditional storytellers, thespians, and connoisseurs; as well as his...

Karnataka’s celebrated polymath, D V Gundappa brings together in the first volume, episodes from the lives of great writers, poets, literary aficionados, exemplars of public life, literary scholars, noble-hearted common folk, advocates...

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...