This article is part 23 of 25 in the series Poets on Poetics: Literature as Sanskrit Poets See It


In the second canto of Śiśupālavadha, the poet Māgha uses ideas from various sciences to support his arguments on polity. It is appropriate that he has included literary aesthetics as well. A few observations in this section are worth noting:

बह्वपि स्वेच्छया कामं प्रकीर्णमभिधीयते।

अनुज्झितार्थसम्बन्धः प्रबन्धो दुरुदाहरः॥(2.73)

It is easy to whip up incoherent statements one after another as per one’s whim. However, to create a composition with cogent and well-developed ideas is difficult.    

                    The poet has spoken about the significance of well-structured words used at appropriate occasions. His observation holds good in the case of standalone verses (muktakas) vis-à-vis an elaborate literary work (prabandha). The pithiness and appeal of standalone verses notwithstanding, creating them is easy than composing an entire poem. A poet finds fruition by merely coming up with an attractive turn of phrase or giving expression to a passing but intense mood within the limited space of a standalone verse. In a narrative composition, on the other hand, he has to shoulder the additional responsibility of creating characters and situations. While discharging this responsibility, the poet finds it hard to make every single verse in the poem attractive. For this reason, the composer of an elaborate poem should know how to balance narration and description more clearly and comprehensively than the creator of standalone verses. Vāmana, one among our ancient aestheticians, has drawn attention to this aspect of the art. According to him, isolated bits of poetry do not command great appeal; they are like the atomic particles of luminous objects that do not glow independently.[1]

       Another verse appearing in the same canto presents a discussion on poetic qualities:

तेजः क्षमा वा नैकान्तं कालज्ञस्य महीपतेः।

नैकमोजः प्रसादो वा रसभावविदः कवेः॥(2.83)

A king who knows the need of the hour does not punish or forgive without discretion – he does not employ either an offensive or a defensive strategy by itself. Similarly, a poet who understands rasa and bhāva does not prefer a brilliant style to a lucid one, or vice versa.  

                    This verse rooted in experience gives an insight into the poetic process. It is not unoften that aestheticians propound a particular poetic quality or style, touting it as the best and recommending it for use universally. A poet who understands the nuances of creation, on the other hand, knows well that all qualities and styles evoke appeal when used appropriately. Theorists such as Daṇḍī and Vāmana argue that the vaidarbha style is supreme. Bhāmaha does not agree with them; he says that such pronouncements are products of blind acceptance of traditional truisms.[2] What’s more, Ānandavardhana, the doyen of aestheticians, says that brilliance can exist not just in compounded words but in a lucid style comprising uncompounded words, thereby providing a place for the lucid style within the brilliant. This, too, is unsound. Kuntaka takes a healthy stand and declares that poetic qualities depend on the poet’s intent,[3] and goes on to illustrate that Kālidāsa does not employ verbal brilliance very much but Bāṇa does, and yet each is a great poet in his own right. Māgha has provided the experiential input required to undertake such analyses.

From the time of Bhāmaha and Daṇḍī, there has been a raging debate on whether to give prominence to śabda or artha or both in the definition of poetry. Daṇḍī and Jagannātha belong to the śabda camp, while Bhāmaha, Vāmana, Ānandavardhana, Mammaṭa, et al belong to the mutual importance camp. Māgha, taking a cue from Kālidāsa, has voted in favour of the second camp:  

नालम्बते दैष्टिकतां न निषीदति पौरुषे।

शब्दार्थौ सत्कविरिव द्वयं विद्वानपेक्षते॥(2.86)

A wise king does not rely solely on fate or depend exclusively on human effort; he takes both into account, as a talented poet employs śabda and artha.

There is no need to further explicate this self-evident fact.

Let us next examine Māgha’s insight into ‘personal feeling’ and ‘art emotion’:

स्तथायिनोऽर्थे प्रवर्तन्ते भावाः सञ्चारिणो यथा।

रसस्यैकस्य भूयांसस्तथा नेतुर्महीभृतः॥(2.87)

Several transient feelings enhance a dominant feeling that underlies a distinct rasa. In the same way, several subordinates work to support a king, the supreme leader.

It would not be incorrect to say that this verse presents a most agreeable explanation of the rasa-sūtra, along with suggesting the magical process by which a personal feeling transforms into aesthetic experience. Various strengths of a valorous, enterprising king—such as the power to administer (prabhu-śakti), the power to deliberate and devise plans (mantra-śakti) and the power to enthuse oneself and others (utsāha-śakti)—culminate in securing the welfare of the kingdom. In the same way, personal feelings lead to aesthetic experience. In other words, siddhi (accomplishment) is the fulfilment of sādhya (the thing to be accomplished); it is neither totally different from it nor is itself sādhya. Although feeling is an essential ingredient of aesthetic experience, it is not by itself rasa, for the former is personal and the latter, impersonal. We can apply the same logic to an enterprising king, his various strengths, and his ultimate objective of securing the welfare of his subjects.

While describing Mount Raivataka, Māgha has made a general remark that is significant not just to literary aesthetics but to aesthetics in general:

दृष्टोऽपि शैलः स मुहुर्मुरारे-


क्षणे क्षणे यन्नवतामुपैति

तदेव रूपं रमणीयतायाः॥(4.17)

Kṛṣṇa had seen that mountain many times in the past, and yet it astonished him as if he were looking at it for the first time. Indeed, the hallmark of beauty is that it continually turns novel.

This is an extraordinary verse, for it attempts to capture the elusive essence of beauty. In Sanskrit, the concept of beauty is usually designated by two words: saundarya and ramaṇīyatā. The word saundarya stems from the verbal roots undī–kledane and drṅ–ādare, which respectively mean, ‘to moisten’ and ‘to respect.’ The word ramaṇīyatā stems from the verbal root ramu–krīḍāyām, ‘to rejoice.’ Going by these meanings, we understand that the former denotes (i) the experience that beauty evokes in a connoisseur, and (ii) the adoration that connoisseurs accord to it, and that the latter denotes the wonderful delight experienced by the connoisseurs while taking in beauty. The verbal root ‘to moisten’ suggests the unconditionally immersive nature of aesthetic experience (vigalita-vedyāntaratva), while the verbal root ‘to rejoice’ points at the joyful nature of the same. First comes joy and then, the all-forgetting immersive experience. In other words, ramaṇīyatā comes first and saundarya follows. The merriment ingrained in ramaṇīyatā gets dissolved and paves the way for contentment that characterizes saundarya. Ramaṇīyatā is expansive, saundarya is profound. Both these put together make beauty wholesome.

Aestheticians have sought to analyse the nature of beauty since centuries. It would not be far from the truth to say that these two words capture the crux of their thoughts. Going by the meaning of all the verbal roots we have so far discussed, we understand that saundarya is the pinnacle of self-forgetting experience, and ramaṇīyatā is that which inspires a quest after art to gain such experience. Relatively speaking, the former gives more importance to experience (anubhava) and the latter, to the process (vyāpāra). Owing to this reason, saundarya anchors itself to rasa, while ramaṇīyatā relies on style, figures of speech, suggestion, propriety and all such aids of poetic form.

While experiencing art, we typically feel a sense of appreciation, both for the work of art and the artist who produced it. This appreciation manifests as vismaya, wonder. Saundarya points at the state of mind that is beyond wonder, which is full of unsullied happiness. In this manner, the words saundarya and ramaṇīyatā uncover all the major concepts of poetics.

We observed that ramaṇīyatā relies on the elements of poetic form. Because it leads to and finds fulfilment in content, it does not cloud, corrode or in any way impede the experience of joy. Saundarya, on the other hand, is exclusively devoted to content, so the question of its impeding joy does not arise. Art experience embraces the world but seeks to suspend and go beyond it, at least for the moment. And so, it honours both saundarya and ramaṇīyatā. Without formal aids we cannot reach the substantial. In other words, without ramaṇīyatā we cannot accomplish saundarya. On the other hand, formal aids that do not seek the substantial become mere relics. To state the same differently, ramaṇīyatā that does not try to achieve saundarya loses its freshness and becomes a curio at best. We recognise ramaṇīyatā when it presents itself in a fresh garb continually. Ramaṇīyatā that does not culminate in experience loses its ever-renewing freshness. In this way, the mutual complementarity of saundarya and ramaṇīyatā is the essence of aesthetic experience.

Worldly experiences are propelled by desire and corresponding action, and so the quantum of freshness in the pursuit of these experiences is bound to diminish, even become nil, with time. This problem does not arise in the pursuit of art experience. If it does indeed arise, it reveals the nature of the work that has brought about that experience and helps us appraise its worth objectively.

To conclude this section, we can say that ever-reviving novelty is the hallmark of great art. Māgha has drawn our attention to this feature of art, not merely at the level of form but at the level of content. This remark commands universal acceptance.

Within a short compass, Māgha has analysed art at three levels: (i) form and content, (ii) style and figures of speech, (iii) personal emotion and aesthetic experience. This is apart from his insight into the nature of beauty. He has greatly enhanced our understanding of literary aesthetics.   

[1] असङ्कलितरूपाणां काव्यानां नास्ति चारुता।

न प्रत्येकं प्रकाशन्ते तैजसाः परमाणावः॥ (काव्यालङ्कारसूत्रवृत्तिः, १.३.२९)

[2] Kāvyālaṅkāra, 1.31–36, 2.1–3

[3] Vakroktijīvita, 2.24–58

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...