Around Samasyā-pūraṇa: Analysing Literary Creativity

This article is part 1 of 9 in the series Samasyā-pūraṇa


Problems form an inescapable passage in every person’s life. However much one tries to avoid them, the truth is that they remain to be experienced, understood and at times, overcome. Banking on a healthy mixture of curiosity and competence, inspiration and imagination, reasoning and resources, luck and levelheadedness, man solves problems, which span the entire gamut of his existence and appear in various forms such as social, economic, political, cultural, and literary. We shall, in this article, analyse problem solving at the literary level, with special focus on Sanskrit literature.

Lateral thinking or out-of-the-box thinking is the key to solve most kinds of problems. This comes in handy especially during crisis management. The central idea here is to not be tied down by situational constraints or restricted by a self-imposed unilateral approach. Doubtless, this requires a calm and fearlessly imaginative mind.  

Samasyā-pūraṇa, the art of literary problem solving, was a favourite pastime of scholars and poets in India, starting from the classical period. It is not just a thing of the past, for even today there exist many avenues that invite people with a creative bent of mind to solve poetic puzzles extempore or read out pre-solved solutions.

The beauty of samasyā-pūraṇa mainly lies in evoking wonder. One of the primary reasons for its appeal is that it keeps the curiosity of the reader / listener on the boil till the very end. It is like thriller fiction, whose conclusion is often spiced with an unpredictable twist to achieve aesthetic astonishment. Dhīra-rasa, which has curiosity as its basis, undergirds literary problem solving[1].

Amara-kośa (1.5.7) defines samasyā as “samāsārthā.” Kṣīra-svāmī explains this in the following manner: “samasyate saṅkṣipyate anayā samasyā, apūrṇatvād vikṣiptam.” By this we understand that the ideal solution to a literary problem is both concise and creative, with no loose ends. Bhānuji-dīkṣita explains this in greater detail: “samasanaṃ samāsaḥ। ... samāso’rtho yasyāḥ pūrṇa-sākāṅkṣākavi-śakti-parīkṣārtham apūrṇatayaiva paṭhyamānā” (Amara-sudhā, 1.6.7). Accordingly, an incomplete line or passage is posed to a poet, who in turn composes appropriate solutions. This is typically done to test the poet’s creative ability.

Samasyā-pūraṇa is a renowned genre of Sanskrit literature, forming perhaps the most charming type of citra-kavitā (pattern poetry / wonder poetry). Popular anthologies of standalone Sanskrit verses include numerous verses of this type. For instance, Subhāṣita-ratna-bhāṇḍāgāra has seventy-seven verses dealing with various samasyās under the title samasyākhyāna. Other works that have similar verses include: Bhoja-prabandha, Camatkāra-ratna-prabhā, Vidvaccarita-pañcakam, Vāsiṣṭha-vaibhavam, and Citra-kāvya-kautukam. Vātsyāyana, in his Kāma-sūtra (1.3.16), lists kāvya-samasyā-pūraṇa among the sixty-four canonical arts. Keśava-miśra’s Alaṅkāra-śekhara (7.2) and Amara-candra-sūri’s Kāvya-kalpalatā-vṛtti (4.7) passingly discuss literary challenges. However, none of these works help us in understanding the nuances of its composition.  

Structure of Samasyā

Samasyā is essentially metrical. Of the four lines of a verse, either a line or a part of it is posed as the challenge. Sometimes—especially if the challenge is set in the Anuṣṭubh meter—two full lines constitute the challenge. These line/s could be vulgar, absurd, offensive, redundant or even meaningless, either in their structure or substance. Given such a challenge, a poet comes up with his solution in the same meter, enveloping these line/s, to form a monolithic, meaningful verse. The poet’s job is thus neatly cut out: to ward off seemingly incongruent elements in the challenge. This involves a mixture of lexica, grammar, prosody, and poetics. Needless to say, a sound knowledge of various arts and sciences, worldly wisdom, and a keen sense of observation aid poetic talent in solving these challenges.  

Difference between Samasyā and Prahelikā

Although samasyā appears to be self-complete, it needs external appendages to rid it of ambiguity. Au contraire, Prahelikā or a riddle is self-complete in its structure. There is therefore a marked distinction between the two. Another important point of difference is that the solution to a Prahelikā is linear in nature and independent of its structure, akin to the solution to a mathematical problem. The solution to a samasyā, however, is typically nonlinear and is integral to its structure. There are certain varieties of riddles such as Bindu-cyutaka, Mātrā-cyutaka, Kriyā-gupta, and Kāraka-gupta whose solution takes the form of an explanation that distorts their structure. In samasyās, however, both the challenge and its solution unvaryingly form an organic whole, establishing the inseparability of form and content, the hallmark of art.

While there can be but a single solution to a prahelikā, samasyā offers room for multiple creative solutions. This is yet another fundamental feature of art. There do exist a few poetic challenges that can have only one beautiful solution. The reason for this is the inferior quality of the challenges themselves, which focuses more on syntax rather than idea, thus restricting the scope of solutions. Typically, a good samasyā—which is obviously a product of creative imagination—offers room for multiple solutions. Thus, it is not just the solution that captures the interest of readers, but the very challenge has an enduring appeal.

In some cases, the solution to a samasyā is completely hidden in the very words of the challenge. The poet is compelled to creatively interpret those words as the solution. Metrical completion will then be rendered superfluous, because the potential solution is already embedded within the challenge line. Technically speaking, such challenges should not be termed samasyās; they fall under the category of Antarlāpī, a subset of Prahelikā.


Samasyās are of several varieties. They can be broadly classified under three heads: (1) Śabda-cchala (Syntactic), (2) Artha-cchala (Semantic), and (3) Ubhaya-cchala (Syntactic and Semantic).  

These can be further classified. Accordingly, śabda-cchala has sub-varieties such as cchandaśchala (constrained by prosody), anvaya-cchala (constrained by word order), pada-pūrvārdha-cchala (constrained by prefix), pada-parārdha-cchala (constrained by suffix), sandhi-samāsa-cchala (constrained by euphonic combination and/or word-compounding), and paunaruktya-cchala (constrained by repetition of words).

Artha-cchala has sub-varieties such as śleṣa-cchala (constrained by pun), kāku-cchala (constrained by tonal emphasis), arthālaṅkāra-cchala (constrained by figures of sense), nūtana-kalpana-cchala (constrained by a novel idea), citra-cchala (constrained by a sharp shift between the sublime and ridiculous), and śāstra-cchala (constrained by various sciences and arts).

Tackling Samasyā-pūraṇa

As soon as a poetic challenge is posed, the poet must break it down in terms of meter, grammar, and the type of the challenge—śabda-cchala / artha-cchala / ubhaya-cchala or sub-varieties thereof. If the challenge is of the śabda-cchala type, the poet must think in terms of the key-letter or key-word (kīlakākṣara / kīlaka-pada) pivotal to the solution. If this does not work, he has to look for other feasible options within the challenge, by attempting to split the words (pada-ccheda), euphonically combine the syllables (sandhi), interpret the words differently by invoking various compounds (samāsa), or modify the word order (anvaya-bheda). A clever questioner composes his challenge in a way as to sound ungrammatical. The performer must not fall into the trap of calling it out without analsying it minutely. In case the challenge is couched in an ardha-sama meter, the poet must decide at the very outset the exact position of the samasyā within its four lines. If the challenge is only a metrical phrase (pāda-bhāga) and not a complete line (pūrṇa-pāda), it is advisable to locate it within a popular meter than considering it as an independent measure.

If the challenge is of the artha-cchala type, the poet must think of various themes related to mythology, history, sciences, arts, or everyday life. Of course, the solution can also be based on an imaginary situation. Solution to the ubhaya-cchala type involves all the aforementioned techniques.

Once the poet has sufficient clarity regarding the above and proceeds to actual versification, he has to be wary of word usage. He should not fall into the trap of prolixity, for the solution must necessarily be composed in just three lines and not expect additional explanations. On the other hand, if the poet is stingy in word usage, the solution might be unclear, rendering obscure the overall import of the verse. Therefore, only the choicest and most powerful words must be employed. Treading this path is even more important when small meters are involved.    

An accomplished poet intuitively arrives at the exact solution without having to pass through any of the said steps. However, a sound understanding of the process will certainly help a beginner.     

Samasyā-pūraṇa in Avadhānam

All the defining traits of a good poet are expected in greater proportion in an avadhānī, performer. These traits are on display in the verses he composes under all components of the art, especially under samasyā-pūraṇa. Since a performer comes up with metrical solutions extempore, amidst numerous constraints, his understanding should be thorough and execution, suave. The performer’s solution might not always be on par with that of the questioner, who composes his solution at leisure with the complete help of literary resources (gṛha-kavitva). However, the sabhā-kavitva (extempore composition amidst literary constraints and other distractions) of an accomplished performer will certainly not pale in comparison with verses composed by questioners. It is a literary norm that a questioner should not dictate terms to the performer apart from extending the challenge. In case the performer is willing, further constraints can be imposed. This is, however, over and above the expected outcome of the art.

[1] To know more about Dhīra-rasa refer: Vāgartha-vismayāsvāda (Sanskrit), pp. 83–109 [Ganesh, R. Bengaluru: Prekshaa Pratishtana, 2018]

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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