Introduction to Sanskrit Poetry

Language is perhaps the best mode of communication available to humans. Literature—poetry in particular—is the acme of language. There are several ancient classical languages, but Sanskrit is the only one with an unbroken tradition of thousands of years. It has produced numerous poetic works of an astounding variety.

We have standalone verses; cluster of verses in fives, tens and hundreds; lyrical compositions; long and short stories; fables; stories within stories; allegories; epic fragments; epics of art; epics of growth; and various types of plays such as the paurāṇika, historical, social, contemporary, satire, farce and street-play.

Scholars who have studied language in India are of the opinion that the words we use have three kinds of meaning: direct, implied and suggested. These meanings are prominently seen in science, everyday conversations and poetry, respectively. Science speaks directly, everyday conversations are full of implied meanings and the best of poetry is suggestive. The poetic idiom of Sanskrit offers several devices to create suggestion. It ranges from the simplest of everyday expressions to the most ornate flourishes. The metres employed in verses have varying rhythms that suit different moods and sentiments.

Language has verse, prose and song as its basic structures. We find these structures in Vedic literature, the oldest surviving literary corpus in the world. In the Vedas we have verses as ṛk, prose as yajus and song as sāman. The Vedas contain poetic expressions of great emotional value; however, they cannot be considered as pure poetry because they are centred on deities. Poetry expects the focus to be on human beings. Rāmāyaṇa is considered the ādi-kāvya, the first poetic work, because it is centred on human emotions.  

Sanskrit poetry propagates the four puruṣārthas, the goals of human life: dharma, artha, kāma and mokṣa. Poetry is an integral part of Gāndharva-veda, an auxiliary to the Sāma-veda. It celebrates kāma – desire and enjoyment. Aesthetic enjoyment is positively different from material enjoyment and therefore, kāma here is a value and not a disvalue. Pursuing kāma through art and literature harmonizes it with dharma.  

Sanskrit poetry upholds the greatness of human effort and freewill. At the same time, it points at the loftiness of destiny, its inescapable influence and the inherent limitation of mortal endeavours. A warm optimism and zest for life are among its distinct features.

India has a vast and varied geography. Blessed with Nature’s bounty, it has seas and rivers, birds and animals, hills and mountains in abundance. All of these have nurtured Sanskrit poetry. Particularly, India’s mighty landscape has had a tremendous influence. It appears in poetry in three major forms: forests and hermitages, villages and suburbs and towns and cities. To put it broadly, Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata unfold in the backdrop of forests, lyrics and fables have villages as their locale, plays and ornate poems are set in the various cities of India. The three types of landscape are seen within a single poem as well.

Sanskrit poets observed Nature with a keen eye. They go to an incredible degree of detail in describing its various aspects. They typically humanize Nature and show how it is closely tied up with human nature. Apart from Sanskrit, no other classical language of antiquity having its birth in the tropical zone speaks of Nature so exuberantly. 

Sages, peasants, merchants, travellers, villagers, townsfolk, scholars, administrators, warriors, artists, artisans – everyone features in Sanskrit poetry. Not just human beings, trees, plants, animals—why, the entire animate and inanimate creation—takes an active part in these poems.

Connoisseurs of Sanskrit poetry hail from all walks of life. Small groups of people conversant with literary nuances were present throughout India. They used to meet regularly to appreciate various poems and plays. Apart from them, formal literary assemblies were convened to discuss poetry. Kings and scholars patronized Sanskrit poetry munificently. Temples, community carnivals, saints, preachers and philosophers encouraged it in their individual capacities. Most importantly, learned connoisseurs used to appreciate poetry in a serious and yet leisurely manner. Such a multi-tiered system of literary patronage and appreciation is unique to India. What is more remarkable is that these tiers worked in tandem with one another, fostering vibrance and diversity.

People from all walks of life could not only appreciate, but actively pursue Sanskrit poetry. This is true of the science of art appreciation as well. Nāṭyaśāstra, the first-known encyclopaedia on various arts, prides itself on being a sārvavarṇika-veda, a treatise available to everyone. Poets such as Bāṇa, Bhāravi and Bhavabhūti were brāhmaṇas; Śrīharṣa, Yaśovarmā, Bhoja and Kṛṣṇadevarāya were kṣattriyas; Aśvaghoṣa, Kumāradāsa and Dharmakīrti were Buddhists; Samantabhadra, Jinasena and Somadeva were Jains. Menṭḥa was a mahout; Dhāvaka, a washerman; Kuvinda, a weaver; Mātaṅga, a liquor vendor. Śīlā, Vijjikā, Mārulā, Morikā, Phalguhastinī, Subhadrā, Sītā, Cinnamma, Keralī, Gaṅgādevī and Rāmabhadrāmbā were poetesses. None of them claimed to be victimized. Not one of them was bitter to the society in which s/he was born. Their compositions are free from the polluting influence of religious bigotry. They cater to universal feelings and are thoroughly enjoyable.

Sanskrit poetry was also a pan-Indian phenomenon. In the north were poets such as Harṣavardhana, Amaruka, Bhallaṭa, Śivasvāmī, Ratnākara, Ānandavardhana, Kṣemendra, Bilhaṇa, Kalhaṇa and Maṅkha. In Central India were Kālidāsa, Bhartṛhari, Bhavabhūti, Rājaśekhara and Bhoja. In the east were Bāṇa, Abhinanda, Cittapa, Yogeśvara and Jayadeva. In the west were Māgha, Kṣemīśvara, Soḍḍhala, Vatsarāja and Merutuṅga. In the south were Bḥāravi, Kavirāja, Vijjikā, Gaṅgādevī, Vedāntadeśika, Nārāyaṇa-bhaṭṭatiri, Nīlakaṇṭhadīkṣita, Veṅkaṭādhvarī, Madhuravāṇī and Jagannātha.

Sanskrit poetry always co-existed with various Indian languages. Even after the literature in Indian languages found an independent voice, Sanskrit continued to foster them by providing themes, tropes and other literary devices. Literature in various Indian languages is an extension of Sanskrit literature.

Sanskrit poetry is idealistic. And yet it is rooted in actual human emotions and experiences. Beauty is its hallmark, evident in both form and content, sound and sense. The Vedic philosophy that undergirds Sanskrit poetry avers that the universe is a manifestation of Brahman characterized by sat-cit-ānanda – Truth-Goodness-Beauty. It has no room for eternal evil. And so, Sanskrit poetry comes across as serene and confident. It looks reality in the eye, evaluates the relative shades of good and evil and ultimately leads connoisseurs to unbounded joy.

Apart from providing the deep joy of aesthetic experience, Sanskrit poetry plays a great role in imparting life-enriching values. It sees no dichotomy between instruction and inspiration, education and entertainment. Consequently, it draws from various arts and sciences while delineating different poetic themes. 

Sanskrit poets had their ears wonderfully attuned to music. Their compositions betray a sharp and sensitive sense of sound. They accounted for variations in style by coming up with concepts such as mārga, rīti, vṛtti and pravṛtti. Sanskrit poetry offers profound content clothed in attractive sound. The content is largely not restricted to any place, time or language. The form, however, has language-specific aspects related to grammar, prosody, figures of speech and poetic conventions. The poetic form of Sanskrit is itself an extraordinary achievement. Eminently pliable, it yields to all kinds of thoughts and emotions and helps accomplish linguistic acrobatics unthinkable in any other language.

All these features make Sanskrit poetry untranslatable. Efforts to translate it are often frustrating. The only way to enjoy Sanskrit poetry is to jump as quickly as possible from the rafts of introductory books and translations into the ocean of original poems and plays.  

Literary Theory

A feel for beauty is inherent in human beings. While everyone experiences the beautiful, only a few set out to analyse it. Indian thinkers have concerned themselves with such analysis from millennia. They have developed a theory that elegantly explains the experience of beauty in all aspects of nature and culture.

Our likes and dislikes propel our emotions and render them opaque. Caught in their grip, we hardly get to relish emotions in their transparent state. Rasa (aesthetic experience) secures for us this unique delight by kindling dispassion. Dhvani (poetic suggestion) is the vehicle that leads connoisseurs to rasa by assisting them in recreating the emotional picture produced by the poet. Aucitya (propreity) marks the co-ordinates of time and place—i.e., a suitable context—within which this recreation is enjoyable. It also ensures the poet does not create something distasteful. The poet goes about his business by using words and meanings in a well-turned way (vakra-vidhi), releasing them from the shackles of worldly utility. The rasa-dhvani-aucitya-vakratā quartet is relevant to all arts. 

Indian literary theory is mainly codified in Sanskrit. However, it is applicable to all genres of literature produced in all languages. Anchoring itself to universal experience, it steers clear of social, economic and political theories that change by the day. Transcending sectarian biases, it provides insights into art that are experientially verifiable. Its tenets are applicable to the whole gamut of literature – ranging from the classical to folk, from ancient poems to modern novels. 




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.

Prekshaa Publications

The Mahābhārata is the greatest epic in the world both in magnitude and profundity. A veritable cultural compendium of Bhārata-varṣa, it is a product of the creative genius of Maharṣi Kṛṣṇa-dvaipāyana Vyāsa. The epic captures the experiential wisdom of our civilization and all subsequent literary, artistic, and philosophical creations are indebted to it. To read the Mahābhārata is to...

Shiva Rama Krishna

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, Śatāvadhāni 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...


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...