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. 

 

Author(s)

About:

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

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