Poets on Poetics: Introduction

This article is part 1 of 18 in the series Poets on Poetics: Literature as Sanskrit Poets See It

Art appreciation begins with learned connoisseurs. Gaining breadth and vision with time, it develops into a well-structured system of aesthetics. Poets and artists often find it hard to explain the aspects of appeal inherent in the form and substance of their compositions. They have neither the bent of mind nor the competence to subject their work’s appeal to a logical analysis. Only a handful of artists can tell us what goes into the making of a charming composition and unravel the secret of its attraction.

               Did artists in India—other than the poets—analyze their work in the past? Perhaps they did. But we have scarce evidence, direct or otherwise, to show for it. We know for certain that poets did. Sanskrit poets in particular have expressed their thoughts on literature in unique ways.

               Poets such as Daṇḍī, Ānandavardhana, Rājaśekhara, Bhojadeva, Kṣemendra and Jagannātha authored independent treatises on literary theory and secured for it the status of a comprehensive science. Numerous other poets have offered fresh insights into literature in and through poetic verses. Many have composed such verses in the prologues of plays or introductory segments of poems. We may consider the ideas expressed in these verses as their direct, considered views.    

               Poets have also directly embedded their perspectives on literature within their plot, typically as dialogue. Such instances are rare. Rarer even are cases of an event in a story being emblematic of a literary concept. In sum, a poet’s insights into literature, like his successful compositions, are full of suggestion. One needs a sense of refinement born of scholastic learning and aesthetic sensibility to recognize them.

               Sanskrit poets have thus taken various paths to analyze literature. This book intends to introduce these paths. 

               Several great poets existed before such early aestheticians as Bhāmaha and Daṇḍī. In order to explain the literary precepts preserved in their poems, we have to depend on theorists of a later age. A mind that is not cultured by a close study of treatises of masters such as Bharata, Ānandavardhana and Abhinavagupta cannot completely appreciate the nuances of aesthetic theory ingrained in the words of great poets. But for the help offered by aestheticians, we would be unable to understand the exact significance of poetic utterances, even while finding them striking. Therefore, we should be immensely grateful to the well-developed tradition of Indian aesthetics. That said, the words of great poets possess an innate quality fundamental to all analytical exposition. The aim here is to follow these words carefully and outline their essence; it is not to thrust upon them an undeserving insight. 

               One aspect of literary theory propounded by poets is noteworthy. We may consider it in comparison with Vedānta philosophy. Vedānta assigns the highest importance to the experiential wisdom of jīvanmuktas, people who are liberated from the shackles of avidyā, kāma and karma (ignorance / imperfect knowledge, desire and activity). Indeed, objective experience is the foundation of Vedānta. Only a few among the jīvanmuktas document their experiential wisdom – mostly as memorable poetic nuggets and rarely as methodized precepts. In the same way, poets express their aesthetic experience typically in the form of suggestive verses and rarely as an organized body of facts. Nonetheless, their words are as valuable as the blissful outpourings of jīvanmuktas.

               Literary theory promulgated by poets discusses several seminal concepts such as poet, poetry, connoisseur, creative imagination, erudition, figures of speech, aesthetic experience, suggestion and propriety. Being an exposition guided by emotional insight—and not cold logic—it runs the risk of inconsistence and does not readily find corroborative tenets. It might at times come across as an impassioned utterance or a mere rehash of truisms. This is especially true of the time after the decline of the Classical Age in Sanskrit literature, where poets expressed their views on poetics not to convey something original but in a bid to follow in the footsteps of their predecessors.

               Despite such limitations, poets’ views on literary theory are unique and fascinating. We find in them insights that mere theorists can never offer. Their exposition, inchoate though it might seem, forms the foundation upon which a theoretical edifice can firmly rest. Above all, it gives us an idea of the propensities of various poets and shows the subjective underpinnings of an objective science. Unlike hard sciences that analyze physical objects, literary aesthetics is an intuitive science that concerns itself with the analysis of thoughts and emotions. Therefore, it is only proper that subjective elements have a great role to play.

               Not all poets express their views on poetics. Great poets, however, do it in ways that seem inscrutable – we must thoroughly tune ourselves to their expression. Between wise, sensitive people and poignant experiences, language is a craggy, inadequate interface.

               Sanskrit poets composed delightful poems and plays in the past. Even today there are several writers of the same league. The hoary tradition of Sanskrit poetry, with a history of thousands of years, continues to be vibrant in our time. The overwhelming expanse of this literary heritage makes it impossible to analyze every aspect of aesthetic theory conceptualized by each poet. Besides, no significant addition was made to the body of poetic knowledge after the eleventh century CE. At the turn of the tenth century CE, Indian aesthetics codified in Sanskrit moved towards the ‘age of consolidation’ from the ‘age of originality.’ A few novel concepts were indeed put forth; but they find place in fundamental tenets such as rasa (aesthetic experience), dhvani (suggestion), aucitya (propriety) and vakrokti (oblique expression). The ideas opposed to these tenets may be safely brushed aside.

               Various canons of Western aesthetics came to influence Indian literary theory during the nineteenth century CE. Before this time—and after the age of originality—most of the thoughts on literature appear as reassertions of established rules. Unsurprisingly, poets of this period are tarred with the same brush. Nearly all of them blindly subscribed to prevailing poetic principles, hardly bothering to think them out themselves. At best, they ventured to clothe the said principles in attractive figures of speech such as simile, metaphor and allusion. While these exercises disappoint people looking for uncommon insights, they do not deserve to be denounced – they are, after all, not opposed to such first principles as Truth and Beauty.

               This book sets out to describe only those ideas of poets that are original, incisive and validated by experience. Naturally, a good part of it is devoted to the age of originality. Originality influences in equal measure art and science, theory and practice, and for our purpose, poetry and poetics. Therefore, among the poets who lived after the eleventh(-twelfth) century CE, I have chosen only a representative few who had original ideas to convey. I request the readers to look upon this work not as an exhaustive survey but as a congeries of the crests of the subject. 

               Before we begin, I must record one more criterion of selection. Sanskrit poets typically refer to aesthetic principles by using pun and other figures of speech. Of course, they do this well within the context of their work. For instance, Viśākhadatta likens the acumen of a politician to the prowess of a playwright (Mudrārākṣasa, 4.3). Śrīharṣa compares the vaidarbhī style to Damayantī, a native of the Vidarbha province (Naiṣadhīyacarita, 3.116, 14.91). He also mentions a type of dhvani through paronomasia (9.50) and provides the details of nāṭikā, a type of play, in the guise of a simile punctuated with pun (9.118). Several poets have adopted this literary device to great effect. Of them, I have chosen only those who have used it to bring out an original poetic concept. 

               We may now begin to listen to poets speaking on literary theory – from Ādikavi Vālmīki to Nīlakaṇṭhadīkṣita. 

This is an English adaptation of Śatāvadhānī R. Ganesh's Kannada work, Saṃskṛtakavigaḻa Kāvyamīmāṃse. To read the original click here.

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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