Bhavabhūti valued love and friendship deeply. His expression assumes a rare depth and force while describing human affection. In Mālatī-mādhava, he has pictured the unfolding of various shades of love: infatuation, the yearning and ‘sweet agony’ that follows, the physical and mental turmoil that unrequited love brings, the inexplicable thrill of union, romance, amorous escapades, and so on. Friendship finds a mirror to see itself in Mādhava and Makaranda. Kāmandakī and her disciples go out of their way to assist young lovers. Kāmandakī suggests that mutual love is the only true basis of marriage.
Here are boys and girls willing to offer their lives for the sake of their beloved. Here are people eager to embrace death for the cause of friendship. Here are elders who are happy in the pleasure of the young. These characters reflect a miniature of Indian cultural society. The values they uphold are the same ones that manifested in the conduct of the people who embodied our civilization for eons.
In Uttara-rāma-carita, Bhavabhūti has inimitably pictured the mellowed love between a married couple. Sītā’s love for Rāma was only matched by his affection for her. Content in each other’s company, they could forget the whole world. Holding each other tight in an embrace, exchanging sweet nothings softly, they could lie cheek by cheek blissfully oblivious to the passing time till the night ended.
Rāma was able to abandon his wife but not his grief at her ultimate separation. When he went to the Daṇḍaka forest after twelve years, familiar sights and sounds released his suppressed sorrow, making him swoon several times.
The following statements record Bhavabhūti’s grandest defence of love and friendship:
स्नेहश्च निमित्तसव्यपेक्षश्चेति विप्रतिषिद्धमेतत्। पश्य—
व्यतिषजति पदार्थानान्तरः कोऽपि हेतु-
र्न खलु बहिरुपाधीन् प्रीतयः संश्रयन्ते॥ (Mālatī-mādhava, 1.24)
It is a contradiction to say friendship depends on an external cause. You see,
An inexplicable internal reason brings people together. Love and affection do not depend on external adjuncts.
अहेतुः पक्षपातो यस्तस्य नास्ति प्रतिक्रिया।
स हि स्नेहात्मकस्तन्तुरन्तश्छिद्राणि सीव्यति॥ (Uttara-rāma-carita, 5.17)
One can offer nothing in return to fondness that springs without a cause. This thread of affection sews the torn patches in our hearts.
अद्वैतं सुखदुःखयोरनुगुणं सर्वास्ववस्थासु य-
द्विश्रामो हृदयस्य यत्र जरसा यस्मिन्नहार्यो रसः।
कालेनावरणात्ययात्परिणते यत्स्नेहसारे स्थितं
भद्रं तस्य सुमानुषस्य कथमप्येकं हि तत्प्राप्यते॥ (Uttara-rāma-carita, 1.39)
True love remains the same in joy and sorrow. It adapts itself perfectly to all conditions. Our heart finds respite in it. Old age cannot rob its essence. As the veil [of reservations] disappears with time, it matures into abiding affection. Fortunate is the one who obtains this singular blessing somehow.
While most Sanskrit poets are happy by describing the innocent prattle of children and the joy that a child brings to its parents, Bhavabhūti goes a step forward. He forms a philosophy of the concept and states that a child is a knot of bliss that binds together the hearts of parents, as it is the common object of the couple’s love.
* * *
Bhavabhūti places language and the faculty of speech on a high mantle. True to his Vedic learning, he considers speech immortal, as a part—an integral, enjoyable part—of brahma. He refers to the Rāmāyaṇa as the foremost manifestation of śabda-brahma. According to him, seers use speech to reveal their thoughts, never to conceal. Their words are measured and honeyed with courtesy. They never utter harsh words out of hauteur because they consider such words demonic (rākṣasī vāk). Unsurprisingly, meaning runs after their words. Sweet, truthful speech is like a divine cow: It fulfils our desires, dispels misery, begets fame and slays sin. It is the mother of all blessings.
Bhavabhūti never refers to people and objects of reverence without prefixing them with such elevating adjectives as bhagavān and bhagavatī. Words enlivened by the pulse of culture are his favourites. Examples include śreyas, puṇya, tirtha, tapas and yajña. Shallow and offensive phrases are unknown to him. His style breathes grandeur and dignity, and that is a clear index of his cultured conduct.
* * *
At the beginning of this essay, I have referred to Bhavabhūti’s encyclopaedic Vedic learning. The following are a few verses that demonstrate it:
Mahāvīra-carita, 1.14 (Yājñavalkya teaching the brahma-tattva in Bṛhadāraṇyaka-upaniṣad), 1.62 (abhicāra-mantras in Atharvaveda), 2.24 (abhicāra-mantras in Atharvaveda), 2.43 (Yājñavalkya teaching the brahma-tattva in Bṛhadāraṇyaka-upaniṣad), 3.26 (Yājñavalkya teaching the brahma-tattva in Bṛhadāraṇyaka-upaniṣad).
Uttara-rāma-carita, 2.12 (vairāja-loka; Ṛgveda, 9.113.11), 4.9 (Yājñavalkya teaching the brahma-tattva in Bṛhadāraṇyaka-upaniṣad), 4.18 (vāci nikṣiptā bhadrā lakṣmīḥ; Ṛgveda, 10.71.2), 5.29 (rākṣasī vāk; Aitareya-brāhmaṇa, 6.7.7), 6.6 (vivarta).
All this learning led Bhavabhūti to develop a sharp sense of pride. So much so that he would not stop from patting his own back, from praising his own compositions.
Bhavabhūti refers to the concept of vivarta while positing that pathos is the only rasa. The analogy he uses is starkly similar to the one that Bhagavatpāda Śaṅkara gives in the Brahma-sūtra-bhāṣya. Here is his verse followed by Śaṅkara’s words:
एको रसः करुण एव निमित्तभेदा-
द्भिन्नः पृथक् पृथगिवाश्रयते विवर्तान्।
नम्भो यथा सलिलमेव हि तत्समस्तम्॥ (उत्तररामचरितम्, ३.४७)
समुद्रादुदकात्मनोऽनन्यत्वेऽपि तद्विकाराणां फेनवीचीतरङ्गबुद्बुदादीनामितरेतरविभाग इतरेतरसंश्लेषादिलक्षणश्च व्यवहार उपलभ्यते॥ (शारीरकभाष्यम्, २.१.१३)
In the first act of Mahāvīra-carita, Bhavabhūti narrates the story of Ahalyā in a style reminiscent of the brāhmaṇa portion of the Vedas:
अहल्या नाम गौतमस्य महर्षेरौचथ्यस्य धर्मपत्नी, यस्याः शतानन्द आङ्गिरसोऽजायत। तामिन्द्रश्चकमे। तस्मात्तं गौतमदारावस्कन्दिनमहल्याजार इति निर्दिशन्ति। अथ भगवान्मन्युमाप। तस्यां पाप्मानमन्धतामिस्रमभ्यध्यायत। सेयमद्य रामभद्रतेजसा तस्मादेनसो निरमुच्यत॥ (महावीरचरितम्, १.२६ गद्यम्)
* * *
Bhavabhūti had a seismic effect on later-day writers. What William Hazlitt said of Samuel Taylor Coleridge is true of him: “He cast a great stone into the pool of contemporary thought, and the circles have grown wider and wider.”
Unfortunately, his successors were inspired not by his best work, but by the lesser of his plays. While playwrights such as Murāri, Rājaśekhara and Jayadeva took inspiration from Mahāvīra-carita, Uddaṇḍa and Rājacūḍāmaṇi-dīkṣita got inspired from Mālatī-mādhava. Their plays, respectively, are Anargha-rāghava, Bāla-rāmāyaṇa, Prasanna-rāghava, Mallikā-māruta and Kamalinī-kalahaṃsa. They tried to imitate Bhavabhūti’s phraseology but could not invest it with his surcharged emotions; they tried to take liberties with the story of the Rāmāyaṇa like he did but failed to create anything memorable.
* * *
Śatāvadhānī R Ganesh makes a pointed observation. Four poets stand out in Sanskrit literature because of their emotional intensity and expressive energy: Bhartṛhari, Bhaṭṭa Bāṇa, Bhavabhūti and Bhallaṭa. Bhavabhūti, as is clear from the foregoing, shows us what it is like to be intensely human.
For sincerity of feeling, for depth of expression and for a noble perspective on life that has an exalting influence, Bhavabhūti deserves our appreciation.
To conclude, I offer this verse as a tribute to the great poet:
प्रकृतिप्रीतिपरिष्कृताः कृतिहिता नैका न्यभान्त्सीत्कृतीः।
गहनोड्डामरभावनैकरसिकश्चेतः सतां श्च्योतयन्
करुणोषर्बुधहेतिभिर्विजयते शिष्टाशयो वश्यवाक्॥
* * *
- Dhvanyāloka (Edited with English translation by Krishnamoorthy, K). Ānandavardhana. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1982
- Gauḍavaho (Edited with Hindi translation by Mishra, Mithilesh Kumari). Vākpati. Patna: Vani Vatika Prakashan, 1990
- Mahā-vīra-carita (Ed. Todar Mall). Bhavabhūti. London: Oxford University Press, 1928
- Mahā-vīra-carita (Edited with the commentary of Vīrarāghava by Ratnam Aiyer, T R). Bhavabhūti. Bombay: Nirnaya Sagar Press, 1982
- Mālatī-mādhava (Along with English translation and notes by Karmarkar, R D). Bhavabhūti. Delhi: Chaukhamba Sanskrit Pratishthan, 2003
- Mālatī-mādhava (Edited with the commentary of Jagaddhara by Bhandarkar, R G). Bhavabhūti. Poona: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1970
- Manusmṛti (Edited with Kullūkabhaṭṭa’s commentary by Acharya, Narayan Ram). Manu. Bombay: Nirnaya Sagar Press, 1946
- Rājataraṅgiṇī (Vol. 1; Ed. Durgaprasad). Kalhaṇa. Bombay: Government Central Book Depot, 1892
- Rāma’s Last Act (English translation of Uttara-rāma-carita with introduction and notes by Pollock, Sheldon). New York: JJC Foundation (Clay Sanskrit Library), 2007
- Suvṛtta-tilaka (Edited with a Hindi commentary by Jha, Vrajmohan). Kṣemendra. Varanasi: The Chowkhamba Sanskrit Series Office, 1968
- Uttara-rāma-carita (Along with Sanskrit and Hindi commentaries by Tripathi, Ramakanta). Bhavabhūti. Varanasi: Chaukhamba Surbharati Prakashan, 2019
- Uttara-rāma-carita (Edited with the commentary of Vīrarāghava and translated into English by Kale, M R). Bhavabhūti. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1934
- Vakrokti-jīvita (Edited with English translation by Krishnamoorthy, K). Kuntaka. Dharwad: Karnatak University, 1977
- Bhavabhūti (Kannada). Sriranga (Adya Rangacharya). Bangalore: Ankana Prakashana, 1985
- Bhavabhūti (Translated into Kannada from Marathi by Gai, G S). Mirashi, V V. Mysore: The Director, Prasaranga, University of Mysore, 1991
- Bhavabhūti. Bhat, G K. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1979
- Moral Desperado: A Life of Thomas Carlyle. Heffer, Simon. London: Weidendfeld and Nicolson, 1995
- Saṃskṛta Nāṭaka (Kannada). Krishna Sastri, A R. Bangalore: Hemantha Sahitya, 2012
- Some Old Lost Rāma Plays. Raghavan, V. Annamalainagar: Annamalai University, 1961
Academic Papers and Articles
- Bhavabhūti and Arthaśāstra. Raghavan, V. Berlin: New Indology, 1971, pp. 433–39
- Bhavabhūti and the Veda. Raghavan, V. Bombay: Journal of the Asiatic Society, 1956–57, pp. 218–21
- Dhik Prahasanam in Upāyana (Kannada; Festschrift volume of Narasimhachar, D L). Subbanna, K V. Bangalore: Prof. D.L.N. Felicitation Volume Committee, 1967, pp. 407–11
 इतरेतरानुरागो हि दारकर्मणि परार्ध्यं मङ्गलम्॥ (मालतीमाधवम्, १.२ गद्यम्)
 किमपि किमपि मन्दं मन्दमासत्तियोगा-
रविदितगतयामा रात्रिरेव व्यरंसीत्॥ (उत्तररामचरितम्, १.२७)
 अन्तःकरणतत्त्वस्य दम्पत्योः स्नेहसंश्रयात्। आनन्दग्रन्थिरेकोऽयमपत्यमिति गीयते॥ (उत्तररामचरितम्, १.१७)
 वन्देमहि च तां वाचममृतामात्मनः कलाम्॥ (उत्तररामचरितम्, १.१)
 अथ स भगवान् प्राचेतसः प्रथमं मनुष्येषु शब्दब्रह्मणस्तादृशं विवर्तमितिहासं रामायणं प्रणिनाय॥ (उत्तररामचरितम्, २.५ गद्यम्)
 प्रियप्राया वृत्तिर्विनयमधुरो वाचि नियमः॥ (उत्तररामचरितम्, २.२)
 ऋषीणां पुनराद्यानां वाचमर्थोऽनुधावति॥ (उत्तररामचरितम्, १.१०)
 कामान् दुग्धे विप्रकर्षत्यलक्ष्मीं
कीर्तिं सूते दुष्कृतं या हिनस्ति।
तां चाप्येतां मातरं मङ्गलानां
धेनुं धीराः सूनृतां वाचमाहुः॥ (उत्तररामचरितम्, ५.३१)
 वश्यवाचः कवेर्वाक्यम्॥ (महावीरचरितम्, १.४); अहो सरसरमणीयता संविधानकस्य॥ (मालतीमाधवम्, ६.१३); अस्ति वा कुतश्चिदेवम्भूतमद्भुतं विचित्ररमणीयोज्ज्वलं प्रकरणम्॥ (मालतीमाधवम्, १०.२३); यं ब्रह्माणमियं देवी वाग्वश्येवानुवर्तते॥ (उत्तररामचरितम्, १.२); अहो संविधानकम्॥ (उत्तररामचरितम्, ३.४७)
 Quoted in Moral Desperado, p. 5
I owe an immense debt of gratitude to Śatāvadhānī R Ganesh. Apart from providing incredible insights into the works and personality of Bhavabhūti, he handheld me throughout this essay. I extend my heartfelt thanks to Prof. L V Shantakumari, G S Raghavendra, Sandeep Balakrishna and Hari Ravikumar for their valuable inputs. I am indebted to several scholars from whose valuable works on Bhavabhūti I have benefited immensely. Of them, I must name V V Mirashi and G K Bhat. While Mirashi’s work is instructive and comprehensive, Bhat’s book is insightful and eminently readable.