Footprints of Scholarly Temerity in Sanskrit Literature - 3

This article is part 3 of 7 in the series Footprints of Scholarly Temerity in Sanskrit Literature

Footprints of Scholarly Temerity

In the progress from Kālidāsa to Bāṇa-bhaṭṭa, Sanskrit literature saw a decisive shift in terms of mind-set: what emanated as the seasoned self-confidence of poets transformed into loud self-assertion. While this took the dimension of learned entertainment (vidyā-vinoda) among poets, it assumed the form of rigorous debates (vāda-vaibhava) among scholars. This is the period in which Sanskrit poetry became the regular feature of royal courts. We have an unbroken tradition of vidyā-vinoda from seventh century CE. Let us consider a few choice instances.

Vijjikā (7th cen. CE), the illustrious daughter-in-law of Pulakeśi II, the mighty Cālukya emperor, takes a dig at Daṇḍī:

नीलोत्पलदलश्यामां विज्जिकां मामजानता।

वृथैव दण्डिना प्रोक्ता सर्वशुक्ला सरस्वती॥[1]

Not knowing me, Vijjikā, the one with the complexion of a blue lily, Daṇḍī has stupidly described Sarasvatī as being wholly fair![2]

Vijjikā not-so-subtly suggests that she is herself Sarasvatī! This verse is a great pointer to the scholarly achievements of the poetesses of ancient India. Vijjikā boldly asserts herself in another verse:

एकोऽभून्नलिनात्ततश्च पुलिनाद्वल्मीकतश्चापर-

स्ते सर्वे कवयः प्रसन्नमतयस्तेभ्यो महद्भ्यो नमः।

अर्वाञ्चो यदि गद्यपद्यरचनाचातुर्यमातन्वते

तेषां मूर्ध्नि वहामि वामचरणं कर्णाटराजप्रिया॥[3]

There are just three poets who are worth their salt—Brahmā, Vyāsa, and Vālmīki. They were all extremely serene; I bow before them. If later poets look to exhibit their humble talents in terms of prose and verse, I shall deign to place my left foot on their heads!

This might seem too arrogant. However, the beauty of Sanskrit helps Vijjikā to emerge from the depths of boastful haughtiness. By changing the word order in the last line of the verse, we can derive an altogether different meaning: (If later poets look to exhibit their humble talents in terms of prose and verse), ‘I shall reverentially place their left foot on my head!’ Herein lies the aesthetic delight of scholarly assertion.

Bhava-bhūti (8th cen. CE) is a unique Sanskrit poet. Every word of his has an indelible imprint of his personality. Apart from his learning in the Vedic lore, he was a consummate scholar in grammar, Vedic exegesis, logic, Sāṅkhya, Yoga, and Vedānta. The immediate reception to such a scholar’s works was lukewarm! But Bhava-bhūti was not saddened by this. Unfazed, he continued his scholarly and poetic pursuits. He declared: 

ये नाम केचिदिह नः प्रथयन्त्यवज्ञां

जानन्ति ते किमपि तान्प्रति नैष यत्नः।

उत्पत्स्यते तु मम कोऽपि समानधर्मा

कालो ह्ययं निरवधिर्विपुला च पृथ्वी॥[4]

Those who are indifferent to my work, let them know: my efforts are not for them. There will come along someone who shares my spirit. Indeed, the world is vast, and time endless[5].

Ratnākara (9th cen. CE) is the author of Hara-vijaya, arguably the longest epic poem of the classical age in Sanskrit literature. Spread over fifty cantos, this titanic work is the abode of literary acrobatics of all hues and varieties. At the end of the work, the poet proclaims: 

हरविजयमहाकवेः प्रतिज्ञां

शृणुत कृतप्रणयो मम प्रबन्धे।

अपि शिशुरकविः कविः प्रभावा-

द्भवति कविश्च महाकविः क्रमेण॥[6]

I am the author of Hara-vijaya. Give an ear to my pledge: By taking active interest in my work, with time, a lad surely becomes a poet and a poet, a great one!

Śiva-svāmī (9th cen. CE) was a Kāśmīrian poet. Deeply influenced by Māgha and Ratnākara, he composed the epic poem Kapphiṇābhyudaya. At the end of this work, he says:




जयति कविरुदारो दण्डिदण्डः शिवाङ्कः॥[7]

Victorious is Śiva-svāmī who uses ‘Śiva’ as his signature. He knows innumerable stories and legends. A pathbreaker in constrained poetry, he is well-known for his verses rich with alliteration and assonance. His words are beautiful and exhibit a rich cohesive spirit. A keen student of Bhartṛ-meṇṭha, he imitates Kālidāsa and treads the poetic path propounded by Daṇḍī.

Rāja-śekhara (10th cen. CE) was a person of many talents. He was a poet, polyglot, and aesthetician. His Kāvya-mīmāṃsā is a veritable treasure of information related to Sanskrit Poetics that is not found elsewhere. Avanti-sundarī, his wife, was also an accomplished aesthetician. With such an illustrious background, there is little wonder that Rāja-śekhara thought high of himself. He is the incarnation of Vālmīki, he says, who appeared on earth as Bhartṛ-meṇṭha and Bhava-bhūti, before assuming the form of Rāja-śekhara:

बभूव वल्मीकभवः कविः पुरा

ततः प्रपेदे भुवि भर्तृमेण्ठताम्।

स्थितः पुनर्यो भवभूतिरेखया

स वर्तते सम्प्रति राजशेखरः॥[8]   

Bilhaṇa (11th cen. CE) is immortalised by his historical epic Vikramāṅka-deva-carita. Moving from province to province in search of a patron, this poet from Kāśmīr finally found his abode in the court of Vikramāditya VI. The king wanted to test Bilhaṇa’s learning and asked him to engage in debate with his resident scholars. By nature, Bilhaṇa had utmost contempt for mediocrity. He composed a caustic verse on the spot expressing his displeasure: 

बिन्दुद्वन्द्वतरङ्गिताग्रसरणिः कर्ता शिरोबिन्दुकं

कर्मेति क्रमशिक्षितान्वयकला ये केऽपि तेभ्योऽञ्जलिः।

ये तु ग्रन्थसहस्रशाणकषणत्रुट्यत्कलङ्कैर्गिरा-

मुल्लासैः कवयन्ति बिल्हणकविस्तेष्वेव संनह्यति॥[9]

There are people who recognise subject-words by the visarga at the end and object-words by the anusvāra on top. I offer my salutations to them. There are other poets who sing merrily, having whetted their works against the touchstone of innumerable unblemished treatises. I wish to contest with such people only.

In about twenty-five verses in the final canto of Vikramāṅka-deva-carita (81–105), Bilhaṇa gives an exhaustive list of his accomplishments. Speaking of the popularity of his poetry, he says:

ग्रामो नासौ न स जनपदः सास्ति नो राजधानी

तन्नारण्यं न तदुपवनं सा न सारस्वती भूः।

विद्वान्मूर्खः परिणतवया बालकः स्त्री पुमान्वा

 यत्रोन्मीलत्पुलकमखिला नास्य काव्यं पठन्ति॥[10]

There is absolutely no village, state, capital city, forest, garden, or literary avenue in which people of all sorts—scholars, dullards, elders, young boys, men, and women—do not read Bilhaṇa’s poetry and experience horripilation. 

Apparently, by the time he completed the epic, he had a fallout with the king. Ill-meaning scholars of the royal court were perhaps behind this debacle. This gave further occasion for Bilhaṇa to express his thoughts: 

सर्वस्वं गृहवर्ति कुन्तलपतिर्गृह्णातु तन्मे पुन-

र्भाण्डागारमखण्डमेव हृदये जागर्ति सारस्वतम्।

रे क्षुद्रास्त्यजत प्रमोदमचिरादेष्यन्ति मन्मन्दिरं

हेलान्दोलितकर्णतालकरटिस्कन्धाधिरूढाः श्रियः॥[11]  

Let the King of Kuntala seize all my property. The treasure-trove of literary wealth is secure in my heart! And all you petty people, do away with your joy—elephants with swaying ears will soon bring me immense wealth.

[1] Sanskrit Poetesses (vol. 1), p.  43

[2] Vijjikā had in mind the invocatory verse of Kāvyādarśa:


मानसे रमतां नित्यं सर्वशुक्ला सरस्वती॥

Let the wholly fair Sarasvatī, who moves like a swan in the four lotus-like faces of the Creator, joyfully dwell forever in my mind.

Daṇḍī was patronized by rulers of the Pallava dynasty who were constantly at loggerheads with the Cālukya kingdom. Seen in this background, Vijjikā’s jibe seems all the more appropriate.

[3] Prekṣaṇaka-trayī, p. 4

[4] Mālatī-mādhava, 1.6

[5] Howsoever learned the poet may be, his erudition gains value only by blending seamlessly with aesthetic content in a work of art. Bhava-bhūti knew this perfectly well. He had an ever-alert aesthetic sensibility that stopped him from burdening his work with dry scholarly details. The following verse is a great mirror to the poet’s mind:

यद्वेदाध्ययनं तथोपनिषदां साङ्ख्यस्य योगस्य च

ज्ञानं तत्कथनेन किं न हि ततः कश्चिद्गुणो नाटके।

यत्प्रौढित्वमुदारता च वचसां यच्चार्थतो गौरवं

तच्चेदस्ति ततस्तदेव गमकं पाण्डित्यवैदग्ध्ययोः॥ (Mālatī-mādhava, 1.7)

What is the use of boasting one’s learning in Vedas, Upaniṣads, Sāṅkhya and Yoga? They have little to do with theatre. Grandeur in expression and profundity in content—these indeed are the real measures of wisdom and scholarship. 

[6] Hara-vijaya, 50.102

[7] Kapphiṇābhyudaya, 20.47

[8] Bāla-rāmāyaṇa, 1.16

[9] Karṇa-sundarī, p. 56

[10] Vikramāṅka-deva-carita, 18.89

[11] Vikramāṅka-deva-carita, p. 3 (preface)

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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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...