Bhagavān Vyāsa - 3

This article is part 6 of 18 in the series Poets on Poetics: Literature as Sanskrit Poets See It

In the next verse Vyāsa describes a defining trait of great poets. He intends this as a lodestar of sorts of his work:

इतिहासप्रदीपेन मोहावरणघातिना।

लोकगर्भगृहं कृत्स्नं यथावत् संप्रकाशितम्॥ (१.९६.१०३, Kumbhakonam edition)

The great lamp of itihāsa dispels darkness in the form of stupor, ignorance, delusion. It illuminates the inner core of the world and shows it as it is.    

Itihāsa is a word that is pregnant with meaning. Literally, it means ‘it so happened,’ ‘iti ha āsa.’ It carries a suggestion that a poet describes actual events and does not give shape to airy nothings. As far as poetry is concerned, ‘actual events’ are the unceasing activities of the mind, our variegated thoughts and feelings. The poet adheres to no other ‘reality’ apart from these. His medium serves to illumine the emotional activities of human beings.

              Pradīpa means a master lamp from which several smaller lamps derive their light. There is an underlying suggestion here. All of us undergo the same or similar emotional experiences as the poet but are unable to relish them aesthetically. The poet uses the literary medium to bring about aesthetic experience. In this manner, connoisseurs share several attributes with the poet: satpātratva, snehamayatva and sadvartitva. They are both alike worthy [of aesthetic experience], genial and gracious. In the context of illumination, these attributes relate to lamp, oil and wick, respectively.  

               The poet’s creative imagination first assumes the form of a flame and enkindles his literary taste. It then expresses itself as glowing words and offers light to several lamps that are connoisseurs. In turn, connoisseurs use its luminance to look into the unlit recesses of their hearts. Lamp, wick and oil were all present previously; but there was no light. Now it is there in abundance, thanks to the flame of poetry. This is the secret of personal emotion transforming into aesthetic experience.

               Every word in this verse is of inestimable value to literary theory. Poetry should strike a deep chord with connoisseurs. The events and characters that a poet creates in his work evoke certain enduring emotions in the hearts of connoisseurs and pave the way for aesthetic experience. Rasa is not an entity that is to be externally acquired. It entails a disinterested contemplation of one’s own feelings—both pleasant and unpleasant—that leads to aesthetic relish. The poet indicates this in the second half of the verse: lokagarbhagṛham kṛtsnaṃ yathāvat saṃprakāśitam.

               The lamp metaphor employed in this verse wonderfully suggests the ātmā or kṣterajña that embodies and illuminates kṣetra, the mind-body complex. A lamp illumines all the objects that come under its range. Acting as a witness, it neither deforms any object nor gets deformed itself. In the same manner, a great work of art does not deform the emotional space of connoisseurs; it merely renders relishable their enduring emotions. It transforms bhāva into rasa.

               To appreciate the lamp metaphor well, we should know the difference between personal feeling and aesthetic experience. Personal feeling is always enveloped by kāma and karma, desire and activity. When it frees itself from their grip, it emerges as aesthetic experience. Bhāva is a personal attribute that is not always relishable. Rasa, on the other hand, is an impersonal experience that is unconditionally relishable. Art is that which transmutes indirect feelings into direct, immediate experience. Sādhāraṇīkarana, the process of universalization, brings about this transformation. It dissolves individual identity and evokes dispassion but at the same time keeps alive a healthy sense of self-interest.

               Another facet of the lamp metaphor is worth noticing. A lamp stands as a mere witness to the numerous activities—good or bad, sacred or profane, mundane or exalted—that take place within its luminous range. A poem is similar. Connoisseurs may use the experience that they derive out of it in several ways. The poem remains unaffected by it all. The sole purpose of a lamp is to shine and illuminate. The sole purpose of a poem is to lead connoisseurs to aesthetic experience.

               True art trumps and transcends all mundane objectives. It is truly unique and unbound.

               The word yathāvat that appears in the verse is significant to literary theory. Poetry accepts the feelings, thoughts, persons and situations of the world as its basic ingredients. It then works its magic and throws a flood of light on our own emotions, making us see these in their pristine state. We can think of this as a process of using emotion to cleanse emotion itself.[1]

               Garbhagṛha is another word in the verse. It immediately brings to mind the image of a temple. Loka-garbhagṛha means the inner nucleus of human beings, our emotional core. Garbhagṛha has no meaning without the image of a deity. The deity that resides within us is ātmā. We know that ātmā is self-luminous; what does it mean to illuminate it? It means the removal of all the barriers that beclouds its radiance. Ātmā is also of the nature of unbound, unalloyed happiness. The purpose of art is to help us recognize this fount of inartificial happiness. The process that art employs to initiate this recognition in us is known as aesthetic signification, vyañjanā-vyāpāra. It is impossible to delineate ātmā by perception and inference. Only immediate experience is of help. Dhvani or poetic suggestion brings about such immediate experience.         

               The word kṛtsnaṃ indicates that poetry at its highest fully accomplishes its objective of evoking rasa though dhvani. If it accomplishes its objective partially that means dhvani has frozen at the level of guṇībhūta-vyaṅgya without rising to its fullest potential. Because rasa can only be suggested, the illumination should be kṛtsna, complete.

               Mohāvaraṇaghātī is yet another word in the verse. Poetry personified by charming expression, led by propriety in the form of valour, wields the sword of suggestion to cut through the cloud of delusion that surrounds personal feeling. This creates rasa. In sum, personal feeling freed from the maze of moha emerges as rasa.[2]      

               It is no exaggeration to say that Vyāsa has captured the essence of rasa-siddhānta in this verse.

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

To be continued.

[1] Ref: Bhaṭṭa-tauta’s famous statement:

यथादर्शान्मलेनेव मलमेवोपहन्यते।

तथा रागावबोधेन पश्यतां शोध्यते मनः॥

[2] Ref. Jagannātha’s pointed observation in in Rasagaṅgādhara: ratyādyavacchinnā bhagnāvaraṇā cideva rasaḥ




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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