Footprints of Scholarly Temerity in Sanskrit Literature - 1

This article is part 1 of 7 in the series Footprints of Scholarly Temerity in Sanskrit Literature


Sanskrit is one of the most sophisticated languages in the world. A rubric of aesthetics that is universal in scope governs its poetry. Sanskrit has also evolved a highly language-specific scheme of analysis comprising poetic conventions, prosodic patterns, and grammatical nuances. Its employment and assessment of figures of sound and sense are unique.

Factors that contribute to poetic content by serving as raw materials are manifold. In the context of Indian tradition, of which Sanskrit poetry is an inexorable part, a rich variety of nature and culture has set a titanic backdrop against which literature unfolds. Classical art expects a certain amount of leisure for its development. India’s climatic, social, political, economic, and religious atmosphere, coupled with an all-encompassing philosophy of life, provide the much-needed composure for classical literature. A non-inclement climate and a profound philosophy serve as the primary conducive factors.

While these factors further the cause of sublime poetry, royal patronage and social comfort help secure the objective of ornate poetry. Poetry performed as a penance is sublime; poetry performed as a play is ornate. Both are necessary for the organic growth of literature.

In this background, we analyse how Sanskrit aestheticians classify poets.

Classification of Poets

In his Kāvya-mīmāṃsā (p. 13), Rāja-śekhara classifies poets in the following manner: sārasvata (endowed with natural talent), ābhyāsika (one who takes to poetry by learning and practice), and aupadeśika (one who invokes supernatural forces to compose poetry). The extempore poet (āśu-kavi) belongs to the first two groups. A few extempore poets claim to belong to the third group. Rāja-śekhara further classifies poets under several heads[1].

Extending the list of poets further, Rāja-śekhara names (p. 19) kāvya-vidyā-snātaka (one who has learnt the art of versification from a Guru), hṛdaya-kavi (a natural poet who composes verses for himself), anyāpadeśī (poet who publishes his work in a name other than his, fearing criticism), paurastya (one who has a penchant for gauḍī śāilī, bombastic style), ghaṭamāna (one who does not publish any composition in full, although being an adept poet), mahā-kavi (one who can compose great poetry in one literary genre), and kavi-rāja (one who can compose poetry with equal ease in numerous languages, genres, and styles).

Two other divisions of poets are extremely relevant to us. They are: gṛha-kavi (one who composes poetry leisurely, without external constraints) and sabhā-kavi (one who composes poetry in public, with external constraints). Although no aesthetician names these two varieties of poets, it is prudent to include them in this list, keeping in mind their practical efficacy. Rāja-śekhara enumerates three other kinds of poets (p. 53): asūryampaśya (one who composes poetry in seclusion), niṣaṇṇa (a poet who composes poetry with great continuity and commitment), and prāyojanika (one who composes poetry as though possessed, only on demand). These kinds can be classed under gṛha-kavi. These poets not only have the luxury of consulting books while composing verses, but also have the added benefit of getting their compositions whetted by scholars. A sabhā-kavi does not enjoy these privileges; he comes to the arena with no preparation (pūrva-siddhatā) and composes verses as per the demands of scholars. This is indeed a great achievement, because it takes immense courage and confidence to face an assembly comprising learned people and connoisseurs of poetry. Says a well-known verse:

नाहूतापि पुरः पदं रचयति प्राप्तोपकण्ठं हठा-

त्पृष्टा न प्रविवक्ति कम्पमयते स्तम्भं सामालम्बते।

वैवर्ण्यं स्वरभङ्गमञ्चति बलान्मन्दाक्षमन्दानना

कष्टं भोः प्रतिभावतोऽप्यभिसभं वाणी नवोढायते॥[2]

In scholarly assemblies, even a learned person’s speech is unforthcoming. It acts like a newly married bride: when invoked, she doesn’t say a word (when someone calls her, she doesn’t step forward); when questioned, she gives no reply; she trembles and freezes on the spot; she distorts vowels and consonants (she goes pale and her voice cracks); and her face flushes.

Uddaṇḍa beautifully captures the difference between two kinds of poets: the first sort are those who toil hard, produce mediocre poetry and be vain about it; the second sort are those who feel perpetually ashamed, although their speech flows with such torrential force as to compete with the celestial river Gaṅgā: 


कन्थामात्रकुविन्दकाः कवयितुं सज्जन्ति लज्जामुचः।


प्रत्याख्यानपटीयसापि वचसा जिह्रेति जिह्वा मम॥[3]

The sabhā-kavi usually belongs to the second group. He must consciously overcome a plethora of feelings such as hesitation, anxiety, and bewilderment that curb extempore versification.

Not all extempore poets are sabhā-kavis. The converse is, however, always true. Sanskrit literature records numerous anecdotes related to extempore poets. As an example, we can consider an instance from the life of Śrī-harṣa. He once went to the court of Jaya-candra, wanting to engage Udayanācārya in debate. No sooner the king set his eyes upon him than Śrī-harṣa recited the following verse with gusto:  

गोविन्दनन्दनतया च वपुःश्रिया च

मास्मिन्नृपे कुरुत कामधियं तरुण्यः।

अस्त्रीकरोति जगतां विषये स्मर स्त्री-

रस्त्रीजनः पुनरनेन विधीयते स्त्रीः॥[4]

This handsome king has Govinda as his father. But girls, don’t mistake him for Manmatha. Why? While the Lord of Love uses women to win over the world, this king removes might from men and turns them into women!

This verse is full of puns and uses apt, powerful words. It is embellished with the figure of apparent contradiction (virodhābhāsa-alaṅkāra).

Another instance relates to the life of the poet Maṅkha. He presented his epic poem Śrīkaṇtha-carita in an august assembly of scholars and won critical acclaim. Convinced of his skills as a gṛha-kavi, the scholars present were eager to witness his prowess as a sabhā-kavi. With this intention, a grammarian by name Suhala stood up and posed two lines as a challenge: 

एतद्बभ्रुकचानुकारिकिरणं राजद्रुहोऽह्नः शिर-

श्च्छेदाभं वियति प्रतीचिनिपतत्यब्धौ रवेर्मण्डलम्।

Setting in the West, the Sun aglow with crimson rays looks like the lopped-off head of a culprit!

Maṅkha had to build on this idea and compose two more lines to complete the verse. He did so with inimitable aplomb:

एषापि द्युरमा प्रियानुगमनं प्रोद्दामकाष्ठोत्थिते

सन्ध्याग्नौ विरचय्य तारकमिषाज्जातास्थिशेषस्थितिः॥[5]

Eager to join Sun, her husband, Day-lady entered the funeral pyre that is evening. She is now reduced to ashes in the form of stars.  

Like the previous verse, this, too, is filled with puns: the word rāja means both king and moon, and kāṣṭha connotes both directions and wooden logs. Since the two halves of the verse blend seamlessly, readers can hardly notice two hands at play!

He indeed is a sabhā-kavi who can compose verses of this sort with great panache and alacrity.


It is the art of composing poetry on the spot, without the aid of pen and paper, and is the warp and woof of many forms of folk poetry. It is employed in everyday conversations in many regional languages of India. People give a verbal shape to their emotions and polish the same further to form poetry. Unfamiliarity with script might be a reason for people taking to oral compositions. Extending this argument further, scholars opine that the Vedas can be treated as extempore poems composed by sages. In ancient India, there were numerous classes of people who were skilled in āśu-kavitā: sūta, cāraṇa, vandi-māgadha, and so on.

Classical poems of most ancient languages—i.e., the primary epics—were necessarily ‘epics of growth,’ in the sense that they were composed by poets across a period of time in royal courts and scholastic assemblies. Modern scholars are of the opinion that Rāmāyaṇa, Mahābhārata (Sanskrit), Bṛhat-kathā (Prakrit) belong to this class of poetry. Other examples of such compositions include Iliad and Odyssey (Greek), Beowulf (Old English), Kalevala (Finnish), Gilgamesh (Sumerian), and Maleya Mahadeśvara, Maṇṭesvāmi, and Juñjappa (Kannada).

Several poets who wrote in Sanskrit and other regional languages of India were good at extempore versification. Śrī-harṣa, Bilhaṇa, Vedānta-deśika, Maṅkha, Vidyānātha, and Jagannātha (Sanskrit) and Nāgacandra, Rāghavāṅka, Guruliṅga and Kṛṣṇa-śarma (Kannada) are a few exemplars. Numerous texts in Sanskrit are strewn with extempore verses. Examples include Bhoja-prabandha, Rājaśekhara-carita, Vidvaccarita-pañcaka, and Vāsiṣṭha-vaibhava. Arigaṇṭam and Śatagaṇṭam are similar works in Tamil. Telugu boasts of a long line of extempore poets starting from Vemulavāḍa Bhīma-kavi to contemporary poets. Masters such as Śrīnātha, Peddana, and Tenāli Rāmakṛṣṇa are but a few glowing examples. This tradition is alive—albeit in varying dimensions—across all Indian languages.

In ancient and medieval India, extempore poetry was taken so seriously that a poet would be penalised if he failed to compose a certain number of verses within a predetermined time. On extreme occasions, the poet would be thrown into a pit of fire or his neck would be cut off! The sad story of Ambikā-pati, the son of the Tamil poet Kamban, testifies this fact.

[1] Śāstra-kavi, kāvya-kavi, racanā-kavi, śabda-kavi, artha-kavi, alaṅkāra-kavi, ukti-kavi, rasa-kavi, mārga-kavi, and śāstrārtha-kavi (pp. 17–19)

[2] Subhāṣita-ratna-bhāṇḍāgāra, p. 101

[3] Kokila-sandeśa, p. 41 (fn.)

[4] Naiṣadhīya-carita (vol. 1). p. 3 (preface)

[5] Śrīkaṇtha-carita, 25.105.

Maṅkha further composed seven verses (Śrīkaṇtha-carita, 25.120–26) at the behest of Tejaḥ-kaṇṭha. These verses are of the rāja-cāṭu (panegyric on kings) type and exemplify sabhā-kavitva.  

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. A literary aficionado, Shashi enjoys composing poetry set to classical meters in Sanskrit. He co-wrote a translation of Śatāvadhāni Dr. R Ganesh’s Kannada work Kavitegondu Kathe.

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