Mahābhārata – Episode 4 – Test of Skill of the Kuru Princes

This article is part 4 of 112 in the series Mahābhārata

There lived a teacher by name Kṛpācārya[1] who taught archery to the kings of the Vṛṣṇi clan and other kṣatriya clans. The Kauravas and Pāṇḍavas were his disciples too. Bhīṣma was not content with this; he thought that his grandchildren should be trained under a person who was an expert in several śāstras and skilled in combat; he wanted the teacher to be a genius and nurture the grandchildren to turn them into extraordinary people. As he was looking for such a person, an interesting episode took place.

One day the princes were playing the vīṭī-khelanā [popularly known as ‘gilli-daṇḍa’ – a game of sticks] in the outskirts of Hastināpura. As they were playing, one of the sticks fell into a well. The boys did not know how to pull it out of the well and stood around, helpless. There appeared a brāhmaṇa of radiant form. Learning about the circumstances, he smiled and said, “Are you true kṣatriyas? Have you learned archery? Being born in the Bharata-vaṃśa, you struggle to bring out a stick that’s fallen in a well? Get me a handful of Darbha grass. I shall help you take it out!” Once they brought him the grass, the brāhmaṇa picked out a strand, chanted a few mantras and let it into the well. The blade of grass pierced the stick that had fallen inside. He threw in another blade of Darbha after chanting some more mantras. This stuck to the tip of the grass blade that had pierced the stick; he put in more blades of grass along with incantations and pulled out the stick that was fallen into the well.[2]  The boys watched this with amazement. They asked him with respect, “Swami, salutations to you! Who are you? What can we do for you?” In reply, he said “Go to Bhīṣma and tell him what I just did. He is smart and will figure out the rest.” Upon hearing their narration, Bhīṣma realized that the brāhmaṇa was Droṇa.[3] He felt that Droṇa would be the best person to tutor the children. He thus went in person to Droṇa, paid his respects, and asked him the purpose of his current visit to Hastinapura. Droṇa said “O powerful one! I am on my way back from the kingdom of Pāñcāla; I have learned archery from the sage Agniveśya; I spent many years as his disciple as a brahmacārī and grew long hair; Yajñasena, the prince of Pāñcāla was my classmate. He was a good friend of mine and we helped each other when in need. He had told me, ‘My father is fond of me, so he will crown me as the king of his large empire; once I become the king, I shall share my kingdom and the associated pleasures with you, as you are very dear to me; mark my words!’ When I heard that he had was made the king, delighted, I went to him. I recalled the word he had given me and told him that I, your friend, have come here. Yajñasena gave out a contemptuous laugh and said, ‘You boldly claim to be my friend, O foolish brāhmaṇa! What can I say about your foolishness? Can a king ever be friends with such a poor and lowly man? Only a śrotriya can befriend a śrotriya, a rathika can befriend a rathika, and a king can only be friends with other king!’ I was deeply pained by his words and have come to the land of the Kurus in search of a capable student.” Bhīṣma appointed him as the tutor for his grandchildren and put them under the traditional disciplehood.

One day, after taking them as his students, Droṇa asked the Kuru princes, “Once you all master archery, you will need to fulfill a wish of mine, what do you say?” Everyone kept quiet except for Arjuna who said, “So be it!” He even took an oath that he would execute his teacher’s wish. Droṇa was thrilled listening to Arjuna’s words. He hugged Arjuna as his own son and let tears of joy flow. He taught them several human and divine weapons. Princes from different kingdoms such as the Vṛṣṇis and the Andhakas came to him for tutelage. Karṇa, the sūtaputra was one among them. He was given shelter by the Kauravas and he always looked at the Pāṇḍavas with contempt. He even challenged Arjuna at times.

Droṇa was impressed looking at Arjuna’s dedication to his guru and to his learning. One day, when Arjuna was having dinner, a strong wind blew off the lamp.[4] Even in the darkness, he was able to eat his food – the hand never missed the mouth. Observing this, Arjuna realized that only constant practice had made this possible and started practising archery in darkness thereafter. Hearing the sound of the bowstring at night, an impressed Droṇa told Arjuna, “I will make sure that no one else can be as good as you at archery, Arjuna; you will have no match!” He taught him the art of fighting when seated on an elephant’s back, in a chariot, and on a horse’s back. He also taught him the art of shooting arrows when on ground and when moving. He taught him how arrows need to be shot when attacked by an opponent with a mace, a sword, or a spear. Gradually, Droṇa’s reputation came to be heard all over and his disciples grew in number. Ekalavya, the son of a vyādha (hunter) king was one among them. Droṇa decided not to take him as a student as he was a hunter and also because he wanted to devote more time to his other students. The boy, however, went back to the forest, created an image of Droṇa out of mud, respected the image as his real guru and practised archery before it. He developed great skill in using his bow and arrow.

Ekalavya's gurudakshina

One day, Kauravas and Pāṇḍavas set out on their chariots for hunting in the forest. A servant followed them carrying their weapons and had a dog accompany them. The dog was roaming around and came across Ekalavya who was dressed in shabby skin of a deer. Looking at him, the dog started barking. To show his skill, Ekalavya shot seven arrows at a time into the dog’s mouth. Its mouth filled with arrows, the dog came to the Pāṇḍavas, who was astonished looking at it. They greatly appreciated the skill of the archer and the art of shooting arrows by listening to the sound. They felt embarrassed too. They went in search of the person who had shot the arrows and found Ekalavya who was constantly shooting arrows. They did not know who he was. They asked him “Who are you? Whose son are you?” In reply, Ekalavya said “Dear warriors, I am the son of the king of the Niṣādas, Hiraṇyadhanuṣa; I am Droṇa’s student and have practised archery for a long time.” Upon returning to their hometown, the Pāṇḍavas narrated this incident in all its detail to Droṇa. Arjuna spoke to Droṇa in private, “Ācārya! You had promised that none would surpass me in archery. However, it looks like the son of Niṣādarāja is your student and is better skilled than me. How is it so?” Droṇa thought for a moment and decided what he had to do. Taking Arjuna along with him, he went to the place where Ekalavya resided. Looking at Droṇa coming towards him, Ekalavya got up with respect and bowed down to him; Ekalavya told him that he was his student and stood with folded hands. Looking at him, Droṇa said “If you are my student, give me the fee you owe me!” Ekalavya was pleased and said, “Revered guru, command me! I shall give whatever you ask for. There is nothing that a student should not give his teacher.” Droṇa said, “If that is so, give me your right thumb.” Although Droṇa’s demand was an extremely cruel one, Ekalavya thought of his vow and without thinking further, with a smile on his face, cut off his thumb. Thereafter, he practised archery only with his remaining fingers; however, he had lost the agility he previously had. Arjuna was very happy after this. As there was no one to  surpass Arjuna’s skill, Droṇa’s words came true.

Among the people who learned warfare under Droṇa’s tutelage, Duryodhana and Bhīma turned out to be good at gadhāyuddha (mace-fight); Aśvatthāma was better than everyone else at all secret weapons; Nakula and Sahadeva mastered sword fighting; Yudhiṣṭhira turned out to be a good charioteer; Arjuna was versatile and turned out to be the best in all different modes of fight. He even turned out to be a good charioteer, intelligent, strong and charming. He was at his best at archery. He was a synonym for guru-bhakti (devotion to the teacher). As Bhīma was the strongest and Arjuna the smartest among them all, Kauravas became jealous and could not tolerate them.

Once Droṇa wanted to test his students’ ability in hitting a target. He got a parrot sculpted out of wood and placed it on a tree at a distance, without their knowledge. He called out for them “Boys! Get your bows and arrows and stand here, before this tree; on my word, you will have to hit the bird in its head and kill it; I shall call out one by one!” He called Yudhiṣṭhira first. “Yudhiṣṭhira, set your arrow and get ready; shoot the arrow when I ask you to!” Yudhiṣṭhira got ready and after a moment Droṇa asked, “Can you see the bird on the tree, O prince?”

“Yes, I can see it!”

After a moment, Droṇa asked, “Do you see me, your brothers, the tree and everything else?”

Yudhiṣṭhira replied, “Yes, I can see the tree, the bird, my brothers, you and everything around!”

As Yudhiṣṭhira continued replying in a similar manner, Droṇa got annoyed and said, “Get out! You will not be able to hit the target!” He called Duryodhana and the others one by one and asked the same questions. All of them gave similar answers. Then, with a smile on his face, Droṇa called Arjuna, “Child, you will need to hit the target. As soon as I say ‘shoot’, you will need to release the arrow. String your bow and get ready!” Accordingly, Arjuna readied his bow, pulled it to a semicircle and stared at the target. A moment later, Droṇa asked him the questions he had asked the rest of the Kuru princes, “Are you able to see the bird, the tree, and me?”

Arjuna shoots the bird

Arjuna replied, “I can see only the bird; I can neither see you nor the tree!”

Droṇa was thrilled. A moment later, he asked “Can you see the bird? Tell me again!”

“I can only see the bird’s head and not its body!”

Droṇa was delighted and his hair stood on end when he heard Arjuna’s answer. “Shoot!” he commanded. The sharp arrow shot through the air and severed the bird’s head. As Arjuna became successful in the assigned task, Droṇa hugged him and declared “Now I consider Drupada defeated!”

In another instance, when Droṇa was bathing in the Gaṅgā, a crocodile caught his foot. Although he was capable of freeing himself from the crocodile, he called out for help from his students. “Crocodile! Crocodile!” he shouted. As soon as he head these words, Arjuna fired five sharp arrows at the crocodile in the water. The crocodile was torn apart and Droṇa’s foot was freed. The others did not know what to do and looked around, confused. This incident also increased the affection Droṇa had for Arjuna; he considered him the best of his pupils. As a sign of appreciation and affection, he gifted Arjuna with a special arrow called the Brahmaśira. He said “Look child, this is not an ordinary arrow. It needs to be used only to fight a non-human foe. It should never be used on a human being; if you happen to use it upon a weak person, it will destroy the entire world!” Arjuna received the new weapon with folded hands and said “I shall obey your words!”

When Droṇa felt that the sons of Dhṛtarāṣṭra and Pāṇḍu had mastered the use of weapons, he spoke to Dhṛtarāṣṭra in the presence of Kṛpa, Bhīṣma, Vyāsa, Vidura, and others, "O king! Your sons have now completed their training. If you will grant permission, they are ready to display what they have learned." Dhṛtarāṣṭra replied with great joy, "Ācārya, you have accomplished a great task! Please go ahead and decide when, where, and how the great display should be, and please make the necessary arrangements. My only lament is that I don't have the good fortune of seeing with my own eyes my children's display of skills."

Droṇa picked a flat open land devoid of plants and trees, and performed the bali-pūjā. He had a grand arena constructed along with a huge pavilion for the king and for the women of the palace to sit comfortably and view the proceedings. On the chosen day, Dhṛtarāṣṭra, Bhīṣma, and the other men-folk as well as Gāndhārī, Kuntī, and the other women-folk took their seats.

Vidura sat next to Dhṛtarāṣṭra and Kuntī sat next to Gāndhārī, both describing the various feats of the young princes. The huge crowd that had gathered to witness the tournament was like an ocean with its waves. Then Droṇa entered the arena; he was dressed in white garments, with a white yajñopavita; he was anointed with fragrances and adorned with garlands; his hair, mustache, and beard were white in colour. He walked to the center of the arena with his son Aśvatthāma in tow. So that the brāhmaṇas could begin the programme by performing auspicious rituals, a host of men carrying diverse weapons and equipment entered the arena. The princes then entered with their armors, bows, and quivers full of arrows. Yudhiṣṭhira led the contingent. The display began; while riding on horses at great speed, they shot and pierced targets with arrows engraved with their names. Some of the spectators lowered their heads fearing a hit from the arrows while others who were more courageous saw the display in all its grandeur and were amazed. With screams of "Wonderful!" "Excellent!" they expressed their appreciation. Similarly they demonstrated their prowess by fighting while they rode chariots, elephants, and horses. They picked up swords and shields and exhibited nimbleness, brilliance, beauty, steadfastness, firmness of hold, and so forth. Then Duryodhana and Bhīma entered the arena, wielding their maces, roaring like two elephants in rut, going around each other from the left and from the right, forming a circle. Upon seeing this, the people formed two factions with some of them shouting, "Come on, O brave Kaurava!" and others shouting, "Come on, O Bhīmasena!" The entire arena swelled with turbulence and seeing this, Droṇa worried if this would turn into an intoxicated fest; he called his son Asvatthama and sent word through him: "Enough of the show of skill with the mace; tell them to retreat!" After they left, Droṇa entered the arena, motioned the musical instruments to stop playing, and announced in a deep voice, "Now we will see the display of one who is dearer to me than my own son, the foremost among warriors, the son of Indra: Arjuna!" Following this introduction by his guru, Arjuna entered donning a golden armour, wearing a finger-protector, armed with a quiver of arrows, and holding a bow; he looking like a cloud resplendent with sun-rays, lightning, and a rainbow. It seemed like a brilliant light had entered the arena. Everywhere musical instruments were sounded. Conch-shells were blown. The people shouted, "He is the middle Pāṇḍava!" They said, "He is the son of Mahendra!" "The master of weapons!" shouted others. "The best among those who tread the path of dharma!" "Epitome of good conduct!" Hearing these words of praise, Kuntī had tears of joy flowing from her eyes; her breasts swelled and became wet with milk. Dhṛtarāṣṭra asked, "What's this Vidura? What's this sudden commotion? What's this sound of celebration?" Vidura replied, "Pāṇḍu's son Pārtha has entered the arena wearing his armour, O king! The celebratory shouts and uproar are due to that." After the noise quietened a little, Arjuna began to display his prowess in handling the various weapons: he made fire using the āgneyāstra; using the parjanyāstra, he created rain-bearing clouds; using the vāyavyāstra he produced wind; he disappeared using an antardhānāstra; in an instant he became tall and in another instant he appeared short; in one moment he was perched on the chariot and in another, he was standing on the ground; then he displayed the use of various types of arrows; into the mouth of an iron boar that was rotating he shot five arrows at once, as though they were a single arrow; he shot twenty-one arrows into a cow's horn that had been hollowed and was made to sway from a rope; after his extraordinary exhibition of skill in handling various weapons, he picked up the mace and displayed various moves with it. The display was almost finished, the enthusiasm of the spectators had waned, and the musical instruments were getting silent; then, suddenly, at the gates there was a sound of beating of arms that created a tumultuous sound resembling thunder.

This is an English translation of Prof. A R Krishna Shastri’s Kannada classic Vacanabhārata by Arjun Bharadwaj and Hari Ravikumar published in a serialized form. Thanks to Śatāvadhāni Dr. R Ganesh for his thorough review and astute feedback.

Additional segments from the epic and notes by the translators have been added in the footnotes. Apart from reading through the Critical Text of the Mahābhārata, the Kannada translations of Ka Sri Nagaraj, Devashikhamani Alasingacharya, and of Bharata Darshana Publications as well as the English translations of Kisari Mohan Ganguli and Bibek Debroy have been consulted in the preparation of this series.



[1] Mahāṛṣi Gautama's son Śaradvān was more eager to learn the art of archery than study the Vedas – a trait unnatural to a sage’s son. Worried about his prowess, Indra sent an apsarā to distract Śaradvān from his tapas. The heavenly damsel appeared before him, wearing but a single piece of cloth. Attracted by her beauty, Śaradvān’s bow and arrows fell from his hand. He was distracted for a while and ejaculated semen, without realizing it. Soon he regained his awareness by the power of his tapas and walked away from the hermitage. His semen fell on a reed, split into two, and twins emerged from this: a boy and a girl. When King Śantanu had gone on a hunt, one of his soldiers noticed the twins and decided to adopt them. The king gave him permission and helped rear the children. Since the children were raised out of compassion, they were named Kṛpa and Kṛpī.

[2] Translators’ Note: In the Citraśālā Edition, there is also a mention of Droṇa throwing his ring into the well and extracting that by shooting an arrow.

[3] Once, when Mahāṛṣi Bharavāja was getting ready to offer the havis to agni, he saw an apsarā bathing; the wind blew away her garment and the sage ejaculated semen, which he then placed in a pot. Droṇa was born from that pot. He learnt the sacred lore and various martial arts.

Bharavāja's friend King Priṣata had a son named Drupada, who became a close friend of Droṇa. In due course, Bharavāja died as did Priṣata, following which Drupada (Yajñasena) ascended the throne of Pāñcāla. Droṇa married Kṛpī and an illustrious son was born to them. At birth, he neighed like the celestial horse (aśva), Ucchaiśravas, he was given the name Aśvatthāma.

Later, Droṇa obtained all of Paraśurāma’s weapons as well as the knowledge of how to use them.

[4] Much before this episode, Droṇa instructs the royal cook never to serve food to Arjuna in the dark.



Prof. A R Krishna Sastri was a journalist, scholar, polyglot, and a pioneer of the modern Kannada renaissance, who founded the literary journal Prabuddha Karnāṭaka. His Vacana-bhārata and Kathāmṛta are classics of Kannada literature while his Saṃskṛta-nāṭaka and Bankimacandra are of unrivalled scholarship.



Arjun is a writer, translator, engineer, and enjoys composing poems. He is well-versed in Sanskrit, Kannada, English, Greek, and German languages. His research interests lie in comparative aesthetics of classical Greek and Sanskrit literature. He has deep interest in the theatre arts and music. Arjun has (co-) translated the works of AR Krishna Shastri, DV Gundappa, Dr. SL Bhyrappa, Dr. SR Ramaswamy and Shatavadhani Dr. R Ganesh


Hari is a writer, translator, editor, violinist, and designer with a deep interest in philosophy, education pedagogy design, literature, and films. He has (co-)written/translated and (co-)edited 35+ books, mostly related to Indian culture. He serves on the advisory board of a few educational institutions.

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The cultural history of a nation, unlike the customary mainstream history, has a larger time-frame and encompasses the timeless ethos of a society undergirding the course of events and vicissitudes. A major key to the understanding of a society’s unique character is an appreciation of the far-reaching contributions by outstanding personalities of certain periods – especially in the realms of...

Prekṣaṇīyam is an anthology of essays on Indian classical dance and theatre authored by multifaceted scholar and creative genius, Śatāvadhānī Dr. R Ganesh. As a master of śāstra, a performing artiste (of the ancient art of Avadhānam), and a cultured rasika, he brings a unique, holistic perspective to every discussion. These essays deal with the philosophy, history, aesthetics, and practice of...


इदं किञ्चिद्यामलं काव्यं द्वयोः खण्डकाव्ययोः सङ्कलनरूपम्। रामानुरागानलं हि सीतापरित्यागाल्लक्ष्मणवियोगाच्च श्रीरामेणानुभूतं हृदयसङ्क्षोभं वर्णयति । वात्सल्यगोपालकं तु कदाचिद्भानूपरागसमये घटितं यशोदाश्रीकृष्णयोर्मेलनं वर्णयति । इदम्प्रथमतया संस्कृतसाहित्ये सम्पूर्णं काव्यं...


इदं खण्डकाव्यमान्तं मालिनीछन्दसोपनिबद्धं विलसति। मेनकाविश्वामित्रयोः समागमः, तत्फलतया शकुन्तलाया जननम्, मातापितृभ्यां त्यक्तस्य शिशोः कण्वमहर्षिणा परिपालनं चेति काव्यस्यास्येतिवृत्तसङ्क्षेपः।


इदं खण्डकाव्यमान्तं मालिनीछन्दसोपनिबद्धं विलसति। मेनकाविश्वामित्रयोः समागमः, तत्फलतया शकुन्तलाया जननम्, मातापितृभ्यां त्यक्तस्य शिशोः कण्वमहर्षिणा परिपालनं चेति काव्यस्यास्येतिवृत्तसङ्क्षेपः।


इयं रचना दशसु रूपकेष्वन्यतमस्य भाणस्य निदर्शनतामुपैति। एकाङ्करूपकेऽस्मिन् शेखरकनामा चित्रोद्यमलेखकः केनापि हेतुना वियोगम् अनुभवतोश्चित्रलेखामिलिन्दकयोः समागमं सिसाधयिषुः कथामाकाशभाषणरूपेण निर्वहति।


अस्मिन् स्तोत्रकाव्ये भगवन्तं शिवं कविरभिष्टौति। वसन्ततिलकयोपनिबद्धस्य काव्यस्यास्य कविकृतम् उल्लाघनाभिधं व्याख्यानं च वर्तते।

Karnataka’s celebrated polymath, D V Gundappa brings together in the third volume, some character sketches of great literary savants responsible for Kannada renaissance during the first half of the twentieth century. These remarkable...

Karnataka’s celebrated polymath, D V Gundappa brings together in the second volume, episodes from the lives of remarkable exponents of classical music and dance, traditional storytellers, thespians, and connoisseurs; as well as his...

Karnataka’s celebrated polymath, D V Gundappa brings together in the first volume, episodes from the lives of great writers, poets, literary aficionados, exemplars of public life, literary scholars, noble-hearted common folk, advocates...

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...