Sahitateyiṃda Sāhitya: Coming Together to Form Literature

The etymological meaning of the word ‘sāhitya’ is sahitasya bhāvaḥ – the union of several entities. In popular usage, however, it has come to mean a literary work—comprising genres like prose, verse, drama, and novel—that induces delight in its readers. Sāhitya is equivalent to the English word ‘literature.’

Kāvya, which is a generic name given to poem and drama, is the most important form of sāhitya. Belles-lettres, the criticism of literary works, also finds a place in it. Other noteworthy forms of sāhitya are biographies and histories, which are similar to works of literature in that they please the readers through conversations and elaborate descriptions.

The literature in any language is divided into two groups: Sāhitya and Śāstra. While the former is interested in our hearts, the latter appeals to our intellect. Sāhitya gives rise to new experiences in us, its crux being rasa (aesthetic delight); and śāstra, by stimulating our reasoning, helps us attain knowledge, its objective being the establishment of principles.

I have not found a satisfactory answer to the following question: how did the literary genre of Kāvya come to be termed ‘sāhitya’? Śabdakalpadruma, the well-known Sanskrit lexicon, defines sāhitya as ‘a man-made form of literature composed in meter.’ What are the features that differentiate it from other forms of literature? Is it the expanse of the work, its semantic structure, the storyline? The lexicon offers no help.

Sāhityadarpaṇa, the celebrated poetic manual only discusses the classification of kāvya and its influence. It does not define the word sāhitya. In the introductory essay of one of the editions of this work, Pandit Durgaprasad Dwivedi opines, “It is formed by the amalgamation of grammatical, epistemological, hermeneutical and artistic concepts.”[1] But these concepts are equally important to both kāvya and śāstra. Every linguistic endeavor proceeds with the help of these concepts, and confining them to kāvya alone is logically fallacious.

Let us examine one word in Pandit Durgaprasad’s explanation – kalā. What does it mean? “‘Sāhitya’ is an artistic medium (kalā). It uses language to create aesthetic experience.” If this were to be his exposition, it would have thrown light on the unique characteristic feature of sāhitya. However, it would still be unable to explain how this meaning is conveyed to us by the word sāhitya.

We often hear that the word sāhitya is made of two units: sa + hita, which means a communion of sorts. By hita, we get the idea of geniality and agreement. Yet, this feature of hita is not exclusive to sāhitya. It is found in equal measure in all branches of knowledge such as medicine, sculpture, cookery, and astronomy.

To me, the word sāhitya means the unison of several things:

  1. Literature describes the goings-on of the two worlds connected with a person – internal and external. The internal world is made up by an individual’s likes and dislikes, and the external consists of events that take shape by virtue of human reactions to various situations. Upon reading them, certain emotions are invoked in us and when these emotions are refined and sustained—i.e. when they are made artistically harmonious—they metamorphose into rasa. The aspirations of the internal world and the absolute order of the external world are not opposed to each other in literature. This compatibility makes it sāhitya.


  1. Aesthetic experience does the following to us: (a) induces cheerfulness, (b) stimulates the mind, and (c) gives a glimpse of the supreme ideal. The connoisseur of literature is refined by virtue of these, and it is this combination which makes literature sāhitya.


  1. The criteria to produce a work of literature are many. The important ones among them are: (a) pratibhā – creative imagination, a certain sensitivity for all things around, (b) a sound knowledge of the ways of the world, (c) vyutpatti – erudition in branches of knowledge that are essential for poetic creation, such as grammar, poetics, and prosody, (d) a deep knowledge of the works of masters of the past, and (e) abhyāsa – continuous practice. All these five factors combined together create literature, and it is hence sāhitya.


  1. The appeal of a literary piece might be due to various factors: (a) structure, (b) description, (c) turns of phrases, (d) figures of speech, (e) plot, and (f) characters. The unison of such factors of appeal make literature sāhitya.


  1. The literary style is often described in terms of features such as ojas (brilliance), prasāda (lucidity), and mādhurya (sweetness). Their blend is what makes literature sāhitya.


  1. A work of literature is the confluence of rivers in the form of the nine rasas – śṛṅgāra (love), hāsya (humour), karuṇa (pathos), raudra (wrath), vīra (heroism), bhayānaka (terror), bībhatsa (disgust), adbhuta (wonder), and śānta (tranquility). This confluence transforms literature into sāhitya.


  1. There is a beautiful blend of form and content in literature, which makes it sāhitya.


  1. Along with describing the happenings of the world around us, literature also introduces us to a meta-world. Elements that have a bearing on human life—both real and surreal—are found conjoined in literature, and hence it is sāhitya.


  1. All things that make up human experience—knowledge systems that shape the intellect and arts forms that polish emotions—find a harmonious reconciliation in literature. There is no divide between instruction and enjoyment, and therefore, sāhitya.


  1. Finally, all tools of knowledge that work together to ripen the human spirit make literature sāhitya.


Translated from the original Kannada by Shashi Kiran B. N. 


Translator’s Note: Indian View of Poetry

Bhāmaha’s definition, “Śabdārthau sahitaū kāvyam[2] – “Form and content together constitute poetry,” succinctly captures the Indian view of poetry. In kāvya, form and content have an innate correlation and the two can never be separated. In the words of A. C. Bradley, “If substance and form mean anything in the poem, then each is involved in the other, and the question in which of them the value lies has no sense.”[3]

Bhaṭṭa Tauta’s explanation of kāvya, as contained in his Kāvyakautuka, is perhaps the best representation of the Indian conception of the poetic process. He says:

स्मृतिर्व्यतीतविषया मतिरागामिगोचरा ।
बुद्धिस्तात्कालिकी ज्ञेया प्रज्ञा त्रैकालिकी मता ॥

प्रज्ञा नवनवोन्मेषशालिनी प्रतिभा मता ।
तदनुप्राणनाजीववर्णनानिपुणः कविः ॥ तस्य कर्म स्मृतं काव्यम् ।

नानृषिः कुरुते काव्यमृषिश्च किल दर्शनात् ।
विचित्रभावधर्मांशतत्त्वप्रख्या हि दर्शनम् ॥

स तत्त्वदर्शनादेव शास्त्रेषु पठितः कविः ।
दर्शनाद्वर्णनाच्चाथ रूढा लोके कविश्रुतिः ॥

तथा हि दर्शने स्वच्छे नित्ये चादिकवेर्मुनेः ।
नोदिता कविता लोके यावज्जाता न वर्णाना ॥

The mind, when it is capable of fathoming all facts without temporal limitations—i.e. encompassing the past, present, and future—is termed prajñā. Prajñā transforms into pratibhā (creative imagination) when it can visualize things anew every time it is invoked. A person blessed with this creative imagination is a poet and his work is poetry. Further, it is only a ṛṣi who can be called a poet. A ṛṣi has an insight into the nature of Truth that underlies all substances in the world. This vision of Truth is alone enough to fetch him/her the distinction of a poet as explained in the śāstras, but to be accepted in common parlance it has to be accompanied by the power of description. We see this in the case of Vālmīki: although he was a ṛṣi who possessed clear and enduring vision, he was not hailed as a poet until he composed a descriptive work.

[1] sahitasya vyākaraṇa-nyāya-mīmāṃsā-kalāder bhāvaḥ

[2] Kāvyālaṅkāra, 1.16

[3] Bradley, A. C. Oxford Lectures on Poetry. London: Macmillan and Co Ltd., 1963. p. 16



Devanahalli Venkataramanayya Gundappa (1887-1975) was a great visionary and polymath. He was a journalist, poet, art connoisseur, philosopher, political analyst, institution builder, social commentator, social worker, and activist.



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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