Society in Sanskrit Poetry: Separating the Wheat from the Chaff - 2

This article is part 2 of 2 in the series Society in Sanskrit Poetry

The Sanskrit Language

Our ancients sculpted a language to give perfect expression to their exuberant emotions. It has a well-developed scheme of letters and an inbuilt etymological structure that has endowed it with variety and a rare word-generation power. Being an inflected language, it is not tied down by a linear pattern of word order. It is thus highly flexible[1].

Ancient Indians also evolved a system that could, in a sense, transform language into art—chandas, prosody or the science of versification. Sanskrit language yields itself effortlessly to versification and this is the reason why most of Sanskrit literature is in the form of verses. Marshalling forth their knowledge of grammar and other allied subjects, poets have especially exploited this to extreme limits. They have played around with word order, strung words together to generate sonorous patterns of alliteration and assonance, and overall succeeded in making language dance to their tunes.

Every expression of a language, particularly in Sanskrit, is inextricably linked to its structure. It is of supreme significance to notice the word order and chando-gati, the metrical rhythm, of every Sanskrit utterance. As noted earlier, the inflectional power of Sanskrit provides for non-linearity in word order, which is further bolstered by the employment of meter. A poet would know that non-linearity in word order inexorably creeps in while trying to express an idea in the form of a verse. While chandas imparts exceptional beauty to the language, it also makes it stand out.

A simple, inconsequential statement sounds extraordinary when couched in meter. Sample this line from the first verse of Kālidāsa's Ṛtusaṃhāram:


Which means, “A pool whose waters have become muddied (or lowered) because of continual bathing.”

Now read the Sanskrit line again. Once your lips start moving to the rhythm of the Vaṃśastha meter, the meaning of the verse, as it were, is transformed. You simply cannot accept that the line means just a muddy pool.

The structure of the Sanskrit language itself is such that ordinary expressions acquire remarkable appeal. To illustrate, let us look at the description of clouds in ādikāvya Rāmāyaṇa. Vālmīki observes, “Frequently halting over mountain-tops, clouds are moving slowly in the sky.” Nothing great, right? In Sanskrit, however, this gives wings to our auditory imagination. It reads:

महत्सु शृङ्गेषु महीधराणां विश्रम्य विश्रम्य पुनः प्रयान्ति।(Kiṣkindhākāṇḍa, 28.22)

The repetition of the word ‘viśramya’ effectively communicates the halting motion of clouds. As also the aspirated sibilant ‘śa’ in the said word, usage of uncompounded words, the visarga at the end of the word punaḥ, labials used throughout that necessitate opening and closing of the mouth while pronouncing them, and the rhythm of the Upajāti meter. The unmistakable śabdālaṅkāra, figure of speech w.r.t. sound, also adds to the beauty. In this manner, simple content, thanks to nuances of language and meter, takes a new, more beautiful shape.

Let us consider one more example that describes a horse. The poet says, “Making muffled sounds, a horse extends its hind legs backward, stretching its body by lowering the hips. Head bent into chest, it curves its neck and shakes the dust-filled mane. On rising, it widens its nostrils and jaws and scratches the ground with its hooves, looking for grass to graze.” Let’s hear this Sanskrit:

पश्चादङ्घ्री प्रसार्य त्रिकनतिविततं द्राघयित्वाङ्गमुच्चै-
रासज्याभुग्नकण्ठो मुखमुरसि सटां धूलिधूम्रां विधूय।
मन्दं शब्दायमानो विलिखति शयनादुत्थितः क्ष्मां खुरेण॥ (Subhāṣitaratnabhāṇḍāgāram, page 207, verse 13)

Lost in the rhythm of the grandiloquent Sragdharā meter and the tonal impact of ornate words in the verse, we almost forget that the subject is an ordinary horse. We somehow get the impression of something extraordinary going on.

Not so different is the case with most Sanskrit verses. A highly ornate composition would reveal, upon undoing the fabrics of language and meter, rather plain content. This fact has to be essentially borne in mind while labelling Sanskrit literature elitist.

Social Conscience in Sanskrit Literature

Sanskrit poets operated within a finite frame. They portrayed universal emotions through situations and themes familiar to them. It would be highly unbecoming to try to secure “justice” to a particular character in a literary work by denigrating the spirit of the work. It does not do any good to create a ruckus about “injustice” done to a character like, say, Ūrmilā in Rāmāyaṇam. It simply follows that if the character were presented any differently, the work itself would change course and take a new shape. It would no longer be Rāmāyaṇam. A better approach is to respond constructively: By coming up with a creative alternative to the work. If it has sattva, intrinsic merit, it will last.

In Sanskrit, themes of social interest were largely explored in muktakas, standalone verses, and kathā form of literature. Sanskrit poets perhaps thought it fit to embed a revealing social facet in a muktaka to ensure the impact does not lose its edge. Similarly in stories. If presented in epic-poems, they would pale in significance compared to the main plot. Nevertheless, we have ample evidence of social conscience even in the epics Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata. The tradition of Bṛhatkathā is an exemplar in the genre of stories. The Jātaka tales of Buddhists, Śrāvakācara tales of the Jains also offer eloquent testimony. Among the types of rūpakas, it is mainly bhāṇa, prakaraṇa, prahasana, and vīthi that are replete with social themes; not to mention the several upa-rūpakas[2].

A note has to be made regarding mārga and deśi, which are erroneously equated with classical and folk. It is a grave mistake to picture mārga and deśi as being at loggerheads with each other. Mārga is traditional and is treated as reverential; it cannot be toyed with. Deśi belongs to the contemporary domain and hence yields itself to experimentation. Deśi is nothing but the regional application of the pan-Indian mārga. The fulfillment of deśi is in graduating to mārga, i.e. heralding a tradition; the enrichment of mārga is in accommodating deśi, i.e. creative application.

Looking at the etymological meanings of these two words, we understand that mārga is derived from the root mṛga – anveṣaṇe, ‘to search,’ while deśi is derived from the root diśa – atisarjane, ‘to extend / expand.’ They can hence be defined as a ‘quest’ (mṛgyata iti mārgaḥ) and an ‘expansion,’ (diśyata iti deśi) respectively. The two words literally connote a ‘path’ and a ‘space,’ signifying that the former comes with a set of restrictions, and the latter has relatively more freedom. This does not imply that restriction and freedom, as connected with mārga and deśi, are mutually exclusive. The explanation offered is a broad-based one and should not be strenuously interpreted. It is only a half-truth to say that mārga deals with ‘class’ and deśi with ‘mass.’ We see a blend of mass and class in the works of Bharata and later authors such as Someśvara, Śārṅgadeva, Jāyapa et al.

It follows that class and mass are never opposed to each other. To illustrate this, we can have a look at a few karaṇas in Nāṭyaśāstraargala, śakaṭāsya, gaṇḍasūci, and gaṅgāvataraṇa—which are acrobatic movements that cater to ‘mass.’ A similar extension connected with ‘mass’ is seen among the varieties of drama such as vīthī, bhāṇa, prahasana, and vyāyoga. Most of the deśi bhūmicāris and a dance form like gauṇḍali are highly sophisticated, hence catering to ‘class.’ Uparūpakas such as nāṭikā, troṭaka, saṭṭaka, and rāgakāvya cater to class. Seen in this light, the distinction between mārga and deśi is subjective, and their objective non-difference lies in rasa.

We conclude this section by citing a couple of representative verses that represent Sanskrit poets’ power of keen observation:

पोतानेतानपि गृहवति ग्रीष्ममासावसानं
            यावन्निर्वाहयतु भवती येन वा केनचिद्वा।
पश्चादम्भोधरजलपरीपातमासाद्य तुम्बी
            कूष्माण्डी च प्रभवति तदा भूभुजः के वयं के॥(Subhāṣitaratnakoṣa, #1306)

Somehow, my wife, you must keep us and the children
alive until the summer months are over.
The rains will come then, making gourds and pumpkins grow aplenty
and we shall fare like kings.
(Translated by D H H Ingalls)

लग्नः शृङ्गयुगे गृही सतनयो वृद्धौ गुरू पार्श्वयोः
पुच्छाग्रे गृहिणी खुरेषु शिशवो लग्ना वधूः कम्बले।
एकः शीर्णजरद्गवो विधिवशात्सर्वस्वभूतो गृहे
सर्वेणैव कुटुम्बकेन रुदता सुप्तः समुत्थाप्यते॥(Subhāṣitaratnakoṣa, #1317)

Father and son take each a horn, the grandparents the flanks,
the mother takes the tail, the children each a foot
and the son’s wife pushes on the dewlap.
One sick old ox is all the wealth that fate has left the family:
and now he’s down, they’re all in tears to pull him up.
(Translated by D H H Ingalls)

With this background, we now give an account of the description of society in Sanskrit poetry beginning with Vālmīki’s Rāmāyaṇam.


[1] Refer: Saṃskṛtasya Rūpasvarūpamāhātmyam—an article outlining the multi-dimensional strengths of the Sanskrit language. It explains the structural beauty and sophistication of Sanskrit independent of the content <>

[2] For more information about this, refer: Raghavan, V. The Social Play in Sanskrit. Bangalore: The Indian Institute of World Culture, 1966.

Co-written by Shashi Kiran B N.

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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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...