In the World of Allegorical Poetry

This article is part 1 of 2 in the series Bhallata

Literature has for its aim the creation of rasa, the aesthetic experience; it does not admit any other purpose. Bhaṭṭanāyaka stated this point blank – kāvye rasayitā sarvo na boddhā na niyogabhāk, ‘Literature offers enjoyment to every reader; as far as it is concerned, there exists neither an instructor nor an adherent.’ However, it is, at times, touted as a tool to prompt societal reform. This view is current not just among literary critics but also among the lay. It assumes a bigger dimension in the context of epic poems in India, with Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata being held as sacred texts featuring divine personalities.

Reconciliation seems difficult because we do not value enjoyment enough. It may also be due to an incorrect understanding of the process of art creation. Emotions, as all of us experience them every moment, are seldom pure or sustained. They are contaminated by circumstances beyond our control; therefore, they are not aesthetically harmonious. In art, these disparate emotions are transformed into rasa, a shared experience that is universal. Emotion is personal while rasa is impersonal. It is this impersonal nature of rasa—which brings about a suspension, albeit momentarily, of personal likes and dislikes that form the ‘ego-centric predicament’ of the mind—that makes its experience enjoyable. Since everybody strives to secure happiness and art offers it unconditionally, it is valued dearly. To appreciate art fully, regulation of sensibilities is essential, and this is why connoisseurs are more ‘refined’ than the rest. Therein lies the transformative power of art.

Constructive criticism supports refinement at many levels. Anyokti is a genre of literature in Sanskrit that aims to do just that, apart from providing immediate enjoyment. While talking about one thing and subtly pointing at another, it presents zoomed-in versions of various pictures of society and helps eradicate execrable blemishes and celebrate virtues. It does this not explicitly, but in a suggestive manner – by hinting at circumstances that are not altogether alien to the readers, but assumed to have taken place amidst different seasons, under different skies. The idea is to point at values that are relevant to all times. If this is done directly, with a spirit of reformation, the ensuing literature becomes dry and didactic. In order to evade dullness, paramount importance is given to the attractiveness of expression in this form of literature. It is because of this reason that anyokti verses tend to be more ornate than others. Ultimately, the import of an anyokti poem resonates with an innate emotion, nirveda in most cases.

Prof. Harold Bloom succinctly summarizes the objectives of reading literature. I quote it here as it helps understand anyokti better: “We read deeply for varied reasons, most of them familiar: that we cannot know enough people profoundly enough; that we need to know ourselves better; that we require knowledge, not just of self and others, but of the way things are.”[1]

Anyokti is known by different names such as anyāpadeśa, vyājokti, aprastutapraśaṃsā, and prastutāṅkura. It is a unique form of literature that takes its birth from a single figure of speech – aprastutapraśaṃsālaṅkāra, in which the description (that often takes the form of blame) of an implicit subject is to be understood by that (praise, usually) of an explicit object. Defined as an ‘instance of implicature,’ this figure is best suited for sophisticated flattery or veiled criticism. The efficacy of the primary figure of speech is boosted by employing ancillary ones such as paryāyokta, vyājastuti, vyājanindā, viṣādana, ullāsa, avajñā, hetu, viśeṣaka, leśa, virodha, viṣama, and śleṣa.

Since anyokti is invariably connected with a figure of speech, it is categorized under guṇībhūtavyaṅgya, a class of poetry in which suggestion is subordinated to expression. We see a vague reference to it in the Vedic hymn that describes gods as having a penchant for the ‘symbolic’ or ‘suggestive’ and being averse to the ‘obvious’ or ‘explicit’ – parokṣapriyā iva hi devāḥ pratyakṣadviṣaḥ. Its genesis proper, however, can be traced to the manoratha-lakṣaṇa in Bharata’s Nāṭyaśāstra, which speaks of expressing one’s desires by a pretense of referring to somebody else’s condition:

हृदयस्थस्य वाक्यस्य गूढार्थस्य विभावकम्।
अन्यापदेशैः कथनं मनोरथ इति स्मृतः॥ (१७.३६)   

Anyokti may perhaps be assigned to two other sources: one literary and the other theatrical. Allegorical stories immortalized by the tradition of Pañcatantra offer wide scope to present values in the form of animal fables. Same is the case with Hitopadeśa, Jātakamāla and suchlike works. Nāṭyaśāstra, the foundational text of Indian theater, devotes its thirty-second chapter to dhruva-gītas, stock songs composed in Prakrit and set to tāla that can be readily used in any play. These songs have profuse references to plants and animals, thereby representing the anyokti genre.

We do not find references to anyokti in Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata, barring rare cases such as the gṛdhra-gomayu-saṃvāda in Mahābhārata. Anyokti has been active in classical literature from the time of Kālidāsa, who employed it in his play Abhijñānaśākuntalam (5.1). With time, separate sections came to be devoted to anyokti verses in various anthologies of subhāṣitas. Noteworthy among these is Subhāṣitaratnabhāṇḍāgāra that deals with it under sixteen headings, each with multiple subdivisions. Rivers, mountains, plants, animals, birds, poetic conventions, emotions – all find mention in anykoti verses. Bhallaṭa, Nīlakaṇṭhadīkṣita, and Jagannātha are the important poets who have enriched this genre of literature. Among them, the most gifted is undoubtedly Bhallaṭa.

Bhallaṭa was the court-poet of Avantivarma. He lost his patronage when the successor king Śaṅkaravarma (883-902 CE) took over as the ruler of Kashmir. Śaṅkaravarma was a tyrant who annexed temples, levied heavy taxes on the subjects, and reveled in dismissing Sanskrit from his court. During his time, a porter by name Lavaṭa rose to the position of the king’s treasurer. While he drew a handsome salary of two-thousand dīnāras, a gifted poet like Bhallaṭa suffered a state of extreme penury. He had to resort to lowly jobs to make ends meet. Kalhaṇa's Rājataraṅgiṇī has documented this:

त्यागभीरुतया तस्मिन्गुणसङ्गपराङ्मुखे।
आस्वेवन्तावरा वृत्तिः कवयो भल्लटादयः॥

निर्वेतनास्सुकवयो भारिको लवटस्त्वभूत्।
प्रसादात्तस्य दीनारसहस्रद्वयवेतनः॥

कल्पपालकुले जन्म तत्तेनैव प्रमाणितम्।
क्षीबोचितापभ्रम्स्होक्तेर्दैवीवाग्यस्य चाभवत्॥ (५, २०४-२०६)

Bhallaṭaśatakam consists of one hundred and three elegantly moulded verses that represent the highest quality of satirical poetry. It has been quoted in the works of celebrated aestheticians such as Ānandavardhana, Abhinavagupta, Kṣemendra, Kuntaka, and Mammaṭa. That he lost the king’s patronage had a deep impact on the poet’s mind, giving rise to a variety of emotions — disappointment, rage, helplessness, detachment etc. It is the interplay of these emotions that Bhallaṭa has tried to bring out in his verses. Frustrated and embittered as he was, we would not know of Bhallaṭa had he gone on rambling about them in an unpoetic manner. His angry outpourings are enjoyed to this day only because of their poetic merit. It is also important to note that Bhallaṭaśatakam was not composed merely as a reaction to contemporary issues. If it were to be so, the poem’s value would be no greater than a newspaper’s!

Bhallaṭa’s style—the pāñcālī-rīti—is extremely forceful and constantly reminds us of the tribulations that he encountered. He makes apt use of idioms to describe complex topics like society’s ungratefulness, the perils of power vested in the hands of the incompetent, inexplicable nature of fate, luck and so on. Adhering to the nature of anyokti, he uses elliptical similes to describe plants, animals etc., which, serving as double entendres, carry undertones of deeper meaning throughout. His verses do not have an overdose of alliteration and assonance; they are used appropriately, depending on the subject. The nature of his idiomatic expression deserves a separate study. Sanskrit has immensely benefited from the way he has used idioms to describe not just matters of importance, but also everyday objects and situations.

Bhallaṭa is a remarkable wordsmith; we never see him lost for words. This has enabled him to handle meters effortlessly. He is particularly fond of the meters Śārdūlavikrīḍitam, (used 36 times) Vasantatilakā (24), and Śikhariṇī (10). The following meters are sparingly used: Anuṣṭup (8), Dṛtavilambitam (7), Rathoddhatā (4), Gīti (3), Hariṇī (3), Mandākrāntā (2), Sragdharā (2), Upendravajra (1), Upajāti (1), Pṛthvī (1), and Āryā (1).

The usage of certain plants and animals in verses is doubtless bound by a cultural context. This has to be borne in mind while interpreting them. Reading hegemony of any sort into this, as some writers have done in the past, is just parading stupidity. It is also possible that poets might have made use of them as a defensive mechanism: while direct criticism of social machinations may land the poet in soup, doing so by referring to plants and animals adds an extra layer of insulation.

One simply cannot compose anyokti verses in the same league as Bhallaṭaśatakam offhand; it has to happen over time, drawing from the poet’s keen sense of observation and experience. Unlike Jagannātha who wrote mostly on trite themes, Bhallaṭa was an original poet. He carved out innovative themes himself. All his verses are products of intense experience. Bhallaṭaśatakam, a pathbreaking work, is akin to Kālidāsa's Meghadūtam or Jayadeva's Gītagovindam. More than 1200 years have passed since its composition and it continues to stand peerless.

[1] Bloom, Harold. How to Read and Why. New York: Touchstone Publishers, 2001. p. 29

To be continued.




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.

Prekshaa Publications

The Mahābhārata is the greatest epic in the world both in magnitude and profundity. A veritable cultural compendium of Bhārata-varṣa, it is a product of the creative genius of Maharṣi Kṛṣṇa-dvaipāyana Vyāsa. The epic captures the experiential wisdom of our civilization and all subsequent literary, artistic, and philosophical creations are indebted to it. To read the Mahābhārata is to...

Shiva Rama Krishna

சிவன். ராமன். கிருஷ்ணன்.
இந்திய பாரம்பரியத்தின் முப்பெரும் கதாநாயகர்கள்.
உயர் இந்தியாவில் தலைமுறைகள் பல கடந்தும் கடவுளர்களாக போற்றப்பட்டு வழிகாட்டிகளாக விளங்குபவர்கள்.
மனித ஒற்றுமை நூற்றாண்டுகால பரிணாம வளர்ச்சியின் பரிமாணம்.
தனிநபர்களாகவும், குடும்ப உறுப்பினர்களாகவும், சமுதாய பிரஜைகளாகவும் நாம் அனைவரும் பரிமளிக்கிறோம்.
சிவன் தனிமனித அடையாளமாக அமைகிறான்....

ऋतुभिः सह कवयः सदैव सम्बद्धाः। विशिष्य संस्कृतकवयः। यथा हि ऋतवः प्रतिसंवत्सरं प्रतिनवतामावहन्ति मानवेषु तथैव ऋतुवर्णनान्यपि काव्यरसिकेषु कामपि विच्छित्तिमातन्वते। ऋतुकल्याणं हि सत्यमिदमेव हृदि कृत्वा प्रवृत्तम्। नगरजीवनस्य यान्त्रिकतां मान्त्रिकतां च ध्वनदिदं चम्पूकाव्यं गद्यपद्यमिश्रितमिति सुव्यक्तमेव। ऐदम्पूर्वतया प्रायः पुरीपरिसरप्रसृतानाम् ऋतूनां विलासोऽत्र प्रपञ्चितः। बेङ्गलूरुनामके...

The Art and Science of Avadhānam in Sanskrit is a definitive work on Sāhityāvadhānam, a form of Indian classical art based on multitasking, lateral thinking, and extempore versification. Dotted throughout with tasteful examples, it expounds in great detail on the theory and practice of this unique performing art. It is as much a handbook of performance as it is an anthology of well-turned...

This anthology is a revised edition of the author's 1978 classic. This series of essays, containing his original research in various fields, throws light on the socio-cultural landscape of Tamil Nadu spanning several centuries. These compelling episodes will appeal to scholars and laymen alike.
“When superstitious mediaevalists mislead the country about its judicial past, we have to...

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, Śatāvadhāni 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...


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...