Poetry Articles

Poetry Articles


Sanskrit Poetics and Poetry: An Introduction Evocatively Speaking: Subtlety in the Poet’s art

Evocatively Speaking Subtlety in the Poet’s Art

Mira Mehta

Thought, that ingenious device
By which all boundaries are set at nought,
Commanded by the Thinker
To span the struts of days and distance,
Constructs bridges of brush strokes
And promenades with words for cobblestones,
Lanterning them with meaning.1

Accepted that language is about conveying meanings, the artistry of language wields this purpose in such a way as to communicate the hidden thoughts and emotions behind explicit statements. Poetry, as the consummation of linguistic expression, is thus replete with implications, innuendoes, wordplay and figures of speech that suggest meanings beyond the superficial. Mastering the timeless language of poetry will make eloquence blossom; indeed, it will bring forth a whole bouquet of benefits, as an ancient author asserts:

Poetry leads to fame, to earning wealth, to knowledge of the ways of the world, to the removal of misfortune, to instantaneous sheer delight, to gaining guidance as from a beloved. 2

Let me present a brief analysis of meanings – stated, implied and evoked – as set out in Sanskrit poetic theory. The Sanskrit literary tradition is comparable to the European in breadth and sophistication, and within it the study of poetics is of impressive antiquity and complexity. But, importantly, it has an extra dimension that makes it relevant to poetry of all languages, for it deals in principles. One of its major contributions is an explanation of the evocative power of poetry, giving rise to a grading of poetry according to whether the evoked meaning is dominant, subordinate or absent.3

In presenting this theory, examples will be taken from classical rather than contemporary English poetry. There are two reasons for this: first, because a point is most effectively illustrated by familiar examples, and secondly, because these poems can be easily found in well known anthologies.

First, however, the question of relevance needs to be addressed. The purpose of poetic theory is to explain why poetry is acceptable to people and how it maintains standards of excellence and effectiveness. Of course it is not necessary to understand the theory in order to appreciate the beauty of words and images. But for practising and aspiring poets, as well as for the connoisseur, knowledge of how poetry works can only enhance composition and appreciation.

With this in mind, it makes sense to start with the fundamental framework from which poetry is created: word and meaning. The central place of these is picturesquely portrayed in a metaphor likening poetry to a person: “The body of poetry is the sentence; dramatic mood is its soul; literary embellishments are its ornaments like bracelets and earrings; excellent features are its virtues like valour, etc.; flaws are like squints, etc.; and styles are like the particular disposition of the limbs.”4

Poetry in which evoked meanings are dominant (‘Evocative’ Poetry) is subdivided into several types according to the status and function of the literal meaning.

The first broad category is where the literal meaning is not intended at all. Here there are two important groups:

In the first group the literal meaning is transferred to another meaning without any contradiction. An example of this is Housman’s’Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries':

These, in the day when the heaven was falling,
The hour when earth’s foundations fled,
Followed their mercenary calling
And took their wages and are dead.
Their shoulders held the sky suspended;
They stood, and earth’s foundations stay;
What God abandoned, these defended,
And saved the sum of things for pay.

Through the two final words “for pay”, the stated meaning elicits an evoked meaning: the bathos of high talk but low deeds. While the soldiers may indeed have “saved the sum of things”, eulogising them is not the poem’s intention. Instead, the explicit meaning is discarded in favour of the implicit one. It is not, however, contradicted.

In the second group the literal meaning is totally discarded because there is a contradiction between it and the intended meaning, as in irony.

Houseman’s verses above provide an example of this too: the literal meaning of holding up the sky makes no sense. It therefore leads to the satirical suggestion that the mercenaries did what God could not, that is, hold the sky on their shoulders.

Another poem that discards the literal meaning is Swift’s ‘Satirical Elegy on the Death of a Late Famous General’. The meaning opposite to that stated is conveyed by intonation. The invalidation of the plain meaning is shown by the exclamation marks which suggest the lampoon and the sarcastic tone intended.

His Grace! impossible! what, dead!
Of old age too, and in his bed!
And could that mighty warrior fall?
And so inglorious, after all!…

In the second broad category of evocative poetry, where evoked meanings are dominant, the literal meaning is intended but is not complete in itself; it is a contributory factor in suggesting an emotion or idea.

At this point it is necessary to bring in the concept of dramatic mood. Sanskrit aesthetic theory holds that drama and literature are a reflection of actual life. They try to induce in the spectator or reader a sustained mood that corresponds to an emotion in life and that is relished for the duration of the person’s involvement in the work. Nine ‘dramatic moods’ are recognised: romance, humour, compassion, fury, heroism, terror, repugnance, amazement and tranquillity. Extensive works of literature may portray several emotions and combinations of emotions. Short works, such as poems, usually pick out one aspect of a dramatic mood, such as a transient emotion that accompanies a major one (jealousy or anxiety in respect of love, for example).

Emotions are always evoked; they cannot be induced by being stated.

A poem exemplifying the dramatic mood of love (one, of course, among legion) is George Meredith’s ‘Love in the Valley':

Under yon beech-tree single on the green-sward,
Couched with her arms behind her golden head,
Knees and tresses folded to slip and ripple idly,
Lies my young love sleeping in the shade.
Had I the heart to slide an arm beneath her,
Press her parting lips as her waist I gather slow,
Waking in amazement she could not but embrace me:
Then would she hold me and never let me go?….

The poet’s expressions convey his deep love. The emotion evoked in the reader is the dramatic mood of love. It is generated by the description of the causes, effects and supports of love: the beloved, the setting, love-struck behaviour and so on. These universal concomitants of love resonate with the readers’ own experience and, by a process of empathy, awaken romantic feelings. Artful and graceful phraseology, while contributing to the beauty and enjoyment of the poem, are not the primary reason for its effectiveness in stimulating an emotional response. Sentiments are evoked because of the mirroring of life situations.

The emotion of grief is exemplified in Campbell’s ‘Lord Ullin’s Daughter’, where the flight of lovers from the girl’s father ends in their death. The evocation – the dramatic mood of compassion in the face of tragedy – is engendered by the plain statement that the father is “left lamenting”:

‘Twas vain: the loud waves lash’d the shore,
Return or aid preventing:
The waters wild went o’er his child,
And he was left lamenting.

The poem’s method of creating the mood of compassion in the reader is to narrate the factors that contribute to that mood: the inclement weather, the father’s angry pursuit, the girl’s fear, the tragic end and the father’s ultimate grief. Pity is aroused because the reader identifies with the common human experiences of sorrow at bereavement and regret for anger and rash actions. The poem does not verbalise these feelings but leaves it to the imagination of the reader, and herein lies its effectiveness.

In all compositions involving dramatic mood, the sequence through which the mood is suggested is not perceived: the mood steals up on and overtakes the reader or spectator unawares.

However, there is another type where the poet’s intention strikes the reader after a gap of time. The sequence of the stated meaning leading to the evoked meaning is perceptible, and the poet’s intention is understood subsequently after intellectual analysis: the penny drops, as the saying goes. Often this underlying meaning is evident only to a connoisseur familiar with the conventions of literature and poetry.

An example is Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias of Egypt’. Here the suggestion is the vanity of man: the vainglorious king’s statue lies in ruins and his proud works are unknown to posterity:

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal rock, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

The meaning of this poem, that all human works come to dust, emerges from the whole composition through the cumulative effect of all the statements. By contrasting the king’s boast of greatness with his fate of oblivion the poet encourages the reader to interpret these facts; only when the reader has done so does the poet’s meaning become apparent. This subtle, non-verbal dialogue between poet and reader is the main reason why the poem gives delight; it is like a puzzle pre-set to provoke a cry of “Eureka!” when it is solved.

Another situation where the poet’s meaning sinks into the reader’s mind only after reflection is that where a poetic conceit is used. Here the imagination of the poet runs riot and the reader has to make an effort to follow the line of thought. A charming example is Lyly’s ‘Cupid and Campaspe’. The poet imagines his beloved playing cards with the god and winning from him all his assets. After losing his bow and arrows and his mother’s doves, Cupid stakes

The coral of his lip, the rose
Growing on ‘s cheek (but none knows how);
With these, the crystal of his brow,
And then the dimple of his chin;
All these did my Campaspe win:
At last he set her both his eyes –
She won, and Cupid blind did rise.
O Love! has she done this to thee?
What shall, alas! become of me?

The fanciful description of the card game – a gallant’s compliment on his lady’s beauty and acuteness – is used as the basis for the final, leading question. Alarm for the plight of the god of love is transferred to alarm for the poet’s own fate. With this pointer the reader is directed to imagine the poet’s feelings of unease, self-pity or the like. As these feelings are not openly portrayed many interpretations are possible – including irony, if it is felt that the poet is inviting enjoyment of his absurdity.

As a final example of the poet’s meaning expressed through a conceit, consider Blake’s ‘A Poison Tree’. Anger, fear, grief and pretence are the nourishment for a tree which bears a deadly apple that kills the eater, causing the poet to exult:

In the morning glad I see

My foe outstretched beneath the tree.

Underlying the theme that revenge is sweet are the unstated emotions of anger and ferocity; they are, however, evoked and give the poem its fierceness. The process is as follows. Starting with a straightforward description of anger concealed, the poem then describes its growth metaphorically as a tree with poisonous fruit. By means of this image (“I watered it in fears… I sunnèd it with smiles”) it implies the various factors associated with revenge, such as nurturing, patience, cunning, entrapment and the relishing of triumph. This in turn opens the door to the evocation of the emotions that occasioned the poem. The reader becomes engaged in the poem because interpretation is required of its many layers of meaning. Its suggestiveness – the eliciting of thoughts from the reader’s own mind – is the major source of its appeal.

This short overview has, I hope, made clear that the ability to convey the unstated – be it emotions or ideas – is a supreme power of language. While this is fairly obvious, it is rarely nowadays stated: but to neglect the eternal verity of this principle is to risk triviality and dullness. It is the recognition of the power of suggestion that makes the Sanskrit authors praise poetry that is richly evocative as the best, for

An intended thought is quite different [from an expressed thought]; in the words of great poets it outshines the beauty of any other conspicuous aspects, as does beauty in comely women.5

Sanskrit Poetics and Poetry: An Introduction

Prof. K.S. Arjunwadkar

Although the seeds of Sanskrit poetics can be traced to old linguistic treatises, actual works on it as a separate subject are available since 600 AD. The credit of founding the subject on a rational analysis of language goes to Ananda-vardhana (840 AD). Most of the authors on poetics are from Kashmir, the most reputed and the latest name in the tradition being that of Mammatta (1050 AD). Such an insightful tradition of theoreticians cannot come out of void. There is a very old and rich literary tradition in Sanskrit beginning from Vedic times (3000 BC) which thrived through centuries till India was plagued by Islamic invasions from about 1000 AD. Sanskrit creative and scholarly tradition is still an invisible force that nurtures and inspires Indian mind.)

The phenomenon called poetry

Poetry is a journey from emotion to emotion, and is thus the realm of the mind. The starting point of this journey is the poet’s mind and the destination is the reader’s mind. As mind is a totally ‘private property’ of every being, the immediate problem is that of a vehicle for this journey. The immediate aid to solve this problem came from language, — a structure built out of countless series of senseless sounds with senses conventionally attached to them, — the most wonderful, brilliant and revolutionary invention of the fertile human brain conceived and developed through countless ages and efforts beyond our imagination. What the poet does is to give his intangible emotion a tangible form through the organisation of suitable words and ideas conveyed by them. What the reader does is to recreate in his mind the poet’s emotion through the poet’s organised words. Poetry is thus essentially a verbal art. When presented in combination with other arts like acting and music, poetry finds more effective ways to achieve its purpose. Poetry in its widest sense thus covers what is implied by Literature. It is in this comprehensive sense that the Sanskrit term for poetry, kavya, is used by theorists.

Poetry vis-a-vis self-realisation

Strange as it may appear, the process of poetry is opposite to that of self-realisation, the goal of philosophy. Poetry is founded on super-imposition, while self-realisation involves a process of freeing the self from the layers of super-impositions made on the self, one does not know when and why. Species, nationality, family, social status, even body, mind, organs, — to a philosopher, these are all super-impositions on the pure identity of the self which is unadulterated consciousness. The process of poetry, on the contrary, starts from identifying ourselves with the character in poetry and recreating its emotions in our minds. This is super-imposition in poetry or art. The difference between the two super-impositions is: while that in art experience is a ‘willed cognition’ (e.g. when we identify ourselves with Hamlet on the stage), the one in the case of the self and non-self is ‘false cognition’ (e.g. when a rope is mistaken for a snake), as the philosopher would maintain. The difference between the cognitions is that, while in ‘willed cognition’ we are aware of super-imposition, we are not, in the case of ‘false cognition’. It is the ‘willed cognition’ that makes art experience possible. I wonder if Shakespeare implied this outlook when he said: ‘All the world’s a stage.’ (As You Like It)

Poetry vis-a-vis self-realisation

Strange as it may appear, the process of poetry is opposite to that of self-realisation, the goal of philosophy. Poetry is founded on super-imposition, while self-realisation involves a process of freeing the self from the layers of super-impositions made on the self, one does not know when and why. Species, nationality, family, social status, even body, mind, organs, — to a philosopher, these are all super-impositions on the pure identity of the self which is unadulterated consciousness. The process of poetry, on the contrary, starts from identifying ourselves with the character in poetry and recreating its emotions in our minds. This is super-imposition in poetry or art. The difference between the two super-impositions is: while that in art experience is a ‘willed cognition’ (e.g. when we identify ourselves with Hamlet on the stage), the one in the case of the self and non-self is ‘false cognition’ (e.g. when a rope is mistaken for a snake), as the philosopher would maintain. The difference between the cognitions is that, while in ‘willed cognition’ we are aware of super-imposition, we are not, in the case of ‘false cognition’. It is the ‘willed cognition’ that makes art experience possible. I wonder if Shakespeare implied this outlook when he said: ‘All the world’s a stage.’ (As You Like It)

The practical goal of poetry

What is it that makes poetry appealing more than other forms of literature? Sanskrit theorists do not discuss this point directly; but have answered this question in the context of another point related to poetry. Among the goals of poetry, one is persuasive education/enlightenment. Poetry enlightens us the way a beloved persuades her lover. In comparison, other ways of enlightenment are like (a) the master’s command and (b) a friend’s advice. Scriptures or religious codes command in terms of do’s and don’ts; works like Purasas (mythology) and Mahabharata (history) advise. The scriptures tell us: ‘Thou shalt …’ or ‘Thou shalt not…’. This is command, a matter of force. At the end of the Bhagavad gita, the Lord concludes, ‘I have given you my evaluation of the situation, O Arjuna. Think on it, and do what you like.’ This is advice, a matter of self-choice. Works like the Ramayama do not go either way; but the impression they leave on our minds is: ‘Go the way Rama did; don’t go the way Ravasa did.’ This is persuasion, a matter of affectionate winning over. Of the three, the persuasion appears to be the weakest, but is in effect the most lasting. Poetry can do this because it works in a delightful, delicate, attractive way.

Poetry and education

Educational psychology argues in a similar way: teach in a delightful way that would make the student forget that he is being taught. This is exactly what Vishnusarman (Indian Aesop) of the Panca-tantra (about 500 AD) fame did when he took up the challenge of educating the lazy princes knowing nothing beyond playing. In the very first meeting which they reluctantly attended, he asked them: ‘Boys, do you like stories?’ ‘Yes,’ they roared, unanimously and enthusiastically. Their reluctance soon melted away; and they were all ears to listen to the unusual teacher. He simply told them fables; and the princes never knew that they were learning. Whether poetry is education may be a debatable point; but its emotive approach reflected in the analysis above can never be denied.

Other goals of poetry

‍Other goals, wherever applicable and admitted, are: fame, wealth, knowledge of etiquettes, cure from evil, instant delight (‘cash discount’!). Instances of some goals are cited from tradition: of fame, it is Kalidasa; of wealth, it is Dhavaka who received it from King Sriharsha (600 AD); of cure from evil, it is Mayura who, by composing a poem in praise of god Sun, got cured of leprosy. Incidentally, the Sun god in Indian religious tradition is the presiding deity of health. This belief is reflected in the customary Namaskara exercise akin to Yoga involving a series of successive poses and accompanied by verbal salutations to the Sun incorporating its 12 names successively in a salutation formula, starting from Om Mitraya namah. If practised with strict adherence to the constituting stages, this exercise activates all major joints and muscles in the body.

History of Sanskrit poetics

Although seeds of Sanskrit poetics can be traced to works starting from Nirukta of Yaska (800 BC) discussing varieties of simile found in Vedic literature, and in Panini’s Ashtadhyayi (600 BC) giving linguistic elements expressing comparison, the oldest systematic work discussing one of the most fundamental concepts of poetics, viz, Rasa or literary sentiments, maybe in the specific context of drama, is undoubtedly the Natyasastra of Bharata (200 BC 200 AD). A few centuries later, we have Bhamaha’s Kavyalamkara (600AD), the oldest available work dealing with aspects of poetry as a separate subject. He was followed by some more authors on the subject, mainly from Kashmir, making their own contributions to the poetic thought, until the epoch-making work, the Dhvanyaloka of Ananda-vardhana (800-850 AD), entered the stage. Himself a poet and thinker, this Kashmirian author made a minute observation of the existing Sanskrit poetry including the great epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, and of course Kalidasa’s works, and presented for the first time the theory of levels of sense/meaning which, in union with word, makes poetry.

Theory of language

Word and sense are thus the two basic elements of poetry. This work established for the first time, in no equivocal terms, that the essence or soul of poetry lies in the suggested (vya gya) meaning which is different from the expressed (vacya) and the indicated (lakshya) meanings. Corresponding to these levels/layers of meanings, he conceived of three powers of words: abhidha, lakshana, vyanjana of which the first two were already identified as semantic levels in works on Mimamsa or the old system of interpretation of the Vedic literature. Thus authors on Mimamsa can be regarded as the earliest semantic theorists who unwittingly paved the way for poetic theory. All the three powers of words are rooted in the common language we use; it takes a poet to organise words of a language so as to make room for the suggested sense which makes poetry, poetry. The remaining half of the poetic process is the sensitive reader who can plunge into the suggested meaning through the covers of the other two senses. Poet and reader by themselves are incomplete.

Three levels of senses

That the three levels of sense already exist in language can be illustrated with the help of a simple example. Take Shylock’s remark in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice: ‘Solomon came to judge!’ This remark is made with reference to the judge in the contemporary court and is intended to praise him for his impartial verdict by bringing the name of a Biblical king renowned for impartial judgement. Since everyone present on the occasion knows that the present judge is different from the historical/mythological Solomon (this is the vacya or expressed sense of the word), the name Solomon in the statement under reference cannot be taken in its basic connotation as the name of an ancient king. This impertinence/inconsistency in the use of the word in the context opens doors to other possible senses. The simplest one is ‘one like Solomon’ (lakshya or indicated sense). The indicated sense is by usage a sense just enough to remove inconsistency and, hence, cannot be equated with the suggested sense which has nothing to do with inconsistency, as it can follow the expressed sense directly without the emergence of the indicated sense. The question then arises: what made Shylock say something which is not in keeping with facts? The answer is: he wished to hail the present judge as supreme in giving judgement (vya gya or suggested sense). This simple illustration should clarify the areas of the three levels of senses which no one aware of the usage of the language can possibly deny.

Universality of the theory

This, incidentally, shows that, though the theory of word and sense is posited by Indian authorities on poetics with reference to Sanskrit language and literature, it is equally applicable to other advanced languages and literatures. Anatomy of a human being does not vary with the nationality of its subject. This parallel, again, being inconsistent with the current discussion, brings in the successive senses: (i) Statement about human anatomy in the context of a discussion on the applicability of a semantic theory to all languages is absurd. (ii) Sanskrit theory of levels of senses is applicable to other languages in the same way as is human anatomy to all human beings. (iii) To say that the Sanskrit theory does not apply to non-Sanskrit languages is as absurd as to say that human anatomy explained in English books is applicable to English people only.

What makes a poet?

Readers too need training or practice in understanding poetry as do poets in creating. In fact, Sanskrit works on poetics discuss what factors make a good poet. Of these factors, poetic genius (sakti or pratibha) is the fundamental and decisive factor, without which poetry may not be produced at all or, if produced, may not be worth its name. General knowledge (nipunata or vyutpatti) absorbed through a study of literature and others’ poetry as well as observation of life and the world is the second. Training and/or practice (abhyasa) under the guidance of an experienced poet is the third. These three are considered the cause (not causes) of poetry jointly and not separately. With these requirements in mind, Bhamaha observes: ‘There is no word, no sense, no rule, no art and the like which is not relevant to poetry. What a burden is a poet required to carry!’ More or less the same factors develop an ability in the reader to understand and enjoy poetry. To understand music, one must listen to music.

Classes of poetry

Once the soul or the core of poetry is decided, the way to classify poetry becomes clear. Mammatta (1050 AD) classifies poetry into three grades: supreme, medium, low. Supreme (or First class) poetry is that in which the suggested sense excels (as in the case of poetry dominated by Rasa/s). It is designated as ‘Dhvani’ poetry by authorities on poetics, ‘Dhvani’ (literally, sound) being another word for suggestion. Medium (or Second class) poetry is where the suggested sense is subordinate to the expressed sense. Low (or Third class) poetry is where there is no suggested sense, but only a parading of mechanical Figures of Speech of sound and sense. Mammatta names it as ‘Picture poetry’ (citra-kavya) implying that it is only a semblance of real poetry as is a picture of a live man.

Figures of Speech not indispensable

To illustrate the point with modern examples: ‘Brutus, you too?!’ – this short expression of just three words in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar suggests a powerful mixture of emotions (shock, surprise, anger, disdain, disbelief, pity and what not) on the background of the mere situation even in the absence of a Figure of Speech. ‘All the world’s a stage’ in Shakespeare’s As You Like It equates the world with a stage in its expressed/conventional sense which is contradicted by facts. So we understand ‘stage’ as ‘stage-like’ (indicated sense). What Shakespeare suggests through this odd equation is the unreal nature of the aspects of worldly life. This is the suggested sense. ‘Stone walls do not a prison make!’ This poetic line suggests that there can be mental prisons even without stone walls. When cited in the present context, it suggests that there can be poetry even in the absence of the Figures of Speech. The skill of a poet lies in the employment of Figures of Speech that contribute to the suggested sense.

Classification: formal and qualitative

The three classes are no doubt grades of poetry; but this classification implies that an attempt to classify poetry based on outer forms is but a matter of convenience. We can call it a Formal one. The present classification on the basis of the place of suggested sense in a poetic composition is a qualitative one that gives us also a criterion to distinguish between poetry, good and bad, and provides a basis for bringing all artistic forms of literature under a single head, Poetry, irrespective of their outer forms.

The framework of sense in Sanskrit poetics

The theory of the layers of meaning is explained in Sanskrit works on this subject with the following illustrations from the common usage: (1) ‘Gangayam ghoshah’—there is a hamlet on the shores of the river Ganges. The association of the river suggests that the hamlet is cool and purified. This is in addition to the expressed sense. (2) ‘Simho manavakah’—this young boy is a lion. Equation of a human being with a non-human animal is contradicted by facts. This situation indicates the meaning of the word ‘lion’ as ‘lion-like’. (This is lakshana.) The purpose of the speaker in going the odd way is to suggest the extra-ordinary courage in the young boy with the maximum economy of words. (This is vyanjana.) These examples illustrate that, though suggestion can follow the expressed sense without the intervention of the indicated sense (Ex. 1), an intentional use of lakshana is invariably followed by vyanjana (Ex. 2). Suggested sense is not necessarily one; there can be more than one such senses in the same composition depending on the context and the ability of the reader/spectator. This point is illustrated by Mammatta with the following citation: On the bank of a calm and quiet lake, a lovers’ pair is taking. The beloved says: ‘Look at the crane sitting motionless on the lotus leaf…’ This may suggest: this is a quiet place, good for us to meet. Or: you did not come here before me, as you claim. Had you, the crane would have moved.

This analysis, together with the points made above in the context of Ananda-vardhana, may be summarised in a tabular form as follows (Sanskrit terms given into brackets):

Word (sabda)

Sense (artha)

Power/Operation (vyapara)

Expressive (vacaka)

Expressed (vacya)

Expression (abhidha)

Indicative (lakshanika)

Indicated (lakshya)

Indication (lakshana)

Suggestive (vyanjaka)

Suggested (vya gya)

Suggestion (vyanjana)

As already pointed out, this analysis was complete when Ananda-vardhana made his contribution of the suggested sense. It was, however, left to Mammatta, another scholar from Kashmir, to consolidate and present in a pithy style all the salient points in the subject developed up to his time in a treatise entitled Kavya-prakasa. Mammatta’s acumen in the subject can be judged from the fact that his work inspired over a hundred scholars from all over India to write commentaries on it during the successive centuries till our own times. In fact, the author of a commentary elevates Mammatta to the status of an incarnation of Sarasvati, the goddess of learning.

The soul and the purpose of poetry

Emotive contents of a play or a poem which are considered the essence or soul of the play or poem, are always suggested through situations — through an organisation of words creating the situations in the text of a play or poetry. What comes to the aid of words in a play on stage is the acting of actors; in poetry, it is the mental images of characters parallel to the actors on the stage. This is the consideration that makes Sanskrit theorists bring all forms of literature under the single head of poetry, kavya, whatever its extent or style of presentation. A single verse complete in itself, a poem consisting of several verses, an epic, a play, a story, a novel, — all these and similar forms are but varieties of presentation of emotive content which is the soul of poetry. Without it, a mere organisation of sweet-sounding words is but a semblance of poetry. Metres, sound effects, play on words and the like are but subsidiary aids for awakening the soul, the emotion, in the reader’s/spectator’s mind.

Poetic experience is supernatural

The emotion thus awakened fills the mind of the reader/spectator and creates a delightful sensation free from all worldly considerations. This is why the authorities on dramatics/ poetics place this sensation at the level of the experience of a man of realisation of the Ultimate Reality, the Brahman. This may be compared to the experience gained through music and similar arts. This exposition presumes that the reader/spectator is sensitive to poetic stimulants and responds whole-heartedly to the creations of the poet/artist. Reading poetry for any other purpose (e.g. general knowledge) is to be ignorant of the real purpose of poetry. An author on Sanskrit poetics remarks sarcastically: ‘I bow to the man of poor intellect, ignorant of literary delight, who seeks general knowledge in poetry, replete with delight, as in informative works (tasmai namah svada-para mukhaya).’

The framework of Rasa

To meet the need of poetry, Sanskrit theorists recognise the following permanent emotions /sentiments (sthayi-bhavas) resulting in literary responses called Rasas (sentiments) developing out of them:

The sentiment of devotion is included in love; for what is devotion if not total love for God, as Narada says in his Bhakti-sutras? Sentiments like fear, awe distance the devotee from the God; they do not represent real devotion. The literary mechanism through which the sentiments in the given list are shaped and conveyed to the reader includes Figures of Speech of sound and sense and also ‘qualities’, — sweetness (madhurya), vigour (ojas) and perspicuity (prasada). While perspicuity is a common quality of poetry in general, sweetness and vigour are associated with specific sentiments, e.g. sweetness with love, vigour with bravery.

Factors of emotive suggestion

Since Rasa cannot but be suggested (says Mammatta, ‘Rasa can never, even in a dream, be expressed directly by words’), it is necessary to identify its suggesting factors, called Rasa-samagri in works on poetics. Bharata gives in a short sutra the factors which, when combined, ‘produce’ a Rasa: vibhava-anubhava-vyabhicari samyogat Rasa nishpattih;– Rasa emerges (out of a permanent emotion, sthayi-bhava) when vibhava (object of emotion), anubhava (visible effects of emotion) and vyabhicari-bhava (impermanent emotions) combine. This terminology may be explained by a common illustration: when Skuntala sees Dushyanta (vibhava), the feeling of love (rati) is aroused. She blushes (anubhava) in his presence, and is restless (samcari-/vyabhicari-bhava) when left alone. This process conveys to the reader/ spectator the stable sentiment of love of Skuntala for Dushyanta, arouses a similar response in the mind of the reader/spectator who enjoys relishing it.

History of Sanskrit poetry

Long before the poetic theory came into existence, poetry has made its appearance in a variety of forms. The oldest Sanskrit literature, mainly the Rigveda (3000 BC or older still), contains a number of hymns notable for their poetic qualities, as are some for their philosophical heights. Hymns addressed to Dawn are admired by scholars for their poetic appeal. Some are rich in pure devotional sentiment. A less known hymn presents god Indra indulging in jabbering under the effect intoxicating drink. Another depicts a repenting gambler lamenting on how everyone including his wife and mother-in-law hates him. There are some hymns containing dialogues. The most famous of them is the dialogue of a king and his celestial beloved, a nymph, as she is breaking away from him and he is piteously appealing to her not to leave him, or else he would die.

The most well known poetic works after Rigveda are the epics, the Ramayana of Valmïki and the Mahabharata of Vyasa. Of these, the first is mostly homogenous and hailed as the ideal of an epic; the other one has grown through centuries, from 400 BC to 400 AD, almost to encyclopaedic dimensions, around its nucleus of the devastating war of cousins. Though considerably enlarged by later writers, the Maha-bharata displays its epic strength even through its super-growth. The most famous name we meet thereafter in the history of Sanskrit literature is that of the great poet-dramatist, Kalidasa, though Asvaghosha, the Buddhist poet-dramatist (1st c. BC), precedes him. We find a rich crop of poetic and dramatic creations thereafter during the early centuries of the Christian era. These include anthologies of short verses like those of Bhart·hari and Amaru (700 AD?). They prove that extent is not a criterion of the quality of poetry; an able poet can express in four lines what others may not be able to present in a whole book. Actually, the tradition praises Amaru’s erotic poems in the following words: ‘A single verse of Amaru amounts to a hundred books of others.’ Japanese Tanka and Haiku, compressing a remarkable observation in a few words, testify to the truth of this praise. It is the creative works enlisted above that have indirectly promoted the development of Sanskrit literary theory. This tradition continued uninterrupted till India was plagued by Islamic invasions from about 1000 AD.

Prak·ta poetry

There is a tradition of Prak·ta poetry as well, parallel to Sanskrit tradition, the most well known anthology (Gaha-sattasai = Gatha-saptasati in Sanskrit, meaning a collection of 700 couplets) in which is ascribed to King Hala Satavahana (200-300 AD). There is also the Prak·ta epic, Setubandha, on a theme from Valmiki’s Ramayana, which is ascribed to King Pravarasena (400-500 AD). Most of Jaina works, religious and literary, are in Prak·ta and its further changed form, Apabhramsha. The term Prak·ta stands for a group of languages in different regions of India which are rooted in Sanskrit but are separated from it by phonetic changes through ages. They are used in Sanskrit plays also as speeches of some types of characters reflecting an admixture of language forms in actual life.


Sanskrit is no more a living language in the sense in which modern languages are. Yet the intellectual and creative ability nurtured through Sanskrit language and literature for ages has been and will be a force which will continue to inspire Indian mind.

© Prof. K. S. Arjunwadkar

As a mirror besmeared with grime shines brightly when it is cleaned, so the embodied one, seeing the soul’s real nature becomes single, with aim fulfilled and sorrow-free.
Svetashvatara Upanishad