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Symbolic Power of Poetry

Sreenath V S ( is a research scholar of English at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur.

Sanskrit kavya was used as a mechanism of social conditioning in early India.

The author thanks Mini Chandran, Professor of English, Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur for her valuable suggestions and comments at various stages of the development of the argument in this article.

In early India, the reading of literature was primarily considered a spiritual activity aiming to liberate readers from their materialistic concerns. Aesthetic emotion or rasa was often considered the secular counterpart of spiritual bliss. Bhaṭṭa Nāyaka (10 CE)—as Abhinavagupta records in his commentary on Dhvanyāloka (a work that proposed the theory that the aim of kāvya [poetry] is to evoke a mood or rasa)—goes to the extent of terming it as a special feeling that is akin to the bliss of “realizing [one’s identity] with the highest Brahman.” This did not mean that kāvya was absolutely removed from the constraints of the practical concerns of social life. In reality, kāvya functioned as the symbolic power to condition its readers in close conformity with the dominant ideological positions in society, and there was also a strong tendency among creative writers to either censor or rewrite stories where a noble character commits an act of impropriety.

Sanskrit literary theorists, as far back as Bharata, talk about the importance of creative writers composing kāvya in such a way that they teach the readers dharma-vidhi (the acceptable social order set by the dominant class), apart from its primary function of aesthetic pleasure. Bharata says that nāṭya (drama), which is based on the actions of three kinds of human beings—uttama (best), madhyama (middling), and adhama (low)—aims to instruct the spectators of all time about everything in the world. Quoting Brahmā’s words, Bharata says that nāṭya came into being to instruct men (lokopadeśa janānām nāṭyametat bhaviyati). Bhāmaha who is considered the founding father of kāvyaśāstra in Sanskrit shares the opinion of Bharata. According to Bhāmaha, “Composition of good poetry produces ability in (or makes one able, or capable in the pursuit of) dharma, artha, kāma and moka,” which are called the caturvarga-śāstra or the four goals of human life.

In Vakroktijīvita, Kuntaka also sees rasa as a means to instruct readers about the four ends of life in a way that is conspicuously distinct from śāstra, purāṇa and the Veda. Kuntaka’s position is that while the śāstra and the other allied disciplines talk about the moral duties incumbent upon men in an insipid way, kāvya performs the same function in a pleasurable manner. In Śr.gāraprakāśa, Bhoja also declares, “A literary artefact should be understood as a combination of sentences that informs us as to what we should do and we should not do.” What we specifically need to note here is that the deontic (relating to duty or obligation) function that kāvya ­performed was entirely different from that of the Veda and śāstra.

But, unlike śāstra and Veda, kāvya exercised this condition­ing function rather implicitly by creating in readers an aspiration for the law-abiding noble characters and abhorrence towards characters who deviate from the path of propriety. Bhoja observes that kāvya should never ever show that a noble character, despite conforming to the rules of decorum, fails to emerge victorious over a law-breaking adhama character. If there is an instance that is contrary to this in a story, the poet should make it a point to rewrite the story in such a way that the law-abiding moral character prevails and the adhama character indulging in wrongdoing perishes. The victory of the characters who live according to the laws of aucitya (correctess) and the decay of those who defy them is definitely a way to create aspiration among the readers of kāvya to emulate the propriety-bound ways and manners of the noble characters.

Bhoja staunchly believes that the failure of a noble character, and the victory of a degenerate character who disregards social decorum, will certainly result in the breakdown of kāvya
as symbolic power. Literary theoreticians like Mammaṭa (11CE), Kuntaka (11CE), Viśvanātha, and so on also opine that kāvya clearly functioned as a mechanism to instil in readers a desire to fashion themselves after the ideal law-abiding characters who conform to the notion of propriety prevalent in society. In Vakroktijīvita, Kuntaka says: “In the Rāmāyaṇa­-based dramas of great poets … what we have on the surface is the description of the noble heroes which impart delight to responsive readers. But in reality, it ends up in a moral injunction—act like Rāma, not like Rāvaṇa.”

Bhoja, in his Śr.gāraprakāśa, chronicles many incidents from the past where the poets censored events that were at war with the reigning notion of aucitya. For example, in the Rāmāyaṇa, it is Daśaratha, the king of Ayodhyā, who exiles his son Rāma to the forest to keep the promise he has given to his wife Kaikeyī, who is Rāma’s stepmother. But, in the play Nirdoadaśaratha (Faultless Daśaratha), this event is revised in such a way that Rāma is exiled not by Daśaratha and his wife Kaikeyī, but by two magical creatures who impersonate them. This revision is made to remove the fault of a virtuous father banishing his ideal son from his country. While Rāma treacherously kills Vālin in the Rāmāyaṇa by shooting an arrow at him from behind a tree, Rāma has a fair duel with Vālin in Bhavabhūti’s Mahāvīracarita. By rewriting the story in this way, Bhavabhūti corrects the “mistake” of a virtuous hero killing his opponent through betrayal. In the Mahābhārata, the noble character Bhīma drinks the blood of his enemy Duśāsana after killing him. Considering that such a heinous act is improper on the part of a high-born character like Bhīma, in Bhaṭṭa Nārāyaṇa’s Veṇīsaṃhāra, this scene is revised in such a way that Duśāsana’s blood is drunk not by Bhīma, but by a demon who has possessed him. In the story of Duṣyanta and Śakuntalā in the Mahābhārata, king Duṣyanta forgets Śakuntalā, who he has married, because his love for her is inconsistent. Inconsistency in love being an impropriety on the part of a king, Kālidāsa in his Abhijñanaśākuntala presents this story in such a way that Duṣyanta forgets Śakuntalā, not because his love for her is inconsistent, but because Śakuntalā was cursed by sage Durvāsa that the person she is thinking of would forget about her (which is Duṣyanta).

To make creative writers understand what a noble hero can and cannot do, kaviśikṣa or the training of poets laid a lot of emphasis on teaching the poets notions of propriety, along with the lessons on rhetoric and prosody. Vāmana in his Kāvyālaṅkārasūtravrtti, for example, talks about the importance of a poet learning what is considered “proper” and “acceptable” in society during the process of kaviśikṣa. Vāmana opines that any representation of facts against what śāstra considers to be “acceptable” is a blotch on kāvya. He calls this poetic fault resulting from one’s non-conformity to propriety, vidyāvirudham. To warn the poet against it, Vāmana cites a few examples. According to dharmaśāstra, kings win over countries to restore justice. Contrary to this dictum, if a poet writes that it is to protect their selfish interests that kings conquer countries, this would result in a poetic blemish. According to Daṇḍaśāstranīti, to cite another example, it is a person’s prudence and diplomacy that enable them to exercise control over others. But, if somebody says that it is a person’s haughtiness that enables them to win over others, that clashes with the socially accepted norm of Daṇḍaśāstranīti and consequently results in the poetic blemish of contradicting the catuṛvarga-śāstra. He gives another example which is at war with kāmaśāstra. According to kāmaśāstra, the lower lip (adhara) is the right place to kiss. In contrast to this dictum in kāmaśāstra, if a poet states that the upper lip is the right place to kiss, then the poet will court a poetic blemish. Vāmana’s injunction for a poet to pay heed to these śāstra, which draw a neat line between what is acceptable and unacceptable within the social framework, runs through the whole system of Sanskrit poetics.

Literature is often considered a reflection of the values embraced by society. As opposed to this dominant conception about literary artefacts, this analysis shows that Sanskrit kāvyaśāstra also functioned as a way to create the values of a particular period and to condition the subjects of a society. By portraying the characters who act according to aucitya as always emerging victorious and those who rebel against it as failing, kāvyaśāstra preconditioned the ontology of kāvya in such a way that the readers would aspire to emulate morally upright noble characters and abhor the morally degenerate villains.



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