ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Symbolic Power of Poetry

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

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.

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