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The Dhārmic Function of Sanskrit Kāvya: Poetry as a Suggestive Force


The primary function of Sanskrit kāvya was always to please the readers. Literary theoreticians like Abhinavagupta often considered esthetic experience as a supramundane (alaukika) experience where the readers transcend their mundane attachments. Viśvanatha compared it to the experience of knowing brahman, the ultimate truth. But this does not mean that Sanskrit kāvya was devoid of any pragmatic concerns and was exclusively concerned with esthetic bliss. This paper examines how the purvamīmāmsā theory of bhāvanā was effectively employed by Sanskrit literary theoreticians in Early India to make the readers of Sanskrit kāvya self-fashion themselves according to the existing notions about the practice of puruṣārtha-s. This mechanism, which literary critics from Kuntaka onwards explicitly mentioned, capacitated kāvya with a symbolic power to influence the worldview of readers and to make them conform to the existing dharmavidhi (legal injunction with respect to the four aims of human life). How did the idea of bhāvanā function in the composition of Sanskrit kāvya to self-fashion the readers? And how did the writers of kāvya precondition their texts so that readers should self-fashion themselves? The present paper explores these two crucial questions which shed light on the pragmatic use of Sanskrit kāvya.

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  1. Similarly, I also do not wish to argue that the readers of kāvya responded to the literary text in the same manner the literary theoreticians wanted them to respond to it, and the readers always self-fashioned themselves after the lead characters who followed the dhārmic mandate. This is also a larger conundrum that requires a different investigation altogether.

  2. For the ease of reading, please find the list of major texts mentioned in the paper along with the names of their authors and the century in which they were composed. Bharata, Nāṭyaśāstra (300 BCE?); Bhāmaha, Kāvyālaṅkāra (seventh century); Daṇḍin, Kāvyādarśa (seventh century); Kumārila Bhaṭṭa, Ślokavārttika (seventh century); Udbhaṭa, Kāvyālaṇkārasārasaṃhitā (eighth century); Vāmana, Kāvyālaṇkārasūtravṛtti (eighth century); Ānandavardhana, Dhvanyāloka (ninth century); Rājaśekhara, Kāvyamīmāṃsā (tenth century); Kuntaka, Vakroktijīvita (tenth century); Abhinavagupta, Locana on Ānandavardhana’s Dhvanyāloka (eleventh century) and Abhinavabhāratī (eleventh century); Bhoja, Sarasvatīkaṇṭhābharaṇa (eleventh century) and Śṛṅgāraprakāśa (eleventh century); Mahimabhaṭṭa, Vyaktiviveka (eleventh century); Mammaṭa, Kāvyaprakāśa (eleventh century); Hemacandra, Kāvyānuśāsana (twelfth century); Viśvanātha, Sāhityadarpaṇa (fourteenth century); Bhanudatta, Rasamañjarī (sixteenth century); Jagannātha, Rasagaṅgādhara (seventeenth century).

  3. uttamādhamamadhyānāṃ narāṇāṃ karmasaṃśrayam |

    hitopadeśajananaṃ dhṛtikrīḍāsukhādikṛt ||

    etadraseṣu bhāveṣu sarvakarmakriyāsvatha |

    sarvopadeśajananaṃ nāṭyaṃ loke bhaviṣyati || (Ibd. I.86).

  4. dharmārthakāmamokṣeṣu vaicakṣaṇyam kalāsu ca| prītir karoti kīrti ca sādhukāvyanibandhanaṃ|| See (Kāvyālaṅkāra I.2).

  5. Mammaṭa also reproduces the same quotation in Kāvyaprakāśa, while talking about the way in which kāvya instructs its readers. For Mammaṭa’s comment, see (Kāvyaprakāśa 2–3). It is also significant to note that Abhinava privileges the element of ‘joy’ over the function of instruction. Abhinava in Locana says, “Nevertheless, of instruction and joy, joy is the chief goal” (I.1 e L). Here, we should note that the presence of joy does not cancel out the dhārmic function of kāvya. What Abhinava says is that if there is no joy, kāvya ceases to become kāvya. This does not mean that kāvya is solely for pleasure and bereft of any didactic function. Here, we need to note that these two genres were addressing two kinds of readers. While śāstras are meant for matured individuals interested in generating knowledge, kāvya is an effective medium to instruct people who are reluctant to read śāstras. Abhinava believes that kāvya is a sugar-coated pill (the sugar is the aesthetic experience and the pill is the instruction). See Abhinava’s opinion in this regard given in the same page.

  6. In the sixth chapter of Nāṭyaśāstra, Bharata mentions that “Rasa arises from the combination of vibhāva, anubhāva and vyabhicāribhāvas: “Vibhāvānubhāva vyabhicāri saṃyogād rasa niṣpattiḥ”(Nāṭyaśāstra VI.31). According to Bharata, the word vibhāva literally means ‘cause.’ Vibhāva is the cause and stimulant of rasa. In other words, it creates a situation that is congenial for the production of a particular rasa. Vibhāvas are divided into two, namely ālambanavibhāva and uddīpanavibhāva. Ālambanavibhāva is the object or the person that functions as the cause of a particular emotion. For instance, for Daśaratha who is destined to exile his son Rāma to the forest for fourteen year for no fault of the latter, the ālambana vibhāva of his karuṇa rasa (the aesthetic emotion of the tragic) is his son Rāma. Uddīpanavibhāvas are the external factors or the ambience that strengthen a particular emotion. For śṛṅgāra rasa, the stimulative uddīpanavibhāvas are factors such as springtime, the gardens teeming with flowers, the bridal chamber, and so on. The experience of a particular emotion in real life generate multitudinous mental responses. An actor on the stage is supposed to assume these mental states while playing out the role of a particular character. These mental states assumed by an actor doing the role of particular character in drama are called the vyabhicāribhāvas. For example, a heroine who is romancing with her lover is supposed to imitate some mental states or vyabhicāribhāvas of śṛṅgāra such as vrīḍā or embarrassment, harṣa or happiness, romāñca or horripilation, etc. These differing mental state that she is supposedly going through should then be made perceptible or visible to the spectators through some physical reactions such as casting side-long glances, sweet-talk, pleasing facial expressions, gleeful eyes, joyous look, etc. These physical reactions to these mental states are called anubhāvas. For a comprehensive reading of this concept, see the chapter titled "Rasa" in An Introduction to Indian Aesthetics: History, Theory, and Theoreticians by Chandran and Sreenath.

  7. An important point that we need to remember is that kāvya was not merely a manual of instructions written in an ornate style. In Sanskritic literary tradition, what makes a piece of writing a kāvya is the presence of a variety of complex formal and affective elements. The ontology of kāvya underwent a drastic change down the line. For scholars like Bhāmaha and Daṇḍin, kāvya primarily means a linguistic composition that is conspicuously different from the ordinary form of speech (vārtā). For them, kāvya primarily meant the ornate language. For Vāmana, it is ornate language and poetic merits (guṇa) arranged in an appropriate style (rīti). Ānandavardhana adds the element of rasa and dhvani to judge the literary merit of poetry. This shows that the kāvya was not merely a captivating instruction manual.

  8. Bhoja says, literary texts are supposed to provide the readers with a moral instruction. According to him, “In the Rāmāyaṇa and other literary works, authors instruct us to act like Rāma and not like Rāvaṇa by showing us the eventual victory of a righteous man [Rāma] and the fall of a morally degenerate one [Rāvaṇa].” (1963: 479). tathāhi rāmāyaṇādiṣu guṇavaro nāyakasya ulkarṣa darśanena doṣaḥ kohi? guṇārjanaṃ pratīyateyadi guṇavatoऽpyucchedaḥ syāt, api ca guṇavatve tulye ekasya jayऽonyasya parājaya iti niyamanimittamabhidhānīyam tannāntareṇa daivaṃ bhavitumarhati | devasaṃpāditāyām ca siddhau puruṣakāraśūnyasya nāyakasya yoṣito vā na kaścidviśeṣa itirāmavadvarttitavyam na rāvaṇavat iti yathā piturājñām paripālayato vanavāsinoऽpi vijayaḥ saṃpannaḥ rāvaṇasya ca paradāranabhiliṣitaḥ trailokyavijayinoऽpyucchedastathānyasyāpi saṃpatsyata iti vidhiniṣedhavyulpattiḥ | tadanuvidhānena ca mahākāvyādiprabandhānām viracaneti | (Śṛṅgāraprakāśa; II 479).

  9. Since my primary engagement is not with the philosophical tradition of mīmāṃsā, I do not intend to elaborate on it. But for a detailed reading on the various aspects of the mīmāṃsā tradition, see Bilimoria (1987a, 1987b; 1988 and 1989).

  10. For a detailed history of this concept, see “What is Bhāvanā?” by Ollet;

  11. Abhinava’s observation in Dhvanyāloka is worth mentioning in this context. Abhinava now argues that in poetry or drama, rasa is sādhya, vyañjanavyāpāra is the sādhana and guṇālaṅkāraucitya is the itikartavyata. Abhinava says,

    Accordingly, with the operation known as suggestiveness serving as means and with the qualities, figures of speech, and propriety, etc., serving as procedure (itikartavyatā), poetry, which is effective (bhāvaka) [of rasas], effects (bhāvayati) the rasas; and in this three-termed scheme of efficacy (bhāvanā as understood by the Mīmāmsakas) suggestiveness fits in as the means. (2.4 L).

    A concise version of the suggestive force of poetry can be seen in “Symbolic Power of Poetry” (2019).

  12. yathā hi rātrim āsata tām agnau prādād ity ādāv arthitādilakṣitasyādhikāriṇaḥ.

    pratipattimātrād itivṛttaprarocitāt prathamapravṛttād.

    anantaram adhikaivopāttakālatiraskāreṇaivāse saṃpradadānītyādirūpā.

    saṃkramaṇādisvabhāvā yathādarśanaṃ pratibhā.

    bhāvanāvidhyudyogādibhāṣābhir vyavahṛtā pratipattis tathaiva.

    kāvyātmakād api śabdād adhikāriṇoऽdhikāsti pratipattiḥ. See (Abhinavabhāratī 272).

  13. sa ca sarvavākyānāmarthaḥ sarvam hi vākyam vidhiniṣedhayoreva paryavasyati | yatrāpi ca liṅādayo na śrūyante tatrāpi vidhiniṣedhaparatayā sarvavākyānāṃ vākyaśeṣabhūtāsteऽvagamyante | tadyatheha deśe subhikṣamityukteऽtraivasthātavyamāsyāmdho vartata ityukte, ihaiva bhoktavyam sacoraḥ panthā ityukte, na gantavyam grāhāḥ sarityasyāmityukte na snātavyamiti pratīyate | kiñca mahākāvyairapi rāmāyaṇādibhiridameva vyutpādyate | rāmasya piturājñām pālayato vananivāsinoऽpi tathāvidhoऽbhyudayaḥ samvṛttaḥ | rāvaṇasya paradārānabhilaṣyatastrailokyavijayinoऽpi tathāvidha ucchedaḥ | tasmāt piturājñaṃ pālayet | paradārānnābhilaṣyet | rāmavad varteta na na rāvaṇavaditi | See (Śṛṅgāraprakāśa; I 212).

  14. vivaraṇaprameyasaṃgraha, See Arthasaṃgraha (p. 59) Śabara also holds the same opinion, 3.1.4.

  15. Since Bhaṭṭanāyaka’s Hṛdayadarpaṇa is lost beyond recovery, we need to often bank upon the reproduction of Bhaṭṭanāyaka's observation by other critics. Here I borrow Bhaṭṭanāyaka's idea from Abhinavagupata’s Locana. It is important to mention that it is impossible to define the exact nature of bhāvanā as conceptualized by Bhaṭṭanāyaka. Ingalls’s opinion in this respect is worth mentioning here. Ingalls says, “One should bear in mind that we know of Bhaṭṭanāyaka’s theory only through the writings of his opponents, Abhinava and Abhinava’s follower Mammaṭa. The questions that arise in one’s mind as to the exact nature of bhāvanā and why it should work to the effect claimed for it are ones for which he may have given answers of which we are not told” (“Introduction,” Dhvanyāloka, 38). But Pollock had tried to reconstruct what Bhaṭṭanāyaka was trying to say in his essay “What was Bhaṭṭanāyaka Saying?”.

  16. It can lead to another question: Can the victory of an immoral character also have a persuasive impact upon the readers? This is a larger question that needs to be addressed separately. How will a reader conditioned by the moral lessons of his time respond to the victory of a character who represents values incompatible with moral values of the reader. Will ‘the victory of the hero’ representing immoral values have a positive influence upon the reader? Will such a victory make the readers lean towards immorality? I do not intend to take up these larger questions in this paper. All that I try to say in this article is that Sanskrit kāvyaśāstra entrusted kāvya with a didactic/dhārmic function by urging the creative writers to show the victory of the moral characters and failure of the immoral characters. Critics like Kuntaka opine that creative writers should always stay away from portraying the victory of characters embodying the value systems that are incompatible with the moral values of the readers. Kuntaka asks the creative writers to employ deviant utterance in such a way that it does not challenge the dominant value system or propriety of the reader. Kuntaka says: For the spoiling of rasa, there is no cause other than impropriety (anaucityādrte nānyadrasabhaṅgasya kāraṇam; 404).

  17. pratisamskāryetivṛttamityanenetihāseṣu yathāsthitavṛttopanibandhane nyāyapravṛttarapyaphalavattvamaniṣṭāvāptiphalatvam ca dṛśyate| anyathā yatpravṛtterapi phalayogo avadhāryate tatra tathā pratisaṃskāro vidheyaḥ, yathā nyāyapravṛttereva phalayogāni vṛttiviparītasya niṣphalatvāniṣṭāvāpti bhavata iti vyutpādayati | See (Śṛṅgāraprakāśa; II 481).

  18. For a detailed reading of this passage, see the prabandhavakratā section in the first chapter of Kuntaka’s Vakroktijīvita. (Vakroktijīvita 130).

  19. Raghavan opines that Niṛdoṣādaśaratha is the name of the sixth act of Rājaśekhara's Bālarāmāyaṇa. See, Raghavan (Bhoja's Śṛṅgāraprakāśa 867).

  20. The author of this play is unknown. For a detailed reading of this play, see (Warder 113).

  21. tatra doṣahānamaucityādiparihāreṇa yathā–māyākaikeyīdaśarathābhyām rāmaḥ pravāsito na mātarapitarābhyāmiti nirdoṣa daśaratho rāmamevāyodhayad rāmeṇa vāli nihate na sugrīveṇeti mahāvīracarite rudhirapriya rākṣasena duḥśāsanasya rudhiram pītam na bhīmaseneneti venīsamhāre, anaṃgāvatārasya pradyumnasyaiva janmāntarapatnī ratirmāyāvatī na gurvamganeti harivamśe, durvāsasoऽvadhyānādduṣyantaḥ śakuntalāsvīkāram visasmāra nānāvasthitānurāgatayeti śakuntale, lavaṇaprayukta rākṣasābhyām rāmoऽvasare tatdabhidhāya sītā parityājitā na kaikeyīmantharābhyāmiti cchalitarāme, dagdhāyāamapi vāsavadattāyām vairapraticikīrṣayā padmāvatī mayoḍā siddhe ca samīhite tayā vinā kṣaṇamapi na jīvāmītyavijñātavāsavadattāsannidhervatsarājasyāgnipraveśādhyavasāyaḥ priyāhṛdayatovyalīkaśalyamuccakhāneti tāpasavatsarāje, nirapakhyaḥ svāmikāryam sādhayāmīti prabhubhaktyā niraparādhāmapi preyasīm dagdhvā svāmikāryāpekṣayā ahametāvantidināni jīvitoऽdya kṛtasvāmīkāryastāmevānugacchāmīti śivagaṇaḥ śūdrakavinirmitām mayāmayīm citām priyāsamakṣaṃ praviveśa| (Śṛṅgāraprakāśa; II 460).

  22. For a detailed reading of this concept, see II.2.24 of Vāmana’s Kāvyālaṅkārasūtravṛtti.

  23. Vāmana is not the sole person to talk about the importance of a poet conforming to the acceptable practices in society. This notion is repeatedly mentioned by writers such as Ānandavardhana (3.10-14 c), Kṣemendra (I.6), Bhānudatta (329), Mahimabhaṭṭa (31), Kuntaka (I.4), Mammaṭa (I.36), Bhoja, (Sarasvatīkaṇṭhābharaṇa 942-49) and so on. They convey the same idea through the notion of aucitya (the acceptable practice in the performance of a particular action).

  24. mṛudubhāṣā tvacapalā.

    smitabhāṣiṇyaniṣṭhūrā| gurūṇām vacane dakṣā.

    salajjā vinayānvitā|| rūpābhijanamādhuryairguṇaiḥ svābhāvikeryutā || gāmbhīryadhairyasampannā.

    vijñeyā pramadottamā ||(ibid. Volume II XXXIV. 6). In the chapter titled Sāmānyabhinaya also, Bharata talks about all these three categories of women.

  25. asthāne kopānā yā tu.

    duśśīlā cātimāninī.

    capalā paruṣā caiva.

    dīṛgharoṣādhamā smṛtā|| (Ibid. XXV.24).

  26. Bharata talks about the eight kinds of heroines in the thirty-fourth chapter, titled Sāmānyabhinaya, of Nāṭyaśāstra. See, Nāṭyaśāstra. XXIV.184-192.

  27. samadā mṛduceṣṭā ca tathā parijanāvṛtā | nānābharaṇacitrāṅgī gacchedveśyāṅganā śanaiḥ || saṃlīnā sveṣu gātreṣu trastā vinamitānānāavakuṇṭhanasaṃvitā gacchettu kulajāṅganā || madaskhalitasaṃlāpā vibhramotphullalocanāāviddhagatisaṃcārā gacchetpreṣyā samuddhatam || gatvā sā cedyadā tatra paśyet suptaṃ priyaṃ tadā anena tūpacāreṇa tasya kuryātprabodhanam || alaṇkāreṇa kulajā veśyā gandhaistu śītalaiḥ | preṣyā tu vastravyajanaiḥ kurvīta pratibodhanam II (XXIV.196–200).

  28. upanāyakasaṃsthāyāṃ munigurupatnīgatāyāṃ ca | bahunāyakaviṣayāyāṃ ratau tathānubhayaniṣṭhāyāṃ iti | (Rasagaṅgādhara 100). evaṃ kalahaśilakuputrādyālambanatayā vitarāgādiniṣṭhatayā ca vaṛnyamānaḥ śokaḥ brahmavidyānadhikāricāṇḍālādigatatvevna ca nirvedaḥ kadaryakātarādigatatvena pitrādyālambanatvena vā krodhotsāhau aindrajālikādyālambanatvena ca vismayaḥ gurvādyālaṃbanatayā ca hāsaḥ mahāviragatatvena bhayaṃ yajñīyapaśuvasāsṛṅmāṃsādyālambanatayā varṇyamānā jugupsā ca rasābhāsaḥ | (Ibid. 101–102).

  29.  Dhanañjaya’s Daśarūpaka, Bhānudatta’s Rasamañjarīi and Rasataraṅgiṇī, Vidyānātha’s Pratāparudriya, and Bhoja’s Śṛṅgāraprakāśa are a few other texts that give directives in this manner. See, the second chapter (prakāśa) of Daśarūpaka where Dhanañjaya talks in detail about the qualities of a hero, various categories of the hero, the characteristics of the helpers of the hero, antagonists, different kinds of heroines, the qualities that are to be attributed to the side-kicks of a heroine, etc.; the second chapter (prakaraṇa) of Vidyānātha's Pratāparudrīya is concerned with the representation of heroes and heroines; In Bhoja's Śṛṅgāraprakāśa, see chapters twenty-one and thirty-two which talk about the representation of heroes and heroines; In Rasamañjarī, see the description on nāyika and nāyaka; in Rasataraṅgiṇī, Bhānu in.

  30. An important thing that we need to keep in our mind is that anaucitya or impropriety is not a nityadoṣa or eternal fault. Scholars as early as Bhāmaha had pointed out that anaucitya is not something that is totally undesirable in poetry. Bhāmaha’s discussion in this respect happens in chapter 4 of his Kāvyālaṅkāra when he discusses the kāvyadoṣa called punarukti. Punarukti or tautology is the saying of the same thing over and over again in different words. Considering the fact that it results in boredom, creative writers and literary theoreticians opine that punarukti is a doṣa and should be avoided from poetry. But Bhāmaha points out that although punarukti is usually considered a poetic fault, it is very much acceptable in the representation of emotions such as fear, jealousy, etc. (IV. 14) Daṇḍin also holds the same view in the fourth chapter of his Kāvyādarśa. Daṇḍin says that apārtha or incoherent argument is generally considered a poetic fault. But it becomes a guṇa or poetic merit in portraying the raving of a madman, or a child’s prattle or the speech of a person who is sick. (IV 5-7). Similarly, Daṇḍin shows the vyabhicāra or exception to all doṣas. He is fully aware that in the realm of poetry a certain thing is not a doṣa by its very nature. Daṇḍin’s observation in this respect is very interesting (IV.5-7).Rudraṭa even goes to the extent of saying that almost all kinds of poetic flaws become poetic merits when occasions need the imitation of these flaws. While representing the character of a mentally deranged person, the use of nonsense becomes inevitable. Namisādhu, the commentator of Rudraṭa’s Kāvyālaṅkāra explains this point further. He says that when one portrays the character of a speaker who is not good at speaking, all the poetic faults turn out to be poetic merits. He says that when one portrays the character of a speaker who is not good at speaking, all the poetic faults turn out to be poetic merits. To explain his point, he cites the instance of the funny description of the illiterate husband of the poetess Vikaṭanitambā who is unable to pronounce words properly.


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Sreenath, V.S. The Dhārmic Function of Sanskrit Kāvya: Poetry as a Suggestive Force. DHARM 5, 167–184 (2022).

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  • Kāvya
  • Dharmavidhi
  • bhāvanā
  • Sanskrit Literary theory
  • Purvamīmāmsā