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Sunday, 18 September 2011





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Glimpse into Sanskrit literary culture

[Part 2]

In this week’s column, I would like to further explore the Sanskrit literary culture and the important role that Kavya plays in it. As I mentioned in the previous column, a major guide to the understanding of Kavya is Srnagaraprakasa (Illumination of passion) of king Bhoja who ruled over a fable court which is today’s Madhya Pradesh from 1011-1055.

In 1800 printed pages of the book, Bhoja sought to summerise the entire body of earlier thought ‘at a time before the later Kashmiris were widely diffused across the subcontinent and equally important, before the cosmopolitan literary order started to give away –as it was everywhere about to give away- to the new literary vanacuarity. ’ state Sheldon Pollock in emphasising the important contribution that Bhoja made to the thoerisation of Kavya.

Bhoja says that the elements that make up Kavya are words, meanings and the ways in which words and meanings can be ‘composed’:

“Tradition holds that Kavya is a composition ‘sahitya also unity’ of words and meanings; “ words and meanings ‘composed’ Sahitya constitute Kavya. What , however, does the word ‘word’ signify? It is that through which when articulated meaning is understood, and it is of twelve sorts, starting with base and affix and ending with sentence, section and whole work. ‘Meaning’ is what a word gives us to understand, and it is of twelve sorts, starting with action and tense and ending with word-meaning and sentence meaning. And last, “composition” signifies the connection of words and meaning, and it, too, is of twelve sorts, starting with denotation and implication and ending with avoidance of faults, employment of expression- forms guna, connecting with factors of beauty alankara and presence of rasa .”

Bhoja has commenced his thesis with the definition, a simple formulation offered by Bhamaha four centuries earlier. The idea that Kavya differs from anything else has something to do with language and that accordingly, literary analysis must be done on language. The idea is a presupposition in the history of Kavya theory and greatly influenced its production.

Regarding the diverse views on Kavya, Pollock observes; “We find nothing comparable to the platonic (and pragmatic) opposition between the mythos of literature and the logos of philosophy. In fact many masters of systematic thought across the religious and philosophical spectrum wrote that Kavya, often very unphilosophical Kavya. One thinks immediately of Dharmakiriti (C. 650) among the Buddhists, Haribhadra (C.750) among the Jains, Siriharsa (C.1150) among the Vedantins, and such men are the rule rather than exception. The fact that Kavya may be uniquely empowered to make certain truths known to us, accordingly remain something for Sanskrit readers to work out on their own.

Hardly more attention was given to what Kavya mean as a moral reasoning, as a way of understanding how life is to be lived. Although every thinker attributes to literature some didactic role in relation to ethical, material, emotional, and spiritual realms that make up the four life goals (Purusartha), rarely does this become an object of sustained scrutiny. …while Sanskrit culture also recognised a trivium of fundamental learning, it was hermeneutics (mimamsa), not rhetoric that rounded our grammar and logic. The focus on the scientific analysis of sentence meaning as opposed to the art of forensic persuasion, besides essentially differentiating the two ideas of education, vyutpatti and paideia, is something that derived from and served to reproduce basic protocol of the reading-and no doubt the making-of literature. ”

One of the contentious issues in the history of Sanskrit literature is how Kavya works as a specific language system, ‘literature not exhortation but as a non transitive communication , as verbal icons –that interests Sanskrit literary theory to the exclusion of everything else; and this is where its exploration arguably probe deeper than any available from other times or places’.

Sheldon Pollock points out that one contentious point among the literary theorists is how to identify ‘this specificity; the history of discourse on Kavya can in fact be described as the history of these different judgments.’

“A later commentator provides just such an account for Kashmiri thinkers of the period 800-1000:

Literature is word-and-meaning employed in a manner different from other language uses. This difference has been analysed in three distinct ways, depending on what is accorded primacy: (a) some language features [dharma], such as tropes or expression forms; (b) some function [Vyapara] such striking expression or the capacity to produce aesthetic pleasure; or (c) aesthetic suggestion. There are thus five positions, which have been upheld respectively by Udbhata, Vamana, Kuntaka, Nayaka, and Anandavardhana.”

Pollock observes how central the theory of Kavya in Sanskrit literary tradition is and the pivotal role that the linguistic played as an analytical tool of Kavya; “one of the last works of theory, that of Jagannatha in the mid-seventeenth century, shows how long the analytical dominance of the linguistic had persisted when he defines Kavya as ‘signifiers producing beautiful significations’ ”

Bhoja who reduced modalities of ‘composition’ to four which occupy most of his treatise are all language –based; “ (1) Kavya must be ‘without faults’ : the congenial threat of solecism, which is copresent with language use, must be eliminated; (2) expression-form must be used: the phonetic, semantic, and syntactic character of a literary utterance must be carefully constituted with due attention given to Ways and their emotional register, rasa; (3) figures of sound and sense may or may not be joined to the work; (4) nothing must obstruct the manifestation of rasa, which for Bhoja is the linguistic production of an emotion in the text” .

The definition of literature in the Sanskrit literary tradition is relevant even in today’s context. One would wonder whether the very definition of literature, particularly, in the context of contemporary Sri Lankan literature in Sinhalese, should be changed considering the recent developments with regard to the criteria apparently adapted ( or not adapted) by the panel of judges who selected literary productions for the so called ‘ golden book’ award. Though the part of the definition which says ‘Literature is word-and-meaning employed in a manner different from other language uses’ , is still relevant even to the award winning books , the difference ‘ form the other language uses’ is that the language employed in some of the literary productions are quite worse than the ‘ other language uses’ and the principal modes of production of tropes , zests or rasa ( in fact disgust, nerasa) are unrefined rude language and excessive use of filth in the text.

The proponents of the filthy discourse in Sinhalese literature as well as in Sri Lankan literature in English include some unscrupulous academic imposters and so-called ‘great writers’ belonging to a tribal fraternity. Theoretical pretext for this linguistic acrobatics at the expense of writers’ intellect is the Sri Lankan ‘brand’ of postmodernism, post structuralism and their misapplications.



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