Mandala Of Indic Traditions
Eleven Objections to Sanskrit Literary Theory: A Rejoinder1
by Kapil Kapoor2
A debate has been on in this country for quite some time now about the role
of its inherited learning that at present finds no place in the mainstream education.
It has been restricted either to the traditional institutes or special institutes,
'sanctuaries'. It is assumed, and argued by its opponents, that this inherited
learning is now obsolete and no longer relevant to the living realities. This
is however counter-factual - the inherited learning not only endures in the
traditional institutes but also vibrates in the popular modes of performances
and in the mechanisms of transmitting the tradition3, such as katha,
pravacana and other popular cultural and social practices. And what is
more to the point, the vocabulary of this thought is now the ordinary language
vocabulary of the ordinary speakers of modern Indian languages. The thought
permeates the mind and language.
However, the 'educated'4 Indian has been de-intellectualized. His vocabulary
has been forced into hibernation by the vocabulary of the west. For him, West
is the theory and India is the data. The Indian academy has willingly entered
into a receiver-donor relationship with the western academy, a relationship
of intellectual subordination. This 'de-intellectualization' needs to be countered
and corrected by re-locating the Indian mind in the Indian thought. Arguing
for Sanskrit literary theory as the appropriate theory for Indian literary
criticism is a part of this larger enterprise.
The 5th century philosopher of language, Bhartrhari, in the penultimate karika
of the second kanda of his celebrated Vakyapadiya says: "The
intellect acquires critical acumen by familiarity with different traditions.
How much does one really understand by merely following one's own reasoning
only?"(Ka-484). That was the self-respecting voice of an intellectually
confident India with its interactive, contending yet collaborative traditions
of thought beautifully recalled and critiqued in the 13th century by Sri Madhavacarya
in his Sarvadarsanasangraha. However, in today's de-intellectualized
India , we have to say: "What does he know who does not know his own tradition?"
India has powerful, attested, traditions of texts and thinkers in disciplines
ranging from prosody to philosophy and these are enshrined mainly in Sanskrit.
By abandoning this donor Sanskrit tradition, we have become passive, uncritical
recipients of Western theories and models.
Had the classical thought enshrined in Sanskrit, Pali and Prakrit texts and
some of it preserved as adaptation in Old Tamil texts been made a part of the
mainstream education it would have enabled the educated Indian to interact with
the west on a level ground. This tradition has attested texts and thinkers in
a wide range of disciplines - philosophy, grammar, poetics, prosody, astronomy,
architecture, mathematics, medicine, atmospheric sciences, sociology / ethics
(dharmasastra), chemistry, physics, agriculture, economics and commerce,
music, botany and zoology, weaponry and art of warfare, logic, education, metallurgy.
The texts of these disciplines not only make statements about the respective
domains of knowledge but also enshrine the empirical wisdom gathered by our
society over centuries in these spheres.
All this knowledge has been marginalized by and excluded from the mainstream
education system. Efforts to incorporate it or teach it have been politically
opposed and condemned as 'revivalism'. Europe's 13th century onwards successful
venture of relocating the European mind in its classical Greek roots is lauded
and expounded in the Indian universities as 'revival of learning' and as 'Renaissance'.
But when it comes to India, the political intellectuals dismiss exactly the
same venture as 'revivalism' or 'obscurantism'. The words such as 'revivalism'
are, what I call, 'trap words'. And there are more, for example 'traditional'
and 'ancient' - the person working in Indian studies is put on the defensive
by these nomenclatures. 'Tradition' is falsely opposed to 'modern' and the word
'traditional' is equated with oral and given an illegitimate pejorative value.
And the adjective 'ancient' as pre-fixed - 'Panini, the ancient grammarian',
'ancient Indian poetics / philosophical thought'- makes the classical
Indian thinkers and thought look antiquated.
No western writer ever refers to Plato, for example, as 'ancient' or Greek
thought as 'ancient'. This psychic jugglery is directed at the continuity
of Indian intellectual traditions suggesting as it does a break or a disjunction
in the intellectual history. There is no such disjunction in India's intellectual
history but then the Indian intellectual brought up on alien food must set
up a disjunction in Indian history if there is one in the western history!
If at all there is a disjunction it happens with the foundation of the English
education and then too it is a horizontal disjunction between the mainstream
education system and the traditional institutes of learning and not a vertical
Even this disjunction is indefensible - for those who believe that this knowledge
is now archaic would do well to recall that the contemporary western theories,
though essentially interpretive, have evolved from Europe's 19th century interaction
with Sanskrit philosophy, grammar and poetics; they would care to remember
that Roman Jakobson, Trubetzkoy and de Saussure were Sanskritists, that Saussure
was in fact a professor of Sanskrit at Geneva and that his published papers
include work on Sanskrit poetics. The structural, formalist thinking and the
linguistic turn of contemporary theory have their pedigree in Sanskrit thought.
In this, Europe's highly fruitful interaction with the Indian thought over
practically the same time-span contrasts sharply with 150 years of sterile
Indian interaction with the western thought. After the founding of Sanskrit
chairs in the first decade of the nineteenth century, Europe interacted with
the Indian thought, particularly in philosophy, grammar, literary theory and
literature, in a big way without abandoning its own powerful tradition. In
the process, it created, as we have said a new discipline, Historical-Comparative
Linguistics, produced a galaxy of thinkers - Schiller, Schelling, Schopenhauer,
Nietszche, Jakobson, Trubetzkoy and above all Saussure - and founded a revolutionary
conceptual framework which was to influence the European thought for the next
Alienated from the roots, caught in the web of conflicting schemas, unable
to interact with western scholarship on a level ground, we have failed to
produce in the last 150 years any thinker or thought. The possible exceptions,
Swami Ramakrishna Paramhansa, Swami Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo, Mahatma Gandhi,
are interestingly those who consciously located themselves in the Indian tradition
and are oriented towards its metaphysical thought.
Awareness of this sterility, and its cause, has slowly grown. There is an
increasing assertion in the country of the need to remedy this state, to reverse
this data-theory relationship between the Indian academy and the western academy
by relocating the Indian mind in its multiple, classical traditions of thought,
in what has always been a donor tradition. This is how we follow up the political
and economic freedoms by the freedom of the mind. In this perspective, in
literary studies, we must re-activate Indian frameworks in the university
It is easy to see why one must prefer Indian conceptual frameworks. Apart
from the general instrumentality of freeing the mind by activating the innate
Indian habits of mind, we have noted elsewhere5 their superior explanatory
adequacy. Theories are culture specific - they are codes of a community's
expectations from the art form / forms and therefore more adequately account
for that community's response to the artifacts.
Cultural specificity of theories can therefore be problematic if the theories
of one culture are applied uncritically to the empirical reality of another
culture. There are the Indian habits of mind and there are the western habits
of mind nurtured over time by the specificity of the community's experience
and these may differ crucially. It is these habits of mind that are imbricated
deeply in the respective conceptual frameworks. The western linearity of time
and thought with its in-built evolutionary imperative that is implicit in such
structures as 'pre-X-post A' (pre-colonial, colonial, post-colonial)
contrasts sharply with the Indian schema of cyclic and simultaneity. Similarly,
the western binarism and the search for certainty differs from the either-or/both
schema and the uncertainty schema of the Indian mind. The list is long - the
teleological anxiety, the apocalyptic vision, the wait for the millennium, the
redeemer expectation, the anthropological centrism, the conception of man as
a sinner, a vengeful God, an ethics contingent on a personal God - all these
western constructs offer conceptual opposition to the Indian habits of mind,
at least to the non-Hebraic habits of mind.
This applies among others to poetics, literary theory. Indian literary theories
are empirical responses to what still is an oral6 culture - even
the term for verbal compositions, vangmaya, literally means ' that which
has existence in / which is permeated by speech'. Literary theories that are
applied to Indian compositions must take into account their orality and what
flows from this dimension - the anonymity or serial authorship of the texts,
and hence the non-pertinence of authorial meaning, the need to designate the
author as 'composer' (rather than writer) and the receiver of the text as 'auditor'
rather than 'reader' (Johnson used the term 'auditor' in his Preface to Shakespeare).
There are foundational differences as well. The concepts of creativity and the
creative process are found to be completely different. The paradigm artist in
Indian thought, for example, is the potter as against the carpenter in Western
(Greek) thought. The carpenter cuts, segments and re-arranges his material reality
(the wood) and is therefore a 'maker'. The potter's material reality (the clay)
is like water in the ocean7 not measurable or segmentable and the
potter therefore does not 'make'- he merely makes manifest a form that inheres
in the material and is present to him in his mind. The potter is not the 'master'
but a sadhaka, a devotee, a Yogi who yokes his mind to the object and
gives form to the substance.
Preferred forms also differ. In Indian literatures, the dominant form is an
aural-visual verse narrative and the highest excellence has been achieved
in the epics. In English literature the highest excellence has been achieved
in drama and in Russian literature in the novel. Theories should investigate
such cultural specificities if they are to ask relevant questions about the
In the absence of such an appropriate theory, Indian literary criticism -
both in English and in Indian languages, both about literature in English
and about literatures in Indian languages - hasn't asked these culturally
The Indian literary criticism has in fact been marked by severe limitations.
It has, all in all, been derivative and backward8 . Before PL-480,
it was Anglo- and after PL 480 it is a footnote to the Anglo-American school
- even the European frameworks filter through English translations, commentaries
and Anglo-American practices. Besides, it has always been backward - there is
always a time lag between its enunciation in the west and its emulation here.
Hence, the derisive comment about Indian literary criticism quoted by Prof.
CDNarasimhaiah ji - "You mean those carbon copies of Mathiessen, Blackmur
And it has been seasonal. Every successive passing fashion in the Anglo-American
school has been dutifully applied to the Indian literary reality - Leavisian
Moral, New Criticism, Structuralism, Post-structuralism, Semiotics and Deconstruction,
Postmodernism, Psychoanalytic, Feminist, Marxist, New Historicism, Cultural
Materialism, Stylistics. Each successive framework has been found to be a perfect
fit for the malleable Indian reality, without any modification or adaptation!10
What is the character of this criticism? It is only as much Indian as the word
'India' itself. Its theoretical framework is, as we noted above, derivative.
The body of literature it addresses is Metro. There is metro literature written
under the influence of, and often imitating, both the western (Anglo-American)
societal problematic as themes and there is the metro theory that both explains
it and is validated by this body of literature. Its audience is urban (English)
educated elite. There are no western readers for this as the West is not interested
in Indian language literatures or in the Indian paraphrase or redaction of their
theories. (Whatever limited but profitable western audience is there is of readers
interested in being told by India's 'colonized' minds about India's colonized
What is excluded in the process:
i) Theoretical thinking. Indian literary criticism is by
and large applicational - there is hardly any theoretical thinking which is
how in any case it would be in a derivative framework - there are no attempts
to critique or even localize the theory (to use a term from computational
software technology). Theoretical thinking is excluded by the very enterprise.
ii) The whole oral / folk (aural - visual) literature, performances
and compositions are out of its range as this construes literature as writing.
This activity is therefore strictly restricted to the literate context. More
importantly, it is in complete disjunction with the long tradition of literary
thinking, with the tradition of continuous and cumulative texts from the Natyasastra
to Rasagangadhara via Bhamaha, Vamana, Mahima Bhatta, Anandavardhana,
Kuntaka, Abhinavagupta, Mammata and Viswanatha.
It is not surprising therefore that the need for 'Indianness' of critical
practices, of 'nativising' the critical discourse has been voiced/ talked
about (though not always rigorously argued). Prof. C.D.Narasimhaiah ji has
been saying this since1965 when he had organized a national seminar on "Literary
Criticism: European and Indian Tradition"11 Not that there has been no
change in the scene. After the initial, well-known expositions of Indian poetics
such as those by Hiriyanna, Krishna Chaitanya, since the late eighties Indian
professors of English have publicly discussed different Indian theories. Prof.
M. S. Kushwaha's 1988 "Indian Poetics and Western Thought" is a
landmark in this trend.
Secondly, some of these professors produced tracts/articles outlining the
application models based on different Indian schools. Professor R.S.Pathak
of Sagar is to be noted for his contribution in modifying the climate - his
introduction to in English to Kuntaka's vakrokti theory is an important example
of the kind of textual exposition that is needed. Then, some departments of
English initiated research in Indian English literature using the Indian models.
And at least in one department (Centre of Linguistics and English, JNU, New
Delhi) research applying Indian frameworks to western texts and objects has
been consciously adopted as research agenda since at least 1990. Finally,
now, some universities teach Indian poetics a part of the English syllabus.
But these are sporadic changes as there has been no policy change at the national
disciplinary level, no 'mind change', so to say - not even a formal discussion
at the national level about 'appropriate theory' nor a systemic addressing
of this issue in the U.G.C. panel for English12. Indian theoretical texts continue
to be marginalized in the university syllabi and most of the effort outlined
above has been either in the form of an argument in defense of or an exposition
of parts and portions of classical Indian poetics.
There is not yet much application research, and is needed badly to validate
the classical frameworks by establishing their adequacy. As this has not happened
on the desired scale, the Indian theoretical frameworks have not been evaluated
in terms of contemporary literatures. However, these efforts and this movement
have evoked definite critical opposition. In the course of this relatively
limited expositional and applied effort, during and after the eighties, questions
have been raised about what is 'Indian', what is 'Indian aesthetics' and what
is the 'appropriate' Indian aesthetics? What is 'Native' aesthetics or theory?
Is it the classical Indian (Sanskrit) poetics or is it 'some' aesthetics that
lies embedded in the literatures of the modern Indian languages, the vernaculars
or is it some tribal aesthetics?
Sanskrit poetics is the natural13 answer to both the questions - it is
'Indian' Aesthetics and it is culturally, linguistically and historically
But this position, as we pointed out above, is strongly contested14. The Indian
educated elite has been brought up on an anti-self - more than true to Macaulay's
cheerful submission to his sister, the educated Indian, particularly the Hindu,
suffers from such a deep loss of self respect that he is unwilling to be recognized
as such. He feels, in fact, deeply threatened by any surfacing or manifestation
of the identity that he has worked so hard to, and has been trained to reject.
But it lies somewhere in his psyche as 'an unhappy tale', as something that
is best forgotten15. It is these people wearing various garbs - liberal, left,
secular, modern - who oppose, more often than not from sheer ignorance, any
attempt to introduce Indian traditions of thought in the mainstream education
system - a classic case of self-hate taking the form of mother-hate!
That things are changing and are bound to change is a testimony to the sheer
vigor of an intellectual tradition that has seen, in its attested history
of thousands of years, many cycles of recession and renewal16. Arguments against
Sanskrit poetics are a part of this larger political argument against the
Indian - and to drop the euphemism - what may be generally described as the
Hindu intellectual traditions.
Many arguments have been put forward against Sanskrit poetics. All these many
arguments put forth so far against Sanskrit poetics "as an applicable
system for present-day Indian criticism" have been painstakingly put
together in his review of the1998 book, "Literary Theory: Indian Conceptual
Framework"17, by Mr. John Oliver Perry, whose sheer enthusiasm for opposing
classical Indian thought is unrivalled.
One would normally desist from joining an argument with what is a statement
abounding in so many areas of darkness. But as this statement, in its consolidation
of objections, is an ideal purva-paksha that makes our task that much
easier, we will build our siddhanta, our arguments for Sanskrit poetics, by
offering rejoinders to all the many objections to Sanskrit literary theory
listed/articulated by our kind friend.
In Mr. John Oliver Perry's otherwise complimentary review, eleven objections
to Sanskrit poetics have been formulated. He says that Sanskrit poetics:
(1) is archaic, "of mainly archaeological interest";
(2) is 'unacceptable', for a variety of reasons, 'will not be widely adopted
in India or elsewhere';
(3) trivializes literature by holding 'enjoyment', 'tranquil pleasure, ananda'
(and not nalysis/meaning) as the goal of literature;
(4) is merely theoretical and has no models for 'analytical application';
(5) characteristically unstable terminology, much more than in 'western criticism';
(6) lacks an 'authoritative sastra';
(7) is epistemologically limited, relying heavily as it does on analogy and
(8) is based in a 'metaphysically based aesthetics' which allows little room
for 'unmediated sense of things';
(9) claims comprehensiveness, a 'universalizing' belied by the theory itself;
(10) makes an untenable 'historiographical claim to represent the totality
of Indian culture'; and
(11) excludes 'non-Sanskritic oral literatures ...the visible ethnography
We take up these objections one by one:
(1) To say that Indian literary theory is now only 'of archaeological
interest' is to commit oneself to a major erroneous assumption: that there
is an attested break in India's intellectual history and cultural practices
- such as the one that afflicted Europe after the sack of Rome - making room
for a renaissance.
This is just not true of India. There has been no break in the continuous
and cumulative intellectual traditions in different domains of knowledge.
Evidence comes from the ordinary language of the people. The technical terms
of various disciplines continue not only to exist but have become common words
of ordinary use in almost all the languages of India. Witness for example
the first two technical terms of Panini's Astadhyayi - vridhi
and guna- 7th century B.C. grammatical terms, that are today words
of daily use in a shared sense in all the Indian languages18. The
whole terminology of Indian literary theories - rasa, dhvani, alamkara,
vakrokti, etc. - is the living vocabulary of Indian languages. It is not
just a question of continuity of words - it means that the concepts are alive
and they continue to be understood and are, therefore, relevant.
There has been, on the other hand, actual break in the western intellectual
tradition, necessitating a Renaissance. We have already noted (footnote16)
what Gilbert Murray says in his introduction to Byford's translation of Aristotle's
Poetics that to understand that text one has to read it in original
Greek as "the first nine nouns have no equivalents in the modern European
languages." This is a conceptual break requiring elaborate reconstruction/translation
of texts followed by reconstruction of concepts. In India, the opposite holds
true - the technical terms have acquired through continuous use so many overlaid
meanings that the exegete has to remove these layers to reach the core concept.
When people talk of continuity of Indian civilization, it is this continuity
Also, there is no break in the cultural practices. India's folk and oral art
forms attest the same continuity and as the Indian theoretical frames followed,
arose in response to cultural practices, including, even if not principally,
folk/oral forms, they continue to be adequate explanatory constructs for
contemporary practices as well.
And then, the Indian frames continue to be used to evaluate and explain music
and dance compositions and performances. One has to see art (music, dance)
reviews in journals and newspapers (particularly Indian language newspapers)
to see how 'living' these constructs are. This applies to verbal compositions
in regional languages as well.
It may be of interest for us to know that after Pt.Jagannatha (17-18th. Century)
there have been almost 200 original compositions in Sanskrit literary theory
coming right down to modern times. Also, Sanskrit poetics after Panditraja
Jagannatha has been assimilated into the Indian languages. There is evidence
of this in Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi, Bangla and so on.
Thus, this is a questionable assumption, the assumption of a break or a rupture
in the Indian cultural / intellectual tradition between the 'Sanskrit' period
and the 'vernacular' period, something that actually does not exist but is
postulated on the false analogy of the western history of ideas. From Vedic
Sanskrit to Classical Sanskrit to Pali to Prakrit to Apabhramshas to the modern
Indian languages, it is one story of linguistic-cultural-intellectual continuity.
There are in fact two 'Indias' - the 'English-knowing India' and the 'non-English
knowing India'. If one may venture one may say that the Indian theoretical
frameworks are of 'archaeological interest' only for those English educated
Indians who are in complete disjunction with their own culture and thought,
suffering from, to adapt Durkheim's category, intellectual anomie.
(2) The charge - Sanskrit intellectual frameworks are unacceptable for
a variety of reasons: 'The basic reason is that it is Brahminical ...derives
its authority from those castes ...elitist cultural baggage'.
This charge, falling in the paradigm of the familiar Liberal-Marxist attack
on the Hindu traditions, like other charges, stems from a deep ignorance of
things Indian. Only a person who has not read the primary texts and has only
read about the texts can make this kind of statement. Indian literary
theories are structural analyses of how meaning is constituted in literature.
Each theory posits unambiguous categories to exhaustively analyze and describe
its object. The objects examined by different theories are: lexis for Riti
school, suggestion or verbal symbolism for Dhvani theory, possible states
of being (human psychological conditions) for Rasa theory, deviations in the
language of literature for Vakrokti theory and and the whole range of possible
figures of speech for the Alamkara theory. Even interpretation assumes the
possibility of determining from among a range of possible meanings and sets
up a category bound system of interpretation that explains how a particular
meaning gets constituted19. The categories are analytical and descriptive
and there is nothing in them that is even remotely suggestive of or bound
by 'caste' or an exclusive philosophic system. The onus is on these critics
to show which of the sthayi or sancari bhava or the dhvani categories
or the lexical categories or the figures of speech or the methods of interpretation
are 'caste-bound' and in what manner? They are invited to take for example
the 50 sancari bhavas of Bharata and examine them. In the absence of a concrete
demonstration, I am afraid the criticism ceases to be honest and becomes merely
a political gesture treading the familiar paradigm of 'caste - elephant -
snake charmer - rope trick ' India. Just as we cannot characterise Plato's
ontological categories as 'pagan', just as we cannot characterize Derrida's
epistemic categories as 'Jewish', we cannot characterize any of the Indian
literary theoretic categories as 'Brahminical'.
A more fundamental error is probably responsible for this thinking. The tradition
talks of three contending schools of thought (sampradaya) in almost
all domains - the Brahman, the Bauddha and the Jaina. The 'Brahman'(often
wrongly spelled as 'Brahmin') does not stand for the caste -
it denotes 'the school of thought that upholds the category of Brahman
(of Vedanta)' as against those, the Buddhists and the Jains, for example who
don't. This Brahman sampradaya is also known in the tradition as 'the
vaiyakaranas', the grammarians who are often referred to as 'the first
among the philosophers'. It is a grave error to confuse this appellation with
the caste name20. The intellectual frameworks could not be 'exclusionary'
as alleged. A culture that allows thought systems ranging from downright materialist
Carvakas to subjective idealist systems such as Vallabha dualism as
recorded and critiqued by Sri Madhavacarya21 and attests the continued
presence of a strong popular, vernacular tradition of interpretation
besides the learned, could not be and never was uni-polar. No serious Indian
text has ever argued uni-culturalism. The creed is best summed up by the famous
statement, ekam satya vipra bahudha vadanti' ('there is a truth out
there and the wise talk of it in different ways'). Bhartrhari in the first
Kanda of his unrivalled Vakyapadiya expressly describes and supports
the principle of nanatva (multiplicity).
The world-view / philosophy of a culture cannot be ignored in any discussion
of an appropriate aesthetic. The Indian world-view therefore has to be taken
into account. The critics of an Indian aesthetics rooted in Indian philosophy
reduce Indian philosophy to simple 'idealism' and ignore the tremendous inner
differentiation and range of Indian philosophical thinking from the Carvaka
materialism to the Visista Advaita of Ramanuja or the Dvaita of Madhava. A
reference to the 13th century Sarvadarsanasamgraha of Madhavacarya
is a necessary starting point for this understanding Further, as the categories
are not caste or one-system bound - are in fact properly 'structural'- one
does not see the point of the statement that they are "uncongenial to
this age". What is 'uncongenial' about them? This must be articulated.
To the best of my knowledge no one has called Plato's categories 'uncongenial'.
One may critique them for their adequacy, show them to be inadequate or inappropriate
for whatever be their object and that will be a fruitful exercise but you
do not prove any thing by using ungrounded adjectives such as 'uncongenial'.
Are they 'uncongenial' because a person brought up on the western disciplinary
diet has to 'learn' them all over from a scratch and to, in fact, 're-program'
(3) The charge that Indian poetics trivializes literature by holding 'enjoyment',
'tranquil joy, 'ananda' (and not analysis/meaning/knowledge)
as the goal of literature.
This charge assumes, with respect to literary experience, an opposition between
knowledge and joy. It is understandable why western and western-minded scholars
should hold to this opposition. Plato was the first to separate emotion and
reason and right down to Eliot 'the dissociation of sensibility' and the requirement
on art to integrate the two have been the subjects of serious debate. The
opposition is not posited by the Indian mind. According to the Samkhya panch-kosa
theory (theory of the five-layered knowing self), Ananda or joy is
the end product of a well-recognised process of intellection - annamaya
kosa, pranamaya kosa, manomaya kosa, vijnanamaya kosa, and finally anandamaya
kosa. All experience filters inwards from either the outermost layers
of passive and active physical sensory responses or from the senses of knowledge.
It is then 'judged'/'evaluated' in terms of how it relates to one's self and
is thus 'sieved' through the intellect and imprinted on the 'recording' or
'cognising' self, the citta of the Indian theory of cognition. It is
this imprinted knowledge which is the source of joy which is extraordinary
and not to be compared with ordinary worldly pleasures as it is produced by
a certain 'elevation' of the self modified by the experience, the transformed
self, a self liberated from its normal narrow boundaries by
the 'knowledge' given rise to by the experience. In the context of literature,
Abhinavagupta describes this experience by the phrase sattva-udreka,
'the rise of sattva, (knowledge of true essence)'. Our self is permeated
by equanimity born of knowledge and this equanimity is ananda22. This
explanation makes complete sense to an average Indian. A western student has
to make effort to comprehend this and in the process study Indian philosophy
as well, just as the Indian student of western literature has to make extra
effort to educate himself in western culture and philosophy before he can
truly 'enjoy' western literature. This has reference to Mr. Perry's complaint
that " 'we' the interpreting community, need to be imbued with Indian
philosophy" to enjoy Indian texts. Ironically, this itself acknowledges
the knowledge base of literary enjoyment.
It must be noted that India has a long and powerful interpretive tradition,
sastra-paddhati. However this tika-parampara is restricted to
sastras/sutra-texts which are composed, in aphoristic, sutraic,
form necessitated by the exigencies of the tradition of mind-internal, oral
maintenance of texts. These commentaries perform the dual function of re-contextualizing
the text and of re-integrating it with other, often competing texts in the
same domain of knowledge. However, the absence of commentaries, tika,
on Mahabharata, an epic and not a sastra, does not take away
from the fact that this epic is by common consent a knowledge text, an encyclopedic
text and is almost always accessed in various modes for the profound wisdom
it offers in almost all spheres of life and thought.
One has to read Bhamaha (6th century) to see what strict requirements some
theorists place on literature as a rational discourse, how a composer (author)
is expected to be a master of the sastras, of the texts of the tradition
of literary practices, and of worldly life (loka). Again one has to read Mahimabhatta
to get an idea of how for some theorists literature is experienced through
a process of reasoning (inference). Again one has to read Abhinavagupta to
know how readers' epistemology is closely analyzed by three major theorists
who preceded him. How can all this make sense if literature is only for pleasure
and involves no intellection. The conclusion is inescapable that those who
argue against Sanskrit poetics do not in fact know what they are arguing against
and their criticism is totally uninformed criticism.
(4) The fourth charge is that Indian poetics is 'merely theoretical' and
has no models for 'analytical application', that successive models merely
enrich the theory without enabling analysis. One does not understand this
charge. Read the primary texts of any of the seven major theories (listed
in the order of development) - Alamkara, Rasa, Riti, Guna-Dosa, Dhvani,
Vakrokti, Aucitya. Each of them is an analytical theory - each is a system
of structurally organized, well-defined categories (a hierarchy of inter-,
intra-related categories) in terms of which any literary composition can be
analyzed. In fact they are very elaborate taxonomies and as such had come
in for some criticism on that count. As such they are descriptive- analytical
models. They do not share the speculative character of contemporary western
theory, which is notorious for not specifying/yielding categories for actual
analysis of texts. Each Indian theory makes a monistic claim about the principal
of literariness, alamkara, dhvani, etc., and then proceeds to lay down
a system of categories that articulates the principal. The Indian discourse,
including technical discourse, conditioned by orality, is injunctive (sutraic),
not expository. The foundational theory is not expounded - it is asserted
and then manifested in a categorical structure that assumes a theoretical
framework. It makes no sense therefore to talk of 'an applicational model'
as something separate from 'theory'. Read any primary text and see for yourself.
Bhamaha (5th-6th century AD) is a good text to start with for (i) theory of
literature, (ii) figurative mode, (iii) language of literature, and (iv) logical
requirements on literature as a discourse of knowledge.
It is also said that progressive elaborations of theories are instances of
'means enhancement' that defer 'means use'. Thus this concept from contemporary
social sciences is used to turn into a disadvantage what is in fact a distinct
merit of the tradition - its continuity and cumulativeness.
Where are we looking for the applications? In English journals only? Let us
look also in the Indian language magazines and newspapers. Let us also hear
the teacher teaching an Indian language, literature classroom in the towns
and cities away from the metropolis.
As far as Indian English criticism is concerned, it is not true that Indian
theories are not employed at all - it is one of the frameworks outnumbered
no doubt by the contemporary theories. One has to look at the journals of
English studies produced by various university departments of English to see
that such writing is indeed there. However, the quality of such criticism
leaves much to be desired but then the criticism using contemporary frameworks
does not fare much better either. The required sophistication will come when
the theories are studied seriously in the first case in the university departments
and that goes for western theories as well.
(5) The fifth charge must surprise the scholars of Indian literary theory
in particular and Indian thought in general - that the terminology of Sanskrit
theories is 'characteristically unstable' more than that of western criticism.
Those who know the Sanskrit language know that that Sanskrit vocabulary is
a structured vocabulary derived mostly from 1957 verb roots with fixed
meaning so that the meaning of almost any Sanskrit word can be almost uniquely
determined by the etymological method23. We have defined, in our
book mentioned above, bhava, a category in Rasa Theory in that manner
as 'that which brings about a state of being' derived as bhava is from
the verb root bhu, the first root in Panini's Dhatupatha which
means 'to be'. The problem, I think is that all this involves enormous amount
of learning, and is quite daunting for those who are not in touch with this
tradition. Interestingly, these concepts are quite familiar to our young students
coming from all parts of the country and this is something that the sceptics
can verify. Not only that - these concepts/words are widely and frequently
used by the people to express their responses to life experiences, including
art experience. It may be noted that Rasa theory has been universally accepted
by all schools of thought and the term is a very high frequency word.
The western critical vocabulary is relatively very limited and very amorphous
- what are the stable analytical tools of Deconstruction, for example? Of
the three analytical categories of New Criticism, only metaphor is
strictly definable, with irony and paradox yielding themselves
to any number of interpretations. Aristotle's Poetics is the only comparable
sastra in the western tradition with a rich categorical framework,
which may still be employed, is indeed employed, to analyze and evaluate literary
General western teachers and critics of literature do not have the necessary
embedding in Indian thought nor are they expected to have that. When out of
curiosity or desire for novelty, they begin meddling with Indian literary
theories they find its categories 'indeterminate' because these categories
make sense only to those who have the necessary background in India' philosophical
systems and linguistic thought.
(6) The sixth charge is that Indian literary theory lacks 'an authoritative
sastra'. This charge, it appears stems from a misreading of the statement
made in the book on poetics mentioned above that poetics, unlike grammar,
is not counted among sastras, i.e. technical disciplines. This is so
because the Indian literary tradition lays down very rigorous requirements
for a discipline to qualify as a sastra, one of them being the existence
of an authoritative primary texts such as Panini's Astadhyayi in the
discipline of grammar. Such a primary text must be an ideal text from the
point of view of its exhaustiveness, its authenticity, its retainability in
the mind, therefore, its pedagogical value. Above all, it must be composed
in the sutraic style so that it can be effectively stored in the mind.
The absence of such a text in the area of the literary theory perhaps discounted
the possibility of poetics being counted among the sastras. We must
remember that only a part of this study, the part dealing with figurativeness
is recognized as a technical discipline and designated as alamkara sastra.
The rest of the study is considered as vidya, sahitya vidya. This is
from within the tradition but if we compare literary theory texts of the western
tradition, each and every text of the Indian tradition is strictly a technical
composition composed in a very rigorous style and structured to focus on very
well defined issues. Refer, for example, to Bharata's Natyasastra at
the beginning of the tradition or Bhamah's Alankarsutra, the 5th/6th-century
text with their well-defined subject matter. Refer also to Mahima Bhatta's
Vyaktiviveka, a text dealing with the inferential process of auditing
a literary composition, or Kuntaka's Vakroktvivita (11th century) or
Pt. Jagannatha's Rasgangadhara, the 17th/18th-century text that employs
the terminology of navya nyaya to analyse literary compositions and
aesthetic experience. Going by these parameters, Aristotle's Poetics is the
only sastra in the western tradition. The statement that there is no
sastra in poetics, in the strict sense of the tradition, does not mean
that there is no discipline or that there are no texts or no history of disputation
or that the texts or discussion is trivial.
(7) The seventh charge is that Indian literary theory is epistemologically
limited, relying as it does on analogy and authority. This is difficult
to understand whose epistemology are we talking of? The poet's, the critic's
or the reader's? The author's epistemology is the epistemology of an experiencer
including in its range all the modes from perception to intuition. However,
the critic's or the reader's epistemology is limited to sabda, words
on the page, unless a text is performed or enacted in which case perception
becomes a major epistemological mode. Analogy is a very important mode of
both constituting and interpreting knowledge and has been an important mode
in the Indian philosophical as well as other traditions. But as every student
of Indian philosophy knows, analogy is not the dominant epistemology in any
system. Even in literary theory when the poeticians Sankuka, Bhatta Lolatta,
Abhinavagupta are talking of how literary experience is audited, their analyses
range over perception, inference, verbal cognition and self-realization (atmasakshatkar).
The question of authority similarly has to be first located. Whose authority
and for whom? The authority of the primary thinkers of a School for the followers
of that School or the authority of the author/composer for the critic/reader
or the authority of the critical texts for lay critics and readers? As the
Indian literary theory is marked by a number of contending Schools and a continuous
debate among them, it is difficult to understand this charge of verbal authority
as the only epistemology.
(8) The eighth charge is that Indian literary theory is a 'metaphysically
that concept requires language, that there are no
unmediated senses of things'. This is a very confusing statement. This
charge picks up a major strand in Indian philosophy of language, that of Bhartrhari,
who argues that all this jagat, universe, is a linguistic construct.
It is a conception based in the physics of speech as enunciated in the Upanishads
- specifically the claim that vak (speech) is rooted in prana
(breadth) and mana (mind). There are logical gaps in calling Indian
literary theory 'a metaphysically based aesthetics' because the literary theory
assumes the truth of this conception of language. First of all the Upanisadic
claims that language is routed in breadth and mind is a statement of physical,
empirical fact and not a metaphysical construct. Second, in the long tradition
of thinking about the nature of language, this concept along with the Rgvedic
statement that 'language cuts forms in the ocean of reality' (1-164-45) serves
as the seed thought which is gradually elaborated into a whole philosophy
of linguistic constructivism by Bhartrhari in opposition to the Buddhist philosophy
of non-linguistic/non-determinate cognition. The third position is that of
the Nyayikas who argue that cognition is both determinate and non-determinate.
Thus, powerful systems of thought elaborately argued by the respective exponents
in texts continue to be available. The literary theorists belong to the tradition
of grammarians and subscribe to the view that language constructs reality
including the so-called 'unmediated senses of things'. The real experience
in life is structured and cognized through the conceptual framework in the
mind, which is not different from the linguistic framework and what a literary
report involves, is an explicit verbalization of this real experience, including
'the sense of things'. Finally, the aesthetics of poeticians such as Bharata,
Bhamaha and Mahima Bhatta can by no stretch of imagination be described as
a metaphysically based aesthetics. In the same way to describe a rasa
experience as a metaphysical experience amounts to using words loosely. There
is no agreement among the Indian theorists about the nature of rasa
experience - for Bharata it is an objective experience of the auditor, of
the receiver as a preksaka, i.e. observer. For Mahima Bhatta it is
an intellectual experience gained through reasoning. For Abhinavgupta it is
something that is experienced and attested within one's owned self, a process
that for Abhinavgupta is not different from direct perception. That all experience,
including literary experience is subjective in a sense does not render it
metaphysical. It is a pity that such substantial issues are discussed at merely
(9) There is the ninth charge that Indian literary theory particularly
the rasa theory claims a comprehensiveness, universalizing that is contradicted
by 'subjective reception and transformation of selective emotions into modes
There is no doubt that Bharata's rasa theory aims at taxonomy of states
of being bhava likely to be encountered by a human being. Fifty such states
of being have been listed and a structure of causation, nature and effect
of each one of them has been rigorously analyzed. This by itself is an extraordinary
achievement. Over more than two thousand years only one more state of being
could be added to this list and that by another intellectual giant Abhinavgupta
of Kashmir who argued from the foundations of Kashmir's Saivism and
Advaita and posited santa rasa, a state of equilibrium/tranquility,
as the ninth rasa. If its comprehensiveness, which incidentally has never
been claimed by Bharata, is questioned it is open for us to identify and posit
other states of being. If is often argued that the Absurd, for example, is
not accounted for by this theory. There are two responses to this - one the
rasa theory is an open-ended theory and therefore it is for some critic/thinker
to steadily analyze the Absurd and add as the 52nd state of being. If it is
perceived as a recurring/immanent experience of modern times, add it as the
10th rasa. The second response is that it is possible to show that the theory
as it exists can account for the state of the Absurd provided we apply the
rasa -- categorical framework with a certain degree of sophistication.
In any case, a tradition, which has competing theories and a debate cannot
be accused of monism or 'universalizing'.
(10) The tenth charge is that the Indian literary theory makes an untenable
historiographical claim to represent the totality of Indian cultures and histories.
There is politics in this charge. Every Indian knows that wherever he goes
or travels in this vast land, he feels and thinks that he is in the same desa,
country, that even when he does not share the language of fellow Indians,
he shares the outlook, the worldview and the language of the mind. In the
same way there is a pan-Indian 'culture' i.e. a set of codes for language,
dance, music, poetry etc. The pan-Indianness does not at all apply with uniformity
or absoluteness. Indians are not monistic people unlike the members of western
Christian civilization whose monism expresses itself in all domains of knowledge
from philosophy to cartography. Indian thinkers have a model and, what may
be best described as, a type existing in and realized as so many tokens. Brahma
existing in everything and in all but not in any one unit. This is the Advaita
model and it is this model that informs Indian thinking across disciplines.
Thus, in literary theory, Rajasekhara in his familiar legendary mode describes
how particular form or style or theme of composers originate at 'X' and then
spreads and proliferates in different parts of this geographic entity called
(cakravarti ksetra, a territory bounded like a wheel but internally
differentiated) and takes local habitation and name, from the local cultures.
This is a very valid model of the combination of the global and the local
and this is in fact the defining characteristic of a good theory.
India's visible ethnography contradicts the European one-language-one-nation-one-state
model and thus enables west and western inspired political thinkers to say
that India is not a nation but a combination of nationalities. This theory
is negated by Indian experience - you stand in a queue in any one of the four
major dhama, places of pilgrimage on the four corners of the country
- Badrinath, Rameshwaram, Dwarka, Jagannathpuri - and you find that you are
among people who are ethnically different and speak different languages, who
dress themselves differently, who eat different kinds of food and yet their
language of the mind is one and the same. In a text as old as the Atharva
Veda, prthvi sukta, the word rastra is used in a hymn that reads
like this - "O Mother Earth, destroy those who want to subjugate my rastra
by sastra (weapons) or sastra (ideas)". It may be argued
that this concept excludes the religious minorities. Not at all. If you leave
the political sphere all Indians live and think the Indian culture. Moreover,
the Christian culture and character of western countries, the UK and the USA,
for example, is not supposed to exclude or function to the detriment of their
sizeable minorities. The House of Commons shall always start with a reading
from the Psalms and the President of the US shall always be a Christian. This
rhetoric may be excused - it is inspired by rhetoric.
(11) Finally, there is the assertion that Indian literary theory as enshrined
in texts composed in Sanskrit excludes 'non-Sanskrit oral literatures
This is another example of an argument that is constructed because you have
something to prove. Oppositions are set up because we wish to prove not just
diversity but irreconcilable diversity of various strands in the mosaic of
Indian socio-cultural reality. Thus we set up oppositions such as between
Sanskrit as the language of the elite and the speech of common people of the
times, opposition between Sanskrit and modern Indian languages and opposition
between Sanskrit as an expression of the literate culture and the oral literatures.
None of these is tenable. Sanskrit literary theory, as Professor AK Warder
pointed out long time back, is empirical - it follows widespread practice;
it does not prescribe; it describes. Bharata's Natyasastra continues to be
the text of sravya-preksa (aural-visual) performances such as yaksa-gana
of Karnataka, kathakali of Kerala, baul performances of Bengal
and the folk dances of Punjab, Gujarat and Rajasthan, etc. To understand the
relationship between the learned tradition and the popular tradition in India,
all we have to do is to examine the relationship between Valmiki's Ramayana
as the archetypal texts and the innumerable Ramlilas performed in towns
and villages of north India. There is the same type - token relationship that
we have talked about in one of the earlier sections - a construct is articulated
and realized in a number of ways but all of them are recognizable as expressions
of the given construct. It is no different from what happens in speech. Every
sound such as 'P' that we hear is a realization of an abstract sound, the
abstract 'P', a unit in the phonological system. The actually heard 'P' is
not the same as the abstract 'P' and yet, at the same time, it is not different
from the abstract 'P'. And all the actually heard 'P's' are different from
each other phonetically and yet are individual realizations of the same abstract
'P'. All unities are founded on this type of structure, a structure identifiable
in the classical Indian conceptual framework broadly as Advaita.
At the end, I would like to report what Professor Namwar Singhji once said
in his presidential remarks in an Indian International Centre seminar. He
talked of the global versus the local and of the need to critically evaluate
both our own literary traditions and the western theories and to find ways
of reconciling them. The situation today as he saw it was much more complex
with the English language becoming a global language and the English texts
assuming the status of hyper-canonical texts. Identities and living traditions
enter into an argument with the global and in this argument we need theories
to resist theory. What one has to strive for is a proper interaction and disputation
for the simple reason that the vast Indian reality particularly non-metropolitan,
literary or any other, will continue to be explicable adequately only in terms
of Indian theoretical constructs. That must be the base and other constructs
must come in as modifiers. There is no disjunction or break in the Indian
history of ideas and the effort to set up the vernacular in opposition to
the Sanskrit and other such efforts are good political acts but intellectually
poor, if not dishonest. The tradition of literary thinking cannot be wished
away. Its intellectual strength is unquestionable. And it lives - it lives
in folk practices, popular compositions, much of vernacular literatures and
in the vernacular classrooms. That it does not live vibrantly in the academic
discourse of mainstream education is a commentary on the education system
To sum up:
As we said elsewhere, a theory is a code of a cultural community's expectations
from its art forms, rooted as is in the community's literary practices. As
such it is more sufficient and adequate explanatory construct for the native
responses to literary texts and the preferred forms such as the verse narratives
of love and death. Having originated in oral compositions, it is very much
equipped to handle even folk, oral literatures. It is culturally determined
questions that the western literary theory quite legitimately asks
and that raise the questions of their validity for us. For example, the focus
on interpretation, the determination of meaning as the goal of theory begs
the question of the status of literature as a discourse of knowledge and of
its place in the verbal discourse of the community. Both the Indian and western
traditions began with certain ambivalence on this question but then with Aristotle,
the western tradition diverged and accorded literature a pre-eminent epistemological
status as a discourse of knowledge. This is also accounted for by the absence
of a continuous and cumulative philosophical tradition in the western history
of ideas which otherwise too is marked by a break with, a rupture from its
classical past during what is known as the Middle Ages. No such thing happened
here as we have argued above - and it is erroneous to conceptualize 'after
amnesia' - and continued to make a distinction between sastra and kavya while
according an intermediate status to itihasa-purana. On this count only that
part of poetics is given the status of sastra that deals with rhetoric, the
figural mode. We can not go into the details of the whole debate here and
seek only to note an important stage in its development.
As the validity of literature as a discourse of knowledge is crucially contingent
on the fact that it is a verbal discourse, its epistemic validity depends
on how far language is itself an adequate representational system, on the
nature of relationship that holds between language and reality. And if language
is a constructivist system, as the Indian linguistic tradition - and now Deconstruction
- holds, then it is completely problematic to construct and evaluate social
and other forms of reality from verbal representations. Abhinavagupta in the
11th century discusses this question, this point of view that literary knowledge
is the knowledge of the non-present, paroksa-jnana, and argues, in the mode
of Jain epistemology, that since pratyaksa, perception, is what is atma-pratyaksa,
present to the inner self, and as sabdika-jnana, verbally evoked knowledge
is also atma-pratyaksa, literary / verbal knowledge has also the same status
/ validity as pratyaksa-jnana. This makes the meaning in literature a linguistic
Those who are familiar with contemporary theories will accept the relevance
and significance of this foundational view that informs Indian philosophy
of language and Indian poetics. As for literary interpretation, the current
obsession, while the epics have been commented upon and explicated, the purely
imaginative compositions have not come in for interpretation for the strong
reasons cited above. But the framework for interpretation is available in
the philosophical tradition and if now we assign a different value to metropolitan
literature and have to interpret it, the Indian theory is rich enough to be
extended to this body of texts as well. What is often forgotten is that for
interpretation one needs a rich theory of meaning in the absence of which
interpretation becomes a whimsical free-wheeling speculation which is what
most of contemporary exercises amount to. We have a long attested tradition
of thinking about meaning - by the Buddhists, the Jains and the Grammarians
(Brahmins) - beginning with the concept of symbolic meaning in the Sruti texts
and culminating in Bhartrhari that meaning is in application. There are wide
ranging theories dealing with the language of literature, its figural mode,
the verbal symbolism, the markedness of literary discourse, the principle
of appropriateness, the relationship of literature to logic and to life, theories
of genre, structure and types of narratives and the nature of literary experience.
Finally, a theory as rich as Bhartrhari's in terms of its lexical analysis,
its sentential / propositional analysis, its analysis of figurativeness, its
speech-act and situational contexts and conditions of use (cf. Vakyapadiya,
II 315-316), will allow a whole range of interpretations from the sociological
to the abstract. Mammata demonstrates its applicability in his 13th century
text Kavya Prakasa.
We must also reject the view that Indian literary theory has a metaphysical
goal and is reducible to just rasa-dhvani principle. Ananda as a characterization
of literary experience must be recognized as a cognitive and not an emotive
The problem with the critics is that they believe in all their innocence,
that what they do not know, or do not care to know, does not exist!
The tasks that emerge from this statement are self evident:
(i) we should expound meticulously the different Indian theories by writing
commentaries on them;
(ii) we should develop application models from different theories (of the
kind developed from Rajashekhara by self and reported in Odyssey: Journal
of Philosophy and Literature, GNDU, Amritsar, 1995);
(iii) we should promote application of these models to a wide variety of
Indian and western texts, an exercise that will in the process refine the
models and may also extend the theory.
(i) we should build philosophy into literary studies and prepare simple
translations of primary texts of Indian philosophy and write simple introductions
to Indian philosophical systems;
(ii) we should research the relationship between philosophy and aesthetics
and prepare a contextualized history of Indian aesthetics up to modern
(iii) we should research the rise and development of Indian languages
and literatures - prepare authentic histories to show the continuities.
(i) such histories will undoubtedly show a remarkable continuity
of concerns and thought that is unique to the Indian intellectual traditions
and would establish the invalidity of the 'rupture' or 'amnesia' hypotheses.
(ii) we should engage the question whether India is one cultural entity or
not and discuss this not just in the context of Western political cultural
parameters but also, and mainly, in terms of our own attested thinking in
(iii) we have to reargue the validity and relevance of the principle of transcendence
for Indian multiple reality;
(iv) we should research the nature of Indian philosophy, specifically in relation
to India's ultilingualism and the so-called multi-culturalism, and specifically
the Great Tradition in relation to the Minor Traditions; finally,
(v) we should re-investigate 'nativism' by asking whether there really is
an opposition or a radical divide between the vernaculars and Sanskrit, whether
we cannot see an unbroken growth or development from the classical period
to the modern period in the history of ideas and in the rise and formation
of Indian languages.
To enable the fulfillment of such an agenda, systemic changes in the syllabi
and course work are of course crucial to cultivate a generation of young scholars
who are familiar with Indian thought. Relevant Indian thought must be made a
part of the syllabi of various disciplines. However, our effort cannot wait
on that and as individuals we can set our own goals towards a common end.