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INDIAN CLASSICAL WRITERS The Ramayana, is the shorter of the two great epic poems of India, the other being the Mahabharata (“Great Epic of the Bharata Dynasty”). The Ramayana was composed in Sanskrit, during 300 BCE, by the poet Valmiki and in its present form consists of 24,000 couplets divided into seven books. The poem describes the royal birth of the god Rama in the kingdom of Ayodhya (Oudh), his tutelage under the sage Vishvamitra, and his success in bending Shiva’s mighty bow at the Svayamvara of Sita, the daughter of King Janaka, thus winning her for his wife. After Lord Rama is banished from his position as heir to the kingdom through a palace intrigue, he retreats to the forest with his wife and his favourite half brother, Lakshmana, to spend 14 years in exile. There Ravana, the demon-king of Lanka, carries off Sita to his capital while her two protectors are busy pursuing a golden deer sent to the forest to mislead them. Sita resolutely rejects Ravana’s attentions, and Lord Rama and his brother set out to rescue her. After numerous adventures, they enter into alliance with Sugriva, king of the monkeys, and, with the assistance of the monkey-general Hanuman and Ravana’s own brother, Vibhishana, they attack Lanka. Rama slays Ravana and rescues Sita, who undergoes an ordeal by fire in order to clear herself of suspicions of infidelity. When they return to Ayodhya, however, Rama learns that the people still question the queen’s chastity, and he banishes her to the forest. There she meets the sage Valmiki (the author of the Ramayana) and at his hermitage gives birth to Rama’s two sons. The family is reunited when the sons come of age, but Sita, after again protesting her innocence, plunges into the earth, her mother, who receives her and swallows her up. Little is known of Sage Valmiki as a historical figure, though he is described as having been a thief named Ratnakara prior to becoming a sage. Many translations of the Ramayana into the vernacular languages are themselves works of great literary artistry, including the Tamil version of Kampan, the Bengali version of Krittibas, and the Hindi version, Ramcharitmanas, of Tulsidas. Throughout North India the events of the poem are enacted in an annual pageant, the Ram Lila, and in South India the two epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, make up the story repertoire of kathakali or dance-drama of Malabar. Later classical poets hailed Valmiki himself as the first true poet (kavi), and indeed much of his work has a poetic freshness and literary intention that is largely absent from the Mahābhārata. Vālmīki’s great tools are metaphor and simile, as is also true of later literature. He delights in the description of pastoral scenes, in lamentations and grand martial spectacles, and in the idyll of the hermitage, which depicts a serene sage leading a life of quiet meditation and living on simple forest fare in a tranquil woodland close to a sacred river. Vyasa, also called Krishna Dvaipayana or Vedavyasa, (flourished during 1500 BCE] is a legendary Indian sage who is traditionally credited with composing or compiling the Mahabharata, a collection of legendary and didactic poetry worked around a central heroic narrative. According to legend, Vyasa was the son of the ascetic Parashara and a ferryman’s daughter- Satyavati . He grew up in forests, living with hermits who taught him the Vedas (ancient sacred literature of India). Thereafter he lived in the forests near the banks of the river Sarasvati, becoming a teacher and a priest, fathering a son and disciple, Shuka, and gathering a large group of disciples. Late in life, living in caves in the Himalayas, he is said to have divided the Vedas into the four traditional collections, composed the puranas and, in a period of two and a half years, composed his great poetic work, the Mahabharata, dictating it to his scribe, Lord Ganesha. Mahabharata, (Sanskrit: “Great Epic of the Bharata Dynasty”) is one of the two Sanskrit epic poems of ancient India (the other being the Ramayana). The Mahabharata is an important source of information on the development of Hinduism between 400 BCE and 200 CE and is regarded as both a text about dharma ( moral law) and a history (itihasa]. Appearing in its present form about 400 CE, the Mahabharata consists of a mass of mythological and didactic material arranged around a central heroic narrative that tells of the struggle for sovereignty between two groups of cousins, the Kauravas (sons of Dhritarashtra, the descendant of Kuru) and the Pandavas (sons of Pandu). The poem is made up of almost 100,000 couplets—about seven times the length of the Iliad and the Odyssey combined—divided into 18 parvans, or sections, plus a supplement titled Harivamsha (“Genealogy of the God Hari”; i.e., of Lord Vishnu. The epics served as a treasury of stories, which provided themes and characters for countless poems and plays. The works of the dramatist Bhasa, notably Svapnavasavadattaand Pratijnayaugandharayana, were the basics of Sanskrit drama. The popularity of drama necessitated the writing of a work on dramaturgy, the Natyashastra (“Treatise on Dramatic Art”) by the sage-priest Bharata. Bhāsa, (born 3rd century AD, India), is one of the earliest known Sanskrit dramatists, many of whose complete plays have been found. In 1912 an Indian scholar discovered and published the texts of 13 of Bhāsa’s dramas, previously known only by the allusions of ancient Sanskrit dramatists. His best work, Svapnavāsavadattā (“The Dream of Vāsavadattā”), depicts a king losing and then regaining his kingdom from a usurper. The majority of his dramas are ingenious adaptations on themes of heroism and romantic love borrowed from India’s two great epics, the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata. Bhāsa deviated from the accepted dramaturgy of the time by portraying battle scenes and killings on the stage. His influence is seen in the works of the great 5thcentury dramatist Kālidāsa, who consciously imitated and improved upon some of Bhāsa’s literary motifs. There is considerable controversy over the authenticity of the Bhāsa plays, but at least some of them must be authentic, perhaps dating back to the 3rd century. The plays are based on the epic and on the Bṛhat-kathā narrative cycle (see below); among the latter, the Svapnavāsavadattā (“The Dream of Vāsavadattā”) is the most famous. Of considerable interest also is the Daridra-Cārudatta (“The Poverty of Charudatta”), which became the basis for the play Mṛcchakaṭika – Mrichhakatika (“Little Clay Cart”) of Śūdraka. It must be assumed that there was an efflorescence of poetry and theatre in the city of Ujjayinī, one of the capitals of the Gupta Empire, in the 5th century, for a number of authors can be placed there during this reign; among these were Viśākhadatta, Śūdraka, Śyāmilaka, the writer of one of the best farces, and Kālidāsa, who at the beginning of the development of the genre produced some of the greatest plays in the tradition. Nothing is known with certainty of the life of Kālidāsa, the greatest of Sanskrit poets, but there is substantial agreement that at one time he lived in Ujjayinī (Ujjain, in the present state of Madhya Pradesh), the capital of Avanti and an important centre of Sanskrit culture in a commercially busy area. His name, which means Servitor of Kālī, indicates that he was a follower of the goddess, whom he was to celebrate as Pārvatī, the daughter of the mountain, in the Kumārasaṃbhava. It is believed that he lived during the reign of Chandra Gupta II -Vikramāditya (c. 380–c. 415), and there are reports that he died, by the hand of an envious courtesan, while he was a guest of King Kumāradāsa of Ceylon, Sri Lanka. Compared with those of others, Kālidāsa’s style might be called simple, but it is a very studied, very felicitous simplicity, hiding the actual complexity of his constructions. In two of his mahākāvyas, Kālidāsa draws on epic lore. The first, and probably earlier one, is the Kumārasaṃbhava(“Birth of the War God”), which describes the courting of the ascetic Śiva, who is meditating in the mountains, by Pārvatī, the daughter of the Himalayas; the destruction of the god of love (after his arrow has struck Śiva) by the fire from Śiva’s third eye; and the wedding of Śiva and Pārvatī, which results in the conception of the war god – Kumara The second mahākāvya, the Raghuvaṃśa(“Dynasty of Raghu”), deals with themes from the Rāmāyaṇa: it describes the vicissitudes of the Solar dynasty of the ancient Indian barons, culminating in the Rāmāyaṇa story of Rāma and Sītā. The Raghuvaṃśa is famous for its beautiful descriptions and incidental narratives, which give the poem a somewhat episodic character; among them are a description of the six seasons – Ritusamhara (spring, summer, rainy, autumn, winter, and dewy). Unique in Sanskrit love poetry is Kālidāsa’s Meghadūta, in which the poet tries to go beyond the strophic unity of the short lyric (see below The short lyric), which normally characterizes love poems, by stringing the stanzas into a narrative. This innovation did not take hold, though the poem inspired imitations along precisely the same story line. The Meghadūta is the lament of an exiled yakṣa who is pining for his beloved on a lonely mountain peak. When, at the beginning of the monsoon, a cloud perches on the peak, he asks it to deliver a message to his love in the Himalayan city of Alakā. Most of the poem, composed in an extremely graceful metre, consists of a description of the landmarks, cities, and the like on the cloud’s route to Alakā. It must be considered among the finest poems, if not the finest poem, written in Sanskrit. Three plays by Kālidāsa remain, one of which is the Mālavikāgnimitra (“Agnimitra and Mālavikā”), a harem play of amorous intrigue at a royal court. The other two are based on old themes. Vikramorvaśī (“Urvaśī Won by Valour”) is based on a story as old as the Rigveda, that of the nymph Urvaśī, who is loved by King Purūravas, whom she marries on certain conditions. An accident happens, and the nymph returns to heaven, leaving her husband crazed with longing, until a final reunion. But the Indian tradition holds the Abhijñānaśakuntalā (“Śakuntalā and the Token of Recognition”) to be the greatest of all Sanskrit plays. It recounts a Mahābhārata story—of a hermit girl secretly married to a visiting king, who leaves with her a keepsake that will serve her as a token of recognition. She gives birth to a son, Bharata, and goes to the King’s court; on the way she loses the token ring in a river, where a fish swallows it. The King fails to recognize her and rejects her, and her mother, a nymph, carries her to heaven. When the ring is recovered by a fisherman and the King’s memory is restored, he searches for Śakuntalā but does not find her. In the end he meets a boy who proves to be his son and is restored to him. Kālidāsa’s great forte is the portrayal of emotions—ordinary enough in themselves (budding love, love consummated, rejection, despair, a father’s love for his son)—but Kālidāsa applies to them a mastery of expression and image that makes the play a work of perennial beauty. Next to nothing is known of Śūdraka except that he must have hailed from Ujjayinī. His is the most charming of all prakaraṇa plays (those that are not based on epic material): the Mṛcchakaṭikā (“Little Clay Cart”)- Mricchakatika, the story of an impoverished merchant and a courtesan who love each other but are thwarted by a powerful rival who tries to kill the woman and place the blame on the hero, Cārudatta ( Charudatta). The play offers a fascinating view of the different layers of urban society. . Śrīharsha, or Shriharsha (flourished 12th century) is an Indian author and poet whose Naishadhiyacharitra, or Nalacharitra, is among the most popular mahākāvyas in Sanskrit literature. The details of Śrīharsha’s life are uncertain. Reportedly, when Shrīharsha’s father, a poet in King Vijayachandra’s court in Kannauj, was disgraced in a poetry contest, he retired and asked Śrīharsha to avenge him. In time Vijayachandra became Shriharsha’s patron, and it was at the king’s son –Jayachandra’s request that the poet composed Naishadhiyacharitra [ Nalacharitra]. Among his other writings are treatises on elements of Buddhist and Vedanta beliefs and eulogies on late kings. Persecuted by a queen jealous of an honour bestowed upon him, he retired to a quiet life by the Ganges River. Naishadhiyacharitra, in 22 cantos, is a retelling of the tale of Nala, king of Nishadha, and Damayantī, princess of Vidarbha, from the Mahabharata. It is a story of love overcoming obstacles, ending happily in marriage, and the poem is especially notable for its descriptive embellishments and skillful presentation of emotion. Śhrīharsha’s mastery of metre is evident, but he has been criticized for occasional obscurity and excessive verbal ornamentation. Jayadeva, (flourished 12th century), Indian author of the Sanskrit poem Gita Govinda (“Song of the Cowherd [Krishna]”) The son of Bhojadeva, a Brahman, he was born in the village of Kenduli Sasan, Orissa (now Odisha), near the city of Puri, and was married to Padmavati. Jayadeva was closely associated with the temple of Jagannatha (Krishna) at Puri, where recitation of his Gita Govinda was regularly performed by the maharis (temple dancers). Jayadeva has been honoured for several centuries at an annual festival at his birthplace, during which his poem is recited. The Gita Govinda describes the love of Krishna, the divine cowherd, for Radha, his favourite among the gopis (wives and daughters of the cowherds). The poem presents, in dramatic form, the lovers’ attraction, estrangement, yearning, and final reconciliation through the help of a sakhi (female confidant). The poem, which blends recitative stanzas with 24 short songs, inspired much of the subsequent poetry and painting in the bhakti(devotional) tradition of Krishna and Radha throughout India. Songs from the Gita Govinda continue to be sung in temples, during festivals, and at kirtanas (communal worship through song). Jayadeva’s work, rather lacking in the grammatical rigidity of the other mahākāvya writers, has been extremely popular and affords a fine example of the devotional lyric.