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14 Jun

Sanskrit Literary Criticism:Critical Notes

Highways of Literary Criticism in Sanskrit

S Kuppuswami Sastri

This essay is a celebration of the power of Vyanjana. It is the central principle of literary criticism in Sanskrit. Anandavardhana, in his Dhvanyaloka argues that vyanjana is the source of poetic charm.

There was a time when people believed that ‘all art is expression’. However Benedetto Croce replaced it with the concept ‘all expression is art’. It means that every sentence has some artistic element in it and that every speaker is some kind of an artist.

Jesperson develops this idea further. He points out that every sentence consists of three things – expression, suppression and impression. Suggestion is impression through suppression.

Why should there be suppression in ordinary sentences?

When we say something, we have to attract the attention of the listener. If the listener is not interested, we will not be able to impress him/her. To evoke interest in the listener we must hide something, we must suppress something. If we express everything it will result in boredom. The greatness of great writers lies in their ability to suppress things.

The Naiyayikas tried to express everything and so they became real bores. Still they could not express everything because there is something in every sentence that refuses to be expressed. The meaning of a sentence is not the sum total of the meanings of its constituent words. This extra ‘something’ is always suppressed and can only be suggested.  In Indian aesthetic terminology we call it vyanjana.

What is Vyanjana?

In simple terms, it may be described as an extraordinary significative power which every work of art possesses. It is suggestion in poetry. However if often means more than that. It is a principle accepted by philosophers, logicians and linguists. It is raised to the rank of a special principle in literary criticism. The extraordinary power of vyanjana synthesizes many ideas which are usually considered to be ‘opposites’. Vyanjana synthesizes:

  1. Expression and Impression/ The Speaker and the Listener – When a speaker utters a sentence, its impression is created in the listener due to suppression. Suggestion, we know, is impression due to suppression. Thus vyanjana synthesizes expression and impression.
  2. The Artist, the Work of Art and the Reader – The artist has scope for anticipatory imagination and the reader has scope for anticipatory realization. Here, vyanjana acts as the bridge that carries the art from the artist to the reader.
  3. Law and Liberty – In the field of literature, law refers to the literary rules, and liberty refers to the freedom of the artist’s genius. The critic represents law and the poet stands for liberty. Too much importance given to either law or liberty is bad for literature. Here too, vyanjana harmonizes the attitude of the poet and the attitude of the critic. Thus vyanjana establishes a synthesis between law and liberty.
  4. Sound and Sense/ Sabda and Artha/ Word and Meaning – Traditionally, Indian culture sees sabda and artha as an inseparable pair. In the Mangala Sloka to Raghuvamsa, Kalidasa invokes Parvati and Parameswara to help him make a synthesis between sabda and artha. Here Kalidasa invokes the power of vyanjana. Without vyanjana, even a great artist cannot produce a great work of art.
  5. Prophets and Poets – Bhatta Tauta says that Kavi and Rsi are synonyms. Prophets and poets are made of the same stuff and their vision is identical. Shelley remarks that painters and poets would not fail to apprehend this vision. This harmony is effected by the power of vyanjana or suggestion.
  6. Speech Sounds and their Meanings – In phonetics, speech sounds are produced as a result of certain adjustments of the speech mechanism, and meaning is quite different from this. Thus organically, the two cannot be harmonized. But here too, the synthesis is made possible, by the power of vyanjana.
  7. Form and Content – Ordinary words grouped in an artistic way with their primary sense constitute form. In other words, the artistic collocation of artistic sabda, artha, guna, dosa, riti and alamkara constitute literary form. The sense which is beautiful, the sense that is charming, constitutes content. The great synthesis between literary form and literary content is made possible by the power of vyanjana.

Apart from Dhvani, the other major highways of literary criticism in Sanskrit are:

  1. Alamkara (Scholar – Bhamaha, Text – Kavyalamkara) – ‘Alam’ means ornament. Alamkara is that which adorns or beautifies. It stands for decorative devices or figures of speech. Alamkaras are so called because they enhance beauty in poetry. Alamkaras are of two types – sabdalamkara (figures of sound) and arthalamkara (figures of meaning).
  2. Vakrokti (Scholar – Kuntaka, Text – Vakroktijivita) – Vakrokti is deviation in expression from the commonplace. Vakrokti is Anrju Vak – the word that is not straight. It is an indirect way of expression. Kuntaka defines it thus: both words and meanings marked by artistic turn of speech is vakrokti.
  3. Riti (Scholar – Vamana, Text – Kavyalamkarasutrvrtti) – In simple terms, riti means style. Vamana says, visista padaracana riti – riti is excellent disposition of diction. Vamana declares that riti is the soul of poetry: ritiratma kavyasya. Viswanatha says that proper organization of language is riti.
  4. Aucitya (Scholar – Ksemendra, Text – Aucityavicaracarca) – Ksemendra claims that aucitya is the life of poetry. Aucitya means decorum or propriety. If this principle is missing from a poem, the alamkaras are futile. Even a single word, improperly used, can spoil the beauty of a poem. The poet must use words and figures of speech appropriately. In Indian aesthetics, aucitya, along with rasa and dhvani form the triple pillars of Sanskrit criticism.
  5. Anumana (Scholar – Mahimabhatta, Text – Vyaktiviveka) – Anumana is inference. Mahimabhatta emphasizes the inferential power of words in creating aesthetic relish. He subsumes dhvani under anumana. He argues that the implied sense can be inferred from the expressed sense. Anumana is a plunge into the deepest layers of meaning. It comes very close to the theory of Derrida.
  6. Guna (Scholar – Dandin, Text – Kavyadarsa) – If rasa is the soul (atman) of poetry, a language with guna is the body (sarira) of poetry. It is the quality that enriches the poetic experience and dosas are the defects which obstruct the smooth flow of rasa. It simply means merit or quality. It can be translated as ways of collocation.

Guna, alamkara and riti refer to literary form while dhvani, rasa and anumana refer to literary content.

Part II

What is the highest test of true poetry?

Genuine poetry is a spontaneous emanation from a rasa filled heart. A beautiful thought clothes itself in a beautiful dress without any conscious effort on the part of the poet. This is the highest test of true poetry.

Is Vyanjana merely the suggestion that we see in ordinary sentences?

No, vyanjana represents the centre of charm in poetry, the soul of charm in poetry and hence it is not merely the suggestion we see in ordinary sentences.

What is the secret behind the power/ attractiveness of vyanjana?

  1. Novelty: There is an element of novelty in vyanjana/suggestion that makes it interesting and charming. The suppressed idea has an appearance of freshness or ‘newness’ for the time being.
  2. Scope for Quest and Conquest: In vyanjana there is scope for an intellectual quest that leads to some conquest. Quest and conquest are themselves charming enough to generate interest.
  3. Concealment and Discovery: When things are hidden from view, the charm of the object is enhanced. It is said that ‘concealment lends charm’ – ‘Gudham sat camatkaroti’. Likewise, when the suggested element is revealed after some degree of concealment, it proves to be attractive.
  4. Vyanjana makes it possible for art, for every suggestive art, to re-live its life in itself through a purely artistic process and to find its fulfillment and consummation in a definitely artistic purpose. This is the real secret behind the attractiveness of vyanjana.

What are the objections raised against vyanjana/dhvani?

Many objections were raised by scholars against vyanjana. They are:

  1. That Vyanjana Should be Brought Under the Secondary Significatory Power of Words – The supporters of vyanjana point out that secondary significatory power is a sort of fiction introduced for convenience in interpretation. In all types of communication, generosity in interpretation is necessary. The listener interprets the speaker generously to find out his/her real intention. For example, the statement ‘the hut is on the Ganges’ is interpreted as ‘the hut is on the bank of the river Ganges’. Common sense tells us that the hut cannot be in the river. So we interpret the statement logically. This is the secondary significatory power. Vyanjana cannot be brought under this as we resort to this type of interpretation deliberately when we feel some difficulty in understanding the phrase in its literal sense. This is not suggestion.The listener’s experience of some difficulty is behind the secondary interpretation that is adopted. However, at times, the speaker uses such a phrase purposefully and deliberately, not as a result of some lapse. Here he deliberately uses the phrase in the secondary sense. He then is a master of language. His purpose in doing this is to create suggestion through suppression. He conceals the idea that the hut is pure and holy as it is on the bank of the river Ganges. He does that to enhance the beauty and relish of  the idea. This is vyanjana.
  2. That Vyanjana Should be Brought Under Inference – A degree of mediacy is an essential feature of inference. However suggestion lacks mediacy. In fact in suggestion there is a certain degree of immediacy. Hence vyanjana cannot be brought under inference.

Why is Vyanjana considered Lokottara?

Lokottara means extraordinary. Vyanjana is not an ordinary process. It is essentially an artistic process. It is not a process of the ordinary life. It is not a laukika (worldly) process; rather it is alaukika.

Why is Vyanjana considered an artistic process?

  1. It involves suppression, not of the ordinary type, but of the agreeable type.
  2. It gives us a delicate impression described as artistic thrill.
  3. It enables us to feel that we have done with the compartmental slicing of Sanskrit literature into different genres.
  4. It enables us to feel that we have done with matters related to alamkarasastra.
  5. It enables us to adopt the right view towards literature.
  6. It enables us to ask the right questions.

What is the type of question that a student of Indian aesthetics should ask?

  1. What does a work of art express?
  2. How far does it express it well and artistically?

Anandavardhana was the first to recognize and explain successfully the theory of dhvani/vyanjana. Prior to him, Valmiki and Kalidasa had recognized the importance of vyanjana.

Explain Anandavardhana’s classification of poetry.

Based on the principle of Vyanjana, Anandavardhana classifies poetry into three. They are:

  1. Uttama Kavya – That type of poetry wherein the suggested element reigns supreme is called Uttama Kavya. This is poetry of the best type (Dhvani Kavya).
  2. Madhyama Kavya – That type of poetry wherein the suggested sense is beautiful and agreeable but is subordinated to or coordinated with some other element is called Madhyama Kavya. This is poetry of the second rate.
  3. Adhama Kavya – That type of poetry which does not contain any suggested element is called Adhama Kavya. This is poetry of the inferior type. It gives importance only to certain attractive features of literary form.

Anandavardhana’s intention behind this classification was to keep vyanjana at the centre of the literary process. He wanted to preserve the unity of poetry by making vyanjana the central principle. He did not intend it as a hard and fast rule. However, later writers found fault with him for giving an elastic method of classification that involves a lot of overlapping. Anandavardhana himself knew this. By analyzing typical poems which can be included under Uttama and Madhyama type respectively, we can understand the flaws within this classification. At times it so happens that a madhyama kavya is infinitely more charming and attractive than the uttama kavya. However, we ought to realize that the fault is not Anandavardhana’s.

Historical criticism forces the reader to explain things within the context. Invariably it reduces the possibility for exploring all the suggested meanings.


Copyright © Manu Mangattu, Assistant Professor, Department of English, SGC Aruvithura

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Comments: (1)

  • anju jose

    It is difficult to get notes on Sanskrit ideas.. Really useful notes