A History of Sanskrit Literature/Chapter 12

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(Circa 400-1100 A.D.)

Sanskrit lyrical poetry has not produced many works of any considerable length. But among these are included two of the most perfect creations of Kālidāsa, a writer distinguished no less in this field than as an epic and a dramatic author. His lyrical talent is, indeed, also sufficiently prominent in his plays.

Kālidāsa's Meghadūta, or "Cloud Messenger," is a lyrical gem which won the admiration of Goethe. It consists of 115 stanzas composed in the Mandākrānta metre of four lines of seventeen syllables. The theme is a message which an exile sends by a cloud to his wife dwelling far away. The idea is applied by Schiller in his Maria Stuart, where the captive Queen of Scots calls on the clouds as they fly southwards to greet the land of her youth (act iii. sc. 1). The exile is a Yaksha or attendant of Kubera, the god of wealth, who for neglect of his duty has been banished to the groves on the slopes of Rāmagiri in Central India. Emaciated and melancholy, he sees, at the approach of the rainy season, a dark cloud moving northwards. The sight fills his heart with yearning, and impels him to address to the cloud a request to convey a message of hope to his wife in the remote Himālaya. In the first half of the poem the Yaksha describes with much power and beauty the various scenes the cloud must traverse on its northward course: Mount Āmrakūṭa, on whose peak it will rest after quenching with showers the forest fires; the Narmadā, winding at the foot of the Vindhya hills; the town of Vidiçā (Bhilsa), and the stream of the Vetravatī (Betwah); the city of Ujjayinī (Ujjain) in the land of Avanti; the sacred region of Kurukshetra; the Ganges and the mountains from which she sprang, white with snowfields, till Alakā on Mount Kailāsa is finally reached.

In the second half of the poem the Yaksha first describes the beauties of this city and his own dwelling there. Going on to paint in glowing colours the charms of his wife, her surroundings, and her occupations, he imagines her tossing on her couch, sleepless and emaciated, through the watches of the night. Then, when her eye rests on the window, the cloud shall proclaim to her with thunder-sound her husband's message, that he is still alive and ever longs to behold her:—

In creepers I discern thy form, in eyes of startled hinds thy glances,
And in the moon thy lovely face, in peacocks' plumes thy shining tresses;
The sportive frown upon thy brow in flowing waters' tiny ripples:
But never in one place combined can I, alas! behold thy likeness.

But courage, he says; our sorrow will end at last—we shall be re-united—

And then we will our hearts' desire, grown more intense by separation,
Enjoy in nights all glorious and bright, with full-orbed autumn moonlight.

Then begging the cloud, after delivering his message, to return with reassuring news, the exile finally dismisses him with the hope that he may never, even for a moment, be divided from his lightning spouse.

Besides the expression of emotion, the descriptive element is very prominent in this fine poem. This is still more true of Kālidāsa's Ṛitusaṃhāra, or "Cycle of the Seasons." That little work, which consists of 153 stanzas in six cantos, and is composed in various metres, is a highly poetical description of the six seasons into which classical Sanskrit poets usually divide the Indian year. With glowing descriptions of the beauties of Nature, in which erotic scenes are interspersed, the poet adroitly interweaves the expression of human emotions. Perhaps no other work of Kālidāsa's manifests so strikingly the poet's deep sympathy with Nature, his keen powers of observation, and his skill in depicting an Indian landscape in vivid colours.

The poem opens with an account of summer. If the glow of the sun is then too great during the day, the moonlit nights are all the more delightful to lovers. The moon, beholding the face of beauteous maidens, is beside itself with jealousy; then, too, it is that the heart of the wanderer is burnt by the fire of separation. Next follows a brilliant description of the effects of the heat: the thirst or lethargy it produces in serpent, lion, elephant, buffalo, boar, gazelle, peacock, crane, frogs, and fishes; the devastation caused by the forest fire which devours trees and shrubs, and drives before it crowds of terror-stricken beasts.

The close heat is succeeded by the rains, which are announced by the approach of the dark heavy clouds with their banner of lightning and drum of thunder. Slowly they move accompanied by chātaka birds, fabled to live exclusively on raindrops, till at length they discharge their water. The wild streams, like wanton girls, grasp in a trice the tottering trees upon their banks, as they rush onwards to the sea. The earth becomes covered with young blades of grass, and the forests clothe themselves with golden buds—

The mountains fill the soul with yearning thoughts of love,
When rain-charged clouds bend down to kiss the towering rocks,
When all around upon their slopes the streams gush down,
And throngs of peacocks that begin to dance are seen.

Next comes the autumn, beauteous as a newly-wedded bride, with face of full-blown lotuses, with robe of sugarcane and ripening rice, with the cry of flamingoes representing the tinkling of her anklets. The graceful creepers vie with the arms of lovely women, and the jasmine, showing through the crimson açoka blossoms, rivals the dazzling teeth and red lips of smiling maidens.

Winter follows, when the rice ripens, while the lotus fades and the fields in the morning are covered with rime—

Then the Priyangu creeper, reaching ripeness,
Buffeted constantly by chilling breezes,
Grows, O Beloved, ever pale and paler,
Like lonely maiden from her lover parted.

This is the time dear to lovers, whose joys the poet describes in glowing colours.

In the cold season a fire and the mild rays of the sun are pleasant. The night does not attract lovers now, for the moonbeams are cold and the light of the stars is pale.

The poet dwells longest on the delights of spring, the last of the six seasons. It is then that maidens, with karṇikāra flowers on their ears, with red açoka blossoms and sprays of jasmine in their locks, go to meet their lovers. Then the hum of intoxicated bees is heard, and the note of the Indian cuckoo; then the blossoms of the mango-tree are seen: these are the sharp arrows wherewith the god of the flowery bow enflames the hearts of maidens to love.

A lyric poem of a very artificial character, and consisting of only twenty-two stanzas, is the Ghaṭa-karpara, or "Potsherd," called after the author's name, which is worked into the last verse. The date of the poet is unknown. He is mentioned as one of the "nine gems" at the court of the mythical Vikramāditya in the verse already mentioned.

The Chaura-panchāçikā, or "Fifty Stanzas of the Thief," is a lyrical poem which contains many beauties. Its author was the Kashmirian Bilhaṇa, who belongs to the later half of the eleventh century. According to the romantic tradition, this poet secretly enjoyed the love of a princess, and when found out was condemned to death. He thereupon composed fifty stanzas, each beginning with the words "Even now I remember," in which he describes with glowing enthusiasm the joys of love he had experienced. Their effect on the king was so great that he forgave the poet and bestowed on him the hand of his daughter.

The main bulk of the lyrical creations of mediæval India are not connected poems of considerable length, but consist of that miniature painting which, as with a few strokes, depicts an amatory situation or sentiment in a single stanza of four lines. These lyrics are in many respects cognate to the sententious poetry which the Indians cultivated with such eminent success. Bearing evidence of great wealth of observation and depth of feeling, they are often drawn by a master-hand. Many of them are in matter and form gems of perfect beauty. Some of their charm is, however, lost in translation owing to the impossibility of reproducing the elaborate metres employed in the original. Several Sanskrit poets composed collections of these miniature lyrics.

The most eminent of these authors is Bhartṛihari, grammarian, philosopher, and poet in one. Only the literary training of India could make such a combination possible, and even there it has hardly a parallel. Bhartṛihari lived in the first half of the seventh century. The Chinese traveller I Tsing, who spent more than twenty years in India at the end of that century, records that, having turned Buddhist monk, the poet again became a layman, and fluctuated altogether seven times between the monastery and the world. Bhartṛihari blamed himself for, but could not overcome, his inconstancy. He wrote three centuries of detached stanzas. Of the first and last, which are sententious in character, there will be occasion to say something later. Only the second, entitled Çṛingāra-çataka, or "Century of Love," deals with erotic sentiment. Here Bhartṛihari, in graceful and meditative verse, shows himself to be well acquainted both with the charms of women and with the arts by which they captivate the hearts of men. Who, he asks in one of these miniature poems, is not filled with yearning thoughts of love in spring, when the air swoons with the scent of the mango blossom and is filled with the hum of bees intoxicated with honey? In another he avers that none can resist the charms of lotus-eyed maidens, not even learned men, whose utterances about renouncing love are mere idle words. The poet himself laments that, when his beloved is away, the brightness goes out of his life—

Beside the lamp, the flaming hearth,
In light of sun or moon and stars,
Without my dear one's lustrous eyes
This world is wholly dark to me.

At the same time he warns the unwary against reflecting over-much on female beauty—

Let not thy thoughts, O Wanderer,
Roam in that forest, woman's form:
For there a robber ever lurks,
Ready to strike—the God of Love.

In another stanza the Indian Cupid appears as a fisherman, who, casting on the ocean of this world a hook called woman, quickly catches men as fishes eager for the bait of ruddy lips, and bakes them in the fire of love.

Strange are the contradictions in which the poet finds himself involved by loving a maiden—

Remembered she but causes pain;
At sight of her my madness grows;
When touched, she makes my senses reel:
How, pray, can such an one be loved?

So towards the end of the Century the poet's heart begins to turn from the allurements of love. "Cease, maiden," he exclaims, "to cast thy glances on me: thy trouble is in vain. I am an altered man; youth has gone by and my thoughts are bent on the forest; my infatuation is over, and the whole world I now account but as a wisp of straw." Thus Bhartṛihari prepares the way for his third collection, the "Century of Renunciation."

A short but charming treasury of detached erotic verses is the Çṛingāra-tilaka, which tradition attributes to Kālidāsa. In its twenty-three stanzas occur some highly imaginative analogies, worked out with much originality. In one of them, for instance, the poet asks how it comes that a maiden, whose features and limbs resemble various tender flowers, should have a heart of stone. In another he compares his mistress to a hunter—

This maiden like a huntsman is;
Her brow is like the bow he bends;
Her sidelong glances are his darts;
My heart's the antelope she slays.

The most important lyrical work of this kind is the Amaru-çataka, or "Hundred stanzas of Amaru." The author is a master in the art of painting lovers in all their moods, bliss and dejection, anger and devotion. He is especially skilful in depicting the various stages of estrangement and reconciliation. It is remarkable how, with a subject so limited, in situations and emotions so similar, the poet succeeds in arresting the attention with surprising turns of thought, and with subtle touches which are ever new. The love which Amaru as well as other Indian lyrists portrays is not of the romantic and ideal, but rather of the sensuous type. Nevertheless his work often shows delicacy of feeling and refinement of thought. Such, for instance, is the case when he describes a wife watching in the gloaming for the return of her absent husband.

Many lyrical gems are to be found preserved in the Sanskrit treatises on poetics. One such is a stanza on the red açoka. In this the poet asks the tree to say whither his mistress has gone; it need not shake its head in the wind, as if to say it did not know; for how could it be flowering so brilliantly had it not been touched by the foot of his beloved?[1]

In all this lyrical poetry the plant and animal world plays an important part and is treated with much charm. Of flowers, the lotus is the most conspicuous. One of these stanzas, for example, describes the day-lotuses as closing their calyx-eyes in the evening, because unwilling to see the sun, their spouse and benefactor, sink down bereft of his rays. Another describes with pathetic beauty the dream of a bee: "The night will pass, the fair dawn will come, the sun will rise, the lotuses will laugh;" while a bee thus mused within the calyx, an elephant, alas! tore up the lotus plant.

Various birds to which poetical myths are attached are frequently introduced as furnishing analogies to human life and love. The chātaka, which would rather die of thirst than drink aught but the raindrops from the cloud, affords an illustration of pride. The chakora, supposed to imbibe the rays of the moon, affords a parallel to the lover who with his eyes drinks in the beams of his beloved's face. The chakravāka, which, fabled to be condemned to nocturnal separation from his mate, calls to her with plaintive cry during the watches of the night, serves as an emblem of conjugal fidelity.

In all this lyric poetry the bright eyes and beauty of Indian girls find a setting in scenes brilliant with blossoming trees, fragrant with flowers, gay with the plumage and vocal with the song of birds, diversified with lotus ponds steeped in tropical sunshine and with large-eyed gazelles reclining in the shade. Some of its gems are well worthy of having inspired the genius of Heine to produce such lyrics as Die Lotosblume and Auf Flügeln des Gesanges.

A considerable amount of lyrical poetry of the same type has also been produced in Prākrit, especially in the extensive anthology entitled Saptaçataka, or "Seven Centuries," of the poet Hāla, who probably lived before A.D. 1000. It contains many beauties, and is altogether a rich treasury of popular Indian lyrical poetry. It must suffice here to refer to but one of the stanzas contained in this collection. In this little poem the moon is described as a white swan sailing on the pure nocturnal lake of the heavens, studded with starry lotuses.

The transitional stage between pure lyric and pure drama is represented by the Gītagovinda, or "Cowherd in Song," a lyrical drama, which, though dating from the twelfth century, is the earliest literary specimen of a primitive type of play that still survives in Bengal, and must have preceded the regular dramas. The poem contains no dialogue in the proper sense, for its three characters only engage in a kind of lyrical monologue, of which one of the other two is supposed to be an auditor, sometimes even no one at all. The subject of the poem is the love of Kṛishṇa for the beautiful cowherdess Rādhā, the estrangement of the lovers, and their final reconciliation. It is taken from that episode of Kṛishṇa's life in which he himself was a herdsman (go-vinda), living on the banks of the Yamunā, and enjoying to the full the love of the cowherdesses. The only three characters of the poem are Kṛishṇa, Rādhā, and a confidante of the latter.

Its author, Jayadeva, was probably a native of Bengal, having been a contemporary of a Bengal king named Lakshmaṇasena. It is probable that he took as his model popular plays representing incidents from the life of Kṛishṇa, as the modern yātrās in Bengal still do. The latter festival plays even now consist chiefly of lyrical stanzas, partly recited and partly sung, the dialogue being but scanty, and to a considerable extent left to improvisation. On such a basis Jayadeva created his highly artificial poem. The great perfection of form he has here attained, by combining grace of diction with ease in handling the most difficult metres, has not failed to win the admiration of all who are capable of reading the original Sanskrit. Making abundant use of alliteration and the most complex rhymes occurring, as in the Nalodaya, not only at the end, but in the middle of metrical lines,[2] the poet has adapted the most varied and melodious measures to the expression of exuberant erotic emotions, with a skill which could not be surpassed. It seems impossible to reproduce Jayadeva's verse adequately in an English garb. The German poet Rückert, has, however, come as near to the highly artificial beauty of the original, both in form and matter, as is feasible in any translation.

It is somewhat strange that a poem which describes the transports of sensual love with all the exuberance of an Oriental fancy should, in the present instance, and not for the first time, have received an allegorical explanation in a mystical religious sense. According to Indian interpreters, the separation of Kṛishṇa and Rādhā, their seeking for each other, and their final reconciliation represent the relation of the supreme deity to the human soul. This may possibly have been the intention of Jayadeva, though only as a leading idea, not to be followed out in detail.


  1. Referring to the poetical belief that the açoka only blossoms when struck by the foot of a beautiful girl.
  2. E.g. amala-kamala-dala-lochana bhava-mochana.