A History of Sanskrit Literature/Chapter 13

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(Circa 400-1000 A.D.)

To the European mind the history of the Indian drama cannot but be a source of abundant interest; for here we have an important branch of literature which has had a full and varied national development, quite independent of Western influence, and which throws much light on Hindu social customs during the five or six centuries preceding the Muhammadan conquest.

The earliest forms of dramatic literature in India are represented by those hymns of the Rigveda which contain dialogues, such as those of Saramā and the Paṇis, Yama and Yamī, Purūravas and Urvaçī, the latter, indeed, being the foundation of a regular play composed much more than a thousand years later by the greatest dramatist of India. The origin of the acted drama is, however, wrapt in obscurity. Nevertheless, the evidence of tradition and of language suffice to direct us with considerable probability to its source.

The words for actor (naṭa) and play (nāṭaka) are derived from the verb naṭ, the Prākrit or vernacular form of the Sanskrit nṛit, "to dance." The name is familiar to English ears in the form of nautch, the Indian dancing of the present day. The latter, indeed, probably represents the beginnings of the Indian drama. It must at first have consisted only of rude pantomime, in which the dancing movements of the body were accompanied by mute mimicking gestures of hand and face. Songs, doubtless, also early formed an ingredient in such performances. Thus Bharata, the name of the mythical inventor of the drama, which in Sanskrit also means "actor," in several of the vernaculars signifies "singer," as in the Gujaratī Bharot. The addition of dialogue was the last step in the development, which was thus much the same in India and in Greece. This primitive stage is represented by the Bengal yātrās and the Gītagovinda. These form the transition to the fully-developed Sanskrit play in which lyrics and dialogue are blended.

The earliest references to the acted drama are to be found in the Mahābhāshya, which mentions representations of the Kaṃsavadha, the "Slaying of Kaṃsa," and the Balibanda or "Binding of Bali," episodes in the history of Kṛishṇa. Indian tradition describes Bharata as having caused to be acted before the gods a play representing the svayaṃvara of Lakshmī, wife of Vishṇu. Tradition further makes Kṛishṇa and his cowherdesses the starting-point of the saṃgīta, a representation consisting of a mixture of song, music, and dancing. The Gītagovinda is concerned with Kṛishṇa, and the modern yātrās generally represent scenes from the life of that deity. From all this it seems likely that the Indian drama was developed in connection with the cult of Vishṇu-Kṛishṇa, and that the earliest acted representations were therefore, like the mysteries of the Christian Middle Ages, a kind of religious plays, in which scenes from the legend of the god were enacted mainly with the aid of song and dance, supplemented with prose dialogue improvised by the performers.

The drama has had a rich and varied development in India, as is shown not only by the numerous plays that have been preserved, but by the native treatises on poetics which contain elaborate rules for the construction and style of plays. Thus the Sāhitya-darpaṇa, or "Mirror of Rhetoric," divides Sanskrit dramas into two main classes, a higher (rūpaka) and a lower (uparūpaka), and distinguishes no fewer than ten species of the former and eighteen of the latter.

The characteristic features of the Indian drama which strike the Western student are the entire absence of tragedy, the interchange of lyrical stanzas with prose dialogue, and the use of Sanskrit for some characters and of Prākrit for others.

The Sanskrit drama is a mixed composition, in which joy is mingled with sorrow, in which the jester usually plays a prominent part, while the hero and heroine are often in the depths of despair. But it never has a sad ending. The emotions of terror, grief, or pity, with which the audience are inspired, are therefore always tranquillised by the happy termination of the story. Nor may any deeply tragic incident take place in the course of the play; for death is never allowed to be represented on the stage. Indeed nothing considered indecorous, whether of a serious or comic character, is allowed to be enacted in the sight or hearing of the spectators, such as the utterance of a curse, degradation, banishment, national calamity, biting, scratching, kissing, eating, or sleeping.

Sanskrit plays are full of lyrical passages describing scenes or persons presented to view, or containing reflections suggested by the incidents that occur. They usually consist of four-line stanzas. Çakuntalā contains nearly two hundred such, representing something like one half of the whole play. These lyrical passages are composed in a great many different metres. Thus the first thirty-four stanzas of Çakuntalā exhibit no fewer than eleven varieties of verse. It is not possible, as in the case of the simple Vedic metres, to imitate in English the almost infinite resources of the complicated and entirely quantitative classical Sanskrit measures. The spirit of the lyrical passages is, therefore, probably best reproduced by using blank verse as the familiar metre of our drama. The prose of the dialogue in the plays is often very commonplace, serving only as an introduction to the lofty sentiment of the poetry that follows.

In accordance with their social position, the various characters in a Sanskrit play speak different dialects. Sanskrit is employed only by heroes, kings, Brahmans, and men of high rank; Prākrit by all women and by men of the lower orders. Distinctions are further made in the use of Prākrit itself. Thus women of high position employ Mahārāshṭrī in lyrical passages, but otherwise they, as well as children and the better class of servants, speak Çaurasenī. Māgadhī is used, for instance, by attendants in the royal palace, Avantī by rogues or gamblers, Abhīrī by cowherds, Paiçāchī by charcoal-burners, and Apabhraṃça by the lowest and most despised people as well as barbarians.

The Sanskrit dramatists show considerable skill in weaving the incidents of the plot and in the portrayal of individual character, but do not show much fertility of invention, commonly borrowing the story of their plays from history or epic legend. Love is the subject of most Indian dramas. The hero, usually a king, already the husband of one or more wives, is smitten at first sight with the charms of some fair maiden. The heroine, equally susceptible, at once reciprocates his affection, but concealing her passion, keeps her lover in agonies of suspense. Harassed by doubts, obstacles, and delays, both are reduced to a melancholy and emaciated condition. The somewhat doleful effect produced by their plight is relieved by the animated doings of the heroine's confidantes, but especially by the proceedings of the court-jester (vidūshaka), the constant companion of the hero. He excites ridicule by his bodily defects no less than his clumsy interference with the course of the hero's affairs. His attempts at wit are, however, not of a high order. It is somewhat strange that a character occupying the position of a universal butt should always be a Brahman.

While the Indian drama shows some affinities with Greek comedy, it affords more striking points of resemblance to the productions of the Elizabethan playwrights, and in particular of Shakespeare. The aim of the Indian dramatists is not to portray types of character, but individual persons; nor do they observe the rule of unity of time or place. They are given to introducing romantic and fabulous elements; they mix prose with verse; they blend the comic with the serious, and introduce puns and comic distortions of words. The character of the vidūshaka, too, is a close parallel to the fool in Shakespeare. Common to both are also several contrivances intended to further the action of the drama, such as the writing of letters, the introduction of a play within a play, the restoration of the dead to life, and the use of intoxication on the stage as a humorous device. Such a series of coincidences, in a case where influence or borrowing is absolutely out of the question, is an instructive instance of how similar developments can arise independently.

Every Sanskrit play begins with a prologue or introduction, which regularly opens with a prayer or benediction (nāndī) invoking the national deity in favour of the audience. Then generally follows a dialogue between the stage-manager and one or two actors, which refers to the play and its author, seeks to win public favour by paying a complimentary tribute to the critical acumen of the spectators, mentions past events and present circumstances elucidating the plot, and invariably ends by adroitly introducing one of the characters of the actual play. A Sanskrit drama is divided into scenes and acts. The former are marked by the entrance of one character and the exit of another. The stage is never left vacant till the end of the act, nor does any change of locality take place till then. Before a new act an interlude (called vishkambha or praveçaka), consisting of a monologue or dialogue, is often introduced. In this scene allusion is made to events supposed to have occurred in the interval, and the audience are prepared for what is about to take place. The whole piece closes with a prayer for national prosperity, which is addressed to the favourite deity and is spoken by one of the principal characters.

The number of acts in a play varies from one to ten; but, while fluctuating somewhat, is determined by the character of the drama. Thus the species called nāṭikā has four acts and the farcical prahasana only one.

The duration of the events is supposed to be identical with the time occupied in performing them on the stage, or, at most, a day; and a night is assumed to elapse between each act and that which follows. Occasionally, however, the interval is much longer. Thus in Kālidāsa's Çakuntalā and Urvaçī several years pass between the first and the last act; while in Bhavabhūti's Uttara-rāmacharita no less than twelve years elapse between the first and the second act.

Nor is unity of place observed; for the scene may be transferred from one part of the earth to another, or even to the aërial regions. Change of locality sometimes occurs even within the same act; as when a journey is supposed to be performed through the air in a celestial car. It is somewhat curious that while there are many and minute stage directions about dress and decorations no less than about the actions of the players, nothing is said in this way as to change of scene. As regards the number of characters appearing in a play, no limit of any kind is imposed.

There were no special theatres in the Indian Middle Ages, and plays seem to have been performed in the concert-room (saṃgīta-çālā) of royal palaces. A curtain divided in the middle was a necessary part of the stage arrangement; it did not, however, separate the audience from the stage, as in the Roman theatre, but formed the background of the stage. Behind the curtain was the tiring-room (nepathya), whence the actors came on the stage. When they were intended to enter hurriedly, they were directed to do so "with a toss of the curtain." The stage scenery and decorations were of a very simple order, much being left to the imagination of the spectator, as in the Shakespearian drama. Weapons, seats, thrones, and chariots appeared on the stage; but it is highly improbable that the latter were drawn by the living animals supposed to be attached to them. Owing to the very frequent intercourse between the inhabitants of heaven and earth, there may have been some kind of aërial contrivance to represent celestial chariots; but owing to the repeated occurrence of the stage direction "gesticulating" (nāṭayitvā) in this connection, it is to be supposed that the impression of motion and speed was produced on the audience simply by the gestures of the actors.

The best productions of the Indian drama are nearly a dozen in number, and date from a period embracing something like four hundred years, from about the beginning of the fifth to the end of the eighth century A.D. These plays are the compositions of the great dramatists Kālidāsa and Bhavabhūti, or have come down under the names of the royal patrons Çūdraka and Çrīharsha, to whom their real authors attributed them.

The greatest of all is Kālidāsa, already known to us as the author of several of the best Kāvyas. Three of his plays have been preserved, Çakuntalā, Vikramorvaçī, and Mālavikāgnimitra. The richness of creative fancy which he displays in these, and his skill in the expression of tender feeling, assign him a high place among the dramatists of the world. The harmony of the poetic sentiment is nowhere disturbed by anything violent or terrifying. Every passion is softened without being enfeebled. The ardour of love never goes beyond æsthetic bounds; it never maddens to wild jealousy or hate. The torments of sorrow are toned down to a profound and touching melancholy. It was here at last that the Indian genius found the law of moderation in poetry, which it hardly knew elsewhere, and thus produced works of enduring beauty. Hence it was that Çakuntalā exercised so great a fascination on the calm intellect of Goethe, who at the same time was so strongly repelled by the extravagances of Hindu mythological art.

In comparison with the Greek and the modern drama, Nature occupies a much more important place in Sanskrit plays. The characters are surrounded by Nature, with which they are in constant communion. The mango and other trees, creepers, lotuses, and pale-red trumpet-flowers, gazelles, flamingoes, bright-hued parrots, and Indian cuckoos, in the midst of which they move, are often addressed by them and form an essential part of their lives. Hence the influence of Nature on the minds of lovers is much dwelt on. Prominent everywhere in classical Sanskrit poetry, these elements of Nature luxuriate most of all in the drama.

The finest of Kālidāsa's works are, it cannot be denied, defective as stage-plays. The very delicacy of the sentiment, combined with a certain want of action, renders them incapable of producing a powerful effect on an audience. The best representatives of the romantic drama of India are Çakuntalā and Vikramorvaçī. Dealing with the love adventures of two famous kings of ancient epic legend, they represent scenes far removed from reality, in which heaven and earth are not separated, and men, demigods, nymphs, and saints are intermingled. Mālavikāgnimitra, on the other hand, not concerned with the heroic or divine, is a palace-and-harem drama, a story of contemporary love and intrigue.

The plot of Çakuntalā is derived from the first book of the Mahābhārata. The hero is Dushyanta, a celebrated king of ancient days, the heroine, Çakuntalā, the daughter of a celestial nymph, Menakā, and of the sage Viçvāmitra; while their son, Bharata, became the founder of a famous race. The piece consists of seven acts, and belongs to the class of drama by native writers on poetics styled nāṭaka, or "the play." In this the plot must be taken from mythology or history, the characters must be heroic or divine; it should be written in elaborate style, and full of noble sentiments, with five acts at least, and not more than ten.

After the prelude, in which an actress sings a charming lyric on the beauties of summer-time, King Dushyanta appears pursuing a gazelle in the sacred grove of the sage Kaṇva. Here he catches sight of Çakuntalā, who, accompanied by her two maiden friends, is engaged in watering her favourite trees. Struck by her beauty, he exclaims—

Her lip is ruddy as an opening bud,
Her graceful arms resemble tender shoots:
Attractive as the bloom upon the tree,
The glow of youth is spread on all her limbs.

Seizing an opportunity of addressing her, he soon feels that it is impossible for him to return to his capital—

My limbs move forward, while my heart flies back,
Like silken standard borne against the breeze.

In the second act the comic element is introduced with the jester Māṭhavya, who is as much disgusted with his master's love-lorn condition as with his fondness for the chase. In the third act, the love-sick Çakuntalā is discovered lying on a bed of flowers in an arbour. The king overhears her conversation with her two friends, shows himself, and offers to wed the heroine. An interlude explains how a choleric ascetic, named Durvāsa, enraged at not being greeted by Çakuntalā with due courtesy, owing to her pre-occupied state, had pronounced a curse which should cause her to be entirely forgotten by her lover, who could recognise her only by means of a ring.

The king having meanwhile married Çakuntalā and returned home, the sage Kaṇva has resolved to send her to her husband. The way in which Çakuntalā takes leave of the sacred grove in which she has been brought up, of her flowers, her gazelles, and her friends, is charmingly described in the fourth act. This is the act which contains the most obvious beauties; for here the poet displays to the full the richness of his fancy, his abundant sympathy with Nature, and a profound knowledge of the human heart.

A young Brahman pupil thus describes the dawning of the day on which Çakuntalā is to leave the forest hermitage—

On yonder side the moon, the Lord of Plants,
Sinks down behind the western mountain's crest;
On this, the sun preceded by the dawn
Appears: the setting and the rise at once
Of these two orbs the symbols are of man's
Own fluctuating fortunes in the world.

Then he continues—

The moon has gone; the lilies on the lake,
Whose beauty lingers in the memory,
No more delight my gaze: they droop and fade;
Deep is their sorrow for their absent lord.

The aged hermit of the grove thus expresses his feelings at the approaching loss of Çakuntalā—

My heart is touched with sadness at the thought
"Çakuntalā must go to-day"; my throat
Is choked with flow of tears repressed; my sight
Is dimmed with pensiveness; but if the grief
Of an old forest hermit is so great,
How keen must be the pang a father feels
When freshly parted from a cherished child!

Then calling on the trees to give her a kindly farewell, he exclaims—

The trees, the kinsmen of her forest home,
Now to Çakuntalā give leave to go:
They with the Kokila's melodious cry
Their answer make.

Thereupon the following good wishes are uttered by voices in the air—

Thy journey be auspicious; may the breeze,
Gentle and soothing, fan thy cheek; may lakes
All bright with lily cups delight thine eye;
The sunbeams' heat be cooled by shady trees;
The dust beneath thy feet the pollen be
Of lotuses.

The fifth act, in which Çakuntalā appears before her husband, is deeply moving. The king fails to recognise her, and, though treating her not unkindly, refuses to acknowledge her as his wife. As a last resource, Çakuntalā bethinks herself of the ring given her by her husband, but on discovering that it is lost, abandons hope. She is then borne off to heaven by celestial agency.

In the following interlude we see a fisherman dragged along by constables for having in his possession the royal signet-ring, which he professes to have found inside a fish. The king, however, causes him to be set free, rewarding him handsomely for his find. Recollection of his former love now returns to Dushyanta. While he is indulging in sorrow at his repudiation of Çakuntalā, Mātali, Indra's charioteer, appears on the scene to ask the king's aid in vanquishing the demons.

In the last act Dushyanta is seen driving in Indra's car to Hemakūṭa, the mountain of the Gandharvas. Here he sees a young boy playing with a lion cub. Taking his hand, without knowing him to be his own son, he exclaims—

If now the touch of but a stranger's child
Thus sends a thrill of joy through all my limbs,
What transports must he waken in the soul
Of that blest father from whose loins he sprang!

Soon after he finds and recognises Çakuntalā, with whom he is at length happily reunited.

Kālidāsa's play has come down to us in two main recensions. The so-called Devanāgarī one, shorter and more concise, is probably the older and better. The more diffuse Bengal recension became known first through the translation of Sir William Jones.

Vikramorvaçī, or "Urvaçī won by Valour," is a play in five acts, belonging to the class called Troṭaka, which is described as representing events partly terrestrial and partly celestial, and as consisting of five, seven, eight, or nine acts. Its plot is briefly as follows. King Purūravas, hearing from nymphs that their companion, Urvaçī, has been carried off by demons, goes to the rescue and brings her back on his car. He is enraptured by the beauty of the nymph, no less than she is captivated by her deliverer. Urvaçī being summoned before the throne of Indra, the lovers are soon obliged to part.

In the second act Urvaçī appears for a short time to the king as he disconsolately wanders in the garden. A letter, in which she had written a confession of her love, is discovered by the queen, who refuses to be pacified.

In the third act we learn that Urvaçī had been acting before Indra in a play representing the betrothal of Lakshmī, and had, when asked on whom her heart was set, named Purūravas instead of Purushottama (i.e. Vishṇu). She is consequently cursed by her teacher, Bharata, but is forgiven by Indra, who allows her to be united with Purūravas till the latter sees his offspring.

The fourth act is peculiar in being almost entirely lyrical. The lovers are wandering near Kailāsa, the divine mountain, when Urvaçī, in a fit of jealousy, enters the grove of Kumāra, god of war, which is forbidden to all females. In consequence of Bharata's curse, she is instantly transformed into a creeper. The king, beside himself with grief at her loss, seeks her everywhere. He apostrophises various insects, birds, beasts, and even a mountain peak, to tell him where she is. At last he thinks he sees her in the mountain stream:—

The rippling wave is like her frown; the row
Of tossing birds her girdle; streaks of foam
Her flutt'ring garment as she speeds along;
The current, her devious and stumbling gait:
'Tis she turned in her wrath into a stream.

Finally, under the influence of a magic stone, which has come into his possession, he clasps a creeper, which is transformed into Urvaçī in his arms.

Between the fourth and fifth acts several years elapse. Then Purūravas, by accident, discovers his son Āyus, whom Urvaçī had secretly borne, and had caused to be brought up in a hermitage. Urvaçī must therefore return to heaven. Indra, however, in return for Purūravas' services against the demons, makes a new concession, and allows the nymph to remain with the king for good.

There are two recensions of this play also, one of them belonging to Southern India.

The doubts long entertained, on the ground of its inferiority and different character, as to whether Mālavikāgnimitra, or "Mālavikā and Agnimitra," is really the work of Kālidāsa, who is mentioned in the prologue as the author, are hardly justified. The piece has been shown by Weber to agree pretty closely in thought and diction with the two other plays of the poet; and though certainly not equal to the latter in poetic merit, it possesses many beauties. The subject is not heroic or divine, the plot being derived from the ordinary palace life of Indian princes, and thus supplying a peculiarly good picture of the social conditions of the times. The hero is a historical king of the dynasty of the Çungas, who reigned at Vidiçā (Bhilsa) in the second century B.C. The play describes the loves of this king Agnimitra and of Mālavikā, one of the attendants of the queen, who jealously keeps her out of the king's sight on account of her great beauty. The various endeavours of the king to see and converse with Mālavikā give rise to numerous little intrigues. In the course of these Agnimitra nowhere appears as a despot, but acts with much delicate consideration for the feelings of his spouses. It finally turns out that Mālavikā is by birth a princess, who had only come to be an attendant at Agnimitra's court through having fallen into the hands of robbers. There being now no objection to her union with the king, all ends happily.

While Kālidāsa stands highest in poetical refinement, in tenderness, and depth of feeling, the author of the Mṛicchakaṭika, or "Clay Cart," is pre-eminent among Indian playwrights for the distinctively dramatic qualities of vigour, life, and action, no less than sharpness of characterisation, being thus allied in genius to Shakespeare. This play is also marked by originality and good sense. Attributed to a king named Çūdraka, who is panegyrised in the prologue, it is probably the work of a poet patronised by him, perhaps Daṇḍin, as Professor Pischel thinks. In any case, it not improbably belongs to the sixth century. It is divided into ten acts, and belongs to the dramatic class called prakaraṇa. The name has little to do with the play, being derived from an unimportant episode of the sixth act. The scene is laid in Ujjayinī and its neighbourhood. The number of characters appearing on the stage is very considerable. The chief among them are Chārudatta, a Brahman merchant who has lost all his property by excessive liberality, and Vasantasenā, a rich courtesan who loves the poor but noble Chārudatta, and ultimately becomes his wife. The third act contains a humorous account of a burglary, in which stealing is treated as a fine art. In the fourth act there is a detailed description of the splendours of Vasantasenā's palace. Though containing much exaggeration, it furnishes an interesting picture of the kind of luxury that prevailed in those days. Altogether this play abounds in comic situations, besides containing many serious scenes, some of which even border on the tragic.

To the first half of the seventh century belong the two dramas attributed to the famous King Çrīharsha or Harshadeva, a patron of poets, whom we already know as Harshavardhana of Thāneçar and Kanauj. Ratnāvalī, or "The Pearl Necklace," reflecting the court and harem life of the age, has many points of similarity with Kālidāsa's Mālavikāgnimitra, by which, indeed, its plot was probably suggested. It is the story of the loves of Udayana, king of Vatsa, and of Sāgarikā, an attendant of his queen Vāsavadattā. The heroine ultimately turns out to be Ratnāvalī, princess of Ceylon, who had found her way to Udayana's court after suffering shipwreck. The plot is unconnected with mythology, but is based on an historical or epic tradition, which recurs in a somewhat different form in Somadeva's Kathāsaritsāgara. As concerned with the second marriage of the king, it forms a sequel to the popular love-story of Vāsavadattā. It is impossible to say whether the poet modified the main outlines of the traditional story, but the character of the magician who conjures up a vision of the gods and a conflagration, is his invention, as well as the incidents, which are of an entirely domestic nature. The real author was doubtless some poet resident at Çrīharsha's court, possibly Bāṇa, who also wrote a play entitled Pārvatīpariṇaya.

Altogether, Ratnāvalī is an agreeable play, with well-drawn characters and many poetical beauties. Of the latter the following lines, in which the king describes the pale light in the east heralding the rise of the moon, may serve as a specimen:—

Our minds intent upon the festival,
We saw not that the twilight passed away:
Behold, the east proclaims the lord of night
Still hidden by the mountain where he rises,
Even as a maiden by her pale face shows
That in her inmost heart a lover dwells.

Another play of considerable merit attributed to Çrīharsha is Nāgānanda. It is a sensational piece with a Buddhistic colouring, the hero being a Buddhist and Buddha being praised in the introductory benediction. For this reason its author was probably different from that of Ratnāvalī, and may have been Dhāvaka, who, like Bāṇa, is known to have lived at the court of Çrīharsha.

The dramatist Bhavabhūti was a Brahman of the Taittirīya school of the Yajurveda and belonged, as we learn from his prologues, to Vidarbha (now Berar) in Southern India. He knew the city of Ujjayinī well, and probably spent at least a part of his life there. His patron was King Yaçovarman of Kānyakubja (Kanauj), who ruled during the first half of the eighth century.

Three plays by this poet, all abounding in poetic beauties, have come down to us. They contrast in two or three respects with the works of the earlier dramatists. The absence of the character of the jester is characteristic of them, the comic and witty element entering into them only to a slight extent. While other Indian poets dwell on the delicate and mild beauties of Nature, Bhavabhūti loves to depict her grand and sublime aspects, doubtless owing to the influence on his mind of the southern mountains of his native land. He is, moreover, skilful not only in drawing characters inspired by tender and noble sentiment, but in giving effective expression to depth and force of passion.

The best known and most popular of Bhavabhūti's plays is Mālatī-mādhava, a prakaraṇa in ten acts. The scene is laid in Ujjayinī, and the subject is the love-story of Mālatī, daughter of a minister of the country, and Mādhava, a young scholar studying in the city, and son of the minister of another state. Skilfully interwoven with this main story are the fortunes of Makaranda, a friend of Mādhava, and Madayantikā, a sister of the king's favourite. Mālatī and Mādhava meet and fall in love; but the king has determined that the heroine shall marry his favourite, whom she detests. This plan is frustrated by Makaranda, who, personating Mālatī, goes through the wedding ceremony with the bridegroom. The lovers, aided in their projects by two amiable Buddhist nuns, are finally united. The piece is a sort of Indian Romeo and Juliet with a happy ending, the part played by the nun Kāmandakī being analogous to that of Friar Laurence in Shakespeare's drama. The contrast produced by scenes of tender love, and the horrible doings of the priestess of the dread goddess Durgā, is certainly effective, but perhaps too violent. The use made of swoons, from which the recovery is, however, very rapid, is rather too common in this play.

The ninth act contains several fine passages describing the scenery of the Vindhya range. The following is a translation of one of them:—

This mountain with its towering rocks delights
The eye: its peaks grow dark with gathering clouds;
Its groves are thronged with peacocks eloquent
In joy; the trees upon its slopes are bright
With birds that flit about their nests; the caves
Reverberate the growl of bears; the scent
Of incense-trees is wafted, sharp and cool,
From branches broken off by elephants.

The other two dramas of Bhavabhūti represent the fortunes of the same national hero, Rāma. The plot of the Mahāvīra-charita, or "The Fortunes of the Great Hero," varies but slightly from the story told in the Rāmāyaṇa. The play, which is divided into seven acts and is crowded with characters, concludes with the coronation of Rāma. The last act illustrates well how much is left to the imagination of the spectator. It represents the journey of Rāma in an aërial car from Ceylon all the way to Ayodhyā (Oudh) in Northern India, the scenes traversed being described by one of the company.

The Uttara-rāma-charita, or "The Later Fortunes of Rāma," is a romantic piece containing many fine passages. Owing to lack of action, however, it is rather a dramatic poem than a play. The description of the tender love of Rāma and Sītā, purified by sorrow, exhibits more genuine pathos than appears perhaps in any other Indian drama. The play begins with the banishment of Sītā and ends with her restoration, after twelve years of grievous solitude, to the throne of Ayodhyā amid popular acclamations. Her two sons, born after her banishment and reared in the wilderness by the sage Vālmīki, without any knowledge of their royal descent, furnish a striking parallel to the two princes Guiderius and Arviragus who are brought up by the hermit Belarius in Shakespeare's Cymbeline. The scene in which their meeting with their father Rāma is described reaches a high degree of poetic merit.

Among the works of other dramatists, Viçākhadatta's Mudrā-rākshasa, or "Rākshasa and the Seal," deserves special mention because of its unique character. For, unlike all the other dramas hitherto described, it is a play of political intrigue, composed, moreover, with much dramatic talent, being full of life, action, and sustained interest. Nothing more definite can be said as to its date than that it was probably written not later than about 800 A.D. The action of the piece takes place in the time of Chandragupta, who, soon after Alexander's invasion of India, founded a new dynasty at Pāṭaliputra by deposing the last king of the Nanda line. Rākshasa, the minister of the latter, refusing to recognise the usurper, endeavours to be avenged on him for the ruin of his late master. The plot turns on the efforts of the Brahman Chāṇakya, the minister of Chandragupta, to win over the noble Rākshasa to his master's cause. In this he is ultimately successful.

Bhaṭṭa Nārāyaṇa's Veṇīsaṃhāra, or "Binding of the braid of hair," is a play in six acts, deriving its plot from the Mahābhārata. Its action turns on the incident of Draupadī being dragged by the hair of her head into the assembly by one of the brothers of Duryodhana. Its age is known from its author having been the grantee of a copperplate dated 840 A.D. Though not conspicuous for poetic merit, it has long been a great favourite in India owing to its express partiality for the cult of Kṛishṇa.

To about 900 A.D. belongs the poet Rājaçekhara, the distinguishing feature of whose dramas are lightness and grace of diction. Four of his plays have survived, and are entitled Viddha-çālabhanjikā, Karpūra-manjarī, Bāla-rāmāyaṇa, and Prachaṇḍa-pāṇḍava or Bāla-bhārata.

The poet Kshemīçvara, who probably lived in the tenth century A.D. at Kānyakubja under King Mahīpāla, is the author of a play named Chaṇḍakauçika, or "The Angry Kauçika."

In the eleventh century Dāmodara Miçra composed the Hanuman-nāṭaka, "The Play of Hanumat," also called Mahā-nāṭaka, or "The Great Play." According to tradition, he lived at the court of Bhoja, king of Mālava, who resided at Dhārā (now Dhār) and Ujjayinī (Ujjain) in the early part of the eleventh century. It is a piece of little merit, dealing with the story of Rāma in connection with his ally Hanumat, the monkey chief. It consists of fourteen acts, lacking coherence, and producing the impression of fragments patched together.

Kṛishṇa Miçra's Prabodha-chandrodaya, or "Rise of the Moon of Knowledge," a play in six acts, dating from about the end of the eleventh century, deserves special attention as one of the most remarkable products of Indian literature. Though an allegorical piece of theologico-philosophical purport, in which practically only abstract notions and symbolical figures act as persons, it is remarkable for dramatic life and vigour. It aims at glorifying orthodox Brahmanism in the Vishnuite sense, just as the allegorical plays of the Spanish poet Calderon were intended to exalt the Catholic faith. The Indian poet has succeeded in the difficult task of creating an attractive play with abstractions like Revelation, Will, Reason, Religion, by transforming them into living beings of flesh and blood. The evil King Error appears on the scene as ruler of Benares, surrounded by his faithful adherents, the Follies and Vices, while Religion and the noble King Reason, accompanied by all the Virtues, have been banished. There is, however, a prophecy that Reason will some day be re-united with Revelation; the fruit of the union will be True Knowledge, which will destroy the reign of Error. The struggle for this union and its consummation, followed by the final triumph of the good party, forms the plot of the piece.

A large number of Sanskrit plays have been written since the twelfth century[1] down to modern times, their plots being generally derived from the Mahābhārata and the Rāmāyaṇa. Besides these, there are farces in one or more acts, mostly of a coarse type, in which various vices, such as hypocrisy, are satirised. These later productions reach a much lower level of art than the works of the early Indian dramatists.


  1. It is interesting to note that two Sanskrit plays, composed in the twelfth century, and not as yet known in manuscript form, have been partially preserved in inscriptions found at Ajmere (see Kielhorn, in Appendix to Epigraphia Indica, vol. v. p. 20, No. 134. Calcutta, 1899).