2. The Epic Metaphor of the Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata: Ānandavardhana and Rājaśekhara’s Expedient Influence

Like the Iliad and Odyssey, the Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata are now considered to be epics. Yet this label does not suit the Sanskrit poems as well as it does the Greek works, for Sanskrit, unlike Greek, has no etymon for the word “epic.” Even so, the application of this term to the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata by their twentieth-century interpreters recalls in one respect the assignment of other rubrics to these texts by their earlier exegetes: in both cases, literary critics each use a shorthand for this couplet of compositions that permits their comparison. What necessitates this shorthand are the varieties of ways in which the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata each refer to themselves. Understanding the solution that their recent readers have posed to this problem of the poems’ numerous self-portrayals—namely, pairing the poems as epics—requires awareness of similar strategies that these scholars’ predecessors adopted, approaches that are rooted in the Rāmāyaṇa’s and the Mahābhārata’s respective self-representations.
Comprehending how the works have been compared relatively recently, then, calls for study of these self-depictions and of their adoption as categories by Sanskrit-speaking scholars seeking to explicate their sources. In this chapter, I will survey the Rāmāyaṇa’s and the Mahābhārata’s self-understandings, will show which of these informed medieval Indian interpretations of the poems, and will suggest why modern scholars eventually called them epics. This chapter’s threefold focus, like that of Chapter 1, corresponds to what Sanskritist Sheldon Pollock presents as the “three ways of examining … any … question in the history of a literary culture[: w]e can listen (1) to the text itself, … (2) to the tradition of listening to the text, [and] (3) to whatever we can hear in the world outside the text and the tradition.” [1] Thus, I turn first to the texts themselves. [2]

The Rāmāyaṇa’s and the Mahābhārata’s Many Self-Designations

The Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata are each associated at once with one self-representation and with many self-representations: each poem refers to itself in an array of ways, but emphasizes a particular epithet by illustrating its enactment by the poem’s putative composer. [3] The simultaneous plurality and singularity of these poems’ self-representations recall the theology of the texts in which these self-designations appear. Both the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata demonstrate what I call a “pointed polytheism,” for they portray the acts and worship of numerous deities, but ultimately elevate the preserver god Viṣṇu above the rest. [4] The two texts also exhibit a “pointed poly-auto-onomatism,” with each presenting a number of names for itself but implying that one of these is most apt.
The ranges of these poems’ rubrics can be seen in Tables 1 and 2. Although a majority of each poem’s designations are not adopted by the other (10 of 17 for the Rāmāyaṇa and 11 of 18 for the Mahābhārata), the pair share seven:
carita (adventures)
ākhyāna (tale)
kathā (narrative)
kāvya (poem)
itihāsa (account of the way things had been)
purāṇa (story of yore)
saṃhitā (collection)
Table 1: Terms That the Rāmāyaṇa Uses to Refer to Itself
Sanskrit term English translation (Number of) References in critical edition (Number of) References in supplementary passages
carita adventures (6) (24)
    1.1.77; 1.2.30; 1.4.1, 6, 26 1.29*; 1.44*; 1.152* 2; 1.153*; 1.154* 10, 14; 1.202*; 1.203* 38; 1.205*; 1.215* 10; 1.App. I.1.2, 47; 1.App. I.2.15
      6.3706* 3
    7.85.19 7.1327* 2; 7.1331*; 7.1527* 4; 7.1530* 7; 7.1533* 4; 7.1534* 6; 7.1543* 27, 29, 34; 7.App. I.9.23
ākhyāna tale (6) (16)
    1.1.78; 1.4.11, 20, 25; 1.5.3 1.203* 21; 1.App. I.1.3, 17, 295, 297
      6.3703* 15; 6.3709* 1
    7.100.26 7.1522* 1, 9; 7.1524*  3; 7.1526*; 7.1527* 5; 7.1530* 10; 7.1540* 14, 18; 7.1542* 2
vṛtta story (3) (3)
    1.2.31, 41; 1.3.1 1.195* 11
      6.3708* 4
      7.1336* 2
kathā narrative (3) (12)
    1.2.34, 35, 36 1.4*; 1.5*; 1.13*; 1.203* 18; 1.App. I.1.300
      2.2335* 3
      6.App. I.76.8
      7.1464* 2; 7.1467*; 7.1471* 3; 7.1473* 1; 7.1542* 6
kāvya poem (11) (39)
    1.2.34, 40, 41; 1.3.29; 1.4.6, 8, 11, 13 1.151* 1; 1.152* 1; 1.195* 8; 1.197* 2; 1.200* 1; 1.203* 1, 9, 18, 20, 27, 32, 33; 1.206* 1, 4; 1.212* 1; 1.215* 5, 11; 1.219*  2; 1.App. I.1.283; 1.App. I.2.14
      6.3703* 10
    7.84.3; 7.85.17, 18 7.1326* 1, 2; 7.1329* 7; 7.1337* 3; 7.1516* 4; 7.1519* 4; 7.1520* 4; 7.1521* 2; 7.1527* 23; 7.1537* 14; 7.1540* 9; 7.1542* 13; 7.1543* 11, 23; 7.App. I.13.27, 32, 37, 55
geya ballad (2) (4)
      1.217* 4; 1.218*
    7.84.13, 14 7.1338* 2; 7.1339*
vāṇī composition (1) (0)
    7.84.16 ---
gīta song (3) (8)
      1.213* 1
    7.85.23; 7.86.1, 2 7.1337* 1, 7; 7.App. I.9.22, 27, 28, 33, 43
itivṛtta account (0) (1)
    --- 1.218*
itihāsa account of the way things had been (0) (2)
    --- 1.App. I.1.4
      6.3709* 16
saṃbandha text (0) (1)
    --- 1.App. I.1.295
purāṇa story of yore (0) (2)
    --- 2.2335* 1
      6.3709* 13
ādikāvya primary poem (0) (6)
    --- 2.2335* 6
      6.3703* 2; 6.3704* 1
      7.1540* 1; 7.1541* 10; 7.App. I.13.31
saṃhitā collection (0) (2)
    --- 6.3709* 5
      7.1540* 16
purātana hoary story (0) (1)
    --- 7.1527* 34
likhita writing (0) (1)
    --- 7.1537* 1
pāṭhaka reading (0) (1)
    --- 7.1540* 20
Table 2: Terms That the Mahābhārata Uses to Refer to Itself
Sanskrit term English translation (Number of) References in critical edition (Number of) References in supplementary passages
purāṇa story of yore (2) (0)
    1.1.15; 1.56.15 ---
ākhyāna tale (21) (11)
    1.1.16; 1.2.29, 30, 235, 238, 239, 240, 241, 243; 1.53.27, 31, 32, 35; 1.56.1, 30, 32; 1.57.106; 1.93.46 1.20* 1, 5, 6; 1.75*; 1.485* 2; 1.App. I.1.1; 1.App. I.5.16, 21; 1.App. I.32.27
    12.331.2; 12.337.10  
    18.5.53 18.46*; 18.48* 1
itihāsa account of the way things had been (14) (16)
    1.1.17, 24, 52; 1.2.31, 32, 33, 237; 1.54.23; 1.56.16, 18, 19 1.22* 4; 1.25*; 1.App. I.1.45; 1.App. I.32.31; 1.App. I.33.1, 11, 13; 1.App. I.39.13
    18.5.31, 39, 43 18.33* 1; 18.34*; 18.38* 6; 18.App. I.2.1, 5; 18.App. I.3.2, 19, 49
saṃhitā collection (3) (2)
    1.1.19, 51 1.App. I.3.27
    18.5.46 18.56* 2
grantha book (2) (1)
    1.1.48, 51 1.App. I.4.8
upaniṣad esoteric instruction (1) (0)
    1.1.191 ---
veda sacred source (4) (2)
    1.1.205; 1.56.17; 1.57.74  
      18.32* 1; 18.57*
āgama scripture (1) (0)
    1.2.31 ---
upākhyāna anecdote (1) (0)
    1.2.236 ---
kathā narrative (4) (9)
    1.53.28, 33; 1.55.3; 1.56.2 1.21* 2, 4; 1.191*; 1.App. I.31.3, 22, 26; 1.App. I.33.7, 20
      18.60* 3
carita adventures (4) (0)
    1.54.18; 1.56.1, 3 ---
śāstra treatise (1) (2)
    1.56.21 1.186*
      18.App. I.3.31
saṃdarbha work (1) (0)
    18.5.41 ---
adhyayana teaching (1) (1)
      1.App. I.5.6
sāvitrī hymn (1) (0)
    18.5.51 ---
saṃgraha compilation (0) (1)
    --- 1.26* 3
kāvya poem (0) (4)
    --- 1.187*; 1.App. I.1.13, 34, 35
prabandha piece (0) (1)
    --- 1.App. I.5.9
Of these seven labels, two—kāvya and itihāsa—receive special attention. Realized in the Rāmāyaṇa’s and the Mahābhārata’s respective depictions of their own makings by mythological men, these two terms are linked inextricably with the poems in whose plots they are featured. Their inextricability from these works accounts for their continued prominence as categories in medieval exegetes’ interpretations of the poems.

The Rāmāyaṇa as a kāvya: An incipient composition of compassion

The Rāmāyaṇa opens somewhat startlingly by attributing its story not to the poem’s avowed author, the ascetic Vālmīki, but to the celestial sage Nārada, who relates the narrative to Vālmīki (Rāmāyaṇa 1.1.1–76). Nārada’s interaction with Vālmīki prior to the Rāmāyaṇa’s composition—like the dialogue between the creator god Brahmā and Vālmīki described below—may be seen as an instrument by which to infuse the Rāmāyaṇa with religious authority from the start. [5] From this perspective, these divinities’ depictions would be considered “religious claims” that lend complete credence and prestige to the poem that Vālmīki composes, by associating it with superhuman beings. In doing so, “these claims create the appearance that their authorization [i.e. the authorization that the claims effect] comes from a realm beyond history, society, and politics, beyond the terrain in which interested and situated actors struggle over scarce resources [such as] … the capacity to speak a consequential speech and to gain a respectful hearing.” [6]
Yet, more saliently, Nārada’s involvement clarifies the nature of Vālmīki’s own contribution. Vālmīki recasts Nārada’s rather terse narrative as a kāvya, a poem that expresses emotion. The account of how this kāvya, the Rāmāyaṇa, arises symbolizes its sensitivity to the sentiments that it seeks to convey.
The story of the poem’s provenance goes like so:
sa muhūrtaṃ gate tasmin devalokaṃ munis tadā |
jagāma tamasātīraṃ jāhnavyās tv avidūrataḥ || …
tasyābhyāśe tu mithunaṃ carantam anapāyinam |
dadarśa bhagavāṃs tatra krauñcayoś cāruniḥsvanam ||
tasmāt tu mithunād ekaṃ pumāṃsaṃ pāpaniścayaḥ |
jaghāna vairanilayo niṣādas tasya paśyataḥ ||
taṃ śoṇitaparītāṅgaṃ veṣṭamānaṃ mahītale |
bhāryā tu nihataṃ dṛṣṭvā rurāva karuṇāṃ giram ||
tathā tu taṃ dvijaṃ dṛṣṭvā niṣādena nipātitam |
ṛṣer dharmātmanas tasya kāruṇyaṃ samapadyata ||
tataḥ karuṇaveditvād adharmo ’yam iti dvijaḥ |
niśāmya rudatīṃ krauñcīm idaṃ vacanam abravīt ||
mā niṣāda pratiṣṭhāṃ tvam agamaḥ śāśvatīḥ samāḥ |
yat krauñcamithunād ekam avadhīḥ kāmamohitam ||
tasyaivaṃ bruvataś cintā babhūva hṛdi vīkṣataḥ |
śokārtenāsya śakuneḥ kim idaṃ vyāhṛtaṃ mayā ||
cintayan sa mahāprājñaś cakāra matimān matim |
śiṣyaṃ caivābravīd vākyam idaṃ sa munipuṃgavaḥ ||
pādabaddho ’kṣarasamas tantrīlayasamanvitaḥ |
śokārtasya pravṛtto me śloko bhavatu nānyathā || …
ājagāma tato brahmā lokakartā svayaṃ prabhuḥ |
caturmukho mahātejā draṣṭuṃ taṃ munipuṃgavam || …
upaviṣṭe tadā tasmin sākṣāl lokapitāmahe |
tadgatenaiva manasā vālmīkir dhyānam āsthitaḥ ||
pāpātmanā kṛtaṃ kaṣṭaṃ vairagrahaṇabuddhinā |
yas tādṛśaṃ cāruravaṃ krauñcaṃ hanyād akāraṇāt ||
śocann eva muhuḥ krauñcīm upa ślokam imaṃ punaḥ |
jagāv antargatamanā bhūtvā śokaparāyaṇaḥ ||
tam uvāca tato brahmā prahasan munipuṃgavam |
śloka eva tvayā baddho nātra kāryā vicāraṇā ||
macchandād eva te brahman pravṛtteyaṃ sarasvatī |
rāmasya caritaṃ sarvaṃ kuru tvam ṛṣisattama ||
dharmātmano guṇavato loke rāmasya dhīmataḥ |
vṛttaṃ kathaya dhīrasya yathā te nāradāc chrutam ||
rahasyaṃ ca prakāśaṃ ca yad vṛttaṃ tasya dhīmataḥ |
rāmasya sahasaumitre rākṣasānāṃ ca sarvaśaḥ ||
vaidehyāś caiva yad vṛttaṃ prakāśaṃ yadi vā rahaḥ |
tac cāpy aviditaṃ sarvaṃ viditaṃ te bhaviṣyati ||
na te vāg anṛtā kāvye kācid atra bhaviṣyati |
kuru rāmakathāṃ puṇyāṃ ślokabaddhāṃ manoramām ||
yāvat sthāsyanti girayaḥ saritaś ca mahītale |
tāvad rāmāyaṇakathā lokeṣu pracariṣyati ||
yāvad rāmasya ca kathā tvatkṛtā pracariṣyati |
tāvad ūrdhvam adhaś ca tvaṃ mallokeṣu nivatsyasi ||
ity uktvā bhagavān brahmā tatraivāntaradhīyata |
tataḥ saśiṣyo vālmīkir munir vismayam āyayau ||
tasya śiṣyās tataḥ sarve jaguḥ ślokam imaṃ punaḥ |
muhur muhuḥ prīyamāṇāḥ prāhuś ca bhṛśavismitāḥ [7] ||
samākṣaraiś caturbhir yaḥ pādair gīto maharṣiṇā |
so ’nuvyāharaṇād bhūyaḥ śokaḥ ślokatvam āgataḥ ||
tasya buddhir iyaṃ jātā vālmīker bhāvitātmanaḥ |
kṛtsnaṃ rāmāyaṇaṃ kāvyam īdṛśaiḥ karavāṇy aham ||
udāravṛttārthapadair manoramais tadāsya rāmasya cakāra kīrtimān |
samākṣaraiḥ ślokaśatair yaśasvino yaśaskaraṃ kāvyam udāradhīr muniḥ ||

Soon after [Nārada] went to the world of the gods, the ascetic [Vālmīki]
went to the bank of the Tamasā River, not too far from the Ganges. …
In that vicinity, the venerable one spied a couple of sweet-sounding cranes,
who were unflagging in their motion and devotion.
But, as he looked on, an outcast hunter having evil designs
and brimming with hostility smote one of the two, the male.
When his mate saw him downed on the ground, with his contorting body bathed in blood,
she cried out compassionately.
And, when the righteous sage saw the bird brought down by the hunter in this way,
compassion came over him.
Then, in the depth of his compassion, the priest thought, “This is unjust!”
As he heard the she-crane shrieking, he said these words:
“You never will have peace, outcast,
because you slew one of the two cranes when he was deluded by desire.”
As [the sage] was saying this, and taking everything in, a thought occurred to him:
“What is this that I have said while in the throes of sorrow for this bird?”
Thinking it over, that smart man with the powerful intellect understood.
That man, who was the best ascetic of all, said these words to his student:
“Let what I created while in the throes of sorrow—a thing that is composed in quarters; that is regular in its number of syllables; and that can be accompanied by song, dance, and stringed instruments—
be known as verse and not otherwise.” …
Then lord Brahmā himself—the four-faced, exceedingly splendid creator of the cosmos—came
to see the best ascetic of all. …
Yet, even with the grandfather of the universe sitting right in front of him at that time,
Vālmīki found his mind wandering back to the earlier events and contemplated them:
“That evil man whose mind had been seized by spite,
who causelessly could kill such a sweet-sounding crane, did wrong.”
Sorrowing once more for the she-crane
once he had turned his thoughts inward, he sang that verse again while stuck in his sorrow[, this time to Brahmā].
Then Brahmā smiled and said to that man who was the best of all ascetics:
“What you have composed is a verse. Have no doubt about it.
On account of my desire alone, did you create this eloquent utterance, priest.
Author all the adventures of Rāma, you superlative sage!
Narrate to humankind the story of righteous, virtuous, intelligent, resolute Rāma
just as you have heard it from Nārada.
The public and private story of that intelligent man
Rāma (accompanied by Sumitrā’s son [Lakṣmaṇa]), of the surrounding demons,
and of Videha’s daughter [Sītā]—whether what happened is common knowledge or a secret—
will be made known to you in its entirety, even that of which you are unaware.
Nothing that you pronounce in this poem will be untrue.
Compose the noteworthy narrative about Rāma that consists of verses and that makes hearts happy!
The Rāmāyaṇa narrative will make the rounds among human beings
for as long as mountains and rivers remain ranging over the earth.
And you will live in my upper and lower worlds
for as long as the narrative about Rāma that you compose circulates.”
After saying this, venerable Brahmā vanished from where he had been.
At this, the ascetic Vālmīki and his students marveled.
Then all his students intoned that verse once more.
Again and again, in their delight and extreme amazement, they declared:
“The sorrow that has been sung by the great sage into four equisyllabic quarters
has become, through its repeated repetition, verse!”
That thoughtful man Vālmīki came to this conclusion:
“Let me compose the whole Rāmāyaṇa poem in couplets of this kind.”
Then the celebrated, consummately clever ascetic composed the renown-making poem about this renowned man Rāma—
with hundreds of heart-warming, equisyllabic verses having elevated words, meanings, and meters.
Rāmāyaṇa 1.2.3, 9–17, 22, 26–41 (emphases mine)
According to this account, the Rāmāyaṇa kāvya comes from the critical conversion of Vālmīki’s sorrow (śoka) into verse (śloka). [8] To stress this transformation, the poem juxtaposes these two similar-sounding terms (which have been boldfaced in the passage above) at three points: when Vālmīki identifies as verse his poetic outcry over the crane killing, when the sage’s persisting sorrow compels him to sing his verse to Brahmā, and when Vālmīki’s disciples declare that his sorrow has become verse (Rāmāyaṇa 1.2.17, 28, 39).
The poetic process continues even after Vālmīki voices his verse, which (as the underlined words in the above passage indicate) induces delight in all three of his audiences: Brahmā, the sage’s students, and all those who hear the couplet in the context of the entire Rāmāyaṇa (Rāmāyaṇa 1.2.29, 38, 34, 41). Part of the pleasure that Vālmīki’s poetry provides indubitably issues from its musical aspects. Like the first verse of this maestro’s making, the Rāmāyaṇa can be “accompanied by song, dance, and stringed instruments” (tantrīlayasamanvitam) (Rāmāyaṇa 1.2.17b, 1.4.7d). Additionally, this poem arising from the dying of a bird said twice to have been singing sweetly [9] is said itself to be “sweet when recited and when sung” (pāṭhye geye ca madhuraṃ) (Rāmāyaṇa 1.2.9, 27; 1.4.7a).
Yet the Rāmāyaṇa also is enjoyable insofar as it intriguingly reenacts emotional experiences, and this quality of the kāvya accords with its truthfulness and memorability. The veracity of Vālmīki’s work inheres not only in its articulation of everything that has happened (and that will happen) to its hero, Rāma (Rāmāyaṇa 1.2.34, 30–33; 1.1.76; 1.3.29; 1.4.2), but also in its vivid evocation of the sentiments that the events of his story elicit among those who live through them. Furthermore, the affective profundity of the poem makes it more memorable to the audiences pleasuring in the expanse of its narrative, and thereby ensures its reverberation among the mountain peaks and river creeks that are its contemporaries (Rāmāyaṇa 1.2.35).
The Rāmāyaṇa pairs with its endurance its exemplarity. Implicit in the Rāmāyaṇa’s self-description as a “divine primary poem” (divyaṃ … ādikāvyaṃ) is the idea that its god-given durability enables it to epitomize poetry for posterity (Rāmāyaṇa 6.3704* 1). As the ādikāvya (primary poem), the Rāmāyaṇa is the “foremost font for poets” (paraṃ kavīnām ādhāraṃ) (Rāmāyaṇa 2.2335* 6, 6.3703* 2, 6.3704* 1, 7.1540* 1, 7.1541* 10, 7.App. I.13.31, 1.4.20c). And its author is admired accordingly as the “principal poet” (prathamakavir) and the “best of the best poets” (kavivarapravareṇa) (Rāmāyaṇa 1.10*, 1.11*).
Appreciating Vālmīki’s virtuosity requires recognizing the affective resources with which the Rāmāyaṇa receptacle is replete. Among its most important contents is the seed of an affective aesthetics that eventually was brought to fruition by belletrists whose contributions I will characterize later in this chapter. At the core of this aesthetics is a concept called rasa (essence), which indicates the type of emotion that a piece of poetry arouses. The Rāmāyaṇa, by its own account, is “endowed with the humorous, erotic, compassionate, irascible, heroic, fearsome, abhorrent, and additional essences” (hāsyaśṛṅgārakāruṇyarau­dravīrabhayānakaiḥ | bībhatsādirasair yuktaṃ …); and one of the work’s supplementary passages enumerates as these additional essences the “amazing” (ad­bhuta) and the “peaceful” (śānta) (Rāmāyaṇa 1.4.8, 1.203* 16).
In addition to listing these literary cues to sentiments, the kāvya alludes to the rasas in the anecdote about its own composition. Here the copulating cranes represent the erotic (śṛṅgāra) essence; the hostile hunter, the fearsome (bhayānaka); the he-crane’s broken, bloody body, the abhorrent (bībhatsa); the crying she-crane and sympathetic sage, the compassionate (kāruṇya); the angry ascetic, the irascible (raudra); the tranquillity taken from the hunter, the peaceful (śānta); Brahmā’s beaming, the humorous (hāsya); Rāma’s resolve, the heroic (vīra); and the deity’s disappearance, the amazing (adbhuta) (Rāmāyaṇa 1.2.9, 14, 10, 27, 11, 11–13, 13–14, 14, 29, 31, 37, 38).
The Rāmāyaṇa, for all of its efforts to encompass a range of rasas in its creation scene, stresses the compassionate essence most strongly. The compassion that Vālmīki feels when he witnesses the she-crane’s show of compassion for her misfortunate mate is what produces his poetry, and its emotional immediacy is underscored by the Rāmāyaṇa’s reenactment of its own origin in affect. The emotion of compassion also is key to the portrayal by the Rāmāyaṇa of the affective effect that this kāvya seeks to have on its audience.
In order to have this effect in the first place, the Rāmāyaṇa kāvya needs to be performed. The performance of the Rāmāyaṇa within the Rāmāyaṇa itself is made possible by the compassion that Vālmīki evinces on another occasion. The sage kindly takes Sītā in after her husband—Rāma, the king of Ayodhyā—banishes her to the forest so that his subjects no longer will censure him for reaccepting her after the demon Rāvaṇa has kidnapped, confined, and thus come into contact with her (Rāmāyaṇa 7.48, 7.44.15–17, 7.42.16–20). When Sītā, who has been completely faithful to Rāma, moves to Vālmīki’s hermitage, she already is pregnant with their twin sons (Rāmāyaṇa 7.41.20–26).
The names that the twins receive from Vālmīki signal the role that they will play in preserving his great poem. Vālmīki names the elder twin “Kuśa” and the younger “Lava” (Rāmāyaṇa 7.58.5–6), and teaches them to recite his Rāmāyaṇa in the manner of the wandering poem-performers of classical Indian society who were known as kuśīlavas. [10] By the time that the boys are twelve years old (Rāmāyaṇa 7.56.16–17; 7.57.1–2; 7.58.1; 7.63.1, 5–7; 7.82.1–3; 7.83.6; 7.84.1–3), they actually recite the Rāmāyaṇa to their father during a ritual that he is sponsoring to consolidate his royal power. As Rāma hears the story of his past, present, and future being recounted in unison by his identical twin sons (who look just like him), he learns not only who they are to him but also that he—a human manifestation of Viṣṇu—has been born on earth to save the universe from Rāvaṇa and will be united in heaven with Lakṣmī (who also is known as Śrī), Viṣṇu’s divine wife who has appeared on earth as Rāma’s queen, Sītā (Rāmāyaṇa 7.86.2, 7.88.4, 6.105.25–26, 7.99.6). [11]
Thus, the Rāmāyaṇa not only originates in, but also succeeds aesthetically as a consequence of, Vālmīki’s compassion. The compassion that Vālmīki shows to Sītā and her sons allows him to create the ideal conditions for the performance of his kāvya. On Vālmīki’s command, Kuśa and Lava recite the Rāmāyaṇa to the person most likely to respond emotionally to this kāvya. The Rāmāyaṇa thus showcases the immediacy and importance that a poem can have for its audience and exalts itself as an exemplar for kāvyas to come, compositions that can be made from the same metrical material as the Rāmāyaṇa, namely, the verse Vālmīki invented from his own outpouring of feeling. The poem, in keeping with its prototypical role, also portrays itself as having power over people other than its protagonist. Some sages initially listening to the Rāmāyaṇa during a rehearsal of it before Rāma’s ritual declare: “Even though this arose a long time ago, it seems like something we can see before us” (ciranirvṛttam apy etat pratyakṣam iva darṣitam) (Rāmāyaṇa 1.4.16cd). So begins the continuing construal of the Rāmāyaṇa as an emotion-evoking poem that is as true to life as Sītā is to Rāma, a work whose audiences today can second what the aforementioned sages hearing the Rāmāyaṇa for the first time had to say. But much different from this poem’s self-portrayal as a nascent narrative is the Mahābhārata’s self-image as a story far removed from its first telling.

The Mahābhārata as an itih ā sa: An old eyewitness account of the way things had been

From its outset, the Mahābhārata depicts itself as a tale doubly distanced from its author. Before starting the story’s third telling, the charioteer-bard (or sūta) Ugraśravas explains how he himself heard say of it:
janamejayasya rājarṣeḥ sarpasattre mahātmanaḥ |
samīpe pārthivendrasya samyak pārikṣitasya ca ||
kṛṣṇadvaipāyanaproktāḥ supuṇyā vividhāḥ kathāḥ |
kathitāś cāpi vidhivad yā vaiśaṃpāyanena vai ||
śrutvāhaṃ tā vicitrārthā mahābhāratasaṃśritāḥ |

It was at the snake sacrifice of the magnanimous royal sage Janamejaya,
in the presence of this king of kings who was Parikṣit’s son,
that I heard the various, highly auspicious, multivalent narratives
belonging to the Mahābhārata—which were articulated originally by Kṛṣṇadvaipāyana—
related again by Vaiśaṃpāyana, in just the way in which they had occurred.
Mahābhārata 1.1.8–10ab (emphases mine)
Ugraśravas also elaborates on the Mahābhārata’s second transmission, by Vaiśaṃpāyana:
tapasā brahmacaryeṇa vyasya vedaṃ sanātanam |
itihāsam imaṃ cakre puṇyaṃ satyavatīsutaḥ ||
parāśarātmajo vidvān brahmarṣiḥ saṃśitavrataḥ |
mātur niyogād dharmātmā gāṅgeyasya ca dhimataḥ ||
kṣetre vicitravīryasya kṛṣṇadvaipāyanaḥ purā |
trīn agnīn iva kauravyāñ janayāmāsa vīryavān ||
utpādya dhṛtarāṣṭraṃ ca pāṇḍuṃ viduram eva ca |
jagāma tapase dhīmān punar evāśramaṃ prati ||
teṣu jāteṣu vṛddheṣu gateṣu paramāṃ gatim |
abravīd bhārataṃ loke mānuṣe ’smin mahān ṛṣiḥ ||
janamejayena pṛṣṭaḥ san brāhmaṇaiś ca sahasraśaḥ |
śaśāsa śiṣyam āsīnaṃ vaiśaṃpāyanam antike ||
sa sadasyaiḥ sahāsīnaḥ śrāvayāmāsa bhāratam |
karmāntareṣu yajñasya codyamānaḥ punaḥ punaḥ ||
vistaraṃ kuruvaṃśasya gāndhāryā dharmaśīlatām |
kṣattuḥ prajñāṃ dhṛtiṃ kuntyāḥ samyag dvaipāyano ’bravīt ||
vāsudevasya māhātmyaṃ pāṇḍavānāṃ ca satyatām |
durvṛttaṃ dhārtarāṣṭrāṇām uktavān bhagavān ṛṣiḥ ||

After he had arranged the everlasting Veda on the strength of his austerities and study,
Satyavatī’s son composed this auspicious account of the way things had been.
In olden days—at the mandate of his mother and Gaṅgā’s intelligent son [Bhīṣma]—righteous,
virile Kṛṣṇadvaipāyana (Parāśara’s son), a learned priestly sage who fulfilled his vows,
fathered in Vicitravīrya’s field
the next generation of Kurus, who were like the three fires of divine Agni.
After begetting Dhṛtarāṣṭra, Pāṇḍu, and Vidura,
the intelligent man went back again to his ashram to resume his austerities.
Once these three had been born, had aged, and had departed for their final destination,
the great sage uttered the Bhārata in the human world.
When asked to do so by Janamejaya and thousands of priests,
he instructed his student sitting nearby, Vaiśaṃpāyana.
As that [student] sat with the sacrificial priests, he recounted the Bhārata to them
at their unceasing urging, in the interstices of the sacrifice.
Dvaipāyana told thoroughly of the Kuru dynasty’s intricacies, of Gāndhārī’s righteousness,
of the maid’s son [Vidura]’s sagacity, of Kuntī’s constancy.
The venerable sage spoke of Vasudeva’s son [Kṛṣṇa]’s magnitude, of Pāṇḍu’s sons’ veracity,
of Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s sons’ maleficence.
Mahābhārata 1.1.52–60 (emphases mine)
When Ugraśravas’ tale later turns back on itself, the scene of its second telling comes into still sharper focus:
tatas taṃ satkṛtaṃ sarvaiḥ sadasyair janamejayaḥ |
idaṃ paścād dvijaśreṣṭhaṃ paryapṛcchat kṛtāñjaliḥ ||
kurūṇāṃ pāṇḍavānāṃ ca bhavān pratyakṣadarśivān |
teṣāṃ caritam icchāmi kathyamānaṃ tvayā dvija ||
kathaṃ samabhavad bhedas teṣām akliṣṭakarmaṇām |
tac ca yuddhaṃ kathaṃ vṛttaṃ bhūtāntakaraṇaṃ mahat ||
pitāmahānāṃ sarveṣāṃ daivenāviṣṭacetasām |
kārtsnyena itat samācakṣva bhagavan kuśalo hy asi ||
tasya tad vacanaṃ śrutvā kṛṣṇadvaipāyanas tadā |
śaśāsa śiṣyam āsīnaṃ vaiśaṃpāyanam antike ||
kurūṇāṃ pāṇḍavānāṃ ca yathā bhedo ’bhavat purā |
tad asmai sarvam ācakṣva yan mattaḥ śrutavān asi ||
guror vacanam ājñāya sa tu viprarṣabhas tadā |
ācacakṣe tataḥ sarvam itihāsaṃ purātanam ||
tasmai rājñe sadasyebhyaḥ kṣatriyebhyaś ca sarvaśaḥ |
bhedaṃ rājyavināśaṃ ca kurupāṇḍavayos tadā ||

Then Janamejaya saluted that preeminent priest, whose honors had been done by all the sacrificial priests,
and requested this of him afterward:
“Sir, you have witnessed with your own eyes what Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s sons and Pāṇḍu’s sons did.
I would like you to narrate their adventures, priest.
How did the rift among those men of effortless action arise,
and how did that great war that ended the lives of so many beings break out
among all my forefathers, whose powers of reason were possessed by fate?
Report this in its entirety, venerable one, for you are the proper person to do so.”
Upon hearing that man’s words, Kṛṣṇadvaipāyana
instructed his student sitting nearby, Vaiśaṃpāyana:
“Report to this man all that you have heard from me
how in olden days there was a rift between Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s sons and Pāṇḍu’s sons.”
Heeding his teacher’s words, that man, a superlative sage himself, then
related to that king, the sacrificial priests, and the surrounding warriors
the entire ancient account of the way things had been
and thus the kingdom-wrecking rift between Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s sons and Pāṇḍu’s sons.
Mahābhārata 1.54.17–24 (emphases mine)
The double thrust of the three preceding excerpts is signified by the two main morphemes of the Mahābhārata’s most important self-appellation: itihāsa. The meaning of this term emerges from its etymology, which—like some academic endeavors—is begun best at the end of the term. The word’s third part, āsa, is the third-person singular form of the perfect tense of the verb as (to be). This form may be translated as “it was,” given that, in the Sanskrit used at the time of the Mahābhārata, the perfect is a past tense tantamount to the imperfect. [12] The second segment of itihāsa, ha, is a particle that emphasizes whatever precedes it, which in this case is the particle iti—an equivalent of a closing quotation mark that is used here in its adverbial sense as “thus.” Literally, these pieces compose the phrase “it was just as said” or “it was just thus,” but my translation of them—a reworking of their recent rendering by Pollock as “ ‘narrative of the way things were’ ” [13] —is “account of the way things had been.” This translation tallies with Pollock’s in acknowledging that the term itihāsa is applied to a text that is told (i.e. an “account” or “narrative”) and that treats numerous entities (or “things”). But, where Pollock employs “were,” the imperfect tense of the verb “to be,” I use the pluperfect “had been,” which conveys the fact that the events unfolding in the itihāsa already had elapsed by the time at which the text was told. Still, even events that follow the itihāsa’s telling are included in this text, for its author already knows how these events will turn out, and thereby has hindsight of them.
In the three aforementioned extracts (as the boldfaced terms evidence), Ugraśravas showcases in two steps the temporal distance between his audience and the incidents addressed in the Mahābhārata itihāsa. First, he observes the long interval between these incidents and their initial incorporation into the itihāsa. Two of the text’s turning points—Kṛṣṇadvaipāyana’s fathering of Dhṛtarāṣṭra, Pāṇḍu, and Vidura for Vicitravīrya [14] and the break between Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s sons and Pāṇḍu’s sons—are said to have occurred “in olden days” (purā) (Mahābhārata 1.1.54, 1.54.22). Moreover, Kṛṣṇadvaipāyana composes the Mahābhārata only after the three Kuru scions whom he himself sired have died (Mahābhārata 1.1.53–56). Second, Ugraśravas reveals that much time has passed since the Mahābhārata’s first telling. The “narratives” (kathāḥ) constituting this “ancient account of the way things had been” (itihāsaṃ purātanam) were “articulated originally” (proktāḥ) by Kṛṣṇadvaipāyana “after he had arranged the everlasting Veda” (vyasya vedaṃ sanātanam), the earliest corpus of sacred texts in the Hindu tradition, and were “related again” (kathitāś cāpi) by Vaiśaṃpāyana to Ugraśravas and everyone else who attended Janamejaya’s snake sacrifice (Mahābhārata 1.1.9; 1.54.23d; 1.1.9, 52b, 9). The itihāsa’s aging process also is embodied by the lengthening of the line of kings whom the text commends. Janamejaya, the ruler who asks Kṛṣṇadvaipāyana to narrate his composition anew (a request that the sage grants only in part, because he has his student Vaiśaṃpāyana tell the tale), is the author’s great-great-great-grandson, the grandson of his great-grandson. The “ ‘forefathers’ ” (pitāmahānāṃ) about whom Janamejaya wishes to hear are actually his ancestors in his great-grandfather’s generation, namely, the sons of Dhṛtarāṣṭra and of Pāṇḍu, who is Janamejaya’s great-great-grandfather (Mahābhārata 1.54.20).
In the continuation of the Kuru lineage, then, Ugraśravas finds an emblem for the extended making of the Mahābhārata itself. He traces first the transformation of action into text that is represented by the aging of Kṛṣṇadvaipāyana’s biological children Dhṛtarāṣṭra, Pāṇḍu, and Vidura: while the births of these boys belong to the lore of yore that eventually will wend its way into an itihāsa, the deaths of these characters after they have grown up usher in the creation of the actual itihāsa that immortalizes them poetically. Ugraśravas then follows the shift from first- to secondhand story that is signaled by the different relationships that Pāṇḍu’s sons have with the men who memorialize them. When Kṛṣṇadvaipāyana describes in his itihāsa “Pāṇḍu’s sons’ veracity” (pāṇḍavānāṃ … satyatām) (Mahābhārata 1.1.60), the sage speaks of grandsons whom he guided once they grew up, [15] who at the time of the Mahābhārata’s composition already have superseded their father’s generation at court. But, when Janamejaya calls on Kṛṣṇadvaipāyana to tell him “ ‘what … Pāṇḍu’s sons did’ ” (pāṇḍavānāṃ) (Mahābhārata 1.54.18), the king commands the reperformance of an itihāsa about the great-grandfather and great-granduncles whom he never knew personally.
The Mahābhārata also uses three other procedures to place itself in a long-gone past. First, the poem specifies that Kṛṣṇadvaipāyana completed its composition in three years (Mahābhārata 1.56.32, 1.App. I.5.8–9, 1.App. I.32.42–43, 1.App. I.33.3–4, 18.37*, 18.5.41, 18.App. I.3.1–2), and thus demarcates temporally its own indeterminacy and implies itself to have been a fixed text for some time. Second, the work suggests that it is the last segment of the first Hindu sacred text. The Mahābhārata, immediately after explaining that Kṛṣṇadvaipāyana also is known as Vyāsa (the Divider) because he “divided the Vedas” (vivyāsa vedān) into four parts, names itself as the “fifth” (mahābhāratapañcamān) of the Vedas that Vyāsa taught his students (Mahābhārata 1.57.73, 74b). [16] Third, Vyāsa is able to pass down to his pupils the entire Mahābhārata as a Veda, even before the events that he will record in the poem have finished unfolding (Mahābhārata 12.327.18). Thus, even before it comes into being, the Mahābhārata manages already to be complete. Yet the text prevents its precomposition completion from being a paradox, by emphasizing Vyāsa’s prescience.
If the āsa in itihāsa stands for the twofold temporal remoteness that such a text has from the incidents that it treats and from the times at which it is retold, the iti represents the perceptual proximity that the author of the text has to the ancient occurrences that he recounts in it. What this cognitive nearness entails is evinced by the underlined terms in Ugraśravas’ triad of descriptions. Vyāsa is able to tell “thoroughly” (samyag) and “ ‘in its entirety’ ” (kārtsnyena) his “account of the way things had been” (itihāsam) because he has “ ‘witnessed [these things] with [his] own eyes’ ” (pratyakṣadarśivān) (Mahābhārata 1.1.59, 1.54.20, 1.1.52, 1.54.18). And, by virtue of the vividness with which Vyāsa has imparted his itihāsa to him, Vaiśaṃpāyana can retell “ ‘all [the narratival episodes about] which [he] ha[s] heard’ ” (tad … sarvam … yan … śrutavān) from his instructor, “in just the way in which they ha[ve] occurred” (vidhivad) (Mahābhārata 1.54.22, 1.1.9).
Vyāsa can make his Mahābhārata so lifelike because he has divine vision (divyaṃ cakṣus) (Mahābhārata 3.8.22; 14.61.9; 18.5.7, 33; 18.31*). As a result, he has extrasensory awareness (atīndriyajñāna) that extends over time and space: in addition to knowing the past, present, and future (bhūtabhavyabhaviṣyavid)—his foreknowledge presumably being what enables him to hand down the Mahābhārata prior to the occurrence of all the acts that the poem depicts—he is capable of hearing and seeing things from afar that ordinarily would be beyond his ken (dūraśravaṇadarśana) (Mahābhārata 1.100.8, 6.2.2d, 15.37.16b). Thus cognizant of everything (sarvajña), Vyāsa attributes his omniscience to the grace of the god Nārāyaṇa, who identifies himself with Viṣṇu (Mahābhārata 18.5.8, 32; 12.327.21–23; 12.328.35, 38). [17]
Possessing such exceptional powers of perception renders Vyāsa the ultimate reliable witness. With everything within his cognitive reach, he sees reality (tattvadarśin) and utters the truth (satyavādin) (Mahābhārata 1.2.168, 211, 219, 231; 1.99.15; 18.5.31). Therefore, the itihāsa that he articulates also is veridical; and the circumstances of its second and third tellings—during which Vaiśaṃpāyana and Ugraśravas each voice Vyāsa’s “complete cognition” (mataṃ kṛtsnaṃ) (Mahābhārata 1.55.2, 1.56.12, 1.1.23)—suggest that the text retains its veracity because the text’s subsequent recitations remain true to those that precede them.
In line with its self-portrayal as an itihāsa that is old and faithful, the Mahābhārata poses itself as an enduring object whose aesthetic worth will influence imitators rather than inspire innovators. Poets themselves preserve the Mahābhārata on account of its excellences:
ācakhyuḥ kavayaḥ kecit saṃpraty ācakṣate pare |
ākhyāsyanti tathaivānye itihāsam imaṃ bhuvi ||
idaṃ tu triṣu lokeṣu mahaj jñānaṃ pratiṣṭhitam |
vistaraiś ca samāsaiś ca dhāryate yad dvijātibhiḥ ||
alaṃkṛtaṃ śubhaiḥ śabdaiḥ samayair divyamānuṣaiḥ |
chandovṛttaiś ca vividhair anvitaṃ viduṣāṃ priyam ||

Some poets have narrated on earth this account of the way things had been, others are recounting it now,
and others still will narrate it.
This great knowledge placed in the three worlds—
which is kept by priests in its full and its brief forms,
and which is ornamented with elegant words and divine and human devices
and is endowed with assorted meters—is beloved by the learned.
Mahābhārata 1.1.24–26
In fact, the Mahābhārata asserts itself as the basis of all intellectual efforts:
yo vidyāc caturo vedān sāṅgopaniṣadān dvijaḥ |
na cākhyānam idaṃ vidyān naiva sa syād vicakṣaṇaḥ ||
śrutvā tv idam upākhyānaṃ śrāvyam anyan na rocate |
puṃskokilarutaṃ śrutvā rūkṣā dhvāṅkṣasya vāg iva ||
itihāsottamād asmāj jāyante kavibuddhayaḥ |
pañcabhya iva bhūtebhyo lokasaṃvidhayas trayaḥ ||
asyākhyānasya viṣaye purāṇaṃ vartate dvijāḥ |
antarikṣasya viṣaye prajā iva caturvidhāḥ ||
kriyāguṇānāṃ sarveṣām idam ākhyānam āśrayaḥ |
indriyāṇāṃ samastānāṃ citrā iva manaḥkriyāḥ ||
anāśrityaitad ākhyānaṃ kathā bhuvi na vidyate |
āhāram anapāśritya śarīrasyeva dhāraṇam ||
idaṃ sarvaiḥ kavivarair ākhyānam upajīvyate |
udayaprepsubhir bhṛtyair abhijāta iveśvaraḥ ||

A priest who knows the four Vedas along with their Aṅgas [Auxiliaries] and Upaniṣads
but does not know this tale, is not at all learned.
After hearing this anecdote deserving to be heard, a person takes pleasure in no other,
just as, after the song of a he-cuckoo is heard, the caw of a crow seems raucous.
The ideas of poets arise from this optimal account of the way things had been,
just as the three worlds are structured from the five elements.
Stories of yore traverse the sphere of this tale, priests,
just as the four kinds of creatures traverse the sphere of space.
This tale is the seat of all accomplishments and merits,
just as sundry mental acts are the seat of all the senses.
On earth, no narrative exists that does not depend on this tale,
just as no body survives that does not fare on food.
This tale sustains all the princes among poets,
just as a nobly born lord sustains the lackeys who aim to advance.
Mahābhārata 1.2.235–241
Although this itihāsa allows that other poems will appear after it, it declares that they will not deviate far from the path that it has broken. The poets whom the Mahābhārata precedes and who draw material from its many narratives thus cannot create anything altogether new. That the itihāsa takes pains to minimize the inventiveness of its successors, so as to silence any suggestion of having been excelled, is attested by the following verse, which has been inserted into most of the northern-recension manuscripts contributing to the first volume of the Mahābhārata’s critical edition, after the selection that I just have cited:
asya kāvyasya kavayo na samarthā viśeṣaṇe |
sādhor iva gṛhasthasya śeṣās traya ivāśramāḥ ||

Poets are incapable of surpassing this poem,
just as the three other stages of life are incapable of surpassing that of a truly honorable householder.
Mahābhārata 1.187* [18]
If Vyāsa’s successors indeed derive their narratives from his, these poets are highly unlikely to outdo him in the area of authoring immense itihāsas. These poets, to achieve eminence in their own rights, need to play on another field.
The main models for the efforts of Vālmīki’s and Vyāsa’s poetic heirs, the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata—true to their respective self-representations as a kāvya and an itihāsa—set starkly different examples. Whereas the Rāmāyaṇa provides prospective poets with whiffs of the essences that these artists can use as ingredients in delicacies that are decidedly their own, the Mahābhārata offers itself to these authors as a time-tested recipe for a story that surely will sustain these scholars as well as it has maintained their ancestors. The contrast between this kāvya and this itihāsa has far-reaching repercussions, shaping the ways in which subsequent intellectuals categorize and compare these texts. Two of the Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata’s earliest and most influential classifications have been offered by the medieval Indian thinkers Ānandavardhana (ca. the ninth century CE) and Rājaśekhara (ca. 880–920 CE), in their respective treatises on poetry.

Ānandavardhana and Rājaśekhara :Interpreters Unifying the Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhvrata as Kāvyas and as Itihāsas

Ānandavardhana and Rājaśekhara each make the move of applying the same term to the Mahābhārata as to the Rāmāyaṇa. But, whereas Ānandavardhana adopts kāvya as his term for these poems, Rājaśekhara uses itihāsa. Ānandavardhana’s and Rājaśekhara’s word choices reflect the roles in which these critics cast these works. Ānandavardhana characterizes the Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata—like the later poems that he and his peers compose—as kāvyas that continue to invite interpretation on the basis of the rasas with which they are imbued. Rājaśekhara, however, considers the Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata to be itihāsas, ancient sources of stories that he and his contemporaries rework in their rasa-containing kāvyas centuries afterward.

The Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata in Ānandavardhana’s view: Poems suggestive of single essences

Although Ānandavardhana, in his Dhvanyāloka (Illumination of Poetic Suggestion), does not explicitly label the Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata as kāvyas, he implies in two ways that the works are such. First, he calls their composers poets: Vālmīki, the ādikavi (primary poet); Vyāsa, a kavivedhas (poet-creator); and both, kavīśvaras (master poets) (Dhvanyāloka [19] 1.5; comments on 1.5, 2.1, 4.7, 4.5, 3.18–19). Second, Ānandavardhana ascribes to the Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata what he considers to be characteristic of the best kind of kāvyas.
In his eyes, the Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata are distinguished by their dhvani (poetic suggestion), the linchpin of his poetics: “[T]he nature of this poetic suggestion—which is the pith of the poems of all the best poets, and which is exceedingly delightful—has not been brought to light before, even by the more subtle minds of ancient exponents of definitions of poetry. Yet its operation in regard to the Rāmāyaṇa, Mahābhārata, etc., is recognized everywhere by discerning critics. It is elucidated here, in order that happiness may be housed in their hearts” (tasya … dhvaneḥ svarūpaṃ sakalasatkavikāvyopaniṣadbhūtam atiramaṇīyam aṇīyasībhir api cirantanakāvyalakṣaṇavidhāyināṃ buddhibhir anunmīlitapūrvam, atha ca rāmāyaṇamahābhārataprabhṛtini lakṣye sarvatra prasiddhavyavahāraṃ lakṣayatāṃ sahṛdayānām ānando manasi labhatāṃ pratiṣṭhām iti prakāśyate |) (Dhvanyāloka, comment on 1.1). [20] Ānandavardhana opens his discussion by defining dhvani:
yatrārthaḥ śabdo vā tam artham upasarjanīkṛtasvārthau |
vyaṅktaḥ kāvyaviśeṣaḥ sa dhvanir iti sūribhiḥ kathitaḥ ||
The erudite term as “poetic suggestion” that property of poetry where a usual meaning that itself was subordinated to another one, or a word whose usual meaning was subordinated to another meaning,
has alluded to that other meaning.
Dhvanyāloka 1.13
Then Ānandavardhana clarifies this definition: “Poetic suggestion occurs where a meaning distinct from the expressed one, is shown—by the expressed meaning and by the word that expresses it—to be the main point, it being the case that the suggested meaning is paramount” (vācyavyatiriktasyārthasya vācyavācakābhyāṃ tātparyeṇa prakāśanaṃ yatra vyaṅgyaprādhānye sa dhvaniḥ |) (Dhvanyāloka, comment on 1.13). Subsequently, to align his idea of dhvani with earlier aesthetics, Ānandavardhana has it subsume the concept of rasa:
vācyavācakacārutvahetūnāṃ vividhātmanām |
rasādiparatā yatra sa dhvaner viṣayo mataḥ ||

The sphere of poetic suggestion is thought to be wherever the many expressed meanings, words that express them, and things that make pretty these meanings and words
subserve the essences, etc.
Dhvanyāloka 2.4
Although Ānandavardhana enriches the rasa notion, he maintains many of the elements advanced in its earliest extant exposition, which appears in ancient thinker Bharata’s Nāṭyaśāstra (Treatise on the Dramatic Arts) (a work composed collectively ca. 100 BCE–200 CE).
Like a garrulous guide whose tour is taken over by a terse one, Bharata indicates in his elaborate rasa theory what Ānandavardhana abbreviates as “essences, etc.” Bharata begins by enumerating the rasas:
śṛṅgārahāsyakaruṇā raudravīrabhayānakāḥ |
bībhatsādbhutasaṃjñau cety aṣṭau nāṭye rasāḥ smṛtāḥ ||

Eight essences are evoked by the dramatic arts: the erotic, the humorous, and the compassionate; the irascible, the heroic, and the fearsome;
and the two termed the abhorrent and the amazing.
Nāṭyaśāstra 6.15
Associated with the rasas in his system are several types of states, or bhāvas, one type of which is specified in the following verse:
ratir hāsaś ca śokaś ca krodhotsāhau bhayaṃ tathā |
jugupsā vismayaś ceti sthāyibhāvāḥ prakīrtitāḥ ||

passion and amusement, sorrow, ire and mettle, fear,
and abhorrence and amazement are known as the steady states.
Nāṭyaśāstra 6.17
These steady states, upon interacting with other sorts of states, actually turn into the essences, as Bharata’s gustatory imagery illustrates:
tatra vibhāvānubhāvavyabhicārisaṃyogād rasaniṣpattiḥ |
ko dṛṣṭāntaḥ | atrāha—yathā hi nānāvyañjanauṣadhidravyasaṃyogād rasaniṣpattiḥ tathā nānābhāvopagamād rasaniṣpattiḥ | yathā hi—guḍādibhir dravyair [21] vyañjanair auṣadhibhiś ca śāḍavādayo rasā nirvartyante tathā nānābhāvopagatā api sthāyino bhāvā rasatvam āpnuvantīti | atrāha—rasa iti kaḥ padārthaḥ | ucyate—āsvādyatvāt | katham āsvādyate rasaḥ | yathā hi nānāvyañjanasaṃskṛtam annaṃ bhuñjānā rasān āsvādayanti sumanasaḥ puruṣā harṣādīṃś cādhigacchanti tathā nānābhāvābhinayavyañjitān vāgaṅgasattvopetān sthāyibhāvān āsvādayanti sumanasaḥ prekṣakāḥ harṣādīṃś cādhigacchanti | tasmān nāṭyarasā ity abhivyākhyātāḥ |
In that regard, essences arise from the combination of states that elicit others, of the outward signs of states, and of transitory states.
What is an example of this? On this topic, someone has said: “Just as flavors arise from the combination of sundry spices, herbs, and ingredients, so too arise essences from the intermingling of sundry states. Just as the flavors of sweets and other foods are made with things like molasses, with spices, with herbs, and with other ingredients, so too the steady states—as soon as they have intermingled with the sundry other states—become essences.”
On this topic, someone else has said: “What is the sense of the word ‘essence’?”
This is what is said in response: “It derives from its ability to be savored.”
“How is an essence savored?”
“Just as satisfied people savor flavors while eating food cooked with sundry spices and are pleased and so forth, so too satisfied spectators savor the steady states—which involve speech, body, and character and are shown by the acting out of the sundry other states—and are pleased and so forth. It is to this [process] that the ‘essences of the dramatic arts’ owe their name.”
Nāṭyaśāstra, section after 6.31
And Ānandavardhana borrows from Bharata the system of states for which “essences, etc.” serves as a shorthand.
Even after Ānandavardhana transplants rasas from the field of dramatics to the plot of poetics, these essences flourish further. Interweaving them into his theoretical framework, like prize tea roses on a trellis, he highlights rasas (along with the bhāvas on which they are based) accordingly:
mukhyā vyāpāraviṣayāḥ sukavīnāṃ rasādayaḥ |
teṣāṃ nibandhane bhāvyaṃ taiḥ sadaivāpramādibhiḥ ||

The foremost objects of praiseworthy poets’ efforts are the essences, etc.
They should be prepared by those who always are attentive.
Dhvanyāloka, comment on 3.18–19
More specifically, such authors are to assemble words and meanings in a way that encourages the essences and states to be evident (Dhvanyāloka, comment on 3.32).
Ānandavardhana esteems “the essences, etc.” so highly because they permit poets to keep making original art out of long-extant life: “Because the essences, etc., are employed, this path of poetry—despite having been measured off when trod in many ways by a thousand or countless poets of old—goes on infinitely. For the essences, states, etc., are boundless because they each are associated with states that elicit others, outward signs of states, and transitory states. And indeed—by the very act of considering each sort of these [essences, states, etc.]—praiseworthy poets, by dint of their desire, can cause a worldly incident that they are treating to seem just one way, even though it is otherwise” (yasya rasāder āśrayād ayaṃ kāvyamārgaḥ purātanaiḥ kavibhiḥ sahasrasaṃkhyair asaṃkhyair vā bahuprakāraṃ kṣuṇṇatvānmito ’py anantatām eti | rasabhāvādīnāṃ hi pratyekaṃ vi­bhāvānubhāvavyabhicārisamāśrayād aparimitatvam | teṣāṃ caikaikaprabhedāpekṣa­yāpi tāvaj jagadvṛttam upanibadhyamānaṃ sukavibhis tadicchāvaśād anyathā sthitam apy anyathaiva vivartate |) (Dhvanyāloka, comment on 4.3). The presence of rasas and bhāvas thus presents poets with an endless array of narrative possibilities.
Yet the infinitude of these options is not overwhelming, as Ānandavardhana urges poets to take on only one particularly productive task: “And, in a major work, treating only one essence makes the work more likely to have unique content and abounding beauty” (prabandhe cāṅgī rasa eka evopanibadhyamāno ’rthaviśeṣalābhaṃ chāyātiśayaṃ ca puṣṇāti |) (Dhvanyāloka, comment on 4.5). In addition to improving poems aesthetically, concentrating on a single rasa licenses poets to create compositions that contrast starkly with earlier kinds of accounts: “A poet composing a poem should be devoted to its essence with his whole soul. That being the case, if he perceives in an account a situation that does not suit the essence, he should excise that altogether and construct on his own another narrative that does suit the essence. For a poet need not maintain a mere account, because that is brought about only by an account of the way things had been” (kavinā kāvyam upanibadhnatā sarvātmanā rasaparatantreṇa bhavitavyam | tatretivṛtte yadi rasānanuguṇāṃ sthitiṃ paśyet tāṃ bhaṅktvāpi svatantratayā rasānuguṇaṃ kathāntaram utpādayet | na hi kaver itivṛttamātranirvahaṇena kiñcit prayojanam, itihāsād eva tatsiddheḥ |) (Dhvanyāloka, comment on 3.13–14). Thus, rather than preserve in an itihāsa an account of past events, a poet composes a kāvya to convey a certain rasa. As a container of a narrative newly conceived for this particular purpose, a poem—from Ānandavardhana’s perspective—is clearly distinct from an account that asserts itself as evidence of an earlier time.
There are nine rasas from which poets may select. The first eight essences to appear in the Dhvanyāloka are those studied by Bharata (Dhvanyāloka, comment on 1.5; 2.7; 2.9; 3.4; comments on 3.6, 3.9, 3.23):
  1. the compassionate
  2. the erotic
  3. the irascible
  4. the abhorrent
  5. the amazing
  6. the heroic
  7. the humorous
  8. the fearsome
To this octet, Ānandavardhana adds the peaceful (Dhvanyāloka, comment on 3.23). [22] As Ānandavardhana exemplifies the evocation of the first and the last of the rasas in his series, he shows his audience the variety of affects that effects this rasa range.
At one pole, he places the foremost source of the karuṇa rasa: “[I]n the Rāmāyaṇa, the primary poet himself has interwoven the compassionate essence, affirming to this effect, ‘Sorrow has become verse!’ And he has developed that very [essence] simply by ending his work with Rāma’s permanent separation from Sītā” (rāmāyaṇe … karuṇo rasaḥ svayam ādikavinā sūtritaḥ ‘śokaḥ ślokatvam āgataḥ’ ity evaṃ vādinā | nirvyūḍhaś ca sa eva sītātyantaviyogaparyantam eva svaprabandham uparacayatā |) (Rāmāyaṇa 1.2.39d, quoted in Dhvanyāloka, comment on 4.5). The unbridgeable rift between King Rāma and his queen, Sītā, that results from her live interment crowns the Rāmāyaṇa’s karuṇa rasa by consummating in the poem the sorrow that Ānandavardhana identifies as the compassionate essence’s steady state (Rāmāyaṇa 7.89.1; Dhvanyāloka, comment on 1.5). So as to connect more closely the sorrow concluding the Rāmāyaṇa to the sorrow producing the poem, Ānandavardhana interchanges the genders of the crane couple in Vālmīki’s view. In stating, then, that the sage’s śoka that was turned into śloka was “generated by the cry of the he-crane distressed by his separation from his mate lying close by” (sannihitasahacarīvirahakātarakrauñcākrāndajanitaḥ) (Dhvanyāloka, comment on 1.5), Ānandavardhana implicitly parallels the grieving crane and king. [23] In doing so, the critic nudges into an even brighter spotlight in the Dhvanyāloka the karuṇa rasa that the Rāmāyaṇa itself foregrounds. [24]
At the other pole, Ānandavardhana positions the quintessential cache of the śānta rasa: “The main point of the Mahābhārata appears very plainly indeed to involve the intention that the peaceful essence, which is attended by other essences that are its subordinates, is the principal one; and that the human aim defined as the transcendence of transmigration, which is attended by other aims that are its subordinates, is the principal one” (śānto raso rasāntaraiḥ, mokṣalakṣaṇaḥ puruṣārthaḥ puruṣārthāntaraiḥ tadupasarjanatvenānugamyamāno ’ṅgitvena vivakṣāviṣaya iti mahābhāratatātparyaṃ suvyaktam evāvabhāsate |) (Dhvanyāloka, comment on 4.5). According to Ānandavardhana, the twofold significance of the Mahābhārata stems from its double identity as a poem (kāvya) and a treatise (śāstra): “It is well established that the Mahābhārata, in its capacity as a treatise, is intended to have as its principal human aim the single highest human aim, which is defined only as the transcendence of transmigration; and that [the text], in its capacity as a poem, is intended to have as its principal essence the peaceful essence, which is defined as the development of happiness ensuing from the ending of desire” (mokṣalakṣaṇa evaikaḥ paraḥ puruṣārthaḥ śāstranayena, kāvyanayena ca tṛṣṇākṣayasukhaparipoṣalakṣaṇaḥ śānto raso mahābhāratasyāṅgitvena vivakṣita iti supratipāditam |) (Dhvanyāloka, comment on 4.5). But the specific type of śāstra as which Ānandavardhana sees the Mahābhārata is shaped by his notion of poetry, for he modifies the Mahābhārata’s own śāstric self-image to highlight what he regards as the work’s most prominent poetic feature. While the Mahābhārata portrays itself as a triad of treatises that each address a human aim—as an arthaśāstra (treatise on acquisition) and a dharmaśāstra (treatise on righteousness), as well as a mokṣaśāstra (treatise on the transcendence of transmigration) (Mahābhārata 1.56.21)—Ānandavardhana attends only to this last limning. By depicting the poem’s primary purpose as release from the round of rebirth, he casts into relief the śānta rasa that pervades the poem.
With its quintessence of quietude, whose steady state is the aforementioned “happiness” accompanying desire’s end, [25] the Mahābhārata makes an affective and effective model that Ānandavardhana is able to oppose to a similarly evocative, but antithetically oriented, Rāmāyaṇa. Running counter to the Rāmāyaṇa’s karuṇa rasa—the consequence of sorrow at someone else’s plight and an expression of outward-looking empathy [26] —is the Mahābhārata’s śānta rasa, the result of a contentment attained by turning inward, away from external objects that arouse emotions. Ānandavardhana, by situating this pair of poems at opposite ends of his essence spectrum, illustrates the extent of its applicability.
Thus, he advances the Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata as primers on his poetics. Although he clearly considers these works to be kāvyas, they serve in his system as śāstras, object lessons for future pliers of his poetic craft. In Pollock’s terms, Ānandavardhana here appropriates products of poetic “practice” (i.e. the Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata) expressly for the purpose of expounding his “theory” of poetic suggestion. [27] Furthermore, Ānandavardhana’s emphasis on the instructive value of these two texts for poets prefigures Rājaśekhara’s rendering of both works as śāstras that have left a poetic legacy to kavis such as himself.

The Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata from Rājaśekhara's perspective: Pathbreaking poetic accounts of the way things had been

Rājaśekhara begins his Kāvyamīmāṃsā (Inquiry into Poetry) by advising other poets to become versed in the śāstras (Kāvyamīmāṃsā, 8–9). The reason for his advice is clarified by his modern commentator Madhusudan Sharma, who reveals that Rājaśekhara encourages his counterparts to consult treatises because these texts already have addressed the same topics that these scholars seek to treat in their poems (Kāvyamīmāṃsā, 9n).
Moreover, Rājaśekhara admits as śāstras the Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata. Specifically, he distinguishes śāstras that are human-made (pauruṣeya) from those that are not (apauruṣeya); he divides the human-made ones into four groups—stories of yore (purāṇas), metaphysical speculations (ānvīkṣikīs), Vedic explications (mīmāṃsās), and legal texts (smṛtitantras); he includes itihāsas among those stories of yore; [28] and he subdivides these accounts of the way things had been, according to whether they are about the action of the greatest (parakriyā) or about a bygone age (purākalpa) (Kāvyamīmāṃsā, 9, 14–15). [29] Rājaśekhara regards the first sort of itihāsa as having a single hero, but sees the second sort as having many heroes; and he adduces as instances of these two types the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata, respectively (Kāvyamīmāṃsā, 16).
Later in his work, Rājaśekhara details the narrative resources that itihāsas and other śāstras provide to poets:
atrāhuḥ—“śrutīnāṃ sāṅgaśākhānām itihāsapurāṇayoḥ |
arthagranthaḥ kathābhyāsaḥ kavitvasyaikam auṣadham ||
itihāsapurāṇābhyāṃ cakṣurbhyām iva satkaviḥ |
vivekāñjanaśuddhābhyāṃ sūkṣmam apy artham īkṣate ||
vedārthasya nibandhena ślāghyante kavayo yathā |
smṛtīnām itihāsasya purāṇasya tathā tathā ||”

In this regard, people have said:
“The supreme remedy of poetic expertise is the stringing together of subjects and the regular study of narratives
from the Vedas and their supplements and recensions and from the accounts of the way things had been and the stories of yore.
The best poet sees even subtle subject matter by means both of the accounts of the way things had been and of the stories of yore, as if with a pair of eyes
purified by the salve of discernment.
Just as poets are commended because their compositions treat the subject matter of the Vedas,
so too are commended poets whose compositions treat the subject matter of the law codes, of the accounts of the way things had been, and of the stories of yore.”
Kāvyamīmāṃsā, 114
More precisely, Rājaśekhara produces this passage to prove to his peer poets that they will gain as much acclaim by drawing story material from the stores of such human-made śāstras as itihāsas, purāṇas, and smṛtis (law codes) as by tapping topics from śāstras of divine origin, like the Vedas and their various parts.
Rājaśekhara not only promotes the pauruṣeya śāstras as sources for poets, but also prescribes a particular way in which they should study these texts:
atrāha sma—
“bahv api svecchayā kāmaṃ prakīrṇam abhidhīyate |
anujjhitārthasambandhaḥ prabandho durudāharaḥ ||
rītiṃ vicintya vigaṇayya guṇān vigāhya
śabdārthasārtham anusṛtya ca sūktimudrāḥ |
kāryo nibandhaviṣaye viduṣā prayatnaḥ
ke potayantrarahitā jaladhau plavante ||
līḍhābhidhopaniṣadāṃ savidhe budhānām
abhyasyataḥ pratidinaṃ bahudṛśvano ’pi |
kiñcit kadācana kathañcana sūktipākād
vāktattvam unmiṣati kasyacid eva puṃsaḥ ||”

On this issue, someone has said:
“Although it certainly is the case that a hodgepodge is expounded ad nauseam as one desires,
a composition connected with a topic that is treated steadfastly (rather than being abandoned for something else) is difficult to compose.
Once he has thought about style, has considered other qualities, has examined a multitude of words and meanings, and has turned phrases well and has worded things right,
a scholar should strive in the area of composition. Who crosses the ocean, without the support of a ship?
Only for some man who also is very observant as he practices every day, in the presence of smart people who have absorbed the secret of words’ conventional meanings,
does a bit of rarefied language open out at a certain time—with great difficulty—from the finishing of well-turned phrases.”
Kāvyamīmāṃsā, 173
Arguing here that—to adopt Archaic Greek lyric poet Archilochus’ terms—being a hedgehog expert in one field (i.e. a poet who devotes his composition to a single topic) is harder than being a fox somewhat familiar with many (i.e. a poet whose work ranges readily from topic to topic), Rājaśekhara recommends that authors attempting to address a certain subject become acquainted with the various verbal elements that are available for its exposition, and that these poets compose under the supervision of their successful predecessors.
Yet these adepts are not the only role models for poets, whose intellectual ancestry Rājaśekhara traces to the authors of the two itihāsas most important to him:
valmīkajanmā sa kaviḥ purāṇaḥ kavīśvaraḥ satyavatīsutaś ca |
yasya praṇetā tad ihānavadyaṃ sārasvataṃ vartma na kasya vandyam? ||
Who would not worship that flawless avenue of eloquence here that was created by
that primeval poet who had emerged from an anthill and by the master poet who was Satyavatī’s son?
Kāvyamīmāṃsā, 91
Rājaśekhara refers here to Vālmīki and Vyāsa, respectively. But, unlike Ānanda­vardhana, who calls both composers kavīśvaras (master poets) (Dhvanyāloka, comment on 3.18–19), Rājaśekhara reserves this title for Vyāsa and labels Vālmīki the “primeval poet” (kaviḥ purāṇaḥ). The sages’ distinct designations reflect the different roles that these authors play in Rājaśekhara’s model of poetic production. His representation also clarifies why the road originated by the two ascetics—an “avenue of eloquence” (sārasvataṃ vartma)—relates to Sarasvatī, the goddess of knowledge who is Brahmā’s wife.
The story that Rājaśekhara relates about how poetry came to be composed by people begins with the rather remarkable birth of Sarasvatī’s son Kāvyapuruṣa (Poetry Personified):
purā putrīyantī sarasvatī tuṣāragirau tapasyāmāsa | prītena manasā tāṃ viriñcaḥ provāca putraṃ te sṛjāmi | athaiṣā kāvyapuruṣaṃ suṣuve | so ’bhyutthāya sapādopagrahaṃ chandasvatīṃ vācam udacīcarat |
“yadetadvāṅmayaṃ viśvam arthamūrttyā vivarttate |
so ’smi kāvyapumān amba pādau vandeya tāvakau ||”
tām āmnāyadṛṣṭacarīm upalabhya bhāṣāviṣaye chandomudrāṃ devī sasammadam aṅkaparyaṅkenādāya tam udalāpayat | “vatsa! sacchandaskāyā giraḥ praṇetaḥ! vāṅmayamātaram api mātaraṃ māṃ vijayase | praśasyatamaṃ cedam udāharanti yad uta ‘putrāt parājayo dvitīyaṃ putrajanma’ iti | tvattaḥ pūrve hi vidvāṃso [30] gadyaṃ dadṛśur na padyam | tvadupajñam athātaḥ chandasvad vacaḥ pravartsyati | aho ślāghanīyo ’si | śabdārthau te śarīraṃ, saṃskṛtaṃ mukhaṃ, prākṛtaṃ bāhuḥ, jaghanam apabhraṃśaḥ, paiśācaṃ pādau, uro miśram | samaḥ prasanno madhura udāra ojasvī cāsi | ukticaṇaṃ te vaco, rasa ātmā, romāṇi chandāṃsi, praśnottarapravahlikādikaṃ ca vākkeliḥ, anuprāsopamādayaś ca tvām alaṅkurvanti |”
In olden days, Sarasvatī performed austerities in the snowy Himālaya Mountains because she wanted to bear a son. Pleased by her behavior, Brahmā proclaimed to her, “I will sire a son for you.” She then gave birth to Poetry Personified. He got up to greet her, grasped her feet, and came out with a metrical utterance:
“I am that Poetry Personified, because of whom all this eloquence takes shape.
Mother, let me worship at your feet.”
Upon hearing that statement that had been seen before in the Vedas and whose language was marked by its metrical composition, the goddess picked up [the baby], put him on her lap, and happily cried this out to him: “Darling! Producer of metrically shaped speech! You surpass me, your mother, even though I am the mother of eloquence. But this is most admirable. That is, they say, ‘Being outdone by a son is tantamount to the birth of a second son.’ For the scholars who preceded you, were acquainted with prose, not poetry. Henceforth, versified speech will arise as your invention. How praiseworthy you are. Word and meaning are your body; Sanskrit, your mouth; Prakrit, your arm; Apabhraṃśa, your haunches; Paiśācī, your feet; and Miśra languages, your chest. You are whole, clear, mellifluous, lofty, and powerful. Famously expressive words are your speech; essence, your soul; metrical compositions, your bodily hair; and conundrums, etc., consisting of questions and answers, your repartee. Moreover, alliteration, similes, and so forth, ornament you.”
Kāvyamīmāṃsā, 24–26
After praising her son, Sarasvatī asks him to conceal his precocity and to act like an infant, and she lays him on the surface of a boulder so that she can go bathe in the heavenly Ganges. In Sarasvatī’s absence, Uśanas (a.k.a. Śukra), son of the celestial sage Bhṛgu, happens upon the lone child and takes him to his ashram (Kāvyamīmāṃsā, 27–28).
Consequently, Kāvyapuruṣa no longer is lying upon the boulder by the time Sarasvatī comes back to it. Fortunately, though, for her (and for future poets and their publics), a familiar figure helps her find the infant:
tataś ca vinivṛttā vāgdevī tatra putram apaśyantī madhyehṛdayaṃ cakranda | prasaṅgāgataś ca vālmīkir munivṛṣā sapraśrayaṃ tam udantam udāhṛtya bhagavatyai bhṛgusūter āśramapadam adarśayat | sāpi prasnutapayodharā putrāyāṅkapālīṃ dadānā śirasi ca cumbantī svastimatā cetasā prācetasāyā’pi maharṣaye nibhṛtaṃ sacchandāṃsi vacāṃsi prāyacchat | anupreṣitaś ca sa tayā niṣādanihatasahacarīkaṃ krauñcayuvānaṃ karuṇakreṅkārayā girā, krandantam udīkṣya śokavān ślokam ujjagāda |
“mā niṣāda! pratiṣṭhāṃ tvam agamaḥ śāśvatīḥ samāḥ |
yat krauñcamithunād ekam avadhīḥ kāmamohitam ||”
tato divyadṛṣṭir devī tasmā api ślokāya varam adāt, yad utānyad anadhīyāno yaḥ prathamam enam adhyeṣyate sa sārasvataḥ kaviḥ saṃpatsyata iti | sa tu mahāmuniḥ pravṛttavacano rāmāyaṇam itihāsaṃ samadṛbhat; dvaipāyanas tu ślokaprathamādhyāyī tatprabhāvena śatasāhasrīṃ saṃhitāṃ bhāratam |
And then, as soon as she had returned, the speech goddess, not seeing her son there, burst out crying from the core of her heart. But Vālmīki, the best of the ascetics, chanced to come by and courteously gave the goddess the news and showed her the road to the ashram of Bhṛgu’s son. She, in turn—with her cloudlike breasts raining milk as she scooped her son onto her lap and kissed his head—quietly made the goodhearted gesture of granting to the great sage himself, Pracetas’ son, the gift of metrical speech. And, after she had dismissed him, he saw a he-crane whose mate had been killed by an outcast hunter and who was crying out “Kreng! Kreng!” in his compassion. The sorrowful sage then cried out this couplet:
“You never will have peace, outcast,
because you slew one of the two cranes when she was deluded by desire.”
Then the goddess, who had seen with her divine vision what had gone on, blessed that very verse, saying in addition, “Anyone—even a nonscholar—who studies this [verse] first will become an eloquent poet.” And that great ascetic from whom poetic speech had sprung composed the Rāmāyaṇa, an account of the way things had been, while Dvaipāyana—by dint of starting his study with [Vālmīki’s] verse—composed the Mahābhārata, a collection of one hundred thousand couplets.
Kāvyamīmāṃsā, 29–31
This narrative is notable because it illustrates how Rājaśekhara incorporates an earlier idea into his own conception of poetic creativity. He seems to tell the story to prompt other poets to avail themselves of rasa resources while bringing new works into being.
Although poetic essence is only one of Kāvyapuruṣa’s components, Rājaśekhara signals the significance of it by equating it with the infant’s ātman. Translated most often as “soul” or “self,” the ātman is that part of a person that persists after death, either to unite with Brahman (the reality instantiated by the universe) or to reenter the round of rebirth. Associated in either event with endurance and infinitude, the ātman is an apt equivalent for Rājaśekhara to employ to elevate essence above all other poetic elements. Indeed, he relates only rasa to the perpetuation of poetry, by predicating the production of poetry on the appreciation of essence.
He cites as the primary exemplar of a poem deserving admiration for its rasa Vālmīki’s verse à la Ānandavardhana. This couplet, which expresses the compassion that its author feels after watching a widowered crane experience the same emotion, affords a similar eloquence to anyone attending properly to it. The first follower in Vālmīki’s footsteps, according to Rājaśekhara, is Vyāsa.
Presumably, the articulateness that Vyāsa acquires by studying the Rāmāyaṇa stanza allows him to generate rasa in his own work. Yet, Rājaśekhara, departing from Ānandavardhana, does not depict Vyāsa as such. Rather, Rājaśekhara retains the sage in his student role so that Vālmīki can remain at the center of this story. The different positions of the two composers are reflected by their aforementioned epithets (Kāvyamīmāṃsā, 91). As the “primeval poet” (kaviḥ purāṇaḥ), Vālmīki is given the gift of poetry by a goddess and is responsible for passing poetry down to posterity. In contrast, Vyāsa the “master poet” (or, more literally, “master among poets”) (kavīśvaraḥ) is the model student whose diligence has returned the dividend of poetic expertise. Accordingly, Rājaśekhara distinguishes in his narrative the works of ur-poet Vālmīki and newer poet Vyāsa, by terming only the Rāmāyaṇa an itihāsa. Rājaśekhara also implies that those who study such an account of the way things had been can compose their own collections of couplets, even if authoring an itihāsa is beyond these composers’ capabilities. Yet he simultaneously suggests the immense accomplishments of which these poets are capable, by offering as their role model the author of the longest couplet “collection” (saṃhitāṃ) ever, which itself has Vedic aspirations. Indeed, the word saṃhitā can refer particularly to a collection of Vedic hymns.
But, given that Rājaśekhara has referred earlier to the Mahābhārata as an itihāsa and later will state that poets treating topics from any itihāsa are praiseworthy (Kāvyamīmāṃsā, 15–16, 114), why does he focus his audience’s attention here on Vālmīki’s activity? In my view, Rājaśekhara spotlights Vālmīki to elucidate the symbolic valence of his interaction with Sarasvatī. Because the goddess and the ascetic’s meeting has a latent meaning that proceeds from the meeting’s patent meaning, I will look initially at the latter.
The overt reason why the ascetic and the goddess encounter each other is so that this deity known for “possessing speech” (sarasvatī) can cause the sage to compose poetry. He can invent simply because she enables him, as well as his poetic heirs, to view something new:
tadāhuḥ—suptasyāpi mahākaveḥ śabdārthau sarasvatī darśayati tadi­tarasya tatra jāgrato ’py andhaṃ cakṣuḥ | anyadṛṣṭacare hy arthe mahākavayo [31] jātyandhās tadviparīte tu divyadṛṣaḥ | na tat tryakṣaḥ sahasrākṣo vā yac carmacakṣuṣo ’pi kavayaḥ paśyanti | matidarpaṇe kavīnāṃ viśvaṃ prati­phalati | kathaṃ nu vayaṃ dṛśyāmaha iti mahātmanām ahampūrvikayaiva śabdārthāḥ puro dhāvanti | yat siddhapraṇidhānā yoginaḥ paśyanti, tatra vācā vicaranti kavayaḥ ity anantā mahākaviṣu sūktayaḥ (iti) |
On this topic, people have said: “Even when a great poet is asleep, Sarasvatī shows him words and meanings. But someone who is not a great poet, turns a blind eye to these, even when awake. For great poets are blind from birth to the apparent acts of others, but have divine vision with regard to acts that are not apparent. Neither three-eyed Śiva nor thousand-eyed Indra sees what poets see even when their eyes are closed. In the mirror of poets’ minds is reflected the universe. Words and meanings—out of their sheer desire to be first—run before the eyes of these great souls, saying, ‘How in the world will we be shown?’ Well-said stanzas are inexhaustible in great poets because poets enact in their speech what yogis practicing deep meditation see.”
Kāvyamīmāṃsā, 197
Rājaśekhara, in addition to identifying Sarasvatī as the divine source of poetic speech, ascribes such speech to poets’ “brilliance” (pratibhā): “Brilliance is that which makes multitudes of words, meanings, and ornaments appear, in the mind, as another sort of speech altogether—as speech of this [poetic] type. For someone who lacks brilliance, a host of [perceptible] objects seems imperceptible. But, for someone who has brilliance, a host of objects seems perceptible even if it is imperceptible” (yā śabdagrāmam arthasārtham alaṅkāratantram uktimārgam anyad api tathāvidham adhihṛdayaṃ pratibhāsayati sā pratibhā | aprati­bhasya padārthasārthaḥ parokṣa iva, pratibhāvataḥ punar apaśyato ’pi pratyakṣa iva |) (Kāvyamīmāṃsā, 43). Because brilliance enables poets to perceive what other people cannot, Rājaśekhara considers this quality alone to be poetry’s prerequisite: “[A poet] always should have closeby a case for slate and chalk, a covered box, palm leaves or birchbark with pens and pots of ink, palm leaves with copper tacks, and well-cleaned work surfaces. ‘For that is the foundation of the craft of poetry,’ say teachers. ‘On the contrary, only brilliance is its foundation,’ says a scion of the Yāyāvara family [i.e. Rājaśekhara]” (tasya sampuṭikā saphalakakhaṭikā, samudgakaḥ, salekhanīkamaṣībhājanāni tāḍipatrāṇi bhūrjatvaco vā, salohakaṇṭakāni tāladalāni, susammṛṣṭāḥ bhittayaḥ, satatasannihitāḥ syuḥ | ‘tad dhi kāvyavidyāyāḥ parikaraḥ’ iti ācāryāḥ | ‘pratibhaiva parikaraḥ’ iti yāyāvarīyaḥ |) (Kāvyamīmāṃsā, 163).
Although Rājaśekhara does not explicitly link brilliance and Sarasvatī, he portrays them as affecting poets in similar ways: brilliance and Sarasvatī both extend poets’ awareness to areas that usually would be beyond the reach of poets’ senses, and, by bringing the components of poetry into poets’ minds, provide poets with the special language required to express what they perceive. Therefore, perhaps by instilling brilliance in poets, Sarasvatī causes them to create and consequently is celebrated herself:
tadāha—“sarasvatī sā jayati prakāmaṃ devī śrutiḥ svastyayanaṃ kavīnām |
anarghatām ānayati svabhaṅgyā yollikhya yat kiñcid ihārtharatnam ||”
In this regard, someone has said:
“Glory in the highest to that goddess Sarasvatī, who is speech itself (the path to prosperity for poets),
who, by depicting in her own way anything—in this world—that is a gem among objects, renders it priceless.”
Kāvyamīmāṃsā, 226
Sarasvatī is associated with brilliance here by Sharma as well. Glossing “ ‘in her own way’ ” (svabhaṅgyā) as “ ‘by means of brilliance’ ” (pratibhayā), he observes of Sarasvatī’s action, “This is the power of brilliance, because of which, words and meanings—despite being common to all people—reach some pinnacle of pricelessness” (pratibhāyā eṣa prabhāvo yatsarvajanasādhāraṇā api śabdārthau kāmapi anarghatākoṭīm āsādayataḥ | [32] ) (Kāvyamīmāṃsā, 226n).
Poets who possess brilliance, according to Rājaśekhara, deserve just as much praise as the verse that they produce:
atrāhuḥ—“nīcair nārthakathāsarge yasya na pratibhākṣayaḥ |
sa kavigrāmaṇīr atra śeṣās tasya kuṭumbinaḥ ||”
On this matter, people have said:
“He whose brilliance does not diminish in the course of creating narratives about subjects that are not base,
is the chief of poets in this world. All the other poets are his attendants.”
Kāvyamīmāṃsā, 126
The prestige of brilliant poets is based on the originality that sets them apart from others:
śabdārthoktiṣu yaḥ paśyed iha kiñcana nūtanam |
ullikhet kiñcana prācyaṃ manyatāṃ sa mahākaviḥ ||
Whoever—in this world—sees something new in terms of words, meanings, and sentences
as he depicts something old, let that great poet be esteemed.
Kāvyamīmāṃsā, 195
This fresh vision that great poets have is rooted, in turn, in their brilliance, an implication that Sharma brings to light as he comments on this couplet’s second line: “Whoever ‘depicts’ (i.e. shines on) ‘something’ (i.e. that which is indescribable) ‘priorly’ (i.e. first) in that way, ‘let that great poet be esteemed’ (i.e. let him be lauded)” (tathā kiṃcanānirvacanīyaṃ prācyaṃ [33] prathamam ullikhet pratibhāyāt sa mahākaviḥ manyatām anumodyatām |) (Kāvyamīmāṃsā, 195n). In glossing the verb ullikhet (“he should depict”) with the verb pratibhāyāt (“he should shine on”), Sharma does not provide a synonym so much as point to the pratibhā by whose virtue poets innovate.
If Sarasvatī nurtures this brilliance by which poets attain acclaim, then her status as their “ ‘path to prosperity’ ” (svastyayanaṃ) makes sense (Kāvyamīmāṃsā, 226). But why, then, does she herself—in Rājaśekhara’s initial narrative—need a guide to find her way back to her baby, Kāvyapuruṣa? Why is the goddess of knowledge not in the know herself? The answers to these questions concern the covert reason behind the encounter of Sarasvatī and Vālmīki. This interaction, in addition to occasioning human beings’ goddess-given gift of poetry, represents the daily routine of poetic composition that Rājaśekhara recommends.
This routine has four parts:
aniyatakālāḥ pravṛttayo viplavante tasmād divasaṃ … yāmakrameṇa caturddhā vibhajet | sa prātar utthāya kṛtasandhyāvarivasyaḥ sārasvataṃ sūktam adhīyīta | tato vidyāvasathe yathāsukham āsīnaḥ kāvyasya vidyā upavidyāś cānuśīlayed āpraharāt | na hy evaṃvidho ’nyaḥ [34] pratibhāhetur yathā pratyagrasaṃskāraḥ | dvitīye kāvyakriyām | upamadhyāhnaṃ [35] snāyād aviruddhaṃ bhuñjīta ca | bhojanānte kāvyagoṣṭhīṃ pravarttayet | kadācic ca praśnottarāṇi bhindīta | kāvyasamasyādhāraṇā, mātṛkābhyāsaḥ, citrā yogā ity āyāmatrayam | caturtha ekākinaḥ parimitapariṣado vā pūrvāhṇabhāgavihitasya kāvyasya parīkṣā | rasāveśataḥ kāvyaṃ viracayato na ca vivektrī dṛṣṭis tasmād anuparīkṣet | adhikasya tyāgo, nyūnasya pūraṇam, anyathāsthitasya parivarttanaṃ, prasmṛtasyānusandhānaṃ cety ahīnam |
Those undertakings whose times are not fixed fall apart. Therefore, one should divide his day … into a series of four periods of three hours each.
[A poet] should rise with the sun, should worship with prayers, and should chant a hymn to Sarasvatī. Then he should sit comfortably in his study and, for the remainder of the period, should practice the poetic arts and crafts repeatedly. For the cause of brilliance is nothing else but constant self-cultivation.
During the second period, he repeatedly should practice composing poetry. Shortly before noon, he should bathe and should eat food that agrees with him.
When he has finished eating, he should meet with others to discuss poetry. And sometimes he should break into the conversation, with questions or answers. Comprehending how to complete incomplete stanzas, memorizing mystical diagrams made from certain letters of the alphabet, and various applications—the trio of three-hour periods should end with these.
During the fourth period, he—either alone or with a group limited to a few—should examine the poetry composed during the earlier part of the day. But a person composing poetry does not have discernment with regard to it, because he is under the influence of his feelings. Therefore, he should examine his poetry after everyone else does. Omitting what is extraneous, filling in what is lacking, rearranging what is out of place, and inserting what has been forgotten—these bring the routine of composition to a close.
Kāvyamīmāṃsā, 167–168
Several activities in which a poet engages over the course of his day correspond to certain of Sarasvatī’s own acts in the story about the birth of her son (Kāvyamīmāṃsā, 24–26, 27, 29). These correspondences suggest that she symbolizes an eloquent poet striving to produce poetry. [36]
Such a poet’s day breaks with diligent devotion to a divinity and with assiduous study of the disciplines pertaining to poetry. The poet praises Sarasvatī so that she will be pleased enough to enable him to compose poetry; and he, in order to develop the brilliance necessary to do so, practices poetic skills. Similarly, Sarasvatī venerates Brahmā so that he will beget her a baby who personifies poetry; and she, in addition to the prayers that she presumably addresses to Brahmā, offers him austerities that also demonstrate her commitment to her cause.
As a result of her efforts, Sarasvatī bears Kāvyapuruṣa. After she spends some time holding him, she leaves him on a rock face and takes a bath. A poet is correspondingly productive during the second stage of his day, during which he is dedicated to composing poetry. But, toward the end of this phase, he leaves off his work—which probably is inscribed with chalk on the sort of slate that Rājaśekhara counts among poets’ supplies (Kāvyamīmāṃsā, 163)—and bathes.
Before the poet comes back to his composition, he seeks out other poets who can help him hone his poetic craft. While he himself may be able to assist them with some poetic issue, he, as only one person, most likely knows less than do they, as a group. Therefore, during the third part of his day, he focuses on following the other poets’ lead, in an effort to obtain information that ultimately will enhance his own poetry.
Sarasvatī likewise requires assistance before she returns to Kāvyapuruṣa. As her guide, Vālmīki represents two types of poetic resources. First, he—by taking her to her infant, Poetry Personified—stands for the aforementioned “avenue of eloquence” (sārasvataṃ vartma) that leads poets to their own nascent narratives (Kāvyamīmāṃsā, 91). The two itihāsas at this avenue’s origin, Vālmīki’s Rāmāyaṇa and Vyāsa’s Mahābhārata, provide in their contents the raw materials from which Rājaśekhara and his contemporaries can construct compositions at the road’s end (Kāvyamīmāṃsā, 15–16, 114). Second, Vālmīki—by bringing Sarasvatī to Uśanas’ abode—symbolizes the assistance that a poet receives from peers during the third part of his day, before turning back to his own composition. By virtue of Vālmīki’s involvement in her quest for Kāvyapuruṣa, Sarasvatī has access to two poets who have varying degrees of experience: Uśanas, who already has become a poet; and Vālmīki, who is about to become one. While Vālmīki gets the gift of poetic speech from Sarasvatī after reuniting her with her son, Uśanas has acquired such speech from Kāvyapuruṣa himself, in return for taking care of this infant, and consequently is called a kavi (poet) (Kāvyamīmāṃsā, 29, 28). The sages’ common craft also is emblematized by their shared blood. Uśanas’ father, Bhṛgu, is identified as an ancestor of Vālmīki in the Rāmāyaṇa, Mahābhārata, and other texts. [37]
Uśanas’ classification as a kavi and Uśanas’ association with the Rāmāyaṇa’s Vālmīki recall Uśanas’ own role in another itihāsa. In the Mahābhārata, where he repeatedly is referred to as Kāvya (Kavi’s son), [38] Uśanas is most famous for his unusual affiliations with rebirth and revival. Early in the work, he accidentally swallows his student Kaca, who becomes a son of Uśanas by breaking out of his belly (Mahābhārata 1.71.33, 48–49). Later on, Uśanas is ingested whole by Śiva, who becomes Uśanas’ father by ejaculating him (hence his other name, Śukra [Semen]) (Mahābhārata 12.278.19–20, 29–36). Robert P. Goldman rightly relates both rebirths to Uśanas’ ability to bring the dead back to life, though Goldman elaborates on only the initial instance of this relationship. [39] Here, the link is explicit: only by conferring his “knowledge of revivification” (vidyām … jīvanīṃ) on Kaca can Kāvya ensure his own survival after he is forced to give birth and thereby to allow Kaca to be reborn (Mahābhārata 1.71.46). In the second case, however, rebirth and revival are connected only indirectly: Uśanas, by propitiating Śiva with praise (Mahābhārata 12.278.28–29), persuades the god to release him, and thus has used his own wits to secure for himself a second lease on life. Effectively, Uśanas revives himself by causing himself to be reborn.
Uśanas’ associations with rebirth and revival are relevant to his appearance in Rājaśekhara’s story about Sarasvatī. In this regard, the fact that someone known as a poet has the power to revive the dead is understandable. Take, for example, such successors of Uśanas as the poets whom Rājaśekhara holds up as exemplars, Vālmīki and Vyāsa—authors who speak animatedly about any of the long-gone people populating accounts of the way things had been. Yet Uśanas makes himself most symbolically useful in Sarasvatī’s story by representing rebirth. When she sees her son for the second time, at Uśanas’ ashram, Kāvyapuruṣa is dramatically different than he was when with her previously. When they first meet, he acts like an adult, standing upright and greeting her in verse. He behaves like a baby solely at her behest, just before she leaves him for her bath. But, when Sarasvatī and Kāvyapuruṣa reunite, he remains infantile, ready to be suckled as he lies on her lap after she picks him up. Through his transformation, he is as if reborn.
There is an analogous change in the poetry to which a poet returns during the fourth period of his day. This change is anticipated by a shift in the poet’s own perspective. Just after he creates his composition, he cannot assess it critically. Much as Sarasvatī sings out of joy the praises of her newborn boy, the poet feels too positively toward his creation to see its shortcomings. After he has spent some time away from his work, however, and other poets have looked his effort over, he sees it in a new light. Just as the interventions of Uśanas and Vālmīki bring Sarasvatī to a place where she provides the breast milk that her baby needs to thrive, the comments of other composers show a poet the ways in which he can improve his work, and through the ensuing process of revision his poetry takes another shape. Moreover, the mindset that the poet’s critics, when they examine his composition, should have is the compassionate one for which Uśanas and Vālmīki both are known long before the story of Kāvyapuruṣa is told: Uśanas, “as a consequence of his compassion” (nimitte karuṇātmake) (Mahābhārata 12.278.7d), is kind to the demons opposing the gods; and Vālmīki feels compassion for the crying crane whose hunter he curses (Rāmāyaṇa 1.2.9–15, 26–28).
Although Rājaśekhara acknowledges in his Kāvyamīmāṃsā Vālmīki’s poetic expertise, calling him a kavi and embodying through him the aid that poets obtain from their peers, Rājaśekhara separates Vālmīki’s Rāmāyaṇa—as well as kavi Vyāsa’s Mahābhārata, the other itihāsa that he mentions by name—from the poetry of his own period. This poetry offers a new outlook on the topics treated by those accounts of the way things had been and by other human-made śāstras. For Rājaśekhara, this difference in approach between the kāvyas of his day and the itihāsas of old is the distance along the avenue of eloquence between the beginning of this road, the Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata, and the poems of his contemporaries and himself, which constitute this path’s conclusion. Even though the poet’s and his cohorts’ compositions comprise some of the same speech and story elements as do the earlier accounts, these later efforts evince a brilliance that is all their own by combining these elements in other ways.
His vision of poetry thus diverges from that of Ānandavardhana, who imagines an infinite path of poetry interconnecting kāvyas old (including the Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata) and new. While Ānandavardhana adduces Vālmīki’s and Vyāsa’s works as evidence of the poetic concepts that he wishes to convey, even implying—in anticipation of Rājaśekhara’s explication—that the Mahābhārata is a śāstra, he does not distinguish these exemplary poems from their successors in his time. Rather than relegate the Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata to the arid reaches of a faraway past, he observes in these poems, as in those of his period, the flowing of evocative emotional essences.
Whether the Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata are considered kāvyas (à la Ānandavardhana) or itihāsas (in the manner of Rājaśekhara), neither category is entirely adequate, as attested by each exegete’s occasional use of another rubric. Actually, these scholars follow the example that the two texts themselves set individually, as each work refers to itself primarily in one way, but adopts additional self-designations as necessary. Nevertheless, the strategy of especially emphasizing one term is suitable if that term aligns with an interpreter’s analytical aims, as do the terms used by Ānandavardhana and Rājaśekhara. Yet, in cases where critics seek to capture with one word both the age-old insight of an itihāsa and the aesthetic appeal of a kāvya, a third term is required. The overarching appellation adopted by twentieth-century connoisseurs of the Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata, who want to have on hand as staples the traditional stories of these itihāsas and to eat the fresh-flavored cakes of these kāvyas too, is “epic.” This designation demands more attention, for a term of Classical Greek origin that is transferred to the strikingly different terrain of ancient India not only takes much along when departing, but also acquires a lot upon arriving. [40]

The Continuing Connection of the Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata in the Twentieth Century

Twentieth-century critics, in categorizing the Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata as epics, [41] all take after E. Washburn Hopkins (1857–1932), the philological pioneer whose work informed English-speakers of these poems. Hopkins not only refers to the poems as “epics” and to their authors as “epic poets,” [42] but also reveals that he orients himself to these texts by turning to their Greek analogues. True to his training as a classicist (he taught Latin at Columbia University and Greek at Bryn Mawr College before becoming a Sanskrit professor at Yale University), Hopkins contrasts the Mahābhārata and the Rāmāyaṇa thus: “beside the huge and motley pile that goes by Vyāsa’s name stands clear and defined the little Rāmāyaṇa of Vālmīki, as (in this respect) besides Homer’s vague Homerica stands the distinct Argonautika of Apollonius.” [43] Although Hopkins overtly views Vyāsa as “[t]he Hindu Homer,” as the “poiētḕs epō̂n” who “out-Homers Homer,” [44] Hopkins implicitly cloaks Vālmīki with the Homeric mantle as well, by likening the composition of the Mahābhārata and Rāmāyaṇa to the making of the Iliad and Odyssey: “As the two Greek epics were both based to a certain extent on the general rhapsodic phraseology of the day, so the two Hindu epics, though there was without doubt borrowing in special instances, were yet in this regard independent of each other, being both dependent on previous rhapsodic and narrative phraseology.” [45]
After Hopkins, scholars evince varying levels of self-consciousness in classifying the Sanskrit poems as epics. While Sanskritists P. V. Kane, Barend A. van Nooten, and John D. Smith do not mention the connection between the term “epic” and Homer’s works, historian of religions David Shulman and Sanskritist John Brockington do—and Brockington advances still farther by suggesting that this relationship is worthy of further study.
Both Shulman and Brockington see the Sanskrit texts in the light of their Greek antecedents. Shulman recognizes that the Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata’s complementarity recalls that of “the prototypical epic poems of Homer,” the Iliad and Odyssey. [46] Brockington is similarly explicit in associating the Mahābhārata and the Iliad. He observes “broad similarities between the battles of the Mahābhārata and the Iliad,” remarking that “the whole of India took part” in the fighting featured in the Mahābhārata, “in the same way that in the Iliad all the Greek world took part in the siege of Troy.” [47] Brockington also interrelates the Rāmāyaṇa and the Homeric works, albeit less conspicuously. In the course of explaining away inconsistencies in the Rāmāyaṇa narrative, he adduces the “even Homer nods” aphorism. And, as Brockington describes the tendency of the Rāmāyaṇa to refer to precious metals rather than the baser ones that already were employed by the time the poem was composed, he cites “adherence to the older pattern on precisely this point” as “a well known feature of Homer.” [48]
Even more importantly, Brockington raises a question that anyone studying the Sanskrit poems today should attempt to answer: “It is … worth asking from the start whether designation of the Mahābhārata and … Rāmāyaṇa as ‘epics’ affects our understanding of them, generating expectations derived from ideas about the Iliad and Odyssey.” [49] To respond to Brockington’s query, I will draw from the resources of metaphor theories from the fields of philosophy and literary criticism.

Metaphor and the Sanskrit “epics”

I turn to these theories because identifying the implications of asserting that the Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata are epics requires recognizing that this assertion is a metaphor. The statement’s metaphorical aspect stems from the fact that the term “epic” is inextricable from the Iliad and Odyssey. Characterizing the Sanskrit poems as “epics,” then, constrains their definition, in the manner (mutatis mutandis) mentioned by Slavicist David E. Bynum. For Bynum, “the name ‘epic’ is only a more or less metaphorical expression as applied to oral poetry in many parts of the modern world,” because the term indicates a “long verse narrative sharing qualities of the Iliad and Odyssey” and excludes “the peculiar features of particular modern [poetic] traditions.” [50]
Yet the metaphorical equation of poems with epics does more than merely reduce non-Greek narratives to the characteristics that these texts have in common with Homeric works. Three of this equation’s implications are indicated by theories of metaphor.
The first implication enables the act of discerning that the equation indeed is a metaphor. Implicit in this kind of equation—in the analysis of philosopher Jacques Derrida [51] —is the “primitive meaning” of the equation, the equation’s original import, which makes patent the equation’s metaphorical nature. Thus, the primitive meaning of the equation of the Sanskrit poems with epics is that the Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata are equivalent to the Iliad and Odyssey. But—as the equation becomes current and the Sanskrit compositions commonly come to be called “epics”—this primitive meaning is “forgotten,” and “[t]he metaphor is no longer noticed.” By this point, the primitive meaning has been supplanted by a less particular “proper meaning”: hence the Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata are epics insofar as this pair of Sanskrit works are long verse narratives. [52]
The process of retrieving an equation’s primitive meaning and thereby of perceiving the equation as a metaphor has been portrayed metaphorically itself in the image of a resurrection. Literary critic I. A. Richards, for instance, speaks of “wak[ing] … up” metaphors that seem “stone dead,” and philosopher Paul Ricoeur similarly refers to the “reanimation” or “rejuvenation of dead metaphors.” [53] But I think that this recognition process is characterized more aptly by a metaphor that captures the reversal of the memory failure discussed by Derrida: to discern a metaphor, then, is to remind an amnesiac metaphor that it is a metaphor.
Once the metaphorical aspect of the equation of Sanskrit poems with epics is remembered, the equation’s second and third implications become apparent. If its first implication is its possession of a primitive meaning, then the equation’s second implication is that the primitive meaning accentuates those of the Sanskrit poems’ characteristics that accord with this meaning. Therefore, to equate the Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata with epics is not only to suggest that the Sanskrit poems are equivalent to the Iliad and Odyssey (which is the primitive meaning of the aforementioned equation), but also to foreground those of the Sanskrit works’ features that are analogous to attributes of the Greek works. The metaphorical equation—to borrow an image from philosopher Max Black [54] —thus functions as a filter composed of stripes of clear and opaque glass: if the Sanskrit poems are the night sky and their features are stars, then the stars most clearly visible through the filter (which stands for the equation of the Sanskrit poems with epics) align with the lines of clear glass in the filter (which represent the attributes of the Greek poems that evidence the equation’s primitive meaning).
Yet those of the Sanskrit poems’ characteristics that have no Greek counterparts are not obscured for long. Indeed, the third implication of the metaphorical equation of the Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata with epics is that the semantic domain of the term “epic” expands to encompass the Sanskrit compositions’ unique characteristics. This broader definition of “epic” ensues from a productive tension inherent in the predication that makes the metaphor possible. Two theorizations of this type of tension indicate how it operates with respect to the Sanskrit poems. According to Ricoeur, “the tension [is] between an ‘is’ and an ‘is not,’ ” between the “literal interpretation restricted to the established values of words” in a statement (this interpretation being that the Sanskrit poems are epics in the original Greek sense, by virtue of resembling the Iliad and Odyssey) and the “metaphorical interpretation resulting from the ‘twist’ imposed on these words in order to ‘make sense’ in terms of the statement as a whole” (this interpretation being that the Sanskrit poems are not epics in the original Greek sense, but are epics in some other sense). [55] Philosopher Monroe C. Beardsley elaborates on the process whereby predicative tension produces the metaphorical interpretation. Just as the term “tension” itself denotes stretching as well as conflict, “the clash between sameness and difference” in a metaphor “twist[s]” the meaning of the predicate nominative that is attached metaphorically to a subject. [56] Consequently, the original sense of the predicate nominative “epics” shifts from “poems similar to the Iliad and Odyssey” to a new connotation that conforms to the two Sanskrit works that constitute the subject, namely, “poems resembling the Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata.”
Reminding the amnesiac equation of the Sanskrit poems with epics that it is a metaphor, then, does not—contrary to Bynum’s contention—simply highlight the Sanskrit poems’ correspondences to their Greek analogues. The “entities” between which a metaphor “posit[s] an illuminating resemblance” are not—pace anthropologist Fitz John Porter Poole—“apparently disparate,” [57] but actually are so; and their differences, which also are elucidated by the metaphor, are as enlightening as their similarities. More precisely, the interplay of likeness and unlikeness in the epic metaphor for the Sanskrit poems provides a guide to exploring attributes of the Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata that the Iliad and Odyssey do not exhibit, as well as the characteristics that the Greek and Sanskrit poems share.

The Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata as epics like and unlike the Iliad and Odyssey

Qualities common to the Greek and Sanskrit epics
The Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata are epics in the original Greek sense insofar as they display traits analogous to those of the Iliad and Odyssey. Thus the Sanskrit epics are immense, intricate works that arise from line repetition, ring composition, and episode multiplication; and that use the same metrical language and treat some of the same themes, by virtue of belonging to the same storytelling tradition.
As to the form of the Sanskrit poems, both are enormous. Although the Mahābhārata (with a total of almost 75,000 verses in its eighteen parvans [books]) is a “great epic” in comparison with “the little epic” of the Rāmāyaṇa, [58] the latter (which contains just under 20,000 verses in its seven kāṇḍas [parts]) is lengthy itself. Unsurprisingly, these sizeable works include certain lines more than once and elaborate on the events that compose the poems’ contents. Moreover, each epic’s story line comes full circle and, by the inclusion of additional incidents, is extended along the way.
The Rāmāyaṇa is ringed by two pairs of “pictures of ideal society” [59] and by two portrayals of the ritual during which the poem itself is recited. At the beginning of the Rāmāyaṇa, as Nārada informs Vālmīki about Rāma, the celestial sage describes the prosperity of Rāma’s people and the monarch’s entry into heaven, images that reappear at the Rāmāyaṇa’s end. Not long after Nārada departs, Vālmīki has his disciples Kuśa and Lava recite the Rāmāyaṇa to Rāma at his horse sacrifice (aśvamedha); and the poem revisits the ritual context of the princes’ performance, soon before re-presenting the ultimate successes of Rāma’s reign. The image of “righteous rule” also recurs in Kuśa and Lava’s rendition: between the bookends that are the scenes of Rāma’s horse sacrifice, Kuśa and Lava praise both Rāma’s father, Daśaratha, and Rāma himself for doing right by the subjects in their sovereignty, Ayodhyā. [60]
While three narrative rings enclose the Rāmāyaṇa’s main events, the Mahābhārata is encircled by two rings that relate to the sacrifice at this poem’s center: “The epic opens [and closes] with Janamejaya’s snake sacrifice, which provides the setting for its narration; the action proper commences with the rājasūya [royal consecration], which is so fatefully interrupted by [the monarch] Yudhiṣṭhira’s defeat at the dice-game; [61] the main narrative is then concluded by the Aśvamedha, the other, even greater sacrifice of kingship; and … [between these two royal sacrifices that are recounted between the snake sacrifice’s scenes is] the awesome sacrifice of battle.” [62] The Mahābhārata’s narrative thus has been arranged to have a ripple effect that enlarges the poem plot’s ritual dimensions. The sacrificial war at the core of the Mahābhārata story is compassed most closely by the rājasūya and aśvamedha observances and more remotely by the serpent ceremony that surrounds them.
Separating each set of concentric circles whose diameters compose the Rāmāyaṇa’s or Mahābhārata’s story line are tangential tales that diverge in many directions from this plot line. The multiplication of such narrative interludes in both poems leads one critic to conclude: “The available texts of the two Sanskrit epics are thus—and this is especially true of the Mahābhārata—gargantuan hodge-podges, literary pile-ups on a grand scale.” [63] While I, too, believe that the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata probably were pieced together from a number of sources, I do not intend to suggest that the authors of these works assembled their contents at random. Rather I would argue that the epic authors incorporated into the plots of their poems tangential tales that illuminated important aspects of the poems’ central stories.
The similar developments of the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata result from a shared tradition at the levels of tongue and tale alike. The epics speak not the classical Sanskrit of later courtly literature, but an earlier idiom that is sparer in style and is not governed rigidly by the grammatical rules that crystallize only subsequently. Moreover, as Hopkins has observed, [64] both works employ many of the same poetic formulae.
The Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata overlap narratively as well as linguistically. While the Rāmāyaṇa notes a number of characters that the Mahābhārata describes in more detail, the Mahābhārata offers its own rendition of Rāma’s story and also relates tales about other actors in the Rāmāyaṇa. These narrative interconnections probably reflect the epics’ reliance on the same stock of older stories, in addition to the epics’ influence on each other. Other evidence of this stock includes the verses that texts other than the two epics cite that appear to be from them but are not. [65]
Even though the “ground of literary allusion” [66] that the Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata have in common is located in the particular context of ancient India, the epics cover four of the themes that the Iliad and Odyssey explore.
First, the Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata treat the hero’s need to separate himself from his usual social surroundings. The two works highlight the forest exiles of the warriors who are the epics’ heroes, because being displaced from their regular royal roles affords these rulers opportunities to marshal the martial resources that the men need ultimately to defeat their foes.
Second, the Sanskrit epics address the destabilization of social order by strife, for the two poems feature families torn apart that cannot be restored in the wake of war. In the Rāmāyaṇa, Rāma, in deference to Daśaratha, relinquishes the right to rule Ayodhyā to his younger half-brother (and Daśaratha’s son) Bharata and agrees to be exiled to the forest for fourteen years. While there with Rāma, Sītā is abducted by Rāvaṇa, whose refusal to return her brings about bloodshed across the country. By the time Rāma reclaims his kingdom, Daśaratha is long dead and Sītā is soon to be banished by Rāma through no fault of her own. In the Mahābhārata, Yudhiṣṭhira, his four brothers, and Draupadī (the wife of all five) are forced to go to the forest for twelve years and to spend another year incognito, after his cousin Duryodhana cheats him out of his kingdom—Indraprastha—during a dice match. The hostilities that erupt worldwide when Duryodhana refuses to return Indraprastha eradicate almost the entire family.
Third, each Sanskrit poem spotlights its hero’s ability to reorder his life in the aftermath of societal ruptures. Thus, the Rāmāyaṇa’s Rāma becomes king and eventually embraces the sons whom Sītā bore during her banishment. The Mahābhārata’s Yudhiṣṭhira, too, is crowned and reigns righteously over the other survivors of warfare.
Fourth, the Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata underscore the mortal constraints on their heroes by exploring the extents of their god-given gifts. Rāma (a human manifestation of Viṣṇu) and Yudhiṣṭhira (the human son conceived by mortal Kuntī once she coupled with immortal Dharma) attest that the epic “world of men [has] close kinship with the gods.” [67] Simultaneously, however, the heroes’ mortality circumscribes their exceptional success. Although Rāma gets rid of Rāvaṇa and thus outdoes the gods, sets a moral example for his Ayodhyan subjects over his long reign, and leads them to heaven at the end of his life, he cannot bring Sītā back to the human world once she has buried herself alive. In like manner, Yudhiṣṭhira cannot keep his brothers and Draupadī from predeceasing him and from falling temporarily into an illusory hell, even though he has demonstrated righteousness (which his divine father personifies) regularly enough to earn the honor of ascending into heaven in his human body. The ends of Rāma and Yudhiṣṭhira thus illustrate the challenge of achieving within the confines of the human condition.
At the same time that the Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata resemble the Iliad and Odyssey, these Sanskrit works remain distinct from the Greek ones. The characteristics particular to the Sanskrit poems constitute their contribution to the category of epic.
Distinctive qualities of the Sanskrit epics
At least three traits set apart the Sanskrit epics from their Greek analogues. The first is formal and invites consideration of the second and third, which concern content.
The Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata’s most prominent formal feature is their repeated embedding of narratives within narratives. One such story that the Rāmāyaṇa nests is the account of Rāvaṇa’s rise to power in the epic’s seventh part. The sage Agastya tells this tale within the tale told by Kuśa and Lava, which itself appears in the tale told by an unnamed narrator. The tendency to embed tales is even more marked in the Mahābhārata. [68] For instance, the action on the battlefield in books 6 through 9 is recounted by Saṃjaya—the charioteer-bard of Duryodhana’s father, Dhṛtarāṣṭra—in the story recounted by Vaiśaṃpāyana in the story recounted by Ugraśravas in the story recounted by an unidentified narrator. [69]
Two types of material that are taken up in the embedded tales of the Sanskrit epics reflect the poems’ particular devotional and didactic thrusts. Theologically speaking, the Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata’s pointed polytheism preserves a pantheon that includes Vedic deities such as Indra (the gods’ king), Agni (the fire god), Yama (the god of the dead), and Varuṇa (the water god)—four divinities also known as Lokapālas (World Protectors)—while promoting Viṣṇu above them all. Evidence of this Vaiṣṇavite preference occurs in the aforementioned inset stories.
For instance, the Rāmāyaṇa’s Rāvaṇa narrative, which Rāma hears after he has done away with this demon, both protects and perfects Viṣṇu’s reputation. This account, by describing the boon Brahmā bestowed on Rāvaṇa that made him invulnerable to all beings except humans and other mammals, explains why mighty Viṣṇu had to become a man to destroy the demon. [70] Additionally, the Rāvaṇa account extols Viṣṇu implicitly by expounding on the power of the enemy whom Rāma defeated readily. Indeed, lesser deities than Viṣṇu—namely, the Lokapālas Kubera (the god of wealth), Yama, Varuṇa, and Indra—had lost to Rāvaṇa in battle. Moreover, the Rāvaṇa narrative makes Rāma’s victory seem to be a matter of course. Immediately after relating, early on in the story, that Viṣṇu slew a slew of Rāvaṇa’s ancestors who were stronger than their demonic descendant, Agastya reveals to Rāma that he is Viṣṇu and has been born on earth to dispose of demons.
As for Saṃjaya’s wartime tale, its most famous excerpt is the Bhagavadgītā (Song of the Lord)—the dialogue, in the Mahābhārata’s sixth book, between Yudhiṣṭhira’s brother Arjuna and their cousin Kṛṣṇa, who is another human manifestation of Viṣṇu and has been giving military advice to Yudhiṣṭhira and his brothers. Arjuna and Kṛṣṇa’s conversation begins when Arjuna balks at killing his kinsmen in battle. Kṛṣṇa convinces Arjuna to rejoin the fray, not simply by citing Arjuna’s soldierly obligations, but also by recasting his military service as a form of Vaiṣṇava worship. “Emphasis on the deity [Viṣṇu] reaches its climax … in the theophany in the [Bhagavadgītā’s] eleventh chapter, where Kṛṣṇa reveals to Arjuna his universal form (the viśvarūpadarśana), after he has identified himself in the previous chapter with the most essential aspects of every part of the cosmos. This revelation produces in Arjuna a spirit of humble adoration, summed up as the way of devotion (bhakti).” [71] Even though Arjuna, to resume a familiar relationship with Kṛṣṇa, appears to forget this reborn deity’s dazzling self-display, it throws a different light on the events of the epic, casting into relief their religious features. Specifically, Viṣṇu’s temporary reemergence implicitly rebroaches the question of why he has been reborn as a man to begin with. According to the Mahābhārata’s opening book, his human rebirth is a response to that of demons who intend to overrun the earth. When the distressed goddess of the earth beseeches Brahmā to lighten her load, he tells the gods to take birth themselves as men to oppose their demonic foes. Before doing so, the divinities ask Viṣṇu to supervise their effort, which he does after becoming Kṛṣṇa. By enabling Yudhiṣṭhira and his similarly godlike brothers to win the cataclysmic war, Kṛṣṇa relieves the earth of her burden and ensures that righteousness will prevail.
In addition to Viṣṇu narratives, the Sanskrit epics embed stories whose primary purpose is to promote proper human conduct. Among the occasions when these moral tales are told are the forest exiles of the epics’ heroes, who, by being distanced from their realms during these periods, are freed to reflect on how to behave even better. Rāma, for example, is reminded by Sītā, at the beginning of their exile in Rāmāyaṇa 3, that he should use violence only to protect others and not to terrorize those who have not provoked him. To convey her point, she tells him about an ascetic who becomes so attached to a sword that Indra has given him that he grows to enjoy attacking others without cause. A similarly instructive story for Yudhiṣṭhira in Mahābhārata 3 emphasizes munificence and asceticism. The visiting Vyāsa narrates to the monarch how a man named Mudgala, who gets by merely by gleaning rice, goes without food so that he can host hospitably a hungry hermit who actually is Durvāsas in disguise. For satisfying this infamously irascible sage, Mudgala is granted the right to go to heaven in his human body. Knowing that he will fall from heaven as soon as he finishes relishing the karmic fruit of his beneficence, however, leads him to eschew heaven in favor of performing austerities by which he can gain the even greater reward of release from the round of rebirth.
These and the other parables in the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata also point to the texts’ broader tendency to incorporate more explicit teachings about ritual and moral subjects: “The two great Epics of India, the Mahābhārata and the Rāmāyaṇa, contain (particularly the first) numerous passages bearing on many topics of Dharmaśāstra,” [72] the body of treatises on dharma. But, as Kane hints here, this pattern of interpolation is much less pronounced in the Rāmāyaṇa, which contains “nothing corresponding to the material of the Śānti and Anuśāsana parvans [books 12 and 13 of the Mahābhārata] with their pronouncements on ethical and social issues, discourses on [such philosophies as] Sāṃkhya and Yoga, and so on.” [73] Even so, other elements of the Rāmāyaṇa made it nearly as influential a religious authority as the Mahābhārata: “The Rāmāyaṇa is a Kāvya, yet, on account of the noble ideals that it sets up in the chief characters, it was very popular and is relied upon as a source in digests on Dharma, though not so frequently and profusely as the Mahābhārata.” [74] This lingering indication of a difference between the Sanskrit epics points to parts of their interrelationship to which I have yet to turn.
United by their interest in dharma, the Rāmāyaṇa kāvya and the Mahābhārata itihāsa nevertheless depict this ideal differently. Yet their disparate approaches to dharma do not ensue solely from the works’ distinct functions as dissimilar types of traditional texts. In fact, the contrasting ways in which the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata portray dharma resemble the varying takes of the Iliad and the Odyssey on their own ideal, kléos. The intercultural similarity of these intracultural differences suggests that they reflect certain features of the epic genre itself. To make out these generic features, I will look more closely in Chapter 3 and Chapter 4 at the Greek and Indian dichotomies to which the features give rise.


[ back ] 1. Pollock 2003:81.
[ back ] 2. In my treatment of the Sanskrit poems, I begin with the Rāmāyaṇa, not just because the main events that it relates occur earlier in the Hindu cosmic time cycle than do those depicted by the Mahābhārata, but also because the Mahābhārata, in the course of telling its own central story, takes these Rāmāyaṇa episodes as givens. While there is considerable controversy over the relative dating of these works, their compositions likely overlapped chronologically. For the purposes of this study, then, I assume that the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata were contemporaneous, each composed by brāhmaṇas (priests) largely between 200 BCE and 200 CE.
[ back ] 3. While many people contributed to the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata during the centuries over which they were composed, each poem ascribes itself to one author.
[ back ] 4. Religion scholar Nicholas Sutton (2000:146, 203) downplays the Mahābhārata’s polytheism by designating the poem’s “predominant doctrinal perspective” as “epic monotheism” because it “postulates one Supreme Deity who creates and controls this world whilst remaining aloof and personally transcendent to its fluctuations.” In my view, however, the phrase “pointed polytheism,” in its suggestion that Viṣṇu plays the leading but not sole role in the universe, applies more readily than “epic monotheism” to the outlooks of the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata—works in which divinities other than Viṣṇu (such as the destroyer god Śiva) figure prominently on occasion. Whereas a pointed polytheism (which assumes that Viṣṇu is paramount only most and not all of the time) can accommodate Śiva’s sometime ascendancy quite easily, in this event epic monotheism (which assumes that a god must have all the power in the universe or none) must be reconstituted with Śiva rather than Viṣṇu at its center, as Sutton (2000:184–187, 191, 205, 242) himself finds.
[ back ] 5. For instance, religion scholar Eric A. Huberman (now known as E. H. Rick Jarow) (1994:18) notes: “Nārada … is known as the messenger of the gods. His appearance immediately indicates an authorized means of transmission which will validate whatever is to come.”
[ back ] 6. Lincoln 1994:112.
[ back ] 7. The compound bhṛśavismitāḥ appears incorrectly as bhṛśavismatāḥ in the main text, but correctly in the apparatus.
[ back ] 8. Like Sanskritist G. H. Bhatt before them (Bhatt and Shah 1960–1975, critical notes to vol. 1:1.2.17n), Sanskritists Robert P. Goldman and Sally J. Sutherland Goldman (1984–2009, vol. 1:1.2.17n) suggest that, in this passage, śloka has its specific sense as a couplet composed in the anuṣṭubh meter. The Goldmans note, as does Bhatt, that the paradigmatic verse of Vālmīki’s curse (Rāmāyaṇa 1.2.14) is in this meter, and do not indicate in their apparatus any shift in śloka’s signification. I, however—building on a suggestion made by Sanskritist Barbara Stoler Miller (1973:167)—think that, in this passage, śloka is used in its more general sense as any unit of poetry. The passage characterizes śloka as a verse form comprising four quarters (or hemistichs) having the same number of syllables (Rāmāyaṇa 1.2.39), but nowhere names the anuṣṭubh meter nor mentions its characteristic eight-syllable quarter. Moreover, the passage acknowledges in two ways the Rāmāyaṇa’s reliance on meters other than the anuṣṭubh, the poem’s prevailing, but not sole, meter. (For an overview of the Rāmāyaṇa’s metrical make-up, see Brockington 1998:373–377.) First, the passage states that the poem’s “hundreds of … verses hav[e] elevated words, meanings, and meters” (udāravṛttārthapadair … | … ślokaśatair …) (Rāmāyaṇa 1.2.41). (By contrast, Robert P. Goldman renders udāravṛttārthapadair here as “words noble in sound and meaning,” and thus does not seem to consider as ślokas verse forms following non-anuṣṭubh meters.) Second, this verse that notes the Rāmāyaṇa’s use of more than one meter is itself in the jagatī meter (with twelve-syllable quarters) rather than in the anuṣṭubh!
[ back ] 9. I owe this observation to Doniger (personal communication, August 4, 2006).
[ back ] 10. The twin princes’ names not only are bardic, but also refer to the handful of sacred kuśa grass and the portion (lava) plucked off from it over which Vālmīki pronounced protective incantations and with which both newborns were cleaned (Rāmāyaṇa 7.58.4–6, 8).
[ back ] 11. These passages amplify the more measured assertion that Rāma, at birth, incarnates only “half of Viṣṇu” (viṣṇor ardhaṃ). Still, he has been “endowed with divinity’s distinctive indicators” (divyalakṣaṇasaṃyutam) (Rāmāyaṇa 1.17.6b).
[ back ] 12. Whitney 1889:821b.
[ back ] 13. Pollock 2003:44.
[ back ] 14. Kṛṣṇadvaipāyana is the unmarried, ascetic maternal half-brother of Vicitravīrya, a married monarch who dies before he can beget an heir. Kṛṣṇadvaipāyana, at the “mandate” (niyogād) of their mother and of Vicitravīrya’s paternal half-brother Bhīṣma (who earlier had vowed to remain celibate), impregnates both of Vicitravīrya’s widowed queens as well as a servant woman, and thus engenders Dhṛtarāṣṭra, Pāṇḍu, and Vidura (Mahābhārata 1.1.53, 1.99–100). Here, then, the word niyogād, in addition to denoting an injunction, refers to this particular practice of intercourse between in-laws for the purpose of preserving a patriline.
[ back ] 15. On Kṛṣṇadvaipāyana Vyāsa’s interventions in the Pāṇḍavas’ lives, see Hiltebeitel 2001:48–54, 59, 62–83, 85–91.
[ back ] 16. For further discussion of the Mahābhārata as a fifth Veda, refer to Fitzgerald 1991:150–170.
[ back ] 17. The relationship between Vyāsa and Nārāyaṇa has been studied by historian of religions Bruce M. Sullivan (1990:69–80), Sutton (2000:ix, 28, 164), and historian of religions Alf Hiltebeitel (2001:34, 89).
[ back ] 18. Three variants of this verse occur at 1.App. I.1.35–36, 1.App. I.5.18–19, and 18.App. I.3.31–32.
[ back ] 19. All translations of passages from this work are my own.
[ back ] 20. Following in the footsteps of Ānandavardhana’s turn-of-the-eleventh-century commentator Abhinavagupta, Sanskritist Daniel H. H. Ingalls (Ingalls, Masson, and Patwardhan 1990:1.1e An2) observes: “Abhinava’s remark on the word ānanda should be accepted. The author is here playing on the proper name. The effect of his book will be to give firm footing in the hearts of sensitive readers not only to the bliss of understanding dhvani but to the fame of Ānandavardhana.” Thus, the phrase ānando manasi labhatāṃ pratiṣṭhām literally means either “may happiness obtain a house in the heart” or “may Ānanda find fame in the heart.” Thanks to Sanskrit’s multivocality, self-promotion may be modest and shameless simultaneously!
[ back ] 21. The phrase guḍādibhir dravyair is misprinted in Nagar 1981–1984 as guṇādibhir drar (the phrase appears correctly in Krishnamoorthy 1992).
[ back ] 22. Ānandavardhana, however, was not the first scholar to study the śānta rasa. That distinction probably belongs to Nāṭyaśāstra commentator Udbhaṭa, who—in spite of only naming this essence as the ninth in verse 6.14 of his Kāvyālaṃkārasārasaṃgraha (Compilation of the Greatest Ornaments of Poetry) (ca. 750 CE)—“must have dealt with [the śānta rasa] at greater length, perhaps refuting the opposition to it also, in his now lost commentary on the Nāṭya-śāstra” (Raghavan 1967:47). The exposition of the peaceful essence after the others bears out G. H. Bhatt’s belief that the reading of Rāmāyaṇa 1.4.8 that comprises the śānta rasa (namely, the variant in most of the northern manuscripts) results from an interpolation (Bhatt and Shah 1960–1975, critical notes to vol. 1:1.4.8n). Indeed, Bhatt’s assertion about this verse accords with his broader observation that the southern recension of the Rāmāyaṇa “has generally preserved the text … in an original or older form” (Bhatt and Shah 1960–1975, introduction to vol. 1:XXXII). Yet, even the southern manuscripts’ version of verse 1.4.8 probably postdates the remainder of the Rāmāyaṇa’s first volume, for Bhatt also adduces evidence that suggests that this volume once started with its fifth chapter (Bhatt and Shah 1960–1975, introduction to vol. 1:XXXI). Moreover, the rasa list that certain southern manuscripts present and that the critical edition adopts (hāsyaśṛṅgāra­kāruṇyaraudravīrabhayānakaiḥ | bībhatsādirasair [with the essences beginning with the humorous, the erotic, the compassionate, the irascible, the heroic, the fearsome, and the abhorrent]) does not preclude the possibility that the producers of these manuscripts were aware of the peaceful essence. These manuscript authors do not specify that the essences number only eight, and the authors’ use of the term ādi (beginning) implies that they just have started to describe the set of essences and have omitted more than one (perhaps the amazing and the peaceful, as most of the northern manuscripts make explicit).
[ back ] 23. Vaudeville 1961:124; Masson 1969:210–215. Sanskritists Charlotte Vaudeville and Jeffrey Masson, like pandit Paṭṭābhirāma Śāstrī (1940:88n1) before them, assume that the “separation” to which Ānandavardhana refers here is that arising from the abduction of Sītā by Rāvaṇa (Rāmāyaṇa 3.47.22). However, on the basis of Ānandavardhana’s subsequent specification of the “permanent separation” in his comment on Dhvanyāloka 4.5, I conclude that his comment on Dhvanyāloka 1.5 alludes to Sītā’s entry into the earth toward the end of the Rāmāyaṇa.
[ back ] 24. Despite these sources’ concentration on the compassionate essence, Sanskritist B. N. Bhatt (1986:57–60) locates all the essences in the Rāmāyaṇa narrative. Yet Bhatt’s analysis, in emphasizing the peaceful essence as the end to which all the others lead, is less like the Rāmāyaṇa’s rasa statement than like Abhinavagupta’s revision of Ānandavardhana’s rasa theory (for details, see Masson and Patwardhan 1969:139–142).
[ back ] 25. As Masson and pandit M. V. Patwardhan (1969:98n1) have shown, Abhinavagupta’s gloss on Ānandavardhana’s explanation of Dhvanyāloka 3.26 indicates that tṛṣṇākṣayasukha is the sthāyibhāva of the śānta rasa.
[ back ] 26. For further discussion of Vālmīki’s empathetic response, see Masson 1969.
[ back ] 27. Pollock 1985:504.
[ back ] 28. Classifying itihāsas as purāṇas here, however, does not prevent Rājaśekhara from paralleling these types of literature. Through this combination of subsumption and juxtaposition, he suggests that the itihāsa and purāṇa categories overlap to a limited degree.
[ back ] 29. Sharma reads parakriyā (action of the greatest) (Kāvyamīmāṃsā, 15) where pandits C. D. Dalal and R. Anantakrishna Shastry (1916:3) read parikriyā (exercise). While Sharma’s reading is consistent with the subsequent description of the Rāmāyaṇa, Dalal and Shastry’s is not particularly so. Thus, Sanskritist Sadhana Parashar (2000:23–24), in her recent translation of Dalal and Shastry’s text, emends it so that it reads parakriyā rather than parikriyā.
[ back ] 30. Although misprinted as rvidvāṃso in the Kāvyamīmāṃsā’s main text, the word vidvāṃso appears correctly in Sharma’s commentary (Kāvyamīmāṃsā, 25, 25n).
[ back ] 31. The word mahākavayo is misprinted as mahakavayo in the Kāvyamīmāṃsā’s main text, but in Sharma’s commentary the corresponding word, mahākavayaḥ, appears correctly (Kāvyamīmāṃsā, 197, 197n).
[ back ] 32. I translate the adjective yatsarvajanasādhāraṇā as if it modifies the noun śabdārthau, because I believe that Sharma predicated this plural adjective of this dual noun. Without assuming this error, I see no way to construe this sentence.
[ back ] 33. Sharma understands prācyaṃ (literally, “prior” or “ancient”) differently than I do. Whereas I read prācyaṃ as an adjective (“old”) modifying the pronoun kiñcana (“something”), he takes prācyaṃ as an adverb (“priorly”) modifying the verb ullikhet (“he should depict”).
[ back ] 34. In the Kāvyamīmāṃsā’s main text, evaṃvidho ’nyaḥ is misprinted as evaṃvidhonyaḥ (Kāvyamīmāṃsā, 167).
[ back ] 35. The word upamadhyāhnaṃ is misprinted as upamadhyānhaṃ in the Kāvyamīmāṃsā’s main text, but appears correctly in Sharma’s commentary (Kāvyamīmāṃsā, 167, 167n).
[ back ] 36. The following seven paragraphs will appear in a somewhat different form in Pathak, forthcoming.
[ back ] 37. On this identification, see Goldman 1976:97–101.
[ back ] 38. In addition to being named Kāvya Uśanas and Uśanas Kāvya, he specifically is said to be the son of Kavi (kaviputra) (Mahābhārata 1.71.6, 10; 1.78.25; 1.79.2, 24; 1.80.21; 1.77.15; 1.71.20). Kavi is either Bhṛgu himself, who also is identified as Uśanas’ father, or Bhṛgu’s son (Mahābhārata 1.78.37, 1.60.40).
[ back ] 39. Goldman 1977:90–91.
[ back ] 40. An earlier version of the current chapter’s remainder has appeared in Pathak 2013:44–52.
[ back ] 41. Kane 1966:11; Nooten 1978:49; J. D. Smith 1980:48; Shulman 2001:21; Brockington 1998:1.
[ back ] 42. Hopkins 1901:58, 244; 1915:1, 11.
[ back ] 43. Hopkins 1901:58.
[ back ] 44. Hopkins 1901:379, 4, 58.
[ back ] 45. Hopkins 1901:65.
[ back ] 46. Shulman 2001:23.
[ back ] 47. Brockington 1998:77, 26.
[ back ] 48. Brockington 1998:386, 411.
[ back ] 49. Brockington 1998:1.
[ back ] 50. Bynum 1976:45, 54, 45.
[ back ] 51. Derrida 1974:8–9.
[ back ] 52. I do not mean to imply here that all genre classifications necessarily are metaphors, merely those taxonomies in which the generic term has been coined with such a small number of species in mind that the term, to be used in another context, must be transferred across significant cognitive space.
[ back ] 53. Richards 1936:101; Ricoeur 1977:291, 292.
[ back ] 54. Black 1962:39, 41.
[ back ] 55. Ricoeur 1977:248, 296.
[ back ] 56. Ricoeur 1977:196; Beardsley 1962:294.
[ back ] 57. Poole 1986:421.
[ back ] 58. Hopkins 1901:58.
[ back ] 59. Brockington 1998:400.
[ back ] 60. Brockington 1998:400–401. Here, Brockington refers to only one of the three rings surrounding the Rāmāyaṇa story—the circle comprising Daśaratha’s and Rāma’s kingships—and not to the loops including Kuśa and Lava’s sacrificial recitation and Rāma’s celestial ascension, respectively.
[ back ] 61. For discussion of this interruption and of similar occurrences, see Minkowski 2001.
[ back ] 62. Brockington 1998:45–46. The sacrificial aspects of the Mahābhārata war have been analyzed by Hiltebeitel (1990:287–296, 312–335).
[ back ] 63. J. D. Smith 1980:50.
[ back ] 64. For his catalogue of parallel phrases in the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata, see Hopkins 1901:403–445.
[ back ] 65. Hopkins 1901:64–65.
[ back ] 66. Hopkins 1901:79.
[ back ] 67. Hopkins 1915:3.
[ back ] 68. Accordingly, the term that the Mahābhārata uses most often for itself—ākhyāna (or “tale”)—calls attention to the upākhyānas (or “subtales”) that the poem incorporates. See Hiltebeitel 2005:466–476.
[ back ] 69. Sanskritist Christopher Z. Minkowski (1989:420) suggests that this unnamed narrator is Vyāsa, for Minkowski argues that Vyāsa’s identification as “a transcendent figure in the epic” obviates the “infinite regression of frames, each one the story of the previous narration.” But I imagine the anonymous narrator as someone who has heard the story from Ugraśravas and is relating it at some later time—because seeing the narrator as such accentuates the antiquity of the story, in keeping with its self-presentation as an itihāsa.
[ back ] 70. To vanquish Rāvaṇa’s army, Rāma enlisted the aid of monkeys. The popular notion that Rāma received ursine, as well as simian, assistance probably postdates Vālmīki’s Rāmāyaṇa (Goldman 1989).
[ back ] 71. Brockington 1998:274–275. For more on this theophany, see Hiltebeitel 1990:114–121, 124–128, 139, 257–258, 310 and Laine 1989:115–116, 168, 226–230, 232–234, 240–242, 244–249, 272.
[ back ] 72. Kane 1966:11.
[ back ] 73. Brockington 1998:441.
[ back ] 74. Kane 1966:53. References to the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata in these dharma texts are recapitulated in Kane 1966:49–50, 58.