Kuntaka’s evaluation of Sanskrit literature

by Nikitha. M | 2018 | 72,578 words

This page relates ‘Conclusion’ of the study on the evaluation of Sanskrit literature with special reference to Kuntaka and his Vakroktijivitam from the 10th century CE. This study reveals the relevance of Sanskrit poetics in the present time and also affirms that English poetry bears striking features like six figurativeness taught by Kuntaka in his Vakroktijivita, in which he propounds the vakrokti school of Sanskrit literary criticism.


In the realm of Sanskrit poetics, the text Vakroktijīvita and its author Kuntaka have a prominent place. Though Kuntaka had neither any recent followers nor a strong commentator in Sanskrit poetics, his contribution to Sanskrit poetics cannot be dispensed off. His theory of vakrokti has gained relevance in modern times. Kuntaka is considered as a practical literary critic among Sanskrit rhetoricians. The opinion of F.R. Leavis found in ‘The aesthetics of new criticism’ that the function of literary criticism is to define modern sensibility and to help in preserving it in a world of spiritual bankruptcy. T.S Eliot says that the aim of a critic is to realize the aim of an artist, which is completely different from the real world. Ransom opines that the duty of a critic is to understand the ontological maneuvers of a poet. A poem or any other poetic composition is an expression of temperament which is realized by the critic only if he possesses the same temperament. The duty of a critic is to elucidate and analyze the sensible imagination achieved by the poet through his poetic skill. This means that a critic should bring forth the ontology of a poem in a wide sense. According to T.S Eliot, criticism is a highly complex activity and chief tools of a critic are comparison and analysis. Critics have deep concern with human values. They always appreciate the compositions that possess moral values. At the same time they vehemently criticize the impropriety found in the composition because which may adversely affect the society and at the same time lesson the value of the poets. These things make literary criticism relevant in the social arena.

When Kuntaka’s contribution is evaluated from the standards of modern criticism, he has his own features. A critic, in modern sense, is one who approaches all literary genres unbiasedly. He is not influenced by the greatness of the author, instead he is concerned with the literary text. The critic objectively analyzes the merits of the literary works and relishes their essence. He is also an adept in expressing his analysis and appreciation of literary works. Kuntaka is seen to fulfill these qualities of a literary critic. He is seen to approach Sanskrit literary works without any preconceptions. Works of all poets, both renowned and less-known poets feature in his criticism. He also takes up both major and minor works of all poets. It is only the literary merits that attract Kuntaka’s attention. Kuntaka has his own uniqueness when compared with other Sanskrit rhetoricians. Most of the Sanskrit rhetoricians compose their own verses to illustrate various literary concepts. Only a few of them, quote examples from literary works. Vāmana, Ānandavardhana, Mahimabhaṭṭa and Mammaṭa are seen to quote verses from both Sanskrit and Prakrit literary works. They are also seen to cite muktakas which are now seen in various compilations of subhāṣitas (anthologies). Kuntaka is seen to cite examples from numerous literary works. He has given numerous examples from various literary works to substantiate his arguments. This reveals his immense scholarship of Sanskrit and Prakrit literatures.

Certain contributions of Kuntaka make him unique in the history of Sanskrit poetics. One of them is his choice of illustrations, which is highly representative. Kuntaka tries to explain how an example is suitable for a particular context and tries to evaluate the selected work as a whole. Sanskrit rhetoricians did not try to evaluate the literary works completely. Ānandavardhana is surely an exception to this general feature. He tried to establish the dominant sentiment of Ramāyaṇa and Mahābhārata respectively as karuṇa and śānta in his text Dhvanyāloka. Kuntaka has taken up various texts for complete analysis while discussing the last varieties of figurativeness. The compositional figurativeness itself shown in works like Abhijñāśākuntala and Kirātārjunīya reveals that Kuntaka tries to evaluate the Sanskrit literary texts very intensely and completely. Moreover he also suggests some possible alternations to particular contexts without considering the stature of its author. These things make Kuntaka unique in the history of Sanskrit poetics.

The aptness of the title of a literary critic given to Kuntaka is obvious while going through the wide variety of citations he has taken from various literary sources and his complete evaluation of some compositions. It is well known that his last two varieties of figurativeness like contextual and compositional are helpful to assess the complete evaluation of a work. The highlight of Kuntaka is his unbiased nature in his citations. He cites the works of numerous famous poets at the same time novice too. Lots of rare works like Abhijñānajānaki, Udāttarāghava etc. were cited by him. Kuntaka would not have chosen these examples mechanically; it is to his credit that he has not blindly borrowed the examples cited by earlier rhetoricians. He has independently made those choices. Use of different and beautiful literary verses in the poetic text will surely lessen the boredom while reading it and at the time it also pleases the sensitive readers.

It is notable that uniqueness of Kuntaka is mainly due to three reasons. One of them is his boldness in criticizing the master poets. Another one is his boldness in breaking the theory of early rhetoricians with apt explanation and the suggestion of a new one in its place by replacing the old one. Yet another reason is his propriety in making plausible innovative changes in certain situations like ‘vidhimapivipannādbhutavidhim’ in Mālatīmādhava etc. These emendations made by Kuntaka have already been appreciated by the scholars. They reveal his literary taste.

Anthologies are the storehouse of scattered verses of various poets. Knowledge about some rare poets and their meaningful verses would be in the oblivion if some rhetoricians like Kuntaka would not have cited them. In anthologies numerous verses were ascribed to some famous poets also. But it is unfortunate that the original texts did not possess any of the verses found in anthologies. For instance, Peterson’s edition of Subhāṣitāvalī have some verses ascribed to Aśvaghoṣa, but none of his works now contain the same verses. Either these are the muktakas written by the same poets or there must have been numerous poets of the same name. The anthologies possess some verses of women poets like Indulekhā, Vijjā or Vijjakā etc. The rare verses in the famous poetical text must have been the inspiration for the compiler of the anthologies for compiling them.

The keen evaluation of some verses in Vakroktijīvita from its original source will also help to assess his emendation skill for giving more charm to the verse. Such emendations are found largely in anthologies. Among the verses of anthologies cited by Kuntaka, the compilation availed before him are Subhāṣitaratnakośa and Gāthāsaptaśatī. The beautiful emendation or variant readings in the verses cited by Kuntaka in Vakroktijīvita and the verses found in the available compilation of the text Subhāṣitaratnakośa are given in the chapter named Kuntaka’s assessment of verses cited in śatakas and anthologies. Kuntaka cites three verses from Gāthāsaptaśatī, among them two are as same as in the available texts like Gāthāsaptaśatī edited by Bhatta Sri Mathuranath Sastry, and The prākṛt Gāthāsaptaśatī edited by Radhagovinda Basak. But another verse cited as taken from Gāthāsaptaśatī is not found in these texts. Some version of Gāthāsaptaśatī available at the time of Kuntaka may have this verse. The verse is as follows: - anyadlaṭabhatvamanyaiva ca kāpivarttanacchāyā/ śyāmā sāmānyaprajāpaterekhaiva ca nabhavati// Gradually in new editions, it may have been lost due to some reasons like scribal error, loss of manuscripts etc. The relevance of citations will be more explicit in such situations because that particular verse was still preserved only through such citations. Thus the attempt taken by the rhetoricians to preserve few rare verses that completely would be in oblivion is really significant.

Though Kuntaka cites numerous verses from the works of Kālidāsa, it is notable that he does not use his compositional figurativeness in the works of the master poet except through the suggestion of the excellent choice of title of Abhijñānaśākuntala. The other works cited for explaining compositional figurativeness are Veṇīsaṃhāra, Kirātārjunīya, Śiśupālavadha, Uttararāmacarita, Nāgānanda, Mudrārākṣasa and Tāpasavatsarāja. Moreover Kuntaka does not cite any verse from Mālavikāgnimitra and Ṛtusaṃhāra. Kuntaka goes through the popular works of Kālidāsa like Raghuvaṃśa, Kumārasambhava, Abhijñānaśākuntala, Meghadūta to bring forth both his excellence and drawbacks. At the same time Kuntaka cites excellent verses from large number of some lost works. It reveals the unbiased nature of Kuntaka.

Kuntaka brings forth the poetic excellence of Kālidāsa through the depiction of the hunting episode of Daśratha. Here for protecting Daśaratha from his sin of killing an ascetic boy in his hunting, the master poet opines that even sometimes due to bad luck good people also go astray. Thus Kālidāsa very convincingly saved Daśaratha’s image instead of saying that he mistakenly killed a young blind ascetic boy. Such astounding poetic skill of Kālidāsa brilliantly paved the way for absolving Daśaratha of his sins. Here Daśaratha says that the curse fallen on him is like a blessing because of his childlessness. This is one of the beautiful incidents cited by Kuntaka to reveal the poetic beauty of Kālidāsa. At the same time Kuntaka boldly criticizes Kālidāsa indicating the faults found in Raghuvaṃśa and Kumārasambhava. In Raghuvaṃśa Kuntaka criticizes Kālidāsa because of the depiction of Rāma’s remembrance of the bad deed of Kaikeyī even after his victory. He again points out the impropriety in the words of Dilīpa. In Kumārasambhava, humiliating words showered by Cupid towards Indra is considered as highly improper. Here Kālidāsa would have included such a depiction so as to show that even the great personalities also have such weakness at times. But according to Kuntaka, a great poet should always be especially conscious in the depiction of ideal characters.

Moreover Kuntaka’s criticism of Śiśupālavadha is also praiseworthy. Māgha gave lengthy description of the city of Dvārakā when Kṛṣṇa commences his journey towards Indraprastha. But Kuntaka points out that such long description of Dvārakā is really improper. The bold opinion presented by Kuntaka is highly remarkable because such a long description contribute, nothing for the further development of the story. Māgha developed this portion through seven hundred sixty six verses in ten cantos, which was mentioned in Māhābhārata only through few verses. Kuntaka again signifies that the straight forward title given to this mahākāvya is charmless.

Kuntaka’s analysis of Sanskrit dramas is also praiseworthy. In Veṇīsaṃhāra, Bhaṭṭanārāyaṇa depicts the amours between Duryodhana and Bhānumatī while going a great war outside. Kuntaka criticizes such impropriety of Bhaṭṭanārāyaṇa. According to Kuntaka in such a crucial time the presence of Duryodhana in the harem and a single word with deep passion to her wife is also improper. If so there is no need to say impropriety in explaining the amours. Moreover Kuntaka also points out the impropriety of suspecting the fidelity of his wife without properly understanding her mind. Such observations of Kuntaka reveal his keen literary taste.

Another striking observation of Kuntaka is in the drama Nāgānanda. Here the ideal hero Jīmūtavāhana offers his own body and saves a serpent named Śaṅkacūda from Garuḍa. Jīmūtavāhana did so because once he happened to hear the lament of a serpent that today is the turn of her son to be the prey of Garuḍa. Then Garuḍa begins to eat Śaṅkacūda without realizing that this is not a serpent. Garuḍa beomes full of remorse when he comes to realize that the prey he started to eat was a great Vidyādhara prince. Afterwards Garuḍa takes a vow of nonviolence. Through this Jīmūtavāhana not only saves a single serpent but also the whole race of serpent. It is doubtless that pointing out such incidents Kuntaka would like to uphold the importance of moral values. Here the self-sacrifice of Jīmūtavāhana is noteworthy.

Indication of impropriety in the words of Sītā in Bālarāmāyaṇa also shows that Kuntaka never tolerates improper behavior from an ideal character. Kuntaka also appreciates the authors of Mudrārākṣasa and Tāpasavatsarāja for their depiction of new way of political strategy in their work to delight the readers. Kuntaka’s such bold attempt of criticism and beautiful observations on the compositions of master poets also help to attain a unique position in Sanskrit literature. A poet can easily influence the people of both the higher and lower classes of a society. So a responsible poet should be aloof from poetic blemishes.

The verses cited in a poetic text can make the composition attractive and at the same time awful. In some early poetic texts the distinctness is only due to the different examples cited for various situations. In most of the poetic texts, the verses cited are of the poet’s own compositions or sometimes it may be the eulogy of their patron. By selecting appealing verses Kuntaka has done his job perfectly.

Among the five mahākāvyas, Kuntaka cites four except Naiṣadha because of its later origin. He did not cite any verses from the famous mahākāvyas like Buddhacarita and Saundarananda of Aśvaghoṣa. He has also avoided some other mahākāvyas like Bhaṭṭikāvya of Bhaṭṭi, Setubandha of Pravarasena etc. It is well known that there are some great resemblances between the works of Kālidāsa and Aśvaghoṣa. Kuntaka may also have a firm belief about the genuineness of Kālidāsa like most of the other Sanskrit poets. This may be the reason for the avoidance of the works of Aśvaghoṣa.

Another notable fact is that he did not cite any verse from the plays of Bhāsa. At least Svapnavāsavadatta and Pratijñāyaugandharāyaṇa were must have been available at the time of Kuntaka. Still there is no exact reason why Kuntaka rejected these famous plays of Bhāsa. This may also point towards the real authorship of Bhāsa’s plays. It is well known that a group of scholars opine that those plays were composed by the cākyars of Kerala for dramatic presentation at a later age.

Another notable fact is that names of certain cantos of some dramas have same name with some rare works cited by Kuntaka. For instance the name of tenth canto of Bālarāmāyaṇa is Rāghavānanda. It is also interesting to note that both the dramas like Tāpasavatsarāja and Udāttarāghava were written by the same author named Anaṅgaharṣamātṛrāja. There is also a work named Udārarāghava cited some rhetoricians. This may sometime confuse with Udāttarāghava. But it is only Kuntaka who cites Udāttarāghava in his work. Kuntaka discusses about fifty literary compositions either citing few verses from them or sometimes just touching the name of a work. Among them he cites approximately three hundred and thirty five verses. In them ninety four verses are taken from the great poet Kālidāsa including forty eight from Raghuvaṃśa.

Kuntaka elaborates the qualities that each style possesses. But this elaboration seems to create certain difficulties. The vague distinction between the qualities at times seems blurred to the readers. Some of the traits found in one quality is said to be found in another quality too. Thus the line of demarcation of qualities is seen to overlap over each other. For instance, the use of uncompounded words is a feature of both perspicuity and sweetness in the tender style.

Moreover in several occasions he says that the beauty of this figurativeness can be imagined by the sensible readers without giving any apt explanation. In certain situations it is easy to assess as he said but sometimes it creates difficulties. This reluctance for further explanation may be due to either the familiarity of the situation or its recurrence in earlier poetic texts. It is also unfortunate that Kuntaka has no followers as Ānandavardhana etc.

Kuntaka seems to present numerous sub-divisions for the varieties of figurativeness. These divisions often create confusions. For instance, the difference between the sub-divisions of contextual and compositional figurativeness is found to be vague. Kuntaka makes such a distinction because he would like to show how a context helps the whole work through contextual and an overall assessment through compositional figurativeness. The ultimate aim of both the figurativeness is the complete evaluation of the text. The proposal of ideas like these two figurativeness are highly appreciable, but their distinction needs to be more vivid. Among the rhetoricians it is only Kuntaka who had done such an attempt to evaluate the whole compositions. The objection is only in the divisions given in those varieties.

The text Vakroktijīvita of Krishnamoorthy has shown the reference of the verse ‘koyambhrāntiprakārastavapavanapadam lokapādāhatīnām’ etc. as an anthology named Subhāṣitāvalī of Vallabhadeva. But it is notable that the 95th verse of Bhallaṭaśataka has the same verse. The date of Bhallaṭaśataka (8th or 9th century C.E) is much earlier than the Subhāṣitāvalī of Vallabhadeva (15th century C.E). So doubtlessly this verse can be assigned to the text Bhallaṭaśataka. Krishnamoorthy has pointed out the 60th and 83rd verses of Bhallaṭaśataka as cited by Kuntaka and then it is not clear how this verse went unnoticed. Here the emendation is seen only in a single word of the last line ‘kenopāyenasādhyo’ as seen in the Bhallaṭaśataka. Kuntaka amends it as ‘kenopāyenasahyo’. In this verse the word ‘kenopāyenasahyo’ is pertinent because ‘how the wind itself tolerates the dirtiness created by the dust’ is appropriate. Thus in this verse either the change made by Kuntaka or the scribe is really appreciable.

In the first unmeṣa Kuntaka compares a verse of Bharavi with a verse of an unknown poet, which is discussed in the chapter named Kuntaka’s estimation of mahākāvyas. The verse starts with kramādekadvitriprabhṛtiparipāṭīḥ prakaṭayan etc. The same verse is in the anthology named Saduktikarṇāmṛta of Śrīdharadāsa with a little change in the beginning as asāveka instead of kramādeka and is ascribed to Rājaśekhara. But the available text of Rājaśekhara does not have this verse. This makes one assume that either this is his stray verse or it was written by some other Rājaśekhara. These are some new facts found as new from the available text of Vakroktijīvita.

Apart from other rhetoricians the name of compositions availed only through Kuntaka are Pāṇḍavābhyudaya and Abhijñānajānaki. Kuntaka touched almost all branches in Sanskrit literature like dramas, anthologies, mahākavya’ s, Prakrit works like Gauḍavaho, Gāthāsaptaśatī etc. He has also cited prose works like Kādambarī and Pañcatantra, ākhyāyikas, like Harṣacaritā, epics like Rāmāyaṇa, Mahābhārata. The keen analysis of the text Vakroktijīvita again reveals that Kuntaka has the deep knowledge of grammar. Kuntaka also cites large number of verses from few poetic texts too. This reveals Kuntaka’s all-round proficiency in the realm of Sanskrit and Prakrit literature.

A true critic uses literary theories to evaluate a literary text and provides personal point of view, ideas and their own conclusion about style and structure of a particular text and its author etc. Kuntaka used his six types of figurativeness to assess the literary texts and provides plausible emendations, modifications and criticisms by always keeping ethical values. Criticism does not simply evaluate literary works. It should also contribute to the betterment of the society. A critic can approach literature from different perspectives. He can interpret the literature through historical approach by understanding the time and culture in which the work was written. Biographical approach helps to investigate the life of an author using primary texts like letters, diaries and other documents that reveal the experience and feelings that led to the creation of a literature. Sociological criticism focuses on the relation between literature and society. Writers can sometimes affirm and criticize the values of the society in which they live. Philosophical approach involves the evaluation of a text and its moral content. It also deals with how a work reflects the human experience in the world. Literature can generate good effect as well as bad effect in the society. Kuntaka, as a critic, has upheld moral values in his evaluation of literary works. His observations while explaining the contextual figurativeness in Veṇīsaṃhāra, Nāgānanda and his criticism of Raghuvaṃśa and Kumārasambhava reveal his affiliation to the traditional values of the society.

Kuntaka, in spite of the absence of any strong followers, still stand as a prominent figure in the line of Sanskrit rhetoricians. His originality and individuality evident in his criticism of Sanskrit literary works makes him an important thinker in the history of Sanskrit poetics. Acquaintance with various genres of literature is surely a desirable trait of a critic. Kuntaka’s acquaintance with a large number of literary works both in Sanskrit and Prakrit equips him with a strong tool in the evaluation of literary works. His attempt to etch out a new path different from the established dhvani theory shows his boldness in the field of literary criticism. The new theory of vakrokti indeed became an asset to Sanskrit poetics which is proved by the recent studies on the same concept. His critical observations have actually helped in revealing the minute aspects of poetic beauty latent in literary works. Other rhetoricians have also unreservedly opened up the improprieties found in major literary works. Rhetoricians like Mammaṭa seem to point out blemishes in major literary works just for the sake of illustrating the definitions of poetic blemishes. This trend was criticized by later thinkers. But Kuntaka’s observations were generally approved by the world of connoisseurs. Practical analysis of beauty of poetry is properly analyzed by Kuntaka. This trait really makes Kuntaka a worthy critic. Kuntaka’s scholarship combined with his critical acumen and aesthetic sensibility make him an irreplaceable critic in Sanskrit poetics.

From these the features of Kuntaka can sum up as:-

1. His choice of illustrative verses from various Sanskrit literatures is highly representative.

2. His attempt of complete evaluation of a text unlike other rhetoricians is also remarkable.

3. So his criticism took into its fold both the criticism of individual verses as well as complete literary works unlike other rhetoricians, whom composed verses themselves to illustrate the poetic concepts.

4. Unbiased approach while choosing instances, criticizing the author and also at the time of suggesting alteration.

5. Kuntaka’s criticism towards the master poets is a reminder to the budding poets that they should take utmost care in their compositions. Even master poets are also not free from poetic blemishes then what about novice poets.

6. By the analysis of the dramas like Veṇīsaṃhāra and Nāgānanda it is revealed that Kuntaka would like to uphold the importance of moral values.

7. His strong criticism and upholding of moral messages prove that he was highly committed to the society.

8. Thus the title given to him by K. Krishnamoorthy as ‘practical literary critic’ is indisputable. He is the only critic who provides literary criticism in its wide sense among the rhetoricians of the history of Sanskrit poetics.

9. Discussion of wide variety of literature proves his all round proficiency in Sanskrit literature.

10. His grammatical skill is explicit through lexical and grammatical figurativeness.

11. The compositions availed only through Kuntaka are Pāṇḍavābhyudaya and Abhijñānajānaki.

12. Acceptance of Kuntaka’s opinion by the world of connoisseurs.

13. His critical observations have actually helped in revealing the minute aspects of poetic beauty latent in literary works.

14. He had used six types of figurativeness for evaluating different literary genre. These six varieties help to assess a text from phoneme to a text as a whole in a beautiful way. He is the only Sanskrit critic who tries to evaluate a complete text using his own theories.

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