The backdrop of the Srikanthacarita and the Mankhakosa

by Dhrubajit Sarma | 2015 | 94,519 words

This page relates “Sanskrit mahakavyas” as it appears in the case study regarding the Srikanthacarita and the Mankhakosa. The Shrikanthacarita was composed by Mankhaka, sometimes during A.D. 1136-1142. The Mankhakosa or the Anekarthakosa is a kosa text of homonymous words, composed by the same author.

Part 4 - Sanskrit mahākāvyas

The Sanskrit epics or mahākāvyas occupy a long period of time, viz. the pre-Kālidāsa period, from the period of Kālidāsa to Śrīharṣa i.e. the period of development or growth and from that, up to the last part of the thirteenth century i.e. the period of decadence. The Sanskrit epics may be divided into two divisions i.e. the great epics or the ārṣakāvyas and the literary epics (mahākāvyas). The first category comprises the Rāmāyaṇa and the


The second category covers the epics of Aśvaghoṣa, Kālidāsa, Bhāravi, Māgha etc. Some call the second group of epics as court epics or the ornate court epics. In the western literature also, there is the classification of epics such as primitive epic or the epic of growth e.g. the Illiad and the Odyssey of Homer and the epic of art or the literary epics e.g. the Aeneid of Virgil and the Paradise Lost of Milton. Though there is the division of epics such as great epics and the literary epics, however, there is no denying the fact that the great epics i.e. the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata are the sources of later literary epics. The Rāmāyaṇa is actually the source as well as the model of the later literary epics. M. Krishnamachariar supports this view.[1] Not only the Rāmāyaṇa, the Mahābhārata has, also provided materials to the subsequent literary epics. The origin of the literary epics goes back to the 4th or 5th century B.C. i.e. the time of Pātālavijaya and the Jāmvavatīvijaya, ascribed to Pāṇini. In Patañjali’s Mahābhāṣya (Mahābhāṣya) also, there is the reference of existence of some form of literary epics in the 2nd century B.C. Piṅgala’s Chandaḥ-sūtra also supports the existence of literary epics in that far remote time.


The Nāsika Inscription of Śrī Pulamāyī of 2nd century A.D. and the inscription of Rudradāmana of A.D. 150 also prove the existence of literary epics in some form. However, a concrete form of the literary epics come to light during the time of Aśvaghoṣa of 1st century A.D. Aśvaghoṣa wrote two literary epics, viz. the Buddhacarita (Buddhacarita) and the Saundarānanda (Saunadarānanda). The Buddhacarita is consisting of seventeen cantos. It depicts the life and deeds of Buddha. The Saunadarānanda comprises eighteen cantos.


One of the important poets of the literary epics is Kālidāsa, during whose time the literary epics reached its zenith’s height in the 4th century A.D. Kālidāsa was patronized by Chandragupta II, otherwise known as Vikramāditya, who ruled from A.D. 380-415. Of the two mahākāvyas of Kālidāsa, as the name suggests, Raghuvaṃśa describes the life of kings of the solar dynasty, beginning with Dilīpa, the father of Raghuvaṃśa It is having nineteen cantos. In the first nine cantos, the stories of four ancestors of Rāma i.e. Dilīpa, Raghu, Aja and Daśaratha are described. In this work, Kālidāsa exhibited his unique fusion of scholarship. Kālidāsa delineated various figures of speech in this work. From the point of view of natural beauty too, this work occupies an important position. This work also offers us various historical facts about the ancient kings and their kingdoms. The other one being the Kumāra., having seventeen cantos, deals with the birth of the war-god Kumāra. According to mythology, Kumāra or Kārtikeya was procreated by Lord Śiva for the purpose of commandeering gods in their war against the demons especially for killing Tārakāsura. In the first canto, there is the description of Himālaya. In the third, of spring season and also the sad plight of Rati in the fourth canto, forms the content of the mahākāvya. It is said that Kālidāsa wrote up to the end of the eighth canto only.

The Sanskrit poets, from the 6th century A.D. onwards, are seen to have displayed their scholarship and learning in their literary works. Thus, the process of degeneration in the literary epics seems to start herefrom.


Bhāravi’s poem Kirātārjunīya is a mahākāvya in eighteen cantos. It describes the story of Arjuna acquiring Pāśupātāstra from Lord Śiva, who in the guise of a Kirāta (hunter) tested the strength and ability of Arjuna, in an encounter. This incident is briefly narrated in the Vanaparvan (Vanaparvan) of the Mahābhārata Bhāravi uses the word śrī at the beginning of his Kirātārjunīya The use of the word lakṣmī at the end of each canto is a significant feature of this mahākāvya. There is nice delineation of various sentiments in this work. Bhāravi exhibited his proficiency in the arthagaurava i.e. depth of meaning throughout the work. In the Aihole Inscription of Pulakeśin II of A.D. 634, Bhāravi was referred to along with Kālidāsa. From that, we may determine the time of Bhāravi as to be near about 6th century A.D.


The Bhaṭṭikāvya (Bhaṭṭikāvya) or the Rāvaṇavadha (Rāvaṇavadha) consisting of twenty-two cantos, is a work of great renown, written by poet Bhaṭṭi. Bhaṭṭi might have flourished in the latter half of the 6th and the first half of 7th century A.D. Bhaṭṭi, in his literary epic, narrates the tale of Rāma and tries to illustrate with example the rules of grammar and poetics. This poem is divided into four kāṇḍas (parts) viz. Prakīrṇa, Prasanna, Adhikāra and Tiṅanta. The first part (cantos I-V) seeks to give examples of miscellaneous rules of Pāṇini’s grammar and the second one (cantos VIIX), those of its main rules, while in the third part (cantos X-XIII), the most important alaṃkāras are illustrated and in the fourth, the uses of tenses, moods are explained. The Bhaṭṭikāvya is regarded as a mahākāvya and is placed in high estimation for its merit. Besides, it is considered as an authoritative treatise on questions relating to grammar.


Kumāradāsa wrote the Jānakīharaṇa (Jānakīharaṇa), consisting of twenty cantos. This poem is based on the Rāmāyaṇa and modelled upon the Raghuvaṃśa and the Kumāra. of Kālidāsa. It describes the story of Rāma and the abduction of Sītā by Rāvaṇa. Kumāradāsa follows Kālidāsa in every line of description and if, imitation is not praiseworthy, he is at least a worthy compeer. He might have flourished during the 7th century A.D. However, he was identified with one Kumāradāsa, a king of Ceylon, who reigned from A.D. 517-526.


Māgha’s Śiśupālavadha is modelled upon the Kirātārjunīya of Bhāravi. It is a mahākāvya in twenty cantos, which describes the killing of Śiśupāla, the king of Cedi by Lord Kṛṣṇa. The rājasūya sacrifice of Yudhiṣṭhira is described in it. Śiśupāla’s misbehaviour, the immediate cause of conflict, is very well delineated here in this mahākāvya. The last three cantos are devoted to the description of the actual warfare. As a classical poem, it has always maintained its popularity and though the thoughts are sometimes voluptuous, a profound learning is everywhere apparent.[2] Māgha may be placed in the later part of the 7th century A.D.[3] A simple incident from the Mahābhārata has been converted into a big one in this mahākāvya. He has introduced descriptions of mountains, battle-scenes, drinking and parties etc., which fulfil the norms required for a mahākāvya. The use of the word śrī at the end of each canto is very significant in this mahākāvya. Māgha is said to be proficient in the qualities—upamā, arthagaurava and padalālitya.

Here goes the popular saying:—

upamā kālidāsasya bhāraverarthagauravaṃ /
naiṣadhe padalālityaṃ māghe santi trayo guṇāḥ//


Māgha’s poetic faculty has been praised in the following lines—

  1. navasargagate māghe navaśabdo na vidyate/
  2. tāvadbhā bhāraverbhāti yāvanmāghasya nodayaḥ/
  3. meghe māghe gataṃ vayaḥ/

It has been already mentioned that Māgha adopted the style of Bhāravi or in a sense the Śiśupālavadha has been modelled upon the Kirātārjunīya of Bhāravi. However, Māgha attempts to surpass his prototype in each one of the devices and affectations of subtlety. Like Bhāravi, Māgha takes his theme from the Mahābhārata Even then, just like Bhāravi, Māgha takes the outline of the story only and expands it with all the arts and artificialities of ornate poems. Māgha attempts to show his mastery in metrics in canto IV of the Śiśupālavadha, as Bhāravi does in the canto IV of the Kirātārjunīya Of course, Māgha uses twenty-three different types of metres, while Bhāravi has used nineteen only. Just as canto XV of the Kirātārjunīya excels most in verbal jugglery, in the same way, Māgha accomplishes similar, but still more difficult task in canto XIX of his Śiśupālavadha It appears that in case, it was Bhāravi, who tries to extol Lord Śiva, while Māgha magnifies Lord Viṣṇu. It must be admitted here that some of the fancies of Māgha are quite original and it was one of them that brought him the title of ghaṇṭāmāgha.[4] It has been noticed that Māgha shows luxury in expression and imagination. His command over rhetorical techniques is quite apparent in his poem. He exhibits tender richness of fancy. In the manuals of poetics, Māgha’s Śiśupālavadha is quoted frequently, from which it can be said that the Indian scholars of poetics held Māgha in high esteem. Later poets imitated Māgha in literary style as well as rhetorical mannerisms for their pedantic and laborious treatises. However, they fail to imbibe the rare poetic qualities of the former and become prone to artificiality and hence, their works become merely imitative and reproductive in nature. Their works are mostly mechanical, without originality and independence, being representative of the age of decadence.

Among the post Māgha poets, the following names can be mentioned.


First of all, Śivasvāmin was a poet of the court of king Avantivarman, who ruled over Kashmir between A.D. 855-884. His poem Kapphanābhyudayaṃ, in twenty cantos follows the plan of the Śiśupālavadha and the Kirātārjunīya The verbal beauties of composition such as Yamakas and bandhas are found there.

Jinasena & Guṇabhadra:

Jinasena was the pupil of Vīrācārya. Jinasena’s pupil Guṇabhadra was the preceptor of king Kṛṣna II, Akālavarṣa. Among his works, Harivaṃśa was composed in the reign of Kṛṣṇarāja, I. Of the Ādipurāṇa, forty-two chapters were written by Jinasena and last five were completed by his pupil Guṇabhadra. The Pārśvābhyudaya is a poem written in imitation of Kālidāsa’s Meghadūta According to Krishnamachariar, Jinasena’s poem is of high order and often equals, if not surpasses the beauty of Kālidāsa’s expressions.


Māgha has been imitated by Rājānaka Ratnākara also. His poem Haravijaya (Haravijaya) in fifty cantos, reveals a thorough study of the Śiśupālavadha The theme of the epic is the defeat of Andhakāsura by Lord Śiva. He bore the title of vidyāpati and vāgiśvara. He was praised by Rājaśekhara as a poet of vast learning and imagery. Not only this, Kṣemendra also mentioned him for his command over Vasantatilaka metre. However, some scholars criticize Ratnākara for his stereotyped descriptions of subsidiary topics, which are peculiarly long drawn. Another work of the same poet is Vakroktipañcāśikā.


Abhinanda, son of Satānanda wrote Rāmacarita, profusely quoted by Bhoja, Mammaṭa and Mahimabhaṭṭa. It is a long poem, relating the story of the Rāmāyaṇa. The ease of narration, the melody of versification and the grace of poetic fancy are apparent everywhere. Another Abhinanda, also called Gauḍābhinanda wrote Kādamvarī-kathāsāra, epitomizes in eight cantos the story of Bāṇa’s Kādamvarī (Kādambarī), in verse. His poetry has been held in high estimation, by later rhetoricians.


Padmagupta, also named Navasāhasaṅka, was an admirer of Kālidāsa and in descriptive imagery, he was a successful second to him. He wrote the Navasāhasaṅkacarita in eighteen cantos. Krishnamachariar refers to him.[5]


Bilhaṇa was born at Koṇamukha near Pravarapura, the capital of Kashmir. His Vikramāṅkadevacarita (Vikramāṅkadevacarita) is a poem in eighteen cantos, describing the glory of king Vikramāditya Tribhuvanamalla of Kalyāṇa. His Śivastuti is a small poem in praise of Lord Śiva. Again, his Caurapañcāśikā is a poem of fifty verses.


Vāsudeva wrote Yudhiṣṭhiravijaya, a poem in eight āśvāsas. It describes the story of Mahābhārata, from the hunting sports of Pāṇḍu to the coronation of Yudhiṣṭhira, after the great war of Kurukṣetra. Again, Saurikathodaya narrates the life of Kṛṣṇa, from birth to the conquest of Bānāsura, as related in the Harivaṃśa. The Tripuradahana describes the story of destruction of the three cities by Lord Śiva.


Atula’s Muṣikavaṃśa is a poem of fifteen cantos.


Hemacandra wrote his historical epic Kumārapālacarita in twenty-eight cantos.

It is remarkable that these authors hardly had the ambition to invent new themes. The old myths and heroic legends are used again and again, in new forms. In fact, their ambition is just to be able to show that they can dress the well known and often dealt with themes in a new garb.


Lolimbarāja wrote his epic Harivilāsa in five cantos.


Jaina Amaracandra wrote the Bālabhārata, an abridgement of the Mahābhārata He wrote another epic named Padmānanda, in nineteen cantos. In this poem, the author wholly follows Hemacandra.

Sandhyākara Nandī, Dhanañjaya, Mādhavabhaṭṭa & Haradatta Sūri:

The Indian poets attempted to write much more difficult poetical pieces in this time. Thus, the poet Sandhyākara Nandī wrote an epic Rāmapālacarita. Here, each stanza is to be taken as having two meanings and in fact, one of these meanings relates to the hero Rāma and at the same time, the other to king Rāmapāla, who ruled over Bengal in the 11th century A.D. This poet was outdone by two other poets. Of them, Digambara Jaina Dhanañjaya wrote Rāghavapāṇḍavīya or Dvisandhānakāvya between, A.D. 1123-1140. Mādhavabhaṭṭa alias Kavirāja wrote another Rāghavapāṇḍavīya. To the same category, belongs also the Rāghavanaiṣadhīya of Haradatta Suri. Here also, each stanza has two meanings, of which one relates to Rāma and other to Nala.


The Śrīkaṇṭhacarita of Maṅkhaka although belonging to the time of decay in the literary epics, it is a fine work. Winternitz commends the work.[6] The Śrīkaṇṭhacarita attracts special attention of its readers for its intrinsic poetic grandeur and historical sense. The Śrīkaṇṭhacarita, no denying the fact bears some of the demerits of its age. It is seen that Maṅkhaka abides by the rhetorical rules to fulfil the necessities of a mahākāvya very strictly. In doing so, he gives too much importance to ancillary descriptions. In regard to the plot of his poem also, he cannot claim originality or genuinity. The poem is primarily recreative in nature. However, Maṅkhaka does a commendable job in some points. His power of observation has been exhibited through his descriptions. His characterizations, delineation of emotions, mode of expression, employment of alaṃkāras and suggestion of rasas are simply outstanding. His style in comparison to his other counterparts is simpler. Therefore, though he inherited some of the merits and demerits of his predecessors, even then, it may be said that his mahākāvya has secured a unique position among the literary epics.


The Nala-tale has repeatedly been worked upon by the poets from time to time. The most famous one is the Naiṣadhacarita of Śrīharṣa. It is a great epic in twenty-two cantos, that narrates the story of Nala in a most elaborate style. The work met with wide approval in the various assemblies of Kashmir and was honoured by the personal appreciation of Goddess Sarasvatī. Winternitz appreciates Śrīharṣa.[7] It is observed that Indian critics have placed Śrīharṣa’s epic beside the epics of the classical poets Kālidāsa, Bhāravi and Māgha as the last of the series of master works of the ornate court epic or the literary epics. The Naiṣadhacarita is known for the high degree of skill and scholarship of the poet, rather than for its intrinsic poetic merit. Śrīharṣa embellishes his poem with rhetorical fancy, tricks and niceties of diction. Śrīharṣa is no doubt a great scholar, having high power of description, unique command over grammar, Indian Philosophy, rhetoric and lexicon. The Naiṣadhacarita also is looked upon as a repository of traditional learning and literary skill. Even then, his exaggerated statements in the form of poetic conceit, however, been observed by critics as an error or defect on his part.

Kṛṣṇānanda, Vāmanabhaṭṭabāṇa, Jayaratha, Kavirāja & Vidyamadhava:

In the 13th century A.D., the poet Kṛṣṇānanda not only wrote a commentary on the Naiṣadhacarita, but also, retold the Nala legend in the epic Sahṛdayānanda, in fifteen cantos. Again, in the 15th century A.D., the poet Vāmanabhaṭṭabāṇa worked on the same legend in his Nalābhyudaya. To the 12th century belongs the religious epic Haracaritracintāmaṇi of the Kashmirian poet Rājānaka Jayaratha, which is full of Śiva legends and teachings of Śaivism. Kavirāja, during the later part of the same century wrote Pārijātharaṇa in ten cantos. Vidyamadhava has his credit Pārvatīrukmiṇīya.

Some other poems of other poets are as follows- Yādava-rāghavīya of Veṇkatādhvārī, Rāghava-yādavīya of Someśvara, Devamandābhyudaya, Śāntināthacarita and Saptasandhānamahākāvya of Meghavijayagani, Śatārthakāvya of Somaprabhacārya, Haricandrodaya of Anantasuri, Jayantīvijaya of Abhayadeva, Candraprabhacarita of Vīranandī, Pāṇḍavacarita of Devaprabhasuri, Jānakīpariṇaya of Cakrakavi, Jayasiṃhābhyudaya and Rājataraṅgiṇī (Rājataraṅgiṇī) of Kalhaṇa, Somapālavilāsa of Jalhaṇa etc. This way, there are uncountable numbers of other poems, which were written stereotyped, as the later writers bothered least to invent anything new. They adopted the old epical materials betraying more and more artificiality. They tend to demonstrate techniques and pedantry and tried to fit their works as per the guidelines of the alaṃkāraśāstra. With little poetical value, these poems do not need special mention here.

Macdonell comments in this regard.[8] It is due to their blindly following the rules of poetics that the poetic values of the poets of decadence period faded up. Again, the trend of contemporary time and the taste of the then readers were also behind their showing off pedantry and erudition. Actually, they failed to keep a balance between erudition and poetic talent. Here Winternitz gives his observation.[9] Notwithstanding these, Maṅkhaka keeps a kind of harmony between his extra ordinary genius and the poetic value. Though he is influenced by the trend of his time and inherited some of the shortcomings of his predecessors, even then, his poetic merit come to the forefront. His relatively simple style saves him and thereby he becomes able to attract the general readers and the connoisseurs as well.

Footnotes and references:


“Rāmāyaṇa, the Ādi-kāvya, is the first poem…….the Mahākāvyas are modelled upon Rāmāyaṇa…..” Krishnamachariar, M., ‘History of Classical Sanskrit Literature’., page 82


Ibid., Krishnamachariar, M., page 156.


Ibid., page 155.


Ibid., page 156


“Padmagupta’s language highly embellished and though often times, he appears an imitator of Kālidāsa, whom he holds in high esteem, his expression is original and verse melodious.” Ibid., page 164


“Worthy of special mention is the Śrīkaṇṭhacarita of the Kashmirian poet Maṅkha (1135-1145 A.D.).” Winternitz, M., History of Indian Literature., page 86


“In any case, it cannot be denied that he commands mastery over language and metrics, is an adept in making up poetical game of words and that he has good many imageries in his pictures of nature.” Ibid., page 84


“The later author of a kāvya is, the more he seeks to win the admiration of his audience by the cleverness of his conceits and the ingenuity of his diction appealing always to the head rather than the heart.”

Macdonell, A. A., History of Sanskrit Literature., page 274-275


“one can just say that the Alaṃkāraśāstra has killed true poetry. The form has secured complete triumph over the subject-matter. And oh, what a display of ingenuity and an actual tiresome brain-work is involved in these poems!”

Winternitz, M., History of Indian Literature., page 88

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