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Chapter 6 – Literature


A person unacquainted with Shanscrit scarcely possesses the means of forming an opinion on the poetry of the Hindus. The singular attention to harmony which characterises the Shanscrit must give it a charm that is lost in translation; and the unbounded facility of forming compounds, which adds so much to the richness of the original, unavoidably occasions stiff and unnatural combinations in a language of a different genius.

Even the originality of Hindu poetry diminishes our enjoyment of it, by depriving it of all aid from our poetical associations. The peculiarity of the ideas and recollections of the people renders it difficult for us to enter into their spirit; while the difference of all natural appearances and productions deprives their imagery of half its beauty and makes that a source of obscurity to us, which to a native of the East would give additional vividness to every expression. What ideas can we derive from being told that a maiden’s lips are a bandhujiva flower, and that the lustre of the madhuca beams on her cheeks ? or, in other circumstances,

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that her cheek is like the champa leaf ? Yet those figures may be as expressive, to those who understand the allusions, as our own comparisons of a youthful beauty to an opening rose, or one that pines for love to a neglected primrose.

With all these disadvantages, the few specimens of Shanscrit poetry to which we have access present considerable beauties.


Their drama, in particular, which is the department with which we are best acquainted, rises to a high pitch of excellence. Sacontala has long been known to Europeans by the classical version of Sir W. Jones, and our acquaintance with the principal of the remaining dramas has now become familiar through the admirable translations of Mr. Wilson.

Though we possess plays written at least as early as the beginning of the Christian era, and one which was composed in Bengal within these fifty years, yet the whole number extant does not exceed sixty. This is probably owing to the manner in which they were at first produced, being only acted once on some particular festival in the great hall or inner court of a palace518, and consequently losing all the popularity which plays in our times derive from repeated representations in different cities and in public theatres. Many must also have been lost owing to the neglect of the learned; for the taste for this species of poetry seems corrupted, if not extinct, among the Bramins; and although

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some of the least deserving specimens are still favourites, yet Professor Wilson assures us that he has met with but one Bramin who could be considered as conversant with the dramatic literature of his country519.

Of these dramas we possess translations of eight, and abstracts mixed with specimens of twenty-four more.

Though there are no tragedies among the number, none at least that terminate unhappily, yet these plays exhibit a variety not surpassed on any other stage. Besides the different classes of dramas, farces, moralities, and short pieces such as we should call interludes, the diversity arising from the subjects seems to have been almost unlimited. A play translated by Dr. Taylor of Bombay is a lively, and sometimes humorous, illustration of the tenets of the different schools of philosophy520. Of the more regular dramas, some relate to the actions of heroes; some, to the wars and loves of kings; others, to the intrigues of ministers; and others are strictly confined to the incidents of private life.

The characters are as different as the subjects. In some there is not a trace of supernatural agency or an allusion to religion. In others, nymphs of Paradise are attached to earthly lovers; gods and demons appear in others; enchantments, unconnected with religion, influence the fate of some;

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and in one, almost the whole Hindu Pantheon is brought on the stage to attest the innocence of the heroine.

In general, however, even in the cases where the gods afford their assistance, the interest of the drama turns entirely on human feelings and natural situations, over which the superior beings have no direct influence.

The number of acts is not fixed, and extends in practice from one to ten.

The division seems to be made when the stage becomes vacant, or when an interval is required between two parts of the action.

In general, unity of time is not much violated (though in one case twelve years passes between the first and second acts); unity of place is less attended to; but the more important point of unity of action is as well preserved as in most modern performances.

The plots are generally interesting; the dialogue lively, though somewhat prolonged; and considerable skill is sometimes shown in preparing the reader to enter fully into the feelings of the persons in the situations in which they are about to be placed.

Some judgment of the actors may be formed from the specimens still seen. Regular dramas are very rarely performed; when they are, the tone is grave and declamatory. The dresses are such as we see represented on ancient sculptures; and the high caps, or rather crowns, of the superior

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characters, composed of dark azure and gold, of the form peculiar to Hindu sculpture, give an air of much greater dignity than the modern turban. Mimics, buffoons, and actors of a sort of partly extemporary farces, are common still. They are coarse, childish, and, when not previously warned, grossly indecent; but they exhibit considerable powers of acting and much comic humour.

The best dramatic authors are Calidas, who probably lived in the fifth century, and Bhavabhuti, who flourished in the eighth. Each of these poets wrote three dramatic works, two of which, in each instance, have been translated. The first excels in tenderness and delicacy, and is full of highly poetical description. The beauties of his pastoral drama of “Sacontala” have long been deservedly admired. The “Hero and the Nymph,” in Mr. Wilson’s collection, is in a still more romantic strain, and may be compared (in the wildness of its design at least) to the “Tempest” andMidsummer Night’s Dream521.” The other great dramatist

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possesses all the same qualities in an equal degree, accompanied with a sublimity of description, a manly tone, and a high and even martial spirit, that is without example in any other Hindu poet that I have heard of.

It may, indeed, be asserted of all the compositions of the Hindus, that they participate in the moral defects of the nation, and possess a character of voluptuous calm more adapted to the contemplation of the beauties of nature, than to the exertion of energy or to the enjoyment of adventure. Hence, their ordinary poetry, though flowing and elegant, and displaying a profusion of the richest imagery, is often deficient in the spirit which ought to prevent the reader’s being cloyed with sweetness, and seldom moves any strong feeling, or awakens any lofty sentiment.

The emotions in which they are most successful are those of love and tenderness. They powerfully present the raptures of mutual affection, the languishment of absence, and the ravings of disappointed passion. They can even rise to the nobler feelings of devoted attachment, and generous disregard of selfish motives; but we look in vain for traits of vigour, of pride, or independence: even in their numerous battles they seem to feel little real sympathy with the combatants, and are obliged to make up by hyperbolical description for the

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want of that ardent spirit which a Greek or Roman poet could easily transfuse into the bosom of his hero, while it glowed with all its fervor in his own522.

The great strength of the Shanscrit poets, as well as their great delight, is in description. Their most frequent subjects are scenes of repose and meditation, amidst sequestered woods and flowery banks, fanned by fragrant gales and cooled by limpid waters; but they are not unsuccessful in cheerful and animated landscape. Such is the description of the country round Ujein in the ninth act ofMalati and Madhava;” where mountains, rocks, woods, villages, and glittering rivulets combine to form an extensive and a varied prospect. The city occupies the centre of the view: its towers, temples, pinnacles, and gates are reflected on the clear stream beneath; while the groves on the banks refreshed with early rain, and the meadows brightening with the recent shower, afford a luxurious resting place to the heavy-uddered kine. Sometimes, also, they raise their efforts to the frowning mountain and the gathering tempest. Bhavabhuti, in particular, excels in this higher sort of description. His touches of wild mountain

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scenery in different places, and his description of the romantic rocks and solemn forests round the source of the Godaveri, are full of grandeur and sublimity. Among his most impressive descriptions is one where his hero repairs at midnight to a field of tombs, scarcely lighted by the flames of funeral pyres, and evokes the demons of the place, whose appearance, filling the air with their shrill cries and unearthly forms, is painted in dark and powerful colours; while the solitude, the moaning of the winds, the hoarse sound of the brook, the wailing owl, and the long-drawn howl of the jackall, which succeed on the sudden disappearance of the spirits, almost surpass in effect the presence of their supernatural terrors523.

This taste for description is more striking from its contrast with the practice of some of their neighbours.

In Persian poets, for instance, a long description of inanimate nature is rarely met with. Their genius is for the expression of deep feelings or of sublime conceptions; and, in their brief and indistinct attempts at description, they attend exclusively to the sentiment excited by objects in the mind, quite neglecting the impression which they make on the senses.

But a Shanscrit poet, without omitting the characteristic emotion, presents all the elements from which it springs, delineates the peculiar features

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of the scene, and exhibits the whole in so picturesque a manner, that a stranger, even with his ignorance of the names of plants and animals, might easily form a notion of the nature of an Indian landscape.

Thus, in a description of a Persian garden, the opening buds smile, the rose spreads forth all her charms to the intoxicated nightingale; the breeze brings the recollections of youth, and the spring invites the youths and damsels to his bridal pavilion. But the lover is without enjoyment in this festival of nature. The passing rill recalls the flight of time; the nightingale seems to lament the inconstancy of the rose, and to remember that the wintry blast will soon scatter her now blooming leaves. He calls on the heavens to join their tears to his, and on the wind to bear his sighs to his obdurate fair.

A Hindi poet, on the other hand, represents, perhaps, the deep shade of a grove, where the dark tamala mixes its branches with the pale foliage of the nimba, and the mangoe tree extends its ancient arms among the quivering leaves of the lofty pipala, some creeper twines round the jambu, and flings out its floating tendrils from the topmost bough. The asoca hangs down the long clusters of its glowing flowers, the madhavi exhibits its snow-white petals, and other trees pour showers of blossoms from their loaded branches. The air is filled with fragrance, and is still, but for the hum of bees and the rippling of the passing rill.

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The note of the coil is from time to time heard at a distance, or the low murmur of the turtle-dove on some neighbouring tree. The lover wanders forth into such a scene, and indulges his melancholy in this congenial seclusion. He is soothed by the south wind, and softened by the languid odour of the mangoe blossoms, till he sinks down overpowered in an arbour of jessamine, and abandons himself to the thoughts of his absent mistress.

The figures employed by the two nations partake of this contrast: those of the Persians are conventional hints, which would scarcely convey an idea to a person unaccustomed to them. A beautiful woman’s form is a cypress; her locks are musk (in blackness); her eyes a languid narcissus; and the dimple in her chin a well; but the Shanscrit similes,. in which they deal more than in metaphors, are in general new and appropriate, and are sufficient, without previous knowledge, to place the points of resemblance in a vivid light.

The Shanscrit poets have, no doubt, commonplaces, and some of them as fanciful as those of the Persians; but.. in general the topics seem drawn from the writer’s memory and imagination, and not adopted from a common stock which has supplied the wants of a succession of former authors. Having said so much of the Hindu drama, and having anticipated the general character of Shanscrit poetry, I shall be more brief with what remains.

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Sacred poetry

The most voluminous as well as the most ancient and important portion of Hindu verse consists of the sacred and the epic or heroic poems. On the sacred poems Mr. Colebrooke has pronounced524, that theirgeneral style is flat, diffuse, and no less deficient in ornament than abundant in repetitions.” The specimens which have been translated give no ground for questioning this decision.

Of the Vedas, the first part, consisting of hymns, &c., can alone be classed with poetry; and however sublime their doctrines, it appears that the same praise cannot be extended to their composition.

The extracts translated by Mr. Colebrooke, Ram Mohan Rai, and Sir W. Jones, and the large specimen in theOriental Magazinefor December, 1825, afford no sign of imagination, and no example of vigour of thought or felicity of diction.

The same, with a few exceptions, applies to the prayers and hymns in Colebrooke’sTreatise on the Religious Ceremonies of the Hindus525.”

Heroic poems

The “Ramayana”

Next in succession to the Vedas comes the great heroic poem of theRamayana,” which commemorates

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the conquest of Ceylon526. The author, Valmiki, is said to have been contemporary with the event; but not even a poet would invest a living warrior with supernatural powers, or would give him an army of apes for allies. A considerable period must have elapsed before the real circumstances of the story were sufficiently forgotten to admit of such bold embellishments. This argument, however, shows the early date of the hero, without impugning the antiquity of the poem. Of that there can be no dispute; for the language approaches nearer than any other Shanscrit poem to the early form used in the Vedas, and an epitome is introduced into theMaha Bharat,” itself the work of a remote age.

The “Maha Bharat”

This last poem is ascribed to Vyasa, the author of the Vedas, and an eye-witness of the exploits which it records. But within the poem itself is an acknowledgment that it was put into its present form by Sauti, who received it through another person from Vyasa: 24,000 verses out of 100,000 are alleged, in the same place, to be the work of the original poet527. Its pretensions to such remote antiquity are disproved by the advanced stage of the language; and the mention of Yavanas528 (if that term be applied to the Greeks) shows that some portion is of later date than the middle of

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the fourth century before Christ. But there seems no ground to question the opinion of one well qualified to judge, that it was familiar to the Hindus at least two or three centuries before Christ529. It illustrates the date of both works to observe that, although the heroes in both are incarnations of Vishnu, Rama commonly appears throughout the poem in his human character alone, and though Crishna is sometimes declared to be the Supreme Being in a human form, yet his actions imply no such divinity, and the passages in which his identity with the ruler of the universe are most clearly stated may be suspected of being the production of a later period than the rest530.

With the exception of Mr. Colebrooke (who includes them in his censure of the sacred poetry), all who have read the heroic poems in the original are enthusiastic in their praise; and their beauties have been most felt by those whose own productions entitle their judgment to most respect. Nor is this admiration confined to critics who have peculiarly devoted themselves to Oriental literature: Milman and Schlegel vie with Wilson and Jones in their applause; and from one or other of those writers we learn the simplicity and originality of the composition; the sublimity, grace, and pathos of particular passages; the natural dignity of the actors; the holy purity of the manners, and the inexhaustible fertility of imagination in the authors.

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From such evidence, and not from translations in prose, we should form our opinions of the originals. If we were obliged to judge from such of those literal versions as we possess in English (which are mostly from the “Ramayana”), we should be unable to discover any of the beauties dwelt on, except simplicity; and should conceive the poems to be chiefly characterised by extreme flatness and prolixity. Some of the poetical translations exhibit portions more worthy of the encomiums bestowed on them. The specimens of theMaha Bharat” which appeared, in blank verse, in theOriental Magazine531,” are of this last description. It is true that, though selections, and improved by compression, they are still tediously diffuse; but they contain many spirited and poetical passages: the similes, in particular, are short, simple, and picturesque; and, on the whole, the author must be acknowledged to tread, at whatever distance, on the path of Homer.

The episode ofNala and Damyanti,” in the same poem532, being a domestic story, is better fitted than battles to the Hindu genius; and is a model of beautiful simplicity. Among the other episodes in the same poem (as it now stands) is theBhagwat Gita,” which is supposed to be the work of a much later age. It is a poetical exposition of the doctrines of a particular school of theology, and has been admired for the clearness and beauty of the

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language and illustrations. Whatever may be its merits as to clearness, it deserves high praise for the skill with which it is adapted to the original epic, and for the tenderness and elegance of the narrative by means of which it is introduced.

The legendary part of the Puranas may be regarded as belonging to this description of poetry. Some of the extracts introduced by Colonel Kennedy in hisResearches into Hindu Mythologyare spirited and poetical.

The portion of theRamayana” of Bodayanah translated by Mr. Ellis in theOriental Magazine” for September, 1826, is more conformable to European taste than the other translations; but it seems doubtful, from the note in page 8., whether it is designed to be a literal translation; and, consequently, it cannot safely be taken as a specimen of Hindu poetry.


TheMeghaduta533” is an excellent example of purely descriptive poetry. A spirit banished from heaven charges a cloud with a message to his celestial mate, and describes the countries over which it will have to pass.

The poet avails himself of the favourite Hindu topic of the setting in of the rainy season, amidst assembled clouds and muttering thunder, the revival of nature from its previous languor, the rejoicing of some animals at the approach of rain, and the long lines of cranes, and other migratory

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birds that appear in the higher regions of the sky: he describes the varied landscape and the numerous cities over which the cloud is to pass, interspersing allusions to the tales which are associated with the different scenes.

Intermixed with the whole are the lamentations of the exile himself, and his recollections of all the beauties and enjoyments from which he is excluded.

The description is less exuberant than in most poems, but it does not escape the tameness which has been elsewhere ascribed to Shanscrit verse.

TheGita Govinda, or Songs of Jaya Deva534,” Pastoral. are the only specimens I know of pure pastoral. They exhibit, in perfection, the luxuriant imagery, the voluptuous softness, and the want of vigour and interest which form the beauties and defects of the Hindu. school.

They are distinguished also by the use of conceits; which, as the author lived as late as the fourteenth century, are, perhaps, marks of the taste introduced by the Mahometans.


I have seen no specimen of Hindu satire. Some of their dramatic performances seem to partake of this character535. Judging from the heaviness of the ludicrous parts occasionally introduced into the regular plays, I should not expect to find much success in this department.

Tales and fables

Though there are several other poetical works

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translated, enough has, perhaps, been said on this subject, considering the little value of opinions formed on such grounds. An important part of the Hindu literature, however, still remains to be noticed, in their tales and fables; in both of which species of composition they appear to have been the instructors of all the rest of mankind. The most ancient known fables (those of Bidpai) have been found almost unchanged in their Shanscrit dress; and to them almost all the fabulous relations of other countries have been clearly traced536. The complicated scheme of story-telling, tale within tale, like theArabian Nights,” seems also to be of their invention, as are the subjects of many well-known tales and romances both Oriental and European. In their native form, they are told with simplicity, and not without spirit and interest. It is remarkable, however, that the taste for description seems here to have changed sides, the Hindu stories having none of those gorgeous and picturesque accompaniments which are so captivating in the Arabian and Persian tales537.


518. Wilson’s Preface to theTheatre of the Hindus.”

519. Appendix to theTheatre of the Hindus,” vol. iii. p. 97.

520. This will suggest “The Clouds” of Aristophanes, but it is more like some of the moralities of the middle ages.

521. Mr. Mill’s judgment onSacontala” is not, in general, favourable; but one passage is so just, and so well expressed, that I cannot refrain from quoting it.The poem, indeed, has some beautiful passages. The courtship between Sacontala and Dushmantu (that is the name of the king) is delicate and interesting; and the workings of the passion on two amiable minds are naturally and vividly pourtrayed. The picture of the friendship which exists between the three youthful maidens is tender and delightful; and the scene which takes place when Sacontala is about to leave the peaceful hermitage where she had happily spent her youth, her expressions of tenderness to her friends, her affectionate parting with the domestic animals she had tended, and even with the flowers and trees in which she had delighted, breathe more than pastoral sweetness.”

522. The following speech of a stripling in one of Bhavabhuti’s plays, however, reminds us of the “joys of combat” which delighted the northern warrior:–

“Boy. The soldiers raise their bows and point their shafts

Against you, and the hermitage is still remote.

Fly! &c.

“Lava. Let the shafts fall. Oh ! this is glorious I”

523. Malati and Madhava, Act I. Scene 1., in Wilson’s Theatre of the Hindoos.

524. Asiatic Researches, vol. x. p. 425.

525. A cursory view of the portion of theRig Veda” translated by Mr. Rosen (lately published) does not raise our opinion of those works. It seems to be a collection of short hymns addressed to the gods of the elements and the heavenly bodies, conveying praises and petitions, little varied, and but rarely showing signs of a poetical spirit. The topics of praise appear to be confined to the effect of each god’s power on the material world; and the prayers are even less spiritual, being, in a great majority of instances, for wealth alone.

526. See p. 173., and Book IV. chap. i.

527. Oriental Magazine, vol. iii. p. 133.

528. Translation at the place just referred to, and Professor Wilson, Asiatic Researches, vol. xv. p. 101.

529. Oriental Magazine, vol. iii. p. 133.

530. Preface to the Vishnu Purana, p. ix.

531. For December, 1824, and March and September, 1825.

532. Translated by the Rev. H. H. Milman.

533. Translated by Professor Wilson, and published with the original Shanscrit, in 1813.

534. Asiatic Researches, vol. ill. p. 185.

535. See Wilson’s Simla Drama, vol. iii. p. 97, &c. of the Appendix.

536. By Mr. Colebrooke, the Baron de Sacy, and Professor Wilson.

537. As a guide to further inquiry into the Indian origin of European fictions, consult the Transactions of the Royal Asiatic Society, vol. i. p. 156.

This collection transcribed by Chris Gage
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