Monday, December 8, 2014

Pratap Bhanu Mehta Cries for Dead Sanskrit IV

hicle of human experience away from the imperial stage, a characteristic that
had marked Sanskrit throughout its long history and from its very inception The
sphere of human experience that Sanskrit was now able or allowed to articulate
had shrunk so palpably by the end of the Vijayanagara period that the only
themes left were the concerns of empire, and then, when empire disappeared,
only the concerns of heaven.
the last sanskrit poet
In his work and in the course his life followed, Jaganna
̄tha Pan


̄ja ( Jagan-
̄tha king of scholars) (d. ca. 1670) marks a point of historic break in the his-
tory of Sanskrit literary culture, though it is no straightforward matter to grasp
precisely what this break consists of or to explain its historical importance. Rel-
ative to most of the other Sanskrit poets who have attained something of canon-
ical status, Jaganna
̄tha is very close to us in time, and yet we have almost as lit-
tle concrete evidence about him as we have about the fourth-century master
̄sa. What we do know—about his actual movements through the sub-
continent as a professional writer, for example—shows that the cosmopolitan
space occupied by Sanskrit literature for much of the two preceding millennia
persisted well into the seventeenth century, despite what are often represented
as fundamental changes in the political environment with the coming of the
Mughals in the previous century.
In the same way, Jaganna
̄tha’s life as a court
poet, and much of the work that he produced in that capacity, were no different
from the lives and works of poets centuries earlier. His great literary treatise,
(The Gan
̄-Bearer [S
iva] of Aesthetic Emotion), participates
as a full and equal interlocutor in a millennium-long theoretical debate in San-
skrit on the nature of the literary, and shares virtually all the same assumptions,
procedures, and goals.
At the same time, however, Jaganna
̄tha marks a palpable historical endpoint
in a number of important ways. If, like countless Sanskrit poets before him in
quest of patronage, Jaganna
̄tha moved with ease across India, from region to
region and court to court—from Andhra to Jaipur to Delhi and from Udaipur
to Assam, in a kind of vast “circumambulation of the quarters”—he was the last
to do so. No later Sanskrit literary works achieved the transregional spread of
his collection of lyrics, the
̄min ̄
(Ways of a Lovely Lady) and of his
His literary criticism is usually and rightly regarded as the
last significant contribution to the long conversation; thereafter (with the ex-
ception of a new theological aesthetic that was crystallizing in Bengal, and
which Jaganna
̄tha—in this the classicist—impatiently rejects), all is more or
less sheer reproduction.
His panegyrics to the kings of Udaipur and Delhi and
Assam may be largely indistinguishable from centuries of such productions; in-
deed, the three texts really constitute a single work with interchangeable parts,
in the best Sanskrit tradition of the universalizability of the qualities of over-
Yet one senses in his lyrics and even in his scholarly works some very new sensibility, which, without stretching for the fashionable phrase,
might fairly be called a modern subjectivity. And finally, in the stories that have
gathered around his life, he was made the representative of the profound his-
torical change that marked the new social realities of India and made the late-
medieval period late: for he is described as a Brahman belonging to a family
hailing from a bastion of Vedic orthodoxy and tradition (Ven

u in Andhra
Pradesh), who fell in love with a Muslim woman, and met his death—in de-
spair or repentance or defiance we do not know, but a kind of romantic agony
seems present in any case—by drowning in the holy Gan
̄ at Varanasi.
Something very old died when Jaganna
̄tha died, and also something very
Part of what was new, and that to a degree actually did outlive Jaganna
epoch, has to do with developments internal to the intellectual history of San-
skrit. By the seventeenth century at the latest literati had begun to identify and
distinguish themselves or others as “new” intellectuals (
navya, nav ̄
ına, arva
etc.) in a broad range of fields, including the classical
of language phi-
losophy, hermeneutics, and logic.
The “new logicians” or “new grammari-
ans” demonstrated discursive innovations that were substantial—the terminol-
ogy, style, and modes of analysis underwent a radical transformation across
these and other disciplines—though their conceptual breaks remain to be clear-
ly spelled out, and at first view seem for the most part modest or subtle or ques-
tions of detail rather than structure. At the same time, new and largely unpre-
cedented intellectual projects were undertaken or first achieved wide success.


oj ̄
ı D ̄

ita (fl. 1620), for example, building on the mid-sixteenth-
̄kaumud ̄
completely restructured the foundational grammar
of Pa

ini and thereby effectively ended its primacy for many lower-level ped-
agogical purposes. Another Maharashtrian Brahman living in Varanasi in the
last quarter of the seventeenth century, N ̄


ha Caturdhara, edited a new and
influential version of the
producing at the same time an innova-
tive commentary on the work. The rise of Maratha (and later Peshwa) power
certainly underwrote some of this activity. The relationship between S
̄j ̄
ı, the
“neo-Hindu” king of Maharashtra, and the “new” scholar Ga
̄ Bhat


a, who
performed a re-invented coronation ritual for the king in 1674, is well known.
The world had thus changed in terms of intellectual orientation no less than
in sociality and polity, though it may not always be easy for us to demonstrate
the quality of the transformations in Sanskrit scholarship with any real preci-
sion, for as I have said, they are often subtle. No overt “Quarrel of the Ancients
and Moderns” separated the
and the
And yet some kind of line
was being drawn that separated the present from the past. Something of the
character of the new socio-political milieu of traditional Sanskrit intellectuals,
as well as a sharper sense of their intellectual orientation, is suggested by the
careers of two literati—Siddhicandra, a Jain monk-scholar at the courts of Ak-
bar and Jahangi
r, and Kav ̄
̄rya Sarasvat ̄
ı, the leading pandit of Varanasi in the mid-seventeenth century. We shall be able to measure, too, with respect
to both milieu and orientation, just how different from both was Jaganna
The Jain scholar Siddhicandra (ca. 1587–1666) belonged to the first gener-
ation of Sanskrit literati to enjoy the patronage of the Mughal court. His quite
distinctive character emerges from an autobiography he has left us, a text that
is included—this itself discloses something of the man’s sense of self—as the
last chapter in the biography of Bha
̄nucandra, his teacher.
Although having
taken Jain renunciation as a youngster, Siddhicandra likewise became, through
the offices of his teacher, his own intellectual accomplishments, and—by his
own admission—his arresting physical beauty, an intimate of two of the most
powerful men of the early modern world for more than almost three decades.
In the intellectual environment in which Siddhi came of age the ruling elites
themselves were the first to challenge traditionalism. Abu-l Fazl, the leading in-
tellectual of the day and an intimate of Siddhicandra’s teacher, wrote against
restrictions on “the exercise of inquiry”; he denounced the tradition that came
“as a deposit under Divine sanction” and that reproached with impiety anyone
who dared contest it. For Akbar himself, man was in the first instance the dis-
ciple of his own reason.
This was clearly, thus, a milieu open to the reception
of new ideas. A large amount of Sanskrit learning was being translated into Per-
sian, and Mughal courtiers themselves occasionally learned something of San-
skrit literature: Kha
̄n Abdur Rah ̄
ım (1557–1630), Akbar’s
thus the highest official in the Mughal administration, experimented not only
with poetry in the local vernacular but even, if modestly, in Sanskrit.
verse flow is observable, too; a whole new world of literature and culture was
made available to those Sanskrit intellectuals who learned Persian.
This was the world of Siddhicandra, from a very early age. At Akbar’s re-
quest he learned Persian as a young man, and often read aloud before the illit-
erate emperor, and combined this new knowledge with an impressive com-
mand of traditional Sanskrit learning. Yet it is astonishing how narrow Siddhi’s
vision remained. His scholarly work—commentaries on Sanskrit literature and
anthologies of Sanskrit and of Prakrit verse, a textbook on letter-writing
styles—could easily have been written in the year 1100 instead of 1600. Sug-
gestive here is his


a critique of Mammat

a’s eleventh-
century treatise on literature. Here Siddhi clearly numbers himself among the
new scholars, a term he repeatedly invokes, yet in intellectual content it is a
newness long familiar. His critique at the very start of the book challenges every
point in Mammat

a’s understanding of poetry, but only by re-asserting old po-
sitions, not establishing new ones.
What was it then that scholars like Siddhi thought made them new intellec-
tuals? They certainly strove for ever greater precision and sophistication of def-
inition and analysis (in imitation, in fact, of the New Logic), but these matters
of style were far more striking than any substantive innovation. On the ques-
tion of the definition of poetry, Siddhi tells us, for the navya scholar what is de-cisive is not “faultless” or “affectively-charged” usage, or language “whose an-
imating factor is aesthetic pleasure”—all the older definitions—but something
more abstract, “an indivisible property, further unanalyzable,” of beauty.
yond such innovations in analytic idiom, however, what may be most impor-
tantly new here is the self-proclaimed newness itself, and its intimation that the
past is somehow passed, even if it will not go completely away.
A similar, paradoxical combination of something very new in style subserv-
ing something very old in substance is found in the one work that makes Sid-
dhicandra worth remembering, his autobiography. Whereas the literary presen-
tation of self here is new and striking (not least in its conflicted psychosexual
character), the self is explicitly celebrated for the traditionality of the moral vi-
sion it steadfastly maintains. Nowhere does this come into sharper focus than
in the dramatic core of the text, Siddhi’s debate with Jahangi
r and Nu
̄r Mahal,
where the Mughal emperor and empresses dispute his commitment to sexual
abstinence and try to convince him to marry. It is something rare if not un-
precedented in Sanskrit literature for a writer to fashion a self so vividly pres-
ent in its self-possession and self-confidence as Siddhicandra does here. The
author puts himself in debate with the king and queen of Al-Hind, and on the
matter of his own sexuality, of all things (which he has taken care throughout
the text to render especially potent). When they repeatedly demand he renounce
celibacy and marry, he remains “immovably resolute in his own
” even
as the courtiers bewail the “mad obstinacy” that will lead to his exile (4.306 –
14). It seems especially suggestive of the nature of Sanskrit literary culture at
this moment that all the innovation—the narrative and literary and discursive
novelty—should be in service of the oldest of Jain monastic ideals.
That a radical alteration in social environment can fail to produce a com-
mensurate transformation of cultural vision is even more patent in the life of
Kav ̄
̄rya Sarasvat ̄
ı (ca. 1600–75). When François Bernier traveled through
north India in the 1650s and 1660s, he came into the employ of a Mughal
courtier, Da
̄nishmand Kha
̄n, whom he served not only as physician but as trans-
lator into Persian of the most recent French scientific and philosophical work,
including the writings of Descartes, which the courtier is said to have read “with
avidity.” Da
̄nishmand Kha
̄n, sharing the ecumenical vision of the Emperor
̄h Jaha
̄n’s son, Da
̄ Shikoh, likewise “took into his service” Da
̄’s chief
Sanskrit scholar, “one of the most celebrated pandits in all the
” who lat-
er was to be Bernier’s constant companion over a period of three years. This In-
dian intellectual was Kav ̄
ındra, a Maharashtrian renunciant who thirty years
earlier had won celebrity by persuading Sha
̄h Jaha
̄n to rescind the
tax on
pilgrims traveling to Varanasi and Prayag.
The success of the petition elicit-
ed poems of praise from leading Sanskrit intellectuals and poets, which were
subsequently collected—probably the first festschrift in Sanskrit—under the
Kav ̄

(The Moonrise of Kav ̄
Kav ̄
ındra’s own literary production, however, like the very conventional praise-poems in his honor, shows little of the intellectual ferment that the place
(the “Athens of India,” as Bernier called it) or the person (the “Chief of the
pandits” for Bernier, “Treasury of All Knowledge” according to his Mughal ti-
tle) or the times and conversations (on Descartes) might lead us to expect. His
Sanskrit work was entirely glossarial and hymnal; his more significant literary-
historical contribution was rather to Hindi. Kav ̄
ındra remains best known to-
day for the library he was able to assemble, no doubt thanks to a pension from
the Mughal emperor. This was the most celebrated of its time and place (Bernier
himself remarks on it) and eventually numbered more than two thousand man-
uscripts, most of which seem to have been copied specifically for Kav ̄
What Sanskrit learning in the seventeenth century prepared one best to do,
one might infer from the lives and works of Siddhicandra and Kav ̄
ındra, was
to resist all other learning.
Yet Jaganna
̄tha also participated in the new world of intellectual and social
experiment and ecumenicism in which both Kav ̄
̄rya and Siddhicandra
moved, and with far different results. He brought a newness to both his literary
oeuvre and personal relationships of a sort that neither Siddhi nor Kav ̄
evinced in their life or work. Jaganna
̄tha also attended the court of Sha
̄h Jaha
like Kav ̄
ındra he was a client of Da
̄ Shikoh, but also of the courtier A
saf Kha
(for whom he wrote the
fragmentarily preserved). But his response
to this new social-cultural milieu was far different from theirs. Indeed, some-
thing in this time and place marked Jaganna
̄tha as no one else in the Sanskrit
world was marked. For one thing, there are intimations in his poetry of a new
interaction between Sanskrit and vernacular-language writing. Some of his po-
etry, such as the following verse in the
Her eyes are not just white and black but made of nectar and poison.
Why else, when they fall on a man, would he feel so strong and so weak?
is probably indebted to earlier texts in Old Hindi; one poem in the
n ̄
is almost certainly derived from a text of Biha
̄l, a celebrated poet
of the previous generation.
What such parallels above all indicate, unfortu-
nately, is how very little information we have, even for a period as relatively
late as the end of the seventeenth century, about the real interactions between
cosmopolitan and vernacular courtly poets. Little is known about their famil-
iarity with each others’ works; about what it signified (to them or their audi-
ences) to adapt vernacular verse into Sanskrit, or Sanskrit verse into the ver-
nacular—an activity of which there is substantial evidence, but perhaps none
more interesting than the Hindi adaptations of Rah ̄
ım—and above all, what it
was that conditioned a poet’s choice to write in one of these languages as op-
posed to the other.
The Mughal court is likely also to have conditioned Jaganna
̄tha’s social
modernity, but in a way far different from Siddhicandra’s, whose autobiogra-

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