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India has a tradition of love poetry stretching back almost to the age of the Vedas. In its earlier phase it found expression in Sanskrit and later on in Prakrit and Hindi. The love charms of the Atharva are said to mark the beginning of erotic poetry. In the Rigveda, Usha, the goddess of Dawn, is compared to a maiden who unveils her bosom to her lover. This was a period when Sanskrit was the living language of a virile people and had not fossilised into a language of the learned. In Valmikes Ramayana, the dawn is treated as a loving maiden: `Ah that the enamoured twilight should lay aside her garment of sky, now that the stars are quickened to life by the touch of the rays of the dancing moon'.
Among the earliest specimens of Sanskrit kavya are the works of the Buddhist poet and philosopher, Asvaghosha (c. A.D. 100). His poem, the Saundarananda, deals with the legend of the conversion of his half-brother, Nanda, by the Buddha. In canto iii, the poet describes the beauty of Sundari, Nanda's wife and compares her to a lotus pond, with her laughter for the swans, her eyes for the bees, and her swelling breasts for the uprising lotus buds. The perfection of her union with Nanda, he describes as of the night with the moon.
The Hindu Sritigara literature, both in Sanskrit and Hindi, has its roots in Bharata's Natyagastra, a treatise on dramaturgy. Poetry, music, and dance were necessary components of a Hindu drama, and as such the book deals also with poetics, music and the language of gesture. According to Manmohan Ghosh, the available text of the Natyagastra existed in the second century A.D., while the tradition which it recorded may go back to a period as early as 100 B.C. It is composed in verse in the form of a dialogue between Bharata and some ancient sages. Apart from Sanskrit, the Natyagastra also gives examples of Prakrit verses. It is the earliest writing on poetics, contains discussion on figures of speech, mentions the qualities and faults of a composition, and describes varieties of metre. In relation to ars amatoria it mentions Kamasasra and Kamatantra, but there is no reference to Vatsyayana's Kamasatra, which was composed much later.
The doctrine of rasa or flavor, and bhavas or emotions, was also enunciated in the Natyasastra. As the tastes of food are produced by salt, spices or sugar, the dominant states (sthayibhava), when they come together with other states (bhava) become sentiments. As an epicurean tastes food by eating, so learned people taste in their mind the dominant states or sentiments. The aesthetic experience is described by Bharata as the tasting of flavour (rasasvadana), the taster is rasika, and the work of art is rasavant. Of the eight emotional conditions, the sringarrasa, or erotic flavour, whose underlying emotions are love or desire, is the most important. It is the erotic sentiment which is the basis of the most beautiful art, whether poetry or painting.
The subtle classification of woman according to mood, sentiment and situation, called mayika-bheda, which was refined and elaborated by a succession of poets and rhetoricians, also has its origin in the Natyasastra. The eight-fold classification of heroines or nayikas is given, and female messengers, their qualities and functions are described. This is followed by the theme of mana and mana-mochana.
Sanskrit was no longer a spoken language by the close of the first century A.D. The languages of the people were Prakrits which at later stages evolved into the modern regional languages. Lyric poetry found its first and best expression in the Prakrits. 'One reason for the excellence of these little poems', says Grierson, 'is their almost invariable truth to nature, and the cause of this is that from the first they have been rooted in village life and language, and not in the pandit-fostering circles of the towns." The oldest and most admired anthology is the Sapta-sataka or the Seven Centuries of Hala, who flourished somewhere during the period A.D. 200 to 450 in Maharashtra. There are charming genre pictures, describing the farmers, hunters, cowherds and cowherdesses in these Prakrits lyrics. Hala's poetry is close to the soil and the people of the land. There are vivid pictures of nature and the seasons. Bees hover over flowers, peacocks enjoy the rain-showers while the female antelope seeks her mate longingly. The grief of a woman waiting for her lover is thus described:
"Waiting for you, the first half of the night
passed like a moment.
The rest was like a year,
for I was sunk in grief."
The prevailing tone is gentle and pleasing', observes Keith, 'simple love set among simple scenes, fostered by the seasons, for even winter brings lovers close together, just as a rain-storm drives them to shelter with each other. The maiden begs the moon to touch her with the rays which have touched her beloved; she begs the night to stay for ever, since the morn is to see her beloved's departure.
Sanskrit, though it continued as the language of literature for a long time, reached its zenith in the period from the fifth to seventh centuries. In the sensuous poems of India's greatest poet, Kalidasa (fl. 5th century A.D.), Sanskrit romantic poetry reaches its most elegant expression.
In the Sringarasataka or Century of Love of Bhartrihari (fl. 7th century A.D.), are brilliant pictures of the beauty of women, and of the joys of love in union. There are two other centuries of verses by him, viz. the Century of Worldly Wisdom, and the Century of Renunciation. The titles of his collections of poems also reflect the fickleness of the author who seven times became a Buddhist monk and seven times relapsed into worldly life. He regards woman as poison enclosed in a shell of sweetness, and considers her beauty a snare which distracts man from his true goal, which is the calm of meditation. He ultimately comes to the conclusion that the best life is one of solitude and contemplation:
"When I was ignorant in the dark night of passion
thought the world completely made of women,
but now my eyes are cleansed with the salve of wisdom,
and my clear vision sees only God in everything."
In the seventh century flourished Mayura, who was a contemporary of Harsha-vardhana. He thus describes a young woman who is returning after a night's revel with her lover: 'Who is this timid gazelle, burdened with firm swelling breasts, slender-waisted and wild-eyed, who hath left the startled herd? She goeth in sport as if fallen from the temples of an elephant in rut. Seeing her beauty even an old man turns to thoughts of love."
Amaru who flourished between 650 and 750 A.D. describes the relation of lovers in his Century of Stanzas, the Amarusataka. The relations of lovers, which later writers of poetics described in the form of Ashtanayikas, and Mana are delightfully narrated in his gay verses.
Vatsyayana's Kamasutra, which is probably older than Kalidasa, was studied eagerly by the Sanskrit poets along with grammar, lexicography and poetics. Sriharsha, the author of the Naishadhacharita, who flourished in the second half of the twelfth century at Kanauj, shows a good knowledge of the Kamasutra, while describing the married bliss of Nala and Damayanti. The Vaishnava Movement The eleventh century witnessed a great popularity of the Vaishnava movement. In the field of literature, Prakrits, and later on regional languages, replaced Sanskrit. The herald of the new dawn was a South Indian saint, Randnuja (1017-1137), who is regarded as one of the great apostles of Vaishnavism. He was born in the village of Sri-perambudur in Madras State. He mastered the Vedas, and wrote commentaries on the Vedanta-sutras and the Bhagavad-Gita. He popularised the worship of Vishnu as the Supreme Being.
Jayadeva, the author of the Gita Govinda, and the court poet of Lakshmanasena (1179-1205), was the earliest poet of Vaishnavism in Bengal. He wrote ecstatically of the love of Radha and Krishna, in which was imaged the love of the soul for God, personified in Krishna. The poem is regarded as an allegory of the soul striving to escape the allurement of the senses to find peace in mystical union with God. Hence arose a doctrine of passionate personal devotion, bhakti or faith towards an incarnate deity in the form of Krishna and absolute surrender of self to the divine will.
It was Eastern India, the provinces of Bihar and Bengal, which became an important centre of the Radha-Krishna cult. Vidydpati (fl. 1400-1470), the poet of Bihar, wrote in the sweet Maithili dialect on the loves of Radha and Krishna. He was the most famous of the Vaishnava poets of Eastern India. He was inspired by the beauty of Lacchima Devi, queen of his patron, Raja Sib Singh of Mithila in Bihar. There is a tradition that the Emperor Akbar summoned Sib Singh to Delhi for some offence, and that Vidyapati obtained his patron's release by an exhibition of clairvoyance.
The incident is thus narrated by Grierson: 'The emperor locked him up in a wooden box, and sent a number of courtesans of the town to bathe in the river. When all was over he released him and asked him to describe what had occurred, when Vidyapati immediately recited impromptu one of the most charming of his sonnets, which has come down to us, describing a beautiful girl at her bath. Astonished at his power, the emperor granted his petition to release Sib Singh. In the love-sonnets of the great master-singer of Mithila we find sacredness wedded to sensuous joy. There are vivid word-pictures of the love of Radha and Krishna painted in a musical language. Coming direct from the heart they remind us that there is nothing so beautiful and touching as sincerity and simplicity.
A contemporary Of Vidyapati was Chandi Das who lived at Nannara in Birbhum district of West Bengal. 'Representing the flow and ardour of impassioned love', says Dineshchandra Sen, 'he became the harbinger of a new age which soon after dawned on our moral and spiritual life and charged it with the white heat of its emotional bliss II His Krishtiakirtana describes the love of Radha' and Krishna in different phases. Chandi Das had fallen in love with a washerwoman, Rami by name, and in describing the physical charm of Radha, and her behaviour, he was drawing upon his own experience. With what passion he describes the pursuit of Radha by Krishna amidst market places, groves and the gay scenery along the bank of the Yamunal In the poems of Chandi Ds, sensuous emotions are sublimated into spiritual delight. The pleasures of the senses find an outlet in mystic ecstasy.
Writer – M.S. Randhawa