Here’s a guest post from Alka Pratap, reproduced with permission.
Ancient India’s poetry and drama are as diverse as they are wonderful. Drawing inspiration from the diverse threads of Hinduism, they have the imprint of many of this wonderful religions greatest thinkers. Surprisingly to many in the Western world, these influences are not in the nature of renunciation and denial of worldly pleasures. Rather, they are a celebratory approach where no aspect of life is denied, and everything is embraced. In this sense, it is an epitome of the larger theme of Hinduism itself, which is all-inclusive in nature.
The poets of India have had a profound influence on modern India’s writers, leaders and common people. However, they have also influenced and impacted poets and dramatists of the Western world. Goethe, the master-poet of Europe, has summed up his criticism of the famed drama, Sakuntala, by the ancient poet Kalidasa, in a single poem.
Would'st thou the young year's blossoms
and the fruits of its decline,
And all by which the soul is charmed,
enraptured, feasted, fed,
Would'st thou the Earth and Heaven itself
in one sole name combine?
I name thee, O Sakuntala! and all at
once is said.
These verses seem to be a small thing like the flame of a candle, but it lights up the whole drama in an instant, and reveals its inner nature. Rather than resorting to lengthy analysis and taking the poem to pieces, Goethe uses words sparingly, and through his words, Sakuntala blends together the young year’s blossoms and the fruits of maturity; it combines heaven and earth in one.
We are apt to pass over this eulogy lightly as a mere poetical outburst. We are apt to consider that it only means in effect that Goethe regarded Sakuntala as fine poetry. But it is not really so. His stanza breathes not the exaggeration of rapture, but the deliberate judgment of a true critic. There is a special point in his words. Goethe says expressly that Sakuntala contains the history of a development – the development of a flower into fruit, of earth into heaven, of matter into spirit.
It is significant that the poems, called kavyas in Sanskrit, and dramas of Kalidasa show a relative simplicity and exquisiteness. This is the essence of ancient Indian drama, and we find that it has some creative inputs from a work of curious character and importance, the Kamasastra or Kamasutra of Vatsyayana, which was doubtless familiar to the dramatists from Kalidasa onwards. The world which produced the classical drama was one in which the pessimism of Buddhism, with its condemnation of the value of pleasure, had been overtaken by the worship of the great sectarian divinities Shiva and Vishnu, in whose service the enjoyment of pleasure was legitimate and proper. The Buddhists themselves admittedly felt the force of the demand for a life of ease.
A society of this kind was certain to encourage refinement and elegance in poetry. It was however balanced by those who practiced austerity and monkhood. Thus Shiva is a family man, and yet an ascetic. He is worshiped by demons and gods alike. Thus, it was not uncommon for monks and spiritual seekers to write poetry too. For example, the poetry of Sant Tulsidas, a devotee of Hanuman, is encapsulated in the Hanuman Chalisa. Reverand AG Atkins, who translated the work to English, says of the Hanuman Chalisa, “Who can fail to be elevated in spirit and walk in the straight path to Heaven by this vision of God.”
Thus, through a multitude of influences, from renunciates to pleasure seekers, Indian poetry draws out and amalgamates the best, thus creating a very unique and outstanding poetic tradition, that has found appreciation across many centuries throughout the world. I hope this tradition continues to grow in strength in coming decades.