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A History of Sanskrit Literature by MacDonell

To whose work Subandhu repeatedly alludes


The

Ramayana contains several interesting episodes, though, of course, far fewer than the Mahabharata. One of them, a thoroughly Indian story, full of exaggerations and impossibilities, is the legend, told in Book I., of the descent of the Ganges. It relates how the sacred river was brought down from heaven to earth in order to purify the remains of the 60,000 sons of King Sagara, who were reduced to ashes by the sage Kapila when his devotions were disturbed by them.

Another episode (i. 52-65) is that of Vicvamitra, a powerful king, who comes into conflict with the great sage Vasishtha by endeavouring to take away his miraculous cow by force. Vicvamitra then engages in mighty penances, in which he resists the seductions of beautiful nymphs, and which extend over thousands of years, till he finally attains Brahmanhood, and is reconciled with his rival, Vasishtha.

The short episode which relates the origin of the cloka metre is one of the most attractive and poetical. Valmiki in his forest hermitage is preparing to describe worthily the fortunes of Rama. While he is watching a fond pair of birds on the bank of the river, the male is suddenly shot by a hunter, and falls dead on the ground, weltering in his blood. Valmiki, deeply touched by the grief of the bereaved female, involuntarily utters words lamenting the death of her mate and threatening vengeance on the wicked murderer. But, strange to tell, his utterance

is no ordinary speech and flows in a melodious stream. As he wanders, lost in thought, towards his hut, Brahma appears and announces to the poet that he has unconsciously created the rhythm of the cloka metre. The deity then bids him compose in this measure the divine poem on the life and deeds of Rama. This story may have a historical significance, for it indicates with some probability that the classical form of the cloka was first fixed by Valmiki, the author of the original part of the Ramayana.

The epic contains the following verse foretelling its everlasting fame:--

As long as mountain ranges stand And rivers flow upon the earth: So long will this Ramayana Survive upon the lips of men.

This prophecy has been perhaps even more abundantly fulfilled than the well-known prediction of Horace. No product of Sanskrit literature has enjoyed a greater popularity in India down to the present day than the Ramayana. Its story furnishes the subject of many other Sanskrit poems as well as plays, and still delights, from the lips of reciters, the hearts of myriads of the Indian people, as at the great annual Rama festival held at Benares. It has been translated into many Indian vernaculars. Above all, it inspired the greatest poet of mediaeval Hindustan, Tulsi Das, to compose in Hindi his version of the epic entitled Ram Charit Manas, which, with its ideal standard of virtue and purity, is a kind of bible to a hundred millions of the people of Northern India.

CHAPTER XI

KAVYA OR COURT EPIC

(Circa 200 B.C.-1100 A.D.)

The real history of the Kavya, or artificial epic poetry of India, does not begin till the first half of the seventh century A.D., with the reign of King Harsha-vardhana of Thanecar and Kanauj (606-648), who ruled over the whole of Northern India, and under whose patronage Bana wrote his historical romance, Harsha-charita, and other works. The date of no Kavya before this landmark has as yet been fixed with certainty. One work, however, which is dominated by the Kavya style, the Brihatsamhita of the astronomer Varahamihira, can without hesitation be assigned to the middle of the sixth century. But as to the date of the most famous classical poets, Kalidasa, Subandhu, Bharavi, Gunadhya, and others, we have no historical authority. The most definite statement that can be made about them is that their fame was widely diffused by about 600 A.D., as is attested by the way in which their names are mentioned in Bana and in an inscription of 634 A.D. Some of them, moreover, like Gunadhya, to whose work Subandhu repeatedly alludes, must certainly belong to a much earlier time. The scanty materials supplied by the poets themselves, which might help to determine their dates, are difficult to utilise, because the history of India, both political and social, during the first five centuries of our era, is still involved in obscurity.


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