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Charit as a Genre

An overview of its history



The charit is a type of narrative found in a number of languages existing in pre-modern India, and still survives as a text-name in some of the modern languages formed from them. Generally, the charit is the narrative of a character’s life and/or exploits, but what exactly the word 'charit' refers to depends upon the subject of the narrative, for in some languages, charit means the historical record of a king’s reign and not the exploits of a fictional or semi-fictional character. 

A charit text generally tells of the life of the central character, whether he is historical (Asvaghosha’s Buddhacarita, or Bana’s Harshacarita) or proto-historical (Ram Charit Manas by Tulsidas, or Krishnacharitra, by Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay) or completely imaginary (Dasakumaracarita, by Dandin, Damarucharit by Trailokyanath Mukhopadhyay). Going by the distinctions of how the central character is presented and what the aim of this presentation is, the charit can be classified into various categories.


What is the difference between a biography and a charit?

The charit in pre-modern Indian languages is the literary representation of the lives and deeds of persons or groups, noble or common. The material for the charit is either kalpa, i.e., created out of the writer’s imagination, or prakhyat, i.e., through selection and arrangement of extant material. The material for the charit text, accordingly, may be literature or popular tradition or even itihasa. But regardless of the source, the charit is written according to the rules of kavya (introduction to Bühler 1857).


Generic markers

If we are to understand the generic and thematic process by which the charit comes into modern Indian literatures, and its influence therein, we must appreciate the relative values of 'itihasa' (history), and 'kavya' (literature)—which are demonstrably not binary opposites in Sanskrit literary theory. Bhamaha and Dandin, separately formulate the differences between two prose-genres, katha and akhyayika. Bhamaha says the first is told not by the hero himself, but by a narrator. The second is to be told in specific metre and will consist of well-demarcated parts. Dandin, however, holds that the hero cannot always tell the whole of his own story, and that the demarcations of different parts that Bhamaha has outlined are similar in the mahakavya, the epic, so why should they be seen as characteristics of the akhyayika alone? In addition to this, the literary dictionary Amarkosa says that katha is kalpanik, imagined, while the akhyayika’s material must be pralabdhartha, received from other sources. The reader familiar with western literary norms will discern in these exchanges the contours of the discourse of literary realism, forming the germ of the form that is now broadly called the novel.


History in the 'literary' charit

The writers of charit texts in earliest times have considered themselves as creators of kavya—as Asvaghosha says in Saundarananda, kavya can be used to attract readers even if the purpose of the text is actually didactic. The didactic and the historical charit, therefore follow the rules of kavya. The 11th-century historian of the Calukya dynasty, Bilhana, the author of Vikramankadevacharita, gives the example of Ravana who did not have historians in his court and therefore ended up as a villain in the annals of the times, while Ram had the adikavi Valmiki at his service, and was hence respected by posterity. But Bühler, the translator of  Bilhana’s work , laments the author’s penchant for alamkaras, and complains that the style of these ‘historical’ charit texts is “so highly ornamental and hyperbolical that it sometimes obscures the facts and still more frequently leaves us in doubt about the importance of the events narrated”(Bühler 1875:4). Another “grave defect of the poetical treatment” of historical subjects is that “intervals between the events narrated are rarely given with accuracy”, which Bühler notes as a characteristic of both Bana and Bilhana. Bühler separates them on these bases from the history written by the Greeks and Romans and from the chronicles written in medieval Europe and in Arabic and Persian (Bühler 1875:5).

So whatever be the form of the charit, the rules of kavya are followed in its writing. This deliberately literary nature of the charit sets it apart from what would be called a biography in the west, which is supposed to contain facts about the life of the subject. It also distinguishes the charit from a historical narrative characterized by its truth claims and objectivity. Even as history, the charit text retains its consciously poetical nature. We may remember here that writing a didactic charit for a specific purpose, Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay erased from his version of Krishna’s life the elements of leela, Krishna’s dalliance with the cowherd-maidens, as they detracted from his conception of Krishna as a hero of action. Bankimchandra explained this by saying that these details were interpolated into the ‘true’ story of Krishna. That the classical and medieval charit texts do not try to prove their historical authenticity and depend upon the elements of kavya to fulfill their aims, shows us that the demands from historical charit changes in the 19th century.


History of the form: Types of Charit

The shape of the genre that emerges from the interaction between the purely literary charit, i.e., Dasakumaracarita, and the literarized life-narrative charit like Buddhacarita, demarcates the already established scope of the genre. The charit as a text-name, implying some generic markers, is found across geographical, temporal and intellectual space in the next two millennia. In every case, the residual elements of the past texts interact dialogically with the contemporary socio-literary context to provide a new text, titled charit.

When Asvaghosha writes the Buddhacarita in Sanskrit, following Dandin’s imaginary charit in temporal sequence, he is using the generic name 'charit' to write the story of a historical personage. Yet he is conscious that he is writing kavya, poetry, and is concerned more with the demands made by the poetic form of writing than the demands made by a ‘realist’, fact-based idea of historical narrative.  The narrative of the life of Buddha, a historical person, is literarized, or written according to the rules of kavya.

Following the different kinds of characterization of the hero and the aim of the narrative, we might differentiate the kinds of charit.


Didactic charit

An example of the ‘didactic charit’ is Asvaghosha’s Buddhacarita written in the 1st century AD in Sanskrit to appraise people of the life and teachings of the Buddha. A similar text is the Paum Cariya, by Vimal Suri. This is written in the Jaina Maharashtri or Arsa Prkrt language, in the 4th century AD. Paum, or Rama, is here portrayed as the ideal Jaina hero, thereby setting an example of behaviour for the followers of Mahavira. For example, as a Jaina hero he is a practitioner of ahimsa, and so in this story of Rama, it is Lakshman who kills Ravana. Commentators like Rocher note that its title is ‘cariya’, though it calls itself a purana, pointing out that the genre divisions of Sanskrit literature are also used by Jaina and Buddhist writers: the Paum Cariya calls itself a purana despite the word ‘cariya’ in the title, and has the characteristics of the mahakavya from which it borrows the story, retelling it in keeping with Jaina beliefs. Thus, some elements of the Purana, an existing Sanskrit, form are used to constitute the charit, just as some of the elements of mahakavya are used in some cases as well.


Bhakti charit: History and movement across languages and cultures

Elements common to the didactic charit can be seen in later charit texts written by those who followed what is loosely called the Bhakti movement across medieval India. Examples of this can be Tulsidas’ Ram Charit Manas, written mainly in Awadhi and telling the life of Ram to inspire his devotees, of whom Tulsi counts himself as one, or Chaitanyacharitamrita, written by Krishnadas Kaviraj. This text recounts the life of the Vaishnav teacher-saint Chaitanya, who marked the zenith of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, the strand of Vaishnava bhakti peculiar to Bengal. In this variety of charit, the reform of established religious practices or a special type of worship and a special relation between the devotee and god produces a text whose aim is to describe the attributes and actions unique to the worshipped entity. Or, as occurs in the case of Chaitanya, the charit text outlines the life of the teacher who is closest to the worshipped entity due to his own special mode of bhakti. Rasool Charit by Syed Sultan, an account of the life of the Prophet, may also be an example of this genre, written in the local language (Bangla in the case of Rasool Charit). Residual elements of the didactic charit may be identified in Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay’s Krishna Charitra (1886), a life of Krishna modeled on Bankim’s favourite Ecce Homo, and meant to provide the colonized, weak Bengali race with a strong, manly heroic example to emulate.


Charit as fiction

Another strand of charit writing begins with Dandin’s Dasakumaracarita, an imaginary story of the adventures of ten princes. This strand of charit questions the differentiation between kavya and reality on the basis of representational modes—while writing a story that is kalpa, and not prakhyat. Dandin adds both  extremely fantastic and totally realistic elements in the text. This form of charit writing in fact pioneers Sanskrit prose fiction and acts as model for later novels, especially those that combine satirical and comic elements from oratures, like Trailokyanath Mukhopadhyay’s Damarucharit (Bangla, 1923).


Historical charit

The historical charit tells of events and personages who are known to have existed; it considers their exploits but does not have a devotional, religious or didactic aim.  The oldest of this genre is Banabhatta’s Harsacarita, written around the middle of the 7th century, where the king and his rule are the central subjects. Elements of this form of charit can be traced in all the historical accounts of lineages found across India, especially in the south. Instances include Kumarapalabhupalacharita, a continuation of the Calukya dynasty’s exploits, written by Jayasimha II in the 14th century; the Rajacharitra texts in the Madalapanji, the chronicles of transactions preserved in the Jagannatha temple in Puri in Orissa; Mayurvarmancharitra (1371) whose hero is the Kadamba ruler Mayurvarman; and Vasudevaratha’s charit about the Ganga dynasty, Gangavamsacharitra. The term charitra can be seen in Govinda Pillai’s history of Malayalam language, Malayalabhashacaritram 1881—charita being history in Malayalam. So a text containing this generic name is necessarily seen as a historical account, especially in the 18th century when the idea of factual, objective 'true' history is already taking root in the minds of the colonized Indians.

However, going by construction of the older charit texts that deal with historical personages, when these accounts are called charit, it implies that the narrative generally contains elements of kavya, as we see in the Rajyasri episode in Harsacarita. Or we may take the instance of Ramapalacharita written by Sandhyakara Nandi in the 12th century in Gaud. In this charit a version of the Sanskrit poetic genre the raghavpandaviya was used—each verse in the text referred simultaneously to an exploit in the life of Rampala, the king whose charit was being written, as well as an episode in the Ramayana.


Heroic Charit

Residual elements of the historical charit can be traced in what we might later term the ‘heroic charit’, which recounts the heroic exploits of kings. Bhavabhuti’s account of Rama, Mahaviracarita, as the name suggests privileges Rama’s valour, as opposed to Valmiki’s text in which there is preponderance of karuna rasa. Mohan Singh’s Maharana Charit or Raghuvansh Charit, written in Hindi in Rajasthan in the early th century, may fall into this category. But later texts which derive from this strand of ‘heroic’ charit are often not called charit at all, since they do not tell of the hero’s entire life but concentrate on his deeds of valour, mainly in the vernacular languages. The forms of raso, kaha, vijay and vilas are all derived from the historical charit.  The charit that narrates the exploits of heroes known to have existed, forms the basis of these new genres. Mancarit (Amritrai, 1585) and Mancaritraso (Narottam, c. 1600) commissioned at Amber (Jaipur) by Mirza Raja Jai Singh, about his grandfather Man Singh, called prabandhkavya in Hindi. Again we see that a genre in the local language shares elements of commonality with the past tradition of historical and life writing, but reshapes the tradition to suit its contemporary purpose. In fact, as exemplified by  the Virsimhadevcarit of Keshavadas about Bir Singh Deo, written a few years later, the heroic charit became a form popular among the local mansabdars of the Mughal court. These patrons encouraged the writing of a new kavya literature, flowering in the medieval feudal courts, especially in Rajasthan. The heroic charit is fostered by a socio-economic arrangement at a particular period in Indian history.


Charit and narrative form in modern Indian languages

Having looked at a number of texts entitled charit and seen mainly differences of time, space and formal organization between them, we may be led to ask whether the charit as a secular narrative can be seen as one of the precursors of the novel form in India, where written prose existed since classical times. Can we replace the existing typology of the novel form with formal categories borrowed from the many language-cultures that went into forming the plural literary milieu of the Asian subcontinent?

In modern Indian literature, the charit as a genre  has been used for a realistic portrait of a social class or community—for example Kunwar Hanumant Singh Raghuvanshi’s Grihasth Charitra (1909, Hindi) or Chatursinh Rajasthani’s Shesh Charitra. It has been used as a vehicle for satire: Chinibascharit (1885-6) and Bangalicharit (1885-6) by Jogeshchandra Basu. There is at least one charit text in the corpus of modern Indian literatures,   Satinath Bhaduri’s Dhorai Charit Manas, written in Bangla, which is planned structurally on Tulsidas’ text Ram Charit Manas but tells the life of a poor low-caste Tatma living in the United Province of pre-independence India, who is first influenced by Gandhi and then joins the armed nationalists. In understanding its formation, what Sisir Kumar Das calls the body of ‘inherited texts’ is as important as the ‘contemporary texts’. For example, Tulsi’s ‘medieval’ Ram Charit Manas is present in the literary, social and intellectual milieu of the author Satinath Bhaduri in the first part of the twentieth century. But it is simultaneously  also available as a model for life practices and ways of acting and reacting to actual situations in the lives of the poor untouchables and low-caste people who are the protagonists of Bhaduri’s text. Tulsi’s telling of Rama’s life makes Bhaduri’s text possible, just as the existence of the Rama matter is necessary for its Jain re-interpretation in Paum Cariya, where the heroes of the so-called Hindu epic act in accordance with Jain religious principles.




Bühler, Georg, ed and trans. 1875. Vikramankadevacharitam: The Vikramankadevacharita, A Life of King VikramadityaTribhuvana Malla of Kalyana, composed by his Vidyapati Bilhana. Bombay: Government Central Book Depot.