Interpreting Indian Literatures with Velcheru Narayana Rao: The Concept of Author in Indian Text Culture

Interpreting Indian Literatures with Velcheru Narayana Rao: The Concept of Author in Indian Text Culture

in Video
Published on: 15 November 2019

Prof. Velcheru Narayana Rao

Prof. Velcheru Narayana Rao is a writer and translator with a vast international teaching experience. He is the author of numerous path-breaking works on the history of Telugu and Sanskrit literature, oral traditions and poetics.

Velcheru Narayana Rao explores the sophisticated concept of the author in Indian literary traditions; Bengaluru, May 2019.

This is the second of the six lectures delivered by Prof. Velcheru Narayana Rao as part of the Nauras lecture series held at Bangalore International Centre, Bengaluru, May 2019.

I will begin with a story you all know. If you are bored by this story you know so well, forgive me for a few minutes. Ramayana starts with the story of Valmiki. He goes to take a bath in the Tapasa river and he sees a pair of Krauncha birds making love. The hunter comes and shoots one of them. He sees the other bird crying anguished. Valmiki utters a curse at the hunter. [Sanskrit Shloka]. “You killed one of the birds lost in love. Hunter, you are not going to find rest for the rest of your life. Soon after he uttered this curse, he wonders “What did I say?” Because what he said was something he never intended to say. It came in a slightly different way. Realising that, what he just uttered in anguish is really a verse, like a literary critic, he analyses the formal features of the statement. It has four equal lines, consisting of equal number of syllables, suitable to be sung and played by an instrument. He gave it a name; uttering grief, shoka, let it be called shloka. That was the first poem, according to us, for humanity. The first metrical composition, encouraged by Brahma the Creator-God. Valmiki composed Ramayana in a new metre he had created. That’s why he is called the Adikavi or the First Poet. His stories are part of Ramayana and extensively discussed in texts of Sanskrit literary theory.

But, there is another story of Valmiki, which has not entered the Sanskrit literary theory or discourse. According to this story, Valmiki is a bandit to begin with, waylaying people, stealing their money and making a living out of it. One day, he stops a group of Brahmins and tries to rob them. They initiate a conversation with him and ask him why he has chosen this sinful life. He says he has family and children to feed. They say, ‘go to them, the wife and children who are sharing your money, and ask if they would also share your sin, paapa’. The bandit becomes doubtful. He goes home and asks his wife and children (the same). They reply, ‘we have nothing to do with the way you earn money, this sin, this paapa, is not ours’. Bewildered by the result of his actions, he goes back to the Brahmins and asks them to teach him how to free himself of all the sins. Because he is a bandit, not properly trained to understand the words, they give him the name of Rama, upside down, mara, and tell him to repeat this and it will become Rama. He begins repeating this and in time an anthill (termite mound) grows around him. Later, Narada sees him and he comes out of the anthill. The word for anthill in Sanskrit is valmika. That’s why he is called Valmiki—it’s a completely different story about Valmiki and Ramayana. We won’t find it in the discussion around theories of literature.

There are hundreds of stories like this in oral circulation. We will see soon that in these stories, poets who never belonged to the same canon or period meet each other. Poets whose historical existence is doubtful appear speaking verses. What’s more difficult for us to accept is the exercise of power (in these texts) to make and unmake kings and even to threaten gods. Ever since India came into existence (in relation) with the West, stories told about Indian poets without any historical basis, or not recorded anyway in writing, began to irritate scholars. The new scholarship dismissed this as figments of imagination of people whose sense of history is chronology. Traditional scholars of India, armed with literary theories of alankara sastra, did not take these stories seriously either. Doubly neglected, these stories, orally told about almost every major poet in India, are at the brink of extinction. And, with them, a sophisticated concept of the author, texts and modes of reading is disappearing. Colonial modes of learning and colonial sites of patronage introduced a new sense of chronology, textual authority, history into traditional literary scholarship. New questions were asked; when was Kalidasa born, how long did he live, how could a poet curse a king and his empire simply by composing a single verse against him, how could two poets from two different centuries meet and exchange verses, to say nothing of poets who never existed anyway. India’s scholars became defensive and imitative. Scholars of literature became historians, examining inscriptions and other reliable sources to construct biographies of poets. They did extremely valuable work in constructing a chronology of the poets and their work. But in this process they invariably dismissed the stories that were orally told about these poets as figments of imagination. I am going to take a look at these stories and claim that they are based on a sophisticated theory of the author of the text. In India, the author does not write the text. Anticipating the postmodernist concepts of author for several centuries, India’s legends, stories about the author suggest that the author does not write the text, the text writes the author. Author–text–reader is what we are accustomed to. Author first writes it, reader reads it and it exists. But actually, in our culture, reader reads a text and he has a certain understanding of what a text is produced to do. Inside the text is the author. And they invent stories about him – his biography.

A text received by readers is an epic, itihasa, generates an author of superhuman powers. Ramayana, Mahabharata and sastras, their authors’ names—they don’t look like ordinary human beings. Valmiki, Vyasa etc.—they are superhuman beings. They have extended powers beyond ordinary imagination. By giving that to the text, the text acquires some infallibility. That’s exactly what happens when Ramayana was supposed to be written by Valmiki. If a text changes its meaning, the author changes as well. A story told about the author is part of the text, which signals among other things the status of the text, and the way it is to be read and received. So, if Ramayana becomes a Bhakti text you need a different biography for the author. That biography is that of Valmiki who came out of the anthill. Valmiki who cursed the hunter was a different Valmiki. We are not reading the Ramayana as it was supposedly written by the first poet, Valmiki. Arshia Sattar would be here to support my ideas. It’s a highly political text. How did it become a Bhakti text? We got to see how received text is created out of a recorded text. I want to see how to deal with texts from this point of view. The first stage is the sage–poet, like Valmiki or Vyasa earlier. The sage–poet has a superhuman biography. His birth is not human birth. He has direct communication with gods. He sees past, present and future. His vision encompasses the universe. Therefore, he acquires the status of infallibility. Grammarians avoid the temptation of finding faults with these texts because sages are beyond human grammar. The best human beings can do is to understand their texts, that’s the authors of Mahabharata and Ramayana, whose stories I just narrated. They were no ordinary human beings.

Alankara texts, the discipline of Sanskrit literary theory, it is majesterial, it talks all about poetry, in comparison to sage–poets in scope. Thus, ninth-century Anadavardhana, the author of Dhwanyaloka, tries to see the Ramayana and Mahabharata as kavyas or poems rather than itihasa texts, insisting that they were written with karuna (pity) and santa (peace) as their primary aesthetic emotional recess. This major interpretive move transforms the work of the sage–poets into kavya poems that could be written by human beings.

Let me take a look at what the second type of poets, kavya–poets. According to alankara sastra, a kavya–poet is human. [For instance] Kalidasa, the kavya–poet, is human. He writes for his own world, for those who want to enjoy life in the world, and if he [the poet] wants to be rich and famous. Mammata Bhatt, the well-known twelfth-century theorist, accepts desire for fame (yasha) and desire to make money (arthakrte) as two legitimate reasons for making poems. If you want to make money, you write a poem! That’s what kavya poetry is. Making money is a legitimate activity of a poet, a kavya–poet. Alankara sastra believes that kavya–poets need to be controlled and disciplined, properly uttered without doshas (blemishes), adorned with alankaras (figures of speech), endowed with beauty (rasa) and the person who reads and the patron who pays for it should enjoy it and be protected from any negative effect that might occur. Uttered properly, it gives you benefits of an all-giving Kamadhenu in heaven, but badly used it can turn you into an animal. The poet is controlled to say the right thing.

The world of poetry, according to the kavya–poets, is exactly a replication of the material world. Vedas, sastras and puranas—they give the law. For the kavya jagat, or the world of poetry, the alankara sastra texts on poetics, are the law. A Brahmin priest, the advisor to the king, interprets these sastras. Alankara theorist is the interpreter of the alankara theory [in the kavya jagat]. A king in this culture is only an executive, like the poet [in kavya jagat] who is only an executive. The poet is controlled by theorists and the sastras. People are the recipients—readers, audience, listeners. So, in the textual world of the kavya jagat, is produced exactly along the same lines as the laukika jagat, the material world. Kavya is accessible through human experience. All eight rasas are human rasas. If you are not a human being, you cannot enjoy rasa. In fact, gods cannot enjoy rasa as they are not human. To enjoy the rasa, readers or listeners or audience have before them the artistic ability of the poet. It is the only basic human equipment, basic human emotion and feeling. Then you can enjoy poetry. So enjoying literary pleasure is a human activity.

But if you go the next poet, the Bhakti poet, it’s not enough if you are human. You have to also be a devotee. For example, if you read a chant about Venkateswara: “Sripadmanabha, Purushottama, Vasudeva, Vaikuntta natha, Janarddana Chakrapani, Srivalsachihna Saranagataparijata, Srivenkateswara vibho tava suprabhatam.” You read these verses, this is nothing as lines of a poem. But for a devotee of Venkateswara, he is thrilled to get these names. He immediately goes into the greatness of the god. So to enjoy Bhakti poetry it is not enough to be a human being, you also have to be a bhakta. That’s why it doesn’t translate intoother cultures. Lots of stories are told about Bhakti poets in Telugu and other languages. Since I know only Telugu, I would give examples from Telugu. Bhakti poet does not give his poem to a human being because he is writing for god. Pothana, a Telugu poet, tells the goddess of poetry, Saraswati, when she cries, ‘don’t cry’:

Believe me goddess of learning, don’t cry,

tears rolling down from your dark eyes

are making your breasts wet.

Mother, you are the wife of the god who has gold in his belly

and honoured as the daughter-in-law of Vishnu.

I will not sell you to feed myself,

to those barbarian Karanata kings.

In the stories Pothana tells, the king Saravgnasena demanded that the poet dedicate the books to him. Pothana refuses. He lives in dire poverty and the king offers gold to him. The angry king has the manuscript moved from the poet’s hands and buried underground. Parts of the books were eaten by white ants, and later completed by three other poets. That’s the story about Pothana’s book. Similar stories are told about the fifteenth-century poet Annamayya, who sang for Lord Venkateswara in Tirupati. Local kings Saluva Narasimha and Narasa Nayaka asked Annamayya to sing for him like the one he sang for god Venkateswara. In Narasa Nayaka’s view, the king is god. The legend continues to say he was bound in chains and put in prison for refusing to give the poem to Narasa Nayaka. Annamayya, sitting in prison, sings for god and the chains fall off. The king does not believe this happened. He comes and put him in chains again, then Annamayya sings and the chains fell off again, right in front of the king. The repentant king bows at the poet’s feet and begs for forgiveness.

In contrast, a kavya–poet wilfully writes his poems for the king. In the popular stories told in Telugu literary tradition of the late medieval period, kavya is perceived as the virgin daughter, and the poet who gives his kavyakanya, the virgin daughter, in offering to the ruling king or rich patron were considered honourable court poets. The patron who receives this dedication is addressed as kritipati, husband of the poem. The very image of the poem as the virgin daughter of the poet makes it possible for the Bhakti poet to condemn him [the kavya–poet] as a pimp who trades his daughter for money! Reacting to the invitation of Srinatha to dedicate his poem to the king and get good money, Pothana is supposed to have said:

Poets give their virgin daughters, their poems,

delicate like young mango buds

to ruffians

and live like pimps.

They should rather live as peasants,

or live in the forests and dig for roots,

to feed themselves, their wives and children.

Stories about the Bhakti poets say the Bhakti poets do not demonstrate their greatness as poets. He doesn’t talk about his scholarship. He writes because god has asked him to write. And he says I don’t know anything, you have asked me to write, so I write. A kavya–poet on the other hand openly presents his scholarly competence, even claims to have conquered in open competition all the rival poets. In this he actually models himself as the king who conquers his rivals to extend his kingdom. A king has a title describing him as the king of kings, Rajadhiraja. Similarly, a kavya–poet has titles like kavisamrat, king among the poets. The fourteenth-century poet Srinatha, a court poet—as opposed to Pothana who was a god’s poet—called himself kavisarvabhauma, emperor of poets. The story told about him was that he was bathed in gold when he defeated Dindima Bhatta in the court of the Vijayanagara king, Devaraya. Dindima Bhatta probably carried bronze drums in front of him which were beaten to announce the presence of the poet. Srinatha, who competed with him in a dispute and defeated him, had the drum broken. This is a play about Srinatha’s life, recently played in Chicago, for the Telugu audience. Here is Srinatha in the middle, the king is supposedly giving him a shower of gold and Srinatha proudly says he was bathed in gold by the Karanata king. In the end, according to the story of Srinatha’s life, the Orissa kings came to conquer the area of Andhra and they didn’t care for Telugu poetry, therefore didn’t give him any money. He tried to cultivate land, it didn’t work out. He was unable to pay taxes to the Orissa kings and they tortured him because he didn’t pay taxes. This story is also presented in Chicago. Then he is supposed to have said, “It is hard to go on living in this dark age, I am going to die.” But even then his pride did not die. He said, “Let poets in the heaven beware, poet Srinatha is on his way.”

There are a number of stories about Bhakti poets who faced opposition from kavya–poets in their time. Often the final judgement is given by god. There is a story about the Marathi poet, Tukaram. Kavya–poets questioned his keertanas, but he claimed these poems were inspired by gods. They decided to dump Tukaram’s books into a river, and challenged him if his books were to float on the thirteenth day, they were inspired by god as Tukaram had claimed. Tukaram complained to god: “You appeared to me in my dreams and ordered me to write these poems, even though I was ignorant. Why have you brought this problem on me? Now it’s your wish that I should sink those verses in water?” Miraculously, on the thirteenth day, the manuscript floated onto the surface, utterly unhurt.

A similar story is told about Eknath, who wrote the Marathi version of Bhagavata Purana. The poet confessed that like any Bakthi poet, he was without devotion, without knowledge, unstudied in the sastras and unread in the vedas. His text was also thrown to Ganga and the river goddess lifted it up in her arms and the book was given back to the poet. In contrast, a kavya poem has to find approval in the king’s court, with the scholars and poets in the court who test his superiority. The kavya–poet has to win the contest with his scholarly expertise and poetic excellence. So, on the one side there are Bhakti poets and on the other side kavya poets, and none of them have historical evidence. Legends say Krishanadevaraya lived in Vijayanagara, near Hampi. Eight poets in his court were seated strategically in eight cardinal points in his court hall called Bhuvanavijaya or conqueror of the world. These poets were called ashtadiggajas, eight cardinal elephants that bear the weight of the earth. The emperor—who was a poet himself—spent his time playing literary games with the poets, testing their competence in poetry and rewarding them aksharalaksha, one lakh of rupees for every syllable, when they excel. New poets had to prove their superiority in the court of Krishnadevaraya, among whom a poet–jester called Tenali Rama Lingadu humiliated any imposter. Dozens of stories are told about this poet–jester and his pranks in Krishnadevaraya’s court. Such stories told about kavya–poets and Bhakti poets clearly see them separately, by building separate biographies about them, irrespective of the fact whether these poets lived such lives as told in the stories. Questions about whether any historical evidence that poet Pothana lived as a poor peasant, whether the king destroyed his book for not giving him a dedication are irrelevant. In fact, there is not a shred of historical evidence to show that Srinatha lived surrounded by beautiful women or the Gajapati kings tortured him for taxes he was unable to pay. These stories are believed by millions of people who read simple Bhakti in Pothana’s work and love of luxury in Srinatha’s work. Stories about Krishnadevaraya, Pothana and Srinatha and a number of other poets live in the memory of people, which in turn inspires them to read the poet’s work. So they are making the biographies of these poets from the books they are reading.

There is a Sanskrit work called Bhojaprabandha, probably of sixteenth century if we have to put a date on it. If a book is undated, we get uncomfortable with it. This work is interesting because we see a different Kalidasa in this book. According to these stories, Kalidasa is a poet in the court of Bhoja, the illustrious patron of letters. The king is a dear friend of Kalidasa. One day, King Bhoja decided to test Kalidasa’s love for him. King Bhoja, dressed as a stranger, went to Kalidasa and told him King Bhoja has died. Kalidasa is supposed to have uttered:


the kingdom is orphaned,

the goddess of poetry lost her support,

scholars are devastated,

King Bhoja went to heaven.

The moment Kalidasa said this, King Bhoja dressed as a stranger fell dead. Kalidasa said: “Oh, what a terrible thing. It was the king himself!” He was deeply sad and said these words changing the verses in the right places. [Sanskrit verse] “Today the kingdom is rich, the goddess of poetry is well-supported, poets are all praised, King Bhoja is back to earth.” And King Bhoja came back to life. This is the Kalidasa I was talking about. If you look at the structure of the poem, the right words, ‘niradhara’ becomes ‘sadadhara’, ‘khanditah’ becomes ‘manditah’ and ‘divam’ becomes ‘bhuvam’. The appropriate verse-change becomes a new poem and gives blessing to the king. In Bhojaprabandha, Kalidasa has much more power than the poet Kalidasa we know who had been writing verses.

There is another story about Kalidasa. It is not recorded in Bhojaprabandha, but it is known in many parts of India. According to this story, Kalidasa is an illiterate idiot to begin with. The king’s minister sees him cutting the same limb of the tree he was sitting in. The minister was looking for exactly that kind of an idiot. He wants to marry that idiot to the king’s daughter. The minister wanted to take revenge against her (the king’s daughter) for refusing to marry his son. His son was not scholarly enough for her. The minister presents this idiot to the king as a great scholar, who is in disguise pretending to be an idiot. “He would be the ideal husband for the king’s scholarly daughter,” the minister tells. After the wedding, king’s daughter discovers that a trick was played on her. She advises her idiot husband—who is not pretending to be an idiot, but is really an idiot: “Go to the temple of Kali, enter the inner sanctum and bolt the door from inside. When Kali returns to the temple in the early hours of morning, after surveying the town, the empire, and finds the door locked, she would frantically knock at the door. Do not open the door until she gives you vidya. That’s what you should ask for.” The idiot takes this very seriously, goes to the temple and closes the door behind him. The goddess comes in the morning and starts knocking the door, threatening to kill him. But he refuses to open the door for her. The goddess says, “Open the door a crack. What do you want?” Kalidasa tells, “I want vidya.” “Stick your tongue out.” When he does, the goddess writes the beejakshar, the seed syllables, on the tongue and immediately Kalidasa breaks into poetry. When he goes back home, his wife sees that he is no longer an idiot. When asking to open the door, he uses the words asti kascit vag vishesha. There is something in inverse now. There is a change. Kalidasa is supposed to have composed his poems exactly using asti, kascit and vag. If you know, his Kumarasambhava begins with astyutharanam dishi devatathmam [sic]. His Meghadoota begins with kascit kanta viraha and Raghuvamsa begins with vagarthaviva sampruktau. Asti, kascit and vag, these are the three words he used to begin his three major works. That’s the story about Kalidasa.

Who tells these stories and who believes them, and why have these stories occurred? These stories I am trying to present, these are stories by readers who read their works and see the poet inside the book. This is the poet they see. That’s what I meant when I said, the poet does not write the book, it is the book that writes the author. You read the book in a particular way and you see the poet there and you know his biography. Or you see him differently and make a different biography. If you read the poem in a second or third generation after the book, it reads differently. They have no meaning in the poem and therefore they create a new poet.

Honestly speaking, Ramayana’s author’s name is more popular than Ramayana itself. Everybody who wrote a Ramayana is saying I am following Valmiki. But actually no Ramayana follows the Ramayana of Valmiki. An author’s name can be popular but his book may not be popular. I do not know if Arshia will agree with me that there is no Ramayana in Indian languages that follow [the Valmiki Ramayana] exactly. Only the Ramayana written by Valmiki follows Valmiki. But everyone says, “I am following Valmiki, I am writing it exactly as Valmiki had said,” and nobody does that. Why? Valmiki’s name is more popular than Valmiki’s text. That’s how you have a Bhakti Ramayana in Valmiki’s name, while Valmiki’s text in Sanskrit is not a Bhakti text. It is a highly political Ramayana. So here we are looking at who our authors are. Our authors are who are created by us after reading the books. We saw those meanings in those books and therefore the authors are created. To repeat, in India, the author does not write the book, the book writes the author. There are a number of stories about major poets, available to people, in circulation. Bhavabhuti, who wrote Uttararamayana, wrote a verse. This is about Ramayana’s Sita before she is banished:

Whispering wonderful whatevers

in any which order,

cheek touching cheek,

arms totally enmeshed

from so much loving,

we never knew the hours passing.

That was how the night was spent.

After writing this verse with his name on it, he sent it to Kalidasa [according to a story]. Please don’t tell me Kalidasa and Bhavabhuti didn’t even live in the same time. He sent it to Kalidasa and the poem as was there, is [Sanskrit verse]. That was how the night was spent.

Whispering wonderful whatevers

in any which order,

cheek touching cheek,

arms totally enmeshed

from so much loving,

we never knew the hours passing.

That was how the night was spent.

When Kalidasa read this but didn’t say a thing, Bhavabhuti asked the servant, “Didn’t you take this book to Kalidasa? Did he say anything?” The servant said, “No, he didn’t say anything.” “Really, not a word, even unrelated to the context?” The servant said, “Yeah, Kalidasa said something. He was taking a beetle and said there is a little extra touch of sunnam in it.” Sunnam—Kannada also has the same word, it means Sunya. In Telugu it also means the nasal sound. “Oh, there is an extra nasal sound in my poem, I should take it out.” Bhavabhuti took out the word ‘um’. Ratrir eva vyaramsit [instead of ratrir evam]. That’s how [suddenly] the night itself was over. That was not how the night was spent. The night itself was over. It is also said that Peddana was a good friend of Krishnadevaraya. When Krishnadevaraya goes on his elephant on the street, he would stop the elephant and take Peddana and go with him.

When he sees me on the street,

He would halt his elephant

And help me up with his own hand.

For the mere asking, he gave me villages

like Kokata, in any region.

On the day I dedicated my Story of Manu to him,

he himself carried the palanquin where I was seated.

He told me I alone was worthy to wear the anklet

of a triumphant poet, and it was he who tied it on my foot.

He called me the Doyen of Telugu poetry, Allasani Peddna,

King of Poets.

And that king has died and I am surviving like a living dead.

This is the verse in circulation which Peddana had recited after Krishnadevaraya died and Peddana survived him. (There are some more interesting verses. Peddana is supposed to have started a poem but he didn’t know how to complete it.)

She comes down sickened

off the soft bed,

hands tugging at her wild hair,

Both eyes glowing red.

Tremors ripple through her waist, her face

is turned away.

She holds her sari

with her fingers, for the knot

has come undone.

You can see very clearly that this woman was raped in a palace. Who does she complain to? [Telugu verses]

He didn’t know what to do next. He stopped there. Here is a woman raped. So far he was able to mention and he didn’t know what to do next. Peddana’s daughter is supposed to have completed the poem [Sanskrit verse]

As she staggers slightly

Through the needle of light

From the diamond lamp

High on its stand

Into the shadows below.

So the only place she can have some security is the shadow below light. And Peddana’s daughter is supposed to have completed the poem. Is it right? Historically, no. There is something about a woman—only she can say how to complete a poem like this.

A great logician Udayanacharya went to Puri temple. It was closed when he went there. He got angry with the god. He said you are so drunk on wealth and power. So you ignore my presence. Just wait, when the Buddhists come your whole existence will depend on me. Udayana had to prove logically that god exists. Buddhists had denied the existence of god.

Finally, another poem for today. Dandin, who wrote Kavyadarsa, mentions [Sanskrit line] goddess Saraswati is all white. And he is a woman, Vijjika, who is supposed to be very dark. He says: “I am Vijjika, dark as the silken petal of the black lily, and Dandin doesn’t know me. How stupid to claim the goddess of poetry is white!” Stories told in literary culture about the poet are not the factual biography of a poet. Thus, the image of the poet generated from the community’s reading of the text in turn creates a new meaning of the text associated with it. The author generated from the meaning of the text is perhaps more real than the one represented by the modern definitive biography with unrelated factual data obtained from extraneous and accidental materials. It was perhaps helpful to the readers of traditional Indian literature that they are not burdened with such actual biographies of authors. Thank you.