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Sahitya Akademi

Sanskrit Drama and the Absence of Tragedy Author(s): Sukumari Bhattacharji Source: Indian Literature, Vol. 21, No. 3, SANSKRIT LITERATURE NUMBER (May-June 1978), pp. 6-17 Published by: Sahitya Akademi Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/23334390 Accessed: 08-06-2016 09:46 UTC

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Sanskrit Drama and the

Absence of Tragedy


In Sanskrit drama the theme of maladjustment between the

human spirit and its environment is scrupulously avoided. The

result is attenuation of themes and a consequent poverty of

truly great dramatic art. In all Indian art this fundamental lack

is sought to be compensated by artistry—by intricate baroque type ornamentation in sculpture and superabundance of rheto

ric in literature.1

Why does post-epic Indian literature evade the graver issues

of life? Because, first, life to the Indian is not one but many;

what remains unfulfilled in this life is completed in the next. This affords man more spiritual latitude than even Browning's

so-called broken-arc theory provides, for instead of one frag

mentary earthly existence followed by completion in heaven

man is given innumerable opportunities to perfect himself. In

Indian thought neither heaven nor hell is eternal. Thus the

excruciating poignancy of the finality of each frustration is not


Secondly, individual life which alone is the fit subject of

tragedy is a concept basically alien to Indian thought. For we

are all potentially Brahman, not so many imperfect individuals

with private frustrations and suffering. Consequently man whose

essential self is Brahman is essentially good and the apparent


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dichotomy between good and evil is only apparent. Hence pro

blems of maladjustment or imbalance are illusory and not inhe

rent in the scheme of things. Uncertainty, doubt, peipetual

wrestling with the mystery of our final destiny, the experience

of being thwarted by mysterious agents of an evil fate and of

unredeemed despair—this is the stuff of which tragedy is made.

Oedipus and Electra, Lear and Coriolanus all have felt this

agony and have tumbled into the ironic abyss between expec tation and actuality. In order to incorporate this experience

into living art, either a sense of the inscrutable mystery or the

conviction of a real evil, a real threat to the life-force is essen

tial. Greek tragedy has the first and Christian tragedy has the


In the Indian epics there was a sense of real evil—a Ravana or a Sakuni are really evil characters. Thus the epics in their

awareness of the objective existence of evil contain the germ of

tragedy. The threat to goodness, to all that man dreams of

being or achieving contained an inherent element of incertitude

and a confrontation with this stark aspect of reality raises the

ethical level of literature. But in the entire repertoire of Sanskrit

drama there is no truly evil character, (Sakara is an exception)

nor an awareness of an unprovoked malign agency which

operates despite the goodness of man.

What is the result? Whereas with a different ethos we could

have a truly great tragedy what we really have are at their best

averted tragedies like Abijnanasakuntala or the Uttararama


Let us briefly analyze the best-known Sanskrit drama the

Abhijnanasakuntala. In Act. V Dusyanta suffers from a tempo

rary oblivion from Durvasa's curse which accounts for the

rejection of Sakuntala. But Durvasa is not an antagonist.

Dramatically he is quite extraneous to the play; he is Fate, but

a very casual embodiment of Fate whose role should not have

been so decisive in the play because he is used mechanically and

not woven into the texture of the play. A convincing antagonist

is an organic part of the play. If his curse was in any way


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related to hubris or hamartia bringing about a peripeteia as in

Greek plays or a tragic error leading to suffering as in the

Christian plkys then there would be scope for a tragedy. But what really leads to the curse is a minor remissness; Sakuntala suffers because she is too wrapped up in the thoughts of her beloved to heed a passing stranger.® She looks like a painted figure with her cheek resting on her cupped left palm. So en grossed is she in the thoughts of her husband that she is not

even aware of her own self, let alone of the presence of a stran

ger. Priyamvada exonerates Sakuntala on the ground of her very

natural absorption in the thought of her absent lover. In the prologue to act V we are offered a clue to the fickle nature of Dusyanta (he has abandoned Hamsapadika) thus further lessen

ing the sense of guilt which would otherwise have damned him.

So, what we have here is a minor and comparatively innocuous

remissness together with a fickle and philandering nature—

neither sufficiently serious or blameworthy to render the curse

proportionate or just. But this is exactly the material from which a major tragedy

could be built. If Sakuntala has been unjustly cursed, if Dus

yanta's fickleness had not been brought in to partially extenuate

the curse, if Durvasas had not been mollified by the friends—

then there would be just the right stuff of which tragedy is

made. But, no, life must not be shown as indifferent to human suffering, anguish must not be presented as unjust or ultimate.

Hence the hero and heroine go through acts VI and VII of

excruciating suffering in isolation in order to expiate for their

unwitting mistakes and in the end they all live happily ever

after, crowned with promises of a glorious future and famous

progeny. The curse is amply compensated by lavish boons.


Keith in his History of Sanskrit Drama suggests that

Sanskrit drama at its inception was influenced by the New Attic


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Sanskrit drama and the absence of tragedy

Comedy. If his theory is right then that explains the frivolous

and non-serious character of the major species of this genre

namely Nataka, Natika, Prakarana, Bhana, Vyayoga, Sama

vakara etc. The popular folk-drama origin does not explain the

absence of tragedy because then Greece would also have lacked

them. The popular dictum that a drama should not end in sepa

ration or bereavement3 reflects this attitude. For dramas com

posed after Bharata's Natyasastra, the major work of drama

turgy, the reason for the avoidance of serious issues lay in

Bharata's concept of the drama; it also explains the absence of tragedy in earlier times, since Bharata merely articulated the

prevalent attitude. Bharata gives a fictitious origin of the drama.

He says: the gods approached Brahman and asked for a visual and audial entertainment (lit. a toy) which can be enjoyed by

the Sudras as well.4 It should be a solace for the distressed,

should imitate life, instruct and entertain men, be a luxury to

the wealthy.® The Abhinaya dar pana a late work defines it more

or less on the same lines 6 i.e. as a delight and luxury to men.8

It promotes fame, endeavour, fortune and learning and leads to

magnanimity and composure, fortitude and indulgence or

luxury.7 This attitude is responsible for the comparatively facile

treatment of life in Sanskrit drama.


When a Sanskrit drama instructs it does so through the

depiction of good characters. Thomas Heywood says "If a

moral, it is to persuade men to humanity and good life, to ins

truct them in civility and good manners, showing them the

fruits of honesty and the end of villainy."8 One is reminded of

a similar Indian saying: one should imitate Rama and not

Ravana.9 But to inculcate this lesson simply and directly is to

make it less effective. When tragedy communicates experiences

it does so by presenting the inner complexities of life and

making the audience live through the baffling and agonizing


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experiences of the characters. Sanskrit drama seeks to instruct in a simple, direct way, by avoiding complexities. Even Giraldi

Cinthio who advocates a happy ending in drama and speaks

against perils and death at the end says "Of the two sorts of

tragedy there is one that ends in sorrow. The other has a happy end, but in bringing the action towards the conclusion does not

therefore desert the terrible or compassionable, for without these

there cannot be a good tragedy".10 One thinks of Aristotle's famous definition of tragedy, the genre he considers as the highest form of literature. "Tragedy,

then, is an imitation of an action that is serious and complete

.exciting pity and fear, bringing about the catharsis of such

emotions". (Ch. VI, p. 75). The word 'serious' is significant.

Speaking of poets Aristotle says "Thoe who were of a graver

sort imitated splendid deeds and actions of great men" (Ch,

IV, p. 73). The graver sort of poets took up serious subjects. What is a serious subject? That which involves a moral choice.

"There will be

.if speech or act clearly shows a

moral choice indicating what sort of a person the agent is; his

character will be good if his choice is good". (Ch. XV, p. 89). But in Sanskrit drama the moral choice is almost totally

absent; there is hardly ever any option, for, the course of action

is almost always predetermined by the accepted social norm.

The hero or heroine faced with a moral dilemma does not act

from an inner moral impulse or deliberation but because the social ethics of his time demands conformity in a particular manner. Hence if there is a conflict it is rarely between good

and evil within the hero's consciousness but between a good

and an evil character, sometimes between two good characters.

Thus Sakara in the Mrcchakatika, Durmukha in the Uttara

ramacarita. Durvasas in the Abhijnanasakuntala or Kapalika in the Malatimadhava are evil but they act as agents of fate and

except Sakara are nowhere integrated organically into the

drama but are extraneous to the main action, depicted at auto matons handled by an outside agent to achieve something of


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vital relevance to the play. Sakara the exception is utterly evil and so dramatically unconvincing.


If we accept Chaucer's definition of a tragedy in the Pro

logue to the 'Monk's Tale' then the Mrcchakatika was poten

tially a great tragedy.

Tragedie is to seyn a certyn storie,

As olde books maken us memorie,

Of hym that stood in greet prosperitie, And is yfalleri out of high degree,

Into myserie, and endeth wrechedly.

Carudatta, once a prosperous merchant is reduced to abject

poverty. He falls in love with the city's most glamorous courte

san Vasantasena. She reciprocates and for a time all seems to be leading to a happy ending in spite of his rival the villain Sakara's attempts at thwarting him and winning Vasantasena

for himself. But fate lends Sakara a hand and things go against

Carudatta till in act IX he is condemned to death on a trumped

up charge of theft and murder and Vasantasena is taken to be

dead. Then the reversal comes in the final act: she is found to

be alive, he is pardoned, the arch-enemy is caught and humi

liated, Carudatta's fortunes improve and they marry. The result

is an averted tragedy, for compensation and retribution rob a drama of its tragic soul. "Oriental art", says George Steiner "knows violence, grief and the stroke of natural or contrived .But that representation of personal suffering and

heroism which we call tragic drama is distinctive of the western

civilisation".11 "The txagic personage is broken by forces which

can neither be fully understood nor overcome by rational

prudence. This again is crucial. Where the causes of disaster


.we may have serious drama but not tragedy".12

In most Sanskrit dramas we have a set pattern: the hero—


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usually a king—falls in love with a very young and shy maiden

and tries to win her despite fliany hindrances (most often the

queen objects vehemently). At the end it transpires that the

maiden was really intended by her parents or fate for the hero. So the wedding bells ring and everybody heaves a sigh of relief.

This pattern is true of Malavikagnimitra, Vikramorvasiya,

Priyadarsika, Ratnavali, Malatimadhava, Svapnavasavadátta,

Pratijnayaugandharayana, Avimaraka and many others. A host of other plays present similar themes with minor variations.

They provide ample entertainment, much beauty of form, some

very fine poetry, occasional depth of emotion, effective plot construction and limited but competent characterization. But

that is about all; they never reach the level of great art.


One is thrown back on the Indian definition of drama—a

means of entertainment—and serious or gloomy issuse are best

avoided in entertainment. With the complication some threat to

the happy conclusion is introduced but the dramatic climate

makes it clear at the outset that the denounement will find

everybody contented and cheerful. The complication is not

exactly unreal but lacks sufficient inner pressure to be drama

tically convincing. There is no moral choice, hence no 'charac

ter' in the Aristotelian sense. Besides, there are set patterns for

characterization—a hero is Dhirodatta, Dhiroddhata or Dhira

lalita and all three types are good. So are the various species of

heroines; they are all set types, not individuals. The antagonist,

too, is by and large stereotyped and unconvincing. As charac

ters the villains were presented as convincing characters for the

last time in the epics—a Ravana or a Sakuni or Duryodhana

are formidable because they shake the faith in life at its very


In the Mudraraksasa another serious tragicomedy of an

entirely different category there is a keen tussle between


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Canakya and Raksasa. Canakya the minister pf Candragupta

seeks to win Raksasa (minister of the «val king Malayaketu)

over to his master's side. The play is intensely gripping and provides intellectual thrill through continued suspense and a

series of clever manouvres but it never even faintly approaches

tragedy because both the characters are good and the issue is

clinched by a clever move of Canakya. There is no conflict

between good and evil as such and the villain is conspicuously absent. The only drama which approaches the tragic sense of life is Bhavabhuti's Uttararamacarita which takes up the last section of the Ramayana tale for a theme. The sufferings of

Rama and Sita, their separation and the epic battle are all over when the play opens and we are lulled into a deceptive sense of security and peace. Then the blow is struck: Durmukha brings

news that the subjects suspect Sita of infidelity to Rama during

her stay at Ravana's place. Social norm demands that he

forsakes her, and he does so. Then:follow act after bitter act of

poignant and agonizing suffering for both. One cannot help asking why they should suffer so. By raising the characters above hubris or the tragic error, Bhavabhuti makes us face

tragedy at its starkest. And beyond this tragedy there can be

no further fulfilment, no real retribution in some other place

or time. The wounds are too-deep to be healed, the spirit too

crushed to regain its health. Even death would have been a less unmitigated suffering. We ask 'why' and are given no answer.

As if by taking up the last truly tragic theme that Indian litera

ture treated adequately in the Ramayana, Bhavabhuti poses this 'why' more dramatically. Like Miguel de Unamuno we murmer

"everything vital is anti-rational, not merely irrational".14 And

yet the stifling yoke of dramaturgy was too strong even for

Bhavabhuti; he submitted and left his noblest work a mere tragi

comedy. But even apart from the end this drama was conceptu

ally alien to the spirit of true tragedy. It . brings an awareness of

the existence of evil—unprovoked, blind and inscrutable evil in

the scheme of the universe. But the suffering of an innocent and

virtuous man alone does not constitute tragic action—it is


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pathetic, as Aristotle says, not tragic. For the tragic here is a

morftl ágeht with a thöi'al Choice, hut no hero in Sanskrit drama

ever faces a truly möral option or takes a decisive ínóral stand.

Hence the primé ingredient bf tragedy is lacking here ánd

BhäVäbhuti cán ät best create a tragi-comedy.

What is the éthos responsible for this attitude? "Art" says Nietzsche, "is not an imitation of nature but its metaphysical supplement, raised up beside it in order to overcome it"." The

portrayal of unmitigated suffering—apparently baffling and un provoked suffering—is possible and compatible with this theory

of art. Otherwise if art is mere entertainment it should shun

the grim, sordid or puzzling aspects of life.


Art as the metaphysical counterpart of nature is also true

of Indian art. Only, after the early centuries A.D. metaphysics fell in certain fixed grooves which dictated norms even to the

artist. The quest for metaphysical realization was recognized

only if it conformed With certain accepted categories—those of

the six orthodox systems which flourished and swept the non conformist to the background. Among these six Vedanta was

the one to influence aesthetics most.'* In Vedanta knowledge is

an aid to the realization of ail equation: the individual self is Brahman.17 Brahman the ultimate reality is a setiitiment and

joyful entity. Suffering and all varieties of human misery are

illusory, as are experiertces outside and foreign to that realiza

tion. The corollary to the realization of that equation is that

appearances are illusory. When experience runs counter to

'saccidananda' i.e. the 6entient and joyful essence of Brahman

such experience is discounted as transient and false. Thus while

in Greek tragedy knowledge is gained at the price of suffering.

This is impossible in Indian drama for here there can be no

new adventure in experience or realization, no revaluation of

accepted values, no fresh assessment of the ultimate meaning


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of life. The theory of 'rasa' sentiment, the soul of poetry as

formulated by authors of poetics was based on the substratum

of the Vedantic concept of Brahman.18 The tragic view of life

is essentially incompatible with such a metaphysical scheme.

Unlike in Christian tragedies there is no fall, no expiation, no redemption, because the moral issue is avoided. Unlike in Greek

tragedies there is no confrontation with an obscure, inscrutable

and inexorable fate against which the solitary human Soul is pitted in an utterly unequal battle, doomed to defeat and des

truction yet triumphing through sheer spiritual force and

grandeur that the struggle itself calls into being. The lack of adjustment between the individual's hopes and aspirations and

his adverse environment which frustrates them is basic to

tragedy. "The bitterest sorrow that man can know", says

Herodotus "is to aspire to do much and to achieve nothing".

(Bk IX: Ch. XVI).

By denying the ultimacy of death and the existence of evil,

sorrow and suffering are reduced in magnitude and significance.

Death is man's supreme and final frustration for it destroys his

most cherished—though futile—dream of immortality. By relat

ing man's brief span of life to the scheme of eternal return, the

ultimate frustration itself is in a vital way negated and the

anguish of separation much diminished in poignancy. The lesser

evils of social injustice leading to individual frustration are all

neatly explained as results of deeds done in a previous life.

What remains is not the stuff out of which any great work of

art—of any real depth or dimension—can be created. They are

evils remediable by human effort, problems which can be and are solved by social adjustment.

With the metaphysics and epistemology of Vedanta gain

ing ascendancy in the social ethos and precolating into the mass consciousness the sense of the inexplicable mystery of existence

disappears. With the negation of evil as a separate entity the

villain or a really formidable and convincing antagonist becomes

impossible. Hence the spiritually disturbing issues are no longer

considered as metaphysically valid or aesthetically admissible


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by authors of drama or dramaturgy.

And this is true of Indian art in general. After the Maha

bharata Indian literature or art never tackled anything pro

foundly disturbing on the moral plane. Painting very seldom

portrayed the grimmer aspects of life. Music, which alone gave artistic expression to such themes does not enjoy a transparent

or unambiguous medium—except for the initiated—which can

communicate moral or spiritual suffering and the groping for

values. Melancholy melodies are plentiful in India but then

sorrow is real; what great art does is not merely to reflect reality

but to prompt the participant through the act of experience to

a search for new values.

Analyzing the aesthetic compulsion behind the Sanskrit

dramas we come to the same conclusion: drama is a plaything

which delights and entertains the audience without shaking

their moral fibre to the roots, an art which portrays unalloyed

goodness threatened or tempted by temporary or illusory evil but because the metaphysical scheme precludes the primacy or

ultimacy of evil, even denies it a real and separate entity, good ness triumphs. To those acquainted with the great tragedies of the world such triumph is bought rather cheaply and facilely.

Because the threat was never too real, the victory in the de

nounement is not too real or convincing. The lasting experience

is one of entertainment—quite pleasing, very often superbly urbane, cultivated and rich in poetry and music but neverthe

less mere entertainment.


1. Sculpture or painting seldom take up tragic or disturbing themes.

The only art which does is music, but the language of music is not

unequivocal or unambiguous: the same melody covers a wide range

of experiences and the interpretation varies according to the subjec

tive response. The art which communicates experiences most directly

is the literary art and here in the entire post-epic period the tragic

issues are consistently bypassed; they are toned down, confused, and


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neatly relegated to the dogmas of the dominant schools of metaphy

sics. They are never faced boldly or treated seriously as valid literary


2. Anasuye! preksasva tavat vamahasta-pihitavadana aUkhitaiva priyasakhi bharfrgataya cintaya. Atmanamapi na esa vibhavayati kim punaragan

tukam. Abh. Act IV.

3. Viyogantam na natakam.


Kridaniyakamicchami drsyam sravyamca yadbhavet.


Vinodakaranam loke natyametadbhavisyati. Isvaranam


Duhkhartisokanirvedakhedavicchedakaranam. Api brahmaparanandadid

amabhyadhikam param. Jahara naradadinam cittani Kathamanyatha.


Kirtipragalbhyasaubhagyavaidagdhyanam pravardhanam.

Audaryasthairyanam vitasusya ca karanam.


An Apology for Actors, 1612, p. 559.


Ramadivat pravatitavyam na ravanadivat.


"On the Composition of Comedies and Tragedies," 1543, p. 255 in

Literary Criticism: Plato to Dryden by A.H. Gilbert Detroit, Wayne

State University Press, 1962.


The Death of Tragedy : Faber and Faber, 1961, p. 3.


Ibid., p. 8.


Dramas may have been originally connected with religious festivals

as is evident from certain references to the occasion of their perform

ances [cf. Adya Khalu bhagavatah Kalapriyanathasya yatrayam arya misran] vijnapayami. Vttararamacarita Act I, Prologue]. This would

explain the reluctance to depict misery or suffering as the final experi

ence of life, because Reality was essentially good and happy. Drama,

then, should avoid creating an impact which would question this

faith; it was not the function of drama to shake the basic assumptions

of life.


The Tragic Sense of Life Tr. J.E. Crawford Fitch, Dover Pubin, NY,

1954, p. 34.

15. The Birth of Tragedy, Doubleday Anchor, 1956, p. 142.

16. Important works of poetics like the Dhvanyaloka, Kavyaprakasa and

Rasagangadhara are based on the fundamental tenets of Vedanta.

17. Tattvamasi; so'ham, aham brahmasmi, jivo brahmaiva naparah.

18. Raso vai sah and Kavyamrtaiasasvado brahmasvadasahodarah,


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