Interview with Deven M. Patel, Author of “Text to Tradition”

Share This

The question of what constitutes a classic work of literature is often restricted to primarily Western works. Ditto the matter of what constitutes a readership. In his book Text to Tradition: The Naisadhīyacarita and Literary Community in South Asia, Deven M. Patel addresses these fascinating questions. I asked him for an interview and this is the result.

You start off your book by saying, “Compared to what we know about classic works with long reception histories from other parts of the world, we have a surprisingly shadowy understanding of what great literary works composed in South Asia meant to generations of audiences.” Why is that?

There are a number of reasons for this difference. First, even for European and American classics, up until the last half of this century, the significance of historical audiences to the study of literature has not been pivotal. Even more so, modern literary studies for classic works from South Asia have been, until recently, largely stuck in the methodological approaches of the early half of the 20th century (or even earlier). They have been limited to narrow formalist approaches to topics such as meter, plot, characterization and, occasionally, emotional content. Precious little critical imagination has been applied to other aspects of these works, and even less to their audiences. Furthermore, from a historical point of view, very few materials from India’s past explicitly speak to the question of literary communities.

What is Sanskrit?

Sanskrit was the most widely used and, arguably, the most prestigious classical language of early and medieval India. In the past, it was equally a language of sacred literature (the language of the Veda, among the oldest religious texts in world history, and later, of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism) as it was a vehicle for epics, belle-letters, arts and drama, abstract and worldly sciences, mathematics, and virtually every subject of learning imaginable. Studied in the West for several centuries now, its relationship to many European and some ancient Near Eastern languages has made it crucial to Indo-European studies. Additionally, it has been and continues to be a subject in premier universities around the world for students interested in linguistics, philosophy, religious studies, and cultural history. One of the nearly two dozen official languages of India, Sanskrit continues to be studied in school and composed in by poets and scholars. A significant number of journals and magazines are published in the language, and there is a growing momentum to amplify the numbers of people who speak Sanskrit.

What is a “long” or “great” poem in Sanskrit?

The Sanskrit word, which I ambivalently translate as “long” or “great” poem, is mahākāvya. The first word of the compound “mahā” suggests the poem’s massive length (multiple cantos full of rich and varied content) or suggests its prestige and quality as a “great” poem celebrated by Sanskrit literati. Most likely, as used by early writers on poetics from the 7th century onwards, the word mahākāvya probably refers to the poem’s length since it is contrasted with laghukāvya (“short” or “light” poetry) and khaṇḍakāvya (“episodic” poetry).

Why the stark gulf between the quality of reception to the Naiṣadhīyacarita?

This is the crucial curiosity that started me on the journey of writing this book. The easy answer is that the poem itself – its content, its style, its linguistic and emotional texture – holds polarities in tension, thus separating itself as a work worthy to be received again and again over time and, simultaneously, to not be received in the same way by all. Thus, as I found in my investigations, not only was a work like this not uniformly received in its early (and, we may assume, initial) contexts of performance, it was never uniformly received over seven centuries. In other words, from the very beginning, some heaped praise upon it as a pioneering work, while others grudgingly acknowledged its uniqueness though denigrating its transgressions of expected norms. This fact leads me to label this work a classic, precisely because of the qualitative range of its reception.

What is meant by a “tradition of a text”?

By a “tradition,” I simply mean that a text is not just a text when it becomes a classic work. And since a classic work, to my mind, can be called such when it receives a wide and varied (and not necessarily universally positive) evaluation over centuries, such a text no longer remains just a singular event in time but rather a fixture in the consciousness of communities for whom that text now produces multidimensional offspring, not only within the literary realm but also intermedially across artistic genres, among academic cultures within societies, and broadly, in popular cultural awareness.

What is the relationship between the poet and the scholar in Sanskrit literary culture?

Very often, if not generally, the Sanskrit poet was also a scholar. A mastery of standard Sanskrit grammar and its intellectual offshoots (poetics, metrics, phonetics, etymology, etc.) are prerequisites for the Sanskrit poet. Scholarship and linguistic competency are, therefore, intertwined in ways that make it very difficult to claim the gift of poetry without firm knowledge of grammar. Conversely, however, one can be a scholar without being a poet. Poetry is thought to be a wholly unique enterprise born of inspiration (pratibhā), erudition gained through lived experience and formal study (vyupatti), and craftsman-like skill gained through repetitive practice (abhyāsa).

Who was Śrīharsha, and what makes him remarkable as a poet and philosopher? Who are some comparable figures in Western writing of this era?

“Text to Tradition” by Deven M. Patel


Śrīharsha was a polymath who historians believe worked in the mid-to-late 12th century in northern India. There are only a handful of such men from history that are still remembered. Largely, Śrīharsha’s reputation rests on two works, although he may have penned more than we have names for but no manuscript: the poem “Deeds of King Nala” (Naiṣadhīyacarita), the subject of my book, and the philosophical treatise “Edibles of Hostile Argument” (Khaṇḍanakhaṇdakhādya), a dialectical work aimed at undermining epistemological presuppositions. Both of these works have proved to be widely influential works in their respective disciplines. The fact that one man is thought to have composed both has led audiences to conclude that Śrīharsha must have been supernaturally gifted or a rare genius that comes along once in a generation. As for comparing Śrīharsha with Europeans writing around the same time (the so-called High Medieval Period), the names that come to mind are Dante and Chaucer. Although he wrote several centuries later, I think Edmund Spenser (Faerie Queen) resonates with Śhriharsha, especially with respect to both poets’ density of cultural reference and sheer ambition, in terms of experimentation with language and depth of description.

Would you please elaborate on the statement that it is a custom of the mahākāvya genre to explore the mood and details of a portion of a story over and above the impulse to bring matters to a hasty completion?

Like many literary works that tell well-known stories, Sanskrit mahākāvyas generally do not invent new stories nor do they deviate dramatically from the plot that most audiences know. Therefore, the pleasure of the mahākāvya lies in its marvelous craft: its charming sound effects, painstakingly designed detail, profound sentiments, evocation of an aesthetic mood and, quite often, the dizzying combination of all of these qualities in verse after verse over the span of multiple cantos.

What is meant by “a technology for the examination and promotion of advanced literary practice?”

What I meant by this elusive comment was that by the 14th century, once the Naiṣadhīya’s status as a complex literary text was established, it became a point of reference for virtuosic literary practice and so, the ability to cogently comment on it became a badge of high scholarship, and the ability to imitate it a mark of a truly special poet.

Speak to the Naiṣadhīya’s disconcerting combination of light-heartedness alongside deep erudition, specifically to its “magnificent nonseriousness.”

I contend that this is a very significant characteristic of the Naiṣadhīya, one that really distinguishes the poem from its predecessors. The best Sanskrit poets – all of them learned and meticulously trained in the masterful use of words and meters – are often serious and less often funny. Even less often are they silly or borderline vulgar, at times. Śrīharsha attempts this mood-mixing aesthetic while remaining within the boundaries that the Sanskrit poet imposes upon himself – respect for poetic conventions, meter, diction, plot logic, etc. He also pulls it off with a good-natured flair that even his critics, I surmise, must have admired. He does this mostly with clever word-play, odd metaphors, and outright outlandish images, such as describing a young rascal at a wedding reception playfully laying a lizard at the foot of a young waitress; as she squirms out of her dress in panic, the poet says that all (including the girl, presumably) share a good laugh.

Was Śrīharsha’s view of himself as a philosopher of great ability and insight justified?

Well, according to Sanskrit tradition, yes. His properly philosophical work, the Khaṇḍanakhaṇḍakhādya or Edible Pieces of Hostile Argument revolutionized certain trends in Indian philosophy. In this work, he argues for a non-dualist vision of reality – that there is only One ultimate reality – by logically undermining the presuppositions and tenets of all other philosophical positions. While this approach was not a unique move in the history of philosophical thought in India, it was startlingly original in its presentation and widely influential for philosophers that followed Śrīharsha. The Naiṣadhīya is not a work of philosophy and, in fact, perhaps its reputation as a largely scholastic work is unfairly exaggerated. Nevertheless, the ingenuity with which the poet weaves in philosophical reference alongside occasional critiques of philosophical logic itself has been noticed and appreciated by audiences across the centuries. The seventeenth canto of the poem, for example, is a tour de force of philosophical reference and critique.

Would you please discuss the relationship of yogic practices to the Naiṣadhīya?

Thisquestion requires a complex answer, which I try to give in my book. The poet himself draws our attention to his achievement in meditation. Whether or not this is to be believed as an authentic communiqué between the poet and his audiences is superfluous to the fact that audiences have attached Śrīharsha, and his literary and philosophical accomplishments, with powers gained through meditation. Thus, as I explain, after the 16th century, it becomes regular to interpret the Naiṣadhīya as an allegory of Śrīharsha’s gnostic vision, clothed in the well-known narrative of Nala and Damayantī’s love affair.

Please explain how Śrīharsha invokes technical terms of poetics. Are there poets in the Western tradition that are known for doing the same thing?

Śrīharsha is one of the more self-reflexive of Sanskrit poets, often targeted for this by his critics. He winks at his audiences often by peppering meta-textual nuggets into his verse, demonstrating awareness of his own considerable powers as a poet. This is speculation, of course, but he seems to be aware that his literary experimentation will probably run afoul of more conservative literary critics. This has been proven true by later reports we have, that indeed Śrīharsha deserves to be chided for his transgressing poetic choices.

Speak to Śrīharsha’s intertextuality, specifically his ability to take in the entire sweep of pre-12th century poetry. How did he come by the knowledge necessary to accomplish that?

The Naiṣadhīya, I argue, comes at a time of enormous changes in Sanskrit culture. The conventions of the poetry have reached a zenith, as it were, patronage systems for Sanskrit literati are changing, and there are wider social changes happening at the end of the 12th century that significantly transform poetic practice. Śrīharsha’s intertextuality, therefore, pays notice to all that has preceded him, sometimes in the form of sprucing up a dead metaphor in surprising ways, other times reiterating the practices of past masters like Kālidāsa in new and refreshing ways. As to how he came by his vast knowledge, many (including the poet himself) attribute his abilities to a supernatural attainment, through meditation and the grace of a deity.

What are the fields of knowledge that he seems to have familiarity with?

Aside from the hundreds of references to philosophical doctrines, Śrīharsha seems to have wide familiarity with medicine, military science, law, political science, the erotic sciences, musicology, mathematics, science of horses, science of jewels, lexicons, poetics and rhetoric, dramaturgy, astrology, the science of bodily signs, domestic rituals, phonetics, etymology, prosody, grammar, and astronomy.

You say of him that he was “droll” and “dazzling.” Would you have liked Śrīharsha if you had met him?

Yes. Witty, entertaining, erudite and eloquent, bitingly honest, soft-hearted, romantic – he must have been a fun guest to invite over.

Elaborate on Śrīharsha and the Naiṣadhīya as “an imaginative style, a tonal nuance, an attitude, a particular way of treating a set of themes.” How long did that phenomenon last?

This is one of the wonderful things I learned about literary traditions while researching for this book. Though critical focus is often on “influence,” seeking origins and derivations, the afterlife of a great literary event often springs up in subtle forms in later works and authorial styles. Śrīharsha’s presence is certainly felt, as I try to show, for centuries after him. I feel that the shadow this poet and poem casts on Indic literature lasts well after the heyday of Sanskrit literature passes. It is tied to the poem’s legacy and, to this day, Śrīharsha’s name is synonymous with a clear idea of a style and tone.

Why the drop in interest in the Naiṣadhīya during the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries?

Formal commentaries (written in Sanskrit) on the poem become fewer because, perhaps, such exegesis of the poem reaches a point of saturation by the 18th and 19th centuries. From another perspective, one may argue that once Sanskrit literature, even canonical texts, begins to share literary space with literature composed in numerous languages, both classical and regional ones, the density of critical work also diminishes. However, innovative allegorical readings of the poem increase during these centuries, and its role in the traditional Sanskrit schools becomes ever more solidified.

Commentators speak to the very features of the poem that Śrīharsha laid out as its hallmarks. What were those? Did they hamper the growth of new critical approaches?

If we are to believe the verses at the end of each canto (and at the end of the poem) to be authentic, Śrīharsha speaks of his poem as unique in its expressions, in terms of tropes and figures of sound, speech, and thought; that it is a pleasure to be earned by an educated person; a product of a spiritual accomplishment and an unequalled exploration of the emotions. Commentators, given this to run with, draw out these features of their poet’s work. The second part of the question is quite provocative. On the one hand, however edifying, it is implausible to imagine or impute contemporary critical approaches to audiences of Sanskrit literature (or any literature) composed before the last century or so. Nevertheless, the question is pertinent to the fact that, until recently, critical approaches to Sanskrit literature, as well as to literature in other Indic languages, have remained largely static and consonant with traditional approaches. This is not unlike, I would argue, the role that the study of literature played in other parts of the world prior to the modern period, where creative works embodied values of the culture producing and enjoying it, be they aesthetic or moral. The dissociation of literature (and its study) as an extension of normative culture – now an established feature of European and American critical practice – seems to be a new phenomenon in South Asia, spurred on by social change and the globalization of literary culture. I do not think it was much of an issue for interpretive communities of the past.

How did the Naiṣadhīya become a “credentials-conferring exercise”?

Because the Naiṣadhīya is such an ambitious work, in its display of the range of Sanskrit poetic practice – and because it did it such a good job in doing this, the poem became a textbook-case of a classic work. The challenge it poses and the pleasure it gives from a linguistic, interpretive, and philosophical point of view magnify its allure for academic types to raise it on a pedestal. This is what happened to this poem. Gradually, commentaries on it proliferated because, I contend, it was thought that writing a commentary on the Naiṣadhīya made one worthy to teach poetry and poetics to others.

Who were the most notable champions and detractors of the Naiṣadhīya?

Notable champions were, of course, the majority of traditional Sanskrit commentators from the 13th century onwards. Few, far-between, and light were the critiques of these men. Some – certainly not all – 20th-century literary critics, largely trained in British-Indian or European institutions, were the poem’s most salient detractors. However, in between Śrīharsha’s time and our own, there were many indications of detractors and supporters of the poem, in the form of oblique literary criticism found in stray narratives, in anonymous stanzas comparing poets, and in invocations of the poet in various sundry contexts.

Please elaborate on the arguments of some commentators that the Naiṣadhīya is an unfinished work.

This is largely wishful thinking based on compelling but largely unsubstantiated evidence. The Naiṣadhīya is already the second longest mahākāvya (out of about 300 or so) in Sanskrit. However, because the poem only treats a portion of the famous story of Nala and Damayantī and because it ends on abruptly, according to some, with a lavish description of the rising moon, some have speculated that the poem is unfinished. In addition to this is the hearsay of scholars who have claimed to have heard verses from the missing part of the poem.

Who were some of the commentators who maintained that the Naiṣadhīya was a religious allegory? Were their arguments convincing? Why were they making those arguments and who was their intended audience?

The seeds of thinking about the Naiṣadhīya as a religious allegory go back to the 16th century (the commentator Nārāyaṇa) although, as I said earlier, since the poet himself implies that the poem is a direct result of a spiritual vision, it became commonplace to think of the poem as a coded allegory. It is not until the late 19th and 20th centuries, however, that full-fledged allegorical traditions emerge around the Naiṣadhīya. While I cannot say that I am absolutely convinced about the allegorical claims made, there are certain details from the poem that I note in the book that appear mysterious unless one applies the logic of allegory to them, at least to a certain extent. But to read the entire text as a code strikes me as a hermeticist exercise: imaginative and even insightful but not irrefutably cogent. I think that the allegory was especially linked to the Naiṣadhīya because of the author’s claim of spiritual attainment as well as his philosophical position of non-dualism (There is only One), argued through negative logic in his “Edible Pieces of Hostile Argument.” Also, perhaps it seemed impossible to many that a polymath like Śrīharsha could write poetry and philosophy the way he did without some supernatural assistance.

Elaborate on some of the works in the “Legends of the Naiṣadhīya” chapter. Were these an early form of fan fiction, in which Śrīharsha himself became a literary character depicted by admirers of his work?

I like the idea of “fan fiction.” Yes, I think some of the “legends” are that. For example, the praise to Śrīharsha in the prefaces to commentaries almost certainly reads like awed admiration. In later legends, found in narratives after the 15th or 16th centuries, there is a sense that certain distinctive qualities that make the poet and his poem special are brought to the fore in the guise of legend.

What is the state of the Naiṣadhīya in Indian pop culture today? Has there ever been a sort of Classics Illustrated version of it, for example? Is it studied in school?

Though faint, echoes of the Naiṣadhīya are still present today. Śrīharsha’s telling of the first part of the famous Nala and Damayantī story (the love affair and marriage of the couple) very likely became the standard narrative known to later audiences. A specific example of the poem’s reach today, for example, can be seen in the Kathakali dance-drama performance of the Nala story. However, it is not possible to say that the Naiṣadhīya enjoys the kind of popularity that, say, Western classics do in Europe, America, and even in India. In fact, no Sanskrit work has the cache of Shakespeare in Indian pop culture today. The first canto (of 22) is studied in Sanskrit schools but other than that, hardly anyone could tell you something about the poem, let alone its name and author. The only Sanskrit poet who inhabits a modest space in Indian popular culture is Kālidāsa but even his transcendent works remain largely unknown with any depth of understanding. As for reading the poem in Sanskrit, this has perhaps never been a “popular” activity outside of subcultures of Sanskrit literati. That Sanskrit students and teachers may have little acquaintance with the work surely has something to do with the global condition of the classics today as well as the changing educational desires of Indians. But that is the subject of another, more opinionated interview, isn’t it?