Bhavabhuti, second in fame only to Kalidasa among the Indian dramatists, wrote about 700 a.d. and lived for a time in Kanauj at the court of King Yashovarman. Virtually nothing else is known about his life at all, and in particular it has not been possible to establish his birthplace or his place of residence when he was writing his plays. Of the latter only three have come down to us, the Maha Vira Charita, the Malati Madhava and the Uttara Rama Charita, though untraced quotations among the Sanskrit anthologists suggest that other plays of bis were at one time in circulation. The Maha Vira Charita, structurally the weakest and probably the earliest work, evokes scenes from the exploits of Rama as found in the first six books of the Ramayana. Probably later is the love-romance Malati Madhava, which appears to be based on a traditional tale contained in a vast compendium of popular lore called the Brihat Katha composed in the Paishachi dialect by a certain Gunadhyaya. The Brihat Katha has not survived in its original form, but the story reappears in a Sanskrit adaptation of some parts of theworkmade long after Bhavabhuti’s day. The third surviving work of Bhavabhuti, the Uttara Rama Charita, is certainly his masterpiece, and internal evidence suggests that it was the work of his later years. It deals with the life of Rama and Sita after the defeat of Ravana, drawing mainly on the seventh book of the Ramayana, but modifying the details.
Like the composer Schubert, Bhavabhuti’s strength lay in his inexhaustible fund of lyrical inspiration, his weakness in a tendency to diffuseness and a failure to mould his material together into a whole of compelling and significant design. All the rules of plot-construction laid down by the dramatic theorists are observed; but perhaps partly for that very reason and partly because Bhavabhuti disdained those little realistic touches which abound in the Mricchakatika (Little Clay Cart)ofShudrakaand relate the main protagonists to everyday life as we commonly experience it, his plots fail to carry conviction. On the other hand his individual verses, often complex in structure and recherche in vocabulary, are allowed by all to include some of the profoundest and most evocative lines in the Sanskrit language. Coming several centuries after Kalidasa, he inherited a richer and more sophisticated technique of poetical expression, and he was more deeply versed in grammar, philosophy, Vedic exegesis and traditional rhetoric. His works were mainly valued for the hold they established over the emotions of the audience through the sheer beauty of the poetry. “One must either be a yogi or an ox,” it was said, “in order to view them with indifference.” Other Sanskrit maxims circulating among the pundits are: “In his Uttara Rama Charita Bhavabhuti surpasses everyone,” and: “Kalidasa and the others were poets, yes—but Bhavabhuti was the prince of poets.” The latter eulogy, however, evoked the parody: “Kalidasa and the others were trees, yes— but Bhavabhuti was a prickly cactus,” for whereas Kalidasa and the other court poets in general expressed themselves smoothly and sweetly, Bhavabhuti often deliberately used awkward angular phrases and ugly conglomerations of consonants if he thought the occasion demanded it.
Bhavabhuti’s conception of the poet and his function was a high one. He himself, he implies, was in no way able to aspire to the rank of poet through his own individual merits but only through the fact of his descent from the rishi Kashyapa and through the accumulated merits of his Brahminical forbears. For generations, he says, his whole family had taken knowledge of truth for its ultimate goal in life. They valued holy living (the practice of dharma) only as a means to this, and they valued practical skills (artha) and family life and begetting of children (kama) only as a means to dharma. Life itself was valued primarily as an opportunity for ascetic practice (tapas), understood as devotion to the life of Brahminical scholarship in a spirit of self-abnegation.
According to classical Indian dramatic theory as laid down in the Natya Shastra of Bharata, the purpose of drama is didactic. It should bring the essence of the Yedic teaching before women and others who have not the right or the capacity to study the Veda. It should deliberately strive to exercise a softening influence on the manners of the spectators, uplifting their minds to holy ideals and helping to preserve them from the vulgarity of greed, anger and sensuality. Bhavabhuti’s own remarks show that he knew well that drama cannot perform this function by mere preaching. Its business is with evoking emotional response through the portrayal of human experience. And the education of the poet in rhetoric and the secular disciplines merely serves to heighten his powers of presenting noble deeds and gripping variegated spectacles. In Bhavabhuti’s view the dramatist should not attempt to write for the mass of mankind but only for those who are already partly educated and are prepared to learn from him. He need not expect acclaim in his own life-time. If he is prepared to “dine late” he is sure of finding congenial company in the end, for “time is infinite and the earth wide.”
The real poet, according to Bhavabhuti’s repeated words, is a seer or rishi who has himself enjoyed immediate experience of the Absolute. To such a one the Absolute manifests in the form of the divinity “speech” (vak), and true poetry consists in the modifications or unfoldment (vivarta) of this divinity. The first poet (adi kavi) of this kind was Valmiki, and his Ramayana represents the first modification (vivarta) of the divinity “speech” into an epic poem. It is the high office of the poet as seer to continue the work of the Vedic seers in a form accessible to a wider circle beyond those conversant with the Vedic language. Hence Valmiki is given the rank of a seer and placed on a level with the seers of the Vedic mantrams. The function of the poet is not to invent forms but to transmit visions, moulding them into literary form. As seer he beholds the Absolute and the spiritual law (dharma) direct, and as artist he moulds them into forms corresponding with empirical experience, and as teacher he shows the patterns whereby the divine norms can be realised in the midst of worldly life.
In Bhavabhuti’s conception life has only one purpose, realisation of the Supreme, and the chief means thereto is holy living, living in conformity with truth or the spiritual law (dharma). The characters in his plays and the sentiments (rasa) they display and evoke in the hearts of the audience are meant to illustrate facts about the spiritual law and encourage certain attitudes towards it. The concrete embodiment of the spiritual law is the sage, conceived normally as a forest-dweller. Hence ideal kings, like Rama, who follow the spiritual law, look to sages like Vasishtha for guidance. The sentiment both experienced and evoked by the sage is the “peaceful” (shanta), because he lives withdrawn from both the pleasures and the pains of worldly life. His function is not merely to exemplify peace but actively to spread it. He has the power of prophecy, should he choose to exercise it, and in fact Bhavabhuti goes further and says that whereas the words of the good man follow facts, facts themselves follow the words of a sage. The sage has the power to perceive the future and the spatially distant and to read the hearts of others. His words always come true in some way or other even if it is not in the way expected by the hearer. Peace, the goal of life, is invariably mediated by a sage, and in fulfilling this function on the stage, usually towards the end of the drama, the sage manifests before the spectators some of his miraculous power and evokes in their hearts the sentiment of wonder at the miraculous (abhuta rasa).
At the opposite pole is the demoniac type, the enemy of the spiritual law. In him the urges to power (artha) and sensual pleasure (kama) have choked out the urge to holiness completely. The spectacle of his cruelty in the pursuit of his selfish ends evokes the sentiments of disgust (bibhatsa) and consternation (raudra) in the hearts of the spectators. Between the sage and the demon are various intermediary types. The just king, whose function is to cherish the spiritual tradition and to defend it if necessary with the sword, does not evoke the sentiment of peace but that of heroism (vira rasa). The man in whom the urge to righteous living is present but distorted by pride is the type of the choleric and is represented in Bhavabhuti’s dramas by Parashu Rama. He is regarded as superior to the type of man whose urge to righteousness is distorted by meanness and selfishness. It is the duty of the just king to tame both types, the choleric one for his own good so that the peaceful creative element in his nature may be allowed to emerge, and the selfish one so that he may not inflict further harm on the king’s subjects. Further, in order fully to protect the interests of his subjects, the king must give ear not only to the sage who teaches the spiritual law (dharma) but also to his chief minister who counsels practical utility (artha) in its naked form. Nor, as householder, is the just king exempt, as is the sage, from the duties, pleasures and tribulations arising from worldly love (kama). The spectacle of his legitimate joy in the presence of his spouse evokes the sentiment of rapture (shringara rasa) in the spectators, and the spectacle of his sufferings in her absence evokes that of piteous compassion (karuna rasa). Of Bhavabhuti’s three plays the Maha Vira Charita is dominated by vira rasa, the Malati Madhava by shringara rasa, and the Uttar a Rama Charita by karuna rasa.
On account of the avowed didactic purpose of Bhavabhuti’s plays their chief characters are presented as types, of rather more than life size. Rama is more heroic than a normal worldly hero, Ravana more abominable and at the same time more powerful than a normal enemy of the good. The portrayal of their fate is meant to exemplify how pursuit of holiness does lead to spiritual well-being and ultimately to peace and joy, whereas a fall from the righteous path leads to suffering and evil. The dramatic conflict is both external and internal. On the external and above all political plane there is the contest between the forces of righteousness and the forces of evil, in which the former triumph only after many vicissitudes. And on the inner psychological plane there is the battle between the conflicting tendencies in the individual towards the pursuit of righteousness on the one hand and that of individual power and pleasure on the other. Conflict, here as elsewhere, is the nerve (Indians would probably prefer to say “seed”) of the drama. But tragedy in the Western humanist sense is not possible. Worldly life (sansara) is by its very nature the realm of conflict and oscillation between pairs of opposites, but Bhavabhuti also aims to show that peace must triumph in the end, since, as the Upanishads proclaimed, peace alone is the ultimately real and eternal principle. Noteworthy in this context is the fact that he did not accept the view that in this dark age (kali yuga) naked power alone can triumph. For him the “ages” or world-periods not only follow one another in temporal sequence but also accompany one another in a simultaneous struggle for dominance. Rama is historically a child of the silver age, but the golden age lives and triumphs in and through him because he lives under the guidance of the sages who incorporate it.
One of the main points that Bhavabhuti attempts to inculcate is that the urges towards power (artha) and pleasure (kama) are inevitable for all who live as householders but that they are meant to be disciplined and, as such, are allies of the spiritual law. We may illustrate this from the case of pleasure-desire. Pleasure-desire is for the sake of propagation, which is for the sake of maintaining in being the tradition of following the spiritual law. Sex-desire outside the marriage tie is a purely destructive force. Other Sanskrit playwrights, such as Kalidasa and Harsha, have paid lip-service to this ideal, while in practice at times exalting the unruly sex-passion over the ideal of holiness in conformity with the practices of the “aristocratic” circles for which their plays were written. Bhavabhuti makes no such concessions. Strict monogamy is the only possible condition for the heroic man. There comes a point in the Uttara Rama Charita where Rama, having banished Sita at the wish of his subjects, has to perform a sacrifice for the good of the country at which the queen must be present. Though it would have been legal to take a new wife, Rama instals the golden image of Sita instead. The comments of the characters on this incident reveal that for Bhavabhuti it was Rama’s only possible course.
Purity is the greatest of all virtues, and on this very basis Bhavabhuti recognised the equality of the sexes. Arundhati, the wife of the sage Vasishtha, with whom Sita takes refuge in banishment, says to the latter: “Even if you were my daughter or my pupil, it would make no difference. Whether you be a child or a woman, you are venerable throughout all the worlds. Amongst the pure, purity alone is the object of veneration, not age or sex.” Bhavabhuti does not merely tolerate domestic love in the manner of St Paul: he positively exalts it. But marital love cannot be made dependent on external and merely empirical circumstances, such as physical contact. It is a mysterious spiritual bond uniting the lovers soul to soul, comparable to the mysterious expansion of the petals of a flower to greet the rays of the rising sun. Marital love, focused and concentrated for a time in the offspring, matures and deepens in old age when the passions which had but clouded its real nature have passed. Sex-love in Bhavabhuti is always, to use the jargon of modern criticism, an ambivalent force. It promotes clarity but also confusion, joy but also suffering. It is a necessary feature of worldly life that must be submitted to and patiently borne. Even in its ideal form, as exemplified by Rama and Sita, it leads to suffering as well as joy. But here the suffering is caused by the passions of other persons, of Ravana who abducts Sita and of the rabble who fail to perceive her purity and demand her banishment. In love between worldly lovers, such as Malati and Madhava, the core of the love-relationship is presented as pure, permanent and wholesome, but sufferings arise from it in the time of the youth of the lovers because they cannot yet keep their consciousness steadily focused at the high spiritual level but identify themselves with the disturbances set up in the sensual outer shell of the personality. The core of the relationship is conceived as fundamentally pure because it is the means whereby man and woman join affectionately together to live in fulfilment of the spiritual law.
The essential difficulty in worldly life, and the main inner source of conflict in drama, arises from the necessity of giving up at least a part of the natural joys of worldly life for the sake of eternal peace. No one except the fully withdrawn sage escapes pain in transmigratory existence. Even if one’s own deeds in previous fives have been pure, one still has to suffer on account of the evil tendencies in others, as is the case of Rama, who had to banish Sita on account of the slanders of a laundryman. Man is powerless to alter events conditioned by deeds of his own and others in previous fives, but he is free to encounter his fate spiritually and with courage or to succumb before it. The theme of the Uttara Rama Charita is the behaviour of the heroic man in the face of adverse fate. Man’s inner worth is more clearly discernible in this situation than when he is engaged in creative activity in easier conditions. Suffering spiritually assimilated is the best means to the unfoldment of value and to the achievement of holiness.
Bhavabhuti’s whole world-view rests on the conviction that God alone is real and that the world is a mere illusory display arising on the stainless canvas of pure consciousness. He is a self-confessed absolutist or “advaitin” and also a “vivarta vadin”. But his “vivarta vada” shows clear marks of deriving from the doctrines of the Grammarian Bhartrihari and not from those of his great contemporary Shankaracharya. For Bhava- bhuti the inner reality in man is the pure fight of the Self. It is clouded by the mind when the latter is in its undisciplined state but manifests in full power and purity when the mind is trained through a fife lived in conformity with the spiritual law supported by meditation practice (yoga) and dispassion. He in whom the fight of the Self shines freely is omniscient and is to be deemed a sage, and he purifies his surroundings by his mere presence.