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SOME LITERARY ASPECTS OF THE ABSENCE 

OF TRAGEDY IN THE CLASSICAL SANSKRIT 

DRAMA 

Virginia Saunders 
New York City 

Everyone who is acquainted with Sanskrit dramatic literature 
is aware that one of the most striking characteristics of the so-called 
classical drama is the absence of a tragic ending. The discovery 
of the manuscripts of the thirteen plays attributed to Bhasa proves 
that this was not true of the older dramas, as some of them are 
real tragedies. But this fact only makes more puzzling and more 
interesting the problem of the consistency with which the later 
dramatists avoided the tragic ending. 

In a number of the later plays there are many distressing occur- 
rences during the progress of the action, but there is never any 
tragedy in the sense of calamity which remains at the close of the 
last act. There are near approaches to this but the tragic outcome 
is always prevented by the timely assistance of a friend or the 
intervention of the gods. 

As Dr. Lindenau has pointed out in his Bhasa-Studien, 1 there 
must have been known to Bhasa a form of the Natya-Sastra older 
than the recension we have. In this older form the strict rules 
concerning the happy ending were probably lacking. In the 
Bharata known to us, however, and in other dramaturgical works, 
the rules on this point of avoiding an unhappy ending are very 
definite and they were very strictly followed by the classical 
dramatists. 

The text-books of dramaturgy, as we have them, in giving the 
different conclusions which a play might have, seem to make no 
provision for anything opposed to the ultimate happiness of the 
hero and heroine, 2 and it is distinctly stated that the death of the 
hero or principal person should not occur anywhere in the play. 3 



1 BhOsastudien: Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte des altindischen Dramas, von 
Dr. Max Lindenau, Leipzig 1918, p. 29. 

'See G. C. O. Haas, Dasarupa, tr. and text (1912), pp. 92 and 145; Le>i, 
Le thiatre indien (1890), p. 86. 

3 DR, p. 93. 



Absence of Tragedy in the Classical Sanskrit Drama 153 

Concerning one type of play 4 it is stated that the death of a great 
person must not be presented even though it took place in the 
legend from which the plot is derived. 5 Not only must the hero 
and the heroine suffer no calamity at the end of the play but they 
must not even be sorrowful. 

There were a number of violations of the rules concerning the 
things considered indecorous to present before the eyes of the 
audience, 6 but usually they took place off-stage. Even the death 
of the hero and heroine occurs but there is always a quick restora- 
tion and all ends happily. 7 

I have said that the dramatists of the later plays adhered strictly 
to the rules regarding the happy ending. I recognize the fact that 
the rules, as we know them, may have been made after the plays 
were written, but even if this were so there must have been a strong 
tradition which had become firmly established, otherwise there 
would never have been the remarkable consistency we find in the 
technique of the plays. 

Whether written or unwritten there seems no doubt that a deep 
veneration for these rules is the cause of lack of tragedy in the later 
Sanskrit drama. 

There is no reason, I believe, to think that some of the writers 
of these plays could not have written real tragedies if they had so 
wished. There is an abundance of evidence to show that these 
playwrights were keen psychologists, and they were certainly well 
versed in the working out of jcause and effect. With these qualifi- 
cations and the ability, so amply proved in numerous passages, to 
portray deep and noble emotions, we are justified in concluding 
that the failure to write tragedy was not due to the inability of the 
writers. 

In spite of the fine qualities of many of the Sanskrit plays we are 
almost sure, in reading those which are essentially potential 
tragedies, to find ourselves wishing they had continued so to the 
end. The effect upon us is that of the modern melodrama — the 
heart may be satisfied but the artistic sense suffers a shock. 

It is the purpose of this paper to consider how a few of these 



4 Ihamj-ga. 

6 DR, p. 105; Levi, p. 145. 

6 For examples see Mrcchaka^ika, Act 3, and Viddha&labhanjika, Acts 3 
and 4, Gray tr. r J AGS vol. 27. 

7 See Canda-KauSka, Nagananda, and Mrcehaka^ika. 



154 Virginia Saunders 

plays could be changed into tragedies without altering the psy- 
chology of the characters, in fact changing nothing but the ending, 
and perhaps making a slight readjustment of scenes. 

Let us take, for example, the VikramorvasI of Kalidasa. In 
order to obtain the invariable happy conclusion the author has 
greatly changed the original story of Urva4i and King PurQravas, 
which allowed them to remain together so long as the King did not 
behold the son to be borne to him by Urvasi. By removing the 
inevitable tragedy of such a love Kalidasa has weakened his drama 
from the artistic standpoint. Although he had a fine tragic plot 
all ready for his poetic touch, in order to avoid the tragedy, he 
lowered his heroine from her divine estate and even caused the 
great divinity, Indra, to break his word. 

Practically the only change of any importance needed to make 
a tragedy of the VikramorvasI would be in the last scene. We can 
easily imagine the fine scene, between Urvasi and PurQravas, that 
Kalidasa might have written, in which the king is in a tragic 
conflict of emotion between his joy in beholding, for the first time, 
his son and heir, and his agony of sorrow at the loss of Urvasi 
resulting from the sight of this same child. 

A further example is the Uttara-Rama-Carita of Bhavabhuti. 
Out of the material of this play could have been made a great 
tragedy. If Rama's moral conflict between his kingly duties and 
his love for his wife had been kept the central theme, and the 
whole play had thus been based upon it; if the banishment of Slta, 
after much inward struggle and spiritual suffering, had come 
toward the end of the play, we might have had a tragedy worthy 
even of Shakespeare. This would have been the more assured 
through Bhavabhuti's power of description, his tenderness and 
beauty of thought, and his inherent sense for the dramatic. 

The Nagananda of, Harsa could quickly be transformed into a 
tragedy by changing some of the lighter scenes slightly and elimi- 
nating the intervention of the gods at the end. If Jlmutavahana 
were not restored to life the play would be not only more tragic 
but more artistic. A fine contrast could have been made between 
the hero's love for his bride and his devotion to what he felt to be 
his compelling duty. The hero has sacrificed his life willingly and 
we feel that, according to all the rules of art, he should not come to 
life again. 

Bhavabhuti's Malatlmadhava has often been called the Romeo 
and Juliet of the Sanskrit drama. To any one who is not familiar 



Absence of Tragedg in the Classical Sanskrit Drama 155 

with the subject this comparison with Shakespeare's play would 
naturally imply that Malatimadhava is a tragedy. There is a 
similarity, indeed, between the two dramas in many points, and 
there are several near approaches to tragedy in this Sanskrit play, 
but all ends well. This play is very dramatic and the elements 
of tragedy are strong. To develop these but few changes would 
need to be made. The father of Malati should appear as one of 
the principal characters. His fear of the king's disfavor could be 
strongly dwelt upon and contrasted with his love for his daughter. 
By showing this conflict as a moral struggle the tragic note would 
be established at once. Nandana, the king's favorite, to whom 
the king wishes Malati married, would have to appear in person 
in order to give a contrast with Madhava, the hero. The very fine- 
scene at the end, in which Malati wanders upon the field of the 
dead and is finally about to be offered as a victim to the dreadful 
goddess Camunda, need not have been changed at all. All that is 
needed to make the play a real Romeo and Juliet is to delay the 
hero in his arrival upon the field of the dead just about one minute. 
Such an ending would be just retribution to the father for sacri- 
ficing his child's happiness rather than risk the king's disfavor. 

The Canda-Kau§ika of Kshemisvara is filled with tragic incidents 
from the time the king is cursed by the angry hermit to the end 
of the play, when the little prince, whose death occurs as the 
final overwhelming sorrow, is restored to life by the gods and the 
king receives again his lost kingdom. Nothing but divine inter- 
vention could possibly have saved this play from being a complete 
tragedy. 

These are suggestions simply to show how some of the Sanskrit 
dramas might have been, without much change excepting the 
final outcome, made tragedies worthy of high honor, and how these 
have probably been lost to us through the rules prohibiting 
unhappy endings. 

I have not mentioned the incident in Harsa's Priyadarsika of the 
heroine being bitten by a serpent and seeming to be dead, nor in 
the Mrcchakatika, ascribed to Sudraka, of the apparent killing of 
Vasantasena, because they are merely dramatic devices used to 
further the plot and not the logical tragic result of previous actions. 
These incidents might be compared to the supposed death of 
Hermione in the Winter's Tale, of Imogen in Cymbeline, or of Hero 
in Much Ado About Nothing. I should mention in this connec- 
tion the Svapnavasavadatta, one of the Bhasa plays. In this 



156 Virginia Saunders 

play the false report of the Queen's death is used to bring about 
the happy ending. Here the audience knows from the beginning 
that the Queen is not really dead. 

We know that at least as early as Kalidasa the strict rules, 
whether written or traditional, barring tragedy from the Hindu 
stage, were firmly established and closely observed. What caused 
the introduction of these rules we do not know. Keith has attempt- 
ed to explain the- invariable happy ending by finding its origin in 
the ritual of the spring festival in which summer triumphs over 
winter. 8 Of course in the light of the Bhasa plays this explanation 
would lose its force. Lindenau believes the solution is to be 
sought in the simple fact of the dramatists' yielding to the taste 
and demand of the public. 9 

I cannot feel that the last word has been said on this very inter- 
esting phase of Hindu thought as shown in the drama. The evi- 
dence does not seem yet to be sufficient for a final judgment. Per- 
haps Dr. Belvalkar, in his promised critical edition of the Natya- 
sastra, will have some new theory to offer which may help to 
clear up the problem. 

8 'Origin of the Drama', JRAS 1912, p. 423. 
' Bhasa-sliidien, p. 31, note 1.