Authority and Auspiciousness in Gaurana's Laksanadipika.

Author:Jones, Jamal
Position:Critical essay

    In the introduction to his Telugu long poem the Navanathacaritramu (Deeds of the Nine Naths) Gaurana (fl. 1375-1445 CE) describes how he came to compose the text and extols his own virtues in the process. He recounts how the work's patron Muktisanta, lord of Srisailam's Bhiksavrtti matha, decided whom he should call to compose the Nafhs' tale. Chief among Muktisanta's concerns were the poet's qualifications: Who, he wondered, was "well-practiced... in judging the properties of tasteful rasa-filled literature" (sarasasahityalaksa-navivekamulan... alavadda vamdu)! (1) This praise might simply seem cliched. Through the alliterative sa-rasa-sahitya, for instance, Gaurana invokes the concept of rasa, which had long been deemed an indispensable feature of poetry and which--owing to the influence of Kashmiri poeticians--had helped to constitute the prevailing paradigm in Sanskritic poetics. What poet then would not claim to infuse a poem with rasa?

    But more important in this praise, I would suggest, is the word laksana--'property', 'characteristic', or by extension any 'rule' or 'definition' based on such a feature. From this perspective, rasa is just one in a battery of other laksanas that poetry should have in order to appeal to the discerning literary elite. Scholars of Sanskritic poetics had enumerated and posited many such features. Aside from defining the discipline's namesake alamkaras (rhetorical ornaments or figures of speech), alamkarasastra also maintained thematics, characterology, narrative structure, and generic form among its core concerns. More to the point, being educated in poetics and related linguistic disciplines--especially metrics, dramaturgy, and grammar--was a qualification that few poets would disavow. Such learning, then, was not so much exceptional as to be expected.

    Still, stereotyped though it may be, Muktisanta's commendation indexes more tangible traces of Gaurana's erudition and more unexpected senses of laksana. Not just a poet, Gaurana was also a poetician. In this latter capacity, he was the author of two non-identical Sanskrit works--each available in a single manuscript, both bearing the title Laksanadipika (A Light on the Properties). (2) The laksanas that Gaurana illuminates here are not, however, the many definitions of the myriad rhetorical ornaments. Rather, he is generally unconcerned with the usual subjects of Sanskrit poetics. He barely considers matters of meaning. He does not care to consider what makes poetry poetry, or what makes it interesting or beautiful or generally pleasing to the mind and ear. Nor does he care to reflect much on the concept of rasa to which he nods in his Telugu work. The poeticians' laksana notwithstanding, his use of the term stands much closer to the laksana of divination--that is to say, the tellingly auspicious or inauspicious mark on an animal, object, or person. And so, just as a diviner claims the power to descry an entity's fate by reading marks on its body, Gaurana's work promises to elucidate those characteristics of literary composition that can anticipate and actualize both favorable and unfavorable outcomes for the patrons and performers of poetry.

    In taking up this issue, Gaurana's Laksanadipika (LD) belongs to what David Shulman has dubbed the "Andhra alankara school." (3) From at least the early fourteenth century, the poeticians of this school had begun to delineate the laksanas of auspicious composition. While earlier Sanskrit poeticians typically analyzed poetry to the level of the word or utterance, the Andhra poeticians developed rubrics for analyzing the metaphysical properties of poetic language's basic components--the phoneme (Sanskrit varna) and the metreme (Sanskrit gana). They understood these linguistic units to have deep affinities with divine energies that structure reality. Thus when reciting a poem, to utter a word--or even a few unmeaningful sounds--could be to invoke great and potentially perilous powers, especially when beginning a work. Lest danger ensue, a poet must--with the help of the poeticians' insight into these laksanas--be sure that his work's opening sounds are auspicious. Just as they developed this auspicious analysis, the Andhra poeticians had also begun to describe new literary forms, which Gaurana calls cdtuprabandhas. These forms were relatively short, multi-stanza, quasi-musical panegyrics in a mixture of prose (gadya) and verse (padya). Their panegyric character, it seems, made auspiciousness of the utmost importance. Stories of poetry's awesome power abound from at least the fourteenth century. A poet could lay waste to kings and kingdoms or make the same thrive with a well-placed (or even misspoken) syllable. It was to understand these linguistic powers that the Andhra poeticians posed their fine-grained analysis.

    While Gaurana is an early proponent of this analysis of literary auspiciousness, he did not invent it. Rife with quotations, the very texture of the Laksanadipika might suggest that we are dealing with a derivative work, at best a useful digest of earlier texts. However, as I will show in what follows, Gaurana has not merely reproduced received opinion in his LD. More than this, he offers a purposeful and novel synthesis wherein he brings together and hierarchizes a wide range of materials. He primarily draws on poetry and poetics, often from the Andhra school. But--and by all accounts unlike his poetological predecessors and successors--Gaurana takes explicit recourse to authoritative texts on ritual and astrology.

    In what follows, I will analyze how Gaurana synthesizes these materials: What topics are at issue? What principles govern his inclusion or exclusion of certain texts and what relationships (such as relative importance, priority, or subordination) does he forge between them? And why should astrological and ritual authorities end up as the bedrock of his project? As an opening proposition, I would suggest that as an early member of the Andhra school Gaurana seeks to ground what was an unstable body of poetic knowledge in the Telugu country. Gaurana works to resituate the Andhra school's decidedly literary precepts in a framework outside of literary or linguistic sastra. Ultimately, Gaurana not only redefines what constitutes poetic knowledge but also what it means to be a poet. To describe Gaurana's intervention more precisely, the next section will trace the discourse on auspiciousness in alamkarasastra and highlight the peculiar project of the Andhra school and Gaurana. From there I will detail how Gaurana hierarchizes his sources to construct a coherent system on auspiciousness in poetry. This section and the conclusion will show that Gaurana's revision of the auspicious analysis is driven by a ritual understanding of poetic practice that drives him to redefine the class of poets itself.


    Most works in Sanskrit poetics show a concern for auspiciousness in one of two ways. First, they propose that any poetic enterprise should begin with a mangala verse so that the poets might complete their work and so that their audiences might understand and enjoy it. (4) A seminal example is available from Dandin's Kavyadarsa 1.14, which stipulates that a work may properly begin with a benediction, an obeisance, or some indication of the subject matter (asirnamaskriya vastunirdeso vapi tanmukham). Second, the body of the work should be generally auspicious. So, poets should avoid even inadvertently inauspicious meanings (amahgalartha); from Vamana's Kavyalahkara onward, such usages are basically categorized as a variety of distasteful or offensive (aslila) diction. (5) In both cases poeticians focus on the semantic powers of language--first the power to invoke and communicate with deities, second the power and problem of intentional and accidental reference.

    The Andhra school shares these same anxieties, but it goes further, beyond language's capacity for meaning to the powers of generally meaningless phonemes and metremes. As Shulman characterizes it, the Andhra school ultimately recognizes a "dense grid of sonic waves and energies that, while bearing their own inherently positive or negative charges, interact decisively with one another, with various divine presences, and with context, intention, velocity, density, volume, and other determining factors that shift and transform." (6) In this, its poeticians add a new area of analysis to the normal considerations of beauty, pleasure, and rhetorical ornamentation.

    While Gaurana's Laksanadipika is not the first work to pursue this analysis of auspiciousness, the unique intensity with which he engages the school's concerns is on display in the opening of his work, where he lays out his project's syllabus:

    [1] The origin of the phonemes, their manifestation, and their number; [2] their planets and elemental seed; [3] their proper and improper usage and the distinction between harsh and pleasing phonemes; [4] precepts about their use and their powers (felicitous and infelicitous); [5] the names of the metremes; [6| their presiding deities, their planets, and their powers; [7] the compatibility and incompatibility of the metremes; [8] their signs according to the sidereal zodiac and tropical zodiac; [9] consideration of the ambrosial periods and the strength of planetary influence; [10) the method of worshipping the Mother deities; and [11] the characteristics of authors, patrons, literary compositions. (7) As this table of contents reveals, Gaurana is almost completely silent on traditional matters of meaning. He speaks not of a composition's being beautiful, interesting, or pleasing; nor does he speak much about language's capacity for communication or representation. Instead he addresses those powers of language that precede any of the recognizable semantic operations. This is clear from his treatment of rasa, which comprises a strikingly brief nine verses. (8)...

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