ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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To Write Was to Cense

Kāvyaśāstra and Creative Freedom in Premodern India

Poetics is always thought of as pertaining to the art of literary composition. However, by laying down the rules of composition, it can also condition the writer to produce socially acceptable works of art. The paper argues that kāvyaśāstra in ancient India functioned like a conditioning mechanism and persuaded the writer to voluntarily confine themself within the hegemonic limits set by the prevalent ethical and moral codes, making external controls redundant. This can perhaps explain why, unlike the different forms of restrictive forces, we have been accustomed to, at various points of history across different cultures, premodern Indian literature that is unmarked by any overt cases of censorship.

The authors thank the anonymous reviewers for their careful reading of the manuscript and their insightful comments and suggestions.

Premodern Indian literature presents us with a rather baffling riddle by being relatively unmarked by any overt cases of restrictive or oppressive forms of control over writers and artists when compared to the persecution of writers and thinkers like Socrates in Greece or Ovid in Rome. A solution to this conundrum is sought through an understanding of kāvyaśāstra (the practice of the Sanskrit literary tradition) and kaviśikṣā (formal disciplinary training in the art of poetic composition) in premodern India as inhibiting as forces inherent to the practice of literature whereby writers were encouraged to be circumspect about the content and form of their creative works. We argue that this śāstra tradition, and especially the concept of aucitya or literary propriety, encouraged the production of a cautious literature that did not offend or provoke established beliefs and value systems. That said, this paper does not claim that the Sanskrit kāvyasastra completely eliminated from literature any possibility of challenge to accept notions of social propriety or that Sanskrit kāvya did not produce anything that could challenge the dominant value system of society. Rather, this exploration is to analyse the various mechanisms by which Sanskrit kāvyaśāstra aimed to condition the creative writer along the lines of accepted moral and social codes and enquire whether these prescriptive guidelines effectively segued into restrictive methods that approximated contemporary methods of censorship. The term “censorship” is used here as a heuristic device in the complete awareness of the risks involved in applying what is a contemporary sociopolitical mechanism to understand the literary traditions of a bygone past.

Literature as Temptation

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Updated On : 22nd Aug, 2022
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