The continuing and overwhelming importance of ancient religious texts in India has almost obscured the existence of another genre of Sanskrit literature which flourished for a few centuries. This is drama, which may be called “secular” in the original sense of the word, since it is neither about religion, nor does it have any religious purpose. But can any creative art in ancient India ever be totally divorced from religion? Drama, too, began with the gods. This is how the story goes:

The gods went to Brahma and requested him to create a fifth Veda which could be accessed by all, unlike the earlier four Vedas which were only for Brahmins. Brahma agreed and created a fifth Veda, which he called the “natyaveda” (natya includes drama, dance, and music), which was open to everyone. Bharata Rishi’s hundred sons provided the actors. (Never any dearth of actors!) Brahma created apsaras to bring grace into natya. And the first performance took place.

The history of drama

The theme, which has persisted through centuries, was the conflict between good and evil. In the battle, as enacted in the drama, the gods won. At this, the asuras in the audience went berserk (familiar stuff) – they rioted and stopped the performance. Brahma then did two things. He asked the divine architect Vishvakarman to design a playhouse for the safety of the performance. And he placated the asuras, telling them that the drama had not been against them. Drama, he told them, “is the representation of the ways of the three worlds, involving various emotions and differing circumstances”. And so began the history of drama.

This story and the quote have come to us from Bharata’s Natyashastra, the first treatise on drama, a voluminous and comprehensive book, not just on drama, but also music and dance. My own connection with the Natyashastra began soon after my father’s death, when I took on the job of completing his work by translating the few chapters he had left untranslated. Blithely I began, looking at it as a daughterly duty, not knowing what I was letting myself in for. My own knowledge of Sanskrit, even after six years of study in school and college, was sketchy at best. Reading itself was difficult, because of the rules of “sandhi” (joining words). Besides, the Natyashastra is a maddeningly detailed treatise, everything listed and categorised into groups and then into sub-groups.

So we have ten kinds of plays (each described in some detail), ten kinds of plots, ten kinds of heroes and heroines and so on. There are also rules about language, including modes of address to various characters, and details of costumes and jewellery to be used. A multitude of rules lay down how the actor is to sit, stand, walk, lie down on a bed – with the rules differing for men and women. There are also many kinds of calamities, of deceit and of love. (Three kinds of each, if anyone is interested.) The rules of drama forbade the hero from dying on stage, and it was also absolutely imperative that the play should never end in tragedy. (What, one wonders, would Shakespeare would have done with this rule?)

Breaking rules

Plays written by Kalidasa, Bhasa, Sudraka, Vishakadatta and others which have survived to this day show the impossibility of imposing rules on writers of genius. For, ironically, some of the best dramas are those in which writers flouted the rules. An example is the Mrchhakatikam by Sudraka, a play that ignores many of the rules of Sanskrit drama. Whoever Sudraka was, or was not, he was certainly a maverick. The story of his play does not come from the epics or history and the hero of the play, Charudatta, is neither a king, nor a character from the epics, but a poor Brahmin, impoverished by his own generosity.

Even more surprising is that the heroine, Vasantasena, is a courtesan. More free and independent, therefore, than most heroines, she is not bashful, but open about her love for the hero. “Say his name again,” she cries out to the villain who curses Charudatta, “say it again, it is like music to me.” She is generous and clever as well, managing to evade the villain, who is constantly chasing her.

Oh yes, there is a villain. There has to be one, of course; but, in this play he is, unusually, a comic villain who muddles everything he says and does. He is a type familiar to us today, going around asking people, “Do you know who I am?” and answering the question himself with “I am the King’s brother-in-law.” Brisk action, snappy dialogue, a burglary, stolen gold jewellery which moves from person to person, mistaken identities, a supposed murder, a trial and, finally, a revolution which solves all the problems of the hero and heroine – these have been neatly put together in what is undoubtedly one of the most original plays of earlier times.

Kalidasa’s Abhijnana Shakuntalam (The Recognition of Shakuntala), is part of our cultural heritage, our cultural memory. The story of love between a king and an innocent girl in a hermitage, his inducing her to have a gandharva marriage (no rites, no witnesses), the king going away promising to send for her, which he never does because he has forgotten her – this story is familiar to many Indians. As is the curse of Durvasa, which made Dushyanta forget the girl, a curse which could be nullified by a token, in this case the ring given to Shakuntala by Dushyanta.

When Shakuntala’s foster father Kanva rishi finds her pregnant and learns about the marriage, he asks his disciples to take her to the king and leave her with him. But the king denies even knowing Shakuntala. Worse, she finds to her horror that she has lost the ring he had given her. A dramatic, heart-rending scene follows, as Shakuntala tries to revive the king’s memory, while he (until then very much the courteous polished gentleman) turns nasty with accusations of women trying to trap men and so on, peeking at the beauty of her unveiled face at the same time.

The disciples finally decide to go away, leaving Shakuntala in the palace. And when Shakuntala, sobbing, tries to follow them, the senior disciple turns round and thunders, “What, you brazen girl, do you want independence?” The answer to this question was to come centuries later.

And, a stroke of genius, immediately after this emotion-laden scene, comes an earthy one of a fisherman who has found the ring in a fish and the king’s policemen who want to arrest him, thinking he has stolen it. A scene that ends with the accused and the policemen going together for a drink. A play much admired throughout the world, Abhijnana Shakuntalam is like a chiselled jewel cut by a master craftsman. In Shakuntala, Kalidasa created a girl who charmed the world. Goethe’s rhapsodic praise of the play and its heroine is often quoted.

Why read Sanskrit plays?

There have been a great number of translators through the centuries who have made Sanskrit texts accessible to non-Sanskrit readers. Sir William Jones, the famous Orientalist, first translated Shakuntala into English. It was a landmark, taking Indian literature to the world. Many translations followed William Jones’ translation, not all of a high quality.

Prof P Lal, who believed that “the thing to do is to attempt to preserve, not the Sanskrit language, but the Hindu tradition it enshrines”, is very caustic about the translations done by Westerners. “Mealy prose and gelatin verse” is how he describes them. Translations of ancient Sanskrit texts, specially into English, are always very tricky and Prof Lal himself falters at times. “Who is he, mother?” Shakuntala’s son asks his mother about Dushyanta. According to Prof Lal, her reply is, “A star is dancing,” while most translators make it, “Ask your fate.”

Whatever their merits, why would anyone read these plays today? What do they mean to us – apart from the miracle of their having come down intact through the centuries, apart from the marvel of so many good writers existing at a time when most people did not even know how to read and write? What do we get out of the plays? Anthony Trollope wrote a novel The Way We Live Now, a brilliant exposé of the corruption and greed of his times. These Sanskrit plays too give us a whiff of the past and tell us the way we lived then.

We meet all kinds of people in the plays: Fishermen, policemen, court officials, thieves, gamblers, cart-drivers, a judge, court officers, executioners, and of course kings, queens, and jesters. We learn that the caste system was firmly entrenched in society. Dushyanta, though he falls in love with Shakuntala at first sight, thinks, before he approaches her: “Something tells me she is worthy of being married to a Kshatriya”. A very convenient feeling, one he needed to justify his impulsive action to himself. Brahmins are top dog in society.

Charudatta’s great friend in Mrchhakatika, Maitreya, is shocked when he is asked to wash Charudatta’s feet. “What! I wash his feet! I am a Brahmin.” And yet he is a loyal and devoted friend, ready to die for Charudatta. Brahmins are exempted from a death sentence, even if they have committed murder. Slavery existed, but it could be ended. We have Vasantsena’s maid’s lover wanting to buy her freedom from Vasantsena. Surprisingly, Brahmins, servants, maids, slaves, all mingle together harmoniously; there is none of the rigidity that became part of religion later. And finally, Charudatta, a Brahmin, marries Vasantsena, a courtesan, without any hesitation. Was it so easy? Or was it wishful thinking on the part of the writer?

It was a multilingual society even then, as it is now. Sanskrit was barred to everyone but Brahmins and kings. In Mrchhakatika, only five characters speak Sanskrit; the others speak various dialects. Even Queens do not speak Sanskrit, though Vasantsena speaks it once. Truly, Sudraka broke the mould when he created Vasantsena.

Writers of today will immediately feel a kinship with Kalidasa and Bhavabhuti, both of whom hurled challenges at critics. Obviously, they met unwelcome criticism from critics for a particular play and got back at them in their next one. Kalidasa is mild in his comment. A thing cannot be good, he says, only because it is old, nor is a thing bad only because it is new. It is the ignorant, he adds, who follow the opinions of others. He speaks like any young author defending his right to write differently. Bhavabhuti’s indignation, on the other hand, is sweeping, it is bravado on a grand scale. “My plays”, he thunders in Malati Madhavam, “are not meant for people who look down on my work. Some day, someone will be born who will understand me. For, time is endless and the earth is vast”.

What is depressingly familiar, however, is the status of women. There is Dushyanta, the ardent and gallant lover, the courteous king, speaking crudely to Shakuntala when denying her claim about their marriage. Women are cunning, he says, they know how to trap men with lies. Equally shocking is a man in the Mrchhakatika telling Vasantasena, when she angrily rebuffs the villain: You can’t say “No” to any man. A courtesan’s house is open to all men. Money can buy your love. You have to be equally friendly to all men.

Rama, an ordinary human being

In his book Drama in Sanskrit Literature, the author, RV Jagirdar, calls Bhavabhuti the “only writer who had the courage and greatness to depict Rama as an ordinary human being”. A suffering human being. This is in Uttararamacharitam, a play set in a time 12 years after Sita was abandoned by Rama in the forest. There is a kind of a family reunion in Valmiki’s ashram; Rama, Lakshman, his son, Kausalya, Janaka, Sita and her twins who were brought up by Valmiki, are all there for their own different purposes, ignorant of the presence of the others. A piquant situation is created because the twins do not know who these people are, and none of them know that the twins are the babies Sita gave birth to in the forest when abandoned by Rama.

To add to this, Sita is invisible to all of them. Nevertheless, Sita seems very much present, because everyone is thinking of her (except the twins, of course). Surprisingly, not only Janaka, Sita’s father, but even Kausalya, Rama’s mother, blames Rama for what he did. Rama himself is filled with guilt and remorse at what he did to Sita. I was cruel, he thinks. She must have died, devoured by wild animals in the forest. Which tells us that he knew when he sent her there that she could fall prey to wild animals. A horrifying thought.

If we go beyond the conventions of the stage of the time, (like an excessive emotionalism which has people “swooning” all the time, all over the place), what remains at the heart of this play is Rama’s guilt and remorse at what he did to Sita. Yet, listening to him grieving, one thinks: is this the same man who said such cruel words to Sita in Lanka?

David Shulman in his essay “Fire and Flood” (in Many Ramayanas), asks, “Has his (Rama’s) life with its unwavering commitment to dharmic ideals brought him to this painful point?”

The “painful point” is the moment of Sita’s agnipariksha. The war is over, Ravana is dead, Rama has won. Sita comes out to Rama. And his first words to her are, “I have done my duty. I have wiped out the insult to my family. That is what I came for, not to rescue you. You are now free to go wherever you want. I don’t want you with me.”

It is a moment of unimaginable shock for Sita. She comes out of it to say, “You are talking like any ordinary man. You doubt my chastity. I don’t want to live.” She asks Lakshmana to get some wood and light a fire. Which he does. Rama is silent, he does not react in any way. When the fire is burning, Sita enters it. And then comes the magic moment of the Ramayana. Brahma appears and asks Rama, “Do you know who you are?”

“I only know I am Dasharath’s son,” Rama replies.

“No, you are Vishnu sent to earth to destroy Ravana. And Sita is your Lakshmi.”

Agni then brings Sita, unscathed, untouched by the fire and Rama accepts her. Why then does he, when they go back to Ayodhya, once again punish her? By taking her back, he had accepted her innocence. Why then the banishment?

In Uttararamacharitam, everyone thinks Rama wronged Sita. Yet, except for his own self-recriminations, nobody brings up the past. In fact, even Sita never mentions her grief. In Ayodhya, Rama did something worse than what he did in Lanka: he stole away when Sita was sleeping and asked Lakshman to take her to the forest and leave her there. And therefore the question recurs: Is this repenting, suffering man the same one who sent Sita to a certain death when she was full-term pregnant?

In truth, the point is that Bhavabhuti is steering us towards reconciliation, towards harmony. Perhaps because, as Iravati Karve says in Yuganta, Sita’s “tragic end has remained an unhealed wound in the hearts of Indians”. Therefore, it is necessary for Rama to be remorseful, for Sita not to be hostile, so that the happy ending can ensue. And there are Sita’s twins who are the delight of this play; they seem to redeem all the wrongs done in the past. They are brave, fearless, they challenge the soldiers who are accompanying Rama’s Ashwamedha horse. And they defeat them. “Did you think there were no Kshatriyas here?” Lava asks the soldiers scornfully. Beautifully characterised, they are also eager children who run off to see “the thing they call a horse”. Speaking of Rama, Lava says, “Leave him alone, he’s an old man.” I can see an audience gasping. This, for the hero, the man who is god incarnate!

Not only does Bhavabhuti want the finally-all-together happy ending, he also wants to keep his hero’s character intact., Bhavabhuti is not the only one to avoid the final tragedy. Kampan’s Ramayana ends on the happy note of Rama returning to Ayodhya. The Uttarakanda, it is said, is not a part of Valmiki’s original Ramayana. Those who deny the terrible end are moving towards the picture we are now familiar with: Rama, flanked by Sita and Lakshman, with that great devotee Hanuman kneeling at their feet. And who can blame them? The tragic ending is too painful to bear, even for this cynical old heart.

However, the story of Rama and Sita can never have a happy ending. It is a story steeped in sorrow. It begins with “shoka”, Valmiki’s grief, when he sees a bird dying and watches the bird’s companion’s grief. Like the Mahabharata, the Ramayana is doomed to end in tragedy. Sita will not go back to Rama, she will disappear for all time. The victory won by the Pandavas in the Mahabharata, and by Rama in the Ramayana, are pyrrhic victories. In the end there is only grief, only loss.

We cannot judge these plays by the standards of our time. But the Ramayana is a story that raises many questions. Was it indeed his “dharmic ideals” that led Rama to behave towards Sita as he did? Or was it part of his idea of kingly duty that he had to respect the words of his citizens? The biggest question, however, is: Is it right to make others suffer because of your own strict adherence to a moral code? One also feels the need to ask: Is the edifice of dharma so fragile that removing just one brick can bring down the entire building? Has compassion no place at all in the idea of dharma? What kind of dharma is it which has to be so unyielding and unconcerned with the consequences? Dharma is the central concern of the Mahabharata, and is at the core of the Ramayana as well; but here, the struggle is concentrated in one man’s life. The ideal man. Yet he too suffers, as Bhavabhuti shows us in his play. Rama’s end is poignant, immensely tragic.

The Ramayana is a story of a man trying to live a moral life and failing at times, because he is human and, therefore, flawed. The Rama who walks into the Sarayu after Lakshman’s death has moved a very long way from the boy and young man who delighted all those whose lives he touched. He has gone through the experience of living, of losing what he loved most, of trying to follow an ideal and failing. This, too, we learn, is part of the human experience. Paradise is always lost, but the attempt to regain it never ends.