Thursday 4 August 2011

Poet Banabhatta’s Harshacharitha

Strange Circumstances of its CompositionIn the history of classical Sanskrit literature, which is at least 2000 years old, poet Banabhatta stands like a Himalayan peak in giving a new literary dimension to Sanskrit prose. His spectacular success could be gauged by the numerous imitations of his style that were followed by successive poets. Bana’s magnum opus “Kadambari” is not only the most celebrated prose romance in Sanskrit, but it is the best and its appeal has been universal for the past 14 centuries.
Similarly, Bana’s other composition “Harshacharitha” is the only and the very first of its kind in what could be called as ‘Historiography’ which is a biography of his patron king Harshavardhana belonging to the 7th century A.D. These two works of Bana have been considered sufficient by critics to look upon him as an embodiment of goddess Saraswathi.
In traditional Sanskrit literature, it is always the practice that poets remain silent completely about their life and times. Even Kalidasa mentions nothing about himself and the stories we hear about his life are only conjectures. So was the case with Bhasa.
However, Bana was an exception to this general rule of reticence since he provides us with a detailed picture of his life and times, his family background besides a glowing account of his royal patron King Harsha. Bana could, therefore, be considered as the very first poet historian whose account of contemporary India throws refreshingly rich light on the high culture which flourished in India. He does not, like writers of romance, reconstruct an epoch. He chose a contemporary subject of general interest and treated it in a way suited to his age.  He could not have departed much from the truth.
King Harsha ruled a considerable portion of North India as Chakravarthi (Emperor) for a period of 41 years from 606 to 647 A.D. So vast was his kingdom that among his tributary rulers (subordinate kings) were the rulers of Jalandhar in Punjab, Kashmir, Nepal and Vallabhi. He was a great patron of arts and literature.
The Chinese pilgrim Hieun Tsang who visited India during Harsha’s reign has left a memorable record of his travels in India in which he pays glowing tributes to the popularity of Harsha.
Another Chinese pilgrim I-Tsing, who studied in the Nalanda University from 671 to 681 A.D, narrates about the erudition, scholarship and literary excellence of King Harsha as a poet and scholar.
The Harshacharitha of Bana has six chapters of which the first two are devoted to a detailed account of the family history, starting from the lineage of the family. According to the text, Bana was born in a village called Prithikula on the river Shona in the region of Kanyakubja (Modern U.P.), almost at the close of the sixth century.  The village was a settlement of Brahmins celebrated for their scholarship and virtuous life.
Bana lost his mother early in his childhood and lost his father too when he was 14 years. This untimely demise of his father threw Bana into deep distress, though the family was rich and affluent.
With a view to overcoming his mental depression, Bana took to a wandering life. Meanwhile he received an allround education both in secular as well as in spiritual fields.
Bana was an exception to the lineage of early Sanskrit poets like Kalidasa, Bhasa etc most of whom were born in ordinary families. He was born in an affluent family and he could spend lavishly on his wandering tours and personal comforts. It is learnt that on his tours and travels, his entourage consisted of 44 members who included a painter, a sculptor, a musician and a dancing girl.
Each one of them had specialised in a different fine art. Some of them were poets in various languages and some others were philosophers. The Harshacharitha further mentions that there were personal attendants of Bana to take care of his betel–chewing habits. Engaged in the company of such variegated talents, Bana must have had a carefree and jovial life, giving himself to the best delights in life.
During his travels, he visited several education centres and met many scholars. They gave him first hand insight into the social life of their place. This fed him with a rich and cultural life of the country and probably this wander lust was eventually responsible for his becoming a historiographer at a later date. After covering a vast part of the country spanning several years, Bana finally returned to his village.
Bana’s rich, luxurious style of living drew the attention of a few jealous slander-mongering courtiers of the king. They hatched a plan to pull him down in the eyes of the king and reported to the king about the immoral way in which he spent his time which was not expected of a well-known Brahmin family. It was a sort of character assassination by his detractors.  Since Bana had his own friends in the royal court, it did not take much time for him to hear about the conspiracy being hatched against him.
Meanwhile, Bana was trying to court royal patronage and recognition of his talent. However, the king was upset by the rumors in the court corridors about the moral character of Bana.  Before deciding to extend royal patronage to Bana, King Harsha decided to meet Bana personally and clarify.
One summer evening when Bana was relaxing, a messenger came from the royal court and delivered a message to Bana directing him to meet the king at once. Though he was taken aback by the unexpected royal message, still he could put two and two together and guessed that it must be the handiwork of his denigrators. He lost no time in arranging for his journey to meet the king personally. He felt that his enemies must have painted a bad picture of him to the king and the king might be wanting him for a clarification. He started mentally preparing himself for vindicating his moral purity and impeccable character.
It took three days for him to reach the capital. As he entered the main gate of the palace, he had his own misgivings about the interview since he apprehended that the king might have his own royal whims and fancies. He had no influence in the court to help him in this hour of need. He prayed to God seeking divine help. When he entered the royal court where the king was seated on a throne, he was treated with scant respect and King Harsha greeted him with the words, “You! A great Libertine!” Bana, however, kept his cool and gave a spirited, impromptu and sincere reply in the following words:
“Oh King! Why do you say so, as if you do not know the truth, as if you are prone to doubting, as if you could be nose-led by others and as if you don’t know the ways of the world? The nature of people is proverbially capricious and strange. They spread scandals as they please. But the great should investigate the truth by themselves. You should not misjudge me as if I am an ignoble commoner.
“I come from a holy, respected erudite family of Brahmins, well-known for their Vedic sacrifices and other rituals. I have received my complete education in the scriptures and I am now living with my lawfully wedded wife. Where is the scope for my being a libertine? I might have been a little wayward in my younger years. But I have never transgressed the rules of our Sanathana Dharma. And I am repentant myself even of that youthful waywardness of mine.”
This spirited, spontaneous and sincere reply moved the king so much that he was deeply hurt about the mistaken notions and ill-feelings he had developed towards Bana and his wrong assessment of his moral character. He asked Bana to stay in his palace for a few more days during which period he was very much impressed by Bana’s genius, scholarship and erudition. He showered royal honours on him, in addition to presenting him with herds of elephants and tons of gold.
No wonder, then, that Bana did his best to recompense the patron properly  by writing the first-ever biography of a historical king in the most gorgeous Sanskrit style of prose chronicle and name it, “HARSHACHARITHA”.
Article by : B.M.N.Murthy
Source: Bhavan's Journal 15 September 2009
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