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Design and Rhetoric in a Sanskrit Court Epic

The Kiratarjuniya of Bharavi

Indira Viswanathan Peterson

Publication Year: 2003

Indira Viswanathan Peterson provides an introduction to the Sanskrit court epic (mahaµkaµvya), an important genre in classical Indian poetry, and the first study of a celebrated sixth-century poem, the Kiraµtaµrjuniµya (Arjuna and the Hunter) of Bhaµravi. Sanskrit court epics are shown to be characterized both by formalism and a deep engagement with enduring Indian values. The Kiraµtaµrjuniµya is the earliest literary treatment of the narrative of the Paµn|d|ava hero Arjuna’s combat with the great god Siva, a seminal episode in the war epic Mahaµbhaµrata. Through a close analysis of the structural strategies of Bhaµravi’s poem, the author illuminates the aesthetic of the mahaµkaµvya genre. Peterson demonstrates that the classical poet uses figurative language, rhetorical devices, and structural design as the primary instruments for advancing his argument, the reconciliation of heroic action, ascetic self-control, social duty, and devotion to God. Her discussion of the Kiraµtaµrjuniµya in relation to its historical setting and to renderings of this epic episode in literary texts and temple sculpture of later periods reveals the existence of complex transactions in Indian civilization between the discourses of heroic epic and court poetry, political ideologies and devotional religion, Sanskrit and the regional languages, and classical and folk traditions. Selections from the Kiraµtaµrjuniµya are presented in poetic translation.

Published by: State University of New York Press

Design and Rhetoric in a Sanskrit Court Epic

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List of Figures

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p. ix-ix

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pp. xi-xii

thank the following institutions for supporting my work on the Sanskrit court epic genre and Bhāravi's Kirātārjunīya: the Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation, for a Whiting Fellowship for dissertation research at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences; Mount Holyoke College, for a Faculty Fellowship; and the American Institute of Indian Studies...

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1. Introduction: The Study of the Sanskrit Court Epic

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pp. 1-5

This book is about a Sanskrit court poem and the aesthetics of a major genre of Indian poetry. The court epics (mahākāvya) of the great classical authors occupy a place in the Sanskrit literary tradition comparable to that of Virgil and Dante in the West.2...

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2. The Poetics of the Mahākāvya

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pp. 7-20

This chapter focuses on three mutually related questions: What kind of a poem is a Mahākāvya? Why, given the genre’s prestige within the tradition, have Western scholars found it difficult to discern literary value in Sanskrit court epics? And, how, given the lack of an adequate generic poetic for court epic in Sanskrit criticism, may we fruitfully respond to poems such...

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3. The Setting and Structure of the Kirātārjunīya

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pp. 21-46

Preceded by the Kumārasambhava (Origin of Kumāra) and Raghuvaṃśa (The Dynasty of Raghu) of Kālidāsa (4th-5th centuries), and followed by the Śiśupāla-vadha (The Slaying of Śiśupāla) of Māgha (9th century)...

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4. Prelude to Action: Epic Speech in Bhāravi's Poem

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pp. 47-79

The poets of the Mahābhārata skilfully exploited the rich possibilities of rhetorical variation. The entire epic is a series of framed speeches, beginning with the bard Sautī’s telling of the narrative of the Kuru princes as it was related by Vaiśampāyana to King Janamejaya, a descendant of the Kurus...

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5. The Debate between the Brothers: Logic, Rhetoric, and Politics in the Court Epic

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pp. 80-88

The opening lines of Bhāima’s speech in the second canto of the Kirātārjunīya are an effective introduction to classical ideals of politicalrhetoric. Draupadī’s speech moves Bhāima to address the king. Bhāimais so impressed with the queen’s argument that he opens his speechIn Bhāima’s view the queen’s speech is a stunning achievement...

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6. Landscapes with Women: Bhāravi’s Descriptive Art

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pp. 89-116

When Arjuna sets off toward his Himalayan destination, the Kirātārjunīya moves into the descriptive mode for a long stretch. Seven successive cantos are devoted almost entirely to kāvya’s descriptive topics- the hero's northward journey through an autumn landscape, the Sacred mountain...

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7. The Conundrum of the Warrior-Ascetic

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pp. 130-138

Arjuna’s austerity is a seminal event in the action of the Kirātārjunīya . It is remarkable, though, that Bhāravi describes the hero’stapas in no less than four sequences of verses in cantos 6 and 12,twice in the authorial voice, and twice in the speeches of the denizensof the Himalayas, who report the hero’s ascetic rites to the gods....

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8. The Theater of Combat

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pp. 139-160

In the twelfth canto of the Kirātārjunīya the Great God himself assumes responsibility for the “action” in the poem’s final segment,becoming both director and actor in the theater of the hero’s conflict with God. When the troubled sages of the Himalayan forests approach Śiva for relief from the terrifying effulgence and power of...

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9. Wrestling with God: Rasa and Bhākti in the Kirātārjunīya

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pp. 161-188

It is time to consider the final sequences of the Kirātārjunīya the culmination of the poem’s action and as the climax of the divine play staged by Śiva. If weapons are an integral part of Ar-juna’s heroic persona, why does Śiva succeed in stripping him, one by one, of all his weapons, till he has no choice but to wrestle with...

A Note on the Translation Selections

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pp. 189-190

Appendix A.

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pp. 191-194

Appendix B.

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pp. 195-202

Appendix C.

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pp. 203-214

Appendix D.

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pp. 215-220

List of Abbreviations

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pp. 221-268


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pp. 269-288


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pp. 289-302

Index of References to the Kirātārjunīya

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pp. 303-306

E-ISBN-13: 9780791487419
Print-ISBN-13: 9780791456132
Print-ISBN-10: 0791456137

Page Count: 318
Illustrations: 7 b/w photographs, 2 tables
Publication Year: 2003

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Bhāravi Kir⁻at⁻arjun⁻iya.
  • Epic poetry, Sanskrit.
  • Sanskrit poetry -- History and criticism.
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