Banabhatta (commonly referred to as “Bana”) was a Sanskrit poet in 7th century India. Still to this day, he is considered to be one of the most respected prose poets of ancient India and is ranked highly among other Sanskrit prose writers and poets (Hueckstedt 1985:6). He was born in a village of Brahmin settlers called Pritikuta on the river Shona in the region Kanyakubja. Banabhatta’s mother, Rajadevi died when he was young, and so, he was raised by his Father until his passing when Bana was fourteen (Krishnamoorthy 3). Bana then chose to take on a life of wandering and travelling for many years until he returned to Pritikuta, where he was welcomed by the community, but only stayed for a short visit. A courier by the name of Mekhalaka delivered a letter to Banabhatta, summoning him to the Emperor Harshavardhana. Upon meeting Bana, the emperor became fond of him and bestowed Bana with many gifts and praise (Krishnamoorthy 4-6). One of Bana’s works, titled The Harsacharita, an autobiography and biography styled piece, outlines much of both King Harshavardhana’s life and accounts for many of their encounters together (Hueckstedt 1985:7). Bana spent his life creating many works of literature, his most famous being The Kadambari and The Harsacharita. It is also speculated that he may have written The Candisataka, a verse poem that praises the goddess Durga (Hueckstedt 1985:7). The exact year of Bana’s death is unknown, but most scholars believe he died prematurely, as he died with unfinished works, specifically, The Kadambari (Hueckstedt 1985:9).
In his youth, Banabhatta received a well-rounded education in both sacred and secular divisions. Bana’s teacher was the great Bharchu, who was said to be adored by the Maukhari emperors that ruled the area where Pritikuta was located (Krishnamoorthy 3). Bana’s solid education, wealth, and status created by his family lineage of Brahmins, and close association with the emperor, provided Bana with the tools to produce excellent writings. Banabhatta introduced the writing styles of biography and autobiography into classical Sanskrit literature, and is also regarded as the first poet historian and autobiographer in ancient India (Krishnamoorthly 1-2). There is some evidence to suggest that the tradition of romantic fiction in ancient Sanskrit that Bana writes in may be as old as Patanjali, a significant figure in Sanskrit linguistics, but Bana is regarded as the first poet to achieve great distinction for the quality of literacy (Krishnamoorthly 8). His work excelled in literary forms such as rhythm, compounds puns, paradox, hyperbole, metaphor, while using poetic significance contributing to themes of wonder and romance through fiction.
One of Banabhatta most influential works, The Kadambari, is a long romance fiction written in prose that is almost fourteen-hundred years old (Hueckstedt 1995: 152). The Kadambari explores many different literary techniques and poetic essences created by Bana and embodies the dominant culture of North West India in the seventh century while remaining a vessel for romantic and emotional fictional poetry. One of the most striking features is the narrative used, that frames stories within stories (see Hueckstedt 1995:152). Krishnamoorthy defines The Kadambari as “the most celebrated prose romance in Sanskrit literature” (Krishnamoorthly 1). Many commentaries and translations of The Kadambari exist, but many of the attempts at translation are flawed because of the difficult nature of translating Sanskrit language. Specifically, in order to accurately translate this work, a reader needs a highly developed understanding of Sanskritphonetics and syntax, as well as an advanced understanding of the mythical tales alluded to, and finally, a reader needs to understand alankarasastra (science of figure of speech) to understand what Bana is doing in stylistic terms (Hueckstedt 1995:153). Banabhatta died before finishing this piece, and it was left to his son to complete (Hueckstedt 1985:7).
Another famous work by Banabhatta is The Harsacharita, a biography of the Emperor Harshavardhana, and contains an autobiographical account of the author, Banabhatta himself (Datta 1339). The Harsacharita is arguably one of the most influential pieces of ancient Indian Sanskrit literature because of its uniqueness at the time it was created. The Harsacharita is the first work of its kind (biography and autobiography) and is the first attempt at historiography in Indian literature (Krishnamoorthly 1). It is an autobiographical account written about Bana in a romantic prose style that includes writing on his own ancestry, early life, encounters with Harsha, and the return to relatives (Hueckstedt 1985: 7-8). Although it is most likely that The Harsacharita was written before The Kadambari, The Harsacharita is often criticized for not disclosing some major events in the life of the emperor. Thus, many define The Harsacharita as incomplete, or perhaps is only a part of what Bana had written (Hueckstedt 1985: 8). This work left a “tradition of convention and theory” that was designed to serve the higher class as a pastime (Thomas 385).
While The Harsacharita and The Kadambari are both regarded as great works of literary art, there are some major stylistic differences between the two. First, The Kadambari is written in romantic prose, while The Harsacharita can be defined as a romantic biography and autobiography. Thus, the stylistic choices made by Bana to express these different types of writing are different as well. According to Thomas, these differences contribute to “The Kadambari evoking a more sympathetic judgement than The Harsacharita” (Thomas 385). He illustrates this by providing an analogy of a feminine/masculine duality to illustrate the differences in the two works. The Harsacharita, using reality and history, represents the maturity and masculinity of the author, while The Kadambari shows romance and mellowness. Thus, the latter is regarded as the feminine principle (Thomas 385). Additionally, to explain another difference between the two, akhyayika and katha are two classes of Sanskrit literature that are evident in Bana’s works. akhyayika refers to a ‘historical tale’, while katha refers to a ‘tale’ (Krishnamoorthy 13). Respectively, The Harsacharita and The Kadambari are seen as classic examples of the two (Kane XXII). For a work to be categorized as akhyayika, it must be divided into sections called uchchhvasas and must contain verses in vaktra and apravaktra meters. Additionally, akhyayika deals with historical accounts, whereas katha typically does not (Kane XXVIII).
On the other hand, the two works also show similarities. For instance, both exhibit Bana’s creative use of narrative. The Kadambari possesses a narrative that frames stories within stories, and The Harsacharita has a narrative that allows for biography and autobiography to be accounted for within the same work. Another similarity is the abrupt, and perhaps unfinished endings to both pieces (see Kane XXXV). Also consistent between these works is Bana’s conception of reality. The use of stylized characters, plot and landscape paired with notions of the supernatural and use of non-realistic backgrounds, suggests an “idealization of reality” that allows Bana to romantically express components of his own reality into works of prose (Hueckstedt 1985 10-11).
Even after his death, Bana remained extremely influential in terms of Sanskrit literature. The flawless use of literary techniques combined with the emotion and sentiment carried through romantic prose shown in Banabhatta’s writings changed what literature was in essence. His introduction of new forms of literature such as autobiography and historical prose and creative use of established techniques was significant in Sanskritic writing. Later generations looked upon Bana as an “embodiment of the goddess of learning” (Krishnamoorthy 1). One of the most significant features of Bana’s writing was his ability to express romance and emotion while simultaneously producing historical biographies. Other poets applaud Bana for the “mastery of content” and also, the “depth of insight into the human heart” (Krishnamoorthy 1-2). Bana’s wide exposure to travelling and education provided him with adequate knowledge of both historical tradition of ancient India and its mythological tales (Krishnamoorthy 8). Krishnamoorthy goes as far as to say that “the unique genius of language has been so artistically exploited by Bana that his achievement had perhaps never again been equalled in the history of Sanskrit literature” (Krishnamoorthy 12).
REFRENCES AND FURTHER READING
Datta, Amaresh (1988) Encyclopaedia of Indian Literature: Devraj to Jyoti, Volume 2. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi
Hueckstedt, Robert A. (1995) “Reviews of books — Kadambari (of Banabhatta): A Classical Sanskrit Story of Magical Transformations translated and with an introduction by Gwendolyn Layne with illustrations by Virgil Burnet.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 115:152-54. Accessed February 2, 2020. doi:10.2307/605346.
Hueckstedt, Robert A. (1985) The style of Bana: an introduction to Sanskrit prose poetry. Lanham: University Press of America.
Kane, P.V. (1918) The Harshacharita of Banabhatta Bombay: Motilal Banarsidas
Krishnamoorthy, K (1976) Banabhatta. New Delhi:Sahitya Akademi.
Thomas, F. W. (1920) “Reviewed Works: The Harshacharita of Bāṇabhaṭṭa (Uchchhvāsas I-VIII) by P. V. Kane; The Harshacharita of Bâṇabhaṭṭa (Uchchhvâsas IV to VIII) by S. D. Gajendragadkar; The Harshacharita of Bâṇabhaṭṭa (Uchchhvasas I-IV) by S. D. Gajendragadkar”
The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, no. 3. 384-89. Accessed February 2, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/25209642.
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Article written by: Brooklynn Rudelich (Spring 2020), who is responsible for this content.