Erotic poetry will make you a better person

There is a bit in U.R. Ananthamurthy’s novel Samskara about a young brahman who listens to his teacher’s description of Śakuntalā and gets so hot and bothered that he runs off and jumps into the river, where he meets and makes love to an outcaste woman.

As soon as you start reading a work on poetics (alaṅkāraśāstra), you’re likely to encounter a premodern version of the “defense of the humanities.” Literature will make you a better person, or more precisely, it will help you achieve the four goals of human life: being good (dharma), having material resources (artha), enjoying pleasure (kāma), and attaining liberation (mokṣa). Today, I’m thinking of Viśvanātha’s in the Mirror of Literature 1.2 (caturvargaphalaprāptiḥ sukhād alpadhiyām api kāvyād eva yatas tena tatsvarūpaṃ nirūpyate), and his completely pro forma explanation (involving the words “it’s completely obvious”).

I have been spending a lot of time lately with a poem, the Sattasaī, which Indian theorists of literature also spent a lot of time with. This is an anthology of Prakrit poems which are mostly about illicit sex: between unmarried young people, between a woman and her brother-in-law, between a young wife and a lonely traveler, between a husband and his menstruating wife, and so on. Now, I know that poems like the Rāmāyaṇa were read with a general moral: “act like Rāma, and not Rāvaṇa” (rāmādivat pravartitavyaṃ na rāvaṇādivat). I have looked in vain for a reflection in the literature on poetics on the ethical lessons that a text like the Sattasaī teaches us. And I have wondered whether the rise of a certain “social aesthetic” in Sanskrit literature (described by Sheldon Pollock in Journal of Indian Philosophy 29 [2001]: 197–229) in fact contributed to the declining readership of this kind of poetry.

One possibility was reading these poems “against the grain,” as Ravicandra did with Amaruka’s love poetry (see Yigal Bronner’s article in Journal of Indian Philosophy 26 [1998]: 233–261). Ravicandra interpreted each poem of the Amaruśataka as simultaneously describing love (śṛṅgārarasa) and advocating dispassion (śāntarasa). In the case of the Sattasaī, we have Hāritāmrapītāmbara’s commentary, which brings to bear on every verse an ethical norm (dharma), a piece of practical advice (nīti), and a conclusion for religious practicioners (yukti). For example, the famous verse that Ānandavardhana used as an example of “saying the opposite of what you mean”:

Here is where my mother-in-law sleeps. Here is where I sleep. And here is where the servants sleep. Don’t stumble into the wrong bed, traveller, in the dark of night.

Pītāmbara starts from the ethical norm that is implicitly about to be violated here and skips to the conclusion that religious practicioners (yogins) shouldn’t sleep in anyone else’s bed anyway, since they are after all too devoted to their practice to even sleep in a bed.

But apart from this strategy of neutralizing the morally ambiguous character of the poetry, I can’t begin to understand how careful readers of this literature—as Bhojadeva was—could claim that it leads to the attainment of all human ends in a direct and instrumental way. I would be happy to take any hints in the comments. But do the people who justify the arts and humanities today by reference to their instrumental value really believe their own arguments?

3 Replies to “Erotic poetry will make you a better person”

  1. Very interesting post, indeed. *My* solution would be that poetry makes us better people because it enables us to understand other people’s feelings. This enhanced karuṇā is part of our human dharma and is also conducive to mokṣa. As for kāma and artha, they are directly conveyed by verses explaining how to seduce other people. What would you say?

    • I agree that “understanding other people’s feelings” is an important function of literature (in fact people have argued that the accessibility and popularity of novels in the 18th century is what created modern moral subjects). And—I don’t know whether I should be surprised by this—Pītāmbara also agrees with you. In one verse (“Who are you thinking of?” — “Who is there for me to think of?” — With these words, she burst out in tears, and I couldn’t help but do the same) he says, albeit not on a metaliterary level, that good people are sensitive to other people’s pain (dhārmikāḥ paraduḥkhaduḥkhitā bhavanti) and that only the compassionate will be worthy of liberation (kāruṇikā eva muktyadhikāriṇo bhavanti).

      The problem is that the licit pursuit of wealth and pleasure is different from their unrestrained pursuit, which usually leads to forbidden (viruddha or niṣiddha) actions, which is precisely what the Sattasaī speaks about. The effects of this kind of literature on someone who doesn’t already know how to neutralize its eroticism (like Pītāmbara) is what Ananthamurthy illustrated in his fable.

      Obviously, we need an account where the aesthetic enjoyment of the situations depicted in the Sattasaī is separated from the perspectives of both moral judgement (which would ruin the enjoyment) and the temptation to do similar things. And obviously this is, in part, what the aesthetic theory of Bhaṭṭa Nāyaka and Abhinavagupta provide: a neutralization of the impediments, including moral impediments, to the experience of a generalized aesthetic feeling, which in turn has (at least in Abhinavagupta’s version) a moral component of its own. My point is that the notion of exemplars on which the moral function of literature is based—exemplars like “act like Rāma and not like Rāvaṇa”—fails in many cases, and must serve as a kind of promise that literature, even the Sattasaī, has moral functions beyond exemplarity.

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