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 : 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 : 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?