Classical Sanskrit Lyrics
The name for Sanskrit lyric poetry is subhasita meaning “beautifully expressed in language”. Classical Sanskrit Lyrics are identified by their many unique traits and qualities. These poems, unlike western poetry, are usually impersonal and universal. Typically, classical Sanskrit poetry is very short. They consist of only a few verses or lines. There are two types of poetry that fit this requirement, either a complete text in a short form, or poetry extracted from a longer work that can stand on its own. Because Sanskrit poetry is meant to be short, the consequence is that it can’t explain everything or give the entire story in detail. Instead, subhasita’s give the reader just a glimpse of the mood; this is known as rasa. These subhasita’s also make use of indirect suggestions called dhvani instead of providing a direct description.
Despite being short, it is also necessary for a classical Sanskrit poem to be a self contained thought; that is, that the idea or storyline is all wrapped up with no loose ends. Sanskrit poetry is well crafted in that the poet should use the best words and images and feature many twists of language and figuration called alamkāra.
Bhāvakadevī, also known as Bhāvaka-devī or Bhavadevi, is actually her stage name, however very little is actually known about her real name. Bhāvakadevī lived and wrote her poetry during the middle of the Classical period of Sanskrit literature. She was one of the few women poets, as they were rare and elusive during a time when men dominated the poetry world. More is known about other classical, female Sanskrit poets. With only two recovered poems, Bhāvakadevī is truly a mystery.
Bhāvakadevī wrote the classical Sanskrit poem, “At first our bodies knew”, also dubbed ‘Bitter Harvest’. This poem is a good example of a subhasita, a type of Sanskrit poetry, for many reasons.
Bhāvakadevī’s poem contains two phrases, with seven lines in total. This qualifies it as complete text in a short form, which is a subhasita quality. Her poem is self-contained; it completely explains feelings and the situation they surround. Yet, because it is a subhasita, and short by nature, it cannot fully display the essence of an emotional state. There is more depth to the nature of the emotions in this poem. As a subhasita, we only get a rasa, a snapshot of a mood in one moment in time. The use of dhvani is also seen in this poem, as Bhāvakadevī gives us only ideas and suggestions of what has happened with her husband, and not a direct description of him cheating on her. I would argue, however, that in this particular poem, Bhāvakadevī does not write in a universal way- this poem actually seems rather personal.
“At first our bodies knew” is also a well crafted poem, another signifier of classical Sanskrit lyrics. Strategically placed antonyms and repetition, create a flowing beautiful read. The first line features the word ‘perfect’, and the last line ‘broken’, which makes the poem appear finished and complete. The second line features the word ‘grow’ and the penultimate line features the word ‘reap’. This suggests the seasons of Spring and Fall- that time has passed, and that there is a cycle to their love. Bhāvakadevī also crafted this poem with repetition in the word ‘I’, which emphasizes her feelings of isolation.
I have found two other translations of this poem, both with their own differences. R. Parthasarathy’s translation makes use of the word wretched instead of unhappy. The final lines have most of the same content, just phrased differently. I like the line “hard to swallow” because it brings more of the fruit/harvest symbolism. The beginning of the Columbia University version is most clear out of the three translations. The phrase “diamond hard life” is a great ending. It is interesting that the other two translations call the fruit bitter but this version doesn’t, even with the title “Bitter Harvest”. If I pieced together my favorite / the most clear lines, It would go like this:
At first our bodies knew a perfect oneness / then grew two when you stopped being the lover, / but I, wretched one, kept on playing the beloved. / Now, you are the husband, I the wife, / a broken pledge is all that’s left / to reap the bitter fruit of my diamond hard life.
All of these translations, although slightly different, give us the same story. A husband and wife who used to be intertwined in love, have grown apart due to the husband’s infidelity. She kept on playing her role in the marriage despite that the husband stopped playing his. Assessing the situation- they are still husband and wife, but now with a broken trust between them. Moving forward, She rhetorically questions what is left of her life except to continue in this broken relationship.
These are two translations of the second and only other recovered poem by Bhāvakadevī. ‘Her breasts are brother kings’ does not tell a story like “At first our bodies knew”, but metaphorically compares a woman’s breasts to royalty. This is another good example of a subhasita because of its length. It is one sentence in four lines, and this is roughly half of the length of Bhāvakadevī’s better known poem “At first our bodies knew”. Like the prior poem, ‘Her breasts are brother kings’ is also qualified as a complete text in a short form. It is also self contained, as it raises no questions of ‘what else?’.
In ‘Her breasts are brother kings’, Bhāvakadevī uses dhvani to indirectly describe to the reader a woman’s breasts that are equal in “nobility” and “altitude”. Bhāvakadevī illustrates this woman’s breasts as having grown strong, after all that they have gone through in life.
We don’t know who the woman in the poem is. Was it Bhāvakadevī writing about herself? Or did she have a female lover? So little is known about Bhāvakadevī, and the nature of a subhasita is that we don’t know the full story, just a rasa. Whoever this is about, we can infer that Bhāvakadevī thought she was a strong and resilient woman. Despite being female, the woman in this poem ruled over her own body much like a king rules over his land.
How I wish that more of Bhāvakadevī’s poetry had been recovered. I’m sure that there is so much more that she had to say. Based on the two poems that we have of hers, we can identify that she writes sensual poems, maybe not as explicit as some Egyptian Love Poetry, but sensual nonetheless. Despite the fact that only two poems remain, it is still a great feat that Bhāvakadevī managed to infiltrate the poetry world at a time dominated by men. It does not go unnoticed that the subject of both of her two poems is the resiliency of women.
Puchner, M., Akbari, S. C., Denecke, W., Fuchs, B., Levine, C., Lewis, P., & Wilson, E. R. (2018). The Classical Sanskrit Lyric. In The Norton Anthology of World Literature (4th ed., Vol. B, pp. 1057-1062). New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Parthasarathy, R., editor. “BHAVAKADEVI.” Erotic Poems from the Sanskrit: An Anthology, Columbia University Press, New York, 2017, pp. 57–57. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/part18438.12. Accessed 29 Apr. 2021.
Columbia University Press | 2017 DOI: https://doi.org/10.7312/part18438-010