Sanskrit

Travelling Through Time to Meet the Hindi Poets

Feature Article
Silent stories.
[Image by ashish choudhary from Pixabay]

The Hindi language is a treasury that stores precious jewels gained from different languages like the ancient Indian languages – Sanskrit, Prakrit, Pali, Apabhramsha and others like Dravidian, Turkish, Farsi, Arabic, Portuguese and English. Gathering from such enriching sources and reforming itself continuously, the Hindi language aimed both for simplicity and profundity, to be an easy guide for its user.

While every form of Hindi literature has only helped in fulfilling this goal, nothing matched the influence of Hindi Poetry. The word Hindi and/ or Hindavi, meaning Indian (the inhabitants of the Indus) in classical Persian, was understood to be the language of India and was taken up by many great poets like the Sufi poet and musician Amir Khusrow (1253 – 1325) for his poems.

Until the printing technique was invented, handwritten books and social gatherings were the only medium to spread literary and cultural ideas; it also meant that very few could afford handwritten books and reading was only for the scholars. Thus, it was poems that reached the masses in the form of songs, stories, folklore, fables and pure poetry; the most famous being the two epic poems of India – The Mahabharata and Ramayana.


The Hindi poems as well as other literary forms catered to and evolved with the time, changing styles and themes accordingly. With the records available, we find Hindi poems taking a firm position when the poets found patrons in the kings in the 11th to 14th Century, thus, beginning the Vir-Gatha Kaal or the AdiKaal. As this period saw many invasions and battles, it influenced Hindi poetry immensely; the poems were mostly about the valiant warriors of the time, adding fictitious encounters to please the King.

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Prithviraj Chauhan and Sanyogita.
[Source – museumsofindia.gov]

With Hindi speaking majority being in the North, the poems of this era also came from this region – Delhi, Kannauj, Ajmer, ranging up to central India. Prithviraj Raso, an epic poem, dedicated to the ruler of Delhi and Ajmer, Prithviraj Chauhan, by his court poet, Chand Bardai, is considered to be the most famous work of this period; though not historically reliable, it gives insights into society under a Hindu ruler. The poem celebrates Prithviraj Chauhan as a ruler; the widely known part of the poem being the King’s love life – how he fell for Sanyogita, his enemy’s daughter, who too wanted to marry him as Prithviraj Chauhan’s success wasn’t a secret, and how he barged in with an army on the day of Sanyogita’s sawayamvar and eloped with her. It is majorly because of this epic poem, that even today we see Prithviraj Chauhan’s love story being enacted on different platforms.

Other works by royal poets include Naishdhiya Charitra by Harsha, Khuman Raso by Dalpativijay, Bisaldev Raso by Narpati Nalha and Parmal Raso by Jagnayak, most of these being a lively rendition of battles and their consequences. Unfortunately, many of these poems were destroyed by the army of Muhammad of Ghor, thus, only a few manuscripts are available today.

Other poetic works include devotional works of the Siddhas (belonged to Vajrayana – a Buddhist cult), Nathpanthis (yogis who practised the Hatha yoga) and Jains. Gorakhnath, a Nathpanthi poet, wrote in styles like Doha (couplet) and Chaupai (quartet) and on themes that laid emphasis on moral values and scorned racial favouritism.

In the Deccan region in South India, Dakkhini or Hindavi was used. It flourished under the Delhi Sultanate and later under the Nizams of Hyderabad. The first Deccan poet was Nizami, his most famous poetical work is Panj Ganj (Persian for – Five Treasures).


By the end of the 14th century devotional poems took the centre stage and maintained its hold till the 18thcentury and came to be known as the Bhakti Kaal. New verse patterns like Doha, Sortha (Chhand/ verse), Chaupainya (four liners), Shringara Rasa, etc. were added to Hindi poetry styles. Also, fresh dialects like Avadhi, Brij Bhasha and Bundeli gave fervour to these new styles. The main works in Avadhi are Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s Padmavat and Tulsidas’s Ramacharitamanas and in Braj dialect are Tulsidas’s Vinaya Patrika and Surdas’s Sur Sagar.

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The poet Jayadeva bows to Lord Vishnu.
[Source – Wikimedia Commons]

Kabir, the great mystic poet and saint, is said to use a mixture of many dialects (especially Khaddi Boli) in his poetry and Dohas – 

माला फेरत जुग भया, फिरा न मन का फेर,
कर का मनका डार दे, मन का मनका फेर।

Translation – Kabir says, you spent your life turning the beads of a rosary, but could not turn/ change your own heart. Leave the rosary, try and change the evil in your heart.

In the Bhakti Kaal, two schools of thought were formed – Nirguna School (the believers of a formless God) and the Saguna school (the worshippers of Vishnu’s incarnations). Known as the Bhakti Movement, both these schools worked to transform the orthodox and biased ways of the society and offered every individual an alternative path to spirituality regardless of one’s caste or gender.

Kabir and Guru Nanak belonged to the Nirguna School; they were truly secular and thus, had a large number of followers irrespective of caste or religion; in fact, Guru Nanak became the founder of a monotheistic religion – Sikhism. The Saguna School was represented by mainly Vaishnava poets like Surdas, Tulsidas, Ramananda, Mira Bai, Tukaram and others.

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Mira Bai, the Bhakti saint, the mystic poet.
[Source – Wikimedia Commons]

This was also the age of tremendous integration between the Hindu and the Islamic elements in the Arts with the advent of many Muslim Bhakti poets like Abdul Rahim Khan-I-Khana who was a court poet to Mughal emperor Akbar and was a great devotee of Krishna.

जे गरीब पर हित करैं, हे रहीम बड़ लोग।

कहा सुदामा बापुरो, कृष्ण मिताई जोग॥

Translation – People who work for the poor are great ones. Poor Sudama says that Krishna’s friendship is like worshipping the supreme; Rahim means that one who helps the poor becomes worthy of getting divine love.


The 18th and 20th century saw the unfolding of Riti-Kavya Kaal, the age where the focus shifted from emotions to ‘riti’ which means procedure and to poetic theory and its elements like Alankrit Kaal, Shringar Kaal, Alankaar Kaal, Kala Kaal; euphoria, beauty, heroism and fancy became the major aspects of poetry in this era.

Riti Kaal’s poets lived in the shelter of kings and nobles. The literature written in such an environment was mostly decorative and artistic; thus, the poems also became distant from the general public.

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Krishna and Radha dancing the Rasalila.
[Source – Wikimedia Commons]

Most of the Riti works were related to Krishna Bhakti, with emphasis mainly on the Rasic (joyful, passionate, playful) and Shringar (physical love and beauty) elements – Krishna Leela, his pranks with the Gopis in Braj, and the description of the physical beauty of Krishna and Radha (Krishna’s consort). The poems of Bihari (Bihari Satsai), Keshavdas (Rasikpriya), Chintamani (Pingal) and Matiram (Rasraj) are well-known works of this period; their poems were a collection of Dohas, dealing with Bhakti (devotion), Neeti (moral policies) and majorly Shringar (physical beauty).

The shift from Sanskrit to a simpler language, even for the royal courts, had long ushered the change that kept on evolving Hindi language and that finally resulted in the formation of Devanagari script in the end; the first two books in Devanagari script, the year 1795, were by Heera Lal, which was a treatise on Ain-i-Akbari and by Rewa Mharaja – a treatise on Kabir.


From the 19th century onwards, started the Adhunik Kaal (modern literature); with the British East India Company establishing a complete hold on the country, Hindi poetry became the catalyst for the chain of revolutions in India. This period is divided into four phases – Bharatendu Yug, Dwivedi Yug, Chhayavad Yug (1918–1937) and the Contemporary Period (1937–present).

Bhartendu Harishchandra(1850-1885), known as the father of modern Hindi literature as well as Hindi theatre, used new media like reports, publications, letters to the editor, translations and literary works to shape public opinion.

Writing under the pen name “Rasa”, Harishchandra represented the agonies of the people, the country’s poverty, dependency, inhuman exploitation, the unrest of the middle class and the urge for the progress of the country. He was an influential Hindu “traditionalist”, using Vaishnava “devotionalism” to define a coherent Hindu religion.

निज भाषा उन्नति अहै, सब उन्नति को मूल।
बिन निज भाषा-ज्ञान के, मिटत न हिय को सूल।।
विविध कला शिक्षा अमित, ज्ञान अनेक प्रकार।
सब देसन से लै करहू, भाषा माहि प्रचार।।

Translation – Progress is made in one’s own language, as it is the foundation of all progress. Without the knowledge of the mother tongue, there is no cure for the pain of the heart. Knowledge is boundless, we should take new ideas from different cultures, but these new ideas should then be proliferated in our own language.

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The freedom struggle and fighting with the mighty pen.
[Image by Ashutosh Kaushik from Pixabay]

Mahavir Prasad Dwivedi (1864 – 1938) was a Hindi writer and editor who played a major role in establishing the modern Hindi language in poetry and broadening the acceptable subjects of Hindi poetry from the traditional ones of religion and romantic love; he encouraged poetry in Hindi dedicated to nationalism and social reform.

One of the most prominent poems of the period was Maithili Sharan Gupt’s Bharat-Bharati, which evokes the past glory of India. Shridhar Prathak’s Bharat-git is another renowned poem of the period.


Chhayavaadi Yug refers to the era of Neo-romanticism in Hindi literature, particularly Hindi poetry, 1922–1938, and was marked by an upsurge of romantic and humanist content, by a renewed sense of the self and personal expression, visible in the writings of the time.

The great literary figures belonging to this school are known as Chhayavaadi poets –Jaishankar Prasad, Suryakant Tripathi ‘Nirala’, Mahadevi Varma and Sumitranandan Pant. These four representative poets of this era embody the best in Hindi Poetry. A unique feature of this period is the emotional (and sometimes active) attachment of poets with the national freedom struggle, their effort to understand and imbibe the vast spirit of a magnificent ancient culture and their towering genius which grossly overshadowed all the literary ‘talked about’ of next seven decades.

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The grand Himalayas (the Annapurna Sanctuary).
[Source – Wikimedia Commons]

Himadri Tung Shring Se is a patriotic poem by Jaishankar Prasad; though a short one, the poem holds the capability of encouraging a whole generation and is often sung as an anthem –

हिमाद्रि तुंग श्रृंग से
प्रबुद्ध शुद्ध भारती —
स्वयं प्रभा समुज्ज्वला
स्वतंत्रता पुकारती —

अमर्त्य वीरपुत्र हो, दृढ प्रतिज्ञ सोच लो,
प्रशस्त पुण्य पंथ है — बढे चलो,बढे चलो

असंख्य कीर्ति-रश्मियाँ ,
विकीर्ण दिव्य दाह-सी 
सपूत मातृभूमि के —
रुको न शूर साहसी

अराति सैन्य सिंधु में, सुवाड़वाग्नि-से जलो,
प्रवीर हो जयी बनो — बढे चलो, बढे चलो !

[Translation – the poem tells every Indian to be as strong as the Himalayas, to be a gallant son of this land and to take a firm vow to continue walking on the path of virtue (i.e. to continue serving the country). Endless glories await the ones who are patriotic. Not to stop, but to burn like pure fire, to keep on walking ahead until you achieve your goal.]

The other prominent poets who also used Chayavaadi elements in their poetry include names like Ramdhari Singh ‘Dinkar’, Harivansh Rai Bachchan, Makhanlal Chaturvedi and Pandit Narendra Sharma.


After India’s independence, the core socio-economic, political and cultural aspect went through a whirlpool of changes and so did the Modern Hindi literature. It entered Pragativaad  (progressivist-socialist), Prayogavaad (experimentalist) tendencies culminating in new poetry and further labels like contemporary poetry and reflective poetry.

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Toota Pahiya – the broken wheel, a poem by Dharamvir Bharati.
[Source – newspuran]

Some of the famous poets of the Contemporary Period include – Bhawani Prasad Mishra (Buni Hui Rassi), Gulab Khandelwal (Usha, Alokvritt), Kedarnath Singh (Akaal Mein Saras), Nagarjun (Bādal kō Ghiratē Dēkhā hai), Sudama Pandey Dhoomil (Sansad se Sarak Tak), Padma Sachdev (Meri Kavita Mere Geet), Dharamvir Bharati (Toota Pahiya), Geet Chaturvedi (Ubhaychar).

A section of poets also wrote for cinema and television; poets became lyricists and screenwriters, moulding this literary form further. Some of the known lyricists are – Anand Bakshi, Shailendra, Saroj Mohini Nayyar, Sahir Ludhianvi, Amrita Pritam, Gulzar, Javed Akhtar, Prasson Joshi, Jaideep Sahni and Irshad Kamil.

O life, embrace me… a song from the Hindi film Sadma (1983), lyrics by Gulzar.
[Source – Pinterest, for English translation click here.]

It has been a long journey for the Hindi Poets, forever evolving along with the Hindi language. The ability of the Hindi language to sanction and its power to absorb new ideas has given Hindi literature a colourful past. While we compartmentalize the eras for it is then easier to approach the bulk of literature produced, it many times overshadow the individuality of a poet for poets are not of one era, they are of every era.

Poets, by nature of their profession, see what is beyond their times, see what is invisible to others, and this is what makes every honest poem unique.  The 21st century Hindi poets, like their ancestors, present an image of the world around, and also give us a peek into a deeper world, the inner world.

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The Great Grand Epics of India

Brief Introduction

“Yada yada hi dharmasya

glanir bhavati bharata

abhyutthanam adharmasya

tadatmanam srjamy aham”

(Bhagwat Gita: Chapter 4 verse 7)

“Sri Krishna said: Whenever righteousness declines, O descendant of Bharata, and unrighteousness prevails, I manifest Myself.”

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These profound words are etched in every Indian’s heart and soul, no matter which century she is born in, to which caste or creed, everyone knows these words of Lord Krishna; words that have a philosophical meaning, words that talk about a divine scheme of things which might be hard for some of us to contemplate, but no one can deny its power for these words still influence us all.

And so does the story of a great king who brought an end to the evil, giving every Indian across the world the festival of lights – Diwali.

Such is the reach of the great epics of India, such is the magnificence of epic poems – The Ramayana and The Mahabharata – that both the texts are still very much alive, guiding through, warning about and presenting life as it is.

These extensive ancient epic poems, The Ramayana with 24,000 verses in Sanskrit, credited to the sage Valmiki and The Mahabharata with an overwhelming 200,000 verse lines and long prose passages in Sanskrit, making it the longest epic poem in the world, credited to the sage Vyasa, are astoundingly both simple and complex, meaning that, while a little school kid can narrate its storyline in one go, a scholar might find it hard to encapsulate its essence in even hundred pages.

These two epics of India present us with a whole new world of characters, tales, ideas, powers, fears and also a mirror that holds an answer for every individual.

The Ramayana and The Mahabharata came long after The Vedas. The Vedic literature is vast; it contains the highest spiritual thoughts of our Rishis (sages). But the language and the complexity of the thoughts barred it from being accessed by the commoners as the people found it hard to study, to understand the depth of The Vedas, Upanishads and Aranyakas.

Thus, the Rishis, the seers, shaped the philosophical texts in the form of a story, so that the core message could spread amongst one and all. And so it did, in the form of the legendary story of Lord Rama and the epic war fought inKurukshetra.


Ramayana – The Story

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Rāmacandra standing in a rocky landscape with Laksmana and the bear and monkey chiefs of his army.
[Source – Wikimedia Commons]

Rama was the eldest son of the king of Ayodhya, Dashratha and queen Kaushalya. Rama was the epitome of magnificence and great virtue. After his tutelage under the great sage Vishvamitra, Rama got married to the sublime Sita, but only after bending God Shiva’s mighty bow at her Swayamvar.

When the old King Dashratha expressed his desire of crowning Rama as his successor, his second queen Kaikeyi, provoked by her maid Manthara, reminded the king of the two boons he had promised her in exchange for saving his life once. Kaikeyi thus demanded to send Rama to exile for 14 years and to make Bharat, her own son, the new king of Ayodhya.

After Rama is banished, he retreats to the forest with Sita and his favourite half-brother, Lakshmana, to spend 14 years in exile. A shocked Bharat goes to the forest and pleads with Rama to return to Ayodhya, but on Rama’s refusal, he takes his foot-wear to place on the throne and to rule the country on behalf of his elder brother.

The epic explicitly narrates the journey of Rama, Sita and Lakshmana in exile; the hardships they face, the various people they encounter and several lessons learnt. There Sita is abducted by the king of Rakshasas, Ravana, while her two protectors are busy pursuing a golden deer sent to the forest to mislead them.

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In Lanka, Sita resolutely rejects Ravana’s attentions, and Rama and his brother set out to rescue her. After several adventures, they enter into alliance with Sugriva, king of the monkeys, and, with the assistance of the monkey-general Hanuman and later Ravana’s own brother, Vibhishana, they attack Lanka.

Rama slays Ravana and rescues Sita, who undergoes an ordeal by fire to clear herself of suspicions of infidelity. When they return to Ayodhya, however, Rama learns that the people still question the queen’s chastity, and he banishes a pregnant Sita to the forest. There she meets the sage Valmiki and at his hermitage gives birth to Rama’s two sons – Lava and Kusha.

The family is reunited when the sons come of age, but Sita, after again protesting her innocence, plunges into the earth – her mother – who receives her and swallows her up.


Mahabharata – The Story

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Draupadi and the five Pandavas; a painting by Raja Ravi Varma.
[Source – Wikimedia Commons]

The kings and generals of the Lunar Dynasty – Shantanu, Bichitrabirya and Bhishma – successfully ruled a place called Hastinapur. King Bichitrabirya had two sons –Dhritarashtra and Pandu. Since the elder Dhritarashtra was blind, his younger brother Pandu ascended the throne after the death of their father.

Pandu had five sons named as Yudhisthir, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadev. They were known as the Pandavas and a hundred sons of Dhritarashtra were known as the Kauravas. Duryodhan was the first among the sons of Dhritarashtra.

After the death of king Pandu, his five sons were given one portion of the kingdom to rule where the Pandavas built their capital and named it Indraprastha. Envious of their success, the Kauravas invited the Pandava brothers to play the game of Dice with them with a bet over victory or defeat. Playing with a trick, the Kauravas defeated the Pandava king Yudhisthira again and again.

According to the bet, the defeated brothers agreed to live the life of exiles in forests for twelve years, and thereafter to spend one more year in disguise to escape detection.

During this period the five brothers end up marrying Draupadi due to their mother’s misunderstanding – one of the rare examples of polyandry in Sanskrit literature.

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After thirteen years the Pandava brothers returned and asked the Kauravas for their kingdom, but the Kaurava king Duryodhan refused to give back their territory. Because of this injustice, a fierce battle was fought between the Pandavas and Kauravas in the field of Kurukshetra.

With Krishna on their side, the Pandavas won the war. All the Kauravas are annihilated, and, on the victorious side, only the five Pandava brothers and Krishna survived.

The Pandavas got the whole kingdom and Yudhisthira became king. But, in deep repentance over the death of his kith and kin, Yudhisthira left the throne in the hands of Parikshita, the son of dead Abhimanyu, and left for the Himalayas with his four brothers and wife, Draupadi.

One by one they fall on the way, and Yudhisthira alone reaches the gate of heaven. After further tests of his faithfulness and constancy, he is finally reunited with his brothers and wife, as well as with his enemies, the Kauravas, to enjoy perpetual bliss.


Influence on the Society

Ramayana, also considered to be the Adi-Kavya (first poem), was written for the masses with the purpose to show mankind a virtuous path. Hence, this epic has inspired and regulated the Indian way of life like a social and moral constitution. Ramayana depicts the values of truthfulness, morality and nobility as supreme ideals of life; it emphasises on the duties of relationships, portraying ideal characters like the ideal father, the ideal servant, the ideal brother, the ideal husband and the ideal king.

Rama, Sita, Lakshmana, Bharat, Hanuman, Shatrughna, Vibhishan and Ravana are characters vital not only to the cultural consciousness of India but also Nepal, Sri Lanka and south-east Asian countries such as Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Thus, we find many versions of the Ramayana within India, besides Buddhist, Sikh and Jain adaptations; there are also Cambodian, Indonesian, Filipino, Thai, Lao, Burmese and Malaysian versions of the tale.

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Thai Khon Dance, performance at Frankfurt/Main, Germany (2006). Khon is based on the tales of the epic Ramakien (Thai adaptation of Indian Hindi epic Ramayana), as Thai literature and drama draws great inspiration from Indian arts and legend.
[Source – Wikimedia Commons]

The Mahabharata, which is more complex and realistic with polity, caste, gender roles and the problems of how to act in a particular situation, is aptly called sometimes the Fifth Veda. Like Ramayana, it also aims to guide the public to live an honest and diligent life, to follow the path of Dharma.

With this central theme, Vyasa added many legends, traditions, Puranic episodes, accounts of other royal dynasties, as well as descriptions of prevailing socio-religious systems, customs and manners, moral values, political conditions, traditions of war and diplomacy, and faiths and beliefs of the people.

The Mahabharata described the virtues of vigour for worldly existence as well as of the higher ideals of life like truthfulness and righteousness. At several places, Vyasa included deeper philosophies and spiritual thoughts to create awareness about man’s divine existence.

A short section of Mahabharata adds to its magnificence, it is the famous Bhagawat Gita – the song of the god – containing the essence of Upanishads, which is considered as the core of the highest knowledge for mankind. On the battlefield of Kurukshetra, commander of the Pandava forces, Arjuna, after seeing his own family lined up against him, realises that war is futile and will lead only to bloodshed. Thus, Arjuna declares to Krishna, his charioteer that he won’t fight.

It is in this crucial situation that Krishna, the Supreme Being in human form, utters the words of wisdom, concerning the creation and existence, the inner purpose of life and the value of duty, as well as the true awareness regarding the reality and the unreality. Krishna’s spiritual utterance on Karma, Gyana and Bhakti-Work, Wisdom and Devotion reveals to Arjuna the real meaning of life.

He realized the truth that while he was doing a deed, he was not the ‘DOER’ himself – he was only an instrument of the Divine Will to uphold a sacred cause for sacred truth and justice. Work without attachment or desire for the result will lead to true knowledge which ultimately will lead man to a stage of devotion for a selfless, detached and peaceful life.

The Holy Gita is regarded as the sacred-most scripture of the Hindus and a unique contribution to mankind’s spiritual consciousness.

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Both Mahabharata and Ramayana together form the Hindu Itihas (history) and though the archaeological facts do not support these detailed tales, people have wholeheartedly accepted it as the truth.

The impact on Indian literature, art and culture has been so deep and profound that even today we see books are being written to analyse one or the other aspect of these epics; apart from TV serials, theatre plays, films and the famous Ram-Leela (enactment of Ramayana), simplified versions of these texts with illustrations are created for children, and hence, this knowledge, through the technique of storytelling is being passed on and on.

Mahabharata teaches the truths of the tricky world and also takes us to the root of our being so that we first fight the battle within and then partake in the battle in the outer world. And the idealistic world of Ramayana, where good and evil take firm stands against each other, reminds us that even if evil is all-powerful and wise, the virtuous always wins in the end.

Rama’s journey to win over the sinful is relatable to the journey an individual takes to fight her own weaknesses; the individual has to banish her desires and struggle for her purpose in life, and with ‘Rama like focus’, one can become victorious in all the battles.

Such individual battles are what we see vividly in Mahabharata, for example – all the five Pandavas fought for a different reason – Yudhishtira fought for the war was inevitable, Arjuna fought for Krishna showed him the ultimate truth, Bheema fought for the sake of Draupadi, Nakul and Sehdev fought for it was what their elders wanted.

This is what makes these epic poems timeless, unique and so relatable. There is righteousness, honesty, duty, spirituality and metaphysics in both the epic poems, but the fact that both reach out to the individual and both give emphasis to individuality, makes it stand apart from the other epic works in the world.

Neither the society, the family nor the beloved is responsible for your decisions, it is you alone who is responsible. Thus, it is all up to you, your thoughts, your actions – the true power is in your own hands.


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