Talk on Indian Classical Literature

A talk by Professor Avadhesh Kumar Singh, School of Translation Studies and Training, IGNOU on “Revisiting Indian Classical Literature” was organised by the English Literary Association of Rajdhani College in collaboration with FORTELL (Forum for Teachers of English Language and Literature) on 25 October 2016. The talk gave an insight into the concept of Classical Literature, keeping in view the undergraduate syllabus and students. Professor Singh began his talk by defining classics; referring to Longinus, he reiterated that a classic is sublime, it is a distinguished discourse that moves all and is applicable to all places and at all times leading to a state of ecstasy. He illustrated his points by using texts such as Vyasa’s The Mahabharata, Homer’s The Iliad, Kalidasa’s Abhijnanashakuntalam and Mrichchakatikam and how these texts aimed not at persuasion but ecstasy or lifting the reader out of himself. He further added that initially, The Mahabharata was a fluid text; it had various additions and interpolations over centuries until it finally became a settled text. Not only do its characters appear as real human beings, but it also appeals through its artistic style, and like other classics it has withstood the test of time and circulation. He linked notion of classics with Goethe’s concept of World Literature. World Literature basically meant the best texts from the best traditions, and in a way they are classics. He stressed on the need for studying a classic not just in isolation, but in comparison to other classics from different traditions.

With this insight on classics, Professor Avadhesh Kumar Singh compared the two epics, The Iliad and The Mahabharata, and how war is common in both texts and yet is different. In The Iliad, heroes are made out of war, whereas in The Mahabharata, war is fought to establish dharma. Professor Singh also talked about Sri Aurobindo, who thought of world poetry in terms of the poets’ rankings. Sri Aurobindo ranked Valmiki, Vyasa, Shakespeare and Homer at the top in world poetry; Kalidasa, Virgil, Dante, etc., were ranked second; Goethe in the third rank, and rest of the poets dumped in the fourth rank. He emphasized that a comparison between Vyasa’s The Mahabharata and Kalidasa’s Abhigyanshakuntalam is difficult as both belong to different ranks. The Mahabharata, according to him “is like a wild forest whereas Abhigyanshakuntalam is a well chiselled, manicured garden though its germinal theme comes from The Mahabharata”. Vyasa writes about Shakuntala and her son Bharata in his reference to the lineage of the Kauravas in “Shakuntala Upakhyana”. Vyasa’s Shakuntala is simple, straightforward and uncultured, who does not suffer from any kind of inhibitions unlike Kalidasa’s Shakuntala, who is weak, soft-spoken, beautiful and docile. Vyasa’s Shakuntala accepts Dushyant’s proposal on the condition that the child born of their relationship should become the emperor. Later, when Dushyant rejects her, she reiterates blatantly that she is superior to him by birth as she is born of the union of a sage and a celestial nymph called Menaka. Therefore, he does not have any right to talk to her in such a dismissive manner. She adds that her son would become an emperor even without him. Shakuntala is at the centre of the story in Vyas’s narration but in Kalidasa’s play, recognition becomes central as suggested by the very title, Abhigyanshakuntalam.

Lastly, Professor Singh discussed the methodology that the students should use to enhance their knowledge and the different ways of increasing their critical acumen. He touched upon all the issues pertinent to the topic in a very lucid way, which was highly enriching for the students. This was followed by an interactive session with the students.  


Varsha Gupta is Assistant Professor in Rajdhani College, University of Delhi. Her areas of interest are romanticism and Indian Literature.