This document was written by E. P. Horrwitz and originally published in The Indian Theatre: A Brief History of Sanskrit Drama. London: Blackie and Son Limited, 1912. pp. 19-31.

In the beginning was the Veda, and divine races peopled the earth. The RIG VEDA is the oldest portion of Indian poetry, and the most ancient monument of Aryan literature. The Rig hymns [1] extol the grandeur of nature and her forces, especially Indra the Thunderer, and Agni, god of fire celestial and terrestrial. The black-skinned aborigines of the Punjab were as ignorant of Vedic song and the polished Sanskrit in which it is embedded as the rude Anglo-Saxons were of the Chanson de Roland and the refined Norman tongue. But the churlish race that sprang from the enslaved Dasyus grew up in Aryan surroundings, and learned to speak Sanskrit. Still, there were excluded from the study of the Rig Vega, which remained a monopoly of the higher castes. The priviliged classes alone received Vedic instruction, and, by virtue of that knowledge, were admitted to the sacrament of a new birth. None else was to have the benefit of spiritual regeneration. But light fell into the darkness, and among the despised shûdras poets arose who composed out of the world-old nature lore, magic and exorcism, another Sanskrit hymnal for the use of the people. This is the ATHARVA VEDA, which had to struggle for centuries before the twice-born would reluctantly give it a place in their sacred canon. [2]

While the Rig Veda consists of prayers to the bright elements of nature, the Atharva spells are pervaded by a dread of her dark aspects, and a hankering after occult powers. The Atharva collection, though based on immemorial tradition, is chronologically younger than either the SÂMA VEDA, a book of chants compiled from Rig passages, or the YAJUR VEDA, which contains the Vedic liturgy appointed to be read at sacrificial services. [3]

After the creation of the world the golden age commenced. Peace and unity reigned on earth, and all men walked with God. Next came the age of silver, when mankind turned aside from the Divine Will, and everybody followed his own direction. Strife and bloodshed came into existence, but God was merciful, and separated the sexes, creating male and female, that love once more might bind the self-willed race. No sooner did the heart feel drawn to outward things than man lost his power of introspection. The five organs of sense were evolved in order that gods and mortals might quench their thirst for worldly pleasures. Indra, delegated by the other gods, approached the throne of the Godhead, and said: "O Brahma, we wish to feast our eyes and ears on a dramatic spectacle; deign to create the merry play for our enjoyment." And the Creator nodded graciously, and fell into a profound meditation. And out of the Divine Thought sprang the NÂTYA VEDA, that is, the Veda of the Theatre. [4] Such was the Will of the Lord who made the fifth Veda, drawing the quintessence of the drama out of the four Vedas--dance from the Rig, song from the Sâma, mimicry from Yajur, and passion from Atharva. Brahma then summoned Vishwakarma, celestial architect, that he might build a stage in Indra's heaven. The sage Bharata was appointed as theatrical manager and as conductor of the heavenly performances.

Such is the mythical account of the origin of the Indian theatre. In reality, it originated from the ancient custom of reciting the national poetry at social and religious gatherings. The Gangetic tribes were renowned for their gifted bards. The very words bhârata and mâgadha came to mean "minstrel, actor." [5] Bâna, who wrote his famous novel in the age of the Arabian Prophet, relates that the Hindu epics used to be read aloud in various places of worship throughout Kanouj, and that these public recitals were so excellent that royalty often attended. In the rainy season the lecturer's place was at the reading desk in the city temples, but during the fine months of the year the evening entertainment was given on the village green. A fellow-actor expounded the Sanskrit verses to the illiterate villagers in their local patois. The reading of the Mahâ-Bhârata would last several weeks, being continued night after night. So keen was the interest taken in the subject that the dire misfortunes of the Pândava brothers called forth many a sob and tear, whilst their happy return to Hastinapur was hailed with exclamations of joy and sighs of relief, the cottages within earshot being illuminated. When Sanskrit became too choice and high-flown for light street gossip and plain home talk, the prâkrits or vulgar tongues of India pushed themselves more and more to the front. The bhâratas and mâgadhas began to introduce vernacular versions of both epics, and gradually discarded bookish Sanskrit altogether. The interpreter, being needed no longer, henceforth took part in the recitation. Musical accompaniment and dramatic gestures added to the success of the two performers.

The oldest Indian dramas, or rather colloquies (sanvâdas), were not composed in Sanskrit, but in Prâkrit. The Mahâ-Bhârata and Râmâyana supplied no end of subjects, even as the Bible was the inexhaustable source of the mysteries and miracle plays in medieval Europe. Indeed, originally the Prâkrit Sanvâdas were mysteries too, either Krishna or Shiva acting and dancing the principal part. Favourite episodes from the Govinda's eventful life were the "Slaying of Kansa the Tyrant" and the "Binding of the Heaven-storming Titan." [6] Large crowds came to witness these open-air spectacles. The grand finale, a merry roundelay of the bright-eyed Gopis, proved a special attraction. Rival worshippers flocked in equal numbers to the wanton bacchanals held in honor of Shiva. The Vedic priesthood endeavoured to expunge whatever was lascivious or farcical in the popular cult of the two primitive gods, but the sanvâdas, with all their rippling laughter and gross licence, survived, and were even cultivated in Sanskrit literature. Some Vedic hymns have quite a dramatic character. [7] The warfare of the elements is the ever-recurring theme of the sacred Rig lyrics, and after once hymning and glorifying the striking cosmic phenomena, what was more natural than to enact the "divine persons" with dance and song on high sacrificial feast days? Thundering Indra and his wild mountain host, the whistling maruts or storm-gods; irate Agni leaping forth in the red flash of lightning; the glistening raindrops trembling with joy at their release from the burst cloud-castles; the blushing dawn announcing victorious Sûrya (the rising sun), and the dancing sunbeams upholding his gleaming banner triumphantly--forces of nature, dread or jubilant, are the dramatis personæ in the extant sanvâda hymns. But the Vedic dialogues reflect the afterglow rather than the first morning flush of the rude representations, staged in the vulgar tongue, of Krishna's and Shiva's ancient mysteries. Again, the sublime converse between Krishna and Arjun, told with consummate art in the Bhagavad Gîta, and the mystic colloquies held by Shiva and Kâli, according to the Tantras, are but a late development of the old Prâkrit sanvâdas which, even in the age of the Rig Veda, were no longer fully understood.

Every literary tongue is a stanch conservative, but the people's speech constantly fluctuates and is ever reconstructed. Consequently, writings in dialect are soon antiquated and void of interest save for the philologist, whereas a great national literature outlives the nation. The cherished traditions of the vanished Prâkrit theatre, of which we know nothing but that it must have existed, were silently absorbed by the nascent Sanskrit drama. The earliest Sanskrit plays which are preserved suddenly flash upon our sight like lightning when it breaks through a dark thundercloud. They seem perfect and full-grown as Minerva when she leapt in complete armour from Jove's creative forehead. The countrymen of Homer may well have doubted the miraculous conception of the goddess of wisdom, and questioned her fabled birth without ancestral lineage, but it is quite certain that Kâlidâsa, who generally opens the list of playwrights in native primers of Indian literature, was but the heir and successor of a long line of distinguished Sanskrit dramatists--Saumilla, Bhâsa, and others whom the poet himself acknowledges. These, too, were undoubtedly preceded by reputed writers of Prâkrit plays. This view is corroberated by the existence of an old Sanskrit treatise on dramatic art. The essay, which is ascribed to the sage Bharata, abounds in technical Prâkrit terms, most of them relating to scenic details. Bharata enumerates, at great length, those prâkrits or dialects which, in accordance with established custom, might be used for stage purposes. [8] The subsequent authors of Sanskrit dramas faithfully upheld the theories laid down by Bharata. Indeed, minor rôles were never composed in Sanskrit; the stately tongue would have sounded ludicrous on the homely lips of the vulgar who crowd and enliven the Indian stage. English literature exhibits a similar feature. Guy Mannering, gentleman, does not use sailor slang like Dick Hatteraick, the smuggler, and the provincialisms and grammatical blunders of Adam Bede's old mother widely differ from the cultured and urbane style of the Rev. Mr. Irwine. King Henry the Fifth does not speak broken English like his French lady-love, and Dickens' novels display every shade of metropolitan jargon. In the dramatic literature of India, the prâkrits hold exactly the same position. They appear amidst the glossy Sanskrit dialogue like a shabby camel driver among the rich and elegant court dresses of a native durbar. The part of the vidûshaka or jester is written, as a rule, in a dialect of the eastern provinces. Scoundrels are made to talk Ujain slang, and intriguers a patois of the Dekhan. Shâkâri, another corrupt dialect, seems to be ultimately derived from the Shakas or steppe riders who invaded India at various times. Here they learned to speak Prâkrit, but peculiarities of speech such as the sound given to sibilants showed their foreign nationality, just as the pronunciation of r or th, if nothing else, betrays a French or German resident in England. Soldiers and salesmen, publicans and pastrycooks, and the many other trades and professions introduced in the Indian theatre, all speak a prâkrit of their own, varying but slightly from one another. Gods and brahmins, kings and nobles, converse in faultless Sanskrit, but women speak Prâkrit. In one play, a celestial congratulates Shiva and Uma on the occasion of their marriage; the bride is addressed in Prâkrit, the bridegroom in Sanskrit.

The Agra district is the holy land of Krishnaism. Shauraseni, the medieval speech of the Agra populace, is frequently met with in Sanskrit plays. The Krishna cult has been successfully revived in Bengal, and numerous yâtras or melodramas have been composed in honour of the god. Yâtras are very popular in the Presidency, and preserve the Shauraseni dialect, which has long changed from a vulgar to a sacred tongue. [9]

Bharata, who has become the tutelary deity of the Indian theatre, is not a historical person, but a symbolic name like Vyâsa or Manu. The treatise which goes by his name is very prolix, and may be an amplification of the Bhârata Sûtras which are lost. It is to these sûtras, or stage directions for the use of bhâratas or actors, that Bharata owes his imaginary existence. They were written in Sanskrit, but their ultimate source was obviously some Prâkrit dramaturgy. The sûtras must be very old, since they were studied at the Universities of Hindustan before the Macedonian regiments set foot on Indian soil. The Bhârata Sûtras are mentioned by Pânini, the greatest of Indian grammarians, who is generally referred to the fourth century B.C. [10] The aphorisms were still extant at the time of Alfred, King of England, when Shivaswâmi, an Indian wit, rudely compared their obscure style to the dark waters of the Jumna. As Christian principle rests on the precepts of the Church, and as English law is administered in agreement with precedent, so the Sanskrit theatre has conformed to the rules laid down in the Bhârata Sûtras. They were held almost sacred by Kâlidâsa and other dramatists. What wonder then that a myth arose declaring that the sage Bharata had copied them from the fifth Veda, which was believed to be a creation of Brahma himself.

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1 I.e. hymns of praise, arranged in ten mandalas or cycles of song.

2 The Laws of Manu do not count the Atharva among the books of the Vedic canon, and the brahmins of the Dekhan reject it even now as apocryphal. The Buddhist Nikâyas ignore the Atharva altogether.

3 The geographical area of the Rig Veda is confined to the Punjab, and does not yet extend to the Gangetic shores. The Atharva charms represent a stage of culture even older and more primitive, but incantations continued to be added long after the Rig lyrics were complete in that final form which we possess. This accounts for the absence of the king of beasts, most to be dreaded and most powerful, from the Rig fauna, whereas Atharva poetry is familiar with the flecked native of the jungle swamps of Bengal. Subsequently, the tiger's name served as a title of pre-eminence, and the animal's skin became symbolical of royal power. At the coronation ceremony the Râja, clad in a tiger's skin, was enthroned on the "lion-seat". Lion and tiger were looked upon as joint rulers of the wild life in the forest.

4 A corruption of nâtya (dancing, acting) or some cognate word is nautch-girl--the name given to a professional dancer in India.

5 Even now actors are called bhats in India, but the name is not directly derived from bhârata.

6 Bali.

7 "Les dialogues védiques," says Prof. Sylvain Lévi, to whose sound scholarship this volume is indebted for much valuable information, "ne sont ailleurs que des drames rudimentaires."

8 The very word nâtya (stage acting) is a Prâkrit term.

9 The gentle art of poetry was cultivated at Magadha, and after the rise of the Guptas, at the Courts of Kanouj and Berar. Mâgadhi and Shauraseni, the two leading Prâkrits, originated, the one in Oudh, and the other west of Kanouj. Queen Damayanti, who knew the magic of soul-stirring song, was a native of Vidarbha, as Berar was then called because of its "grassless" plains. At one time, the mahâ-râshtra or "great kingdom" of Berar extended from the Vindhya slopes to the river Krishna, and touched the western and the eastern seas. The diction of the Vidarbha poets became a standard of literary grace and simplicity. Under their refining influence, the Magadha patois that prevailed at Berar was moulded into Mahârâshtri, which Dandin, a Kanouj romancer of the seventh century A.D., exalts above all other prâkrits. Mahârâshtri, after giving birth to Marathi, the language of the Mahrattas, shared the fate of Pâli, and became a priestly tongue. The sacred writings of the Jains, a brother-sect of the Buddhists, with whom they hold many doctrines in common, are partly composed in Mahârâshtri. The relation of Prâkrit and Pâli to Sanskrit is fully discussed in the Short History of Indian Literature, chapter xix.

10 In the history of linguistic science, Pânini's elaborate Sanskrit Grammar is as epoch-making as the masterpieces of Grimm, Zeuss, Diez in the cognate fields of Teutonic, Celtic, and Romance philology.

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