The Western tradition of literary theory and criticism essentially derives from the Greeks, and there is a sense in which Plato, Aristotle, and Longinus mark out positions and debates that are still being played out today. At a moment when we are questioning the sufficiency of such Western critical methods to make sense of the plethora of literatures produced by the world’s cultures, it may be useful to remind ourselves that other equally ancient classical critical traditions exist. There is an unbroken line of literary theory and criticism in Indian culture that goes back at least as far as the Western tradition. Indian criticism constitutes an important and largely untapped resource for literary theorists, as the Indian tradition in important respects assigns a more central role to literature than the Greek tradition does.
While explicit literary theory in India can be traced as far back as the fourth century b.c.e., placing Indian critical theory at the same time as Aristotle and Plato, there is much discussion of poetic and literary practice in the Vedas, which developed over the period 1500 BCE-500 BCE. In India, literary theory and criticism was never isolated simply as an area of philosophy; the practice and appreciation of literature was deeply woven into religion and daily life. While Plato argued in The Republic that the social role of the poet was not beneficial, Ayurveda, the science of Indian medicine, believed that a perfectly structured couplet by its rhythms could literally clean the air and heal the sick. We know this perfect couplet today as the mantra, literally “verse.” Sanskrit poetry has to be in the precise meter of the sloka, comparable to the heroic couplet, to be able to speak to the hearer. The Vedic Aryans therefore worshipped Vach, the goddess of speech or holy word (De Bary et al. 5-6). Like the Greeks, Indian critics developed a formalistic system of rules of grammar and structure that were meant to shape literary works, but great emphasis was also laid on the meaning and essence of words. This became the literary- critical tenet of rasadhvani. In contrast to Plato’s desire to expel poets and poetry from his republic, poetry in India was meant to lead individuals to live their lives according to religious and didactic purposes, creating not just an Aristotelian “purgation of emotions” and liberation for an individual but a wider, political liberation for all of society. Society would then be freed from bad ama, or “ill will” and “feelings that generate bad karma,” causing individuals to live in greater harmony with each other. This essay outlines the various systems that aimed at creating and defining this liberatory purpose in literature through either form or content.
The three major critical texts that form the basis of Sanskrit critical theory are Bharata’s Natyasastra (second century C.E.), Anandavardhana’s Dhvanyaloka, which was the foundation of the dhvani school of criticism, and Bhartrhari’s theory of rasa in the Satakas, the last two dating to about c.E. 800. We shall discuss these works in the order in which the three genres—poetry, drama, and literary criticism—developed. Interestingly, these works asked questions that sound surprisingly contemporary. For example, a major question concerned whether “authority” rested with the poet or with the critic, that is, in the text or in the interpretation. In his major critical treatise, Dhvanyaloka, Anandavardhana concluded that “in the infinite world of literature, the poet is the creator, and the world changes itself so as to conform to the standard of his pleasure” (Sarma 6). According to Anandavardhana, kavirao (“poet”) is equated with Prajapati (“Creator”). The poet creates the world the reader sees or experiences. Thus, Anandavardhana also jostled with the issue of the role of the poet, his social responsibility, and whether social problems are an appropriate subject for literature. For Anandavardhana, “life imitated art”; hence the role of the poet is not just that of the “unacknowledged legislator of the world”—as P. B. Shelley stated (Shelley’s Critical Prose, ed. Bruce R. McElderry, Jr., 1967, 36)—not just that of someone who speaks for the world, but that of someone who shapes social values and morality. The idea of sahrdaya (“proper critic”), “one who is in sympathy with the poet’s heart,” is a concept that Western critics from I. A . Richards through F. R. Leavis to Stanley Fish have struggled with. In the Indian tradition, a critic is the sympathetic interpreter of the poet’s works.
But why interpretation? Why does a community that reads the works of its own writers need interpretation? How does the reader read, and what is the role of criticism? Indian philosophers and priests attempted to answer these questions in terms of the didactic purpose of literature as liberation. As we shall see, rasadhvani approximated closely to the Indian view of life, detachment from emotions that would cause bad karma, purgation of harmful emotions, and the subsequent road to moksha, “liberation.” Twentieth-century critics such as K. R. Srinivasa Iyengar and Kuppuswami Sastriar (both South Indians, the latter being the major Tamil interpreter of Sanskrit literary criticism) have brought about a revival of the rasadhvani schools of criticism. Similarly, Bengali writers such as Rabindranath Tagore were greatly influenced by the didactic purpose of literature that rasadhvani critics advocated.
To understand how these critical theories developed, we need to look briefly at the development of Indian literature. The Rig Veda is considered the earliest extant poem in the Indo-European language family and is dated anywhere between 2500 b .c .e . and 600 B.C.E. It does, however, make reference to kavya, “stanzaic forms,” or poetry, that existed before the Rig Veda itself. The word gatha, referring to Zoroastrian religious verses that are sung, also occurs frequently in the Rig Veda. Valmiki, the author of the Ramayana, is considered the first poet, but as we shall see, Valmiki is also considered the first exponent of poetic form. The period between 600-500 B.C.E. and c.E. 200 is labeled the epic period by Sarvepelli Radhakrishnan (the first president of the postcolonial Republic of India and the most prolific scholar of Indian philosophy and critical theory) because it saw the development of the great epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata (Radhakrishnan and Moore xviii). According to Radhakrishnan, the Bhagavad Gita, which is a part of the Mahabharata, ranks as the most authoritative text in Indian philosophical literature because it is considered to have been divinely revealed and because it apparently was noted down as it was revealed and therefore was not merely transmitted orally. In the Gita, Krishna and Arjuna philosophize about the role of the poet. The responsibility of maintaining order in the world is on the shoulders of the poet-sage, such as Janaka, for ordinary mortals tend to imitate the role model as portrayed by Janaka. Thus it is the poets who set the standards for the world to follow.
The period of Indian philosophy that spans more than a millennium from the early Christian centuries until the seventeenth century C.E. is considered the sutra period, or the period of treatises upon the religious and literary texts. It was this period that saw the rise of the many schools of literary criticism and interpretation. Radhakrishnan calls this the scholastic period of Indian philosophy, and it was in this period that interpretation became important. Sanskrit is the language in which the Vedas are written, and because the Vedas are the basis of the all-Indian Hindu tradition, all of India’s religious, philosophical, literary, and critical literature was written in Sanskrit. Sanskrit served as a lingua franca across regional boundaries but predominantly for the learned, upper classes and the Brahmins, who made up the priestly class. The Brahmins then interpreted the religious, literary, and critical texts for local individuals by using the indigenous languages.
While Sanskrit remained the language of religion in the south, local versions of the religious literature began to emerge in order to meet the needs of the South Indian people, who spoke predominantly Tamil or Telugu. It was not until the breakup of the Brahminical tradition in about the seventh century c.E. (Embree 228-29) that literary religious hymns emerged in Tamil. The Indian- English writer R. K. Narayan’s version of the Ramayana is based on the Tamil version by the poet Kamban in the eleventh century. Tamil literary criticism remained rooted in the classical Sanskrit critical tenets, however, as is evidenced by the continuance (even in the 1900s) of Dhvanyaloka criticism by Kuppuswami Sastri in Madras.
Early Indian criticism was “ritual interpretation” of the Vedas, which were the religious texts. Such ritual interpretation consisted in the analysis of philosophical and grammatical categories, such as the use of the simile, which was expounded upon in the Nirutka of Yasaka, or in applying to a text the grammatical categories of Panini’s grammar. This critical method, which consisted in the analysis of grammar, style, and stanzaic regularity, was called a sastra, or “science.” Panini’s Sabdanusasana [Science of sabda, or “words”] and the Astadhyayi [Eight chapters of grammatical rules] (Winternitz 422) are perhaps the oldest extant grammars, dated by various scholars to about the beginning of the Christian era. Alankara sastra is “critical science,” which emanated from Panini’s grammar and was dogmatic and rule-governed about figures of speech in poetry. The word alankara means “ornament” (Dimock 120), and as in Western rhetorical theory, this critical science consisted of rules for figurative speech, for example, for rupaka (“simile”), utpreksa (“metaphor”), atisya (“hyperbole”), and kavya (“stanzaic forms”). As Edwin Gerow has noted in his chapter “Poetics of Stanzaic Poetry,” in The Literature of India:
Alankara criticism passes over almost without comment the entire range of issues that center around the origin of the individual poem, its context, its appreciation, and its authorship. It does not aim at judgement of individual literary works or at a theory of their origin. (Dimock 126)
The idea of criticism as a science is rooted in the centuries- old Indian belief that vyakarana, “grammar,” is the basis of all education and science. Rules were to be learned by rote, as were declensions and conjugations, as a means of developing discipline of the mind.
Patanjali, whose work is ascribed to the second century b .c .e ., believed that a child must study grammar for the first twelve years; in fact, before studying any science, one must prepare for it by studying grammar for twelve years (see Winternitz 420). Since grammar lay the foundation of all other study, a series of rule-governed disciplines arose, each of which had categories and classifications to be learned by heart. These disciplines were arthasastra, a grammar of government or political science; rasa-sastra, the science of meaning or interpretation specifically for poetry, that is, literary criticism; natyasastra, the science of drama or dramaturgy; and sangitasastra, the science of music or musicology. Each was further broken down; for instance, musicology was divided into jatilaksana (“theory”), atodya (the “study of musical instruments”), susira (“song”), tala (“measure”), and dhruva (“rhythm”).
Poetry was most governed by the alankara, the rules of critical science; but since poetry existed before criticism, it in itself was generative of that criticism. Critics in the last few centuries b .c .e . believed that any association of word and memory having a special quality generates kavya. The creation of mnemonic rhymes was considered essential to poetry. Poetry was considered as having two qualities: alankara, here loosely translated to mean “formal qualities”; and guna, or “meaning” and “essence.”
According to the Alankara sastra, form has as much to do with creating the sphota, the “feeling evoked by a poem,” as the sphota has to do with creating meaning. Tradition has it that Valmiki, the sage wandering in the forest, heard a pair of Kaunca birds mating. When the male of that pair was shot down by a hunter, Valmiki heard the grieving of the female bird, which was metrically so perfect that Valmiki himself expressed her grief in the form of a perfect couplet. Ever since then Valmiki is considered the father of Sanskrit poetry as well as of poetic criticism. T he appropriate vibhav, “cause,” in this case grief, gives rise to the anubhav, “effect,” which in turn gives rise to perfect rhythmic expression. Valmiki, the author of the Ramayana, which is contemporaneous with the Mahabharata and belongs to the epic period, thus became the first poet to proclaim a critical tenet (see Sankaran 5-7).
Drama developed later in India than in Greece. Bharata’s Natyasastra [Science of drama], written about the second century C.E., not only lay down rules governing the creation of drama but also prepared the way for developing the theories of rasa, “meaning” or “essence.” Lee Siegel provides the following explanation in his important book on comedy in Indian drama:
Playing upon the literal meaning of rasa, “flavor” or “taste,” [Bharata] used the gastronomic metaphor to explain the dynamics of the aesthetic experiences. Just as the basic ingredient in a dish, when seasoned with secondary ingredients and spices, yields a particular flavor which the gourmet can savor with pleasure, so the basic emotion in a play, story, or poem, when seasoned with secondary emotions, rhetorical spices, verbal herbs, and tropological condiments, yields a sentiment which the connoisseur can appreciate in enjoyment. Love yields the amorous sentiment, courage the heroic mode. (7-8)
Thus Bharata provided formulas for producing the corresponding sentiments in the audience—recipes similar to Aristotle’s definition of “tragedy” and “comedy” but corresponding mostly with the means to produce homeostasis or balance in an audience by having the audience identify with certain rasas.
It is in the idea that literature is meant to cause a purgation of emotions and create a homeostasis in the audience that Indian criticism most approximates Aristotle’s theory of tragedy. This idea, though, is drawn from Indian philosophy and religious emphasis on liberation and freedom from bad karma. All literature is supposed to generate the feeling of moksha (“liberation”). Literature, more particularly drama or tragedy, must cause the purgation of the emotions of satva (“happiness”), rajas (“anger”), and tamas (“ignorance” or “laziness”) so as to free the soul from the body.
Bharata divided up the Natyasastra into hasya-rasa (“comedy”) and karuna-rasa (“tragedy”). The effect of drama can be obtained through, first, vibhava, the conditions provoking a specific emotion in the audience, which are controlled by alambana-vibhava, or identification with a person, as in Aristotle’s dictum of identification with the fall of a great man, and uddipana-vibhava, the circumstances causing the emotion to be evoked, as in the role of fate, pride, ambition, and so on; second, anubhava, or the technicalities of dramaturgy, gesture, expression, and so on; and third, vyabhicari, the buildup toward the dominant emotion, or as Aristotle would put it, the climax and subsequent catharsis. S. N. Dasgupta says that the theory of rasa
is based on a particular view of psychology which holds that our personality is constituted, both towards its motivation and intellection, of a few primary emotions which lie deep in the subconscious or unconscious strata of our being. These primary emotions are the amorous, the ludicrous, the pathetic, the heroic, the passionate, the fearful, the nauseating, the wondrous. (37)
Each of these, however, can be classified under the three primary emotions—satva, rajas, tamas. In freeing the audiences of these emotions, dramaturgy functions rather like karma yoga, or the “yoga of good deeds.”
The other major dramaturgist is Dandin. His poetics, entitled Kavyadarsa, dated to the eighth century c.E. (He also wrote the first prose romance, Dasa Kumara-carita.) He, too, emphasized the gunas, or emotions generated by the “excellence of arrangement” (Mishra 202). Thus he attempted to bring rasas together with alankaras.
Literary criticism in India resulted from the historical developments in poetry and drama. It was Anandavardhana who, in writing the Dhvanyaloka, first explicitly developed a systematic literary criticism. This was the beginning of a formal literary criticism as opposed to the critical criteria that were generated alongside poetry and drama by the pronouncements of poets and dramatists. Anandavardhana, poet laureate of the court of Avantivaranan (C.E. 855-85), the king of Kashmir, turned to the centuries-old theory of dhvani and for the first time succeeded in establishing that dhvani, “sense as suggested by the form,” is the soul of poetry (Banerji 13). He chose to oppose the rasa theorists by going back to the emphasis on words laid by the grammarians, or Alankarikas, exponents of the Alankara school of criticism. Mishra describes the theory of dhvani as follows:
The theory of Dhvani was based on the Sphotavada of grammarians who held that the sphota is the permanent capacity of words to signify their imports and is manifested by the experience of the last sound of a word combined with the impressions of the experiences of the previous ones. The formulation of the doctrine of sphota was made in order to determine the significative seat of a word and the Alankarikas concerned themselves first with this grammatico-philosophical problem about the relation of a word to its connotation in order to get support, strong and confirmatory for their theory. (209)
Anandavardhana then ruled form over content and felt that the best poetry, especially dramatic poetry, suggested not only meaning but also poetic form.
To the alankaras Anandavardhana added slesa, “rules that governed the stylistic choices” of homonyms, synonyms, and so on. Slesa can be considered roughly equivalent to rules for parsing and metrical analysis. Two types of slesas are sabdaslesa, “word play” or “word sound,” and arthaslesa, “meaning and sense.” The closest analogy to this in Western terms is, perhaps, Robert Frost’s theory of “getting the sound of sense” (Poetry and Prose, ed. Edward Connery Lathem and Lawrance Thompson, 1972,261).
In light of contemporary Western critical theory, there is a very interesting twist to the theories of Anandavardhana. For him, vyanjana, “revelation,” is an important characteristic of poetry. But the revelation rests in the heart of the “hearer,” that is, the reader. In other words, readers make meaning. To make this move to the reader, Anandavardhana turned to the grammarians. According to Mukunda Madhava Sharma, “The grammarians do not recognize any suggestive function of the expressive words but they hold that the syllables that we hear suggest an eternal and complete word within the heart of the hearer, which is called sphota and which alone is associated with meaning” (35). Therefore, if a poet follows the correct rules for combining sounds and words, meaning will follow from the sphota that exists within the reader.
Rasadhvani, then, became the critical tenet of currency following the 41 literary-critical commentaries written by Abhinavagupta (dated variously between the ninth and eleventh centuries C.E.) on the Dhvanyaloka and the Natyasastra. With the commentaries of Abhinavagupta, the emergence of the rasadhvani school was finally complete. This school of criticism recognizes the importance of both rasa and dhvani as critical principles that influence and permeate a creative work. Rasadhvani can be summed up simply in Aristotle’s language as a theory that believed in both “language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action,” and also in emotions (and their role in the aesthetic experience), which “through pity and fear effect the proper purgation of emotions” (61). It is in this sense that Indian criticism is closest to that of the Greeks, and it is also here that it begins possibly via influences to pick up on Plato’s rejection of poets.
With the rasadhvani theory, the reader becomes the central focus of literary criticism. The aim of kavya is to give pleasure, but this pleasure must not bind the soul to the body. Thus, the idea of aucitya, “content,” becomes important. According to Anandavardhana, as well as to Bharata, “poetry must not propagate deplorable ideas” (Sharma 252), must not cause attachment or bad karma, and must aim at liberation as “the highest goal of human life.” Anandavardhana’s definition of the santarasa is very similar to Aristotle’s idea of katharsis: “excess of bliss on account of loss of desires.” Aucitya is properly translated as “propriety” or “appropriateness,” which is linked to vakrokti, “technical ability with words,” with the emphasis on anumana, “inference.” Ksemendra, a Kashmiri writer who lived about the eleventh century and who helps us date the commentaries of Abhinava Gupta, who lived just before him, wrote in his Aucitya-vicara-carca that “whatever is improper detracts from rasa and is to be avoided” (Banerji 417). It is from this that the usual association of the rasa theory as didacticism or moral criticism is made.
While aucitya is greatly elaborated on by these later critics, the word actually occurs first in Anandavardhana’s Dhvanyaloka. Anandavardhana feels that aucitya, the “soul of poetry,” is the result of rasa-dhvani (Raghvan 115)—this is the only mention of rasa and dhvani together. Thus, in Anandavardhana, as in all earlier Indian criticism, the effect literature has on the reader is of prime importance.
What is interesting about the emphasis on readers is that the public was
expected to possess a certain amount of theoretical knowledge [communicated by the Brahmin priests as they taught the religion and interpreted the literature]; for the rasika or Sahrdaya [the “proper critic”] is a man of taste. The true appreciators of poetry must be, according to the conception of the Sanskrit theorists, not only well read and wise and initiated into the intricacies of theoretic requirements, but also possessed of fine instincts of aesthetic enjoyment. The poet naturally liked to produce an impression that he had observed all the rules, traditions, and expectations of such an audience; for the ultimate test of poetry is laid down as consisting in the appreciation of the Sahrdaya. (De 43)
Rasadhvani is the basic foundation of Indian critical theory. Earlier criticism leads up to it, and later criticism simply elaborates on it. Some later Sanskrit critics include Mammta, who lived close to the end of the eleventh century, Visvanatha, and Jagannatha Pandita. Visvanatha’s Sahityadarpana, dated to about the fourteenth century, draws together all the earlier critical tenets emphasizing lakshana, “the characteristic of a work,” essentially an analysis of theme or content; alankara; and riti, “style.”
This essentially Sanskrit tenet of rasadhvani had a major exponent in the South Indian Tamil critic Kuppuswami Sastri. In 1919 he presented 20 lectures at Madras University on the methods and materials of literary criticism in Sanskrit, making frequent comparisons between the traditional sastras and the criticism of John Dryden, Samuel Johnson, and S. T. Coleridge. His student V. Raghvan did much to promote Sanskrit literary criticism in South India.
Lee Siegel, in Laughing Matters, points out that so many of the ancient critical and theoretical principles have been handed down and kept current that they are absorbed by contemporary Indian writers and critics, whether working in indigenous Indian languages or in English, almost by osmosis. Thus these ancient critical tenets have a curious currency even today. In fact, Siegel’s entire discussion of wordplay and punning draws a line from the ancient alankarikas through couplets about Krishna to the work of Indian-English writer R. K. Narayan and that of his brother, the cartoonist R. K. Laxman. Siegel’s discussion shows the power of a tradition that has been learned by osmosis, passed around, and handed down for centuries.
S. Radhakrishnan notes that “after the sixteenth century India in philosophy and criticism lost its dynamic spirit”:
First the Muslims and then the British assumed control of the country, not only physically but also in the realm of thought. The Muslims undermined Aryan culture and thought as far as possible, and the British in their time did as much as they could to belittle the thought of traditional India. For a long time, the English-educated Indians were apparently ashamed of their own philosophical tradition, and it became the mark of intelligence as well as expediency to be as European and as English in thought and life as possible. (Radhakrishnan and Moore xxi)
These historical trends are of course reflected in the literature and critical practice of India since the sixteenth century. With Emperor Akbar on the throne, Persian poetry and Persian and Islamic critical practice became the norm. Persian couplets influenced by Islamic antirepresentational traditions tended toward the abstract. Love for God in the Sufi tradition became the subject of poetry. Yet the doha, the poetic rhyming riddle as developed by Kabir, had its roots in the Hindu tradition of the “perfect” sloka, the perfectly rhyming heroic couplet. The Muslims also brought with them a tradition of Bait Bazi, a kind of Shakespearean rhetorical retort—an Indian form of stichomythia. Hyperbole and verbosity characterized poetry, while the function of satire was reserved only for the court jester, the qawal. Islamic tradition put an end to drama.
Verbosity and the florid Persian style merged with the European traditions to produce a pseudo-Tennysonian literature in English written by Indians such as Raja Rammohun Roy and Aru and Toru Dutt. By the beginning of the twentieth century, a new development in Indian literature was beginning to call for a reexamination of the indigenous critical tradition. This development, a twentieth-century phenomenon, was the increasing production of literature in English by Indians. Early South Indian critics such as K. R. Srinivasa Iyengar and C. D. Narasimhaiah, educated at Cambridge, where their teachers included F. R. Leavis, sought to apply European standards to a literature that increasingly defied judgment by those standards. Indian writing, it appeared, failed to use English “properly.” It seemed to these critics that writers such as Narayan, Raja Rao, and Mulk Raj Anand did not write in what they considered to be “good English.” And yet they were increasingly being read abroad and championed by the E. M. Forsters and Graham Greenes that these critics held in great esteem. And so the questions began to arise, How should new Indian writing in English be judged? What yardstick should be applied?
K. R. Srinivasa Iyengar, in his landmark assessment of this literature, Indian Writing in English, attempted to turn to Hippolyte Taine’s formula of race, moment, and milieu. And yet with the emergence of a literature that is both Western and Indian but is even more permeated with Indianness, the question of a return to the rasadhvani criticism is becoming increasingly urgent. In a reversal of his previous position, which was based on European standards, Narasimhaiah has established at Mysore University in South India a critical school called Dhvanyaloka. In response to new theoretical and Marxist approaches to what are increasingly coming to be called the new literatures in English, nationalist critics ask whether Indians must even import their radicalism from the West. Does it not make more sense, for example, to see a writer such as Salman Rushdie in the Indian tradition of wordplay and the Islamic tradition of a qawal than to see him as a post-Joycean, postmodern Marxist spokesperson for an oppressed other—an “other” that has, ironically, vehemently rejected him? What constitutes the Indianness of a writer such as Rushdie or Anita Desai, who is albeit a mixture of East and West? What Indian critical and theoretical positions have these writers absorbed by osmosis? A new Indian literary theory needs to be forged to suit the multicultural Indian context of the newer literatures, whether those of the vernaculars or in English.
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Source: Groden, Michael, and Martin Kreiswirth. The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.