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Cognitive Aberrations In Sanskrit Aesthetic Tradition: In Light Of Śobhākara’s Alaṅkāraratnākara

The Alaṅkāraratnākara, or the “Treasury of Ornaments” , of Śobhākareśvaramitra is a Kashmirian work on alaṅkāraśāstra of the late twelfth to early thirteenth centuries that seeks to challenge innovations proposed in the Alaṅkārasarvasva (AlSar), the most successful work of the Kashmirian rhetorician Ruyyaka. We may consider this a genre of response texts the development of which can be traced throughout the history of alaṅkāra dialectics The nature of the inter-textuality between Śobhākara’s and Ruyyaka’s works shows Ruyyaka had reinvigorated alaṅkāra rhetorics by paying careful attention to implicit epistemological and ontological categories, and Śobhākara problematized this resystematisation. That rival texts teaching very similar doctrines within a short time of each other were produced is a pattern comparable to what we see in other śāstras, but it is also different as there exists no doctrinal framework provided by a Sūtra authored by an omniscient founder.

In his introduction to the AlSar, Ruyyaka describes rhetorics as a śāstra that has undergone a process of evolution, where less precise theories of earlier authors are superseded by later ideas. Vāmana’s Sūtras clearly were obsolete, and a new Sūtra was called for. Much as Ruyyaka styled his work on Vāmana, Śobhākara consciously styled his work in imitation of Ruyyaka, almost as if he intended it as a replacement, albeit with slightly longer prose passages to accommodate refutations of Ruyyaka’s theories. A striking feature is the vehemence with which Śobhākara attacks, without naming his opponent, nearly all the elements of Ruyyaka’s treasure:  Definitions of alaṅkāras, their classification into subtypes, the identification of alaṅkāras in examples, and, significantly, the very epistemological basis upon which figures of speech can be differentiated.  Yet, while Śobhākara finds fault with many specific innovations Ruyyaka proposes, at the same time he is sympathetic to Ruyyaka’s project of radically rethinking the semantic and epistemological foundations – imported from grammar and pramāṇa śāstra – upon which alaṅkāraśāstra was built. In this, he can be quite innovative. He is the first to insist, for example, that rūpaka metaphors must be based on sāmānādhikaraṇya.

An important third voice in this debate is Ruyyaka’s commentator Jayaratha, who, in his Vimarśinī, takes it upon himself to shield the AlSar from Śobhākara’s attacks. The scenario would remind us of the heated theological and philosophical debates along sectarian lines described by the celebrated logician Bhaṭṭa Jayanta in his play Āgamaḍambara. Śobhākara introduces his work with a benediction verse that is borrowed from the Nyāyamañjarī of Bhaṭṭa Jayanta.

Surāsura-śiroratna-marīci-khacitāṅghraye |

Vighnāndhakāra-sūryāya gaṇādhipataye namaḥ ||

This raises the question of a possible connection between the AlRat and the Nyāyamañjarī. Is Śobhākara deliberately drawing attention to the fact that his ontology and epistemology are in some way related to the work of Bhaṭṭa Jayanta? Is his resistance to Ruyyaka part of a Kashmirian contest between realist Naiyāyikas and radical Śaiva Non-dualists to lay claim to the neutral domain of poetics and inscribe it with their own epistemologies and ontologies?

These questions can of course only be answered by tracing textual passages demonstrating Śobhākara’s indebtedness to specific doctrines unique to Bhaṭṭa Jayanta. Seen in this light, it is possible that Ruyyaka’s paradigm of the gradual evolution of alaṅkāra rhetorics, evidencing historical awareness of progress within a śāstra, progressing from simple enumerative schemas to ever more refined epistemic analyses, might not have seemed to Śobhākara like a disinterested, objective sketch of the history of a neutral śāstra. Śobhākara may rather have perceived it as a transparent attempt to controvert established Naiyāyika tenets, and he may have tried to neutralize of Ruyyaka’s attempts to move beyond Nyāya epistemology. Alaṅkāra epistemology might not have been the only thing Śobhākara believed to be at stake here, for Bhaṭṭa Jayanta upheld the primacy of the Nyāya as the main protection of the Veda against heretical doctrines.

This could explain why Śobhākara’s debate with Ruyyaka seems at times as though it might be a scene in Bhaṭṭa Jayanta’s Āgamaḍambara.


Śobhākara has composed a complex work on aesthetics. He shows little interest in engaging the theory of affective suggestion (dhvani), but instead analyses in detail the types of cognition affecting the reader, the poet, and the imaginary characters created by the poet in various figures of speech. We will limit our investigation to just three figures of speech in view of the prolixity of the arguments:  The Erroneous (bhrāntimat), the Assumption (utprekṣā) and the Hyperbolic (atiśayokti). In both Ruyyaka’s and Śobhākara’s works these three figures are introduced in a group of related figures of speech where similarly deflected cognitions are prominent.

Ruyyaka’s and Śobhākara’s analysis of such deflected cognitions in poetry presupposes an inter-subjectivity involving three different types of perceivers.

[1.] The poet may imagine an agent who doubts, mistakes, or imagines etc.

[2.] The poet himself or herself may doubt, imagine etc.

[3.] The reader may doubt, imagine etc.

To be able to analyse a poem along the lines of Ruyyaka or Śobhākara we therefore also need to know what each of these perceivers knows. That is to say, do they know what other agents know? What is their degree of positive and negative introspection, i.e., are the agents aware of what they themselves know or do not know? Ruyyaka makes an essential distinction between epistemic and non-epistemic aberrant cognitions. He seeks to exclude the former, epistemic errors, from poetic discourse as too mundane: they do not inherently encapsulate the kind of strikingness (vicchitti) that arises from poetic insight. By non-epistemic he does not mean the ineffable qualia of cognition (bhoga), but rather doxastic or thetic types of cognition (abhimāna).


Our authors agree that the figure of speech called the Erroneous is dependent on the first of the above mentioned three types of perceivers (i.e. an agent imagined by the poet), but disagree on whether epistemic errors can be allowed in bhrāntimat. Bhrāntimat (lit. “abounding in error”) was first defined by the Kashmirian alaṅkārika Rudraṭa. In his view, it requires a perceiver (pratipattṛ) who, when he is perceiving one thing, without doubting grasps instead another, similar thing. Close to this is Mammaṭa’s definition in the Kāvyaprakāśa, which may be approximated as: “Cognition of X when perceiving Y which is similar to X.”

Ruyyaka (AlSar) retains the centrality of similarity in his definition:  “The perception of a different thing due to similarity.” As an example he quotes a verse where parrots make a series of mistakes:

“Hoping the lips,   of women whose eyes are like lily petals   would be Bimba fruits

Believing their rich curls to be Utpākajambū [fruits]

Mistaking the red rubies in their earrings for pomegranate kernels

Your Majesty! The pet parrots of the Gūrjara king, darting about repeatedly suddenly collapsed of thirst in the desert.”

This verse expresses in evasive courtly circumlocution that the Gūrjara king is fleeing into the wilderness with his wives because on his definition in his prose auto-commentary with: “That mode of eloquent expression (bhaṇiti), in which the property of the mind known as error exists, is called the Erroneous.” This clarifies that mere epistemic failure, which in itself is simply a property of the mind, is not intended to be an ornament of speech. Ruyyaka specifically seeks to exclude epistemic errors resulting from common types of cognitive dysfunction such as those Dharmakīrti excludes in his definition of perception: “Error resulting from strong blows to the vitals etc. are not within the domain of this ornament-

tayā rahitaṃ timirāśubhramaṇanauyānasaṃkṣobhādyanāhi

tavibhramaṃ jñānaṃ pratyakṣam |  (Nyāyabindu 1.6)

This introduces aspects of voluntarism (svārasika vs. utpādya) and doxastic conditions (abhimāna) into the investigation. For Śobhākara, aesthetic cognitions can be svārasika (svarasataḥ, svarasotthāpita, “naturally ocurring”) or utpādya, (utpādita, utthāpita, pratibhotthāpita, prayojanapara, “intentionally evoked”). The Alaṅkāraśāstra usage of these terms is probably indebted to Ānandavardhana’s distinction of implicit vākyārthas into either svataḥsambhavin or kaviprauḍhoktimātrasiddha.

A vākyārtha that reveals a second meaning (or situation) can be either inherently plausible (svataḥsambhavin), or it can be imagined by a creative poet kaviprauḍhoktimātrasiddha (or, adding poetic intersubjectivity, imagined by a character imagined by the poet). While discussing the figure of ullekha, Śobhākara predicates the svārasika and utpādya modes on cognition (pratipatti), and this draws a response from Jayaratha, who cites Bhaṭṭa Jayanta’s theory of cognition. Generally, for Śobhākara, svārasika appears to denote involuntary, automatic, spontaneous, or invariable modes of cognition, whereas utpādya denotes volitional, intentionally evoked, telic or para-telic modes of cognition.

In his view, the Erroneous is not concerned with the mechanism of epistemic malfunction, but rather with the reader’s appreciation of how the poet ventures to insinuate what the agent imagined in a poem believes to be happening. It is also important that the reader and the poet share the same degree of omniscience relative to the situation (we know what is really happening), whereas the imagined agent in the poem does not.

Śobhākara contests nearly everything of substance that Ruyyaka asserts about the Erroneous. It is he who first breaks with tradition and denies that similarity is necessary in the Erroneous.

In explaining the Erroneous as a non-veridical, doxastic alternative cognition that supplants a veridical cognition, Śobhākara uses the term abhimāna to designate a kind of make-believe that does not correspond to reality. Śobhākara interprets Amaru’s verse – the final verse in most recensions – to be saying that the love-sick speaker actually misperceives completely unrelated everyday objects to be his beloved.  This extreme cognitive deviancy is possible because of the derangement caused by the speaker’s intense lovesickness, and the figure of speech remains, in contrast to Ruyyaka, the Erroneous.

prāsāde sā pathi pathi ca sā pṛṣṭhataḥ sā puraḥ sā

paryaṅke sā diśi diśi ca sā tadviyogāturasya |

haṃho cetaḥ prakṛtir aparā nāsti te42 kāpi sā sā

sā sā sā sā jagati sakale ko ’yam advaitavādaḥ || (Amaruśataka 105)

For him, anguished by separation from her –

The terrace: She, Every path: She, To the side: She, Ahead: She

The bed: She, Everywhere: She

Alas, O heart! There is no other material for you whatsoever

The whole world: she she she she she she!

What is this philosophy of non-dualism?

Here a cognitive synthesis of identity, caused by an experience of intense passion, functions as the occasioning cause for the cognition of the mansion etc. as having the form of the beloved.

Jayaratha repeats Ruyyaka’s judgment that misperceptions caused by intense conditions cannot be accommodated in the Erroneous, and he contradicts Śobhākara’s interpretation of the final verse of the Amaruśataka. The poet, he claims, intended something quite different, and the figure of speech must be identified as the Particular (viśeṣa), where a single thing is perceived to multiply, and not as the Erroneous. Rather than actually perceiving the beloved as being the terrace, the road etc., he intends that the lovesick speaker sees one woman in many places at once; we might say that he sees her everywhere.

“Vimarśinī: ityatraikasyā eva parimitāyā api yoṣito gāḍhānurāgahetukaṃ tanmayatānusaṃdhānaṃ prāsādādāv anekatra yugapatpratītau nimittam iti na  bhrāntimadalaṃkāraḥ | sa hi prāsādāder vallabhārūpatvena pratītau syāt | anyasyānyarūpatvena samyagabhidhānātmāniścayo hi bhrāntimallakṣaṇam |  na ca prāsādādir vallabhātvena pratīyate iti sphuṭa evāyaṃ viśeṣālaṅkārasya  viṣayaḥ |

Here an identifying cognitive synthesis of one finite woman, caused by intense passion, is the occasioning cause for [her] simultaneous perception on the terrace, [the road,] etc. Therefore it is not a case of the Erroneous, for that would involve cognition of the terrace etc. as being the beloved. The Erroneous is defined as a non-ascertainment of the correct construal by taking X as Y. And since the terrace, and so on, are not perceived as the beloved, this is a clear case of the Particular (viśeṣa).”


The above discussion reveals that the main disagreement between Śobhākara and Ruyyaka concerns their rival typologies of cognition (pratītibheda). Under what headings can deflected cognitions be subsumed? Śobhākara lays out his schema as part of his definition of the figure of speech called the Assumption (utprekṣā). In agreement with earlier theorists, he sees this as grounded on a surmise (saṃbhāvana) – viṣayitvena saṃbhāvanam utprekṣā.

This reverts to an earlier consensus that Ruyyaka sought to overturn by claiming that the Assumption depends not on supposition, but that it arises rather when the predominant focus falls on the process of identifying ascertainment (adhyavasāya). In the expression: “the anklet remained mute, as if in grief of separation from your foot,” the target (viṣaya) is the anklet, and it is assumed, through a process of identification occur ring as a part of cognition, that it is instead the source (viṣayin), in this case a conscious agent capable of speech, from whence derives its seeming ability to choose to remain mute. For Śobhākara the key feature of this cognitive deflection is an assumption (supposition, surmise) that the target is the source.

Śobhākara’s main critique is that imagination cannot be based on a positive form of determining and ascertaining cognition as Ruyyaka claims, but that it must rather be based on doubt. An example of an ascertainment would be: “This is a post,” and a doubt would be:  “Is this a post or a man?” In a speculation, the situation is: “This surely must be a post!”  Śobhākara would prefer to classify the Assumption as a form of doubt. He then contextualises this type of doubt further:

tathāhi saṃdehaniścayarūpatvena pratyayānāṃ dvaividhyam | niścayaś ca yathārthāvyabhicārī samyakpratyayaḥ | vyabhicārī tv asamyak | tatra tāvad utprekṣāyā na samyaktvam | arthāvyabhicārābhāvāt | nāpy asamyakpratyayarūpo viparyāsaḥ, tasya niścayarūpatvāt | asyāṃ ca  śābdenāpi vṛttena bhrāntimadatiśayoktyādivad viṣayiṇo niścayābhāvāt aniścitaṃ ca saṃdigdham evety avivādaḥ | ata eva nādhyavasāyamūlatvam asyāḥ | tasya viṣayanigaraṇaṃ viṣayiniścayaś ca svarūpam | na cātraikam api saṃbhavati viṣayopādānāt, niścayābhāvāc ca | tena  “adhyavasāye vyāpāraprādhānya utprekṣā” iti lakṣaṇam aparyālocitābhidhānam eva

To explain further, cognitions are twofold because they can take the form of doubt or ascertainment. Ascertainment, which does not deviate from factual reality, is veridical cognition. That which deviates is non-veridical. The Assumption is not veridical, because of the absence of non-deviation from factual reality. Nor is [the Assumption] a misperception in the form of a non-veridical cognition, because that consists in an ascertainment. But in the Assumption (asyāṃ) there is an absence of the ascertainment of the source (viṣayin) even verbally, just as there is in the Erroneous (bhrāntimat) and the Hyperbole (atiśayokti). And nobody disputes that an uncertain cognition is doubtful. Therefore the Assumption cannot be based on identifying ascertainment (adhyavasāya), the essence of which is a devouring of the target and an ascertainment of the source. And in the present case not even one of these is possible, because the target is present and ascertainment is lacking. Therefore the definition: “The Assumption occurs when the process predominates in an identifying ascertainment,” is ill-considered.

Given the importance epistemology plays in Śobhākara’s system it is not surprising that Jayaratha subsequently singled out his cognitive typology for a detailed critique. Jayaratha denies the introduction of veridicality, that is, the categories of samyak and na samyak, determined by the presence or absence of cognitive deviation (vyabhicāra), into this paradigm. He takes a step back and charges that Śobhākara has missed the bigger picture. Ruyyaka’s definition of the Assumption appeals not to the result of cognition, but rather to the underlying bare process of cognising (pratītivṛttimātra) that itself enables us to determine cognitive validity.

Jayaratha proposed a different paradigm of three cognitions that can, he claims, be experientially verified by any literary critic (sahṛdayasākṣika): ascertainment (niścaya), doubt (saṃśaya, sandeha) and deliberation (tarka, sambhāvanā). The latter two he classifies under the heading of aniścaya (non-ascertainment). Therefore, Śobhākara’s assertion that non-determination is invariably a doubtful cognition cannot be maintained. This means that for Jayaratha the distinction between doubting (saṃdigdha) cognitions and imaginative cognitions (sambhāvita), under which he includes conjectural (tarkita) cognitions, is much greater than in the paradigm of Śobhākara. Śobhākara does not consider doubt and imagination as identical, as Jayaratha seems to insinuate, he merely states that both belong under the heading of doubtful cognition. In his discussion of the Erroneous he even explicitly notes that there is a difference of cognition between doubt and imagination, and this is the reason why we may consider them as the bases of distinct figures of speech.

aniścayaś ca saṃśayatarkarūpatvena dvividhaḥ | ataścāniścitaṃ ca saṃdigdham eveti na vācyam | tarkātmanaḥ saṃbhāvanā pratyayasyāpy aniścayātmakatve saṃdigdhatvābhāvāt | utprekṣā saṃbhāvanādiśabdābhidheyatarkapratītimūleti nāsyāḥ saṃdehamūlatvam |  tasya bhinnalakṣaṇatvāt | athānavadhāraṇajñānaṃ saṃśaya ity anavadhāraṇajñānatvāviśeṣāt saṃśayān nārthāntarabhāvas tarkasyety asyāḥ saṃśayamūlatvam iti cet, naitat | anavadhāraṇajñānatvāviśeṣe ’pi saṃśayatarkayor bhinnarūpatvāt

The main disagreements are whether validity is relevant when cognition is looked at as a bare process that is not yet complete, and whether surmise is a form of doubt or a category of its own.  For Śobhākara the Erroneous, as a form of identifying ascertainment, comes close to other figures of speech that involve ascertainment, most directly to the Hyperbolic (atiśayokti). He must therefore establish clear criteria to distinguish the two, and this sheds further light on how he understands his typology of cognitions.

A differing poetic inter-subjectivity is capable of altering the cognitive dynamics of the situation to such an extent that Śobhākara would identify a different ornament. If, for example, it were the poet who consciously and deliberately made an error in representing a situation in a very certain way, Śobhākara would identify the ornament as the Metaphor (rūpaka), provided that the error is one of verbal representation (pratipādanabhrama) as distinct from cognitive error (bhrāntā pratipattiḥ). In this he does not hesitate to go against Ruyyaka and all previous thinkers. For Śobhākara the target and the source are in that case related by sāmānādhikaraṇyam, that is, they are represented as collocated, as sharing a common substrate. This error must then also be shared by the reader, who sees two syntactically coordinated words sharing the same case suffix, and therefore superimposes the source on the target. The unusual doxastic error arising from unwarranted co-location, deliberately committed by the poet and willingly re-enacted by the reader, is what he calls a Metaphor.

It is conceivable that we should interpret this data as support for a conflict between a realist Naiyāyika (and Mīmāṃsaka) faction, represented by Śobhākara, who draws on the work of Bhaṭṭa Jayanta, and a non-dualist Śaiva faction represented by Abhinavagupta, Ruyyaka and Jayaratha who engage in Śāstra on the basis of Utpaladeva’s Īśvarapratyabhijñā.

Only more comparative research on specific doctrinal positions and intertextuality will enable us to determine the likelihood (or not) of this scenario.  In the dispute between Ruyyaka, Śobhākara, and Jayaratha, we see how fast alaṅkāraśāstra can change. Uninhibited by presence of an early founding text with authoritative commentaries, it had neither a given ontology nor an epistemology to call its own. This is not because it does not need either of these, to the contrary, alaṅkārikas unhesitatingly borrow terminology, categories, and even entire theoretical frameworks from other schools they studied.

To conclude, study of Indian Aesthetics will remain incomplete without a thorough understanding of the epistemology and ontology of the various schools of Darśana-s, and any attempt to ‘secularize’ its study, will only produce nails that can scratch its surface, not the shovel which can dig deeper.

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Conference on Hindu Aesthetics

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