Laughter in the Time of Misery: Political Criticism in an Early Modern Sanskrit Poem
It is often held that India had no tradition of political criticism taking the king and his actions to task. What she was used to were the innumerable panegyrics starting from hero-lauds such as the gāthā-nāraśamsis in the Vedic literature and the araśar-vā˝ttus of early Tamil songs and developing through the praśastis in the medieval period. This absence of any critical check, among other things, allowed kings to exercise unbridled power; nor was there any hereditary nobility that could offer any restraint on the despotic ways of the ruler. What western political thinkers saw in pre-modern India was this kind of a polity and a social form suited to it and they called it Oriental Despotism. Criticism of any variety was impossible in
such a political atmosphere. Here were a set emasculated eminences who took all the atrocities of the state (read “king”) lying down without so much as opening their mouth against them. Although such an argument was handy for the British colonial masters, it is opposed to evidence. The narmasaciva envisaged by the Dharmśāstras, the vidūsakas in the plays and so on discharged this duty very effectively. Disguised criticisms of the anyāpadeśa type and even more explicit ones are available in Sanskrit and other Indian languages. It is too early for at least people of Kerala to forget how the Cākyārs almost terrorized rulers in their kūttu and kū¢iyā¢¢am performances. Mahisaśatakam, a hundred verses in praise of a buffalo, which I presume to introduce here, has to be seen as an example of such political criticism.