Mahākāvya (lit. great kāvya, court epic), also known as sargabandha, is a genre of Indian epic poetry in classical Sanskrit literature. The genre is characterised by ornate and elaborate descriptions of scenery, love, battles and so on — in short, everything that tests a poet's skill at description. Typical examples of mahākāvya are the Kiratarjuniya and the Shishupala Vadha.
It is considered the most prestigious form in Sanskrit literature. The genre evolved from the earlier epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Despite the length of mahākāvyas (15-30 cantos, a total of about 1500-3000 verses), they are still much shorter than the Ramayana (500 cantos, 24000 verses) and the Mahabharata (about 100000 verses).
The classical examples
Tradition identifies five works as model mahākāvya:
- Raghuvaṃśa by Kālidāsa: the Raghu dynasty, in 19 cantos (about 1564 verses)
- Kumārasambhava by Kālidāsa: the wedding of Shiva and Parvati, and the birth of Kumara, in 17 cantos
- Kirātārjunīya by Bharavi: a battle between Arjuna and Shiva from the Mahabharata, 18 cantos
- Śiśupāla-vadha by Māgha: the slaying of Shishupala by Krishna, 22 cantos (about 1800 verses)
- Naiśadha-carita by Shriharsha: on the life of King Nala and Queen Damayanti, 22 cantos
To this list, sometimes a sixth one is also added.
- Bhaṭṭikāvya, by Bhaṭṭi: describes the events of the Ramayana and simultaneously illustrates the principles of Sanskrit grammar, 22 cantos
- It must take its subject matter from the epics (Ramayana or Mahabharata), or from history,
- It must help further the four goals of man (Purusharthas),
- It must contain descriptions of cities, seas, mountains, moonrise and sunrise, and "accounts of merrymaking in gardens, of bathing parties, drinking bouts, and love-making. It should tell the sorrow of separated lovers and should describe a wedding and the birth of a son. It should describe a king's council, an embassy, the marching forth of an army, a battle, and the victory of a hero".
About this list, Ingalls observes:
These are not random suggestions but specific requirements. Every complete mahākāvya that has come down to us from the time of Kalidasa contains the whole list, which, if one considers it carefully, will be seen to contain the basic repertory of Sanskrit poetry. Contained in it are the essential elements of nature, love, society, and war which a poet should be able to describe. The great kāvya tested a poet by his power of rendering content, which is a better test at least than the Persian diwan, which tested a poet by his skill at rhyme.
It is composed of a varying number of short poems or cantos, that tells the story of a classical epic. Each poem is composed in a metre that is fitting to the subject matter, such as a description of the seasons, a geographical form of nature such as a mountain, and cities.
In the relatively secluded world of modern Sanskrit literature, mahakavyas continue to be produced. Some of these have been awarded the Sahitya Akademi Award for Sanskrit. In the introduction to Ṣoḍaśī: An Anthology of Contemporary Sanskrit Poets (1992), Radhavallabh Tripathi writes:
On the other hand, the number of authors who appear to be very enthusiastic about writing in Sanskrit during these days is not negligible. […] In a thesis dealing with Sanskrit mahākāvyas written in a single decade, 1961–1970, the researcher [Dr. Ramji Upadhyaya] has noted 52 Sanskrit mahākāvyas (epic poems) produced in that very decade.
Some modern mahākāvyas do not aim to satisfy all the traditional criteria, and take as their subject historical matter (such as Rewa Prasad Dwivedi's Svatantrya Sambhavam on the Indian independence movement, or K.N. Ezhuthachan's Keralodayah on the history of Kerala), or biographies of historical characters (such as S.B. Varnekar's Shrishivarajyodayam on Shivaji, M. S. Aney's Sritilakayasornavah on Bal Gangadhar Tilak, or P. C. Devassia's Kristubhagavatam on Jesus Christ). Some others like the Śrībhārgavarāghaviyam (2002) composed by Jagadguru Rāmabhadrācārya continue to have the subject of the traditional epics.
- Daṇḍin's Kāvyādarśa (The Mirror of Poetry) 1.15–19:|quote= itihāsa-kath’’-ôdbhūtam, itarad vā sad-āśrayam, | catur-varga-phal’-āyattaṃ, catur-udātta-nāyakam,
nagar’-ârṇava-śaila’-rtu, | udyāna-salila-kṛīḍā-madhu-pāna-rat’-ôtsavaiḥ,
vipralambhair vivāhaiś ca, kumār’-ôdaya-varṇanaiḥ, | mantra-dūta-prayāṇ’-āji-nāyak’-âbhyudayair api;
alaṃ-kṛtam, a-saṃkṣiptaṃ, rasa-bhāva-nirantaram, | sargair an-ativistīrṇaiḥ, śravya-vṛttaiḥ su-saṃdhibhiḥ,
sarvatra bhinna-vṛttāntair upetaṃ, loka-rañjanam | kāvyaṃ kalp’-ântara-sthāyi jāyate sad-alaṃkṛti
- Belvalkar's translation of Daṇḍin's Kāvyādarśa 1.15–19 (S. K. Belvalkar. 1924. Kāvyādarśa of Daṇḍin. Sanskrit Text and English Translation. Poona: The Oriental Book-supplying Agency)|quote=It springs from a historical incident or is otherwise based on some fact; it turns upon the fruition of the fourfold ends and its hero is clever and noble; By descriptions of cities, oceans, mountains, seasons and risings of the moon or the sun; through sportings in garden or water, and festivities of drinking and love; Through sentiments-of-love-in-separation and through marriages, by descriptions of the birth-and-rise of princes, and likewise through state-counsel, embassy, advance, battle, and the hero’s triumph; Embellished; not too condensed, and pervaded all through with poetic sentiments and emotions; with cantos none too lengthy and having agreeable metres and well-formed joints, And in each case furnished with an ending in a different metre—such a poem possessing good figures-of-speech wins the people’s heart and endures longer than even a kalpa.
- Daniel Ingalls, Sanskrit Poetry and Sanskrit Poetics, Introduction to An Anthology of Sanskrit Court Poetry: Vidyākara's Subhāṣitaratnakoṣa. Harvard University Press. 1945. pp. 33–35. ISBN 978-0-674-78865-7.
- "mahakavya". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 2010-12-16.
- Radhavallabh Tripathi, ed. (1992), Ṣoḍaśī: An Anthology of Contemporary Sanskrit Poets, Sahitya Akademi, ISBN 81-7201-200-4