Language duel

The first scholar to seriously study Sanskrit puns and bitextual poems, Sanskritist Yigal Bronner, PhD’99, found that it was a popular literary device until colonial times.

By Ruth E. Kott, AM’07
Photography by Dan Dry

Language duel

Puns are often called the lowest form of humor (Samuel Johnson said it first). But in medieval Sanskrit poetry, they were an element of a serious literary device in which language lent itself to double, or even triple, meanings, argues Sanskritist Yigal Bronner, PhD’99: “Everybody who studies Sanskrit is amazed to see how one word can have 17 meanings and how so many synonyms for one thing exists.” An assistant professor of South Asian languages and civilizations, Bronner is the first scholar to do an in-depth study of the technique in Sanskrit poetry. Much more than simply a rhetorical ornament, he argues, it was a cultural phenomenon.

Called slesa, the literary device was used by Sanskrit poets from the sixth century to as late as the 20th. The same text can be read multiple ways simultaneously. Different from an allegory, Bronner writes in Extreme Poetry: The South Asian Movement of Simultaneous Narration (Columbia University Press, 2010), slesa “typically involves a metamorphosis of the entire utterance—nouns, verbs, and prepositions—in a way that creates a new sentence with a new vocabulary.” Slesa can inhabit a word, a phrase, a sentence, or an entire piece. A word like naksatra, Bronner cites as an example in his introduction, which means “planet,” can also be read as two separate words: the “negative particle na and the word ksatra (warrior).” In commentaries printed alongside a slesa poem, single verses are usually discussed as two separate ones.

Slesa’s literal meaning, “embrace,” Bronner writes, signifies fusing two narratives into one text, and the technique guides—and embraces—readers as they go. Bronner calls it “two-way poetry”: “the poet is in control of two-way traffic.” Occasionally meant to be funny, as Sanskrit poetry almost always incorporated humor, in general slesa lacks English’s pun-like jocularity, which Bronner says was “never at the heart of this literary movement.”

Among dozens of other uses, poets commonly applied the method to reveal deep secrets about certain characters, “subjects whose true self was in some way hidden or dual,” Bronner writes. A particularly well-known instance occurs in a beloved 12th-century poem, Sr?harsa’s Naisadhacarita. When Princess Damayant? chooses King Nala as her husband, four gods who also want to marry Damayanti disguise themselves as Nala at her “groom-choice ceremony.” In one verse, the narrator simultaneously describes one suitor as if he were both Indra (“his true self,” writes Bronner), with images of heavenly bodies and the sky, and the human Nala (“his assumed identity”).

In Extreme Poetry, Bronner traces slesa’s evolution from its first-known use by sixth-century poet Subandhu. A century later slesa was part of most narrative poems, “often occupying entire sections or chapters and typically appearing at the centermost plot juncture,” Bronner writes. By the early eighth century, poets were merging the two great Sanskrit epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Structural and plot parallels lent the two tales to slesa. When the male protagonists, the Mahabharata’s Arjuna and the Ramayana’s Rama, attract nonhuman females, both men spurn the women; Arjuna refuses and humiliates the “dancing-girl from heaven” Urva´s?, and Rama physically harms demoness Surpanakha. When the two epics were fused, poets came to embrace a new aesthetic ideal, Bronner writes, in which “telling a single story was no longer the highest goal for a work of narrative art.”

The use of slesa continued, with fluctuating popularity, until colonial times, when it “gradually came to be seen as the epitome of everything that was decadent and distasteful about South Asian culture.” The bias against “the clever manipulation of language in literature,” says Bronner, has its roots in the Romantic movement, which valued simple, unembellished literature. Since then, Sanskritists haven’t touched the subject. “Few living scholars have actually read a bitextual poem,” Bronner writes, “and no modern scholar has seriously analyzed one.”

Many literary scholars, both Western and South Asian, don’t include double-narrative poems on their curricula. “I gave a talk once about slesa in Madras, in India, at a research institute that is dedicated to Sanskrit,” Bronner recalls, “and people liked the talk. But there was a ‘but’: ‘But this is ridiculous.’”

Slesa, Bronner argues, shouldn’t be ignored. It’s part of what makes poetry “beautiful and worthy in Sanskrit,” which is Bronner’s primary interest. Born in Jerusalem, he came to the language in college. While studying psychology at Hebrew University, he also majored in Indian studies. Inspired by a six-month post–high-school trip to India and neighboring countries, he spent a month in the northern-India city of Dharamsala. For a lot of that time he was in a library reading about Buddhism and culture in the region. Then, in college, he says, “I started studying Sanskrit in a class that basically ended up with just me and another student.”

After reading slesa in poems and other literature for some time, Bronner found he didn’t need to rely as much on the commentaries. Often vocabulary choices or linguistic hints within a text signal to readers that a slesa is imminent. And certain words, he argues, might be used more frequently with a double meaning. Kara, for example, means “hand” and, metaphorically, “a ray of the sun or moon,” Bronner explains, “because they are like the hands of these heavenly bodies.” It also means “tax.” “Words like these very often appear in a simile in both meanings.”

Poets who use slesa, says Bronner, aren’t trying to be vague or abstract. Comparing a slesa poem to James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, he notes a difference between “creating ambivalence and creating two or more very clear readings that are not at all meant to be ambivalent.” Although Sanskrit poets played with language, they didn’t try to confuse or misdirect readers: “The idea is, ‘We want you to read both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and maybe a third meaning at the same time,’” Bronner says, “‘but we want you to get exactly where you want to go.’”


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