In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Kāvya

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Inscriptional Evidence
  • Bibliographies, Concordances, and Indices
  • Critical Editions
  • Secondary Literature
  • Literary Criticism and Poetics (AlaṃKāra śāstra, Kāvya śāstra)
  • Devotional Poetry
  • Citra Kāvya
  • Non-Devotional Love Poems
  • Contemporary Kavya

Hinduism Kāvya
Timothy Cahill
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 January 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0030


“Kāvya” is a Sanskrit term used to designate poetry variously characterized as classical, ornate, courtly, or stylized. To be sure, kavya usually involves erudition and elegance, but a poet (kavi) might equally spurn the many available conventions to create a work for simpler tastes. India’s critics debated how to define kavya for over a millennium. Its simplest formulation is sound and sense combined, or “the output of poets.” However, connoisseurs have long understood it as something more elegant, more crafted than gnomic, didactic, or narrative versification—so much so that the prestige of kavya extended even to those who wrote technical treatises in the exact sciences. This article covers works in Sanskrit with brief references to the related literatures in the Prākrits, old Tamil, Apabhraṃśa, and the various literary precursors to India’s modern languages.

Introductory Works

A variety of brief introductions exists, including introductions to individual works and sections of larger works—mostly histories of Sanskrit literature. These invariably focus on particular poets and periods as representative. The introductions to Brough 1968 and Ingalls 1965 explain what distinguishes kavya from other Indian literary genres and give general readers an idea of why the form is so enduring. Dimock, et al. 1974 presents a critical introduction to Indian literature; the seven themes provide a good entrée to the ways that kavya has influenced certain genres of the premodern vernaculars. De 1959 continues to be a stimulating point of departure relevant for understanding those who target the author’s opinions and conclusions. Ramanujan 1967, a collection of translations from a classical Tamil anthology, offers an important counterpoint from a contemporaneous Indian tradition of refined poetry.

  • Brough, John, ed. and trans. Poems from the Sanskrit. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1968.

    The introduction to this short book is an excellent survey of how kavya conveys its beauty. Brough provides some fine examples of the difficulties of translating this literature while also pointing out some successful strategies.

  • De, S. K. Aspects of Sanskrit Literature. Calcutta: Firma KLM, 1959.

    Written as a supplement to De’s much larger History of Sanskrit Literature (Calcutta: University of Calcutta, 1947), this collection of often opinionated essays represents the mature considerations of a fine scholar published over a thirty-year span. Some of De’s harsher critiques have been targeted for revision by late-20th- and early-21st-century scholars.

  • Dimock, Edward C., Edwin Gerow, C. M. Naim, A. K. Ramanujan, G. Roadarmel, and J. van Buitenen. The Literatures of India: An Introduction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974.

    An excellent guide for general readers. Owing to its emphasis on classical and medieval literatures, this collaborative effort provides a disproportionate measure of material relating to kavya. Gerow and Ramanujan treat the poetics of kavya literature in Sanskrit, Tamil, and Kannada.

  • Ingalls, Daniel H. H., ed. and trans. Vidyākara’s “Subhāṣitaratnakośa”: An Anthology of Sanskrit Court Poetry. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965.

    A widely read anthology collected not by Ingalls but by Vidyāpati, an 11th-century Bengali poet and anthologist. The introduction to this ancient anthology of nearly two thousand poems is extremely valuable for its sensitive treatment of the elaborate conventions of kavya, the poetics that inform it, and the cultural contexts that make it intelligible.

  • Ramanujan, A. K. The Interior Landscape: Love Poems from a Classical Tamil Anthology. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1967.

    The afterword of this short book constitutes a concise yet complete description of classical Tamil poetry, including a sophisticated synopsis of the “five landscapes.” The beauty and refinement of these seventy-six poems constitute an implicit challenge to the idea of kavya as a uniquely Sanskritic achievement.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.