South Asia usually refers to the geo-cultural area traditionally known as the Indian subcontinent and consists of contemporary Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Tibet, and the Maldives. The region has a rich tradition of conceptualization of the arts of argumentation, oration, and literary embellishment, marked by a flair for categorizing even the subtlest features.
In ancient India, the understanding of various forms of rhetoric practice was necessitated by cultural practices, including public deliberations in Vedic assemblies and post-Vedic republics, urban leisure cultures’ adulation of oratory (vacanam) and the aesthetic, the tradition of public debates to establish and defend academic and religious thoughts, and well-organized judicial and political systems.
Comprehensive theorizations of scholarly argumentation were reached at in logic (Nyaya) and other disciplines. Caraka (400 bce), in his treatise on medicine, classifies debate into two types: friendly discussion between two scholars (Sandhaya sambha8a) and argumentation of two hostile scholars (Vigraha). Gautama (c. 200 ce), the founder of Nyaya, however, classifies argumentation (Katha) into three categories: discussion for truth without fear of losing (Vada), a debate where the debater censures the opponent’s thesis without establishing any counter-position (Vita64a), and debate for victory without care for the truth (Jalpa). Sanatni (c. 1000 ce) denies Vita64a any independent existence; Dharmakirti rejects all forms of debate except the Vada. Gautama categorizes quibble (Chala) and false parity of reasoning (Jati), the tricks used for victory in lieu of fair argumentation, and sub-varieties of these features. Gautama also identifies 22 categories of censuring a debate (Nigrahasthana). Caraka and Maitreya (400 ce) prescribed some context-sensitive nonverbal strategies for public argumentation.
Emperor Ashoka (200 ce) proclaimed mutual tolerance, restraint of speech, and respect for the truth in each system as the basic principles of religious argumentation. Mughal Emperor Akbar (1500–1600 bce) conceptualized “the path of reason” (Rah-I-Akl) as the guiding principle of interreligious dialogue.
Judicial argumentation was discussed in Dharma1astras, the Hindu treatises on law (200 bce onwards), and Artha1astra, a treatise on polity by Kautilya (300 bce). As testimonies were accorded importance, more than even divine tests, technical discussion on forms, qualities, and defects of legal argumentations (Vada) are aplenty. Concise, relevant, reasonable, unambiguous, capable of proof, understandable without an explanation, consistent, and nonfigurative submissions (Vakya) are considered as ideal.
Artha1astra discusses the political rhetoric. Persuasive verbal strategies used by spies and the composition of royal writs were discussed by Kautilya. He categorizes the qualities of royal writs as arrangement of the content (arthakarma), relevance (samvandha), completeness (paripurnata), sweetness (madhurya), dignity (audarya), and lucidity (spastatva).
Caraka, Kautilya, and Sushruta detailed a comprehensive system of technical textual composition (Tantra-yukti) having more than 30 clearly explained and categorized stylistic and logical devices (Tantra), including content (vidhana), quotation (apade1a), doubt (samasya), derivation (nirvacana), and exception (apavarga).
Sanskrit aestheticians’ endeavors in understanding the sources of literary persuasiveness focused on rhetoric figures. Bharata (c. 200 bce), in Natya1astra, the most ancient available treatise on poetics, identifies four literary figures –Upama, Rupaka, Dîpaka, and Yamaka (simile, metaphor, zeugma, and homophony). Later theoreticians’ insistence on categorizing finer differences of rhetoric strategies proliferated figures and sub-figures. With the contributions of generations of scholars through the centuries, the number of figures had risen to 136 by the thirteenth century (in Appayadikshita’s Chitramima5sa). However, the search for broader categories to understand the general ornamentality of literary writings also led to the concepts of Soundrya (beauty) and Vakratva (deviance) being propounded as defining categories of literary writings.
Aestheticians of other languages of the region also show comparable engagement with literary rhetoric. Though ancient Tamil aestheticians did not invest in subtle details, the Tolka:ppiyam, the earliest available Tamil treatise on poetics (c. 100 bce), recognizes simile (Uvamam or Uvamai) as the most important literary technique and dedicates one full chapter to the subject. Siyabaslakara (c. 900 ce), the oldest prose work in Sinhalese, the Sri Lankan language, is a treatise on rhetoric. Other important works like Dandyala5kara sama and Siyabas Laku6a (c. 1200–1300 ce) continue the engagement. These works in general share close affinity with Sanskrit aestheticians’ understanding of rhetoric, Dandyala5kara sama being itself a commentary on Dandi’s work, the Kavyadar1a.
With the spread of Muslim education during the medieval period, classical Arabic and Persian thinking became, and continued to be, an indispensable part of the south Asian knowledge system. Though some insights are offered on the art of oratory, as in the Bayan-wa-al-Tabyîn of Jahiz, classical Arabic and Persian thinking accords much importance to rhetorical aspects of literary works. Led by scholars like Al-Mubarad, Ibn-al-Mutaz, Qudama-bin-Jafar, Rashid al-Din Vatvat, Qays al-Razi, and Sad al-Din Taftazani, the tradition offers multidimensional understanding of the nature and categories of rhetoric figures and composition styles.
During the past two centuries, elements of western rhetoric have been incorporated into the south Asian knowledge system. However, the idea of rhetoric as a discipline covering areas other than literary figures has failed to gain circulation. In the west, Oliver (1971) and Kennedy (1998) have offered brief introductions to rhetorical practices of ancient India within a comparative framework. Though constrained by lack of access to important primary sources, these works take into account various areas of rhetorical practices other than the literary. In south Asia, however, non-innovative exposition of classical rhetoric figures in contemporary literary contexts has become predominant with a few comparative and interactive exceptions. Chakraborty (1988) offers valuable insights on possible interaction between western and Sanskrit rhetoric figures by identifying examples of western figures like asyndeton, anticlimax, etc. in contemporary Bengali literature and simultaneously noting how the finer peculiarities of various types of comparison-based rhetoric practices of the western literatures, overlooked by the western system, can be effectively categorized under the Sanskrit figures. Karickam (1999) provides a comprehensive comparative analysis of the Indian (Dravidian and Sanskrit) and western rhetoric figures, preparing the base for further interactivity.
- Chakraborty, S. (1988). Alamkarchandrika [Treatise on rhetoric]. Kolkata: Kritanjali.
- Karickam, A. (1999). Rhetoric figures: Indian and western tradition. Kerala: Comparative Literature Research and Study Center.
- Kennedy, G. A. (1998). Comparative rhetoric: An historical and cross-cultural introduction. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Oliver, R. T. (1971). Communication and culture in ancient India and China. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.