A Critical Discussion on the Charucharya – Rev Upali Sramon

Rev Upali Sramom of the University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka, discusses the Charucharya of the Kashmiri Sanskritist Kshemendra:

01.  Introduction

Ksemendra, the author of the Cārucaryā, was held in great honour among the literary personages of Kashmir who wrote in Sanskrit. This popularity is not only due to the vast extent of literature to his credit but also to the variety of subjects he mastered and represented in his writing. His religious beliefs were flexible, changing from his original Saivism[1] to different beliefs wherein he switched to Visnu[2] as his god of refuge.  He also wrote on Buddhism. Thus he is a poet and at the same time a religious-harmoniser as he writes on Buddhist themes outside the confines of his own religion, Brahmanism. Even as a Hindu, his gentleness and ethical concerns, as expressed in the Cārucaryā (CC), deserve attention and praise.

Dr. Uma Cakraborty is one of the most reliable authorities to have studied Kşemendra and his works extensively. She asserts Kşemedra was born towards the latter half of the tenth century A.D. and says that since childhood he was well trained and was talented in poetics. His family was noble and well to do and he was brought up in an environment favourable to his literary activities which served to establish his talents. But, it was the overall situation of the country’s political anarchy that persuaded Kşemendra to contribute to ethical literature for the moral uplifting of people and to induce them to follow good conduct.[3] Therefore a considerable knowledge of the social history of the Kashmir of that period from available sources must also be considered while examining a literary work like the Cārucaryā.[4]


•02.   Purpose and Grammatical Selectivity

The title Cārucaryā is composed of cāru and caryā. Cāru derived from the verbal root can[5] means agreeable, satisfactory, esteemed, etc and simply good. Caryā derived from the verbal root car[6] has several definitions such as behaviour, performance, practice and so forth, of which conduct seems to most fitting in this context. Thus, Cārucaryāṡataka means a poem composed in 100 verses on ‘good conduct’.

As the Cārucaryā is an ethical or didactic treatise, the author uses carefully chosen grammar. For advice he generally uses the optative mood of verbs in the third person singular – in translation this becomes the impersonal subject equivalent to the expression ‘one’ as in ‘one should not abandon the faithful wives’ (na visvasam strisu varjayet). Also, the poet has been very careful not to use complicated grammar or rhetorical embellishment that may distract his reader from the central objective. In order to prove his advice is not mere prattle but historical reality he often quotes an incident from popular legends like Mahabharata and Ramayana. For this the perfect tense of verb is mostly used. Cārucaryā verses are composed in anuşṭibh metre.[7] The text is praiseworthy for its extreme simplicity of style in using language.


•03.  Cultural Confines

The Cārucaryā suffers somewhat due to its cultural specificity which needs much explanation in cultures outside the poet’s own. Advocating not sleeping with your head towards the North and West seems odd for a foreign audience but in Hindu culture this has religious significance. Vedic literature has a special respect for the Sun, and Moon, and the personified directions as gods. Therefore, sleeping with your head towards the West and your feet towards the East, according to Hindu culture, is disrespectful towards the Sun.

Another significant aspect of the Cārucaryā is that it has been too heavily interspersed with Hindu legends and mythical figures which are expressed in every second line of each verse. This may be difficult for a foreigner who is oblivious to such legends and myths. Kşemedra might have been attempting to instigate people to derive an educational message from popular narratives and apply them in their own lives. The popular Indian narratives are inherently didactic and presented in various forms of ornate literature. People enjoy the aesthetics of these narratives but do not always consume their educational themes and significance. Kşemendra has taken up this responsibility in the Cārucaryā where in fact it has been easier for him to accomplish his attempts of discerning the good conducts from tales already known to his native audience. The ethical concerns (or as Kşemedra says, the enumeration of ‘good conduct’) are interesting and have universal application.


•04.  Ethical Concerns

Although entitled ‘good conduct’, Kşemedra’s concerns encompass simple customary practices and folklore to social norms, mores, values and beliefs, political disciplines and even religious and philosophical ideals. There are conducts which are good for individual well being, such as bathing before religious rituals, and in spite of being part of the culture do not cause huge tension in society if violated. At the same time Kşememendra also documents individual restraint respecting the social values such as not going after other’s wife (CC10) which may bring harm to social harmony. These values may even be incorporated into laws. Thus, the Cārucaryā is an important document for the study of eleventh century Kasmirian sociology, not in its entirety but in the basic formulation of the culture that has a legendary and historical basis which is not so different from other parts of India. In comparison, the Cārucaryā bears closest affiliation to Bhartŗhari’s Nītiṡataka. It is classed under the category of upadeṡa sāhitya (didactic literature) in poems. The Hitopadeṡa and Pañcatantra are in the same family of upadeṡa literature but interspersed with prose and verse.

Here I enumerate some of the good conduct from Cārucaryā with some critical notes –

One should always be virtuous and physically clean by bathing regularly. The sin Vŗtraha acquired by killing Vrtra was expunged by bathing.[8] One should perform funeral rites (ṡrāddha) faithfully as prescribed by sacred texts. Even Yama (the god of Death) failed to drag off Sveta when engaged in venerating the Gods[9].  The undefiled one should perform charms, oblation, and homage in praise of God with well-washed feet. Kali approached Nala without washing her feet (CC6). Hospitality to guests is an ancient Indian custom. In fact, in Indian culture it is said ‘let a guest be a god.’ This idea is maintained in the verse: a noble man eats what remains after a beggar/guest has eaten. Sveta who ate after abandoning a beggar was on the verge of eating his own flesh.[10] One should not boldly wander at night (CC7) may be due to possible dangers of so doing. In CC10, Ksemendra like most Sanskrit authors retains the obscure idea of not trusting women and thus looking upon women as inferior to men.

Giving should be done without hope of return.[11] That is, one should give selflessly with a pure heart not wishing to receive anything back. This is very similar to the Buddhist idea of giving (dāna) that maintains detachment to material objects. Jealousy is the root of all quarrels, let one engender the root of tolerance (at heart).[12] Reference to this moral has been made to an event in Harivaṁsa but sustains some commonality with a Dhammapada verse that maintains hatred cannot be eliminated/appeased by hatred but by love.[13] Kşemendra urges his readers to maintain stability of self-confidence and righteousness: one should not cross the limit of righteousness [14]even in the grip of distress and transgression.

From the good conduct enumerated above we can surmise that the society which compelled Kşemendra to write this treatise had morally deteriorated to such an extreme position that he even needed to write about matters as simple as taking regular baths, and the need to be physically clean before performing religious rites.

Sternbach observes that Cārucaryā often deals with dharma and artha in a conventional manner,[15] but disciplines of kāma and mokşa are also dealt here and there vaguely, for example in CC48: one should not trust in prostitutes and frauds. Kşemendra in maintaining “extreme austerity should not be practised”[16] shows his moderation. Uma Cakraborty mentions that when his attempts at reforming society in early satirical contributions failed he attempted to draw people’s attention to didactic literature and Buddhist narratives but found ultimate solace and contentment from Vaisnavism during his last days.[17]


•05.  Conclusion

In the introduction I mentioned that knowledge of Ksemedra’s social history is important when discussing his work.  It is also true that the Cārucaryā (and other works of Ksemendra) contributes greatly to our understanding of Kashmir society in the eleventh century. The moral conduct quoted above sheds some light on their timeless practicability. Thus, the Cārucaryā can be a handbook for guiding human beings who have an inherent tendency to stray. The popularity of the Cārucaryā has been pointed out by Keith and Sternbach as they observe it has been included and quoted in other didactic anthologies.[18]  



  • 1. Durgaprasad, Pandit, and Kasinatha Pandurga Parabha, Kāvyamālā,Part -II, The Nirnaya Sagara Press, Bombay, 1896
  • 2. Cakraborty, Uma, Kşemendra:the Eleventh Century Kasmirian Poet [A Study of his Life and Works], Sri Satguru Publications, Delhi, 1991
  • 3. Keith, A.B., A History of Sanskrit Literature, Motilal Banarsidas Publications Private limited, Delhi. 1993
  • 4. Encyclopedia of Indian Literature, Vol.III. Chief editor Amaresh Dutta. Sahitya Academy, New Delhi: 1997.
  • 5. Gonda, Jan, (ed.) A History of Indian Literature, Part of VOL. IV:
  • – Ludwik Sternbach, “Subhāşita Gnomic and Didactic Literature,” Otto Harrasswitz, Wiesbaden, 1974
  • 6. Thera Buddharakkhita (tr.) The Dhammapada: The Buddha’s Path of Wisdom, BPS, Kandy, 1996


[1]  Encyclopaedia of Indian Literature, p.2158

[2]  The veneration paid to Visnu in the first verse of the Cārucaryā using the synonym ‘acyuta‘ (imperishable).

[3] Uma Cakraborty, pp. 1-10

[4] Important and helpful references in this matter are -Dattray, Rajatbaran: A critical Survey of the life and works of Ksemendra, Calcutta, Sanskrit Pustak bhandar,1974; and Bamzai P.N.K. History of Kashmir, Delhi, Metropolitant Book Co., 1962

[5] Also kan, class 1 verb, meaning to agree, accept, etc. Monier Williams’ Sanskrit – English Dictionary – Digital Version (MWD)

[6] car,class I verb, means to go, walk, wander, etc.

[7] Sternbach, p. 76

[8] CC3, The legend behind is not indicated. Vŗtraha indicates Indra. MW Sanskrit Dictionary mentions the term applies to Agni and Sarasvati also. Vŗtra is in an evil force personified in Vedas.

[9] CC4, By Sveta is a sage whose details are found in the thirtieth chapter of the púrvārdha section of Liṅgapurāṅa.

[10] CC7 This Sveta is different from the sage mentioned in CC4. Here, Sveta refers to a King who appears in the Uttarakānḍa of Rāmāyana.

[11] CC19,

[12] CC12

[13] Dhammapada, I-5.

[14] CC13, dharmamaryadā can be grammatically accurately disjoined as dharmaṁ aryadāṁ meaning ‘the dharma bestowing nobility’.

[15] Sternbach 76

[16] CC 51 na tīvratapasākuryāt…


[17] Uma Cakraborty, p.10

[18] Sternbach,p. 77 observes the Cārucaryā quoted in Subhāşitahārāvali,Nītiṡataka, and Nītimañjarī. Keith p. 239 suggests probable influence of the Cārucaryā on Mugdhopadeṡa of Jalhana also.

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