Sanskrit plays do not serve merely as a source of entertainment, but they also reflect the society, polity and culture prevailing in the ancient times. Some prominent plays, also considered as important literary sources to study Ancient India are; Harshacharitam (tells us about the charities of emperor Harshvardhan), Mrichhakatikam (tells about the society) etc. Perhaps, the most prominent amongst these sources (which are regarded as “Secular Sources’’) can be given as Devichandragupta and Mudrarakshas by Vishakhdatta.
The title of the play does not specifically help the readers to understand the plot, since the name Rakshas has varying interpretations. However, once we understand its plot, we can definitely link the title with the story it deals with.
Mudra is either a symbol or a ring. As given in the first act itself, when the spy of Chanakya finds Rakshas’s ring from Chandandas’ house, the play actually commences.
The ring or mudra plays an important role, to fulfill the conspiracy of Chanakya. Maybe, this could be a reason why the play was named ´Mudrarakshas’.
The story takes place during the reign of Gupta dynasty, in the rule of Chandragupta Maurya. He, with the help of Chanakya destroyed the Nanda dynasty and established his rule over Pataliputra (name of a famous ancient city in India which is now known as Patna, Bihar).
Aarya Chanakya, the minister of Chandragupta, in the time before he met Chandragupta, was insulted by the Nand king (Dhananand), and this act resulted in the pledge taken by Chanakya to destroy the rule of Nand dynasty. (the famous oath of Chanakya whereby he decided “not to tie the top knot till the Nand dynasty is destroyed” was a part of this pledge, and is also portrayed in the play at the end).
The story here mainly takes place between Chanakya and Rakshas (the one who wanted to re-establish the rule of Nand), Chandandas (a merchant).
Rakshas was willing to kill Chanakya and Chandragupta, to coronate Sarvasiddhi (existing heir of Nand Dynasty) as the king. Hence he plans conspiracies, to fulfill his avowed purpose but Chanakya’s intelligence defeats him. The succeeding part of the play is the conspiracy by Chanakya, to overcome Rakshas’ ambitions.
However, it doesn’t end here. The playwright has added a sub-plot, which shows a pure, dedicated friendship between Rakshas and Chandandas. Though in the end, in a way, Chanakya’s conspiracy succeeds. This should not be taken as the defeat of Rakshas, as he displays the picture of ideal friendship, by giving up his will, accepting the condition, for nothing at all but merely to save the life of innocent Chandandas.
Nature of the play
The plot presents a historical perspective of the play and so are the characters. But it cannot be entirely considered, since all the incidents the writer has described in the play and a number of characters he refers to, throughout the play are not taken from history.
Dr. Bhat provides with an interesting reason why it cannot be considered as a historical play. He has figured out two motives as the reasons why Vishakhdatta wrote the play. He says; “the key figure behind all the incidents was Chanakya, who had two intentions; to destroy all the enemies of Chandragupt and to force Rakshas for accepting Chandragupta’s ministership.” The play has been designed to serve the above purpose and all the incidents are complementary to it. It comprises of political conspiracies, rather than dealing with historical, social or family happenings. Hence it would be more correct to call it “a political play”.
Dr. G.K. Bhat, interestingly in his translated version of Mudrarakshas, has given a detailed account of all the characters in the order of their entry.
Sutradhar: The one who introduces the audience with the theme of the play and sometimes the playwright.
Nati: a female character, probably would be termed as Sutradhar’s assistant
Chanakya: Chandragupta’s adviser, guide, who also served as his minister for a certain period.
Sharangrav: Chanakya’s Disciple.
Nipunak: Chanakya’s spy.
Chandandas: A gemologist, head of the occupation-based community of gem-sellers, close friend of Rakshas, patron of Nandas
Siddharthak: Chanakya’s assistant. (enters as a Chandal in the seventh act). (Chandal is a person associated with the task of hanging people).
Shonottara: Chandragupta’s servant. (here associated with the task of securing the entrance).
Rakshas: a minister of Nand dynasty, who was willing to re-establish the Nanda rule, with the help of Sarvarthsiddhi Nand and a Mlenchh (a tribe; often identified with the Middle Eastern invading hordes).
Viradhgupt: the spy and representative of Rakshas.
Priyanvadak: Rakshas’s servent
Jajali: Malayketu’s servent
Shakatdas: Rakshas’s friend and a lekhanik (like in modern times, professionals have typists with them).
Chandragupta: king of Magadh
Vaitalik: prisoner- one of them” Stavakalsh” was Rakshas’ man
Vaihinari: Chandragupta’s servent.
Douvarik: the security person at the palace of Rakshas.
Malayketu: Prince of Parvat-state, son of Parvatak, who has joined Rakshas, to avenge his father’s death.
Bhagurayan: another spy of Chanakya, pretending to be very close to Parvatak, thereby winning the trust of Malayketu.
Jeevsiddhi: originally a brahmin named Indusharma, pretending to be a jain monk, trying to make friendship with Rakshas.
Samiddhathak: Siddharthak’s friend. Later appears also as Chandal
Vajraloma and Bilvapatra: Chanakya’s men Siddharthak and Samiddharthak Chandal.
Kutumbini: Chandandas’s wife.
Putra: Chandandas’s son.
Surprisingly, Dr. Bhat has also presented the list of characters, who are referred throughout the play, but not in much detail. The list involves some names such as; Pushkaraksh (king of Kashmir), Meghnad (king of Parsiks), Rohitaksh (Prince of Malav), Vakranas (another minister of Nandas), Simhabal (elder brother of Bhagurayan) and many such.
Act one– talks about Rakshas, his intentions and his deeds aiming at fulfilling them. He had planned to kill Chandragupta by a Vishkanya (Vish kanya which literally means, poisonous girl, was a live means of killing enemy. Such girls were either brought up injecting poisons into their body or were temporarily given such powers). He also took the help of Pravatak and later of Mlenchh kings.
However, Chanakya had already spread his spies all over the capital city and other parts of the empire and one of the spies found Rakshas’ ring from the house of Chandandas. Chanakya now started planning for his capture.
He first arranged the arrest of Shakatdas and later sent him with Siddharthak, to Rakshas along with a letter and Rakshas’ ring. Siddharhak was told to be around Rakshas as his friend.
Later he ordered the capture of Chandandas and told him to hand over Rakshas’ family. But Chandandas did not agree. Chanakya though impressed with his dedication to his friend, ordered his imprisonment.
Act Two– Rakshas tried to implement his plan to kill Chandragupta but Chanakya’s alertness made his mission a failure each time. Naturally, Rakshas’ mind was occupied with worries to the extent he even found it difficult to identify his spies.
Meanwhile, Siddarthak came to Rakshas and accepted to be in his service. Rakshas was impressed when he got to know that, Siddharthak had saved Shakatdas’s life and gifts him the ornaments given to Rakshas by Malayketu. But he could not comprehend Chanakya’s plans.
Viradhgupta brought the news, saying that Chandragupta was not satisfied for all the authorities were lying to Chanakya and hence had some differences with him. Rakshas then ordered his men to praise Chandragupt.
Act Three– Rakshas did not understand that it was a trap and was part of Chanakya’s conspiracy. The ploy later succeeded as a mock fight ensued between Chandragupt and Chanakya, where Chanakya threw a symbol of his ministership (a sword) and told Chandragupta to offer it to Rakshas, when Chandragupt blamed him for letting Malayketu and Rakshas to escape from the capital.
Act Four– The enemies failed to understand the conspiracy. Here in this act, a spy named Karabhak, was shown to share the happenings with Rakshas. Before it, Bhagurayan was shown poisoning Malayketu’s mind against Rakshas by telling him that, even if Chanakya would go away, Rakshas would accept Chandragupt’s ministership by keeping Malayketu away from the throne. As shown in act four, two of Rakshas’ men Malayketu and Kshapanak resented.
Act Five– Here Rakshas is shown easily convinced by Chanakya’s plan. Malayaketu, was now totally convinced with the opinion that Rakshas was betraying him for ministership. The letter and the ring had an important role to play, with the help of which Siddharthak washed Malayketu’s mind against Rakshas.
Rakshas was now left alone since all his so called compatriots turned against him. He was so helpless that, he could not even prove his innocence. Now the only thing left in his hands was saving Chandandas’ life by going to Kusumpur.
Act Six– Malayketu too was now left alone, Chanakya’s men like Bhadrabhat took advantage of it and captured Malayketu and defeated his army.
Meanwhile, Rakshas was again trapped into Chanakya’s plans, where he was told a lie by Chanakya’sman , which made him march towards the city, to save his friend’s life, without any weapon.
Act Seven– Chandandas was brought to the place, where he was to be hanged. His family had no limits to their sadness, but Chandandas was satisfied with sacrifying his life for his friend. Soon Rakshas enters and hands over himself to the Chandalas.
The last act, a significant one, describes the meeting of two prominent political personalities. Both of them were winners in different ways. One for his intelligence and the other for his courage and dedication. Chanakya then, discloses all his plans before Rakshas and also introduces him to the Chandalas who in reality were Chanakya’s people.
To set Chandandas free, Chanakya in the end keeps a condition before Rakshas to accept the sword which was a symbol of ministership (and thereby to acccpet the ministership at Chandragupt’s court). For his friend Rakshas accepts the condition and the play ends with a symbol of fulfillment of Chanakya’s oath (Chanakya ties his forhead knot).
Time of events
In the third act, the writer clearly refers to the Kaumudi-mahotsav (the festival of kaumudi) which is celebrated on Kartiki Purnima. The military attack on Kusumpur/Pataliputra takes place in the month of Margashirsh. (because, military preparations and war, cannot be done, during the rainy season). In the same act, Malayketu indicates that, ten months have gone since his father died. So, Parvataka’s murder must have had happened in the last month of falgun. (this is clearly based upon the sequence of these months, where falgun is the last month). The whole story seems to have happened after a period of fifteen days, to a month succeeding the death of Parvatak.
Even in the beginning, Nati refers to chandra-grahan (lunar-eclipse), indicating Purnima. We can assume that the whole story started on Chaitra Purnima, calculating the period for further events, the story is supposed to have ended either in the later days of Pausha or in the month of Magh.
As Dr. Bhat states, the act wise distribution of the timeline would be something like the one given below;
Act One- Purnima: first half of a day.
Act Two- after almost a month
Act Three- Kartiki Purnima (the pre-night period; Kaumudi mahotsav)
Act Four- after a period of half or a month. Margashirsh.
Act Five- beginning of the month of Paush.
Act Six- Later half of Paush.
Act Seven- end of Paush and start of Magh. (Bhat.1974.Mumbai)
- Vishakhdatt in this play, has followed all the norms of play writing i.e. Nandi and Bharatvakya (a musical piece, usually consisting of a prayer to god or a gist of the play), divide the plot into acts, Sutradhar and Nati etc.
Perhaps the most fascinating fact about the play is that, it doesn’t focus on romantic acts or on the female characters. The play has only one female character, (with relatively more significance) i.e. Chandandas’ wife. But even, she appears only in the last act of the play, merely to express sorrow, when Chandandas was to be hanged. The writer has emphasized more on Vir ras, neglecting the romantic touch to his story.
- Politics has nothing to do with emotions. One has to be rational and realistic even while thinking of the possibilities. The writer throughout the play has followed this. He has avoided hyperbole and fantasies. His characters symbolise certain objectives and their tasks are pre-decided.
The author has succesfully described the reality of politics and how a common man’s life is destroyed by war and conspiracies. He does not intend to create or add any specialised effect to the story but is merely willing to highlight it as an unavoidable consequence.
- Observing the absence of romanticism or soft poetic language, the play cannot be called a bore or dry piece of literature since, rationality and realism is the necessity of the topic, the play has dealt with. All its effect depends upon the narration since, many of the acts are related to war, conspiracies and killings. Though in verbal form, the play does have some dramatic element. The strength of the play is the way Vishakhdatta has designed the characters, though they appear as political players, each of them has been given some special touch. e.g., Chanakya and Rakshas both are prominent in the field of politics, but unlike Chanakya, Rakshas is shown to be innocent and emotional. Also even if Chanakya is seen to be cruel and rough, it is a part of his mind, not his heart.
- The play is serious in nature, the writer has taken an issue or a principle rather than opting for a popular topic. Maybe, the public response it received can be compared to that of contemporary movies. Always we see two main categories these movies belong to. One liked by people and another by the critic, one often with lots of effects another mostly with some amount of reality some kind of antiquity. If the same is to be applied in case of the sanskrut plays, Mudrarakshas would definitely come under the second type.
Dr. Bhat G.K. 1974. Vishakhdatta rachit Mudrarakshas. Maharashtra Rajya Sahitya Sanskruti mandal. Mumbai