Shudraka

Almost all we know of the Sanskrit dramatist Shudraka is expressed in the prologue of his one surviving play.  Arthur Ryder’s translation of the play provides the following lines about Shudraka:

First in worth
Among the twice-born was this poet, known
As Shūdraka far over all the earth,—
His virtue’s depth unfathomed and alone
The Sāmaveda, the Rigveda too….

The science mathematical, he knew;
The arts wherein fair courtezans excel,
And all the lore of elephants as well.
Through Shiva’s grace, his eye was never dim;
He saw his son a king in place of him.
The difficult horse-sacrifice he tried
Successfully; entered the fiery tide,
One hundred years and ten days old, and died….

Eager for battle; sloth’s determined foe;
Of scholars chief, who to the Veda cling;
Rich in the riches that ascetics know;
Glad, gainst the foeman’s elephant to show
His valor;—such was Shūdraka, the king.

According to the prologue of his own play, then, Shudraka was educated, courageous, ethical, a king, a scholar, an ascetic, and a warrior.  And when he turned 100 years old, he killed himself.

With Shudraka on his own sacrificial pyre, we might well wonder who was left to compose Mrcchakatika‘s prologue in his name.

Indeed, we really only have questions about Shudraka.  We don’t know where he lived.  We don’t know when he wrote.  We don’t know his profession (apart from writing this play).  We don’t know his education.  All we really know is that a well-written play has survived from the period of classical Sanskrit drama, and it’s attributed to someone named Shudraka.

On the other hand, the play suggests much about its author.  The author was certainly educated enough to write in Sanskrit and several varieties of Prakrit.  And he seems to have known people very well.  Characters in the play are remarkably fashioned, suggesting the author’s familiarity with regular, middle-class people, as opposed to the mythic figures featured in other Sanskrit dramas.

Furthermore, Mrcchakatika has what we would call today a distinctly populist tone.  When we first meet the play’s protagonist, he laments not his poverty, but the sad nature of humanity that friends disappear when a person loses his money.  The cynicism concerning wealth and social status persists throughout the play.  In the culminating act, the protagonist is nearly executed because the word of a slave is not accepted.  Eventually, the executioners let the protagonist go in the hopes that his freedom will signal the triumph of the lower castes.  The king is regarded throughout as corrupt, and the king’s brother-in-law appears as a mean, spiteful, dishonest wretch.  The protagonist’s triumph in the end accompanies a bloody revolution in the kingdom which finds a goat-herd acceding to the throne.

Perhaps it means nothing, but given the tone of Shudraka’s one play, it may be more than a coincidence that the playwright’s name is a diminutive form of the word shudra, which refers to the group of people who occupied the lowest strata of the social hierarchy in classical India.