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the Complete Review
the complete review - drama

Rákshasa's Ring


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Title: Rákshasa's Ring
Author: Vishákha·datta
Genre: Play
Written: ca. 4th/5th cent. (Eng. 1981)
Length: 347 pages
Original in: Sanskrit
Availability: Rákshasa's Ring - US
Rákshasa's Ring - UK
Rákshasa's Ring - Canada
Rákshasa's Ring - India
Le ministre et la marque de l'anneau - France
Mudraraksasa - Deutschland
  • Sanskrit title: मुद्राराक्षस
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Michael Coulson
  • This translation originally published in Three Sanskrit Plays (1981); reprinted, along with original transliterated Sanskrit text in the Clay Sanskrit Library (2005)
  • Previously translated, including as Mudra Rakshasa, or the Signet of the Minister by H.H.Wilson (1826), Mudrarakshasa by K.H.Dhruva (1923), and The Minister's Seal by J.A.B. van Buitenen, in Two Plays of Ancient India (1968)

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Our Assessment:

B+ : appealing in its unusual twists and story

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
ZDMG . 159/2 (2009) Jayandra Soni

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The complete review's Review:

       Rákshasa's Ring is an unusual classical play -- "unique in Sanskrit literature", as translator Michael Coulson notes in his Introduction. With many of the traditional elements of classical drama, and a good story of two battling factions, considerable deceit, and (perhaps too many) characters in disguise it is an entertaining work -- but also surprising in how it ultimately unfolds. As Coulson notes, this isn't (anywhere near) realistic political drama, but it does consider "man as a political animal" to a surprising degree.
       The story isn't exactly straightforward, but in its basics fairly simple: King Párvataka was poisoned, leaving Chandra·gupta, Emperor of India, ruler of the lands; his main adviser and the acting Chief Minister -- the master-mind behind the ruler -- is Kautílya. With the killing of King Párvataka, the Nandas have almost been wiped out -- leaving the Maurya as practically undisputed sovereigns. But they aren't quite there yet; Kautílya still has a problem:

Until I have Rákshasa, the House of Nanda is undisturbed and Chandra·gupta's sovereignty has no firm roots. (reflectively) Oh how unswerving is Rákshasa's loyalty to the Nandas!
       Indeed, Rákshasa was Chief Minister for the Nandas, and now serves and advises King Párvataka's son, Málaya·ketu, in opposition to Kautílya.
       Kautílya's best efforts to undermine Rákshasa -- such as throwing suspicion on him for facilitating the murder of Párvataka (not without cause -- though Rákshasa's target had been Chandra·gupta) -- are damaging, but there's still much more work to do -- complicated by the fact that Kautílya doesn't want to crush Rákshasa, but rather to win him over to his side (or rather, to the side of the Mauryas, so that the Nandas are well and truly done for). Rákshasa's Ring follows the next turns and twists.
       The signet ring of the title -- fortuitously finding its way to Kautílya after it had slipped off Rákshasa's wife's finger -- plays a small but pivotal role in his machinations, as does a forged letter. Abetted by disguised spies -- including a brahmin who effectively (and amusingly) passes himself off as a Jain monk -- Kautílya's schemes prove increasingly effective -- though the clever (and honorable) Rákshasa almost manages to keep up:
Kautílya's wits had, I thought, roped and bound
Fortune to the Mauryan dynasty:
But Rákshasa's plotting seizes on the ropes
And seems to be loosening the knots again.
       Which makes for decent drama -- even as a frustrated Rákshasa finds that:
It is the Mauryan who reaps the benefit of every plan I make.
       Eventually, Kautílya also feigns a quarrel with his leader -- sowing more unrest and confusion (as Málaya·ketu comes to occasionally doubt Rákshasa, too). (As one character eventually wonders about all the changing allegiances (real, feigned, and mistakenly assumed): "why do they start one way and end another like a bad play ?")
       The words are Rákshasa's but they could as easily come from Kautílya (and of course apply to Rákshasa's Ring as well):
Contriving the first faint outlines of a plot, and then elaborating,
Causing the hidden seeds to germinate unsuspected,
Cleverly managing the crisis, drawing together all the sprawling threads --
In these painful anxieties of creation I am working like a playwright.
       Rákshasa's opinion of Chandra·gupta has always been poor -- and he sees him as an example of a monarch whose government is neither ',monarchical' (he is incomplete control) or 'monarchical and ministerial' (ruling with a supporting cast), but rather someone who is largely removed from actual ruling:
the wretched Chandra·gupta has always depended on a totally ministerial government, and sees no further than a blind man into the workings of the administration
       As it turns out, it seems Kautílya doesn't really disagree with that assessment -- and thinks that what Chandra·gupta needs is the right Chief Minister. In its unusual twist, Kautílya's games have all been setting Rákshasa up to trick and force him into accepting the position. A befuddled Rákshasa finds himself wondering at the end: "Does Kautílya first enslave me, then make me the Emperor's adviser ?" -- but has to accept that, yes, he's been maneuvered into this position.
       Chandra·gupta is certainly satisfied:
I have Rákshasa's friendship,
I am established on the throne,
The Nandas are all rooted out
       This all only 'works' -- as plot, and as literary work -- because Kautílya is no ordinary foe, and this is not a battle of equals, two ministers fighting for their factions to triumph, one crushing the other. Kautílya sees the bigger picture -- and it involves winning, by hook or crook, Rákshasa to the side of the Mauryas, and giving the wise adviser a pivotal role in the government of the future (while Kautílya walks off into the sunset, his job done).
       It is an admittedly odd turn of events -- and the elements of blackmail (and deception) involved are somewhat problematic -- but in how the story unfolds does effectively show Rákshasa as an honorable and wise man (despite being outwitted at so any of the turns) -- the right man for the job.
       Rákshasa's Ring is enjoyable as an unusual battle of wits, livened up by misunderstandings and deception, and with two very strong lead figures. The poetry isn't quite in the same class as much classical Sanskrit drama, but Vishákha·datta does manage very well in parts -- and shows a comfortable familiarity with the genre, beginning with the first-rate transition in the traditional Prologue (where the director introduces the play) into the play proper. Coulson's translation feels comfortable enough, and at least avoids most awkwardness.

       A volume in the Clay Sanskrit Library, the play is presented with the original Sanskrit facing the translation -- albeit, as in all the Clay volumes, transliterated (i..e in the Latin alphabet) rather than the original devanagari script. This remains somewhat awkward; perhaps those with great fluency in Sanskrit might find it easy to deal with -- and admittedly the word-break-indicators seem to be helpful -- but speaking as someone with (only the most very) rudimentary Sanskrit, I actually find it more difficult to in any way rely on this Sanskrit text.
       Note also that Coulson's translation was originally published in the Penguin volume of Three Sanskrit Plays (1981), but there seems to be no acknowledgement of or reference to that -- not even on the copyright page -- beyond a footnote noting, re. Coulson's introductory remarks: "Michael Coulson will make further references to these other two plays because his translations of them were originally published together with the present work in a single volume." Some acknowledgement -- and a pointer (title of that volume ? publisher ? date ?) -- would have been helpful (and surely called for). (Coulson passed away in 1975, and so this translation was certainly not a later-revised one, either.)
       Note also, a Foreword [pdf] by Romila Thapar was planned for the second edition, but is not included in the available text.

- M.A.Orthofer, 5 September 2017

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Rákshasa's Ring: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Vishákha·datta (विशाखदत्त) probably lived in the 4th or 5th centuries.

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© 2017-2021 the complete review

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