Looking at the oral tradition of learning Vedas one comes to know that it was through this high power of concentration that ancient Indian sages were able to memorise all the Vedas and to have mastery over several disciplines. From this tradition branched forth several types of अवधान avadhāna or feats of concentration. Gradually, अवधान avadhāna developed as a literary activity or feat.
In this type of literary activity the अवधानी avadhānī exhibits the power of simultaneous and multiple concentration on different things or items belonging to literature. This first arose naturally in Sanskrit and later evolved in other Indian languages too. However, only Kannada and Telugu have maintained this heritage intact, while the latter has taken this scholarly literary feat to very great heights.
In an अवधान avadhāna performance the अवधानी avadhānī is asked different types of questions and given various tasks by a number of scholars. He must answer the questions, step by step, in four rounds, through extempore metrical compositions according to the specifications given by the questioners, without taking any help from any book or writing material. The whole show is an oral outpour. The number of scholars who ask the questions may be eight, hundred, or even a thousand. If the number is eight then the performance is called अष्टावधान aṣṭāvadhāna or Eight-fold Concentration and the person is called अष्टावधानी aṣṭāvadhānī; if the number is hundred it is called शतावधान śatāvadhāna and in the case of a thousand it is called सहस्रावधान sahasrāvadhāna. While the अष्टावधान aṣṭāvadhāna lasts for two hours, the शतावधान śatāvadhāna goes on for two days and the सहस्रावधान sahasrāvadhāna, takes all of 20 days. The scholars who ask questions to the अवधानी avadhānī are called पृच्छक-s pṛcchaka-s or questioners. Each पृच्छक pṛcchaka asks questions related to one particular theme.
अष्टावधान aṣṭāvadhāna — The Eight-fold Concentration
Among the various types of अवधान avadhāna, the अष्टावधान aṣṭāvadhāna is the most common and popular. Here, the अवधानी avadhānī has to confront eight scholars who ask questions on eight different themes. Composition of verses in an enigmatic way, such as by eliminating several vital letters or by using several chosen letters, or by the employment of unusual words; several types of verbal acrobatics; non-stop versification at a high speed; identifying and commenting on select verses from the vast body of classical literature; providing solutions to literary riddles without violating the rules of versification; playing chess; counting the irregular rings of a bell or the number of flowers thrown on the back; indulging in lively yaks of wit; participating in Sastric debates; mental arrangement of a cluster of cluttered letters into a meaningful verse, etc. are some of the distinctive items implemented in an अष्टावधान aṣṭāvadhāna. These items are not fixed. They may vary from performance to performance.
In the usual अष्टावधान aṣṭāvadhāna program the following are in practice:
निषिधाक्षरम् niṣidhākṣaram: In this item the questioner specifies a theme and a particular meter and asks the अवधानी avadhānī to compose a poem according to his specifications. The essential condition is that the composition has to be made syllable by syllable. After each syllable is mentioned by the अवधानी avadhānī, the questioner tries to anticipate the word the अवधानी avadhānī has in his mind and prohibits the use of the next syllable. The अवधानी avadhānī has thus to find at each step an alternate possibility and compose the verse, while adhering to the topic and the meter given by the questioner.
समस्यापूरणम् samasyāpūraṇam: Here the questioner gives the last पाद pāda or quarter verse composed by him, which contains something ambiguous or contradictory in its meaning. The अवधानी avadhānī must compose the remaining three पाद-s pāda-s in the same meter, in such a way, that when the 4th पाद pāda is added the contradiction disappears and the verse takes an interesting meaning.
दत्तपदरचनम् dattapadaracanam: The questioner here specifies a meter and a topic and gives four unrelated words (which however must conform to the specified metre), and asks the अवधानी avadhānī to compose a verse where each one of the four words is incorporated in each quarter.
वर्णनम् varṇanam: The questioner here gives the description of a particular subject or scene and asks the अवधानी avadhānī to compose a verse in a particular meter specified by him.
आशुरचनम् āśuracanam: The questioner here specifies a meter and a subject and the अवधानी avadhānī must compose an entire verse immediately, in one go conforming to the meter and the subject.
व्यस्ताक्षरकथनम् vyastākṣarakathanam: The questioner here interrupts the अवधानी avadhānī repeatedly and gives at random the serial numbers of syllables in a poem, which he has in his mind. The अवधानी avadhānī must remember and rearrange the syllables in the right order to find the poem.
घण्टावादनम् ghaṇṭāvādanam: A bell is rung at irregular intervals during the period of the अवधान avadhāna. The अवधानी avadhānī has to tell at the end of the performance how many times the bell was rung.
अप्रस्तुतप्रङ्गः aprastutapraṅgaḥ: This questioner intervenes at any moment during the performance asking the अवधानी avadhānī all types of questions, humorous, absurd, deep, to divert his attention and break his concentration. The अवधानी avadhānī, on a priority has to reply to the अप्रस्तुतप्रङ्गः aprastutapraṅgaḥ in an entertaining manner, before proceeding with the other questions. अप्रस्तुतप्रङ्गः aprastutapraṅgaḥ literally means irrelevant context or not suitable to time and subject.
To make the task even more difficult, the अवधानी avadhānī has to compose the poems in four rounds, stanza by stanza. In each round he must remember the question asked earlier by the पृच्छक pṛcchaka and the stanzas already composed by him and continue from that point. Only for the आशुरचनम् āśuracanam he has to compose all the four lines at a stretch.
At the end the अवधानी avadhānī has to recite each श्लोक śloka composed by him in its entirety, serially, item by item, except for आशु āśu. This is called धारणा dhāraṇā.
– Dr. Sampadananda Mishra, Director, Centre for Human Sciences, Rishihood University