Literature in Sanskrit, India's oldest language, and the mother language of several modern languages in India. Given its extensive use in religious literature, primarily of Hinduism, and the fact that most modern Indian languages have been directly derived from or strongly influenced by Sanskrit, it is not surprising that the position of Sanskrit in Indian culture is not unlike that of Latin in European culture. Sanskrit has a long tradition of literature. Chronologically, Sanskrit literature has these identifiable phases:
The Vedic Period
Composed between approximately 2000 BC and 500 BC, Vedic literature forms the basis for the further development of Hinduism. There are fours books of Vedas - Rig Vega, Yajus, Sāma and Atharva. Some people consider the first three as the more important ones. Each Veda contains four parts - hymns, rituals, meditation and mystical philosophy. The Vedas were not written at any single time, and have been compiled over several centuries by thousands of people. As a result, the Vedas provide an insight into the historical and cultural development of India during this period. In terms of their content, the Vedas are extremely diverse, encompassing extremely different lines of thought and religious beliefs. The Upanishads form a part of the Vedas, and are strongly philosophical in content.
The Sanskrit used in the Vedic period is highly archaic and pithy, and is called "Vedic Sanskrit"; it is almost impossible to understand some sections without the aid of commentaries.
The period between approximately the 12th and the 2nd centuries BC saw the composition of the two great Hindu epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. They are known to Hindus as itihaas, or "that which occurred" and are both collective works, having evolved through the centuries before finally being put into writing sometime in the 2nd century AD.
While not as big as the Mahabharata, the Ramayana is still twice as big as the Iliad and the Odyssey put together. Traditionally, the authorship is attributed to the Hindu sage Valmiki, who is referred to as Adikavi, or "first poet." Akin to the Mahabharata, the Ramayana is also a collective work and evolved through several centuries before being put into writing. It has been instrumental as a seminal text of the Hindu faith and contains many passages of central importance to Hindu philosophy and tradition. It includes tales that form the basis for modern Hindu festivals and even contains a description of the same marriage practice still observed in contemporary times by people of Hindu persuasion.
The main story of the Ramayana deals with Aryan expansion to the south of India, represented in Sri Ram's conquest of Lanka. On a lower level, the story deals with Prince Rama (Indian vernaculars: Raam or Sri Ram), his exile and the abduction of his wife by the demon Ravana, and the Lankan war. Similar to the Mahabharata, the Ramayana also has several full-fledged stories appearing as sub-plots.
The Ramayana has also played a similar and equally important role in the further development of Indian culture as the Mahabharata.
The Mahabharata (Great India) is one of the largest poetic works in the world. While it is clearly a poetic epic, it contains large tracts of Hindu mythology, philosophy and religious tracts. At 100,000 stanzas, it is 8 times as big as the Iliad and the Odyssey put together. Traditionally, authorship of the Mahabharata is attributed to the Hindu sage Vyasa. However it is clear that the Mahabharata was not written by any single person at any single time. Indeed, the first stanza of the Mahabharata mentions that the name of the book is Jaya ("victory"), even though the book is now called Mahabharata. Scholarly estimates are that the epic had about 10,000 stanzas when it was first composed (by Vyasa?). It was orally transmitted for several centuries, making it easy for anyone to add a few lines here, remove/modify a few lines there. Over several centuries, the work expanded in size, several sections being added or existing sections being elaborated upon. Thus, the Mahabharata evolved alongside Indian culture and is a veritable storehouse of cultural mores, mythology and religious and philosophical schools, reaching its zenith of philosophical sophistication in the seminal work of the Hindu religion, the Bhagavad Gita, which appears in the tenth Parva (chapter) of the Mahabharata. The finished product is the 100,000 stanza Mahabharata as we now know it.
The broad sweep of the story of the Mahabharata chronicles the consolidation of Aryan/Vedic culture in India. On a lower level, it is the story of the conflict between two families for control of Hastinapur, a city in Ancient India. It is also contains numerous sub-plots, which are independent stories in their own right.
The impact of the Mahabharata on India and Hinduism cannot be stressed enough. Having been molded by Indian culture, it has in turn molded the further development of Indian culture. Thousands of later writers would draw freely from the story and sub-stories of the Mahabharata. The epic has inspired numerous later works, leaving a huge imprint on Indian literature, religion, folklore and philosophy.
At once grand and encyclopedic, the Mahabharata summarizes itself as: "What can be found here, may be found elsewhere; what cannot be found here, will not be found elsewhere."
Other major works from the same period include the Brihat-katha, Panchatantra, Jataka Tales, and the Puranas.
Panini and Ashtadhyayi
Arguably, no grammarian has had as much influence over the grammar of any language as much as Panini has had over Sanskrit grammar and phonetics. Panini was a Vaishnav grammarian from approximately the 5th cent BC. The Ashtadhyayi was his magnum-opus. The book completely standardized Sanskrit grammar and phonetics. Panini's grammar became widely accepted and is still the standard (a common way to classify ancient Sanskrit books is to classify them as Pre-Panini or Post-Panini).
However, Panini's stroke of brilliance lies in the fact that the grammar he wrote, in addition to being a descriptive grammar, is also a generative grammar. Panini used metarules, transformations, and recursion in such sophistication that his grammar has the computing power equivalent to a Turing machine. The Backus-Naur Form or BNF grammars used to describe modern programming languages have significant similarities with Panini's grammar rules. In applying his rules to Sanskrit verse he used such texts as the Hindu Shiva Sutras, thereby establishing principles of harmony and linguistic wholeness.
Theater, as an art was introduced by the Greeks after the attempted invasion of India in 326 BC by Alexander the Great. This is reflected in the fact that the Sanskrit word for Curtain is Yavanika, which is derived from the word Yavana, Sanskrit for Greek (the word Yavana is a distortion of Ionia. Most of the soldiers in Alexander's army were from Ionia, a province in Ancient Greece).
Most of the Sanskrit plays were written between the 2nd cent BC and the 7th cent AD. Though originally inspired by Greek theater, Sanskrit plays are completely different from their Greek counterparts; the most famous Greek plays are tragedies, while almost all Sanskrit plays are romantic, funny or both. Reflective, possibly, of the opulent and carefree lifestyle of India's classical or Golden age (3rd-7th cents AD). Though numerous plays written in this period are still available, precious little is known about the authors themselves. This is mainly because of the reticence that Sanskrit writers displayed about writing about themselves in their forewords. Most of the information about these playwrights has been available by the references made to the writers by other writers of the same or later periods.
One of the earliest Sanskrit plays, this is thought to have been composed by Shudraka in the 2nd cent BC. Rife with romance, sex, royal intrigue and comedy, the juicy plot of the play has numerous twists and turns. The main story is about a middle-class person, Charudatta, and his love for a rich courtesan, Vasantasena. The love affair is complicated by a royal courtier, who is also attracted to Vasantasena. The plot is further complicated by thieves and mistaken identities, and is hilarious and entertaining (a particularly hilarious scene has a thief, who is trying to dig a hole in the wall of a house to break in, wondering about whether the hole should be circular or triangular). The play was made into a 1984 Bollywood movie Utsav, directed by Girish Karnad.
The plays written by Bhasa were only known to historians through the references of later writers, the manuscripts themselves being lost. Manuscripts of 13 plays written by him were discovered in an old library in 1913 by the scholar Ganapati Shastry. A 14th play was later discovered and attributed to Bhasa, but its authorship is disputed.
Bhasa's most famous plays are Svapna Vasavadattam (Vasavadatta's dream) and Pratijna Yaugandharayaanam (The vows of Yaugandharayana). Bhasa is considered to be one of the best Sanskrit playwrights, next only to Kalidasa.
Kalidasa (3rd-4th AD) is easily the greatest poet and playwright in Sanskrit, and occupies the same position in Sanskrit literature that Shakespeare occupies in English literature. He deals primarily with famous Hindu legends and themes; three famous plays by Kalidasa are Vikramorvashiyam (Vikrama and Urvashi), Malakavikagnimitram (Malavika and Agnimitra), and the play that he is most known for: Abhijnana Shakuntalam (The Recognition of Shakuntala). The last named play is considered to be a perfect play in Sanskrit. More than a millenium later, it would so powerfully impress the famous German writer Goethe that he would write:
"Wouldst thou the young year's blossoms and the fruits of its decline
And all by which the soul is charmed, enraptured, feasted, fed,
Wouldst thou the earth and heaven itself in one sole name combine?
I name thee, O Sakuntala! and all at once is said. "
Kalidasa also wrote two large epics, Raghuvamsham (The Genealogy of Raghu) and Kumarasambhavam (Birth of Kumara), and two smaller epics, Ritusamhaara (Medley of Seasons) and Meghadutam (The Cloud Messenger), another 'perfect' work. Kalidasa's writing is characterized by the usage of simple but beautiful Sanskrit, and by his extensive use of similes. His similes have earned him the saying, Upama Kalidasasya (Kalidasa owns simile).
The NatyaShastra (Scripture of Dance) is a keystone work in Sanskrit literature. Again. almost nothing is known about its author, Bharata. Bharata is also the name of a character in Hindu mythology; the author of the Natyashastra bears no relationship to the mythological character.
The Natya Shastra deals with the different arts used to express one's feelings: primarily music, dance, literature and theater. Bharata laid down broad guidelines for the way these arts are and should be expressed. The Natya Shastra came to be widely followed, and is thus the foundation of the fine arts in India. Among other things, the book gave a foundation to the concept of Rasa, or emotions that find artistic expression. Bharata identified nine Rasas: Adbhuta (Wonder), Hasya (Laughter), Shringara (Love), Shaanta (Peace), Bibhatsa (Disgust), Vira (Valour), Karuna (Pathos), Bhaya (Fear) and Raudra (Anger).
This refers to the poetry produced from the 3rd to approximately the 7th centuries. Kalidasa is the foremost example of a classical poet. While Kalidasa's Sanskrit usage is simple but beautiful, later Sanskrit poetry shifted towards highly stylized literary accents: stanzas that read the same backwards and forwards, words that can be split in different ways to produce different meanings, sophisticated metaphors, and so on. A classic example is the poet Bharavi and his magnum opus, the Kiratarjuniya (6th-7th century).
The greatest works of poetry in this period are the five Mahakavyas, or great epics:
Kumarasambhavam by Kalidasa
Raghuvamsham by Kalidasa
Kiratarjuniya by Bharavi
Shishupala Vadha by Sri Maagha
Naishadiya Charitam by Sri Harsha
Other major literary works from this period are Kadambari by Bana Bhatta, the first Sanskrit novelist (6th-7th centuries), and Kama Sutra by Vatsyayana.
Later Sanskrit literature
Some important works from the 11th century:
Katha-Saritsagara (An Ocean of Stories) by Somadeva; this was a poetic adaptation in Sanskrit of Brihat-katha, written in the 5th cent BC in the Paishachi dialect. The Paishachi manuscript of the Brihat-katha has not been found. The thousands of short stories embedded in this book inspired numerous later stories, most notably several stories of the Arabian Nights (note that the Arabian Nights was first compiled in the 9th century and that this book was written only in the 11th cent. However, the stories in this book have existed since the 5th cent BC). One of the famous series of stories in this work is the Vikram and Betal series, known to every child in India.
Geeta Govinda (The song of Govinda) by Jayadeva; this is the story of Lord Krishna's love for Radha, and is written in beautiful and musical Sanskrit. A central text for Hindu sects in the East, it is still recited regularly in the major Hindu pilgrimage Jagannath Mandir, located in Puri, Orissa.
Beyond the 11th century, the use of Sanskrit for general literature declined, importantly because of the emergence of literature in vernacular Indian languages (notably Hindi, Marathi, Tamil and Kannada). Sanskrit continued to be used for largely Hindu religious and philosophical literature. Sanskrit literature also fueled literature in vernacular languages, and the Sanskrit language itself continued to have a profound influence over the development of Indian literature in general.