Sanskrit literature[a] broadly comprises texts composed in the earliest attested descendant of the Proto-Indo-Aryan language known as Vedic Sanskrit and later on in the language formally defined by Pini usually called Classical Sanskrit.
Vedic Sanskrit is the language of the extensive liturgical works of the Vedic religion,[c] while Classical Sanskrit is the language of many of the prominent texts associated with the major Indian religions, especially Hinduism, but also Buddhism, and Jainism. While the bulk of these were composed in ancient India, others were composed in central, East or Southeast Asia.
Sanskrit literature also includes substantial works covering secular sciences and the arts. Early works of Sanskrit literature were transmitted through an oral tradition[d] for centuries before they were written down in manuscript form.
Literature in the Vedic and the Classical language fundamentally differ from each other in matter, spirit and form. The Vedic literature that survives is entirely religious, dealing essentially in liturgical matters with prayers and hymns to the gods in the sacrifices.
Classical Sanskrit literature however exists in every field including epics, lyric, drama, romance, fairytale, fables, grammar, civil and religious law, the science of politics and practical life, the science of love and sex, philosophy, medicine, astronomy, astrology and mathematics, and is largely secular in subject-matter.
Some fundamental differences between Vedic and Classical Sanskrit literature, reflecting the underlying society:
|Optimistic in spirit.||Pessimistic in spirit.|
|Portrays man as strong and powerful capable of fulfilment both here and in the afterworld.||Portrays humans as a slave to fate, and worldly pleasures are deemed to cause misery, from which one must aspire to run away.|
|Portrays man as exhorting and extolling the gods who are kind enough to answer the prayers.||Mortal and immortal figures all get muddled up in unrealistic exaggeration.|
|There is a great amount of prose.||Prose is only confined to commentary especially in the areas of philosophy and grammar.|
|The metres are less rigid and more uniform, the style is simple and spontaneous.||It becomes more artificial and contrived.|
These fundamental differences in psychology are attributed to the absence of the doctrines of Karma and reincarnation in the Vedic period, notions which are very prevalent in later times.
The first three are commonly grouped together, as the Sa?hit?s[A] comprising the four Vedas:[B] ?k, atharvan, yajus, s?man, which together constitute the oldest texts in Sanskrit and the canonical foundation both of the Vedic religion, and the later religion known as Hinduism.
The ?g·veda, the first and oldest of the four Vedas, is the foundation for the others. The ?g·veda is made of 1028 hymns named s?ktas, composed of verses in strictly regulated meters. There are about 10,000 of these verses that make up the ?g·veda.
The ?g·vedic hymns are subdivided into 10 maalas, most of which are attributed to members of certain families. Composition of the ?g·vedic hymns was entirely oral, and for much of its history, the ?g·veda has been transmitted only orally, written down likely no sooner than in the second half of the first millennium of the Common Era.
The S?ma·veda is not an original composition: it's almost entirely[f] made of stanzas taken from the ?g·veda and rearranged with reference to their place in the Soma sacrifice. This book is meant to be sung to certain fixed melodies, and may thus be called the book of chants, s?man.
The Yajur·veda like the S?man is also largely made of verses taken from the ?g·veda, but also contains several prose formulas. It is called the book of sacrificial prayers yajus.
The last of the four, the Atharva·veda, both by the internal structure of the language used and by comparison with the ?g·veda, is a much later work. However, the Atharva·veda represents a much earlier stage of thought of the Vedic people, being composed mainly of spells and incantations appealing to demons, and is rife with notions of witchcraft, derived from a much earlier period.[g]
The Br?hma?as concern themselves with the correct application of ritual,[h] the word being derived from bráhman meaning 'prayer'. They were composed at a period in time by which the Vedic hymns had achieved the status of being ancient and sacred revelations and the language had changed sufficiently so that the priests did not fully understand the Vedic texts.
The Br?hma?as are composed in prose, unlike the previous works, forming some of the earliest examples of prose in any Indo-European language. The Br?hma?as intend to explain the relation between the sacred text and ritual ceremony.[i]
The later part of the Br?hma?as contain material of a specially theosophic character, which are meant to be imparted or studied in the peace and calm of the forest, hence their name the ?ra?yakas.[C] The last part of these are books of philosophy that came to be called Upani?ads.[D] The doctrines in the Upani?ads were later developed into the Ved?nta[E] system.
The S?tras are treatises concerned either with Vedic ritual or customary law. There arrived a stage during the later period of the Br?hma?as that a vast mass of ritual and custom detail had been accumulated and widely scattered. To address this, the S?tras are intended to provide a concise survey of the sum of these scattered detail.
The S?tras forego the need to interpret the ceremony or custom, but simply provide a plain, methodical account with the utmost brevity.[j] The word s?tra, derived from the root siv-, 'to sew', [k] thus meaning 'sewn' or 'stitched together' eventually became a byword for any work of aphorisms of similar concision.[l] The sutras in many cases are so terse they cannot be understood without the help of detailed commentaries.
By the time of the S?tra period, the language had evolved sufficiently to make increasing parts of the older literature hard to understand, and to recite correctly. This led to the emergence of several classes of works intended to resolve this matter. These works were styled like the religious S?tras, however they were not a religious but rather a largely scientific approach to the study of language.[m]
One of the most important classes of this is the Pr?tikhya S?tras which deal with accentuation, pronunciation, prosody and related matters in order to study the phonetic changes that have taken place in Vedic words.
This tradition reaches its high point in the Adhy?y? of Pini, a book of succinct S?tras that meticulously define the language and lay the foundations of what is hereafter the correct, official way of speaking this language: sa?sk?tá-: 'refined, polished, perfected'.
The first traces of epic poetry are seen in the Vedic literature, besides some of the dialog hymns in the ?g·veda, the ?khy?nas, Itih?sas and Puras of the Br?hma?as. Originally songs of praise, these over time developed into epic poems of increasing length, heroic songs centered around a single hero or a single great event. Of these developments, whilst there may have been many of them, only two have survived, the Mah?bh?rata and the R?m?ya?a.
The Mah?bh?rata is in a sense not just an 'epic' or a 'poem', not just a single production, but can be seen as a whole body of literature in its own right. Already in the ?g·veda, the Bharatas find mention as a warlike tribe, and in the Br?hma?as is found Bharata, the son of Du?yanta and ?akuntal?.
The kernel of the Mah?bh?rata is a family feud in the royal house of the Kauravas, i.e., the descendants of Bharata, leading to a bloody battle. However, on top of this historical original, an enormous mass of poetry, myths and legends, secondary tales, moral stories and much more get appended over the centuries, such that the final form as we have it has 100,000 ?lokas [n] across 18+1 books.
In contrast to the Mah?bh?rata, the R?m?ya?a consists of only 24,000 ?lokas divided into seven books, and in form is more purely regular, ornate epic poetry, a form of style which is the basis of the later K?vya tradition.
There are two parts to the story of the R?m?ya?a, which are narrated in the five genuine books. The first revolves around the events at the court of King Da?aratha at Ayodhya with one of his wives vying for the succession of the throne to her own son Bharata in place of the one chosen by the king, R?ma. This is seen to have a historical basis, while the second part is full of myth and marvel, with the banished R?ma combating giants in the forest, slaying thousands of demons and so on. The second part also deals with the abduction of R?m?'s wife, S?t? by king R?va?a of Lank?, leading R?ma to carry out to expedition to the island to defeat the king in battle and recover his wife.
K?vya is the literary style used by court poets in a movement that flourished between c. 200 BCE and 1100 CE.[o] While the R?m?ya?a forms the chief source and basis of the K?vyas, and while in the former, form is subordinated to matter, form takes on centrestage in K?vya. K?vya works are thus full of alliteration, similes, metaphors and other figures of speech.
The Buddhist poet and philosopher A?vagho?a's Buddhacarita[F] is among the oldest surviving examples of K?vya literature, and the work calls itself a mah?k?vya and is composed no later than 400 CE.
K?lid?sa, called by many the Shakespeare of India, [q] is said to have been the finest master of the Sanskrit poetic style, possessing qualities, as ascribed to his favorite style, the Vidarbha, by Dan?in, such as, in Arthur Macdonell's words, "firmness and evenness of sound, avoiding harsh transitions and preferring gentle harmonies; the use of words in their ordinary sense and clearness of meaning; the power to convey sentiment; beauty, elevation, and the employment of metaphorical expressions".
The narrative moves at a rapid pace, is packed with apt and striking similes and has much genuine poetry, while the style is simpler than what is typical of a K?vya. The Raghuvaa is seen to meet all the criteria of a mah?k?vya, such as that the central figure should be noble and clever, and triumphant, that the work should abound in rasa and bh?va, and so on. There are more than 20 commentaries of this work that are known.
The Kum?ra·sambhava[H] narrates the story of the courtship and wedding of the god ?iva and of P?rvat?, Him?laya's daughter, and the birth of their son, Kum?ra. The poem finishes with the slaying of the demon T?raka, the very purpose of the birth of the warrior-god.
The Kum?ra·sambhava showcases the poet's rich and original imaginative powers making for abundant poetic imagery and wealth of illustration. Again, more than 20 commentaries on the Kum?ra·sambhava have survived.
The composition of the Vedas led to the rise of different schools dedicated to preserving and promoting the traditions of one or more Vedas. Over time, these branched out and proliferated to cater to the needs of treating other topics and matters. Thus arise the different stras, or sciences in various disciplines: grammar, lexicography, geometry, astronomy, medicine, sex, philosophy, etc.
Learning in these schools took place by way of the master expounding the subject orally, using short aphorisms, the s?tras, which on account of their terseness would be meaningful only to those who knew how to interpret them, and to anyone else necessarily esoteric. The bhyas, the commentaries that followed the s?tras were structured in the style of student-teacher dialogue wherein a question is posed, a partial solut ion, the p?rva·pak?a, proposed, which is then handled, corrected and the final opinion established, the siddh?nta. In time, the bhyas evolved to become more like a lecture.
The s?tras were regarded as definite and inalterable, which was later circumvented, in the field of grammar, by the creation of v?rttikas, to correct or amend s?tras. Another form often employed was the ?loka, which was a relatively simple metre, easy to write and remember. Sometimes a mix of prose and verse was used. Some of the later work, such as in law and poetics, developed a much clearer, scientific style thus avoiding a propensity towards obscurity that verse was prone to.
The Vedic practice of s?tras pertaining to the correct performance of ritual was extended to other matters such as the performance of duties of all kinds, and in social, moral and legal spheres. These came to be known as dharma·s?tra in contradistinction to the older g?hya·s?tras and ?rauta·s?tras although no distinction was felt initially. Like other s?tras, this was terse prose peppered with a few ?lokas or verses in tri?tubh metre to emphasize a doctrine here and there. More broadly, works in the field of civil and religious law come under the banner of dharma·stra.
Examples of such works are:
The most important of all dharma literature however is the manu·sm?ti, or the m?nava·dharma·stra. Composed in verse form, and intended to apply to all human beings of all castes, to secure acceptance of the work, divine provenance was claimed. Thus the reference to Manu[s] the primordial man, the sage who escaped the deluge[t] known to be the dispenser of justice.
The Manu·sm?ti deals with a wide variety of topics including marriage, daily duties, funeral rites, occupation and general rules of life, lawful and forbidden food, impurity and purification, laws on women, duties of husband and wife, inheritance and partition, and much more.
There are chapters devoted to the castes, the conduct of different castes, their occupations, the matter of caste admixture, enumerating in full detail the system of social stratification. The Manu·sm?ti has been dated to the couple of centuries around the turn of the Common Era. According to recent genetic research, it has been determined that it was around the first century CE that population mixture among different groups in India, prevalent on a large scale from around 2200 BCE, ground to a halt with endogamy setting in.
Hindu Sanskrit texts are manuscripts and historical literature that can be subdivided into two classes.
The diverse traditions of ?ruti[I] are believed to be 'revealed', examples being the Vedas and the early Upani?ads. Many scholars include the Bhagavad·G?t? and ?gamas as Hindu scriptures, while Dominic Goodall includes Bhagavata Pura and Y?jñavalkya Sm?ti.
The Sm?ti Sanskrit texts are a specific body of Hindu texts attributed to an author, as a derivative work they are considered less authoritative than ?ruti in Hinduism. The Smrti literature is a vast corpus of diverse texts, and includes but is not limited to Ved?ngas, the Hindu epics, the S?tras and stras, the texts of Hindu philosophies, and the Puras, while some traditions also include the K?vya or poetical literature, the Bhyas,[J] and numerous Nibandhas[K] covering politics, ethics, culture, arts and society.
Most ancient and medieval Hindu texts were composed in Sanskrit. In modern times, most ancient texts have been translated into other Indian languages and some in Western languages. Prior to the start of the common era, the Hindu texts were composed orally, then memorized and transmitted orally, from one generation to next, for more than a millennium before they were written down into manuscripts. This verbal tradition[u] of preserving and transmitting Hindu texts, from one generation to next, continued into the modern era.
Tattvartha Sutra is a Jain text written in the Sanskrit language. It is regarded as one of the earliest, most authoritative books on Jainism, and the only text authoritative in both the Digambara and ?v?t?mbara sects. Shant Sudharas Bhavana is a famous book in Jainism written by Jain monk Vinay Vijay also called as Yashovijay.
Dramas, poems and stories were written in Sanskrit language in ancient India. Some of the popular ones are: Pañcatantra, Hitopade?a, Rajatarangini, Da?akum?racarita, M?cchaka?ika, Mudr?r?k?asa, Ratnavali, Nagananda, Priyadarsika, Mattavilasa Prahasana, Vetala Pañcaviati, Si?h?sana Dv?triik?.
Bhasa's Svapnav?savadattam,[L] Pancar?tra, and Pratijna Yaugandharayaanam,[M] Pratiman?taka, Abhishekan?taka, B?lacharita, D?tav?kya, Karnabh?ram, D?tagha?otkaca, Ch?rudatta, Madhyamavyayoga and Urubhanga.
Mattavil?sa·prahasana[i][S] is a short one-act Sanskrit play. It is one of the two great one act plays written by Pallava King Mahendravarman I (571- 630CE) in the beginning of the seventh century in Tamil Nadu.
Madhur?·vijayam[ii][T] is a 14th-century C.E Sanskrit poem written by the poet Gangadevi. It is also named Vira Kamparaya Caritham by the poet. It chronicles the life of Kumara Kampanna Udayar or Kumara Kampanna II, a prince of the Vijayanagara Empire and the second son of Bukka Raya I. The poem describes in detail, the invasion and conquest of the Madurai Sultanate by the Vijayanagara empire.
Literature in Sanskrit continues to be produced. These works, however, have a very small readership. In the introduction to ?o?a: An Anthology of Contemporary Sanskrit Poets (1992), Radhavallabh Tripathi writes:
Sanskrit is known for its classical literature, even though the creative activity in this language has continued without pause from the medieval age till today. [...] Consequently, contemporary Sanskrit writing suffers from a prevailing negligence.
Most current Sanskrit poets are employed as teachers, either pandits in phalas or university professors. However, Tripathi also points out the abundance of contemporary Sanskrit literature:
On the other hand, the number of authors who appear to be very enthusiastic about writing in Sanskrit during these days is not negligible. [...] Dr. Ramji Upadhyaya in his treatise on modern Sanskrit drama has discussed more than 400 Sanskrit plays written and published during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In a thesis dealing with Sanskrit mah?k?vyas written in a single decade, 1961-1970, the researcher has noted 52 Sanskrit mah?k?vyas (epic poems) produced in that very decade.
Similarly, Prajapati (2005), in Post-Independence Sanskrit Literature: A Critical Survey, estimates that more than 3000 Sanskrit works were composed in the period after Indian Independence (i.e., since 1947) alone. Further, much of this work is judged as being of high quality, both in comparison to classical Sanskrit literature, and to modern literature in other Indian languages.
Since 1967, the Sahitya Akademi, India's national academy of letters, has had an award for the best creative work written that year in Sanskrit. In 2009, Satyavrat Shastri became the first Sanskrit author to win the Jnanpith Award, India's highest literary award. Vidyadhar Shastri wrote two epic poems (Mahakavya), seven shorter poems, three plays and three songs of praise (stavana kavya, he received the Vidyavachaspati award in 1962. Some other modern Sanskrit composers include Abhiraj Rajendra Mishra (known as Trive Kavi, composer of short stories and several other genres of Sanskrit literature), Jagadguru Rambhadracharya (known as Kavikularatna, composer of two epics, several minor works and commentaries on Prasth?natray?).
Another great Sanskrit epic that remained largely unrecognised till lately is "Dhruv Charitra" written by Pandit Surya Dev Mishra in 1946. He won laurels of appreciation by renowned Hindi and Sanskrit critics like Hazari Prasad Dwiedi, Ayodhya Singh Upadhyay "Hariaudh", Suryakant tripathi "Nirala", Laldhar Tripathi "Pravasi".
Quote: Thus, there is a vast literature available but it seems that Tattvartha Sutra of Umasvati can be regarded as the main philosophical text of the religion and is recognized as authoritative by all Jains."
Contrary to popular belief, there is an astonishing Sanskrit writing is qualitatively of such high order that it can easily be treated on par with the best of Classical Sanskrit literature, It can also easily compete with the writings in other Indian languages.
The latter half of the nineteenth century marks the beginning of a new era in Sanskrit literature. Many of the modern Sanskrit writings are qualitatively of such high order that they can easily be treated at par with the best of classical Sanskrit works, and they can also be judged in contrast to the contemporary literature in other languages.
This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.