Sanskrit Literature

Sanskrit literature is the literature of India written in the ancient language called Sanskrit. The literature falls into three periods-Vedic, Epic, and Classical.

The Vedic period extended from about 1400 to 500 B.C. Vedic literature is essentially religious and concerns the solemn and domestic rituals of the early Aryan civilization of India. The oldest of these works are three related Vedas-Rig-veda, Sama-veda, and Yajur-veda. A fourth Veda is called the Atharva-veda. The Vedas are anthologies of texts in verse that provided the liturgies for the holiest rites of the early Indian religion. Attached to the Vedas are later texts, including the Brahmanas and the Upanishads. The Brahmanas are long prose works that explain the mythological and theological significance of these rites. The Upanishads emphasize inward reflection and search for unity in existence. The Upanishads gave birth to the development of Indian philosophy. See VEDAS; UPANISHADS.

As the Vedic period ended, the old religion was threatened by new religious movements. A vast body of literature arose to preserve the ancient texts and rituals in unchanged form. This literature included manuals for ritual performance and books on such subjects as grammar, astronomy, and mathematics. These texts reflect the full development of the scientific method in ancient India.

The Epic period overlapped the Vedic and Classical periods and covered the years of composition of India’s two great epic poems, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Both were probably begun in about 500 B.C. or earlier. Since then they have grown in size and form. The most famous section of the Mahabharata is a philosophical dialogue called the Bhagavad-Gita. See BHAGAVAD-GITA; MAHABHARATA; RAMAYANA.

The Classical period begins with the grammarian Panini in the 400’s B.C. Panini described the Sanskrit he spoke in a set of about 4,000 rules. His grammar became the basis for all Sanskrit usage by later cultured writers. The oldest surviving works in Classical Sanskrit are the plays and poems of the Buddhist author Asvaghosa, who lived about A.D. 100, and the plays of Bhasa, who lived about A.D. 300.

The finest writer in the Classical style was Kalidasa, a poet during the Gupta dynasty, which reigned from about 320 to about 500. His refined and elegant Sanskrit works remained unsurpassed. Kalidasa’s talent is best seen in the lyric poem The Cloud Messenger. He also composed dramas and epic poems. The first Sanskrit novel was The Tale of the Ten Princes by Dandin, who may have lived in the 600’s.”

See also DRAMA (Asian drama); GUPTA DYNASTY (Cultural life under the Guptas); HINDI; HINDUISM (Sacred writings); SANSKRIT LANGUAGE.

Contributor: Stanley Insler, Ph.D., Salisbury Professor of Sanskrit and Comparative Philology, Yale University.


(978-0716601036 WBE)


Fair Use Sources: