Sanskrit literature

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Literature in Sanskrit, the classical language of India, represents a continuous cultural tradition from the time of the Vedas in the second millennium B.C.E. until the present. Sanskrit has an extremely rich and complex grammatical structure and an enormous vocabulary. It was a spoken language for centuries before the Vedas were written down. Around 600 B.C.E., in the classical period of Iron Age Ancient India, Sanskrit began the transition from a primary language to a second language of religion and learning, used by the educated elite. Literature in Sanskrit begins with the Vedas, and continues with the Sanskrit Epics of Iron Age India; the golden age of Classical Sanskrit literature dates to the Early Middle Ages (roughly the third to seventh centuries C.E.). Literary production in Sanskrit saw a late bloom in the eleventh century before declining after 1100 C.E.

Due to its extensive use in religious literature, primarily in Hinduism, and the fact that most modern Indian languages have been directly derived from or strongly influenced by Sanskrit, the language and its literature are of great importance in Indian culture, similar to the importance of Latin in European culture. There are contemporary efforts towards revival, with events like the "All-India Sanskrit Festival" (since 2002), which holds annual composition contests.

Sanskrit Language

Main article: Sanskrit

Sanskrit, the classical language of India, and its literature, represent a continuous cultural tradition from the time of the Vedas in the second millennium B.C.E. until the present. It is among the earliest Indo-European languages, closely related to Greek and Latin and most distantly to English and other modern European languages [1]. It is the liturgical language of Hinduism and Buddhism primarily, and utilized occasionally in Jainism, and its position in the cultures of South and Southeast Asia is akin to that of Latin and Greek in Europe. It is an ancestor of the modern Indo-Aryan languages and has evolved into, as well as influenced, many modern languages of the world, including Hindi, Bengali, and Marathi.

As an early member of the Indo-European family, Sanskrit is closely related to Greek and Latin and most distantly to English and other modern European languages. Sanskrit is also the parent of the modern Indo-Aryan languages of north and central India, including Hindi, Bengali, Marathi, and many others.

Sanskrit has an extremely rich and complex grammatical structure and an enormous vocabulary. It appears in pre-Classical form as Vedic Sanskrit, which was a spoken language for centuries before the Vedas were written down. Around 600 B.C.E., in the classical period of Iron Age Ancient India, Sanskrit began the transition from a primary language to a second language of religion and learning, used by the educated elite. Classical Sanskrit is defined by the oldest surviving Sanskrit grammar, Pāṇini's Aṣṭādhyāyī ("Eight-Chapter Grammar") dating to around the fifth century B.C.E..

The literature of Sanskrit embraces a vast number of books on nearly every imaginable subject. Important genres of Sanskrit literature include poetry, drama, religion and ritual, philosophy, law, grammar and linguistics, medicine, astronomy and astrology. Among the best-known masterworks of Sanskrit literature are the poems and plays of Kalidasa, the great epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, including the Bhagavad-gita which constitutes a section of the latter, and the Upanishads.

A number of Prakrits, or Middle Indo-Aryan languages, the vernacular dialects of ancient times, were derived from and closely related to Sanskrit, and are usually studied together with it. Several of these Middle Indo-Aryan produced important literature. The best known of these is Pali, which still serves as the canonical language of Buddhism in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. Other Prakrit languages such as Sauraseni, Maharastri, Magadhi, and Gandhari embody various facets of the literatures of both the Brahmanical/Hindu and Buddhist traditions.[2]

The Vedic Period

Main article: Vedas

Composed between approximately 1500 B.C.E. and 600 B.C.E. (the Late Bronze Age to Early Iron Age) in pre-classical Sanskrit,, Vedic literature forms the basis for the further development of Hinduism. There are four Vedas - Rig, Yajus, Sāma and Atharva, each with a main Samhita and a number of circum-vedic genres, including Brahmanas, Aranyakas, Grhyasutras and Shrautasutras. The main period of Vedic literary activity took place from the ninth to seventh centuries B.C.E., when the various shakhas (schools) compiled and memorized their respective canons.

The Upanishads form a part of the Vedas, and are strongly philosophical in content. The older Upanishads (BAU, ChU, JUB, KathU, MaitrU) belong to the Vedic period, but the larger part of the Muktika canon is post-Vedic. The Aranyakas form part of both the Brahmana and Upanishad corpus. The Vedas were compiled by countless authors over a period of several centuries before finally being committed to writing, and provide valuable insights into the historical and cultural development of ancient India.

The Sanskrit used in the Vedic period, called "Vedic Sanskrit," is highly archaic and concise, and is often difficult to understand to understand without the aid of commentaries. [3]

Sutra Literature

Continuing the tradition of the late Vedic Shrautasutra literature, Late Iron Age scholarship (ca. 500 to 100 B.C.E.) organized knowledge into Sutra treatises, including the Vedanga and the religious or philosophical Brahma Sutras, Yoga Sutras, and Nyaya Sutras.

In the Vedanga disciplines of grammar and phonetics, no author had greater influence than Pāṇini with his Aṣṭādhyāyī (Eight-Chapter Grammar," circa fifth century B.C.E.), the oldest surviving Sanskrit grammar. It is considered to have defined classical Sanskrit. It is essentially a prescriptive grammar, an authority that defines rather than describes correct Sanskrit, involving metarules, transformations and recursion. Pāṇini's grammar effectively fixed the grammar of Classical Sanskrit and became the basis for all later grammatical works, such as Patanjali's Mahābhāṣya. The Backus-Naur Form or BNF grammars used to describe modern programming languages have significant similarities with Panini's grammar rules.

The Epics

The period between approximately the sixth and the first centuries B.C.E. saw the composition and redaction of the two great epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, with subsequent redaction progressing down to the fourth century C.E.. They are known as itihasa, or "that which occurred."

The Mahabharata

Main article: Mahabharata

The Mahabharata (Great Bharata) 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 doctrine. Traditionally, authorship of the Mahabharata is attributed to the sage Vyasa.According to the Adi-parva of the Mahabharata (81, 101-102), the text was originally 8,800 verses when it was composed by Vyasa and was known as the Jaya (Victory), which later became 24,000 verses in the Bharata recited by Vaisampayana.

The broad sweep of the story of the Mahabharata chronicles the story of the conflict between two families for control of Hastinapur, a city in Ancient India. The impact of the Mahabharata on the development of Hinduism and Indian culture can not be measured. Thousands of later writers have drawn freely from the story and sub-stories of the Mahabharata.

The Ramayana

Main article: Ramayana

While not as long as the Mahabharata, the Ramayana is still twice as large as the Iliad and Odyssey combined. Traditionally, its authorship is attributed to the Hindu sage who is referred to as Adikavi, or "first poet." Valmiki introduced the Anushtubh meter for the first time in Ramayana. Like the Mahabharata, the Ramayana was handed down orally and evolved through several centuries before being transferred into writing. It includes tales that form the basis for modern Hindu festivals and contains a description of the marriage practices still observed by contemporary Hindus.

The Ramayana is the story of Prince Rama (Indian vernaculars: Raam or Sri Ram), his exile and the abduction of his wife by the Rakshas king 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 role similar and equally important to that of the Mahabharata in the development of Indian culture. The Ramayana is also extant in Ramayana: Southeast Asian versions and is the subject of dramas and religious dances.


Drama emerged as a distinct genre of Sanskrit literature in the final centuries B.C.E., influenced partly by Vedic mythology and partly by Hellenistic drama. It reached its peak between the fourth and seventh centuries, before declining together with Sanskrit literature as a whole.

Famous Sanskrit dramatists include Sudraka, Bhasa, Asvaghosa and Kalidasa. Though numerous plays written by these playwrights are still available, little is known about the authors themselves.

Classical Sanskrit drama was heroic comedy of a religious character, featuring triumphant gods and divine lovers united after various trials (as in the perennially popular romance of Rama and Sita), noble deeds, and mythological themes. The episodic nature of these dramas reflected the Hindu and Buddhist attitude that a human life is only one episode in a long journey towards enlightenment and the restoration of cosmic balance. [4] The simplicity of the Indian stage allowed Sanskrit playwrights to exercise great liberty and creativity. Unrestricted by realism, they were able to create a fanciful and idealistic universe, appropriate to the Hindu aesthetic of blissful idealism in art.

One of the earliest known Sanskrit plays is the Mricchakatika, thought to have been composed by Shudraka in the second century B.C.E.. The Natya Shastra (ca. second century C.E., literally "Scripture of Dance," though it sometimes translated as "Science of Theatre'") is a foundational work in Sanskrit literature on the subject of stagecraft. Bhasa and Kalidasa are major early authors of the first centuries C.E. Kalidasa easily qualifies as the greatest poet and playwright in Sanskrit. His work deals primarily with famous Hindu legends and themes; three famous plays by Kalidasa are Vikramōrvaśīyam (Vikrama and Urvashi), Mālavikāgnimitram (Malavika and Agnimitra), and the play that he is most known for, Abhijñānaśākuntalam (The Recognition of Shakuntala).

Late (post sixth century) dramatists include Dandi and Sri Harsha. The only surviving ancient Sanskrit drama theater is Koodiyattam, which has been in Kerala by the Chakyar community.


"Tantra" is a general term for a scientific, magical or mystical treatise. Works on Hindu astrology (Parashara) and both Hindu and Buddhist mystical texts concern themselves with five subjects; the creation, the destruction of the world, the worship of the gods, the attainment of all objects, and the four modes of union with the Supreme Spirit by meditation. Tantric texts are found throughout the entire lifespan of Classical Sanskrit literature.

The Panchatantra is a collection of fables estimated to have reached its fixed form around 200 B.C.E.

Classical Poetry

Classical Sanskrit poetry was produced from approximately the third to the eighth century B.C.E. Kalidasa is the foremost example of a classical Sanskrit poet.

A striking characteristic of Indian literary tradition is the use of word games, such as stanzas that read the same backwards and forwards, words that can be split in different ways to produce different meanings, and sophisticated metaphors, to display the poet’s technical prowess. This style is referred to as kavya. A classic example is the poet Bharavi and his magnum opus, the Kiratarjuniya (sixth-seventh century).

The greatest works of poetry in this period are the six Mahakavyas, or "great composition":

  • Kumarasambhavam by Kalidasa
  • Raghuvamsham by Kalidasa
  • Kiratarjuniya by Bharavi
  • Shishupala Vadha by Sri Maagha
  • Naishadiya Charitam by Sri Harsha

Some would include the Bhattikavya as a seventh Mahakavya.

Other major literary works from this period are Kadambari by Bana Bhatta—the most illustrious prose writer of the (sixth-seventh centuries), the Kama Sutra by Vatsyayana, and the shatakas of Bhartṛhari.


Main article: Puranas

The corpus of the Hindu Puranas likewise falls into the classical period of Sanskrit literature, dating to between the fifth and tenth centuries, and marks the emergence of the Vaishna and Shaiva denominations of classical Hinduism. The Puranas are classified into a Mahā- ("great") and a Upa- ("lower, additional") corpus. Traditionally they are said to narrate five subjects, called pañcalakṣaṇa ("five distinguishing marks"), which are:

  1. Sarga - The creation of the universe.
  2. Pratisarga - Secondary creations, mostly re-creations after dissolution.
  3. Vamśa - Genealogy of gods and sages.
  4. Manvañtara - The creation of the human race and the first human beings.
  5. Vamśānucaritam - Dynastic histories.

A Purana usually gives prominence to a certain deity (Shiva, Vishnu or Krishna, Durga) and depicts the other gods as subservient.

Later Sanskrit Literature

Some important works from the eleventh century include the Katha-sarit-sagara and the Gita Govinda.

The Katha-sarita-sagara (An Ocean of Stories) by Somadeva was an eleventh-century poetic adaptation in Sanskrit of Brihat-katha, written in the fifth century B.C.E. in the Paishachi dialect. One of the famous series of stories in this work is the Vikrama and Vetaala series, known to every child in India.

The Gita Govinda (The Song of Govinda) by the Orissan composer Jayadeva is the story of Krishna's love for Radha, and is written in spectacularly lyrical and musical Sanskrit. A central text for several Hindu sects in eastern India, the Gita Govinda is recited regularly at major Hindu pilgrimage sites such as Jagannath temple at Puri, Orissa. The Ashtapadis of the Gita Govinda also form a staple theme in Bharatanatyam and Odissi classical dance recitals.

Beyond the eleventh century, the use of Sanskrit for general literature declined, most importantly because of the emergence of literature in vernacular Indian languages (notably Hindi, Marathi, Tamil, Kannada, and Telugu). Sanskrit continued to be used, but largely for Hindu religious and philosophical literature. Sanskrit literature fueled literature in vernacular languages, and the Sanskrit language itself continued to have a profound influence over the development of Indian literature in general.

There are contemporary efforts towards revival, with events like the "All-India Sanskrit Festival" (since 2002) which holds annual composition contests.

See also

  • Sanskrit drama
  • Hindu scripture
  • Indian literature
  • Early Medieval literature
  • List of Sanskrit poets


  1. Sanskrit, Pali, and the Prakrits, University of Washington, Department of Asian Languages & Literature. Retrieved December 14, 2007.
  2. Sanskrit, Pali, and the Prakrits, University of Washington, Department of Asian Languages & Literature. Retrieved December 14, 2007.
  3. Sanskrit Literature, Haryana Online and Retrieved December 14, 2007.
  4. Susan K. Langer. Feeling and Form. (Charles Scribner's Sons, 1953)

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • A History of Sanskrit Literature. 2007. Gardners Books. ISBN 9780548113189 *Bhattacharya, J. N., and Nilanjana Sarkar. 2004. Encyclopedic dictionary of Sanskrit literature. Global encyclopedic literature series, 3. Delhi: Global Vision Pub. House. ISBN 818774684X
  • Dowson, John. 1961. A classical dictionary of Hindu mythology and religion, geography, history, and literature. London: Routledge & K. Paul.
  • Goswami, Bijoya and Manabendu Banerjee. 2004. Tragedy in Sanskrit literature. Kolkata: Sanskrit Pustak Bhandar.
  • Langer, Susan K. Feeling and Form. Charles Scribner's Sons, 1953.
  • National Seminar on "Modern Sanskrit Literature: Tradition and Innovations," and Es. Bi Raghunāthācārya. 2002. Modern Sanskrit literature, tradition & innovations. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi. ISBN 8126014113
  • Oinas, Felix J. 1978. Heroic epic and saga an introduction to the world's great folk epics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. ISBN 0253327385
  • Richmond, Farley P., Darius L. Swan and Phillip B. Zarelli. 1990. Indian Theatre: Traditions of Performance, 3rd ed. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 0824811909

External links

All links retrieved December 22, 2022.


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