Literature in Ancient India

Literature in Ancient India

The earliest known work of the Aryans in India was the Rig Veda which is a collection of 1028 hymns in Vedic Sanskrit. Most of the hymns are in praise of different Vedic deities and were intended for recitation at the Yajnas or sacrifices. Many of them are beautiful descriptions of nature. Some of the most enchanting are addressed to Ushas the goddess of dawn. The Rig-Veda was followed by three more Vedas-yajur Veda which gives directions for the performance of the Yajna, the Sama Veda which prescribes the tunes for the recitation of the hymns of the Rig Veda and the Asmara Veda which prescribes rites and rituals. After the four Vedas a number of works called the Brahmanas grew which contained detailed explanation of Vedic literature and instructions. The Aranyakas which are an appendix to the Brahmanas prescribed certain rites and also laid the basis of a body of more philosophical literature. It was the Upanishadic literature which dealt with questions like the origin of the universe, birth and death, the material and spiritual world, nature of knowledge and many other questions. The early Upanishads are Brihad -Aranyaka and Chanddogya. They are in the form of dialogues and expresses the highest thoughts in simple and beautiful imagery.


Another body of literature to grow was Vedangas which were concerned with astronomy, grammar and phonetics. One of the most outstanding works of this period was a classic on Sanskrit grammar, the Ashtdhyayi by Panini.

The two great epics the Mahabharata and Ramayana were developed over a period of centauries and were perhaps put to writing in their present form in the second century AD. The Mahabharata contains 1,00,000 verses and is the longest single poem in the world. The Bhagvad Gita a later addition to the Mahabharata enshrines a philosophical doctrine and in it are described the three paths to salvation: karma, gyan and bhakti. The Ramayana the story of Rama is shorter than the Mahabharata and is full of interesting adventures and episodes. This period abounds in both religious and secular literature in Sanskrit. The Puranas is important as they were the main influence in the development from early Vedic religion to Hinduism. There were many other Shastras and smritis. The Shastras contained works of science and philopsohy.


The Arthsashtra by Kautilya was a treatise on the science of governance. There were shastras on art, mathematics and other sciences. The smritis dealt with the performance of duties, customs and laws prescribed according to Dharma. The most famous of these is the Manusmriti. The early Buddhist literature was in Pali and consists of two sections. The Sutta pitaka consists mainly of dialogues between the Buddha and his followers. The Vinayapitaka is concerned mainly with the rules of the organization of the monasteries. The Milinda Panha is another great Buddhist work consisting of dialogues between the Indo-Greek King Menander and the Buddhist philosopher Nagasena. Another great Buddhist work consists of hundreds of jataka stories which became the subjects of Buddhist sculpture and are popular all over the world for their wisdom. Later many Buddhist works were written in Sanskrit. Of these the most famous is the Buddhacharita or life of Buddha by Ashvaghosha. The period before the reign of the Guptas ushered in the glorious period of Sanskrit literature.

This was the greatest period for the growth of poetry and drama. The great writers of this period are well known Kalidasa, Bhavabhuti, Bharavi, Bhartrihari, Bana, Magha and many others. Of these Kalidasa is known all over the world. His works the Kumarasambhava, the Raghuvamsa, the Meghaduta, the Abhijnanashakuntalam and others are unrivalled for their poetry and style. Bana wrote the Harshacharita, a biography of King Harsha and Kadambari. Among the famous works of the period are Bhavabhuti's Utter -Ramacharita, Bharavi's Kirtarjuniya, Vishakhadatta's Mudra Rakhshasa, Shudraka's Mricchakatika. The subjects of these and other works were political events, romances, allegories, comedies and philosophical questions.


The four Dravidian languages- Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam developed their own distinct scripts and literature. According to tradition three literary gatherings or Sangams were held at which many sages and poets recited their compositions. This body of literature consists of many themes like politics, war and love. The famous works of this body of literature include the Ettutogai (Eight Anthologies), the Tolkappiyam (a work of Tamil grammar) and the Pattuppattu (the ten songs). Thiruvalluvar wrote the famous Kural which in verse deals with many aspects of life and religion. The Silappadikaram and the Manimekalai are some of the other most famous works of early Tamil literature.


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