Indian literatureis generally considered as one of the oldest in the world. As we are aware, India has 22 officially recognized languages, and a huge variety of literature has been produced in these languages,down the centuries. Indian literature comprises both oral and written forms. Hindu literary traditions are a major force to reckon with,in Indian literature, though it is interspersed with Islamic and Christian literary influences at various points of time during the course of socio-political history of the country.
We begin with the most ancient literature available in our country ─ Sanskrit which is considered the mother of most Indian languages and even many European languages.
Vedic literature,compiled between approximately 2000 BC and 500 BC comprise four books Rigveda, Yajurveda, Sāmaveda and Atharvaveda. Each book has four types of associated literature ─ hymns, rituals, meditation and mystic philosophy. The Vedas have been compiled over several centuries by thousands of people. Vedic Sanskrit bears a strong resemblance to Avestan, the language in which the scriptures of Zoroastrianism are written.
The period between the 12th and 2nd centuries B.C saw the composition of the two great epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, which are known as itihaasa or “that which has taken place”
Traditionally, the authorship of the Ramayana is attributed to the Hindu sage Valmiki, who is referred to as Adikavi, or ‘the first poet’. The story deals with Prince Rama (Indian vernaculars: Raam or Sri Ram), his exile and the abduction of his wife by the demon king of Lanka (Sri Lanka) Ravana, followed by a fierce battle in which Rama slew the demon and rescued his wife, only to banish her himself, to please his subjects.
Traditionally, authorship of the Mahabharata is attributed to the sage Ved Vyasa 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. It also contains numerous sub-plots, which are independent stories in their own right.
The Panchatantra is a collection of Sanskrit fables in prose and verse. The original version, now lost, was written around 200 BC and is attributed to Vishnu Sharma.
Hitopadesa is a collection of Sanskrit fables in prose and verse; it is similar to, though distinct from, the Panchatantra. Its stories have travelled to several parts of the world.
The Jataka is a voluminous body of folklore and mythic literature, primarily associated with the Theravada Buddhist tradition, as written in the Pali language (from about the 3rd century, A.D.); however, the stories found in the Jataka have been found in numerous other languages and media — many of them being translations from the Pali versions, but others are instead derived from vernacular traditions prior to the Pali compositions.
The Puranas in Sanskrit (meaning ancient focus on the ancient history of the world) are part of Hindu religious scriptures and deal with diverse topics like devotion to God in his various manifestations, traditional sciences like Ayurveda, Jyotish, cosmology, concepts like dharma, karma, reincarnation among others.
Panini was a grammarian from approximately the 5thcentury BC. His composition on Sanskrit grammar,named Ashtadhyayiis an epitome of brevity and completeness. The book standardized Sanskrit grammar and phonetics.
Famous Sanskrit dramatists include Kalidasa, Sudraka, Bhasa and Asvaghosa
The famous play Mricchakatikam was possibly composed by Shudraka in the 2nd century BC. Rife with romance, sex, royal intrigue and bawdy humour, the juicy plot of the play has numerous twists and turns. The main story is about a young man named 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 thus making it a greatly hilarious and entertaining play.
Kalidasa (3rd - 4th century AD) is easily the greatest poet and playwright in Sanskrit, who based his work on famous Hindu legends and themes; his famous plays are Vikramorvaśīya (Vikrama and Urvashi), Mālavikāgnimitra (Malavika and Agnimitra), Abhijñānaśākuntala (The Recognition of Shakuntala).
Kalidasa also wrote two large epic poems, Raghuvamsham (The Genealogy of Raghu) and Kumarasambhavam (Birth of Kumara), and two smaller epics, Ritusamhaara (Medley of Seasons) and Meghadutam (The Cloud Messenger).
Kalidasa's writing is characterized by the usage of simple but beautiful Sanskrit, as well as his extensive use of similes.
Bhasa's most famous plays are Svapna Vasavadattam (Swapnavāsadatta) (Vasavadatta's dream), Pancharātra and Pratijna Yaugandharayaanam (The vows of Yaugandharayana). Bhasa is considered to be one of the best Sanskrit playwrights, second only to Kalidasa.
Other important plays written in this period include Ratnavali and Nagananda, by king Harshavardhana,who ruled from Kannauj during the 7th century.
Banabhatta was a powerful fiction writer in the court of king Harshavardhana. His contribution to Sanskrit literature is unique. The father of an ornate florid style, Banabhatta created a new genre of prose romances by writing a historical tale, the biography of his patron king, titled Harshacharita and the highly romantic, imaginative novel, Kadambari.
Vishakadatta (6th century AD) hailed from a royal family that ruled over an area which are now parts of modern Bihar or Bengal. He is famous for his dramatic composition Mudrarakshasa(Demons and the signet ring). His two other well-known works are Devichandragupta and Hisarikavancitaka. Vishakadatta occupies a significant place in the history of Sanskrit literature because he pioneered the tradition of writing purely political plays, utterly devoid of subtle human emotions, love and humour.
The Katha-sarita-sagara (An Ocean of Stories) by Somadeva was a poetic adaptation in Sanskrit of Brihat-katha (A massive tale) written in the 5th century BC in the Paishachi dialect (which was prevalent in the northern parts of the country,e.g. Punjab and Kashmir). Thousands of short stories embedded in this book inspired numerous later stories.
The Geeta Govinda (The Song of Govinda) by Jayadeva is the story of Krishna's amorous overtures to Radha, written in intensely lyrical and musical Sanskrit. The Ashtapadis of the Geeta Govinda form the backbone of Bharatanatyam and Odissi classical dance recitals