Sanskrit literature

Sanskrit literature

Sanskrit literature, literary works written in Sanskrit constituting the main body of the classical literature of India.


The literature is divided into two main periods—the Vedic (c.1500-c.200 B.C.), when the Vedic form of Sanskrit generally prevailed, and the Sanskrit (c.200 B.C.-c.A.D. 1100), when classical Sanskrit (a development of Vedic) predominated. Sanskrit had, however, become the standard language of the court by 400 B.C., and its early literature overlapped the Vedic. The word Sanskrit means "perfected," and the language was adopted as an improvement of the Vedic.

The Vedic Period

The first part of the Vedic period (c.1500-c.800 B.C.), that of the Veda, was a poetic and creative age, but afterward (c.800-c.500 B.C.) the priestly class transferred its energies to sacrificial ceremonial. They produced the Brahmanas, prose commentaries, in a later form of Vedic, explaining the relations of the Vedas (which had become sacred texts) to the ceremonials of the Vedic religion. In time the Brahmanas, like the Vedas, came to be considered sruti [Skt.,=hearing, i.e., revealed].

All later works, in contrast, are called smriti [Skt.,=memory or tradition] and are considered to be derived from the ancient sages. The later portions of the Brahmanas are theosophical treatises; since they were meant to be studied in the solitude of the forest, they are called Aranyakas [forest books]. The final parts of the Aranyakas are the philosophical Upanishads [secret doctrine] (see Vedanta). In language structure the Aranyakas and the Upanishads approach classical Sanskrit.

The Sutras [Skt.,=thread or clue] were written in the third and final stage (c.500-c.200 B.C.) of the Vedic period. They are treatises dealing with Vedic ritual and customary law. They were written to fulfill the need for a short survey in mnemonic, aphoristic form of the past literature, which by this time had assumed massive proportions. There are two forms of sutra; the Srauta Sutras, based on sruti, which developed the ritualistic side, and the Grihya Sutras, based on smriti. Those Grihya Sutras dealing with social and legal usage are the Dharma Sutras, the oldest source of Indian law (see Manu).

The body of works composed in the Sutra style was divided into six Vedangas [members of the Veda]—Siksha [phonetics], Chhandas [meter], Vyakarana [grammar], Nirukta [etymology], Kalpa [religious practice], and Jyotisha [astronomy]. A sutra that is particularly well known in the West is the Kamasutra of Vatsyayana concerning the art and practice of love. Linguistic standards were stereotyped in the middle of the sutra period by the grammar of Panini (c.350 B.C.), regarded as the starting point of the Sanskrit period.

The Sanskrit Period

Nearly all Sanskrit literature, except that dealing with grammar and philosophy, is in verse. The first period (c.500-c.50 B.C.) of the Sanskrit age is one of epics. They are divided into two main groupings—the natural epics, i.e., those derived from old stories, and those which come from artificial epics called kavya. The oldest and most representative of the natural school is the Mahabharata, while the oldest and best-known of the artificial epics is the Ramayana. The Puranas, a group of 18 epics, didactic and sectarian in tone, are a direct offshoot of the Mahabharata.

In the court epics (c.200 B.C.-c.A.D. 1100), most of which were derived from the Ramayana, subject matter gradually became subordinated to form, and elaborate laws were set up to regulate style. The lyric poems are artificial in technique and mainly stanzaic. The most common form, the sloka, developed from the Vedic anushtubh, a stanza of four octosyllabic lines. Part of the lyric poetry is comprised of gemlike miniatures, portraying emotion and describing nature; most of it is erotic. However, many lyrics are ethical in tone. These reflect the doctrine of the transmigration of souls in a prevailing melancholy tone and stress the vanity of human life.

Sanskrit drama (c.A.D. 400-A.D. 1100) had its beginnings in those hymns of the Rig-Veda which contain dialogues. Staged drama probably derives from the dance and from religious ceremonial. It is characterized by the complete absence of tragedy; death never occurs on the stage. Other typical features are the alternation of lyrical stanzas with prose dialogue and the use of Sanskrit for some characters and Prakrit for others (see Prakrit literature).

In Sanskrit drama the stories are borrowed from legend, and love is the usual theme. The play almost always opens with a prayer and is followed by a dialogue between the stage manager and one of the actors, referring to the author and the play. There were no theaters, so the plays were performed in the concert rooms of palaces. The most famous drama was the Sakuntala of Kalidasa. Other major dramatists were Bhasa, Harsa, and Bhavabhuti (see Asian drama).

There is a didactic quality in all of Sanskrit literature, but it is most pronounced in fairy tales and fables (c.A.D. 400-A.D. 1100). Characteristically, different stories are inserted within the framework of a single narration. The characters of the tale themselves tell stories until there are many levels to the narrative. The Panchatantra is the most important work in this style. The sententious element reached its height in the Hitopadesa, which was derived from the Panchatantra.

Sanskrit literature of the modern period consists mainly of academic exercises. The main body of modern Indian literature is written in various vernacular languages as well as in English.


Translations of many of the important texts of Sanskrit literature are in The Sacred Books of the East, the famous collection edited by M. Müller. See the histories of Sanskrit literature by A. B. Keith (1928) and A. A. Macdonell (1962); H. H. Gowen, A History of Indian Literature (1931, repr. 1968); R. W. Frazer, A Literary History of India (1898, repr. 1970); L. Siegel, Fires of Love, Waters of Peace (1983).

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 3rd to 8th centuries AD). Literary production saw a late bloom in the 11th century before declining after 1100 AD. There are contemporary efforts towards revival, with events like the "All-India Sanskrit Festival" (since 2002) holding composition contests.

Given 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 is of great importance in Indian culture, not unlike that of Greek and Latin in European culture.

The Vedas

Composed between approximately 1500 BC and 600 BC (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, Yajur, Sāma and Atharva, each with a main Samhita and a number of circum-vedic genres, including Brahmanas, Aranyakas,Vedang i.e. Grhyasutras and Shrautasutras and Dharmasutras. The main period of Vedic literary activity falls into ca. the 9th to 7th centuries when the various shakhas (schools) compiled and memorized their respective corpora.

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.

Sutra literature

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

In the Vedanga disciplines of grammar and phonetics, no author had greater influence than with his (ca. 5th century BC). In the tradition of Sutra literature exposing the full grammar of Sanskrit in extreme brevity, Panini's brilliance lies in the nature of his work of a prescriptive generative grammar, involving metarules, transformations and recursion. Being prescriptive for all later grammatical works, such as Patanjali's , 's grammar effectively fixed the grammar of Classical Sanskrit. The Backus-Naur Form or BNF grammars used to describe modern programming languages have significant similarities with Panini's grammar rules.

See also: Shulba Sutras, Kalpa Sutras, Dharma Sutras; Shastras are commentaries on Sutras.

The Epics

The period between approximately the 6th to 1st centuries BC saw the composition and redaction of the two great epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, with subsequent redaction progressing down to the 4th century AD. They are known as itihasa, or "that which occurred".

The 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 tracts.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 India and Hinduism cannot be stressed enough. Having been molded by Indian culture, it has in turn molded the development of Indian culture. Thousands of later writers would draw freely from the story and sub-stories of the Mahabharata.

The Ramayana

While not as big as the Mahabharata, the Ramayana is still twice as big as the Iliad and Odyssey put together. Traditionally, the authorship is attribued to the Hindu sage who is referred to as Adikavi, or "first poet." Valmiki in Ramayana introduced the Anushtubh meter for the first time. Akin to the Mahabharata, the Ramayana is also 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 even contains a description of the same marriage practice still observed in contemporary times by people of Hindu persuasion.

The story deals with 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 similar and equally important role in the development of Indian culture as the Mahabharata.

The Ramayana is also extant in Ramayana: Southeast Asian versions

Classical Sanskrit Literature

The classical period of Sanskrit literature dates to the Gupta period and the successive pre-Islamic Middle kingdoms of India, spanning roughly the 3rd to 8th centuries CE.


Drama as a distinct genre of Sanskrit literature emerges in the final centuries BC, influenced partly by Vedic mythology and partly by Hellenistic drama. It reaches its peak between the 4th and 7th centuries before declining together with Sanskrit literature as a whole.

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

One of the earliest known Sanskrit plays is the Mrichakatika, thought to have been composed by Śhudraka in the 2nd century BC. The Natya Shastra (ca. 2nd century AD, literally "Scripture of Dance," though it sometimes translated as "Science of Theatre'") is a keystone work in Sanskrit literature on the subject of stagecraft. Bhasa and Kalidasa are major early authors of the first centuries AD, Kalidasa qualifying easily as the greatest poet and playwright in Sanskrit He 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 6th century) dramatists include Dandi and Sri Harsha. The only surviving ancient Sanskrit drama theatre is Koodiyattam. Which is being preserved in Kerala by the Chakyar community.

Scholarly treatises

The earliest surviving treatise on astrology is the Yavanajataka "sayings of the Greeks" (3rd century). Classical Hindu astrology is based on early medieval compilations, notably the and Sārāvalī (7th to 8th century). The earliest surviving treatise on (non-divinatory) Indian astronomy predates the Yavanajataka: the Vedanga Jyotisha of Ladaga documents the state of in the Maurya period. The astronomy of the classical Gupta period, the centuries following Indo-Greek contact, is documented in treatises known as Siddhantas (which means "established conclusions" ). Varahamihira in his Pancha-Siddhantika contrasts five of these: The Surya Siddhanta besides the Paitamaha Siddhantas (which is more similar to the "classical" Vedanga Jyotisha), the Paulisha and Romaka Siddhantas (directly based on Hellenistic astronomy) and the Vasishta Siddhanta.

The earliest treatise in Indian mathematics is the (written ca. 500 CE), a work on astronomy and mathematics. The mathematical portion of the was composed of 33 sūtras (in verse form) consisting of mathematical statements or rules, but without any proofs. However, according to , "this does not necessarily mean that their authors did not prove them. It was probably a matter of style of exposition." From the time of Bhaskara I (600 CE onwards), prose commentaries increasingly began to include some derivations (upapatti).

"Tantra" is a general term for a scientific, magical or mystical treatise and mystical texts both Hindu and Buddhist said to concern themselves with five subjects, 1. the creation, 2. the destruction of the world, 3. the worship of the gods, 4. the attainment of all objects, 5. the four modes of union with the supreme spirit by meditation. These texts date to the entire lifespan of Classical Sanskrit literature.

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

Classical Poetry

This refers to the poetry produced from the approximately the 3rd to 8th centuries. Kalidasa is the foremost example of a classical poet.

Great poets are great poets everywhere because their language is beautiful without being recherché, whatever language they work with. In this sense, Kalidasa is not second to, say, Shakespeare or Kavafis.

But a striking characteristic of Indian literary tradition is that sometimes poets show off their technical dexterity with highly Oulipian word-games, like stanzas that read the same backwards and forwards, words that can be split in different ways to produce different meanings, sophisticated metaphors, and so on. This style is referred to as kavya. A classic example is the poet Bharavi and his magnum opus, the Kiratarjuniya (6th-7th century).

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

Some would include the Bhattikavya as a seventh Mahakavya.

Other major literary works from this period are Kadambari by Bana Bhatta, the first Sanskrit novelist (6th-7th centuries), the Kama Sutra by Vatsyayana, and the shatakas of .


The corpus of the Hindu Puranas likewise falls into the classical period of Sanskrit literature, dating to between the 5th and 10th 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 ("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 11th century include the Katha-sarit-sagara and the Geeta Govinda.

The Katha-sarita-sagara (An Ocean of Stories) by Somadeva was an 11th century poetic adaptation in Sanskrit of Brihat-katha, written in the 5th century BC 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 11th century, the use of Sanskrit for general literature declined, most importantly because of the emergence of literature in vernacular Indian languages (notably Hindi, Marathi, Kannada, and Telugu). Sanskrit continued to be used, 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.

Attempts at revival of Sanskrit have been undertaken in the Republic of India since its foundation in 1947.


Further reading

  • Arthur A. MacDonell, A History of Sanskrit Literature, New York 1900
  • Winternitz, M. A History of Indian Literature. Oriental books, New Delhi, 1927 (1907)
  • J. Gonda (ed.) A History of Indian Literature, Otto Harrasowitz, Wiesbaden.

See also

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