Prakrit literature

Prakrit literature.

By the 6th cent. B.C. the people of India were speaking and writing languages that were much simpler than classical Sanskrit. These vernacular forms, of which there were several, are called the Prakrits [Skt.,=natural]. One very important and early Prakrit was Pali (see Pali canonPali canon
, sacred literature of Buddhism. The texts in the Pali canon are the earliest Buddhist sources, and for Theravada Buddhists, who claim to conserve the original teachings of the Buddha, they are still the most authoritative sacred texts.
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), which became the language of the Buddhists. However, most of the literature generally called Prakrit is devoted to JainismJainism
[i.e., the religion of Jina], religious system of India practiced by about 5,000,000 persons. Jainism, Ajivika, and Buddhism arose in the 6th cent. B.C. as protests against the overdeveloped ritualism of Hinduism, particularly its sacrificial cults, and the authority of
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. The sacred texts (Siddhanta or Agama) of the two main sects of the Jains employed three types of Prakrit. The oldest sutras of the Svetambara sect are written in Ardha-Magadhi, while later books are in Maharastri. The Svetambara canon, written in verse and prose, received its final form in A.D. 454. The sacred books of the Digambara sect are written in Savraseni. An important source of knowledge of Prakrit is the Sanskrit drama. KalidasaKalidasa
, fl. 5th cent.?, Indian dramatist and poet. He is regarded as the greatest figure in classical Sanskrit literature. Except that he was retained by the Gupta court, no facts concerning his life are known.
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 is included among many dramatists, who, in order to obtain a realistic effect, had the common people in their plays speak in Prakrit. See Sanskrit literatureSanskrit literature,
literary works written in Sanskrit constituting the main body of the classical literature of India. Introduction

The literature is divided into two main periods—the Vedic (c.1500–c.200 B.C.
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See M. Winternitz, A History of Indian Literature (2 vol., tr. 1927–33, repr. 1971).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Prakrit Literature


the aggregate of various types of literary works written in the Prakrits in ancient and medieval India. Prakrit literature usually also includes literary works in Apabhramsa and Avahattha, more recent language forms. Pali literature is represented mainly by the Buddhist canon; the literature made widespread use of a number of different folkloric genres in attempting to fulfill its preaching mission. This is especially evident in the Jataka, a collection of Pali narrative genres, and the monastic lyric poetry of the Theragatha and Therigatha anthologies.

More diverse in ideas, artistry, and genres is Maharashtri literature, which preserved rich lyric poetry closely linked to folklore (the Sattasai of Hala, the Vajjalagga of Jayavallabha), narrative folklore literature (the cycle of legends about Muladeva), satire (the Dhurtakhyana of Haribhadra), and works of great epic genres often associated with the preaching of Jainism.

Social motifs (the Yasastilakacampumahakavyam of Somadeva) and even the experience of social Utopia (the Mahapurana of Puspadanta) found expression in these works. Biographical novels and hagiographic genres became highly developed in Maharashtri; an example is the Vasudevhindi collection of narrative folkloric works.

Although evidence concerning literature in other Prakrits is quite authoritative, only certain texts have been preserved. Ardhamagadhi is represented mainly by canonical works of Jainism, and there is no secular literature in Sauraseni and Magadhi. The literary theorists Dandin and Ruyyaka and many authors, including Bana, point to the exceptional artistic merit of Gunadhya’s Brhatkatha, an epic written in Paisaci. It has survived to the present time only in three Sanskrit versions, by which one can judge the structure and typical features of Paisaci literature.

An important place in Prakrit literature is occupied by texts in different Apabhramsa, from which several of the modern Indic languages subsequently developed. During the years of independence, many texts in the Prakrits, Apabhramsa, and Avahattha became popular and were published, including the Sandeshrasak of Addahman Multani (c. ninth-tenth centuries), a narrative poem notable for its national character, lyricism, and synthesis of folkloric and literary traditions.

In the history of Indian literature, Prakrit literature long played the role of a substratum. On this substratum grew Sanskrit literature, which in turn influenced literature in the Prakrits, Apabhramsa, and Avahattha.


Kochar, H. Apabhrams-sahitya. Delhi, 1957.
Sankrtyayan, R. Pali sahitya ka itihas. Lucknow, 1963.
Katre, S. M. Prakrit Languages and Their Contribution to Indian Culture. Poona, 1964.
Shastri, N. Prakrta bhasha aura sahitya ka alocanatmaka itihasa. Varanasi, 1968.
Warder, A. K. Indian Kavya Literature, Delhi-Patna-Varanasi, 1972.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
He further argues that the poems have Prakrit counterparts, and that they can actually belong to genres of Prakrit literature. In this way, he suggests that almost everything that has been written about this literature is mistaken.
There are naturally similarities between old Tamil and Prakrit literatures, as they both draw on folk ideas and themes that must be very old.
available here" (ibid.), and is not at the expense of other non-Jaina Prakrit literature, such as the dramatic Prakrits (both independent and as part of Sanskrit dramas) and the Prakrit kavyas.
The pioneering European scholars of Jainism focused on the early Prakrit literatures, especially the Svetambara literature in Ardha-Magadhi and Maharastri.