Sanskrit literature

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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 VedaVeda
[Sanskrit,=knowledge, cognate with English wit, from a root meaning know], oldest scriptures of Hinduism and the most ancient religious texts in an Indo-European language.
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, 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 VedantaVedanta
, one of the six classical systems of Indian philosophy. The term "Vedanta" has the literal meaning "the end of the Veda" and refers both to the teaching of the Upanishads, which constitute the last section of the Veda, and to the knowledge of its ultimate meaning.
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). 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 ManuManu
, semilegendary Hindu lawgiver. Traditionally ascribed to him are the Laws of Manu, best known of the Sanskrit smriti texts (see Sanskrit literature). They were compiled, probably between 200 B.C. and A.D.
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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 MahabharataMahabharata
, classical Sanskrit epic of India, probably composed between 200 B.C. and A.D. 200. The Mahabharata, comprising more than 90,000 couplets, usually of 32 syllables, is the longest single poem in world literature.
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, while the oldest and best-known of the artificial epics is the RamayanaRamayana
[story of Rama], classical Sanskrit epic of India, probably composed in the 3d cent. B.C. Based on numerous legends, it is traditionally the work of Valmiki, one of the minor characters.
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. 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 soulstransmigration of souls
or metempsychosis
[Gr.,=change of soul], a belief common to many cultures, in which the soul passes from one body to another, either human, animal, or inanimate.
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 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 literaturePrakrit 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].
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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 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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. Other major dramatists were Bhasa, Harsa, and Bhavabhuti (see Asian dramaAsian drama,
dramatic works produced in the East. Of the three major Asian dramas—Sanskrit, Chinese, Japanese—the oldest is Sanskrit, although the dates of its origin are uncertain.
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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 PanchatantraPanchatantra
[Sanskrit,=five treatises], anonymous collection of animal fables in Sanskrit literature, probably compiled before A.D. 500 (see Bidpai). The work, derived from Buddhistic sources, was intended as a manual for the instruction of sons of the royalty.
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 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).

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

Sanskrit Literature


the aggregate of Indian literature in classical Sanskrit. During the first millennium A.D., Sanskrit literature was the most important literature in India. More broadly, Sanskrit literature has often been understood to include works in Vedic, epic Sanskrit, and the Prakrits. Its significance declined as national literatures were created and new literatures emerged that were common literatures for various peoples of India.

As the joint literary experience of the peoples of India, Sanskrit literature absorbed the folkloric and literary traditions of these peoples. Its earliest representatives were the poet and playwright Ashvaghosha (second century) and the playwright Bhasa (c. fourth century). From the middle and end of the first millennium date many works of world importance, including the dramas of Kalidasa, Bhavabhuti, Sudraka, and Visakhadat-ta; the lyrics of Amaru and Bhartrhari; and the prose of Vasu-bandhu, Bana, and Dandin. There were also folkloric works in literary form, such as Brhatkatha, Panchatantra, Vetala-pancavimshati, and Sukasaptati, as well as satiric farces. Sanskrit literature not only reflected the entire contradiction of the social and cultural development of the peoples of India in antiquity and the early Middle Ages but also combined aristocratic tendencies with democratic tendencies linked to progressive currents of social thought. It also developed a theory of literature and aesthetics; theoreticians included Bhamaha, Ananda-vardhana, and Abhinavagupta.

Sanskrit literature occupies an important place in the history of world literature. Panchatantra, Twenty-five Stories of the Ve-tala, Thirty-two Stories of the King’s Throne, and Seventy Stories Related by the Parrot were assimilated and reworked in the literatures of various peoples, including Europeans. La Fontaine and J. W. von Goethe were among the writers to rework themes from Sanskrit literature. In the mid-17th century the Calvinist missionary A. Rogerius published a Dutch translation of the verses of Bhartrhari together with a short biography of the writer. Sanskrit literature interested J. Herder, G. Forster, and Goethe, who highly regarded its accomplishments and made it accessible to European readers for the first time. F. von Schle-gel, A. von Schlegel, and F. Rückert, all of Germany, made a great contribution to the popularization and scholarly interpretation of Sanskrit literature, as did other representatives of the romantic school. The views of G. W. F. Hegel, F. W. J. von Schelling, and A. Schopenhauer helped crystallize Western opinion on Sanskrit literature. Wider knowledge of the history of India enabled A. Weber of Germany to have a more historical understanding of Sanskrit literature. This understanding was developed in the works of A. Macdonnell, R. Frazer, and A. B. Keith of Great Britain, M. Winternitz and J. Hertel of Germany, and H. von Glasenapp of the Federal Republic of Germany.

The struggle for national independence and the emergence of national consciousness among the peoples of India stimulated the work of Indian scholars in the area of Sanskrit literature. These scholars included R. G. Bhandarkar, S. N. Dasgupta, S. K. De, D. D. Kosambi, and V. Raghavan. An important contribution to the study of Sanskrit literature was made by pre-revolutionary Russian Indology and Indology of the Soviet period.


Serebriakov, I. D. Ocherki drevneindiiskoi literatury. Moscow, 1971.
Windisch, E. Geschichte der Sanskrit—Philologie und Indischen Alterthumskunde, vols. 1–3. Leipzig, 1917–21.
Warder, A. K. Indian Kavya Literature, vol. 1. Delhi, 1972.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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