This is a very important question for the English Honours students in semester 1 of BBMKU University. These are helpful notes to understand about Classical Indian Literature. If you are weak in understanding these notes, you can watch our video lesson on the YouTube channel “JPathshala“.
What is Indian classical literature?
Indian classical literature refers to the literary works of ancient India that are considered culturally and historically significant. It includes religious texts, epics, poetry, drama, and philosophical treatises written in languages such as Sanskrit, Tamil, and Prakrit. Major examples include the Vedas, Upanishads, Mahabharata, Ramayana, Puranas, and works by renowned poets and philosophers like Kalidasa and Chanakya.
The origins of Indian classical literature
The origins of Indian classical literature are deeply rooted in ancient oral traditions. Initially, these literary works were transmitted orally from generation to generation, with the preservation of knowledge through memorization and recitation. The transition from oral tradition to written form occurred over a considerable period.
Vedic Period (approximately 1500 BCE – 500 BCE): The earliest Indian classical literature is associated with the Vedic period, characterized by the composition of the four Vedas—Rigveda, Samaveda, Yajurveda, and Atharvaveda. These sacred texts, consisting of hymns, rituals, and philosophical discussions, were initially passed down orally by priests and scholars.
Sanskrit Epics and Puranas (circa 500 BCE – 500 CE): The transition to written literature continued with the composition of Sanskrit epics like the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. These monumental works, attributed to Vyasa and Valmiki, respectively, played a pivotal role in shaping the literary landscape. Additionally, Puranas, which are mythological and historical narratives, began to emerge during this period.
Classical Sanskrit Literature (500 CE – 1200 CE): The Classical Sanskrit literature, often associated with the Golden Age of Indian culture, witnessed a flourishing of literary activity. Renowned authors like Kalidasa, Bhasa, and Shudraka contributed significantly to drama, poetry, and other literary forms. Sanskrit became a more standardized written language during this era.
Tamil Sangam Literature (300 BCE – 300 CE): Concurrently, in the southern part of India, the Tamil Sangam literature emerged. The Sangam period produced classical Tamil poetry and prose, reflecting the cultural and social milieu of ancient Tamil society. Much of this early Tamil literature was initially transmitted orally and later written down.
Development of Regional Literary Traditions (post 1200 CE): After the classical period, Indian literature diversified into regional languages such as Kannada, Telugu, Marathi, Bengali, and others. Regional courts and rulers patronized literary works, leading to the creation of rich literary traditions in various languages.
Indian classical literature encompasses a wide range of themes that reflect the cultural, social, philosophical, and religious aspects of the Indian subcontinent. Here are some prominent themes found in Indian classical literature:
- Dharma (Righteous Duty): Dharma is a fundamental theme in Indian classical literature, emphasizing moral and ethical duties. Characters often grapple with dilemmas, and the literature explores the concept of righteous living.
- Karma (Action and Consequences): The idea of karma, the law of cause and effect, is a pervasive theme. Characters’ actions lead to consequences, shaping their destinies, and often reflecting broader cosmic principles.
- Moksha (Spiritual Liberation): Many works delve into the ultimate goal of life, which is spiritual liberation or moksha. This theme explores the paths to enlightenment, self-realization, and liberation from the cycle of birth and death.
- Love and Devotion (Bhakti): Love, both romantic and devotional, is a recurring theme. The literature often explores the divine love between individuals and the higher spiritual devotion towards deities.
- Mythology and Epics: Indian classical literature often draws from mythology and epic narratives. The Mahabharata and Ramayana are foundational epics that explore heroic deeds, moral dilemmas, and cosmic struggles.
- Nature and Cosmos: The beauty of nature and the cosmic order are celebrated in many classical works. Poetic descriptions of landscapes, seasons, and celestial phenomena contribute to the literary richness.
- Philosophical Inquiry: Indian classical literature is known for its philosophical depth. Dialogues and discourses within texts explore diverse philosophical schools of thought, such as Vedanta, Nyaya, Sankhya, and Mimamsa.
- Social Critique: Some works provide a critique of societal norms, hierarchies, and injustices. Plays, poetry, and philosophical treatises often comment on the challenges faced by different social strata.
- Heroism: Epics and heroic poems celebrate valor, courage, and the triumph of good over evil. Heroes are often portrayed as embodiments of virtue and righteousness.
The linguistic diversity of Indian classical literature is as vast and vibrant as the country itself. From the ancient Sanskrit epics to the modern regional masterpieces, India’s literary landscape is a tapestry woven with threads of numerous languages, each adding its unique hue and texture.
Sanskrit: Sanskrit, the oldest Indo-Aryan language, holds a place of paramount importance in Indian classical literature. Considered the “language of the Gods,” it was the medium for monumental works like the Mahabharata and Ramayana, as well as philosophical treatises like the Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita. These epics, with their intricate plots, vivid characters, and profound philosophical insights, have transcended time and language barriers, influencing countless literary traditions around the world.
Dravidian Languages: While Sanskrit dominated the north, the Dravidian languages of South India carved their niche in classical literature. Tamil, the oldest of the Dravidian languages, boasts a rich literary heritage dating back to the 3rd century BCE. The epic poem Silappadikaram, with its lyrical beauty and poignant story of star-crossed lovers, is considered a cornerstone of Tamil literature. Other Dravidian languages like Kannada, Malayalam, and Telugu also have their vibrant literary traditions, each with its unique style and themes.
Prakrits: Alongside Sanskrit and the Dravidian languages, the Prakrits, a group of Middle Indo-Aryan languages, played a significant role in shaping Indian classical literature. Pali, a Prakrit language, was chosen by the Buddha to spread his teachings, giving rise to a rich body of Buddhist literature. Ashoka’s edicts, inscribed on pillars and caves throughout India, are another notable example of Prakrit literature, offering valuable insights into the social and political life of ancient India.
Regional Languages: With the decline of Sanskrit and Prakrit, regional languages emerged as the primary vehicles for literary expression. Hindi, Bengali, Marathi, Urdu, Punjabi, Gujarati, Malayalam, and many others, each developed their distinct literary traditions. These regional languages brought the voices of the common people to the forefront, exploring themes of everyday life, love, loss, social injustice, and the human condition.
Major works and authors
Indian classical literature has been shaped by many talented authors over the centuries. One of the earliest and most important works is the Vedas, ancient religious texts. Another significant author is Kalidasa, known for his poetic works like “Shakuntala” and “Meghaduta.” In the realm of epics, Valmiki’s “Ramayana” and Vyasa’s “Mahabharata” stand out. The Bhagavad Gita, part of the Mahabharata, is a philosophical dialogue that’s also highly regarded. Sanskrit literature has seen great poets like Bhasa and playwrights like Kalidasa. Tamil literature, particularly Sangam poetry, is another rich tradition with authors like Thiruvalluvar. Overall, Indian classical literature is diverse and encompasses various genres, including poetry, drama, and philosophical works.