Canberra, 27 December 2013

Language is a term that conveys a meaning much larger than just grammar or philology because it reflects prevalent social convention and learning. The use of language, the capacity to acquire and effectively employ a sophisticated and complex system of communication, is deeply entrenched in human culture. Language is the testament of the ethos and genius of a race, the proof of a culture, and the embodiment of ideas, concepts, and ideals that sets a people apart. It also signifies group identity, social stratification, and human development. Since language is the primary vehicle of human thought, it is intimately connected to the development of culture. It is through language that a culture develops its own individualistic worldview and language also determines how a people, race or culture interacts with another culture and the wider world. In essence, language is one of the fundamental drivers in the development of civilisations.

Like everything else in the human sphere, languages also evolve and diversify with time, and words change meaning from age to age. While this process is vital for the vibrancy of the language as a whole, it also makes it difficult to capture the nuances of their usage in ancient times and that of the changes themselves. Older meanings tend to become indistinct and vanish over the years, much like the humans who used them at some time during the process of evolution of both the language and human being. The older, richer and more abundant a particular language, greater the difficulty in grasping all the nuances of its earlier usages. In addition, the older or classical languages have an intrinsic connection to the religion that it served, influencing and being influenced by religious thought and liturgical requirements that further compound contemporary understanding.

The Vitality of Sanskrit

Sanskrit originated from the same ancestor as the languages of Europe (other than for Finnish, Estonian, Hungarian, Turkish, and Basque), a group of dialects that were native to the Steppes of South Russia before 2000 B.C. Originally called Samskrta Vak, meaning refined speech, Sanskrit (Samskrtam) is a reconstructed Indo-Aryan language, which is the primary liturgical language of Hinduism and also the language of Hindu, Buddhist and Jain philosophy. It has been opined that the term Samskrta may be translated as constructed, refined, adorned, or highly elaborate. Its root is the word sam-skar meaning put together, arrange, compose, or prepare; sam is together (as in the English ‘same’) and kar is ‘do, make’. The language family of Sanskrit is traced upwards to Indo-Aryan, then Indo-Iranian and to Indo-European at the apex. The pre-Classical Sanskrit is known as Vedic Sanskrit with Rig Veda being the oldest known usage, dating back to around 1500 B.C. This makes the Sanskrit of the Rig Veda one of the oldest of the Indo-European languages. Since it originated in the same family as other classical languages, Sanskrit the ancient language of India, shares a number of common traits with them. It is full of words of great poetic beauty that have deep significance and is associated to ideas. However, these words are also extremely difficult, if not impossible, to translate into another language while retaining its spirit and outlook completely. All Classical languages face this complexity and it is not peculiar to Sanskrit alone.

Vedic Sanskrit is the language of the Vedas—a large collection of hymns, Samhitas (incantations), Brahmanas (theology, religio-philosophical discussions) and the Upanishads. It is believed that the Rig Veda, the oldest of the four Vedas, was composed by a number of authors and passed on through an oral tradition over generations before it was reduced to writing in its current form. This is probably the reason for the emphasis on tonic accent in Vedic Sanskrit where all important words have an accented syllable, which is not necessarily stressed but in its intonation there is a rise in the pitch of the voice. This is similar to the recitation of Classic Greek. Vedic Sanskrit was a fine and vigorous language capable of noble expressions. It was also maintained very rigidly because of the need to preserve the purity of the Vedas. It followed that the science of phonetics and grammar was developed to ensure that the fundamentals of the language was preserved. The oldest available text on Sanskrit usage is Yaska’s Nirukta, written around 5th century B.C. following earlier works that have been lost to antiquity.

In the traditional view it is accepted that the Upanishads were the last of the ancient Vedic corpus, after which Vedic Sanskrit gradually evolved into what is today known as Classical Sanskrit. This version follows the grammar written by the scholar Panini, at times with slight deviations considered to be because of the influence of Prakrits or ‘innovations’ in its usage. Scholars of Sanskrit do not consider these innovations as diluting the robustness of the grammar or the purity of the language. The language is rich and luxuriant, while continuing to function within a precise and strict framework. The first grammar, Ashtadyayi (Eight-Chapter Grammar) an essentially prescriptive text written by Panini more than 2600 years ago, is still valid and followed meticulously. Throughout its long history, the growth of Sanskrit has been based on its original root. With Panini’s grammar Sanskrit reached its classical zenith and there were no further noteworthy improvements in its usage.

The Great Grammar of Panini

Panini’s grammar draws on many earlier works that had already recognised the root as the basic element of a word with at least 2000 monosyllabic roots already classified. His grammar stabilised the language. Panini’s fame and that of his monumental work is restricted because of the very specific nature of the work and the narrowness of the specialisation. However, it can be stated without doubt that the Grammar ‘Ashtadyayi’ was one the greatest achievements of any ancient civilisation, which was equalled only sometime in the 19th century A.D.

The work contains over 4000 grammatical rules written in a sort of shorthand that creates a brevity that makes it difficult to follow without an accompanying explanatory commentary. The Sanskrit grammars that followed were purely commentaries on Panini’s work. The most important of these are Mahabhasya (The Great Commentary) written by Patanjali in 2nd century B.C. and Kasika Vriti (The Benares Commentary) written by Jayaditya and Vamana in 7th century A.D.

It is believed that the language came to be called Samskrta, meaning perfected or refined, after the grammar of Panini was fully implemented. This term is opposed to Prakrta or natural meaning that the popular, common-usage dialects developed naturally. The fundamental disadvantage of this situation was that Sanskrit thereafter developed and evolved only within the strict bounds as laid down in the grammar, which was restrictive. Although simpler than Vedic Sanskrit, the language of Panini was still very complicated.

Panini based his grammar of the usage of Sanskrit in North Western parts of India where it was already the lingua franca of the priestly class. In the pre-Gupta period, including during the rule of the Maurya dynasty, Prakrit and not Sanskrit was the court language. It is believed that the Sakas of Ujjain were the first to use Sanskrit and the inscriptions of Rudradaman at Girnar is considered the first written Sanskrit document.  The phonetics of Sanskrit was analysed at this time to a detail that was not to be found in any other language till the 19th century A.D. However, the greatest achievement in the development of Sanskrit was its remarkable alphabet, starting with the vowels and followed by consonants, all of which were scientifically classified. This is in sharp contrast to the somewhat haphazard development of the Roman alphabet. Languages tend to continue to develop as long as they are spoken and written, with the development almost always simplifying complexities of its usage. The rigidity of Panini’s grammar had the unfortunate consequence of curtailing such free development and also encouraging the use of compound words. This trend was also influenced by cross-interaction with Tamil that itself also had a complex structure. The tendency to create complex and long sentences reached an extent wherein Bana, a renowned author who lived in 7th century A.D., wrote a sentence that runs for more than three contemporary printed pages!

Sanskrit is considered more refined than either Latin or Greek. However, there is a prevalent belief or hypothesis that the three languages have a common source of origin and initial development, which was supported by the eminent scholar Sir William Jones in 1784. Irrespective of the debate regarding the root of origin, the science of comparative philology started with the study of Sanskrit by European scholars. In the 19th century a number of German universities were leading the research into Sanskrit not only as a language, but also in order to decipher the age old texts written in the earlier forms of the language. Sanskrit today is dead as a people’s language but still embodies a vitality not found in other classical languages. In fact, Sanskrit had become the language of only the educated classes long before it was reduced to being a dead language. It became dead to the common people through disuse since it was convenient for them to use the simpler and more popular vernaculars on a daily basis. These popular languages in turn developed their own literature and traditions. It was during this interim period, when Sanskrit was still the language of the learned, that Kalidasa wrote his classics. This was also the time that the language spread to South East and Central Asia. Sanskrit dictionaries, more like thesauruses, also emerged during this time with the most famous lexicographer Amarasimha being considered a contemporary of Kalidasa. Around the same time, there also emerged a connection between the written word and philosophy.

Patanjali’s interpretation of Panini’s grammar in 2nd century B.C. revitalised the use of Sanskrit. Although Prakrits were the common usage vernacular, thriving through its adoption by the Buddhist religious order and popular literature, the Brahminical circles and orthodox higher strata of society continued to use Sanskrit. In fact the great epics were not even written in the language of Panini, but in the more rigid and formalised version that functioned as literary expositions. During this period Sanskrit had the advantage of superior regularity and was the language of literary expression, as well as of daily usage by the upper classes. The commoners used a number of dialects that Patanjali termed as Apabhramsas. This division in terms of social class is very obvious in the Ramayana where the divergence between the speech of the Brahman and the imprecise speech of the commoner, although both are in Sanskrit, is very apparent. Further, women and the men of lower class are made to speak in Prakrit. Patanjali divided the language into Bhasa, the Sanskrit spoken by the elite and Apabhramsa, the language of the commoner, although both were interdependent.

Some Sanskrit poetry still form part of the new languages, although they are not readily translatable to foreign languages. The available translations of Sanskrit poetry have been done by scholars of the language who are generally not poets and therefore devoid of the romanticism that surrounds poetry as a genre. Translations of Sanskrit poetry tend to lose the romantic and poetic nuances, while even the beauty, imagination and imagery are missing. No English translation can claim to have the same lilt, romance, and more importantly the vitality of the original. However, the scholarship of Sanskrit is improving in recent times, while at the same time the gap between the scholar of the language and the essential poet is widening.

Sanskrit in ancient India emphasised the importance of the sound produced by voicing a particular word. The writings, both poetry and prose, were oriented towards creating rhythmic and musical sound and therefore the enunciation of each word was considered important. It also required the creation of elaborate rules for the construction of sentences to ensure that the necessary rhythm was maintained. This may have been because education in those days was oral with whole books being committed to memory and handed down from generation to generation. Even today the Vedas are recited according to the ancient rules of enunciation. The language’s vitality can be understood by the fact that even after it has become defunct, it is still more understood in India than was the case with Latin in Europe during Dante’s time.

A large number of root words in Persian and Sanskrit are the same or similar. Therefore Urdu, which is a hybrid of Persian and the relatively modern Indian language of Hindi, contains about 80 per cent of words that can be understood by a person who understands Sanskrit. A number of modern Indian languages originated in, or are derived from, Sanskrit and have commonality of structure, expression and words. These languages—Hindi-Urdu, Bengali, Marathi, Guajarati, Oriya, Assamese, Rajasthani (a variation of Hindi), Punjabi, Sindhi, Pashto, and Kashmiri—are generically grouped under the title Indo-Aryan languages. Even the basic Dravidian languages—Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, and Malayalam—have borrowed and adapted Sanskrit words and today a large percentage of words in these languages are allied to Sanskrit words. There are 15 fundamental modern languages in India—the rest are either dialects, combinations, hill-tongues, or underdeveloped spoken vernaculars—and all of them have different levels of affinity with Sanskrit.

Simple spoken Sanskrit is understandable to anyone who knows any of the Indo-Aryan languages. This has brought about a concept of reviving Sanskrit in its simple version as the common unifying language for India. However, the downside of the continuing relevance of Sanskrit is that the other languages have not developed as well as they would have if this overarching language of great vibrancy had actually become ‘dead’! The modern Indian languages have paid the price of losing out on certain degree of originality. This was further emphasised by the fact that even in medieval times, when these more recent languages were in their infancy, almost all creative work was carried out in Sanskrit while the elite society and intellectuals continued to use the language for daily transactions. Sanskrit today is well recognised and allied to the European classical and modern languages. Even the Slavic languages share a number of common root words with Sanskrit, with Lithuanian having the closest links and commonality to Sanskrit.

[In his famous book, The Discovery of India, Jawaharlal Nehru makes a statement that Hind-Urdu would be the automatic choice as the national language of independent India. This is clearly a biased view regarding a solution to the vexed issue of having a common language that unites the people of India. While there are similarities between all the Indo-Aryan languages and common usage of a number of words with the Dravidian languages of South India, the similarities are superficial. The construction and nuances of the modern Indian languages are such that it will be difficult for a non-Hindi-Urdu speaking/knowing person to be competent in conducting any business in that language. Nehru wrote the book while in prison during the struggle for India’s independence and the sentiment expressed could well have been just an idea of the moment. However, in independent India this vaguely expressed concept has been taken to be sacrosanct with extremely divisive effect.]

Contemporary Sanskrit Usage

The Republic of India includes Sanskrit as one of the 14 languages in the Eighth Schedule of its Constitution. The 2001 Census of India found that 14,135 people listed Sanskrit as their ‘native language’ and there were over 90 newspapers, fortnightlies, magazines and quarterlies that were published in Sanskrit. However, it is in its symbolic usage that Sanskrit stands out amongst other contemporary languages. The mottoes of both Indian and Nepal are Sanskrit slogans as are most of the mottoes of the fighting formations of the Indian military forces. There is some on-going effort in India for the revival of the language with the Central Board of Secondary Education declaring it a third language for optional study. A number of old establishments have been rejuvenated, as well as new Sanskrit Universities instituted after 1947 towards the revival of Sanskrit.


It is believed that ancient Aryan tribesmen used a language closer to Classical Sanskrit than the Vedic version. By the time of the Buddha, the masses spoke a simple language, generally called Prakrits of which several dialects have been identified. Most inscriptions in the pre-Gupta period is written in Prakrit, the most notable ones being the famous Asokan edicts. Prakrits were much simpler than Sanskrit both in sound and grammar and the most important early one was Pali. It is believed that Pali was the vernacular dialect of Pataliputra, the capital of the Great Maurya dynasty, and that Asoka attempted at one stage to make it the language of his entire Empire. If he had succeeded, it would have been the first, and perhaps only, lingua franca of India! Pali, supposed to have been spoken in the Sanchi and Ujjaini regions of Western India, became the language of the Sthaviravadin Buddhists. It is more aligned to Vedic than Classical Sanskrit and continues to be the religious language of the Buddhists in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and South-East Asia.

Another significant Prakrit is Magadhi, the official language of the Maurya Empire, although the far-flung inscriptions of the time show direct influence of local vernaculars. Magadhi under the influence of Western Prakrits evolved into what has been named Ardha-Magadhi or Half-Magadhi and became the language of the Jain religion. It has also produced a sizeable amount of literature. Two other Prakrits of import are Sauraseni, spoken in the western Uttar Pradesh region; and Maharastri, spoken in the north western Deccan. Maharastri was a popular literary language and used extensively in composing lyrical and popular songs of great beauty. Another development was that of Apabhramsa, mentioned earlier, the language in which the poetry of Gujarat and Rajasthan were written. The other Apabhramsa of note is the one used by the Buddhists in the Bengal region and which is considered the ancestor of modern Bengali. The only other Indo-Aryan vernacular of importance is Sinhalese that has a long and distinguished history of its own. Its development is traced back to 2nd century B.C. and its evolution was influenced by the local vernacular and Tamil. However, Sinhalese developed rapidly and independently to become a distinct language, as opposed to a Prakrit, by the early years of A.D.

Dravidian Languages of the South

The languages of the Peninsula, normally referred to as the Dravidian group, is independent of Sanskrit in origin and have distinct characters. They have flourished for centuries and the four major languages—Tamil, Kannada, Telugu, and Malayalam—have distinctive scripts and written literature. Tamil is the oldest of the group and its literature is traced back to the early centuries A.D. There is also a hypothesis, as yet unproven, that these languages are remotely affiliated to the Finno-Ugrian group that include Finnish and Hungarian. If this is proven, it would raise interesting analogies and questions regarding the prehistoric movement of people. While distinctly different to Sanskrit, these languages have been influenced by Sanskrit and the Prakrits, with a large number of words being adopted for them for common usage, while also influencing the development of Sanskrit and Prakrit literature.

Literary Developments

From Humble Beginnings…

The connection between language and literature is indelible and in a cyclical manner each supports and improves the other. In ancient India, the post-Mauryan period was one of great cultural creativity that was the result of two factors. First, there was an inherent need felt by the people to express themselves that resulted in great efforts in that direction. Second, there was a cross fertilisation of ideas from different traditions and cultures brought together by the pan-Indian empire built by the Mauryas. The fusion of indigenous skills and concepts with the traditions developed by Persian, Greek and Central Asian cultures provided an edge to Indian creativity not seen elsewhere, making their products culturally more progressive.

Vedic Literature

The earliest literary works in Indian history are the Vedic works—four Vedas, Brahmanas and the Upanishads. All of them are of high literary merit, especially the hymns of the Rig Veda, but are also dry and monotonous.

The Rig Veda. The oldest of the four Vedas, Rig Veda consists of 1028 hymns, written by different authors across several centuries. The hymns are the products of long tradition and composed within a strict metrical system and literary convention. This and the fact that they are all written in an archaic version of the language gives them a sense of sameness and repetition. The outcome is that the layman with only rudimentary knowledge of the language finds it difficult to understand the hymns completely. Rig Veda is collected into 10 mandalas, or books, with mandalas ii and vii being considered the earliest and attributed to the families of individual seers. Mandala ix, which is considered the latest of the collection, is the extraction of all hymns to the god Soma from all the other mandalas of book. It is believed that mandalas i, viii, and x are later additions, written centuries after the first one was penned down. Some of the hymns have a deep feeling and understanding of nature, particularly the hymns to Ushas, the goddess of dawn, and to Ratri, the ruling deity of night, which are both exceedingly beautiful in their rendition. The Rig Veda also contains a few hymns that are relatively secular in nature.

The later Vedic literature are not of the same quality as the Rig Vedic writings. The Atharva Veda is a monotonous collection of spells and the Yajur Veda has no pretensions to literary exaltedness, being written is straightforward, simple, and in places, prosaic Sanskrit.

Epic Literature

The two primary epics of the Indian/Hindu civilisation—the Mahabharata and the Ramayana—are also the earliest examples of literature conceived and written in a fundamentally secular manner. They were originally simple martial legends of ancient heroes that were worked over by the priestly editors over a period of time, adding embellishments that altered the secular character of the books by increasing the passages that pertain to theology, morals, and statecraft.

The Mahabharata is perhaps the more important of the two and contains 90,000 stanzas of 32 syllables each, making it the longest single poem in the world. The traditional author is believed to have been the sage Vyasa who taught it to his pupil Vaisampayana, who in turn recited it to King Janamejaya, the grandson of Arjuna who was himself one of the major heroes of the epic. The central story is of the great civil war in the kingdom of Kuru with numerous episodes and interpolations that add colour and confusion to the understanding of the primary theme. There is no doubt that these are later additions, especially since the epic was transmitted in the oral tradition in its earlier versions. The written style is vivid but direct, although it contains many clichés and epithets. However, the use of clichés was a typical and common practice in traditional epic literature in all ancient civilisations.

The Ramayana on the other hand is only a quarter of the Mahabharata in length and is very different in style and content. Although it too suffers from later day embellishments, the main body is most certainly the work of a single person, written in a style closer to Classical Sanskrit poetry. The traditional authorship is attributed to the sage Valmiki, who was a contemporary of the main protagonist, Prince Ram. The Ramayana is a work of great artistic merit and contains beautiful descriptive writing, which is lacking in the Mahabharata that is written in a rough and rugged style. The central point in the Ramayana narrative is Ayodhya, the capital of the ancient kingdom of Kosala. There is still disagreement regarding which of the epics came first with the narrative style and language suggesting that the Mahabharata pre-dates the Ramayana. Although the prevalent version of the Mahabharata states the story of Ramayana as an episode, it is believed that the relatively modern writer of this version was aware of the story and added it to the original work. However, in the Hindu mythological chronology Sri Ram is considered an earlier incarnation of Lord Vishnu in relation to Sri Krishna who is a central character in the Mahabharata. The dichotomy has not been satisfactorily solved till now.

Classical Sanskrit Poetry

Classical Sanskrit literature is not well received in the West where it has been variously described as artificial, over-ornate and lacking in true human feeling. Even a number of modern Indian authorities on the subject tend to deride the writings for their artificiality and stilted approach, especially in the descriptive parts of the poems. However, this can be attributed to their Western-oriented education and the influence of European aesthetic standards. It must be remembered that Classical Sanskrit poetry was written for performing in the court and aimed solely at a small circle of literati for their enjoyment. Moreover, the poets themselves lived in a static and ancient society that was closely controlled by social customs and religious injunctions and sanctions. There was no poet who would have even harboured thoughts of rebellion against the societal norms and established system, to have produced free-thinking poems.

The classical poems are courtly literature that mainly describe and discuss love, nature, and the legends of the gods. There are also panegyric poems—ones that were written in the praise of a king and his ancestors, in all probabilities the principal patron of the poet. These poems also double as sources of historic knowledge regarding the structure of ancient India. Majority of the poems are predominantly secular and even the ones that allude to religion are not overtly so in nature, with even gods being depicted in a larger than life, enlarged human form. Love is described as passionate and physical; and nature depicted mainly in terms of its relation to man. Even the seasons and day and night were used to frame human emotions and not portrayed individually for their own merit. Although Hindu thought, and therefore the literature it spawned, were essentially optimistic at the core, the poems also had a certain element of moralising in them. These were common and legitimate to the style and were referred to as alamkars or adornments. The alamkars were important tools for the poets who resorted to similes, metaphors, puns, alliterations and generalisations to convey nuances and improve the richness of the text. Their free use created poems of unusually high floridity. The poems also had humour, which was dry, worldly-wise and very popular.

The accepted technique of writing poetry formed part of the education process and the poems had to be written with a fundamental knowledge of the laid down rules. The poems were purposefully emotive, but elevated consciously to a high aesthetic plane where grief was not felt as grief and love was no longer love. It was also necessary that the emotions being targeted arose from one of the basic rasas (explained in detail in the previous part on Art and Architecture). An important element within the creation of a poem was that of dhvani, or reverberation, brought about through the incantation of words and phrases. This came about in support of the tradition of oral recitation of the poems in princely courts and wealthy households. Further, most of the words had a primary meaning and then undertones and nuanced connotations. An accomplished poet was therefore able to make a carefully chosen word convey more than its bare meaning and thereby create a whole series of emotions from a single verse. This sophistication created the Indian literary philosopher who was the master of poetic appreciation capable of deciphering the emotional nuances of complex poems.

The basic unit of a poem was the stanza which was quantitative, rigidly regulated and grammatically complete in itself. A normal stanza was one of four quarters, each of equal length ranging between eight and 21 syllables, although they did not necessarily have to be rhymed. The more courtly literature consisted of ornate verses strung together with a slender thread of a story with weak plot and construction. The longer poems were usually prolix and shapeless, being just a group of verses. However, the verses themselves were always balanced and succinct. There was also a tradition of single verse poems, much like the Persian rubai or the Japanese tanka, and were immensely popular. They are beautiful, even in translation, and were collected in anthologies that have fortunately survived to this day. The structure of the Sanskrit language is such that it does not lend itself to good translation into a foreign language like English, losing its intricate aesthetic originality. Even when translated into rhythmic prose, it gave only a partial appreciation of the original. Classical Sanskrit poetry has its own special beauties.

The brief extracts here [in the book referred] translated in rhythmic prose give but a faint impression of the rich and closely knit texture of the originals or of the wonderful sonority of the language, which, when well handled, with all the arts of prosody and ornamentation, surely has a splendour unsurpassed by any other language in the world.

A.L. Basham, The Wonder that was India, p.420

The earliest surviving example of Classical Sanskrit poetry is the Buddhacharita composed by the Buddhist writer Asvaghosa who lived in the latter half of 1st century A.D. The work is metrical in style and written in early, simple classical language. However, there is universal agreement amongst scholars that Kalidasa, who lived during the reign of the Gupta dynasty between 350 and 480 A.D., is without doubt the greatest Sanskrit poet of all times. This was also the time when ancient Indian courtly culture was at its zenith. Although Kalidasa left behind some of the best works to come out of ancient India, surprisingly very little information is known regarding his personal life and character. As is always the case, there are later day stories and episodes of debatable veracity that have been circulated regarding the private life of the poet. From the tenor of his poems Kalidasa emerges as a gentle person who understood all the human moods, was sympathetic to sorrow, and loved nature in all its glory. He also seems to have revelled in the pomp and ceremony of the imperial court. His main works that have survived are three dramas (covered in detail under Dramas below), two long poems and two shorter poems. The two longer poems were Kumarasambhava (The Birth of the War-God) and Raghuvansha (Dynasty of Raghu); and the shorter poems Meghaduta (Cloud-Messenger) and Ritusamhara (Garland of the Seasons).

After Kalidasa a number of poets wrote Mahakavyas or epic poetry, the more renowned being—Kumaradasa who wrote Janaki Harana (The Abduction of Sita); Bharavi with Kiratarjuniya (Arjuna and Kirata); Bhatti, who in 7th century A.D. wrote Bhattikavya, the story of Ram; and Magha, also in 7th century A.D. who wrote Sisupalavadha (The Slaying of Sisuspala). Magha’s epic has beautiful verses and stanzas of great ingenuity but the story is so badly told as to make it almost unintelligible. The poem lacks a sense of unity as a whole. This was the beginning of a new trend which became entrenched after Magha. Classical poetry thereafter became vehicles of display for the poets’ verbal ability and the narrative lost its importance almost completely. The best medieval poetry were the single stanza poems of which genre Bhartrahari was the finest. He lived around 7th century A.D. and his stanzas are full of worldly wisdom, dealing with love and renunciation. It is believed that he did not write any longer poems and even if he did, none have survived.

Ancient Drama

The origins of Indian theatre is obscure although it is certain that dramatic performances were known even in Vedic times. There is a distinct possibility that Classical Greek theatre influenced the development of Indian theatre since Greek comedies were performed in the courts of the Greco-Bactrian kings of North West India. There is also an indirect indication of this influence—the curtain behind the stage is even today called Yavanika, a diminutive of the Indian name for the Greeks. The curtain (Yavanika) divided the ranga (stage) from the backstage and there was no curtain between the performing stage and the audience. There were no scenery of properties either. The actors wore costumes that were regulated by convention and did not leave anything to the audiences’ imagination in terms of recognising the character being played. The performance was done through highly developed gestures using the entire body to convey the meaning of the scene being enacted.

The dialogue was in prose but was freely interspersed with verses that were either declaimed or intoned, but never sung. Although the plays contained melodrama and pathos in large measures, convention did not permit the performance of tragedies. Tragic and pathetic scenes were part of the story and displayed as such, but the ending had to be happy, leading to some extremely contrived situations. [The in-built trend in contemporary Bollywood cinema for the actors to burst into spontaneous song to display their emotions and for the ending to be made ‘happy’, with the hero and heroine living happily ever after, is probably a throwback to this ancient and entrenched tradition!] The stories were from earlier sources, or legends of gods and ancient heroes. By convention there were five roles that were unavoidable in all plays—the Sutradhar (narrator) who also doubled as the stage manager; nayak (hero); nayika (heroine); pratinayaka (villain); and vidushaka (jester).

Although Kalidasa also wrote plays, three of which survive to date, by far the most accomplished dramatist was Bhasa, who could have lived before Kalidasa. 13 of Bhasa’a plays of great merit survive today. He also wrote a number of short dramas depicting epic stories in a simple, direct and vigorous style. [His plays are used today as the introduction to the contemporary study of Sanskrit literature.] Other noteworthy ancient dramatists are: Sudaka, who was a contemporary of Kalidasa and wrote Mrchakatika or The Little Clay Cart, which is a realistic story depicting city life and has a large number of minor characters; Visakhadatta a dramatist who depicted politics, lived in 6th century A.D and wrote Mudraraksasa (The Minister’s Signet Ring) obviously based on the scheming activities of Chanakya; and Bhavabhuti who is considered second only to Kalidasa, and lived around 8th century A.D. in Kanya Kubja. Only three of Bhavabhuti’s plays survive and all of them are equally weak in their plots but are acclaimed for their great treatment of sorrow and pathos. The overall quality of Sanskrit plays declined after this and they never again touched the golden status they had enjoyed earlier.

Sanskrit Prose

The earliest prose writings were few narrative episodes in the Brahmanas followed by the Pali Jatakas. During the Gupta period a style of ornate prose, called Kavya, emerged, popularised by the three main writers who lived in 6th-7th century A.D.—Dandin, Subandhu and Bana. Dandin is known for his work Dasakumaracharita, Tales of the Ten Princes, written in comparatively simple prose. The book is secular with a number of humorous stories and well delineated characters, told with comparative realism. Although the book is about the activities of the princes, it also depicts common people like thieves, peasants and prostitutes. The only surviving work of Subandhu is Vasavadatta, named after the heroine of the book and tells of her love for the prince Kandarpaketu. While the narrative does not tell the story clearly and the characters are not clearly defined, it is the epitome of the author’s mastery of the language, demonstrating his ability to create puns and sentences with double entenders. The book is full of ornate descriptions and long sentences linked together by a tenuous thread of narrative. This is in complete contrast to the works of Kalidasa and Dandin who preferred shorter and less involved sentences that conveyed clear meanings. The complexity of its sentences make Subandhu’s book almost impossible to effectively translate and also heralded a different trend in the writing of Sanskrit prose. Bana’s writing style was similar to Subandhu with elaborate descriptions of events and objects, the only difference being that the descriptions in Bana’s work were more accurate and obviously the result of close observation by the author. Two of his works, Harshacharita, The Deeds of Harsha, and Kadambari survive in their entirety today. Embedded in the Harshacharita is an autobiographical fragment of writing that is considered the best such work to have been written in Sanskrit.

The Pali Jataka are fables with talking animals similar to the fables of ancient Greece  and the two could have a common source originating in the Middle East. There is ample proof that ancient Indian folklore influenced developments in the West. The most famous Indian collection of fables the Pancatantra, Five Treatise, was translated to Pahalvi—Middle Persian—in 6th century A.D. and to Syriac and Arabic by 8th century A.D. Subsequently it was translated to Hebrew, Greek and Latin, spreading to Europe. The first English version was published in 1570, being the translation of an Italian translation of the book. There is also conjunctive evidence that some stories of the famed Arabian Nights were also influenced by the Indian fables. The Pancatantra is essentially a book of instructions on niti, dealing with the conduct of one’s life, primarily meant for kings and statesmen to take note.

Pali and Prakrit Literature

Pali was a simpler language much closer to the common man although the literature that developed in the language was generally prosaic and repetitive. Poetry was of a simpler form, descriptive in nature and influenced by popular songs. Prakrit was used mainly in the Jain scriptures and other works in the language are of very limited literary value. The Jain scriptures were mainly lengthy descriptions of the lives of their Tirthankaras, pious monks, and patron kings. The Prakrit poems are of slightly better quality than the prose, the most important being the Sapta Sataka, Seven Hundred, written by Hala, an obscure Satavahana king who ruled in the Deccan around 1st century A.D. This book is a collection of self-contained stanzas of great charm and exceeding beauty.

Tamil Literary Development

Of the four Dravidian languages of South India, Tamil is the least influenced by Sanskrit. Despite the onslaught of Sanskrit and the constant north-south movement of the Aryan peoples, Tamil language continued to develop retaining its independence in technical structure and literature. Ancient Tamil texts provide a great deal of information on the political, social, and cultural developments in the region. The Tamil people had a great intellectual tradition, thought to be between 500 B.C. and 500 A.D. where poets of note from all over gathered and created and recited poems. These gatherings, three in number, came to be called Sangams. No records of the first one exist. From the second Sangam a work called Tolkappiyam survives. This collection provides information about the people, their customs and their relationship with nature. It also describes the prevalent perceptions of ecology and the concept of geographical habitat called tinai and its further administrational divisions.

The bulk of the Tamil literary tradition derives from the third Sangam. Numerous works of the period survive and they provide detailed accounts of all sorts of facts, objects, rituals and other elements of human existence. The three most important works of the period are Pathupattu, Ten Poems/Songs; Ettuthokai, Eight Collections; and Padinenkilkanakku, Eighteen Poems. From the Ettuthokai two poems are of particular value—Purananaru, a description of the life of the Southern people in that period; and Karunthokai, thought to have been compiled in 100 A.D., and consisting of 400 verses of short love poems, composed by 205 individual poets. The eleventh poem of Padinenkilkanakku, called the Kural is of great importance. Consisting of 13 sections of ten couplets each, it is a veritable guide to the art of good and correct living, much followed and quoted even today. The information available from the Sangams indicates a society that was steeped in disparity and inequality but a suffused by a relatively peaceful and relaxed existance, with a harmonious communal atmosphere.


Sanskrit can be considered one of the oldest, at least in terms of known formalised usage, amongst the host of Indo-Aryan languages that are used today. It is certain that the Rig Veda was written around 1500 B.C. if not earlier. From the earliest version of the language, called Vedic Sanskrit, evolved the sophisticated and involved Classical Sanskrit, considered more refined than either Greek or Latin. Panini wrote the best book of grammar in the world regarding the usage of Sanskrit, sometime in the 7th or 6th century B.C., a treatise that did not have an equal anywhere in the world till the 19th century A.D. This book was never bettered over the years, only providing the basis for numerous commentaries and interpretations. The rigidity of the application of Panini’s grammar and the complexity of the language led to the development of colloquial vernaculars that came to be used by the less educated common people. However, Sanskrit is the root for most of the north Indian languages and also influenced the four Dravidian languages of South India.

Sanskrit initially produced the Vedic literature—the Vedas, Brahmanas and Upanishads—and subsequently the two epics. The epics—Mahabharata and Ramayana—together form an important basis of the current practice of Hinduism. Classical Sanskrit poetry, of rare beauty and ingenuity in the usage of the language, was one of the greatest literary achievements in ancient India. The surviving texts are still masterpieces of writing and provide vivid glimpses of the genius of the writers. Of all the poets, numerous in number, Kalidasa who lived during the reign of the Gupta dynasty is considered unparalleled in poetic achievements. Sanskrit also produced drama and normal prose writing, some of great quality and vitality. The rigidity of the structure and the descriptive ornamentation of the writings makes it extremely difficult to translate into European languages without losing the exuberant vitality of the original. Unfortunately, for a number of disparate reasons, Sanskrit is not well-appreciated in a general manner in the West, with only small pockets of erudite study understanding the greatness of the language and the literature that it spawned.

© [Sanu Kainikara] [2013]
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About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Defence Analyst specialising in air power and national security. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

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