Canberra, 5 May 2015

The medieval period in India saw a plethora of literary works produced, which interpreted, debated, disagreed with and explained the concepts of politics and its theories; the veracity of the law of the land, legal nuances, and legalities of decisions; and books that spanned the entire gamut from scholarly poems and prose to scientific writings and medical texts. These cultural and educational activities were not confined to one particular part of the sub-continent but were evident in almost all the major kingdoms. The fact that there was a thriving philosophical thought process in the midst of centuries of conflict and warfare is itself a matter of profound pride and a testimony to the institutional integrity of the rule of the larger dynasties. That political debate and cultural developments were encouraged by all able kings is obvious from the developments that took place across the length and breadth of India in the span of a few centuries.

Political Speculations

A number of commentaries on the Smriti literature is attributed to this period. There were also a particularly well-known series of independent works on Nitisastra, essentially in the form of commentaries by well-known and respected scholars, on the relevance of the political concepts of that were elaborated in ancient texts to contemporary times. A large amount of work was devoted to the discussion of the definition and understanding of what the institution of kingship stood for and the relationship of the ruler with his subjects. At the outset, all duties (dharma) and responsibilities of the king was prescribed, and the performance of individual kings were measured against this rather high basic level. It is important to note here that according to the commentaries even non-Kshatriyas were permitted to become kings, which has been separately stated. They were expected to carry out the same duties as prescribed for Kshatriya kings.

There was active debate regarding the relationship between the king’s responsibility to protect the kingdom and his right or authority to extract payment by levying taxes. This is a circular argument and one viewpoint was that the application of taxes imposed a responsibility to protect on the king. A corollary to this would be the view that anyone who could ‘protect’ the kingdom could automatically levy taxes and be king. This acceptance of the indelible connection between the ability to protect and the right to extract payment would also be the reason for the acceptance of a non-Kshatriya as king. However, analysed in a broader manner it can be seen that the ability to tax and the responsibility to protect are two sides of the same coin. Protection of the people from internal disorders was almost completely based on the ability and the right of the king to enforce punishment on wrong doers.


Sukranitisara is one of the more important political commentaries and is attributed to Sukracharya of legendary fame. It was prepared for the benefit of kings but also covered ‘sadharana’ or general behaviour pattern which was applicable to the normal population. The treatise is based on the concept that the art of governance was not a separate branch of statecraft meant only for the study of kings, but one that must be understood also by the subject people. The king was responsible to secure both the political and social orders. This was one of the the basis for perpetuating the caste system in order to stabilise the society. The commentary emphasises the doctrine of karma and also explains the basis of the king’s authority. The king acquires his power through the practice of prescribed austerities, thereby deriving his authority through a moral ascendancy and based on his own demonstrated karma.

The various functions the king had to undertake were equated to the attributes of the gods like Indra, the Wind, the Sun, Yama, Fire, the Moon, Kubera etc. This was obviously an attempt at elevating the king to a higher plane than that habited by the common people and embodying him with the best of both human and divine attributes. The king was exhorted to stamp his presence during his reign through the exercise of his political authority that had to be carefully cultivated. The security and prosperity of the kingdom was almost completely dependent on the intellectual and moral qualities of the king that were exercised appropriately. Further, the people and the king were mutually supporting entities—the subjects had direct and indirect obligations to the ruler; and the king had responsibilities to be fulfilled towards the people. The crux of the contract was that any severance of this balance would entail chaos in the kingdom.

The treatise emphasises the people’s right to depose a bad ruler, although it is uncertain how such an action was to be initiated and completed. However, the concept is praiseworthy and could be considered the basic concept of democracy at the grass roots. Considering that the people were vested with the power to depose a king, even though instances of its use are difficult to come by, it meant that righteousness was the cardinal quality of a king’s conduct. The fundamental need for the king to be seen as virtuous and honourable also had the added advantage of creating an image of the king being saintly and enhancing the doctrine of divinity that was being propagated.

Legal Institutions

The medieval period saw vigorous development of juristic activities. There already existed a detailed Law of Inheritance in a fairly clear form—the most noteworthy being the particularly forward concept of the widow inheriting all the property of the deceased husband. The Law of Prescription was also very clear, especially on the matter of adverse possession. It stipulated a period of 20 years for immovable property and 10 years for movable property as the minimum period required with the owner not taking any steps to assert his right or ownership over the property for the person to lose the title over the property. [These detailed laws indicate that people resorted to legal solutions in the case of disputes in inheritance, possession etc., of property on a regular basis. The degradation of widows to a sub-human status practiced in the majority of the country was obviously a later-day innovation by the male members of the family.]

The foremost exponents of legal interpretation during the medieval period were Jimutavahana and Vijnanesvara. The two still extant schools of Hindu Law—the Northern and Southern—are based on the work of these two exalted legal experts.

Jimutavahana.  Jimutavahana wrote the legal tome Dayabhaga that covered a wide range of topics, particularly elaborating on the constitution of the court justice system and delineating the different stages of judicial proceedings. He differentiated 18 titles for laws dealing with different areas of human endeavour. Of these, 14 dealt with the aspects of ‘wealth’ and four with himsa, meaning injury. This demarcation could be considered the first clear division between the ‘civil’ and ‘criminal’ justice systems. He further laid down the precedence of manuscripts in their application in court and established the relative importance of different types of evidence. The only flaw in the treatise that he wrote was that he was at times dogmatic in his interpretation of the age-old and traditional Sastras that merely alluded to the issues of ownership in a very broad manner. However, he was authoritative regarding the law of ownership, partition and succession. He also defined stridhana as that which a woman is entitled to give, sell or enjoy independent of the husband, meaning that the husband had no claim or control over it. [In later days, the understanding of the term stridhana has undergone a sea change and in the current modern times considered the price that is laid on the bride and equated with the system of ‘dowry’, a bane in modern Indian society, although it is practised extensively even today.]

Vijnanesvara. The major work of Vijnanesvara is a detailed commentary of the older treatise Yajnavalkyasmriti. He delineated Brahmans from direct involvement in the judicial process, arguing that Brahmans were not appointed but born, whereas the courts were appointed by the king. His greatest contribution was the enforcement of the doctrine that insisted on ‘innocence of the accused till proven guilty’ and the right of the accused, irrespective of his or her position in society, to be defended in court. [This is the first time such a concept of justice was articulated and is remarkable in its clarity regarding the rights of the accused.] His commentary refuted ownership derived purely from the Sastras alone and brought in an understanding of contextual worldly transactions. This is in direct contrast to Jimutavahana’s dogmatic explanations of Sastra-derived ownership tenets. Vijnanesvara’s interpretations of the law are eminently sane and reasonable, even viewed from a modern context, and his explanation of the concept of possession and ownership is perhaps the least complicated of the older texts. He is acclaimed as the pre-eminent expert on civil law of the time, creating his own school of accepted law on the subject.

There were a number of other experts and jurists who together created a great volume of literature that interpreted the application of laid down laws. Most of the writings concentrated on interpretation of earlier texts and commentaries as well as direct commentaries of the Sastras. Overall, the period was one of inquisitiveness in the legal area and it can be presumed that there was positive development in the interpretation as well as application of law for the general public.


The most important developments during this period in the field of literature were—one, the steady decline in Sanskrit literature, drama and poetry; and two, the gradual but perceptible move of classic literature away from the common man. Literary writing started to cater purely to the scholar and the Royal Court, becoming enmeshed in archaic rules of poetics and strict adherence to dramaturgic injunctions. This was particularly noticeable in the dramas written during this period, wherein the language was almost completely different from the one commonly used on a daily basis. They became rigid exercises in the display of literary skill and ingenuity and had no semblance of similarity to common life.

This was the age of disintegrating empires and the rise of small, and at time unviable, kingdoms some of which endeavoured to continue the traditions of the great empires of the past. The kings therefore encouraged Sanskrit, which resulted in a reduced but regular literary output. However, they were stereotyped, laboured, and lacking in originality and vigour. Most of them were scholastic elaborations, high on technical skill but without the common human touch essential to make a drama appeal to the common people. Under these circumstances, decline in literary pursuits was inevitable.

‘Practically all branches of literature are well represented during this period and their volume is also immense. But there is no life in the whole range of literature. It is imitative, insipid, artificial and laboured, not spontaneous and natural. The creative age was over by the tenth century, and the process of decadence had already set in. No genius or inspired poet or dramatist arose during the period, and there was no originality either in conception or execution.’

M A Mehendale,

Chapter XV, The History and Culture of the Indian People, Volume V, The Struggle for Empire, R C Majumdar (General Ed), p 297.

In modern interpretations of Indian history there is a tangible tendency to place the blame of the cultural and literary decline associated with the medieval period on the Islamic invasion of the sub-continent that was already well advanced in the north-west. This is an incorrect premise. There is no evidence in any of the material available for study to suggest that there was any kind of suppression of art or literature associated with these invasions. Suppression and forced alterations to the culture of the land came at a much later time when the invaders had established themselves as the rulers of the country. The fact is that decadence had already set in within the developments of the fine arts, cultural developments had become lethargic, and literature was already on its death bed.

The blind imposition of rigid rules stifled free-flowing and imaginative writing and directly encouraged imitative writing. Poetry, for example, became artificial, unimaginative, lofty and exclusive to the detriment of its popularity. They were composed purely for the enjoyment of an urbane and sophisticated audience. Their uniformity made them monotonous and above all, they were out of touch with common realities, making it extremely difficult for any poet to become celebrated by the people. The general conditions, of the state as well as that of literary developments, were not conducive to nurturing a genius of imaginative spirit. It is not surprising that this period did not produce a single literary figure of merit unlike in earlier times. This despite the fact that there were a number of Royal patrons—some of whom themselves were authors and crowned men of letters—willing to support literary activities. The maximum literary contribution came from Kashmir and Gujarat, closely followed by the South and Bengal. The core of India, the Gangetic plains, remained darkly silent.

Study of Grammar

The period saw a number of lexicographers producing a large number of lexicons, some of which were of a poor standard. However, the book by Yadava Prakasa, who is supposed to have been the teacher of the famous Ramanuja, called Vaijayanti written in two parts is considered even more detailed than the famous Amarakosa. There were also a number of important commentaries of the Amarakosa that were penned in the latter half of 11th century. However, after the 9th century there was a progressive decline in the study of grammar and the Chandra school of grammar finally disappeared from India around this time, although it continued to be extensively studied in Tibet and Ceylon.

There were also a number of attempts to simplify the complex grammatical injunctions to make the language more accessible to the laity. In this effort the Ashtadhayi was recast a number of times. Although the simplification process diluted the robustness of the language and literature it did not take root as expected. The Paninian school of grammar continued to evolve and became the mainstay of Sanskrit literature for a long period of time into the future. Once again a gradual decline in standards and a sense of directionless meandering of literature is discernible within the developments in the field of the study of grammar is.

Writings on Medicine

In 11th century Chandrapanidutta in Bengal wrote the Ayurvedadipika that dealt with aspects of Charaka and the Bhanumati that detailed aspects of Susruta, the practice of medicine. He also wrote the authoritative Chikitsasarasamgraha, which is considered an important book that provides a comprehensive history of the development of Indian medicine. It describes in detail the advances made in metallic preparations and their use in medical treatment. Chandrapanidutta was a prolific writer and is also credited with the work Sabdachandrika, a detailed dictionary of vegetables and minerals that could be used in medicine; and Dravyagunasamgraha a book on dietetics.

Salihotra, also written in the 11th century by Bhaja, is an important work in veterinary science. The period also saw a large number of books dealing with the treatment of horses and elephants, which were the mainstay of the army as well as the only modes of quick transportation. The Chikitsamitra written by Mitihana has been positively dated to 1224 and mentions the use of opium and quicksilver in treatment and emphasises the importance of the pulse in making a diagnosis. Writings on medical sciences proliferated and also covered the hypothetical realm of preparations to attain perpetual youth, to become invisible etc. The book called Rasarnava written around 1200 is a prime example of such works.


The earliest text on mathematics of the period is considered to be Trisati by Sridhara written sometime during the 11th century. However, the most important treatises on mathematics are the two chapters titled Lilavati and Bijaganita in the revered Bhaskaracharya’s Sidhantasiromani dated to early 12th century. Lilavati deals with mathematical combinations and is written in the form of a narration to a beautiful lady. Bijaganita is considered the most complete and systematic explanations of the complexities of algebra to this day. Three other chapters of the same book deals with various aspects of astronomy. There were also three other worthy books written on astronomy. However, by the end of 12th century the scientific efforts had become erratic and there was no worthwhile contributions being made. Older texts were being recreated in new guises without much impact and the research and study of futuristic sciences lapsed into non-productivity.


The medieval period saw prolific output in terms of written works and interpretations of existing laws and older texts on politics and cultural aspects. This is a credible achievement considering the political turbulence and uncertainty that straddled this period. Further, the great empires were in decline and disintegrating making it difficult for poets, dramatists, and scientists to concentrate completely on their work in the security of assured patronage. Even though the output was considerable, there was no outstanding work of merit in any of the fields except in medical sciences. Even in the medical sciences, the achievements were more in the field of chronicling past achievements rather than progressing research and treatment.

The judicial field became more defined and legal interpretations took on a robustness that was not prevalent in earlier days. Some of the important judicial commentaries hold true in the broader and more contemporary interpretations of Hindu Law and are still referred to as works of irrefutable authenticity. In the literary field, the period came very close to becoming an unmitigated disaster. Again, the imaginative flights of fantasy became a thing of the past and the writing became stilted, signalling the commencement of a decline that soon went on to become a free fall into mediocrity. There were some important additions to the lexicographic works, although the works tended to be more scholastic than for the use of common people. Overall, when viewed in a holistic manner, it is very obvious that the period of ascendancy of great literature, poetry and dramas has passed. The decline in cultural development paralleled the disintegration of empires and the rise of small kingdoms ruled by petty kings without strategic vision and unable to create the conditions necessary to create and nurture the genius necessary to produce great works of art.

© [Sanu Kainikara] [2015]
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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 Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS)

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