The following points highlight the seven main forms of literature that flourished in ancient India. The forms are: 1. Sanskrit Kavya 2. Narrative Literature 3. Drama 4. Sanskrit Grammer 5. Pali Literature 6. Prakrit Literature 7. Tamil Literature.
1. Sanskrit Kavya:
Like other countries the epics constitute an important aspect of the Sanskrit literature in India. Two important epics were produced during the ancient times viz. Mahabharata and Ramayana. These epics or long poems originated from the heroic stories sung at the time of great sacrifices during the Vedic age.
It may be noted that these epics were not written at one time by any single author and they were touched and retouched by different writers from time to time. Usually the authorship of Ramayana is assigned to Valmiki and that of Mahabharata to Ved Vyasa.
The Ramayana is known as the Adi Kavya (the earliest narrative poem). It contains 24,000 verses and is divided into seven books. The work deals with the central theme of the conflict between Rama and Ravana in a simple and direct form without indulging in the literary gymnastics so common among later classical writers.
Rama, the hero of Ramayana, has been portrayed as a perfect individual whose irreproachable life in his different roles— as son, husband, brother, friend, king, etc. has served as a model for the people of India for all these ages.
The grandeur of the theme, the delicate literary embellishment, the majestic serenity with which the vicissitudes of the hero are described and the sustained elegance of poetic genius make the Ramayana one of the finest specimens of Kavya literature in Sanskrit literature.
The Mahabharata is the bulkiest epic consisting of I00,000 verses and is divided into 18 paravas (books). This book is usually assigned to Rishi Ved Vyasa, but scholars have expressed doubts if such a voluminous work could have been accomplished by one single person.
Hopkins believes that it was composed by not one person, nor even by one generation, but by several. The epic tells us about the great civil war between the Kurus and Pandavas fought at Kuruksetra, near Delhi. It also contains a large number of other episodes and interpolations.
It is considered as a treasure- house of India’s national tradition, a great encyclopedia of ethics and religion, or politics and morals. The style of Mahabharata is direct and vivid, though it contains many often repeated cliches and stock epithets, which are typical of traditional epic literature everywhere. The chief characters have been delineated in very simple outlines, which makes them look real persons.
Some of the interpolated episodes in Mahabharata are also of considerable merit. Santi Parvan, one of the longest episodes, is a dissertation on statecraft and ethics, though not of much literary value.
“These two Epics not only supplied the later poets with inexhaustible material for an elaborate treatment but the Ramayana, in particular, also furnished them with the models for the ornate style which developed in various ways in their hands. The influence of these two great works on Sanskrit literature in general and on the kavya literature in particular is but too well known.”
Certain specimens of the earliest extent specimens of kavya are found in the Mahabhashya of Patanjali, which is dated about the middle of the second century B.C. Patanjali mentions two dramatic poems—Kamsavadha and Bali-bandhana, which have unfortunately not come down to us. Pingala, a known sage, is credited with Chhandahsutra, in which he deals with both Vedic and classical metres.
Though this work cannot be dated with certainty, it shows that poetical literature had considerably developed even before he wrote this work. It seems improbable that Pingala created the different metres. On the other hand it is more probable that he recorded and defined accurately the various metres already in use in literature.
The earliest Sanskrit poetry which has survived and come down to us is that of the Buddhist writer Asvaghosa, who is believed to be a contemporary of Kanishka and most probably lived in the first century A.D. Of his numerous works, the Buddha Charita and Saundarananda are most popular. The former is a Mahakavya dealing with the life of Buddha from his birth to his triumph over Mara.
The latter describes how the handsome prince Suadara took to the life of a Buddhist monk much against the will and to the grief of his beautiful wife, who loved him dearly. Ashvaghosha was a combination of a great poet and a religious teacher. Therefore he was successful in developing the grand themes in grand style.
His works are also remarkable for the spontaneity and force of his language, poetic charm and realism. He, however, lacked the technical skill and subtlety of the later poets.
Profs. Das Gupta and De have rightly observed, “If his poetry has not the stress and discipline of chiseled beauty, it has the pliability and promise of unrefined form; it has the sincerity and the throb, if pot the perfectly ordered harmony, of full-grown music”.
Another prominent Buddhist poet, who comes not long after Asvaghosha, was Matricheta. He composed Buddhist hymns which resemble the compositions of Ashvaghosha so closely that it is indeed difficult to distinguish between the work of the two.
Taranatha, the famous Tibetan historian, has gone to the extent of suggesting that there was only the poet who bore these names. I-tsing, the famous Chinese pilgrim who visited India in the beginning of the eighth century A.D. is also full of praise for Matricheta and describes him as the nightingale singing the honour due to Buddha.
It may be noted that as in case of Ashvaghosha only certain fragments of the works of Matricheta have come down to us.
The Sanskrit literature produced till this day lacked the natural spontaneity because, as Basham puts: It was mainly written for recitation or performance at court, or for comparatively small circles of literary, all well versed in the rigid canons of the literary convention and highly appreciative of verbal ingenuity.
In such circumstances it would be futile to expect the native wood-notes of a Clare or the natural mysticism of a Wordsworth. The poets lived in comparatively static society, and their lives were controlled in detail by a body of social customs which was already ancient and which had the sanction of religion behind it.
They were never in revolt, against the social system, and Indian Shelley’s and Swinburne’s are lacking. Most of this literature was written by men well integrated in their society and with few of the complex psychological difficulties of the modern writer; hence the spiritual anguish of a Cowper, the heart-searching’s of a Donne, and the social pessimism of an early T.S.Eliot, are almost entirely absent.
The chief subjects of classical poets of Sanskrit were love, nature, panegyric, moralizing and storytelling. As regards the love, the classical poets talk passionately of physical love; they treated nature in relation to man and not for its own sake.
The panegyric element (praise of king and his ancestors) is also found in abundance in their works. Finally almost all the writings indulged in moralizing, which in course of time came to be considered as one of the legitimate alankaras.
The Sanskrit Kavya reaches unsurpassed excellence and height of perfection in the works of Kalidasa. There is lot of controversy amongst scholars regarding the exact period when Kalidasa lived and wrote. While some scholars would like to place him in the second century B.C. others would bring him to the sixth century A.D.
But the most commonly accepted view is that Kalidasa flourished in the reigns of Chandra Gupta II and Kumara Gupta I (376-454 A D.).
According to certain scholars all the works ascribed to Kalidasa were not his creation and they were simply passed under his name. Rajasekhara went to the extent of surmising that there were not less than three Kalidasas preceding him.
Without going into this controversy, most of the people now recognise only one Kalidasa—the Kalidasa who was the author of Abhijnana-sakuntala, Meghaduta, Raghuvamsa. Kumara-sambhava, and Ritu-Samhara, which won him unstinted admiration from the famous European poet Goethe. In addition Kalidasa also wrote other works which have not survived.
The Meghduta (Cloud Messenger), a fascinating little Kavya of a hundred and twenty-one verses, is a lyrical gem of the purest ray serene. This poem possesses a unity and a balance, and gives a sense of wholeness which is rarely found elsewhere. In this small poem Kalidasa has crowded so many lovely images and word-pictures that it seems to contain the quintessence of a whole culture.
As regards the subject of the poem it describes the message of a yaksa who dwells in the divine city of Alaka, in Himalayas and has been separated from his beloved through a curse. He sees a large cloud passing northward to the mountains and pours out his heart to it.
He not only conveys a message of tender love and assurance of union with his wife who is spending her life in sorrow awaiting her husband’s return, but also tells the route which the cloud should follow to reach his wife.
While describing the route Kalidasa describes in beautiful verses the lands, rivers and cities over which the cloud must pass. Commenting on this work of Kalidasa A.B. Keith says, “Indian criticism has ranked Meghaduta highest amongst Kalidasa’s poems for brevity of expression, richness of content and power to elicit sentiment, and the praise is not undeserved.
The Ritusamhara or ‘Cycle of the Seasons’ is another beautiful poem of Kalidasa in which he gives a poetical description of the six seasons of the year and the corresponding moods of the lovers. This artistic association of human emotions with the characteristics of the seasons of the year makes the poem something different from shepherd’s calendar and ranks it among some of the fine specimens of poetic fancy.
According to Macdonell “perhaps no other Sanskrit poem manifests such strikingly deep sympathy with the physical world, keen powers of observation and skill in depicting an Indian landscape in vivid colours”. The Kumarasambhava is another great Kavya of Kalidasa which deals with the theme of the marriage of Uma and Siva.
In this kavya Kalidasa develops the idea that true love is not a mere passing fancy based on physical attraction but is a union of souls sublimated by penance and sacrifice. Uma’s attempts to conquer Siva by the blandishments of her seductive charms failed to win Siva.
It was only when her love was transformed into spiritual devotion through penance, renunciation and devoted worship that the Mahayogi was conquered and assured Uma “From this moment, O drooping maiden, I am thy slave, bought by thy penance”. It also deals with the birth and exploits of their son Kumara of Skanda. The most outstanding quality of this poem is the brilliance of fancy and the warmth of emotions.
The Raghuvansa is yet another Mahakavya, in which Kalidasa narrates the story of the epic hero Rama and his worthy ancestors. This work though incomplete bears a testimony to the versatility of Kalidasa’s talents and excellence of his literary skill.
The above works of Kalidasa bear testimony to the greatness of Kalidasa as a poet. “The material skill, the flashes of effective phrasing, easy and rhythmic flow of verse, his skill in depicting nature and in using similes, the brevity and effectiveness of diction and the sublimity of his concept of beauty mark him off as the most gifted poet of India”.
A number of poets wrote Mahakavyas after Kalidasa and thus continued the tradition set by him. Though their works could not be an improvement over the poetry of Kalidasa they did “weave successive robes of adornment”.
These poets displayed inordinate love for extravagance of diction and imagery. As a result their works Jack spontaneity and naturalness. Their kavyas incorporated so much of digressive matter that the importance of the main theme was greatly reduced. Their works lack the organic unity and appear to be just a collection of poetic pieces.
Soon after Kalidasa, two epic poets—Bharavi and Magha, earned great reputation by their works. Bharavi, the author of Kiratarjuniyam was the first to flourish. The exact date of Bharavi is not known, but it is commonly believed that he won fame as a poet before 634 A.D. because his name appears in the Aihole inscription of that year along with Kalidasa.
Bharavi in his poem running in eighteen books deals with the episode of Arjuna getting a divine weapon from Siva to fight against the Kauravas.
Siva in order to test the hero’s courage takes on the appearance of a half-savage Hillman of the Kirata tribe. The story is of little importance. The chief value of the work lies in the descriptions of nature which are almost equal to Kalidasa’s.
Bharavi draws original images and expresses unexpected thoughts. Thus he says, “The sun inclines eastwards, drunk with the honey which he has drawn with his hands (kara means ‘ray’ and ‘hand’) from the cups of the lotuses of day. The moon is a silver cup which the night brings for the consecration of the King of Love. The golden pollen of the lotus which quivers in the breeze above a group of flowers is the golden parasol which reflects the face of Lakshmi while it shades it”.
The critics have praised Bharavi for his depth of thought, for his command of flawless and stately phrases, the nature grace and polish of diction, and the brilliant and vigorous play of fancy.
Magha was another outstanding poet of the post-Kalidasa period. Most probably he lived in the latter half of the seventh century. In his work Sisupala-vadha he deals with the story of Vishnu’s fight with the demon Sisupala, a well-known theme from Mahabharata.
Though the story is not well told and the poem has no semblance of unity, some of the stanzas are really very fine pieces of Sanskrit poetry. Magha displays complete mastery of language by inserting many stanzas of amazing ingenuity.
According to famous scholars, “Magha outdoes even Bharavi in the art of versification, for he uses twenty-three different metres as against Bharavi’s nineteen he also outdoes him in tricks. Lines which have two meanings, according to the way in which the compound words are divided, lines which have an opposite meaning when read backwards, stanzas in which the syllables are repeated so as to form geometrical figures, and, more extravagant still, the use of only two, consonants in a line are the final achievement of this over-ingenious poetry”.
Certain scholars have expressed the view that Magha combined in him the genius of Kalidasa for using appropriate similes, Bharavi’s profundity of ideas graceful diction. The modern scholars however, are not inclined to accept this view, even though they would rank Magha as a poet of high order.
Some of the less popular writers of Sanskrit kavya, which rendered valuable contributions included Kumaradasa,. Bhaumaka, Amaru, Rajanaka, Sivasvamin, Nitivarman, Mankha, Kaviraja etc. It shall be desirable to refer to their works in brief. Kumaradasa wrote towards the close of the seventh century.
His work Janakiharana in twenty-five cantos treats of Rama’s story. The author displayed great fondness for alliteration and was greatly influenced by Kalidasa. Bhaumaka in his Ravanarjuniya describes the story of Ravana of the Ramayana and Arjuna of Mahabharata by the same verse. His writings clearly display the impact of Bhatti.
Amaru composed superb Sataka, in which he depicted the sentiments of love in different phases and relations between lovers. He is very brief, lucid and elegant. His compositions are considered a lyrical gems in originality and compactness of composition.
Rajanaka Ratnakara Vagisvara wrote one of the biggest Mahakavya in Sanskrit around 850 A. D. This work entitled Haravijaya in fifty cantos deals with the episode of the slaying of demon Andhaka by Siva. Another scholar Sivasvamin, a Buddhist, wrote the epic poem Kapphanabhyadaya towards the close of the ninth century.
This poem in twenty-cantos, narrates how a king of the Deccan who once oppressed the lord of Saravasti was converted to Buddhism. Nitivarman in his Kichaka-vadha in four cantos dealt with the episode of Bhima’s slaying of Kichaka, who offended Draupadi. This work however does not possess much literary merit.
Another important work written around about the middle of the twelfth century was Raghava-pandaviya of Kaviraja. This work, though does not possess much poetic merit, displays the power of the author to tell the tales of Rama and the Pandavas by the same verse with the help of double entendre. No doubt Kaviraja possessed remarkable abilities, but he has not been able to make a full and proper use of them.
In addition to the poetic works referred to above certain works were written in ornate poetic prose. The most prominent amongst them are Harshacharita by Bana Bhat, Vikramanakadevacarita of Bilhana, Rainacharita, Hammira-mahakavya etc. We shall deal with these works in detail under narrative literature.
2. Narrative Literature:
The earliest traces of narrative work in Sanskrit are found in the Arthavada portions of Bralimanas which refer to episodes associated with Pururavas and Urvasi and others. Later the Buddhist work Avadanas or Tales of Great Deeds were also composed in narrative style. These tales deal with the Bodhisattva himself and aimed at inculcating moral ideas and preaching the truth of the doctrine of Karma.
One of the earliest Avadana texts is entitled the Avadanasataka. This was translated into Chinese language in “the first half of the third century A. D. Another collection of such legends is Divyavadana, which has not been dated with certainty as yet.
It is essentially a Hinyana work. The other Buddhist works written in narrative style are Mahavastu (The Book of Great Events) written in the first century A. D., and Lalltna (The Sport of the Buddha) which has not been dated so far.
Sometime in the third of fourth century A. D. Aryasura wrote Jatakamala in narrative form. !t was based on the Jataka stories. Though these works are not of very high literary quality, they show that the narrative literature had come into existence
Another popular collection in narrative form is Punchatantra, a remarkable store-house of fairy tales and beast fables. The authorship and the exact date of its production is ‘not known. It is generally believed that some ingenious author might have given it its present shape after collecting the numerous theories which had been transmitted from generation to generation through oral tradition.
As the title suggests it consists of five parts. These parts deal with Mitra-bheda (separation of friends), Milra-prapti (winning of friends), Sandhi vigraha (war and peace), Labdha-nasa (loss of one’s gains) and Avarikshita Karitva (hasty action).
The story is described in a simple and pleasing prose without any digression or sentimental stuff. Panchatantra has exercised tremendous influence not only on the fable literature of India but also on the fable literature of other countries of the world.
This is evident from the fact that this book has been translated into over fifty-five languages of the world. According to Macdonell “probably no other book except the Bible has been translated into so many languages, certainly no secular book.”
It was only during the Gupta period that a style of ornate prose narrative developed which was quite different from the Pali stories and crime to be known as kavya. The chief writers in this genre were Dandin, Subandhu and Bana. All these writers flourished between sixth and seventh centuries.
Dandin wrote Dasakumaracharitra and Avantisundari Katha in a language which was free from latter-day artificialities. The Dasakumaracharitra, as the title suggests, is an account of the adventures of ten princes. Unfortunately the entire text of the book has not come down u us. But whatever portion is available suggests that it has a charming plot and is written throughout in prose with only a few verses here and there.
According to Dr. Lahiri, As a writer of prose kavya we may note that he occupies the same position in the history of Sanskrit prose literature as Kalidasa does in that of Sanskrit poetry and drama. He is by far the best prose-writer.
His style, simple, easy and at the same time elegant, is free from the artificialities of later prose—although an attempt to exhibit ‘stylistic tricks’ may be seen here and there; but these are few and far between and should be treated as exceptions.
Dandin shows undoubted skill in his use of the language. His prose, both in narration and in speeches is perfectly suited to the theme, and is not too elaborate like that of Subandhu or Bana.
His command over the vocabulary is clearly manifest in the fact that in describing the beauty of a sleeping maiden in two places, he has not repeated a single epithet. Dandin is particularly skillful in the art of characterization. He has, like Bharavi, infused real life into his characters, not only the principal ones but the minor characters as well.
Subandhu was another prose writer of this period. The date of Subandhu is not definitely known, but he is usually placed before Bana, who has referred to his Vasavadatta in one of the introductory verses of Harsha-charita. In Vasavadatta Sabandhu deals with the love of Kandarpaketu, son of king Chintamani and Vasavadatta, beautiful daughter of King Sringarasekhara of Pataliputra, who are unknown to each other.
This story is quite different from the story of Vasavadatta, the daughter of Pradyota and the beloved of Udayana, which has been dealt with by various Sanskrit authors. Probably the plot of Vasavadatta was the product of Subandhu’s inventive genius.
This story is not significant for us, but it enables us to form an idea about the style of Subandhu which is characterised among other things by “long compounds, frequent use of alliteration and hyperbole.
Two most notable Sanskrit kavyas of this period were written by Bana and are entitled Kadambari and Harasha-charita. Bana lived during the later half of the sixth and first half of the seventh century. Bana most probably took the story of Kadambari from the Brihat-katha of Gunadhya, but has introduced important changes in it.
The work deals with the love of Kadambari and Chandrapida as well as Mahasveta with Pundarika. It may be noted that as in case of Subandhu, the interest, of story in Bana is also subordinate. The work is known for the skillful manipulation of the language and descriptive power of the author. He also shows skill at providing a good characterization. All the characters, including the very minor ones look extremely life-like.
Harsha-charita, the other work of Bana, is the only surviving specimen of akhyayika known to us. In the introductory verses Bana refers to the various literary figures which flourished before his times and rendered service of great merit, to various fields of literature.
He also gives full account of himself and his family as well the circumstances under which he undertook this work. According to Basham this work “gives us a gragment of autobiography, unparalleled in Sanskrit literature”.
Baua gives us an account of the events leading to Harsha’s rise to power with great authenticity, although there is an element of exaggeration present in it. Of the two works of Bana, Kadambari enjoys a place of honour in Sanskrit literature. It displays in full Bana’s “wealth of observation, fullness of imagery and keenness of sympathy”. These two works have won for Bana an important position as a writer of Sanskrit prose.
After Bana a number of prose romances and historical works were produced, but they, do not possess much literary importance. Some of the works produced in the post-Bana period include Navasahasanka-Charita by Padamagupta written in the first half of the eleventh century A.D. It deals with the life of Sindhuraja of Dhara, the Paramara ruler.
Bilhana write Vikramankadevacharita in the’ later half of the eleventh century, which deals with the reign of Chalukya Vikramaditya VI of Kalyana. This work also suffers from the defect of exaggeration in so far it omits the unsavory deeds and glorifies the good deeds of the king.
However Bilhana shows his merit as a poet, particularly in his descriptive powers. Kalhana, the author of famous Rajtarangini, was another great writer of history in Sanskrit He wrote in the beginning of the twelfth century and has provided us with the history of Kashmir kings up to the beginning of the twelfth century.
In addition a number of books on the art of love-making were also written, the most well known of all these being Vatsayana’s Kama sutra. A number of philosophical and religious works like Arthasastra and Mokshasastra were also written.
Thus we find a sort of continuity in the development of the Sanskrit literature. If we find certain gaps here and there, we should not assume that the literary activities were suspended during that period. It only shows that certain works were produced during this period which have not come down to us. However, we can presume that the works which have been lost to us were of no mean merit.
Another field in which Sanskrit literature found expression was drama. Certain scholars have expressed the opinion that there was no Sanskrit Drama before the advent of the Greeks. They refer to the use of Yavanika for curtain and certain other un-Indian features in the Mrichchhakatika and draw the conclusion that the Indian drama had Greek origin.
However, this view is not acceptable to the modern scholars and they have traced the origin of the Sanskrit dramas to the Vedic times. It is now held for certain that dramatic performances of some kind were given in the Vedic period, because the early sources refer to the enaction of religious legends in dance and mime on the occasions of festivals.
For example MacDonell holds that the development of Indian drama was most probably due to the coalescence of recited epic legend and pantomimic art. In the Ramayana and Mahabharata also we get many references to the Natakas or dramas.
A full-fledged treatise on the Art of Theatre (Natyasastra) was written in the third century, which suggests that a considerable progress had taken in this art by that time.
The theory of the Greek origin of drama is further disproved by certain distinct characteristics of the Indian drama viz. employment of different dialects, mixed use of prose and lyrics, simplicity of the stage, large number of characters, leisurely development of plot, indifference to the tripple unity of action, time and place, and the complete absence of tragedies etc.
The earliest known drama of India which has come down to us in fragments; discovered from the desert sands of Central Asia, was the play written by Asvaghosa. Asvaghosa, according to the Buddhist traditions lived at the court of Kanishka.
The fragments of his work reveal that the drama at that stage was quite perfect and must have had a long history behind it. The oldest complete plays which have come down to us are attributed to Bhasa, who flourished earlier than Kalidasa.
However, certain scholars are not prepared to accept this view. Thirteen of his plays have fallen into our hands which bear a testimony to his greatness as a dramatist. Amongst the most prominent of his dramas are Svapnavasavadatta (The Dream of Vasvadatta), Pancharatra (Five Nights), Pratimanataka (The Flay of the Image) and Pratijnayaugandharayana (Yaugandharayana’s vows).
In addition to this Bhasa also wrote a number of short dramas based on epic stories. In his dramas Bhasa portrays heroic sentiments with great skill and individualizes the character. He did not bother about the rules of dramatic-theory which became popular later that the acts of violence should not be performed on the stage.
His drama Pancharatra deals with an episode in the war of Pandavas to recover their kingdom, which cannot be justified by the present day theory of drama.
Bhasa’s unfinished play Charudatta formed the central theme of the drama Mrichchhakatika or ‘Little Clay Cart’ written by Sudraka, who probably belonged to the third century A.D. We do not know much about Sudraka except that he is mentioned by an eighth century theorist named Vamana.
However it is generally believed that he was a dramatist of daring originality who strayed away from the conventional path and drew his inspiration from different phases of contemporary life. He drew his characters from all classes, from the highest cultivated merchants down to mendicant, gamblers, rogues, courtesans and idlers.
The main theme of Mrichchhakatika is the love of a noble Brahmin merchant Charudatta, for a devoted and beautiful courtesan Vasanthasena. Vasanthasena is shown prepared .0 face death rather than be unfaithful to her lover. Sudraka has skillfully blended a political plot in the theme. According to this plot Aryaka, a friend of the hero, overthrows the tyrannical ruler, Palaka.
All this provides the author with ample scope to present with biting satire and moving pathos a transcript from real life, with all its nobility and depravity. Sylvain Levi has compared Sudraka with Corneille, and says ‘ Both, in bringing politics on to the stage, have had the happily-inspired courage to choose the sentiment of admiration as the mainspring of drama.”
As in the case of epic and lyrical poetry, in the case of Drama also Kalidasa made most significant contributions. “The fertility of his creative fancy, his dexterity in expressing tender sentiments with ease, deep sympathy with nature, a rare moderation and admirable sense of proportion have earned for him a high place among the dramatists of the world.
Only three plays of Kalidasa have survived— Malavikagnimitra, Vikramorvasiya and Abhijananasakuntola (Recognition of Sakuntala). In the first play he describes a petty intrigue of the harem (zanana).
This play is set in the Sunga period, the Malavikagnimitra deals with the ancient story of the love of Pururavas and Urvasi. But the most outstanding play of Kalidasa was Abhijananasakuntola which is counted amongst the best hundred books of the world.
He took the subject from the Mahabharata and perhaps also from Puranas. Appreciating Kalidasa’s Sakuntala Goethe says it “blends together the young year’s blossom and fruits of maturity: it combines heaven and earth in one.” It is a saga of “the development of flower into fruit, of earth into heaven, of matter into spirit.”
Rabindra Nath Tagore says, “In Sakuntala there is one Paradise Lost and another Paradise Regained.” In the earlier stage of her love episode Sakuntala surrenders to Dushyanta under the natural and irresistible impulse of youth. This constituted a triumph of the flesh and led to sad results. But later her love is chastened and elevated into spiritual love, which ultimately results in enduring spiritual union.
No doubt, certain critics have criticised Kalidasa as a dramatist by pointing out that in Sakuntala nothing is explained in the natural course of things. The curse is pronounced by a ‘Sage’ who cannot control himself, and therefore, lacks the first qualification of the stage. The King, though guilty in fact, is fundamentally innocent.
Sakuntala’s misfortune-is immense and unjustified for what we might regard as light conduct in a woman was nothing of the kind in India, where the Gandharva marriage was lawful. It is by mere accident that Sakuntala does not hear the sage calling and afterwards loses the right. Only the faults of the past life can explain what is inexplicable in our trials.
It is true enough that the curse which sets the play in motion is merely ridiculous, and the theme of the ring intolerably hackneyed. “Despite all the criticism it cannot be denied that we do not come across a more poetical work. The verses are simply enchanting.
A.L. Basham says “His (Kalidasa’s) beauties and merits are tarnished by any translation, but few who i in read him, in the original would doubt that, both as a poet and as dramatist, he was one of the great men of the world.”
Visakhadatta, a junior contemporary of Kalidasa wrote the first political drama entitled Mudrarakshasa, which is considered as the best historical drama in Sanskrit literature. It deals with the schemes of the wily Chanakya to foil the plots of Rakshasa, the minister of the last Nandas, to place Chandragupta Maurya on the throne.
The plot is highly complicatel and is worked out with great skill. It is completely free from love element. Another play of Visakhadatta is entitled Devi Chandragupta (The Queen and Chandra Gupta), which exists only in fragments. It deals with the story of the rise to power of Chandragupta II.
Harshavardhana of Kanauj is also credited with three dramas. It is said that he wrote these dramas after thirty-seven years of hard conquest. Certain scholars have expressed the opinion that these dramas were actually net written by Harsha, and he simply appended his names to them.
We need not go into this controversy and try to make an assessment of his dramas. The three dramas attributed to Harsha are Ratnavali, Priyadarsika and Nagananda. The first two dramas named after their heroines are charming harem comedies. Ratnavali is a story of the love of princess of Ceylon, who is forced to take as attendant of Vasavadatta the Queen, and ultimately wins over the king.
This secret love of the heroine is discovered when a monkey escaping from its cage causes disorder. The story of the Priyadarsika is also a romantic comedy set in the harem. The Nagananda, is a play of religious purport and tells us of the prince Jimutavahana, who presents his own body to put a stop to the sacrifice of snakes to the divine Garuda.
Ultimately Jimutavahana (the bodhisattva) is restored to life by Gauri. In these plays Harshavardhana shows himself as master of a forceful style and soaring poetic fancy. He shows the genius to embellish even commonplace themes with artistic charm and delicate workmanship.
He also introduced the device of a drama within drama (Garbha nataka). In the whole range of Sanskrit literature only Bhavabhuti in his Uttara Ramacharita and Rajasekhara in the Balaramayana used this technique.
Mahendraviaramakarman, the famous Pallava king and a contemporary of Harshavardhan also left a one-act play entitled Mattavilasa, which treats of a drunken Saivite ascetic who loses the skull which he uses as a begging bowl and accuses a Buddhist monk of stealing it. It contains beautiful satirical dialogues and throws a flood of light on the life of the times.
Bhavabhuti, who flourished in the eighth century A. D. ranks with Kalidasa as a dramatist. It has been said that while Kalidasa suggests feelings, Bhavabhuti expresses it. He had an unequalled mastery over Sanskrit language and used some of the old words which had become obsolete.
Three dramas of Bhavabhuti are well known viz. Mahaviracharita and Uttara Ramacharita, and Malati-Madhava. The first two plays deal with the story of Rama while the third one is a romantic comedy. Malati and Madhava is, a play in ten acts, which shows the triumph of love over many obstacles.
Certain scholars have tried to bestow the epithet of Indian Shakespeare Certain western scholars like Basham consider Bhavabhuti as a much inferior dramatist than his predecessors because his plots are weakly constructed and his characters lack individuality. But even they admire his deep understanding of sorrow. In his treatment of the pathetic and the terrible he perhaps excells Kalidasa.
Similarly it has to be admitted that his dramas were not meant for the ordinary audience, who could hardly understand his long and compound words. His works were meant chiefly for an audience of conoisseurs, which were found in the limited circle of highly cultivated men who surrounded the princes of ancient India.
After Bhavabhuti the quality of Sanskrit drama greatly declined. But at least one great Sanskrit dramatist flourished in the eighth century A. D. that is Bhattanarayana.
He wrote Venisamhara, which is considered as one of the earliest and best examples of declamatory drama in Sanskrit language. It contains many passages in picturesque language with moving pathos and frightening horror. All this description is couched in attractive metres.
In the succeeding centuries no doubt numerous plays were written but they were imitative, mediocre and were cast in loose dramatic mould. The originality gave place to form and technical requirements of drama.
Analysing the causes for the decline of drama after Bhavabhuti Prof. Das Gupta says it was due to the ‘patternising tendency of the Indian culture’, which discouraged intellectual adventure in new fields and emphasised the need to impress upon the people the adequacy and soundness of the inherited order of things.
As the dramas were mainly intended for the cultured audience brought up in the court and noble families, the choice of themes was also automatically restricted. Despite all these handicaps, certain outstanding works of drama were produced.
The most prominent amongst them include Anargharaghava by Murari, Salabhanjika by Vriddha, Prabodha Chandrodaya, and the three ‘dramas of Rajasekhara entitled Balaramayana, Balabharata, Karpuramanjari.
4. Sanskrit Grammar:
In the field of Sanskrit grammar also the ancient Indian scholars made remarkable progress. In ancient India grammar was given a prominent place in the world of Sastras and was described as the ‘mouth of the Vedas’. The knowledge of grammar was considered indispensable for the understanding of the Vedas It was considered to be a sure path which led to pure light of God.
While Patanjali eulogized grammar as the most important member of the Vedangas, Bhartrihari raised it to the status of Samriti and Agama. Right from the earliest times much importance was attached to the study of grammar. According to the prevalent custom the Brahmans started the study of the grammar as soon as the sacrament of the ‘holy thread was over”.
It was only when the study of the grammar was complete that they took to the study of the Vedas. The most fundamental work on grammar was Ashtadhyayi of Panini written about 600 B.C. It deals with almost all aspects of Sanskrit literature in about 400 pithy sutras. The grammatical rules laid down by Panini provided to the Sanskrit language a definite and unalterable form.
The Sutras of Panini were completed and elaborated by Katyayana the author of Vartikas in third century, and by Patanjali, the author of Mahabhashya in the second century B.C. Patanjali said that one should pursue the study of Grammar for the supreme object of attaining equality with the Great God. He provided a spiritualistic colour to the speculations of grammar.
According to Patanjali there were two kinds of words —nitya (eternal) and karya (created). The former represents the Supreme Reality and transcends all limitations of time and space. A person who knows the proper use of the words or sabdas according to Patanjali obtains eternal bliss in the next world. He considered it as the highest reward of the life-time pursuit.
Patanjali held that the real form of vach, as opposed to the external sound, is beyond the range of ordinary perception. It requires a good deal of sadhana to have a glimpse of the purest form of speech.
Thus we find that Patanjali tried to emphasise that religious consequence follow from the study of grammar. Even subsequent grammarians like Bhartrihari also placed grammar amongst the religious texts. It is really strange how a science like grammar could be classified as religious literature.
Certain other works on grammar were created by subsequent writers. These include Chandra-Vyakarana composed by the Buddhist author Chandragomin around 600 A.D.; Vakyapadiya by Bhartrihari, who died in 651 A.D.; and Kasikavritti written by Vamana and Jayaditya in the seventh century A.D. The last work on grammar produced in ancient times Ganaratnamahodadhi by Vardhamana, which was written around 1140 A.D.
Prof. Macdonell has observed that “the Sanskrit grammarians of India were the first to analyse word forms, to recognise the difference between root and suffix, to determine the functions of suffixes and on the whole to elaborate a grammatical system so accurate and complete as to be unparalleled in any other country.”
5. Pali Literature:
The Pali language, which is a mixture of several Prakrit dialects, was the language of the common people. It was very close to the speech of the ordinary man and its style was comparatively simple. This language was adopted chiefly by the Buddhist writers.
The Tripithakas (Three Baskets) which are an authoritative compendium of sermons, sayings, legends, philosophical discussions, historical narratives etc. were one of the earliest works produced in this language.
These works reduced in writing what had been transmitted from time to time through oral tradition. The earliest of these three canonical works is Vihaya Pithaka, which deals with the rules of the monistic order. The Sutta Pitaka, deals with the ethical principles of Buddha, while Abhidamma contains metaphysical principles of Buddhism.
The poetical compositions in Pali also include the two interesting anthologies of poems called Theragatha and Therigaiha. These are collections of poems composed by the Buddhist monks and nuns. They are highly philosophical composition and express the spiritual experience of the composers in most moving manner.
These are considered as one of the finest specimens of lyric poetry. The language and style of these poems is much simpler that of courtly Sanskrit literature. The popular songs of the time also seem to have left deep impact on these compositions.
As regards the prose compositions in Pali, the Jatakas are the most outstanding works. The Jatakas contain the stories of the former lives of Buddha. They constitute a very powerful medium of Buddhist propaganda.
They projected the greatness of Buddha to the masses and presented his teachings in an attractive form. But their chief value lies in that they provide us with rich information about the contemporary culture and society.
Amongst the notable Buddhist scholars who wrote in Pali the name of Buddhaghosha is most prominent. He was a scholar with remarkable intellectual fecundity. The most outstanding work of Buddhaghosha was Visuddhimagga. In his work besides presenting a systematic exposition of the teachings of Buddha, the author teaches various ways for attaining purity.
The contributions of Buddhaghosha to Pali literature have been summed by an author thus “Budddhaghosha left behind him in his many works a language rich in its vocabulary, flexible in its use, elegant in structure, often intricate in the verbiage of its constructions and capable of expressing all the ideas that the human mind had then conceived.”
Another prominent scholar who rendered valuable contribution to Pali literature was Asanga, the founder of Yogachara school, “a philosophical movement as powerful and of as widespread influence as that of Plato and Aristotle”.
His younger brother Vasubandhu, was also a great authority on Buddhism. His Abhidharmakosa, a commentary on Buddhism, is considered one of the classic texts of Buddhism. Dingnaga, a disciple of Vasubandhu, was another great controversialist and his logic is compared to that of Aristotle in its originality.
It became very popular in the eastern half of Asia. Another unknown writer wrote Paraniana-Vartika and AlambanaPariksha two outstanding philosophical works on Buddhism.
6. Prakrit Literature:
The Prakrit literature did not make much progress, but certain Jain works were written in this language. Like the Pali language, the Prakrit literature was composed in lengthy stock phrases which are quite irritating to the modern reader.
As A.L.Basham says “Lengthy descriptions of the Tirthankaras, of pious monks, mighty kings, wealthy merchants, prosperous cities etc. occur over and over again, in exactly the same words throughout the canon, and give it a flavour of uninspired dryness. The style is somewhat more ornate than that of the Pali scriptures, and closer to courtly Sanskrit.”
It may be noted that Prakrit flourished side by side with Sanskrit and Pali. While the Sanskrit was the court language and Pali was the vehicle for Buddhist propaganda and education, the Prakrit was used for profane literature.
During the times of Ashoka Prakrit became very popular. It was not only used in administration, but all the inscriptions of Ashoka preaching various laws of dharma were also set in this language. Later on under the Guptas also it continued to flourish. We find a number of inscriptions in Prakrit scattered throughout India which were composed around the fourth century A.D
As regards the literary contributions in Prakrit, the Sapatasataka (The Seven Hundred) of Hala is one of the earliest and most outstanding literary piece of work. It is a collection of self-contained stanzas in the Arya metre. They are known for their conciseness and convey a whole story in just four lines. These verses deal with almost all the aspects of life. While certain verses are comic, others are sad and sentimental.
Similarly while some are frivolous, others speak of great disillusionment and weariness of the world. But the finest lines are those which have been written in the praise of. love or sing the beauty of women. Though this work is usually, assigned to the first century A.D. many of the verses seem to have been contributed at a much later date.
The great economy of words and masterly use of suggestions would indicate that the verses were written for a highly educated literary audience ; but they contain simple and natural descriptions and references to the lives of peasants and the lower classes, which point to the popular influence.
The treatment of the love affairs of country folk reminds us of early Tamil poetry, and suggests that ‘Hala’ may have tapped a widely diffused sources in South Indian folksong.
The Sattasai of Hala exercised tremendous influence “not only on Prakrit authors but on Sanskrit writers, who were rather less frequent in this time when literature in living languages was flourishing. Even late in the eleventh century when the Jain Hemachandra writes a grammar of the Apabhramsa dialect, he composes examples in stanzas modelled on the Sattasai to illustrate his rules. In the seventeenth century, again when the mystic Bihari Lal (1603-1663) sings the loves of Krishna and Radha in Hindi of Mathura, the chief seat of worship of Vishnu, he is inspired, if not directly by the Sattasai at least by imitations of it.”
A number of secular works were composed in Prakrit in subsequent centuries, the most prominent amongst them being Setubandha, a poem describing Rama’s invasion of Ceylon. This work is sometimes wrongly ascribed to Kalidasa.
In the eighth century Vakpati wrote Gaudha-vada (The Slaying of the king of Bengal), a long panegyric, which describes the exploits of Yasovarman, the king of Kanyakubja. In the tenth century Rajasekhara wrote a drama Karpuramanjari, which compares favorably with the Sanskrit literature in content and style.
7. Tamil Literature:
The early history of Tamil language and literature is shrouded in obscurity. According to the popular legends it originated from the beating of the drum of Siva and its first grammar called Agathiam is said to have been written by the great sage Agastya. But the literary history of Tamil goes back to the time of Sangam Age.
However, there is lot of controversy amongst scholars regarding the exact period of the Sangams. According to the common belief it existed between 500 B.C. and 500 A.D. During this period prolific literary activities were carried on and different scholars and literary men made valuable contributions to the various branches of knowledge.
According to the popular tradition there were three Sangams or Academies, which were the centres of Tamil literature. The first Sangam had its seat in Madura, a city which has now been submerged in the Indian ocean. The chief works of this academy were Paripadal, Mudunarai, Mudukurugu, and ,Kalariyavirai.
Most of the celebrated Tamil authors belonged to this academy. It enjoyed so high reputation that even the most eminent poets sought approval or recognition for their works from this academy. “The second Sangam or Academy was situated at Kapatapuram.
The chief works produced by this Sangam include Kali, Kuruhu, Vendali, Viyalamalai, Ahaval, Agattiyam, Tolkappiyam, Mapuranam, Isainunukkam and Badapuranam. Unfortunately all the works of the two Sangams except the Tolkappiyam, have been lost.
This work is a standard treatise on grammar and was composed by Tolkappiar, a disciple of Agastiyar. This work is dated back to the third century, B.C. It not only deals with orthography, etymology, prosody rhetoric etc. but also gives interesting information about the contemporary society and culture. This work continued to inspire the later scholars of Tamil and they wrote numerous commentaries on it.
The third Sangam or Academy had its seat in Northern Madura. The most outstanding literary figures connected with this Sangam were Nakkirar, Iraiyanar, Kapilar, Paranar and Sittalai Sattanar.
They produced numerous works of outstanding literary quality but they have mostly been lost except the few which have come down to us in the form of anthologies like Pattupattu (The Ten Idylls), Ettuthokei (the Eight Collections) and Padinen-kilk-kanakku (The Eighteen minor Didactic Poems).
The ten idylls contain an aggregate of 3,552 lines and provide us with very valuable information regarding the religion, social life, government, commerce, music, dancing, manners, customs, feasts and festivals and daily life of the people. The longest of these poems is Madurai-kanchi, which gives a very vivid picture of the city of, Madura, and its rulers.
The Eight Anthologies (Ettuthokei) consists of a large body of poetic literature. It contains over 2030 poems composed-by more than 200 authors. The Padinen kilk-kanakku (Eighteen minor Didactic Poems) contains minor poems. The most important amongst these is Sacred Kural by Tiruvalluvar.
These minor works were probably used as text-books in the intermediate classes in the Buddhist and Jain medieval universities in Tamil land. The writings of Tiruvalluvar have attained world-wide popularity. His Kural is a literary masterpiece which remains unsurpassed in the brilliance of ideas, brevity of expression, delicacy of sentiment and forceful and artistic language.
It is comprehensive in scope and cosmopolitan in its appeal. It lays down the norms of a cultured life which transcend the limitations of place and time. It has exercised tremendous influence on the life of the Tamils and is considered as a Tamil scripture by the people.
Two epic poems—the Chilappadi-karam and the Manimekhalai were the other outstanding creations in Tamil. The former written by IIango-Adigal, is a tragedy and shows the inexorable working of destiny against Kovalan, the young merchant, who falls in love with the pretty dancer Madhavi and neglects his wife.
Though he is united with his wife the destiny once again plays its role and he is accused of theft and beheaded. The Manimekhalai by Kulavaniagan Sattanar is the sequel of Chilappadikaram and deals with the life of the various characters like Madhavi, Kovalan’s parents, and Kannagi’s parents and friends. This work is particularly known for its philosophical portion.
The other major epics produced in Tamil include Jivakachintamani, Velayapati and Mundalakesi. However the last two epics have been lost. In addition certain minor epics were also produced.
The most prominent of these include Yasodhara Kavyam, Chulamani, Udayana Kavyam, Nagakumara Kavyam and Kilanesi. Though there is lot of controversy regarding the date of composition of Chilappadikaram and Manimekhalai but the most acceptable date is the second century A.D.
Thereafter the Tamil literature suffered an eclipse, for a while. However, with the revival of Bhakti cult in the sixth and the seventh centuries. Splendid pieces of Saivite and Vaishnavite literature were produced during this period.
These works not only exercised stimulating influence on the religious life of the people, but were also remarkable pieces of literature. The first notable Vaishnava saint who composed beautiful songs was Periyalvar.
His songs were addressed to Shri Krishna and from an important part of the devotional poetry of Sri Vaishnavism. Periyalivar’s daughter Andal, was also a poetess of high order. She expresses her divine love in matchless verse with a depth of feeling which is rarely found in such works.
Another prominent Tamil poet was Karikkal Ammiar, who according to the tradition, was a contemporary of Budattalvar and is assigned to the middle of the sixth century. Another interesting poetical composition was Kshetratiruvemba written by Aiyadigal Kadavarkon, a chieftain who resigned his chieftainship and dedicated himself to a religious life.
The most outstanding feature of his composition is that he uses the concluding word or syllable of one verse as the starting word of the following verse.
The works’ of the various Saiva saints were collected into eleven groups by Nambiandar Nambi of Tanjore in the tenth and eleventh centuries under the title Tirumurai. The first seven groups contain the hymns composed by Tirujnana Sambandar, Appar and Sundarar.
The eighth book Tiruvachakam which was composed by Manikkavasakar is considered as sacred as the Upanishads. The ninth group known as TiruIsaippa contains compositions of minor poets. The tenth group contains writings of Tirumular, while the eleventh one contains miscellaneous works of Nakkirar, Nambiandar and others.
Tirumalisai Alvar composed Nanmukha Tiruvandadi and Tiruccanda in which he emphasised his monotheistic faith and spiritual insight. His works have received enormous praise and are regarded as the six Vedangas of Dravida Veda.
He flourished in the eighth century A.D. Two other important literary figures of his time were Tondaradippodi Alvar and Kulasekhara Alvar. The former composed Tiruppalli Eluchi and Tirumoli, which contains moving hymns. The later wrote Perumal Tirumoli, in which he grouped 105 verses.
The period from 850 A.D. to 1300, when the Imperal Cholas ruled, is considered as an outstanding epoch in the history of Tamil literature. During this period a number of writers flourished, the most prominent amongst them being Kamban, O takkuttan, Pugalendi, Sekkilar, Avvai II arid Adiyarkunallar.
The greatest of these writers was without any doubt Kamban, who composed the celebrated Ramayana. This work though based on the great epic of Valmiki, was not merely a translation or adaptation of the same. He shows lot of originality and individuality at a number of places. It is considered as a masterpiece of Tamil literature and a great classic.