India, Literature of

Much of what is called "Indian literature" refers to literature of the geographic area that includes today's countries of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. This entire region was known as India until 1947, when it was divided into two nations, India and Pakistan. Bangladesh separated from Pakistan in 1971.

The constitution of modern India recognizes 15 official languages, and many more are spoken throughout the country. Sanskrit, the most ancient language of India, is spoken by relatively few people today. However, most modern Indian languages come from Sanskrit, just as the modern European languages French, Italian, and Spanish developed from Latin. The languages that developed from Sanskrit are spoken mainly in northern India. The languages spoken in the south belong to a different language family, called Dravidian.

Another language, Urdu, developed in the 1500's as a result of contact with Persian-speaking Muslims. Urdu is similar to Hindi, a language of northern India, but contains many Persian and Arabic words. English is spoken throughout India, mostly as a second language, by a small number of people.

Each of these languages and language groups has its own literary tradition. Much of what is considered classical Indian literature was written in Sanskrit or in Tamil, a Dravidian language. After A.D. 500, literature written in the modern languages of India began to emerge. Beginning in the 1800's, some Indian literature was written in English.

All the literature of India has been influenced by its religions.

Vedic Literature

The first period of Indian literature, from 1200 to 500 B.C., is known as the Vedic period. It was during this time that the Vedas, collections of hymns and other sacred lore, were composed. There are four Vedas. The oldest, the Rig Veda, contains more than 1,000 hymns. The Vedas were not written down but were passed on orally, so every word of the sacred texts had to be memorized accurately.

Sanskrit Literature

The earliest examples of written Sanskrit are inscriptions that were carved on stone pillars in the early centuries A.D. Literature was probably first written down at about the same time. However, few manuscripts from before 1400 survive. Most of the texts were written on strips of palm leaves or birch bark, which soon decayed in India's hot, humid climate. People had to make new copies of literature they wanted to save. This process of copying and recopying preserved many works.


During the classical period (500 B.C.–A.D. 1200), two great Hindu epics were composed: the Mahabharata ("The Great Bharata"), by Vyasa, and the Ramayana ("The Wanderings of Rama"), by Valmiki. Scholars may never be able to determine exactly when these long narrative poems were completed. Although each text is attributed to one poet, they were most likely composed over several centuries, with later poets adding to the main story. The dates of composition for the epics are usually given as 400 B.C. to A.D. 400 for the Mahabharata and 200 B.C. to A.D. 200 for the Ramayana.

The Mahabharata tells of the war between two groups within one large family. It is one of the longest poems in the world, with about 100,000 verses. Part of the poem consists of a conversation between the warrior Arjuna and his chariot driver Krishna. Arjuna is counseled on the duties of a soldier by Krishna, who reveals himself to be the lord. This conversation, called the Bhagavad Gita ("The Song of the Lord"), is considered by many to express the basic beliefs of the Hindu faith.

The Ramayana is one of the most famous stories in Indian literature. It is the tale of Prince Rama and his wife Sita and of the adventures that follow Sita's capture by Ravana, a demon with ten heads. Sita is rescued with the help of Hanuman, a monkey general, and his army.


("Old Lore") Puranas are another form of Sanskrit literature. These huge collections of knowledge contain myths and legends about Hindu gods and descriptions of the ways to worship them.


Kavya describes a type of written literature as well as a style of writing, either prose or verse. It was composed at India's royal courts. The language of kavya is very ornate and descriptive, with many puns and other kinds of wordplay. The standard of excellence of kavya was established by early works of literary criticism. These works stated that good literature must have a quality called rasa. The literal meaning of rasa is "juice." In literature, rasa is the essential part of the work, the "juices" that give the literature its distinctive flavor.

The most famous kavya poet was Kalidasa, who wrote during the 300's or 400's. His best-known work is the play Sakuntala. It tells the story of the marriage of a young girl, Sakuntala, to a king and the misadventures that result from a curse. Another work by Kalidasa, the narrative poem Meghaduta ("The Cloud Messenger"), recounts the thoughts of an exiled Yaksa, a semi-divine being. The Yaksa asks a passing cloud to carry a message to his beloved in the Himalaya Mountains.

A fine example of prose kavya is Kadambari, a long tale of love and reincarnation by Banabhatta, who wrote in the 600's. A song of devotion in the kavya style is the Gitagovinda ("The Cowherd's Song"), written in the 1100's by Jayadeva in praise of Lord Krishna.

Fables and Stories

Some Sanskrit prose concentrated on storytelling, both to educate and to entertain. Two examples are the Pancatantra ("The Five Books") and the Kathasaritsagara ("The Ocean of Story"). Other tales, called Jatakas ("Birth Tales"), were written in Pali, a language similar to Sanskrit that was used by Buddhists. The Jatakas, which contain moral lessons, tell of the earthly forms—both human and animal—assumed by the Buddha.

Tamil Literature

The Tamil language, although not as old as Sanskrit, has a rich literary tradition that has continued to the present day. One important group of Tamil writings consists of more than 2,000 poems organized into eight collections. The poems are known as samgam literature because, according to legend, they were composed in academies called samgams. Thought to have been written during the first to the third centuries A.D., the poems are the oldest examples of non-Sanskrit literature in India.

One of the most famous Tamil epics is Silappatikaram ("The Jeweled Anklet"), by Ilanko Atikal. It tells the story of a man who is wrongly accused of stealing a jeweled anklet. The man is executed, and his faithful widow destroys the city in which he died. Another epic, a Tamil version of the Ramayana, was composed in the 1000's or 1100's by a writer named Kamban. In this version, Ravana is portrayed in a more positive fashion than in the Sanskrit version.

Medieval Literature

During the first half of India's medieval period (500–1800), the modern languages of India began to emerge, although Sanskrit literature continued to be composed. At the beginning of this period, a religious movement known as bhakti ("devotion") occurred within the Hindu faith. It started in the south and soon swept across all of India. Followers of bhakti believed that worshipers could communicate directly with their chosen god or goddess, without the help of a Brahmin priest.

The bhakti revolution gave rise to poetry written in all the modern Indian languages—wonderful poems that speak directly to God. In the south, the Saiva poets addressed the god Shiva, and the Vaishnavas composed poems to Vishnu. In Hindi-speaking northern India, notable poet-saints included Surdas, who sang to Krishna, and Kabir, who sang passionately to his own personal god. Kabir's god was neither Hindu nor Muslim but encompassed both faiths. Another poet, Miribai, lived in Rajasthan in western India. She composed her devotional lyrics to Krishna. Miribai was the best-known woman saint of the later Middle Ages. In Bengal, in the northeast, the poet Ramprasad composed emotion-filled songs to the mother goddess Kali.

From the Muslim poets of medieval India came the ghazal, a form of poetry written in Urdu. Poems written in this form consist of couplets, or pairs, of lines, each containing a complete thought. The couplets can also be linked together; the last line of each couplet must rhyme. The subject matter of the poems concerns all aspects of life and love. Two of the finest ghazal poets were Mir and Ghalib.

Modern Literature

The modern period began in the 1800's. During this period, India came increasingly under the control of the British, who ruled the region until India and Pakistan won their independence in 1947. The British presence greatly affected all aspects of Indian life, including literature. The sonnet form of poetry came into Indian literature as a result of contact with the British, as did two forms of prose fiction, the novel and the short story. Today, however, all of these literary forms are as much Indian as they are British.

Literature in all the modern languages of India blossomed during this period. The following discussion, however, focuses on the development of literature written in Bengali, a language of northern India.

Michael Madhusudan Dutt is considered the father of modern Bengali poetry. His most famous narrative poem is Meghanadavadha Kavya ("The Slaying of the Meghanada"; 1861). It is based on an episode in the Ramayana in which Rama slays Meghanada, the son of Ravana. In Dutt's version, Ravana not Rama, is presented as the sympathetic hero. Dutt's many sonnets are the first examples of that form of poetry in Bengali literature. The sonnet continued to be a popular form among later Bengali poets.

The first novels in Bengali were written by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee. Before Chatterjee, most Indian literature had been written in verse. Chatterjee's novels were immensely popular in his day. Many, such as Durgesnandini ("The Chieftain's Daughter"; 1864), were historical romances set in India. Others reflect his interest in social issues.

Rabindranath Tagore is without a doubt the best-known Indian author worldwide. Tagore wrote all kinds of literature: poetry, plays, novels, and short stories. He received the Nobel prize for literature in 1913. The award was based mainly on his collection of religious poems, Gitanjali ("Song Offerings"), which he translated into English in 1912. Tagore was knighted by the British crown in 1915 but gave back his knighthood four years later to protest an incident in which Indian demonstrators were killed by the British. Tagore was also an accomplished musician and composer. Two of his songs were chosen as the national anthems of India and Bangladesh.

The novels of Sarat Chandra Chatterjee depict life in the villages of Bengal, especially the social interactions of the villagers. One such work is Pallir Samaj ("Village Society"; 1916). Almost all his novels have been translated into other Indian languages, and many have been made into motion pictures.

Kazi Nazrul Islam is known as "the rebel poet", after his most famous poem, "Bidrohi" ("The Rebel"; 1922). He was a Muslim who lived in Calcutta (now Kolkata), a city with a largely Hindu population. An important theme in his work is the need for brotherhood between Muslims and Hindus.

Jibanananda Das is best known for his collection of poems on rural Bengal, Rupasi Bamla ("Bengal the Beautiful"; 1957). The beauty of his language makes the Bengal countryside come alive for the reader. In his later works, Das focused on the problems of modern society. The novels and short stories of Mahasweta Devi are also concerned with social ills. Her writings forcefully and compassionately express the point of view of the poor and the tribal peoples of India.

Other Bengali writers have chosen English as their literary language. Bharati Mukherjee became a permanent resident of the United States in 1980. Her writings, including Wife (1975), concern the experience of living in a different culture. The works of R. K. Narayan, including Talkative Man (1986), are set in the fictional town of Malgudi.

Clinton B. Seely
Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations
The University of Chicago

SOURCE: The New Book of Knowledge

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