Saturday, April 27, 2013

Sanskrit literature

We had a little discussion on Sanskrit the other day, and I was asked to send in my notes to the group. Since I want to increase my blog readership, I decided to post my stuff! I will try my best not to say things most people already know.

The word Sanskrit refers to that, which has been ‘put together’.  (It happens to have the same meaning as the Greek syncretismos although the origin for the Greek word is attributed to the term for the Cretan Federation. Someone better challenge that etymology quick! To my laywoman’s way of thinking, the root word obviously comes from a proto Indo-European language.) We infer that Sanskrit is a language that has been crafted according to scientific principles, synthesized if you please, as opposed to Prakrit, which refers to language that evolves naturally (from Prakriti or nature). Sanskrit has always been a language of learning and refinement in India. The Prakrits were therefore not derivatives of Sanskrit (most probably the other way round), but simply the less hidebound easy-speak version of the same language. Prakrit and Sanskrit were mutually intelligible when our Indo-European ancestors first came to the sub-continent, but Prakrit being natural and not controlled by convention, evolved (but naturally!) giving rise to various dialects which ultimately transmogrified (Calvin, right?) into the various North Indian regional languages. The evolution was apparently slowest in the Gandharan region and fastest in Magadha. I suppose that means Kashmiri is closest to the old Prakrit, and therefore Sanskrit, while maybe Bhojpuri is the farthest. (Just hazarding baba. I know no Kashmiri or Bhojpuri). Sanskrit is regarded as the mother language of the North Indian languages, from Kashmiri to Bengali, much like Latin and the Romance languages – French, Italian, and Spanish.

Geographical spread of Indo European languages in the Old World. Indo-European is spoken by 3 billion native speakers. Grey is the non Indo-European world. Brown shows the Indo-Iranian branch of the family  that contains Sanskrit, Persian. Blue is the Italic (Romance) Family, Red is Germanic, Green is Balto-Slavic, Yellow is Greek.

Sanskrit is an Indo-European language. This means that it shares a common parent language with other languages of the Indo-European/Indo-Germanic family. Of course all of us have always been struck by the incredible similarities between the different languages of the family. Pater in Latin is Father in English is Pitareh in Sanskrit. Mater, Mother, Maatereh. Brother, Braathereh. Path-पथ, Go-गो, este- अस्‌ित, we found this game very exciting as children, until my dad pointed out that Fart and पाद probably have the same roots too. He felt we were getting carried away. Point noted but not taken. Excuse our Hindi. And English.

Sanskrit writing system–Originally, Sanskrit was intended to be transmitted orally. Megasthenes the Greek ambassador to Pataliputra mentions that the Indians have no writing system! So Chanakya literally composed the Arthashastra off the top of his head, and kept it inside his disciples' heads? Incredible. And we think the Chinese strange, sticking to their pictorial script for communication! In the peripatetic pre-paper and pre-printing era, it was easier to remember stuff than carry notes around I guess. I must say it is taking me much longer to write all this down. Definitely more than the 15 minutes I took to say it.

One uncharitable motivation for this oral tradition could have been that it ensured knowledge remained the preserve of a select few. There was no danger of it reaching the ‘masses’. (The horror of the masses remains the Indian intellectual’s greatest drawback. Just saying.) So, to decipher the language was not enough in those times, unless you got a teacher who imparted the know-how, orally. Apropos the Guru-Sishya Parampara. Remember how Karna and Ekalavya struggled without a teacher? Not like today, when mere paas Wikipedia hai!

Asokan edict in Brahmi

In fact scripts were first used for the Prakrits, by royal dynasties that obviously had to connect to their subjects. It was only later, that the body of Sanskrit literature, starting with the Vedas were redacted (meaning compiled, or reduced to writing), possibly in competitive response to a resurgent Prakrit writing tradition taking off, especially with the advent of Buddhism and Jainism that were not so bought into the casteist traditions of ancient India. The script adopted was usually the local Prakrit script of the scribe, from Kharoshti in the North West to Brahmi in the main subcontinent. (The point is not that no script existed, but that our intellectual forefathers sneered at the technology, preferring to rely on their memory. Statement thing, like not being on Facebook.) The Brahmi script had descendants – in the north, the Gupta, Sharada and Devnagari scripts came about in the 5th, 7th and 11th centuries of the Common Era; Grantham and Vattezhuththu came up between the 6th and 8th centuries in the South and spread to South East Asia through trade contacts, giving rise to the Burmese Mon script as well as the Khmer and Javanese scripts. Modern Thai comes from Khmer that comes from Vattezhuththu. Brahmi was the man. Or woman, likelier. (The Hiragana, phonetic system of Japanese writing is attributed to women; their men thought it was cooler to struggle with Kanji, which is the same as the Chinese logographic script.)

The Indus Valley script has not been deciphered yet. It could have been a precursor to Brahmi

I digress. Point is that Sanskrit did not pay much heed to the script used, although correct pronunciation was of paramount importance. In the nineteenth century Occidental Indologists found this lack of a uniform writing system an impediment to their research and promoted the use of the Nagari system. Hamare paas guru nahin par empire hai, they said.

Body of Sanskrit literature:

The non-reliance on a script has infused some unique features into Sanskrit literature. The earlier works are mostly metrical compositions with mnemonics interwoven to facilitate memorization. Sanskrit does not depend on syntax to convey meaning, and every word has a vast number of synonyms to facilitate composition into a metrical scheme (the number of synonyms frustrated foreign students like the 11th century scholar Al Beruni who wrote his ‘India’ for the Islamic world.)

Sanskrit literature may be seen as belonging to different eras starting with the Pre-Classical era or Vedic era. Reliance was solely on oral transmission and the writing was essentially religious, philosophic or scientific. Around the 5th or 6th century BCE, Panini standardized the grammar for Sanskrit. With the Gupta Empire ensuring peace and stability and prosperity, many works were written. The period between 300 BCE and 800 CE is called the Classical Sanskrit era. Then there is the Later period. Important works in more or less chronological order are as follows-

Rig Veda in Nagari - ca 19th cent. CE

Rig Veda – “Praise” - A collection of hymns in praise of the gods, mythological accounts for the origin of the world, prayers for prosperity etc., composed between 1700 BC and 1100 BC, redacted in 1000 BC and written down ca 400 CE.

Yajurveda: Composed between 1000BC and 600 BC it is the liturgical knowledge for conducting sacrifices, the mantras etc. Will have a lot of mathematics, like the formulae for constructing an altar etc.

Samveda- Melody is emphasized; these are hymns.

Atharva Veda- Dealt among other things, in magic, healing, warfare, philosophy etc. Seems secular to me.

The Vedas usually come in a set – the Samhita, that is the main collection of the metrical material itself, and the Brahmana, which is the commentary on the material, often in prose. Aranyakas and the early Upanishads are also seen as part of the Brahmanas, although of course, there are always works that straddle periods and classifications. The Upanishads or Vedanta are a set of philosophical treatises, which form the theoretical basis for Hinduism. They were composed over a wide swathe of time, from the Pre-Buddhist Period.

Sutra literature: Knowledge codified in metrical material, composed between 500 and100 BCE, concision being of importance. Includes the Vedangas consisting of manuals on astrology, metrics, domestic life etc. etc. Panini’s Ashtadhyayi is an example of the Vyakarana Sutra. Panini standardized Sanskrit grammar through his brilliant Ashtadhyayi that works through examples.

The Epics: – The Ramayana and the Mahabharata were composed and redacted between 600 BCE and 100 BCE. These are described as Itihasa, “It happened thus”, i.e. history.

Classical Sanskrit Literature: 300 BCE to 800 CE.

The main works of this era are –

Epic Poetry (Mahakavya): Western scholars refer to this as Court Poetry, since the hero is usually either godly or Kshatriya. Since everything was composed metrically, poetry, especially epic poetry was distinguished by certain identifying features, that I will not go into, as Ranjani has already done this. One important aspect was the technical virtuosity of the Mahakavis. They were not shy of showing off either. The great epic poems of this time are – Kalidasa’s ‘Kumarasambhava’ and ‘Raghuvamsa’, Bharavi’s ‘Kiratarjunaya’, Maagha’s ‘Shishupaala Vadha’, ‘Naishada-charita’, and ‘Bhattikavya’.

Lyric poetry (Khandakavya): ‘Meghadootam’ and ‘Ritusamharam’ by Kalidasa are superb examples. Bhartrihari’s ‘Shringarashataka’ is a contemplation on erotic sentiment.

Ethical poetry, as the name suggests, is  exclusively devoted to poetic aphorisms, (anyway found abundantly in Sanskrit literature) e.g. Bhartrihari’s ‘Nitishataka’ and ‘Vairagyashataka’. Yes it’s the same poet. He turned monk and then layman and back and fluctuated thus seven times between his house and the monastery. The substance of his work would have also been inconstant.


Raja Ravi Varma's Shakuntala

Drama: Kalidasa, Bana, Ashvaghosha, Shudraka were the big playwrights.  The most lauded are Kalidasa’s plays from ‘Malavikagnimitram’ to ‘Abhigyan Shakuntalam’. ‘Mrichchakatikam’ is one of the oldest plays and was made into the Hindi movie – Utsav. The Amar Chitra Katha Vasantasena, will give you the plot. I can't help giving a nod to Uncle Pai of Amar Chitra Katha ( who familiarised half a generation of Indian kids with their heritage and their culture.

 My personal favourite is Bana’s Swapnavasavadatta–the story of Vasavadatta and Udayana, which reads like an ancient times Bold and the Beautiful. Harsha’s Ratnavali, however, was like a sequel with different actors and poor continuity. Apparently Harsha’s works were lauded not as much for his hackneyed plots as for his brisk dialogue and knowledge of stagecraft. His Nagananda is seen as a brilliant play, however, departing from the stereotypical, and combining Buddhist philosophy with a Hindu Devi ex machina! 

Story Collections: Panchatantra (in prose with an admixture of verse), Hitopedesha (in prose with even more sententious verse), are the primary examples– These are stories with a lesson. These are actually seen as part of Niti-Shastra, (see down, under Shastra in Non Fiction).  The Vikram Vetal stories (Chandamama anyone?), The stories of Vikramaditya’s throne, and The Stories of the Parrot are other short prose collections.

Novel: The first Sanskrit novelist would be Bana Bhatta who wrote Kadambari in 6th-7th centuries CE. He was in Harsha's court and author of Swapnavasavadatta.


Scholarly treatises – Shastras, Tantras, Siddhanta and Jataka, on topics ranging from astronomy to mathematics to sexual congress. The Aryabhatiyam for example contains mathematical formulae in 33 verses! By the way Aryabhata left out the proofs in his Ganitapada, and it is thought that the teacher would have supplied those – see the unwillingness to let go? However from Bhaskara’s time in 600 CE, derivations were given in prose form! Tantras were mystical/scientific/ magical works and composed within the Hindu and Buddhist canon through the classical period.

Aryabhatta's sloka approximating π 
It transalates as follows and indicates the use of π : Add 4 to 100, multiply by 8, then add 62000, then divide by 20000. The result is "approximately" circumference of a circle of diameter 20000. 

The ‘Kamasutra’ by Vatsyayana would fall under the category of Kama-shastra. It is written in prose with poetic interpolations, and may have been composed between 400-200 BCE. It might have been collected into a compendium in 200 BCE. There are other works that fall under Kama-shastra.

Puranas: Our corpus of mythological and historical literature, written in verse form, dates between the 3rd and 10th century CE when the divergence of Shaivism and Vaishnavism emerged. Deals with creation of life, the various eras and genealogies.

Later Sanskrit literature – 800 CE to 1100 CE

A later, but important story collection is the Kathasaritasagara, written in verse, and adapted from the legendary Brihatkatha (lost work in Paisachi, a Prakrit dialect). Vikram Seth was only following in the footsteps of his ancestors.

Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda, describes the love story of Radha and Krishna in melodic and beautiful Sanskrit. Avadhuta Gita attributed to Dattatreya is a work of philosophy from this period that had a huge impact on the development of the Advaita philosophy.

There was a decline after the eleventh century coinciding with the rise of local dialects (the local Prakrits) that had so veered away from their original form that they were mutually unintelligible with Sanskrit and had a separate tradition of literature. But Sanskrit continued to be used for religious and philosophical literature and remained an inspiration for the vernacular literature of India.

Reference: Wikipedia zindabad. 

I also liked History of Sanskrit literature by Arthur Macdonnell

1 comment:

gamahucher_press said...

New translation of selected verses from the Amarushataka of Amaru