Indian Literature – UPSC Notes – Art and Culture

Indian literature refers to the written or spoken works created on the Indian subcontinent. In the beginning, stories and poems were passed down verbally. The Rig Veda is like the starting point of Sanskrit literature. The Sanskrit epics Ramayana and Mahabharata showed up around the end of the first millennium BCE. During the first millennium CE, we saw the rise of Classical Sanskrit, Tamil Sangam, and Pali literature. Kannada and Telugu literature began in the 9th and 11th centuries, respectively. Later on, we got literature in Marathi, Bengali, Hindi, Persian, and Urdu.

The Gupta period, which lasted from 3 to 6 CE, is considered the golden age of Indian literature. After that, with the coming of Muslim invaders and the formation of the Delhi Sultanate and the Mughal Empire, Indian literature got influenced by different thoughts. During the colonial period, a new type of literature called nationalist literature emerged. It motivated people in India to fight for independence.

Hindu Literature in Ancient India

In contrast to common beliefs, ancient Hindu literature in India went beyond the confines of sacred texts like the Vedas and Upanishads. There exists a substantial collection of literature in Prakrit, marked by its realistic portrayal and emphasis on moral values, all without explicit religious undertones.

While the Vedas hold prominence as sacred texts utilized in religious rituals and daily life, the literary richness of this era extends to epics and lyrical compositions. These works are penned in two key ancient languages: Sanskrit and Prakrit.

Vedic Literature – Indian Literature

  • The Vedas are India’s oldest known works of literature.
  • They were written in Sanskrit and passed down orally from generation to generation.
  • Vedic literature consists of four Vedas:
    • Rig Veda
    • Yajur Veda
    • Sama Veda
    • Atharva Veda
  • Each Veda is composed of the Brahmanas, Upanishads, and Aranyakas.
  • The collective name for the Rig Veda, Sama Veda, and Yajur Veda is Traji.
  • Later, the Atharva Veda was included in this group.

Pali and Prakrit Literature

  • Pali and Prakrit literature emerged during the post-Vedic period, alongside Sanskrit.
  • Prakrit denotes any language other than the standard, which is Sanskrit.
  • Pali specifically refers to an archaic or old form of Prakrit, amalgamating various existing dialects.
  • These languages gained significance as they became the mediums for composing religious literature, particularly in Buddhist and Jain traditions.

Jain Literature

  • Jain Literature was not limited to Prakrit and Ardha Magadhi; it was also composed in various other languages, influenced by the era, region, and supporting patrons.
  • During the Sangam Age in South India, Jain writings were in Tamil, and they were also penned in languages such as Sanskrit, Shauraseni, Gujarati, and Marathi, depending on the context.
  • From the time of Mahavira, Jain sacred texts have been preserved through oral traditions.
  • Jain councils systematically organized these literary works periodically.
  • The initial formal organization of Jain canonical literature took place in a council at Pataliputra (Patna) by the end of the 4th century B.C. Subsequent councils occurred in the early 3rd century B.C. in Mathura and Valabhi.
  • The fourth and final Jain council convened in 454 or 467 A.D. at Valabhi. It is believed that the Svetambara Jain scripture originated from this council.

Sikh Literature

  • Sikhism, a relatively recent religion founded in the 15th century, is based on the teachings of Guru Nanak.
  • The core of Sikh Literature is the sacred scripture, Guru Granth Sahib, which encapsulates the beliefs and philosophies of Sikhism.
  • Gurbani is a compilation of hymns and compositions by Sikh Gurus, forming an integral part of the Guru Granth Sahib.
  • The Punjabi language, originating from Savraseni Prakrit (also known as Sauraseni Apabhransa), a derivative of Sanskrit, evolved alongside languages like Brajabhasa and Rajasthani, sharing a common grammatical foundation.
  • Despite this linguistic evolution, there is no recorded Punjabi literature predating Guru Nanak (1469-1538).
  • The earliest known text is the ‘Adi Granth,’ finalized in 1604 by Guru Arjun Dev.

Dravidian Literature

  • Dravidian Literature encompasses works in four major Dravidian languages: Tamil, Kannada, Telugu, and Malayalam.
  • Tamil, considered the oldest among these languages, bears linguistic proximity to Sanskrit, especially in terms of grammar and word borrowing.
  • The most renowned segment of Dravidian Literature is the classical works known as Sangam literature, primarily written in Tamil.

Medieval Literature

  • Medieval literature is a product of diverse trends during the medieval period, impacting the emergence of various languages and dialects.
  • Around 1000 A.D., local variations in Prakrit became more distinct, leading to the development of Apabhramsa, shaping modern Indian languages.
  • These languages acquired unique linguistic characteristics due to their regional, linguistic, and ethnic influences.
  • The adoption of Persian as the language of the Delhi Sultanate and Mughal courts marked a significant linguistic shift. During this era, Hindi evolved from the ancient Apabhramsa language.

Modern Literature

  • The phase of Modern literature, termed Adhunik kaal, is commonly used in Hindi.
  • While Hindi emerged as a major language in Northern India, various other languages, including Bengali, Odia, Assamese, Rajasthani, Gujarati, and more, also left their imprint on modern literature.

Indian literature is a jumble of works that includes religious works, chronicles of various kings, works in ancient philosophy, and so on. These literary works evolved alongside the development of various religions in ancient India, during the reigns of various kings who patronized literary works in their kingdoms.

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FAQs on Indian Literature

  1. What is the most famous Indian literature?
    • The most famous texts of Indian literature are the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, which are family epics narrating the lives of extended families, including aunts, uncles, and cousins.
  2. What is the importance of Indian literature?
    • Indian literature, particularly from ancient times, helps us understand Indian culture, spirituality, and philosophy. It addresses fundamental questions about life and morality, remaining relevant today. Additionally, these texts have significantly influenced various art forms, including art, music, dance, and literature, making them integral to Indian heritage.
  3. Who are the big three of Indian literature?
    • The big three of Indian literature in English are Mulk Raj Anand (1905-), R.K. Narayan (1906-2000), and Raja Rao (1909-). They are often considered the trinity of Indian writing in English, defining the landscape of the Indian novel.
  4. What is the origin of Indian literature?
    • The Vedic Literature represents the first non-archaeological written source of Indian history. This literary tradition emerged around 1500 BCE with the Aryan Culture, marking a transmission stage between pre-history and the historical period.
  5. Who is the father of literature in India?
    • Bharatendu Harishchandra is often considered the father of Hindi literature and Hindi theatre. His works depict the exploitative nature of the British Raj, and he is hailed as a Yug Charan for his contributions to literature.

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