The ancient Indian literary tradition was primarily oral i.e. sung or recited. As a result, the earliest records of a text may be later by several centuries than the date of its composition. Furthermore, perhaps because so much Indian literature is re-working of the Sanskrit epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and the mythological writings known as Puranas, the authors often remain anonymous.
The Mahabharata is said to be the longest poem in the world at 100,000 stanzas strong. The Mahabharata is eight times longer than Homer’s two epics (the Illiad and the Odyssey) combined!
Amir Khusroo – a 13th century Sufi philosopher and poet from India once visited Iran. In Iran he was asked to introduce himself. And his response was marvelous: “Why are you asking me to introduce myself! I am a parrot of India?”
Medieval India themes
In medieval Indian literature the earliest works in many of the languages were sectarian, designed to advance or to celebrate some unorthodox regional belief. Examples are the Caryapadas in Bengali, Tantric verses of the 12th century, and the Lilacaritra (circa 1280), in Marathi. In Kannada (Kanarese) from the 10th century, and later in Gujarati from the 13th century, the first truly indigenous works are Jain romances; ostensibly the lives of Jain saints, these are actually popular tales based on Sanskrit and Pali themes. Other example was in Rajasthani of the bardic tales of chivalry and heroic resistance to the first Muslim invasions – such as the 12th-century epic poem Prithiraja-raso by Chand Bardai of Lahore.
Most important of all for later Indian literature were the first traces in the vernacular languages of the northern Indian cults of Krishna and of Rama. Included are the 12th-century poems by Jaydev, called the Gitagovinda (The Cowherd’s Song); and about 1400, a group of religious love poems written in Maithili (eastern Hindi of Bihar) by the poet Vidyapati were a seminal influence on the cult of Radha-Krishna in Bengal.
The Bhakti Tradition
The full flowering of the Radha-Krishna cult, under the Hindu mystics Chaitanya in Bengal and Vallabhacharya at Mathura, involved bhakti (a personal devotion to a god). Although earlier traces of this attitude are found in the work of the Tamil Alvars (mystics who wrote ecstatic hymns to Vishnu between the 7th and 10th centuries), a later surge of bhakti flooded every channel of Indian intellectual and religious life beginning in the late 15th century.
In the 16th century, the Rajasthani princess and poet Mira Bai addressed her bhakti lyric verse to Krishna, as did the Gujarati poet Narsimh Mehta.
Bhakti was also addressed to Rama (an avatar of Vishnu), most notably in the Avadhi (eastern Hindi) works of Tulsi Das; his Ramcharitmanas has become the authoritative.
The early gurus or founders of the Sikh religion, especially Nanak and Arjun, composed bhakti hymns to their concepts of deity. These are the first written documents in Punjabi and form part of the Adi Granth (First, or Original, Book), the sacred scripture of the Sikhs, which was first compiled by Arjun in 1604.
In the 16th century, Jagannath Das wrote an Oriya version of the Bhagavata and Tuncattu Eruttacchan, the so-called father of Malayalam literature, wrote recensions of traditional literature. Added, in the 18th century, was a deliberate imitation of Sanskritic forms and vocabulary by pandits. In 18th-century evolved Assamese and Marathi prose chronicles, ballads and folk drama involving much dance and song.
The Tamil Tradition
The only Indian writings that incontestably predate the influence of classical Sanskrit are those in the Tamil language. Anthologies of secular lyrics on the themes of love and war, together with the grammatical-stylistic work Tolkappiyam (Old Composition), are thought to be very ancient. Later, between the 6th and 9th centuries, Tamil sectarian devotional poems were composed, often claimed as the first examples of the Indian bhakti tradition. At some indeterminate date between the 2nd and 5th centuries, two long Tamil verse romances (sometimes called epics) were written: Cilappatikaram (The Jeweled Anklet) by Ilanko Atikal, which has been translated into English (1939 and 1965); and its sequel Manimekalai (The Girdle of Gems), a Buddhist work by Cattanar. Thiruvalluvar, a celebrated Tamil poet, wrote the Thirukkural, a work on ethics in Tamil literature.
Linguistic and Cultural Influences
Much traditional Indian literature is derived in theme and form not only from Sanskrit literature but from the Buddhist and Jain texts written in the Pali language and the other Prakrits (medieval dialects of Sanskrit). This applies to literature in the Dravidian languages of the south as well as to literature in the Indo-Iranian languages of the north. Invasions of Persians and Turks, beginning in the 14th century, resulted in the influence of Persian and Islamic culture in Urdu, although important Islamic strands can be found in other literatures as well, especially those written in Bengali, Gujarati, and Kashmiri. After 1817, entirely new literary values were established that remain dominant today.
The Urdu poets almost always wrote in Persian forms, using the ghazal for love poetry in addition to an Islamic form of bhakti, the masnavi for narrative verse, and the marsiya for elegies. Urdu then gained use as a literary language in Delhi and Lucknow. The ghazals of Mir and Ghalib mark the highest achievement of Urdu lyric verse. The Urdu poets were mostly sophisticated, urban artists, but some adopted the idiom of folk poetry, as is typical of the verses in Punjabi, Pushtu, Sindhi or other regional languages.
Literary activities burst forth with the playwright Bharata’s (200 BC) Natya Shastra, the Bible of dramatic criticism. The earliest plays were soon overshadowed by Kalidasa’s Shakuntala, a heroic play, a model for ages. While Shudraka’s Mrichchhakatika, was a play of the social class. Bhavabhuti (circa 700AD) was another well-known figure, his best being Malatimadhava and Uttaramacharita (based on Ramayana).
The great Sanskrit poems are five – Kalidasa’s Raghuvamsa and Kumarasambhava, Kiratarjuniya of Bharavi (550AD), Sishupalavadha of Magha (7th century AD) and Naishadhiyacharita of Sriharsha (12th century AD). All of them draw from the Mahabharata. Shorter poems of great depth were composed on a single theme like love, morality, detachment and sometimes of grave matters. The earliest and best collections of such verses called Muktakas are those of Bhartrihari and Amaruka.
Much of the early prose work in Sanskrit has not survived. Of the remaining, some of the best are Vasavadatta of Subandhu, Kadambari and Harshacharita of Bana (7th century AD) and Dasakumaracharita of Dandin (7th century AD). The Panchatantra and Hitopadesha are collections of wit and wisdom in the Indian style, teaching polity and proper conduct through animal fables and aphorisms.
With a glorious life of over 3,000 years, Sanskrit continues to be a living language even today, bobbing up during Hindu ceremonies when mantras (ritual verses) are chanted. And though restricted, it’s still a medium of literary expression, but ‘great works’ have long stopped being written.
The Modern Period
Poets such as Ghalib, lived and worked during the British era, when a literary revolution occurred in all the Indian languages as a result of contact with Western thought, when the printing press was introduced (by Christian missionaries), and when the influence of Western educational institutions was strong. During the mid-19th century in the great ports of Mumbai, Calcutta, and Chennai, a prose literary tradition arose—encompassing the novel, short story, essay, and literary drama (this last incorporating both classical Sanskrit and Western models)—that gradually engulfed the customary Indian verse genres. Urdu poets remained faithful to the old forms while Bengalis were imitating such English poets as Percy Bysshe Shelley or TS Eliot.
Ram Mohan Roy’s (1774-1833) campaign for introduction of scientific education in India and Swami Vivekananda’s work are considered to be great examples of the English literature in India.
During the last 150 years many writers have contributed to the development of modern Indian literature, writing in any of the 18 major languages (as well as in English). Bengali has led the way and today has one of the most extensive literatures of any Indian language. One of its greatest representatives is Sir Rabindranath Tagore, the first Indian to win the Nobel Prize for literature (1913). Much of his prose and verse is available in his own English translations.
Work by two other great 20th-century Indian leaders and writers is also widely known: the verse of the Islamic leader and philosopher Sir Muhammad Iqbal, originally written in Urdu and Persian; and the autobiography of Mohandas K. Gandhi, My Experiments with Truth, originally written in Gujarati between 1927 and 1929, is now considered a classic.
Several other writers are relatively well known to the West. They include Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964) for his Glimpses of World History, Discovery of India and An Autobiography (1936); Mulk Raj Anand, among whose many works the early affectionate Untouchable (1935) and Coolie (1936) are novels of social protest; and R. K. Narayan, writer of novels and tales of village life in southern India. The first of Narayan’s many works, Swami and Friends, appeared in 1935; among his more recent titles are The English Teacher (1980), The Vendor of Sweets (1983), and Under the Banyan Tree (1985). Among the younger authors writing of modern India with nostalgia for the past is Anita Desai—as in Clear Light of Day (1980). Her In Custody (1984) is the story of a teacher’s fatal enchantment with poetry. Ved Mehta, although long resident in the U.S., recalls his Indian roots in a series of memoirs of his family and of his education at schools for the blind in India and America; among these works are Vedi (1982) and Sound Shadows of the New World (1986).
The other well-known novelist/ writers are P Lal, A.K.Ramanujan (for his translations of Tamil classics), Kamala Das, Arun Kolatkar and R. Parthasarathy; Toru Dutt; Sarojini Naidu; Aurobindo; Raja Rao, GV Desani, M Ananthanarayanan, Bhadani Bhattacharya, Monohar Malgonkar, Arun Joshi, Kamala Markandaya, , Khushwant Singh, Nayantara Sahgal, O.V. Vijayan; Salman Rushdie; K.R. Sreenivasa Iyengar, C.D. Narasimhaiah; M.K. Naik; Vikram Seth; Amitav Ghosh; Upamanyu Chatterjee; and Vikram Chandra.