Indian literature includes everything which is included in the word ‘literature’ in its broadest, sense: religious and mundane, epic and lyric, dramatic and didactic poetry, narrative and scientific prose, as well as oral poetry and song. In the Vedas (3000 BC-1000 BC), when one finds such expressions, “I am standing in water but I am very thirsty”, one marvels at the continuity of a rich heritage which is both modern and traditional.


The Purana

The word Purana means ‘that which renews the old’ and is almost always mentioned alongwith Itihasa. The Puranas were written to illustrate and expound the truth of the Vedas. The fundamental abstruse philosophical and religious truths are expounded through popular legends or mythological stories. Nothing can exert grater credence on the human mind than when it is described as having happened. Thus, Itihasa combined with narration makes a story seem credible. Together with the two epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, they are the origins of many of the stories and anecdotes of the social, religious and cultural history of India.

The main Puranas are 18 encyclopaedic collections of legend and myth. Though the archaic form of the genre might have existed as early as the fourth or the fifty century B.C., the famous names of the 18 Mahapuranas were not discovered earlier than the third century A.D. The phenomenal popularity of these Mahapuranas gave rise to yet another sub-genre known as the Upapuranas or minor Puranas. They are also 19 in number.

Classical Sanskrit Literature

Classical Sanskrit literature includes the Kavyas (epic poetry), the Nataka (drama), lyric poetry, romance, popular tales, didactic fables, gnomic poetry, scientific literature on grammar, medicine, law, astronomy, mathematics, etc. Classical Sanskrit literature is on the whole secular in character. During the classical period, language was regulated by the rigid rules of Panini, one of the greatest Sanskrit grammarians.The tallest figure in the sphere of epic poetry is Kalidasa (between A.D. 380-A.D. 415). He wrote two great epics, Kumarasambhava (the birth of Kumar), and Raghuvamsa (the dynasty of the Raghus). In the Kavya tradition, more care is bestowed on the form, such as the style, figure of speech, conceits, descriptions, etc., and the story-theme is pushed to the background. The overall purpose of such a poem is to bring out the efficacy of a religious and cultured way of life, without flouting any ethical norms. Other distinguished poets, like Bharavi (550 A.D.), wrote Kiratarjuniyam (Kirat and Arjun) and Magha (65-700 A.D.) wrote Sishupalavadha (the killing of Shishupal). There are several other poets like Sriharsha and Bhatti who are of great merit.

Literature in Pali and Prakrit

Pali and Prakrit were the spoken languages of Indians after the Vedic period. Prakrit in the widest sense of the term, was indicative of any language that in any manner deviated from the standard one, i.e. Sanskrit. Pali is archaic Prakrit. In fact, Pali is a combination of various dialects. These were adopted by Buddhist and Jain sects in ancient India as their sacred languages. lord Buddha (500 B.C.) used Pali to give his sermons. All the Buddhist canonical literature is in Pali which includes Tipitaka (threefold basket). The first basket, Vinaya Pitaka, contains the monastic rules of the Order of Buddhist monks. The second basket, Sutta Pitaka, is the collection of the speeches and dialogues of the Buddha. The third basket, the Abhidhamma Pitaka, elucidates the various topics dealing with ethics, psychology or theory of knowledge. The jataka Kathas are non-canonical Buddhist literature in which stories relating to the former births of the Buddha (Bodhi-sattva or the would-be Buddha) are narrated. These stories propagate Buddhist religious doctrines and are available in both Sanskrit and Pali.

Early Dravidian Literature

Dravidian literature mainly consists of the four languages, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam. Out of these, Tamil is the oldest language which preserved its Dravidian character the most. Kannada, as a cultured language, is almost as old as Tamil. All these languages have borrowed many words from Sanskrit and vice versa. Tamil is the only modern Indian language which is recognizably continuous with a classical past. Early classical Tamil literature is known as Sangam literature meaning ‘fraternity’, indicating mainly two schools of poets, aham (subjective love poems), and puram (objective, public poetry and heroic). Aham deals purely with the subjective emotions of the lover, and puram with all kinds of emotions, mainly the valour and glory of kings, and about good and evil. The Sangam classics, consisting of 18 works (eight anthologies of lyrics and ten long poems), are well known for their directness of expression. 

Medieval Literature

Around 1000 A.D. local differences in Prakrit grew more and more pronounced, which later came to be known as Apabhramsa, and this led to the modern Indian languages taking shape and being born. These languages, conditioned by the regional, linguistic and ethnic environment, assumed different linguistic characteristics. Constitutionally recognised modern Indian languages and Konkani, Marathi, Sindhi, Gujarati (Western); Manipuri, Bengali, Oriya and Assamese (Eastern); Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada (Southern) and Hindi, Urdu, Kashmiri, Dogri, Punjabi, Maithali, Nepali and Sanskrit (Northern). Two tribal languages, Bodo and Santhali are also recognised by the Constitution. Out of these 22 languages, Tamil is the oldest modern Indian language maintaining its linguistic character with little change for about 2000 years. Urdu is the youngest of the modern Indian languages, taking its shape in the 14th century A.D., deriving its script from an Arabic-Persian origin, but vocabulary from Indo-Aryan sources, i.e. Persian and Hindi. Sanskrit, though the oldest classical language, is still very much in use, and hence is included in the list of modern Indian languages by the Constitution of India.

Modern Indian Literature

In almost all the Indian languages, the modern age begins with the first struggle for India’s freedom in 1857, or near that time. The impact of western civilization, the rise of political consciousness, and the change in society could be seen in what was written during that time. Contact with the western world resulted in India’s acceptance of western thought on the one hand, and rejection of it on the other, and resulted in an effort made to revive her ancient glory and Indian consciousness. A large number of writers opted for a synthesis between Indianization and westernization, in their search for a natinal ideology. All these attitudes were combined to bring about the renaissance in 19th century India. But it was a renaissance in a country which was under foreign domination. So it was not that kind of renaissance which had spread in 14th-15th century Europe, where scientific reasoning, individual freedom and humanism were the dominant characteristics. 

Indian Romanticism

The trend of Indian romanticism ushered in by three great forces influenced the destiny of modern Indian literature. These forces were Sri Aurobindo’s *(1872-1950) search for the divine in man, Tagore’s quest for the beautiful in nature and man, and Mahatma Gandhi’s experiments with truth and non-violence. Sri Aurobindo, through his poetry and philosophical treatise, ‘The Life Divine’, presents the prospect of the ultimate revelation of divinity in everything.The age of romantic poetry in Hindi is known as Chhayavad, the age of romantic mystery, in Kannada, is Navodaya, the rising sun, and in Oriya, it is known as Sabuj, the age of green. Jaishankar Prasad, Nirala, Sumitra Nandan Pant and Mahadevi (Hindi); Vallathol, Kumaran Asan (Malayalam); Kalindi Charan Panigrahi (Oriya); B.M. Srikantayya, Puttappa, Bendre (Kannada); Viswanath Satyanarayana (Telugu); Uma Shankar Joshi (Gujarati), and poets of other languages highlighted mysticism and romantic subjectivity in their poetry. 

Progressive Literature

The advent of Marxism on the Indian literary scene in the thirties is a phenomenon which India shared with many other countries. Both Gandhi and Marx were driven by opposition to imperialism and concern for the dispossessed sections of society. The Progressive Writers Association was originally established in 1936 by some expatriate writers in London, like Mulk Raj Anand (English). However, soon it became a great pan-Indian movement that brought together Gandhian and Marxist insights into society. The movement was especially conspicuous in Urdu, Punjabi, Bengali, Telugu and Malayalam, but its impact was felt all over India. It compelled every writer to reexamine his/her relationship with social reality. In Hindi, Chhayavad was challenged by a progressive school that came to be known as Pragativad (progressivism).