Sanskrit Language has been the most important medium in lending continuity to Indian civilization. In its heyday it was spoken and used in all regions of India including the Dravidian south. While Tamil has maintained a more or less independent literary tradition, all other languages in India have taken freely from Sanskrit vocabulary and their literature is permeated with the Sanskrit heritage. Sanskrit is perhaps the oldest language in the world to be recorded. Classical Sanskrit which developed from the Vedic held sway from about 500 BC to about 1000 AD. In Independent India it is listed among the languages of the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution though it is not the official language of any state.
The hymns of the Rig Veda are the seeds of Sanskrit literature. Orally handed down for long, these hymns not only served the purpose of religion but also as a common literary standard for the Aryan groups in India. After 1000 BC there developed an extensive prose literature devoted to ritual matters-the Brahamanas; but in these too there are examples of story-telling, terse and abrupt in style. The next milestone in the history of Sanskrit is the Grammar of Panini—the Ashtadhyayi. The form of the Sanskrit language as described by him became accepted universally and was fixed for all time. Probably, around the time Panini was codifying the Sanskrit language, the practice of writing began.
In the field of secular literature Sanskrit epic poetry (mahakavya) was the next most important development. The story of the Mahabharata was handed down orally for at least a thousand years after the battle it celebrates before becoming relatively fixed in writing. Dvaipayana or Vyasa is recorded first to have sung of this fearsome struggle of his own time. Vaisampayana later elaborated the epic; Lomaharsana and Ugrasravas are supposed to have recited the complete Mahabharata which scholars call itihasa. The story of the battle of eighteen days between the Kauravas and the Pandavas on the battlefield of Kurukshetra and the victory of the righteous was probably composed in the epic form not earlier than about 100 BC. The Ramayana traditionally ascribed to Valmiki whom Bhavabhuti and others call the ‘first kavi’, is considered to have been composed around the first century BC. On the face of it, it is the story of the adventures of Rama, but involved in this story are unforgettable conflicts of human passions.
Asvaghosa’s (first century AD) are the earliest epics now available to show the full-fledged kavya technique. His Buddhacharita and Saundarananda present the Buddhist philosophy of the shallowness of the world through the delights of poetry—the ornament of language and meaning. Later, in the fifth century AD, came Kalidasa with his Kumarasambhava which gives the story of the origin of Kartikeya, son of Shiva and Raghuvamsa, a portrait gallery of the kings of Rama’s line, illustrating the four ends, virtue, wealth, pleasure and release, pursued by different rulers. To the sixth century belongs Bharavi whose epic Kiratarjuniya presents a short episode from the Mahabharata as a complete whole. Rich description and brilliant characterization are matched by a heroic narrative style.
Sanskrit literature shows a wide variety of forms and types. The dramatic literature has been dealt with in detail in the chapter on Drama. The katha tradition is exemplified in the Panchatantra, apparently written in the fourth century AD by Vishnusharman whose country was the Vakataka Empire (in the Deccan). Bana’s Kadambari (7th century AD) is a novel about the timidities and missed opportunities of youth leading to tragedy. In the eleventh century we have Goddhala’s Udayasundari, a campu (romantic) novel. The critic King Bhoja’s Srinagaramanjari is an entertaining ‘illustrating novel’ on the various types love. Somadeva’s Kathasaritsagara is a huge collection stories skillfully narrated. Kshemendra’s illustrating novels are bitter satires on corrupt bureaucracies and deceit and vice. Some of his works are Kalavilasa, Darpadalana and Desopadesa.
The use of Sanskrit prose for scientific, technical and philosophical purposes is first exemplified by Patanjali’s, a commentary on Katyayana’s Vartikas on Panini’s grammar. After this time, and during the early centuries of the Christian era, much technical and scientific literature came into being, Aryabhata and Bhaskara wrote on mathematics and astronomy, Charaka and Susruta on medicine, Kautilya on politics and administration.
Literary criticism is another field in which Sanskrit literature is rich. The oldest work of Indian literary criticism is Bharata’s Natya Shastra. Bhamaha (5th century AD) is the earliest individual critic whose work available; he sets out the genres as drama, epic, lyric, prose biography and (usually prose) novel besides discussing literary expression and what makes it beautiful. Dandin (7th century AD) adds to the genres campus or narration in mixed prose and verse, which became quite popular 1ater. Vemana, Rudrata, Anandavardhana, Kuntaka, Udbhata, Lollata and Dhananjaya are just some well-known critics who have analyzed and enriched the world of literary concepts. Bhoja (11th century) is one of the greats among Indian critics, giving us the largest number of references and quotations and showing a fine taste in selection and comment.
The tradition of Sanskrit literature continued strongly and the number of Sanskrit works composed and preserved during the medieval period is also considerable. Rajasthan, Orissa as well as the South continued the Sanskrit literary tradition. Some names of note are Arnarachandra, Someswara, Balachandra, Vastupala, Princess Ganga, Ahobala, Dindima, and Gopala. The Kerala king Manaveda wrote the play Krishnagiti which is the prototype of Kathakali but with songs in Sanskrit. There were also satirical monologues and comedies, some of the famous writers being Nilakantha and Venkatadhvarin. The period of British rule exercised an unfavorable influence on Sanskrit. In spite of the appearance of English and the increasing use of modern Indian languages, however, literary composition in Sanskrit has continued on a moderate scale down to the present time. An important use to which the Sanskrit language is put at present is as a source of vocabulary for the modern languages. Sanskrit is able to provide on a large scale new technical terms which the modern languages are unable to find in their own resources.