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Sanskrit literature

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Devimahatmya (Glory of the Goddess) manuscript LACMA M.88.134.7 Sanskrit literature broadly comprises all literature in the Sanskrit language. This includes texts composed in the earliest attested descendant of the Proto-Indo-Aryan language known as Vedic Sanskrit, texts in Classical Sanskrit as well as some mixed and non-standard forms of Sanskrit. Literature in the older language begins with the composition of the Rg·veda between about 1500 and 1000 BCE, followed by other Vedic works right up to the time of the grammarian Panini around 6th or 4th century BCE (after which Classical Sanskrit texts gradually became the norm).

Vedic Sanskrit is the language of the extensive liturgical works of the Vedic religion, while Classical Sanskrit is the language of many of the prominent texts associated with the major Indian religions, especially Hinduism, but also Buddhism, and Jainism. Some Sanskrit Buddhist texts are also composed in a version of Sanskrit often called Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit or Buddhistic Sanskrit, which contains many Middle Indic (prakritic) elements not found in other forms of Sanskrit.

Early works of Sanskrit literature were transmitted through an oral tradition for centuries before they were written down in manuscript form.

While most Sanskrit texts were composed in ancient India, others were composed in Central Asia, East Asia or Southeast Asia.

Sanskrit literature is vast and includes religious scripture, various forms of poetry (such as epic and lyric), drama and narrative prose. It also includes substantial works covering secular and technical sciences and the arts. Some of these subjects include: law and custom, grammar, politics, economics, medicine, astrology-astronomy, arithmetic, geometry, music, dance, dramatics, magic and divination, and sexuality.

Table of contents
  1. Overview
  2. Vedic literature
  3. Hindu religious literature
  4. Scientific & Secular literature
  5. Buddhist literature
  6. Jain literature
  7. Kavya
  8. Subhasita
  9. Sanskrit drama
  10. Other Sanskrit narratives
  11. Modern Sanskrit literature
  12. See also


Literature in the Vedic and the Classical language differ in numerous respects. The Vedic literature that survives is almost entirely religious, being focused on the prayers, hymns to the gods (devas), sacrifices and other concerns of the Vedic religion. The language of this archaic literature (the earliest being the Rigveda), Vedic Sanskrit, is different in many ways (and much less regular) than the "classical" Sanskrit described by later grammarians like Panini. This literature was transmitted orally during the Vedic period, only later was it written down.

Classical Sanskrit literature is more varied and includes the following genres: scripture (Hindu, Buddhist and Jain), epics, court poetry (kavya), lyric, drama, romance, fairytale, fables, grammar, civil and religious law (dharma), the science of politics and practical life, the science of love and sexual intercourse (kama), philosophy, medicine, astronomy, astrology and mathematics, and is largely secular in subject-matter. On the other hand, the Classical Sanskrit language was much more formalized and homogeneous, partly due to the influence of Sanskrit grammarians like Panini and his commentators.

Sanskrit was an important language for medieval Indian religious literature. Most pre-modern Hindu literature and philosophy was in Sanskrit and a significant portion of Buddhist literature was also written in either classical Sanskrit or Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit. Many of these Sanskrit Buddhist texts were the basis for later translation into the Chinese Buddhist Canon and Tibetan Canon. Many Jain texts were also written in Sanskrit, like the Tattvartha sutra, Bhaktamara Stotra, etc.

Classical Sanskrit also served as a common language of scholarship and elites (as opposed to local vernacular who were only understood regionally).

The invasions of northern India by Islamic powers in the 13th century severely damaged Indian Sanskrit scholarship and the dominance of Islamic power over India eventually contributed to the decline of this scholarly language, especially since Muslim rulers promoted Middle Eastern languages. However, Sanskrit remains in use throughout India, and is used in rituals, religious practice, scholarship, art, and other Indian traditions.

Vedic literature


Five chronologically distinct strata can be identified within the literature of Vedic Sanskrit:
  1. Rg·vedic Hymns
  2. Mantras
  3. Samhita prose
  4. Brahmana prose
  5. Sutras
The first three are commonly grouped together, as the Samhitas comprising the four Vedas: rk, atharvan, yajus, saman, which together constitute the oldest texts in Sanskrit and the canonical foundation both of the Vedic religion, and the later religion known as Hinduism.


Main article: Rgveda

The Rg·veda, the first and oldest of the four Vedas, is the foundation for the others. The Rg·veda is made of 1028 hymns named suktas, composed of verses in strictly regulated meters. These are collected into samhitas. There are about 10,000 of these verses that make up the Rg·veda. The Rg·vedic hymns are subdivided into 10 mandalas, most of which are attributed to members of certain families. Composition of the Rg·vedic hymns was entirely oral, and for much of its history, the Rg·veda has been transmitted only orally, written down likely no sooner than in the second half of the first millennium of the Common Era.

The later Vedas

The Samaveda is not an original composition: it's almost entirely (except 75) made of stanzas taken from the Rgveda and rearranged with reference to their place in the Soma sacrifice. This book is meant to be sung to certain fixed melodies, and may thus be called the book of chants, saman. The Yajurveda like the Saman is also largely made of verses taken from the Rgveda, but also contains several prose formulas. It is called the book of sacrificial prayers yajus.

The last of the four, the Atharvaveda, both by the internal structure of the language used and by comparison with the Rg·veda, is a much later work. However, the Atharvaveda represents a much earlier stage of thought of the Vedic people, being composed mainly of spells and incantations appealing to demons, and is rife with notions of witchcraft, derived from a much earlier period.


Main article: Brahmanas

The Brahmanas (a subdivision within the Vedas) concern themselves with the correct application of Vedic ritual, and the duties of the Vedic priest (hotr: 'pourer, worshiper, reciter') the word being derived from bráhman meaning 'prayer'. They were composed at a period in time by which the Vedic hymns had achieved the status of being ancient and sacred revelations and the language had changed sufficiently so that the priests did not fully understand the Vedic texts. The Brahmanas are composed in prose, unlike the previous works, forming some of the earliest examples of prose in any Indo-European language. The Brahmanas intend to explain the relation between the sacred text and ritual ceremony.

The later part of the Brahmanas contain material which also discuss theology and philosophy. These works were meant to be imparted or studied in the peace and calm of the forest, hence their name the Aranyakas ("Of the forest") The last part of these are books of Vedic doctrine and philosophy that came to be called Upanisads ("sitting down beside"). The doctrines in the Vedic or Mukhya Upanisads (the main and most ancient Upanisads) were later developed into the Vedanta ("end of the Vedas") system.

Vedic Sutras

The Vedic Sutras were aphoristic treatises concerned either with Vedic ritual (Kalpa Vedanga) or customary law. They arrived during the later period of the Brahmanas when a vast mass of ritual and customary details had been accumulated. To address this, the Sutras are intended to provide a concise survey of Vedic knowledge through short aphoristic passages that could be easily memorized. The Sutras forego the need to interpret the ceremony or custom, but simply provide a plain, methodical account with the utmost brevity. The word sutra, derived from the root siv-, 'to sew', thus meaning 'sewn' or 'stitched together' eventually became a byword for any work of aphorisms of similar concision. The sutras in many cases are so terse they cannot be understood without the help of detailed commentaries.

The main types of Vedic Sutras include the Srautasutras (focusing on ritual), Sulbasûtra (on altar construction), Grhyasutras which focus on rites of passage and Dharmasutras.

Hindu religious literature

See also: Vedas, The Upanisads, and Bhagavad-Gita

Most ancient and medieval Hindu texts were composed in Sanskrit, either Epic Sanskrit (the pre-classical language found in the two main Indian epics) or Classical Sanskrit (Paninian Sanskrit). In modern times, most ancient texts have been translated into other Indian languages and some in Western languages. Prior to the start of the common era, the Hindu texts were composed orally, then memorized and transmitted orally, from one generation to next, for more than a millennium before they were written down into manuscripts. This verbal tradition of preserving and transmitting Hindu texts, from one generation to next, continued into the modern era.


Hindu Sanskrit texts are often subdivided into two classes: Indian Epics

The first traces of Indian epic poetry are seen in the Vedic literature, among the certain hymns of the Rgveda (which contain dialogues), as well as the Akhyanas (ballads), Itihasas ('traditional accounts of past events') and the Puranas found in the Vedic Brahmanas. These poems were originally songs of praise or heroic songs which developed into epic poems of increasing length over time. They were originally recited during important events such as during the Vedic horse sacrifice (the asvamedha) or during a funeral.

Another related genre were the "songs in praise of men" (gatha narasamsi), which focus on the glorious deeds of warriors and princes, which also developed into long epic cycles. These epic poems were recited by courtly bards called sutas, who may have been their own caste and were closely related to the warrior caste. There was also a related group of traveling singers called kusilavas. Indian kings and princes seem to have kept bards in their courts which sung the praises of the king, recite poems at festivals and sometimes even recite poetry in battle to embolden the warriors.

While there were certainly other epic cycles, only two have survived, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana.


The Mahabharata is in a sense not just a single 'epic poem', but can be seen as a whole body of literature in its own right, a massive collection of many different poetic works built around the heroic tales of the Bharata tribe. Most of this literature was probably compiled between the 3rd century BCE and the 3rd century CE by numerous authors, with the oldest preserved parts not much older than around 400 BCE.

Already in the Rgveda, the Bharatas find mention as a warlike tribe, and the Brahmanas also speak of Bharata, the son of Dusyanta and Sakuntala. The core of the Mahabharata is a family feud in the royal house of the Kauravas (the descendants of Bharata), leading to a bloody battle at Kurukshetra. Over the centuries, an enormous mass of poetry, myths, legends, secondary tales, moral stories and more was added to the original core story. The final form of the epic is thus a massive 100,000 slokas across 18+1 books.

According to Winternitz, the Mahabharata also shows the influence of the Brahmin class, which he argues was engaged in a project of appropriating the poetry of the bards (which was mainly a secular heroic literature) in order to infuse it with their religious theology and values.

The most influential part of the Mahabharata is the Bhagavadgita, which became a central scripture for the Vedanta school and remains widely read today.

Another important associated text, which acts as a kind of supplement (khila) to the Mahabharata, is the Harivanhsa, which focuses on the figure of Krishna.


In contrast to the Mahabharata, the Ramayana consists of only 24,000 slokas divided into seven books, and in form is more purely regular, ornate epic poetry, a form of style which is the basis of the later Kavya tradition. There are two parts to the story of the Ramayana, which are narrated in the five genuine books. The first revolves around the events at the court of King Dasaratha at Ayodhya with one of his wives vying for the succession of the throne to her own son Bharata in place of the one chosen by the king, Rama. The second part of the epic is full of myth and marvel, with the banished Rama combating giants in the forest, and slaying thousands of demons. The second part also deals with the abduction of Rama's wife, Sita by king Ravana of Lanka, leading Rama to carry out to expedition to the island to defeat the king in battle and recover his wife.


Main article: Purana

The Purana are a large class of Hindu scriptures which cover numerous topics such as myth, legends of the Hindu gods, cosmogony, cosmology, stories of ancient kings and sages, folk tales, information about temples, medicine, astronomy, grammar and Hindu theology and philosophy. Perhaps the most influential of these texts is the Bhagavata Purana, a central text for Vaishnava theology. Other Puranas center on different gods, like the Shiva Purana and the Devi Bhagavata Purana.

Later Upanisads

The principal Upanisads can be considered Vedic literature since they are included within the Brahmanas and Aranyakas. However, numerous scriptures titled "Upanisads" continued to be composed after the closure of the Vedas proper. Of these later "Upanisads" there are two categories of texts: Post-Vedic aphoristic literature

Sutra style aphoristic literature continued to be composed on numerous topics, the most popular being on the different fields of Hindu philosophy.

The main Sutra texts (sometimes also called karikas) on Hindu philosophy include: Commentaries

The various Sanskrit literature also spawned a large tradition of commentary texts, which were called Bhasyas, Vrttis, Tikas, Varttikas and other names. These commentaries were written on numerous genres of Sanskrit texts, including on Sutras, on Upanisads and on the Sanskrit epics.

Examples include the Yogabhasya on the Yoga Sutras, Shankara's Brahmasutrabhasya, the Gitabhasya and Sri Bhasya of Ramanuja (1017-1137), Paksilasvamin Vatsyayana's Nyaya Sutra Bhashya and the Matharavrtti (on the Samkhyakarika).

Furthermore, over time, secondary commentaries (i.e. a commentary to a commentary) also came to be written.

Tantric literature

Main article: Tantras (Hinduism)

There are a varied group of Hindu Tantric scriptures titled Tantras or Agamas. Gavin Flood argues that the earliest date for these Tantric texts is 600 CE, though most of them were probably composed after the 8th century onwards.

Tantric literature was very popular during the "Tantric Age" (c. 8th to the 14th century), a period of time when Tantric traditions rose to prominence and flourished throughout India. According to Flood, all Hindu traditions, Shaiva, Vaishnava, Smarta and Shakta (perhaps excepting the Srautas) became influenced by Tantric works and adopted some Tantric elements into their literature.


There are also numerous other types of Hindu religious works, including prose and poetry.

Among prose works there are important works like the Yoga-Vasistha (which is important in Advaita Vedanta), the Yoga-Yajñavalkya and the Devi Mahatmya (a key Shakta work).

When it comes to poetry, there are numerous stotras (odes), suktas and stutis, as well as other poetic genres. Some important works of Hindu Sanskrit poetry include the Vivekacudamani, the Hanuman Chalisa, the Astavakragita, Bhaja Govindam, and the Shiva Tandava Stotra.

Another group of later Sanskrit Hindu texts are those which focus on Hatha Yoga, and include the Dattatreyayogasastra (13th century), the Goraksasataka (13th century), the Hathayogapradipika (15th century) and the Gherandasamhita (17th or 18th-century).

Scientific & Secular literature

Main article: Sastra

Over time, Sanskrit works on the secular sciences (sastra or vidya) were composed on a wide variety of topics. These include: grammar, poetry, lexicography, geometry, astronomy, medicine, worldly life and pleasure, philosophy, law, politics, etc.

The learning of these secular sciences took place by way of a guru expounding the subject orally, using works of aphorisms, the sutra texts, which on account of their terseness would be meaningful only to those who knew how to interpret them. The bhasyas, the commentaries that followed the sutras were structured in the style of student-teacher dialogue wherein a question is posed, a partial solution, the purvapaksa, proposed, which is then handled, corrected and the final opinion established, the siddhanta. In time, the bhasyas evolved to become more like a lecture.

The sutras were initially regarded as definite. This was later circumvented, in the field of grammar, by the creation of varttikas, to correct or amend sutras. Another form often employed was the sloka, which was a relatively simple metre, easy to write and remember. Sometimes a mix of prose and verse was used. Some of the later work, such as in law and poetics, developed a much clearer style which avoided a propensity towards obscurity that verse was prone to.

The study of these secular works was widespread in India. Buddhist institutions like Nalanda also focused on the study of four of these secular sciences, known as the vidyasthanas. These are: linguistic science (sabdavidya), logical science (hetuvidya), medical science (cikitsavidya), science of fine arts and crafts (silpakarmasthanavidya). The fifth main topic studied at Buddhist universities were the spiritual sciences (adhyatmavidya). These Indian Sanskrit language disciples also had an influence on Himalayan cultures, like Tibet, which not only adopted Buddhist religious literature but also these secular works. The Tibetan scholar Sakya Pandita (1182-1251) was a well known scholar of Sanskrit, and promoted the study of these secular disciplines among Tibetans. The study of Sanskrit grammars and prosody was also practiced in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, even when the Pali language focused Theravada school rose to prominence in those regions.

Linguistic literature

See also: Sanskrit grammar

By the time of the Sutra period, the Sanskrit language had evolved sufficiently to make increasing parts of the older literature hard to understand, and to recite correctly. This led to the emergence of several classes of works intended to resolve this matter. These works were styled like the religious Sutras, however they were not religious per se but focused on the linguistic study of the Sanskrit language. The main topics discussed in these works were grammar (vyakarana), phonetics (siksa) and etymology (nirukta). These are traditionally part of the vedanga ("limbs of the Veda"), six auxiliary disciplines that developed along with the study of the Vedas.

One of the earliest and most important of these works is the Vedic era Pratisakhya Sutras, which deal with accentuation, pronunciation, prosody and related matters in order to study the phonetic changes that have taken place in Vedic words.

The Sanskrit grammatical tradition

The early grammatical works of the linguist Yaska (some time between 7th and 4th century BCE), such as his Nirukta, provides the foundation of the study of Sanskrit grammar and etymology.

The most influential work for the Indian Sanskrit grammatical tradition is the Astadhyayi of Panini, a book of succinct Sutras that meticulously define the language and grammar of Sanskrit and lay the foundations of what is hereafter the normative form of Sanskrit (and thus, defines Classical Sanskrit). After Panini, other influential works in this field were the Varttikakara of Katyayana, the Mahabhasya of the grammarian Patañjali and Bhartrhari's Vakyapadiya (a work on grammar and philosophy of language).

Over time, different grammatical schools developed. There was a tradition of Jain grammarians and Buddhist grammarians and a later tradition of Paninian grammarians.


There were numerous lexicographical works written in Sanskrit, including numerous dictionaries attributed to figures like Bana, Mayura, Murari, and Sriharsha. According to Keith, "of lexica two main classes exist--synonymous, in which words are grouped by subject-matter, and homonymous (anekartha, nanartha), but the important synonymous dictionaries usually include a homonymous section."

One of the earliest lexicons (kosah) is Amarasimha's Namalinganusasana, better known as the Amarakosa. According to Keith, Amarasimha, who possibly flourished in the 6th century, was "certainly a Buddhist who knew the Mahayana and used Kalidasa." Other lexica are later works, including the short Abhidhanaratnamala of the poet-grammarian Halayudha (c. 950), Yadavaprakasha's Vaijayanti, Hemacandra's Abhidhanacintamani and Anekarthasabdakosha of Medinikara (14th century).

Dharma literature

Main article: Dharmasastra

The Vedic practice of sutras pertaining to the correct performance of ritual was extended to other matters such as the performance of duties of all kinds, and in social, moral and legal spheres. These works came to be known as Dharmasutras and Dharmasastras in contradistinction to the older grhyasutras and srautasutras although no distinction was felt initially. Like other sutras, this was terse prose peppered with a few slokas or verses in tristubh metre to emphasize a doctrine here and there. More broadly, works in the field of civil and religious law come under the banner of dharmasastra.

Examples of such works are: The most important of all dharma literature however is the Manusmriti, which was composed in verse form, and was intended to apply to all human beings of all castes. The Manusmriti deals with a wide variety of topics including marriage, daily duties, funeral rites, occupation and general rules of life, lawful and forbidden food, impurity and purification, laws on women, duties of husband and wife, inheritance and partition, and much more. There are chapters devoted to the castes, the conduct of different castes, their occupations, the matter of caste admixture, enumerating in full detail the system of social stratification. The Manu·smrti has been dated to the couple of centuries around the turn of the Common Era. According to recent genetic research, it has been determined that it was around the first century CE that population mixture among different groups in India, prevalent on a large scale from around 2200 BCE, ground to a halt with endogamy setting in.

Other secular literature

Sanskrit literature also covers a variety of other technical and secular topics including:
Buddhist literature

Main article: Sanskrit Buddhist literature

In India, Buddhist texts were often written in classical Sanskrit as well as in Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit (also known as "Buddhistic Sanskrit" and "Mixed Sanskrit"). While the earliest Buddhist texts were composed and transmitted in Middle Indo-Aryan Prakrits, later Indian Buddhists translated their canonical works into Sanskrit or at least partially Sanskritized their literature.

Beginning in the third century, Buddhist texts also began to be composed in classical Sanskrit. Over time, Sanskrit became the main language of Buddhist scripture and scholasticism for certain Buddhist schools in the subcontinent, especially in North India. This was influenced by the rise of Sanskrit as a political and literary lingua franca, perhaps reflecting an increased need for elite patronage and a desire to compete with Hindu Brahmins. The Buddhist use of classical Sanskrit is first seen in the work of the great poet and dramatist Asvaghosa (c. 100 CE). The Sarvastivada school is particularly known for having translated their entire canon into Sanskrit.

Other Indian Buddhist schools, like the Mahasamghika-Lokottaravada and Dharmaguptaka schools, also adopted Sanskrit or Sanskritized their scriptures to different degrees. However, other Buddhist traditions, like Theravada, rejected this trend and kept their canon in Middle Indic languages like Pali.

Sanskrit also became the most important language in Mahayana Buddhism and many Mahayana sutras were transmitted in Sanskrit. Some of the earliest and most important Mahayana sutras are the Prajñaparamita sutras, many of which survive in Sanskrit manuscripts.

Indian Buddhist authors also composed Sanskrit treatises and other works on philosophy, logic-epistemology, jatakas, epic poetry and other topics. While a large number of these works only survive in Tibetan and Chinese translations, many key Buddhist Sanskrit works do survive in manuscript form and are held in numerous modern collections.

Sanskrit was the main scholastic language of the Indian Buddhist philosophers in the Vaibhasika, Sautrantika, Madhyamaka and Yogacara schools. These include well known figures like Kumaralata, Nagarjuna, Aryadeva, Asanga, Vasubandhu, Yasomitra, Dignaga, Sthiramati, Dharmakirti, Bhaviveka, Candrakirti, Santideva and Santaraksita. Some Sanskrit works which were written by Buddhists also cover secular topics, such as grammar (vyakarana), lexicography (kosa), poetry (kavya), poetics (alamkara), and medicine (Ayurveda).

The Gupta (c. 4th-6th centuries) and Pala (c. 8th-12th centuries) eras saw the growth of large Buddhist institutions such as Nalanda and Vikramashila universities, where many fields of knowledge (vidyasthanas) were studied in Sanskrit, including Buddhist philosophy. These universities also drew foreign students from as far away as China. One of the most famous of these was the 7th century Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang, who studied Buddhism in Sanskrit at Nalanda and took over 600 Sanskrit manuscripts back to China for his translation project. Chinese pilgrims to India like Yijing described how in these universities, the study of Buddhist philosophy was preceded by extensive study of Sanskrit language and grammar.

During the Indian Tantric Age (8th to the 14th century), numerous Buddhist Tantras and other Buddhist esoteric literature was written in Sanskrit. These tantric texts often contain non-standard Sanskrit, prakritic elements and influences from regional languages like apabhramsa and Old Bengali. These vernacular forms are often in verses (dohas) which may be found within esoteric Sanskrit texts.

Jain literature

The earliest Jain scriptures, the Jain Agamas, were composed and orally transmitted in Prakrit. Later in the history of Jainism (after about the 8th century CE), Jain authors began composing literature in other languages, especially classical Sanskrit while also retaining the use of Jain Prakrit.

The most important Jain Sanskrit work is Umaswati's (c. sometime between the 2nd-century and 5th-century CE) Tattvarthasutra (On the Nature of Reality). The Tattvarthasutra is considered an authoritative work on Jain philosophy by all traditions of Jainism and thus it is widely studied.

Other influential Jain Sanskrit authors include: Samantabhadra, Pujyapada (who wrote the most important commentary to the Tattvarthasutra, entitled Sarvarthasiddhi), Siddhasena Divakara (c. 650 CE), Akalanka, Haribhadra-suri (c 8th century) author of the Yogadrstisamuccaya, Hemachandra (c. 1088-1172 CE) who wrote the Yogasastra, and Yasovijaya (1624-1688) a scholar of Navya-Nyaya.


Main article: Kavya

There is a large corpus of classical Sanskrit poetry from India in a variety of genres and forms. According to Siegfried Lienhard in India, the term Kavya refers to individual poems, as well as "poetry itself, i.e., all those works that conform to artistic and literary norms." Indian poetry includes epic and lyrical elements. It may be entirely in prose (gadya), entirely in verse (padya) or in a mixed form (misra). Kavya works are full of alliteration, similes, metaphors and other figures of speech.

Indians divided poetry into two main categories: poetry that can be seen (drsya, preksya, i.e. drama/theater) and poetry that can only be listened to (sravya).

Metrical Indian poetry can also be divided into two other categories: According to Lienhard "whereas metrical poetry led a flourishing existence both as mahakavya and laghukavya, prose poems (gadya) and literature in mixed prose and verse (campu) tended to assume the major form. The only exceptions are the panegyric inscriptions (prasasti) and religious epistles (lekha) commonly found in Buddhist societies which may both be composed in the kavya style. Both are written either all in prose or in a mixture of alternately prose and verse and must therefore be counted as belonging to the minor form representing prose kavya or campu - a point that Indian theorists seem to have neglected."

Kavya was employed by court poets in a movement that flourished between c. 200 BCE and 1100 CE. While the Gupta era is considered by many to have seen the highest point of Indian Kavya, many poems were composed before this period as well as after. Sanskrit Kavya also influenced the literature of Burma, Thailand, Cambodia and the Malay Archipelago. The study of Sanskrit Kavya also influenced Tibetan literature, and was promoted by Tibetan Buddhist scholars like Sakya Pandita.

Sanskrit Kavya poetry also flourished outside the courts, in towns, learned schools and the homes of pandits and other elites and continues to be composed and studied today. Kavya was often recited in public gatherings, court receptions and in societies which gathered specifically for the study and enjoyment of poetry. Kavis (Kavya poets) also competed with each other for rewards and for the support of elites and kings (who often appointed court poets). Kavis were highly educated and many of them would have been pandits with knowledge of other sciences such as grammar, lexicography and other fields. Indian authors held that an important quality of these poets was said to be pratibha, poetic imagination.

The beginnings of Kavya is obscure. Lienhard traces its beginnings to "the close of the Late Vedic Period (about 550 B.C.)...as this was a time that saw the slow emergence of poetic forms with characteristics of their own, quite different both functionally and structurally from previous models." The earliest Kavya poems were short stanzas in the minor form (laghukavya), sometimes just being one stanza poems (muktakas). Few of these early works have survived.


Laghukavya mainly refers to short poems, which can be single stanza (muktaka), double stanza poems (yugmaka), and several-stanza poems (kulakas). Short poetry was also termed khandakavya and a collection of stanzas or anthology was called a kosa. The earliest laghukavyas were in prakrits, but some also began to be written in Sanskrit in time.

The earliest laghukavyas where muktakas (also sometimes called gatha), single stanzas. These were most commonly lyrical nature poems, lyrical love poems, religious poems or reflective didactic poems. According to Lienhard "muktaka poetry generally paints miniature pictures and scenes, or else it carefully builds up a description of a single theme."

Some of the earliest of these early poems are found in the Buddhist canon, which contain two the verse anthologies: the Theragatha (Verses of the Elder Monks) and Therigatha (Verses of the Elder Nuns). Only the Pali versions of these survive, but they also existed in Prakrit and Sanskrit.

There are also some surviving stanzas which are attributed to important figures like the grammarian Panini, the scholar Patañjali, and Vararuci, but these attributions are uncertain.

Some important Sanskrit poets whose collections of short poems have survived include Bhartrhari (fl. c. 5th century CE), known for his Satakatraya, Amaru (7th century), author of the Amarusataka (which mainly contains erotic poetry) and Govardhana (12th century), author of the Aryasaptasati.

There are numerous anthologies which collect short Sanskrit poetry from different authors, these works are our main source of short Sanskrit poems. One widely celebrated anthology is the Subhasitaratnakosa (Anthology of Well Said Jewels) of the Buddhist monk and anthologist Vidyakara (c. 1050-1130). Other important anthologies include: Jalhana's Subhasitamuktavali (13th century), Sridharadasa's Saduktikarnamrta (1205), Sarngadharapaddhati (1363) and Vallabhadeva's Subhasitavali (Chain of Beautiful Sayings, c. 16th century).

Samghatas and Khandakavyas

In between muktaka and mahakavya there are medium length Sanskrit poems which are linked stanzas (between eight and one hundred stanzas) using one Sanskrit metre and one theme (such as the six Indian seasons, love and eros, and nature). They are variously called "series of stanzas" (samghata) or khandakavya.

Examples of these medium length poems include: the Rtusamhara, the Ghatakarpara Kavyam, and the Meghaduta of Kalidasa (the most famous of all Sanskrit poets) which popularized the sandesa kavya (messenger poem), Jambukavi's Candraduta (8th to 10th century), Jinasena's Parsvabhyudaya (a Jain work), Vedanta Desika's Hansasandesa, the Kokila Sandesa, and Rupa Gosvamin's Hamsaduta (16th century). Another genre of medium length poems were panegyrics like the Rajendrakarnapura of Sambhu.

Religious medium length kavya style poems (often called stotras or stutis) were also very popular and they show some similarities with panegyrics. According to Lienhard, some of the figures which are most widely written about in medium length religious poems include: "Gautama Buddha, Durga-Kali (or Devi), Ganesa, Krsna (Govinda), Laksmi, Nrsimha, Radha, Rama, Sarasvati, Siva, Surya, the Tathagatas, the Tirthamkaras or Jinas, Vardhamana Mahavira and Visnu." Only some of the Sanskrit hymns to the gods can be considered literary kavya, since they are truly artistic and follow some of the classic kavya rules.

According to Lienhard, the literary hymns of the Buddhists are the oldest of these. Asvaghosa is said to have written some, but they are all lost. Two Buddhist hymns of the poet Matrceta* (c. 70 to 150 CE), the Varnarhavarna Stotra or Catuhsataka and the Satapancasataka or Prasadapratibha ((Stotra) on the Splendour of Graciousness (of the Buddha)) have survived in Sanskrit. They are some the finest Buddhist stotras and were very popular in the Buddhist community in India. There are also some Buddhist stotras attributed to other Buddhist masters like Nagarjuna (2nd-3rd century CE), Chandragomin (5th century) and Dignaga as well as two Buddhist stotras by King Harshavadana. Some important later Buddhist stotras are Sragdharastotra (about 700) by Sarvajñamitra, Vajradatta's Lokesvara-sataka (9th century), the tantric Mañjusrinama-samgiti and Ramacandra Kavibharati's 15th century Bhaktisataka (which is influenced by the Bhakti movement).

There are also many Sanskrit Jaina stotras, most of which are dedicated to the Jain Tirthankaras. They include the Bhaktacamarastotra by Manatunga (7th century), Nandisena's Ajitasantistava, the Mahavirastava by Abhayadeva (mid 11th century) and the stotras of Ramacandra (12th century).

There are numerous literary Hindu hymns which were written after the time of Kalidasa. Some of the most important ones are Banabhatta's Candisataka, the Suryasataka by Mayurbhatta, numerous hymns attributed to Adi Shankara (though the majority of these were likely not composed by him), the Mahimnastava, the Shaiva Pañcasati (14th century), Abhinavagupta's Shaiva stotras, the southern Mukundamala and Narayaniyam, the Krishnakarnamrutam, and the poems of Nilakantha Diksita, Jagannatha Panditaraja, Gangadevi, Ramanuja, Jayadeva, Rupa Goswami, and Bhatta Narayana (17th century).


According to Lienhard, the most important feature of mahakavya (Long poems) is that they are divided into chapters or cantos (sargas). Fully versified Mahakavyas (called sargabandhas) are written in many different metres. Mahakavyas may also be written fully in prose or in a mixture of verse and prose (mostly called campu). Sargabandhas commonly center around a hero and also include villains. They almost never end in a tragic manner. Indian epic poetry like the Ramayana forms an important influence on Sanskrit mahakavya literature.

The oldest extant mahakavyas are those of the Buddhist poet and philosopher Asvaghosa (c. 80 - c. 150 CE). His Buddhacarita (Acts of the Buddha) was influential enough to be translated into both Tibetan and Chinese. The Chinese pilgrim Yijing (635-713 CE) writes that the Buddhacarita was "...extensively read in all the five parts of India and in the countries of the South Sea (Sumatra, Java and the neighbouring islands)...it was regarded as a virtue to read it in as much as it contained the noble doctrine in a neat compact form." Another mahakavya by Asvaghosa is the Saundarananda, which focuses on the conversion of Nanda, Buddha's half-brother.

The great mahakavyas

Kalidasa, called by many the Shakespeare of India, is said to have been the finest master of the Sanskrit poetic style. Arthur Macdonell describes this great poets' words as having a "firmness and evenness of sound, avoiding harsh transitions and preferring gentle harmonies; the use of words in their ordinary sense and clearness of meaning; the power to convey sentiment; beauty, elevation, and the employment of metaphorical expressions". Kalidasa's greatest Kavyas are the Raghuvamsa and the Kumarasambhava.

This Raghuvamsa (The Genealogy of Raghu) chronicles the life of Rama alongside his forefathers and successors in 19 cantos, with the story of Rama agreeing quite closely that in the Ramayana. The narrative moves at a rapid pace, is packed with apt and striking similes and has much genuine poetry, while the style is simpler than what is typical of a mahakavya. The Raghuvamsa is seen to meet all the criteria of a mahakavya, such as that the central figure should be noble and clever, and triumphant, that the work should abound in rasa and bhava, and so on. There are more than 20 commentaries of this work that are known. The Kumarasambhava (The Birth of Kumara) narrates the story of the courtship and wedding of Siva and Parvati, and the birth of their son, Kumara. The poem finishes with the slaying of the demon Taraka, the very purpose of the birth of the warrior-god. The Kumarasambhava showcases the poet's rich and original imaginative powers making for abundant poetic imagery and wealth of illustration. Again, more than 20 commentaries on the Kumara·sambhava have survived.

These two great poems are grouped by Indian tradition along with four more works into "the six great mahakavyas". The other four greats are: Bharavi's (6th century CE) Kiratarjuniya, Magha's (c. 7th Century CE) Sisupalavadha, the Bhattikavya (also known as Ravanavadha) and Sriharsa's (12th century CE) Naisadhiyacarita, which is the most extensive and difficult of the great mahakavyas (and contains many references to Indian philosophy). Over time, various commentaries where also composed on these poems, especially the Naisadhiyacarita.

Later mahakavyas

Between Kalidasa's time and the 18th century, numerous other sargabandhas were composed in the classic style, such as Mentha's Hayagrivavadha (6th century), King Pravarasena II's Setubandha, the Sinhalese poet Kumaradasa's Janakiharana, Rajanaka Ratnakara's Haravijaya, the Nalodaya, the Buddhist Sivasvamin's Kapphinabhyudaya (9th century), and Buddhaghosa's Padyacudamani (a life of the Buddha, c. 9th century). Later sargabandhas tended to be more heavily loaded with technical complexity, erudition and extensive decoration. Authors of these later works include the 12th century Kashmiri Shaivas Kaviraja Rajanaka Mankha and Jayaratha, Jayadeva, author of the innovative and widely immitated Gitagovinda, Lolimbaraja's Harivilasa (mid 16th century), the Shaivite Bhiksatana(kavya) of Gokula, Krsnananda's 13th century Sahrdayananda, and the numerous works of Ramapanivada.

After the 8th century, many sophisticated Jain mahakavyas were written by numerous Jain poets (mainly from Gujarat), including Jatasimhanandi's Varangacarita (7th century), Kanakasena Vadiraja Suri's Yasodharacarita, and the Ksatracudamani by Vadibhasimha Odayadeva. Jain authors also wrote their own versions of the Ramayana with Jain themes, such as the Padmapurana of Ravisena (678 A.D.).

Other later mahakavyas are poems based on historical figures which embellish history with classic poetic themes such as Parimala's Navasahasankacarita, Bilhana's Vikramankadevacarita (11th century) and Madhuravijayam (The Conquest of Madurai, c. 14th-century) by Gangadevi, which chronicles the life a prince of the Vijayanagara Empire and his invasion and conquest of the Madurai Sultanate.

Some later poems focused on specific poetic devices, some of the most popular being paronomasia (slesa) and ambiguous rhyme (yamaka). For example, the poems of Vasudeva (10th century), such as Yudhisthira-vijaya and Nalodaya, were all yamaka poems while the Ramapalacarita of Sandhyakara Nandin is a slesakavya.

One final genre is the Sastrakavya, a kavya which also contains some didactic content which instructs on some ancient science or knowledge. Examples include Halayudha's Kavirahasya (a handbook for poets), Bhatta Bhima's Arjunaravaniya (which teaches grammar) and Hemacandra's Kumarapalacarita (grammar).

Prose mahakavya

While most early mahakavyas were all in verse, the term mahakavya could also be applied to any long prose poem and these became more popular after the 7th century, when the great masters of prose (gadya) lived. These are Dandin (author of the Dasakumaracarita) Subandhu (author of the Vasavadatta) and Banabhatta (author of Kadambari and Harshacarita). Prose mahakavyas replaced virtuosity in metre with highly complex and artistic sentences. Other important writers of Sanskrit prose poems include Bhusana bhatta, Dhanapala (the Jain author of the Tilakamañjari), and Vadibhasimha Odayadeva (author of the Gadyacintamani).


Campu (also known as gadyapadyamayi) is a poetic genre which contains both verse and prose. This genre was rare during the first millennium CE, but later grew in popularity, especially in South India. The earliest Sanskrit example of this genre is Trivikramabhatta's Nalacampu (or Damayanticampu, c. 10th century). While many other Sanskrit works also contain a mixture of verse and prose, like Aryasura's Jatakamala, Lienhard notes that these are not true campus. This is because "in true campu there is a calculated balance between prose that is as perfect as possible and stanzas in the genuine kavya style."

Some important campus include Somaprabha Suri's Yasastilakacampu (9th century, Jain), Haricandra's Jivandharacampu (Jain), the Ramayanacampu, Divakara's Amogharaghavacampu, the 17th century female poet Tirumalamba's Varadambikaparinaya, Venkatadhvarin's Visvagunadarsacampu, Jiva Gosvamin's voluminous Gopalacampu, and Raghunathadasa's Muktacaritra.

Works on prosody and poetics

Main article: Chandas

There are also numerous Sanskrit works which discuss prosody and poetics. The earliest work which discusses poetics is Bharatamuni's Natyasastra (200 B.C. to 200 A.D.), a work which mainly deals with drama. Pingalá (fl. 300-200 BCE) authored the Chandahsastra, an early Sanskrit treatise on prosody.

Gaurinath Bhattacharyya Shastri lists four main school of Indian poetics and their main figures: Later influential works on poetics include Mammata's (11th century) Kavyaprakasa, the writings on poetics by Kshemendra, Hemacandra's Kavyanusasana, Vagbhata's Vagbhatalankara, and Rupa Gosvamin's Ujjvalanilamani.


Main article: Subhashita

Outside of Kavya proper are also numerous poetic works (often called subhasita, "well said") which can be classified as gnomic poetry and didactic poetry. These are mainly poems which contain some wise saying, aphoristic lesson (often ethical), popular maxim or a proverb (lokavakya). These are thousands of Subhasitas on many themes. The Dharmapada is one important early collection of aphorisms.

There are also many didactic works attributed to Canakya (but actually written by numerous authors), such as the Rajanitisamuccaya, Canakyaniti, Canakyarajaniti, Vrddha-Canakya, and the Laghu-Canakya. Another important collection of gnomic sayings is the Nisataka of Bhartrhari.

Later examples of this genre include the Jain Amitagati's Subhasitaratnasaridoha, Ksemendra's Carucarya, Darpadalana and Samayamatrka, Kusumadeva's Drstantasataka, Dya Dviveda's Nitimañjari (1494), and Vallabhadeva's Subhasitavali (15th century). There are also numerous anthologies of subhasita, such as the Catakastaka.

Sanskrit drama

Further information: List of Sanskrit plays in English translation

Indian classical drama (drsya, nataka) was also mainly written in Sanskrit and there are many examples of this Sanskrit literary genre. Bharata's Natyasastra (3rd century CE) is the earliest work which discusses Sanskrit dramaturgy. Sanskrit drama focuses on the sentiments and on heroic characters. Classically, the endings are happy, never tragic. References to Sanskrit drama are found throughout ancient Sanskrit texts, including the great epics.

Some of the earliest Sanskrit dramas are those of Asvaghosa (only a fragment of his Sariputraprakarana survives) and the many plays of Bhasa (c.1st century BCE), most of which are based on the two great epics (Mahabharata and Ramayana). Kalidasa is widely considered to be the greatest Sanskrit playwright, hailed for his linguistic mastery and economy of style. He wrote three plays: Vikramorvasiyam, Malavikagnimitram, Abhijñanasakuntalam.

Other important plays include the Mrcchakatika (The Little Clay Cart, 5th century) and the Mudraraksasa.

Harsa, a 7th-century Indian emperor, was also known as a great playwright with a simple and delicate style. His Ratnavali, Nagananda, and Priyadarsika are well known Sanskrit dramas.

The Mattavilasaprahasana (A Farce of Drunken Sport) is a short one-act Sanskrit play. It is one of the two great one act plays written by Pallava King Mahendravarman I (571- 630CE) in the beginning of the seventh century in Tamil Nadu.

Bhavabhuti (8th century) is one of the great playwrights after Kalidasa. Other major Sanskrit playwrights include Visakhadatta, Bhatta Narayana, Murari, Rajasekhara, Kshemisvara, Damodaramishra, and Krishnamishra.

Later Sanskrit dramaturgical texts also continued to be written in the second millennium, such as the Shilparatna which discusses dance and drama.

Other Sanskrit narratives

There are various classical Sanskrit collections of fables one of the most influential of which is the early Pañcatantra, a work that was widely immitated. Other works include the Hitopadesa and Srivara's Kathakautuka. Buddhist Jatakas (tales of the Buddha's past lives) is a similar genre and includes the Divyavadana, Aryasura's Jatakamala (a collection of Buddhist fables), and Ksemendra's various works like the Avadanakalpalata.

Folk tale (or fairy tale) collections include the Vetala Pañcavimsati, Simhasana Dvatrimsika, and the Suktasaptati. There is also Somadeva's Kathasaritsagara (Ocean of the Streams of Stories).

There are also poetic historical like the Rajatarangini of Kalhana.

Hemacandra's (1088-1172) Trisastisalakapurusacaritra is one example of Jain didactic narrative in Sanskrit.

There are also abridged retellings of more ancient lost texts, such as Budhasvamin's Brhatkathaslokasamgraha.

Modern Sanskrit literature

See also: List of Sahitya Akademi Award winners for Sanskrit

Literature in Sanskrit continues to be produced. These works, however, have a very small readership. In the introduction to Sodasi: An Anthology of Contemporary Sanskrit Poets (1992), Radhavallabh Tripathi writes:
Sanskrit is known for its classical literature, even though the creative activity in this language has continued without pause from the medieval age till today. [...] Consequently, contemporary Sanskrit writing suffers from a prevailing negligence.
Most current Sanskrit poets are employed as teachers, either pandits in pathasalas or university professors. However, Tripathi also points out the abundance of contemporary Sanskrit literature:
On the other hand, the number of authors who appear to be very enthusiastic about writing in Sanskrit during these days is not negligible. [...] Dr. Ramji Upadhyaya in his treatise on modern Sanskrit drama has discussed more than 400 Sanskrit plays written and published during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In a thesis dealing with Sanskrit mahakavyas written in a single decade, 1961-1970, the researcher has noted 52 Sanskrit mahakavyas (epic poems) produced in that very decade.
Similarly, Prajapati (2005), in Post-Independence Sanskrit Literature: A Critical Survey, estimates that more than 3000 Sanskrit works were composed in the period after Indian Independence (i.e., since 1947) alone. Further, much of this work is judged as being of high quality, both in comparison to classical Sanskrit literature, and to modern literature in other Indian languages.

Since 1967, the Sahitya Akademi, India's national academy of letters, has had an award for the best creative work written that year in Sanskrit. In 2009, Satyavrat Shastri became the first Sanskrit author to win the Jnanpith Award, India's highest literary award. Vidyadhar Shastri wrote two epic poems (Mahakavya), seven shorter poems, three plays and three songs of praise (stavana kavya, he received the Vidyavachaspati award in 1962. Some other modern Sanskrit composers include Abhiraj Rajendra Mishra (known as Triveni Kavi, composer of short stories and several other genres of Sanskrit literature), Jagadguru Rambhadracharya (known as Kavikularatna, composer of two epics, several minor works and commentaries on Prasthanatrayi).

Another great Sanskrit epic that remained largely unrecognised till lately is "Dhruv Charitra" written by Pandit Surya Dev Mishra in 1946. He won laurels of appreciation by renowned Hindi and Sanskrit critics like Hazari Prasad Dwiedi, Ayodhya Singh Upadhyay "Hariaudh", Suryakant tripathi "Nirala", Laldhar Tripathi "Pravasi".

See also
Revival and significance

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