Literature (from the Latin Littera meaning ‘letters’ and refers to an acquaintance with the written word) is the written work of a specific culture, sub-culture, religion, philosophy which may appear in poetry or in prose. Literature has been produced since early history by literate societies. The primary function of literature has been to preserve and communicate ideas. In the early societies, the production and consumption of the literature was confined to the elite of the society. But inventions like manufacturing of paper, print technology brought literature to masses. In this chapter, we will examine the variety of literature produced in the ancient, medieval and modern Indian history, their historical context and their audience.
Ancient texts are much older than their surviving manuscripts. They had a life of their own. They were passed in an oral form before they were put down into the written form. In fact, the oral tradition continued even after the texts were put in black and white. The primary purpose of literature was to preserve and communicate ideas. Therefore, many early religious texts were not primarily meant to be read but to be recited and performed. Communication remained at the heart of these compositions and performances. Given the multiplicity of languages and literary cultures, it becomes important to do a brief survey of various language families and literature produced in them. Critical paragraphs on individual texts, their authorship and audience will follow in the next section.
Early Indian literate societies produced a number of texts in multiple languages. Literature encompasses forms such as poetry, drama, prose, folklore, epic, poetry, history, biography, satire, philosophical dialogues, essays, legends and myths, among others. Vedas composed in Sanskrit form the oldest texts in the history of Indian literature. Sanskrit, Prakrit and Pali belong to the Indo-European family of languages. Buddhist literature was primarily composed in Pali while Prakrit was used for composing Jain literature. The oldest Prakrit grammar is Vararuchi’s Prakritapraksha. Dravidian linguistic family includes Tamil, Malyalam, Telugu and Kannada. Tamil has the oldest literature followed by Kannada among the Dravidian languages. The Tolkappiyam is the oldest text of Tamil grammar. Many of the other Indian regional languages and dialects we are familiar with today took shape between c.1000 and 1500. It’s important to remember that these languages did not exist in isolation with each other but interacted and enriched each other.
Early Indian Literature
The Vedas (literally, knowledge) form the oldest surviving texts in the history of Indian subcontinent. It’s composed in Sanskrit which is different from the classical Sanskrit of Kalidasa’s poetry (The term ‘classical Sanskrit’ refers to the language whose rules were codified by the grammarian Panini around 4th/5th century BC). Vedic literature has the status of Shruti (literally, ‘that which has been heard’) in the Sanskrit tradition. Shruti works are considered to have been heard and transmitted by earthly sages, as contrasted to Smriti that which is remembered by ordinary human beings.
There are four Vedas – Rig, Sama, Yajur and Atharva. The Rig Veda is a collection of 1028 hymns (suktas) that are arranged in ten books. These verses are of extraordinary literary beauty and philosophical depth. For example, Book 7 of the Rig Veda Samhita refers to the battle of 10 kings in which the king Sudas defeated the army of his enemies who had formed a confederacy against him. This episode was most likely a historical one which was recorded in the first Veda for passing down to future generations. Similarly, the recording of geography of Vedic people was an attempt to map the landscape and make the ruling elite more informed about the rivers, mountains and plain of their inhabited areas. The geography that emerges from Rig Vedic literature is of Indus river valley and Punjab.
The Sam Veda consists of 1810 verse mostly borrowed from Rig Veda. It’s a book of prayers and chants modified and adapted to musical tune for the purpose of singing them during rituals. The original melodies are lost. But the musical prayers and chants were passed down the generations. The Yajur Veda deals with the correct ways of performing rituals. The Atharva Veda has spells and charms in addition to hymns. Clearly, all the four Vedas served the purpose of different forms of cultural communication, remembering past or liturgical.
Vedic literature belongs to the Brahmanical tradition of learning. It cannot be attributed to a single author as it was composed by a number of scholars over a long period of time. The texts were preserved and transmitted by a section of Brahman males. Early Veda does contain some verses by some women scholars like Gargi but their number are far and few. So historians argue that it reflects the religious beliefs, practices and points of view of male Brahmans.
The Ramayana and Mahabharata
Both these texts Ramayan and Mahabharat are examples of Sanskrit epics. They narrate powerful stories that have captured the imagination of millions of people over the centuries. Ramayana is also sometimes classified as kavya. The basic story in Ramayan is about Rama, Prince of Kosala kingdom, his banishment to the forest due to the intrigues of his wicked stepmother, the abduction of his wife Sita by Ravana, the king of Lanka, Sita’s rescue and Rama’s return to the capital Ayodhaya to become the king. Traditionally, Valmiki is identified as the author of the text as he appears in the text twice.
This text did not simply communicate heroism but stressed on certain social and cultural norms evolving in that period. For instance, It advocated the rule of primogeniture strongly to the audience. Ram’s right to succeed to the throne becomes inviolable given his position as the eldest son. Similarly, Valmiki’s Ramyana also communicated a particular form of gender relation i.e. total devotion of wife to her husband. Sita is celebrated for accompanying her husband Ram to the fourteen years of exile in the forest. It also advocated a greater control over women by their male relatives to the audience. It served the function of strengthening patriarchy with its account of Sita’s ordeal by fire to prove her chastity and her eventual banishment in the face of social criticism.
The Ram story went through numerous retellings primarily because it became a powerful vehicle of communicating a set of ideas depending on the cultural needs of the author. For instance, in the Jaina version (the Paumachariyu of Vimalsuri in Prakrit) Ram embodies all Jaina virtues including non violence and Ravana is represented as a tragic figure who is killed by Lakshmana. Ramcharitmanas (16th century) by Tulsidas presented Ram as a divine figure as well as maryadapurshottam (the ideal man).
In contrast, the presence of strong women characters in the epic tale of Mahabharata makes it a different text than Ramayana. Mahabharata is traditionally attributed to the sage Vyas. The basic story is about a fratricidal conflict between the Kauravas and Pandavas (who are two sets of cousins) fought at Kurukshetra. Scholars date this war to 1000 B.C. A number of other stories, didactic narratives containing teachings were added over centuries which made it truly encyclopaedic. The additions like the sermon on dharma given by Bhishma as he lay dying on a bed of arrows or the discourse of Krishna to Arjuna on the eve of the war, known as the Bhagwad Gita had clear ideas to communicate. They are didactic in nature.
Legal literature composed in ancient India communicated the norms to be followed by the society. For instance, Manu Smriti, (composed between c. 200 B.C to 200 A.D) lays down rule for marriage, inheritance of property etc. It condemns marriage between a dvija man and a Shudra woman. However, it indirectly acknowledges the prevalence of such marriages when it lays down the rules for inheritance of property for sons born of a Brahmin, Kshatriya or Vaishya father by a Shudra woman. Similarly, it states that a widow should not remarry but at another place talks about the inheritance rights of sons whose mother had married twice. Such contradictions in the legal texts reveal the tension between theory and practice within the Brahmanical tradition. Regarding meat eating, one finds similar injunctions. In one place, Manu Smriti forbids meat eating while includes it among the items to be offered to a Brahmana invited to a shraddha (ceremonies in hounor of ancestors).
Buddhist, Jain and Sangam literature
The emergence of Buddhism in the early India saw the composition of Buddhist literature in Pali language which includes Tipitaka (the three baskets), Jatakas (Stories of previous births of the Buddha) and non canonical texts like Milindpanho (the questions of Milind). Communication of Buddhist religious beliefs and philosophy to the monks and laypersons remained at the core of these compositions.
The Tipitaka consists of three books- the Sutta, Vinaya and Abhidhamma. The Sutta Pitaka contains Buddha’s discourses on various doctrinal issues in dialogue form. Dialogue form was chosen for composition for effective communication to the audience. The Vinaya Pitaka has rules for monks and nuns of the sangha (monastic order). The last pitaka contains a comprehensive study of the teachings of the Sutta Pitaka through lists, summaries, questions and answers. The Jataka stories narrate the previous births of the Buddha often in the form of an animal or a bird. Its composition can be placed between the 3rd -2nd century B.C. It’s important to analyse the historical context of their production which will also illuminate the intended audience for these texts.
Buddhist tradition refers to the recital of Sutta and Vinaya Pitakas at the first council of monks held at Rajagriha immediately after Buddha’s death as well at the second council at Vaishali. But Scholars argue that their composition must have spread over several centuries upto Ashoka’s priod who convened the third council in the 3rd century B.C.
The canon of Buddhist literature also saw the composition of Therigatha (Songs of Buddhist monks and nuns). It narrates women’s experience of renunciation and it would have meant for a women audience. Therefore, it becomes an important text, one of the few attributed to women authorship. Following verses capture one such experience of renunciation by a nun, Mitta’s song (Mitta was a Sakya woman of Kapilavastu). The first verse of her song speaks of the observances she followed as a lay woman, the second of her life after she became a nun.
To be reborn among the gods,
I fasted and fasted
Every two weeks, day eight, fourteen, fifteen And a special day.
Now with a shaved head and Buddhist robes I eat one meal a day.
I don’t long to be a god.
There is no fear in my heart.
The sacred books of Jainas are collectively known as the Siddhanta or Agama composed in Prakrit. According to the Svetamber tradition, the Agamas were compiled at a council held at Pataliputra. The compilation of the entire canon is supposed to have taken place in the 5th or 6th century at a council held in Valabhi in Gujarat. This assembly was presided over by Devarddhi Kshamashramana. Jaina literature offers information regarding the history and doctrines of Jainism, the doctrines of rival schools, the life stories of the saints, and the life of the monks and nuns in the sangha. It was meant for Jain monks and followers. Jain texts also include hymns and lyrical poetry. Jain Puranas contain hagiographies of the Jain saints known as Tirthankars. For instance, the Adi Purana (9th century) narrates the life of the first tirthankar, Rishabh also known as Adinath. The 8th century Harivamsa Purana gives a Jain version of the stories of the Kauravas, Pandavas, Krishna and Balram. The vast Jaina didactic story (Katha) literature in Sanskrit, Prakrit and Apbhramsha was meant for the lay people, the followers of Jainism.
Sangam literature or the early classical Tamil literature represents the earliest literary work compiled in the duration of three literary gatherings in the period 3rd century B.C- 3rd century A.D in South India. Sangam poems can be categorised into –Akam and Puram. A.K. Ramanujan describes puram poetry as ‘public poetry’ which dealt with all kinds of themes other than love, such as good and evil, community and kingdom. The poems were modelled on the bardic songs of older times and were orally transmitted for an indefinite period before they were written down. The anthologies include a total of 2,381 poems ascribed to 473 poets, 30 of whom were women. The poets came from cities and villages and belonged to diverse social and professional backgrounds. They included teachers, merchants, carpenters, astrologers, goldsmiths, blacksmiths, soldiers, ministers and kings. Due to their varied themes and authorship, Sangam poems offer a rich perspective on everyday life of their period of composition.
The Tamil epic, Silpapadikaram (The Song of the Anklet) by Ilankovatikal composed in about the 5th-6th century A.D was intended for an elite, educated audience. But its likely that its recital would have reached to the common masses as well. The outline of the story goes like this. Kovalan, the son of a wealthy merchant and Kannaki are a young, happily married couple living in Puhar. Kovalan falls in love with a beautiful courtesan named Madhavi and abandons his wife. He eventually returns home after quarrelling with Madhavi. Kannaki welcomes him back and offers him her golden anklet to raise some money. They travel to Madurai, capital of the Pandaya king, accompanied by a Jaina nun named Kavundi. Kovalan goes off to sell his wife’s anklet. He is accused of stealing the queen’s anklet which looks just like Kannaki’s. Consequently, Kovalan is executed and Kannaki feels devastated. She proves her husbands inncence by producing the other one which contained rubies while the queen’s was filled with pearls. The king who had executed a man unjustly, dies of remorse, his wife dies of grief. Kannaki tears off her left breasts and hurls in onto the city in fury. Madurai is engulfed in flames. Kannaki joins her husband in heaven and comes to be worshipped as the ideal wife on earth.
In Medieval India too, copious literature was produced in a number of genre which served the primary purpose of communication. There were not only historical chronicles and books of advice for Princes composed but literature on a vast variety of subjects- from norms of comportment, travel, literature and prosody to astrology, and cuisine. In the following paragraphs, we will analyse some important texts.
Al-Biruni was one of the greatest scholars of early medieval period who authored Tahqiq-i-Hind (The book of Hind) in the 11th century. He travelled to India to satisfy his curiosity about the land and its people and to study their ancient texts in their own language. His text covered a large number of topics including Indian scripts, sciences, geography, astronomy, astrology, philosophy, literature, beliefs, customs, religion, festivals, rituals, social organization and laws. Before Al Biruni, Arab scholars had relied heavily on Greek works for knowing about Al Hind (the land of Hind). It was due to his commitment to original enquiry and research that Al Biruni learnt Sanskrit to study Indian intellectual achievements. His text continued to be an influential work throughout the stretch of medieval India.
Amir Khusrau enjoyed the patronage under several Khiljis and Tughluq Sultans in the late 13th and early 14th century. He was a prolific scholar who composed a number of historical works in the Persian language on the themes of military victories and love affair. Amir Khusrau was also a disciple of Chishti saint Sheikh Nizamuddin Awliya (d.1325 A.D). Khusrau’s poetry stands out for its universal sufi message that transcended religious and sectarian differences,
Raftam ba Kalisa-i Tarsa wa Yahud, Tarsa wa Yahud Jumlagi ry batu bud, Baryad-i wisal-i tu ba butkhana shudam, Tasbih-i butan Zamazam-i ishq-tubud
(I went to the Church of the Christian and of the Jew, and saw that both were facing you,
The desire to meet you took me to the temple of idols and I heard them singing your love songs)
Khusrau’s khazain al futuh records the military victories of Sultan Alauddin Khilji (r.1296-1316 A.D). It informs us that the Khilji Sultan had conquered Deogir, Ranthambhor, Chittor, Warangal, Madurai and the Mabar region. Similarly, he composed a number of other texts like Miftah ul futuh, Dewal Rani Khizr Khan (A tale of Romance between Prince Khizr Khan and Malwa Princess Dewal Rani).
The celeberated translation of Sanskrit epics into Persian language was a clear effort by the great Mughal emperor Akbar (reign 1556-1605 A.D) to facilitate inter-community communication. He sponsored the translation of epics like Ramayan and Mahabharat in addition to Kalhan’s Rajtaringini. It is interesting to note here the precise terms in which Abul Fazl explains Akbar’s encouragement of the translation of Hindu scriptures. In his introduction to the Persian translation of the Mahabharata, he wrote,
He (the emperor) has noticed the increasing conflict between the different sects of Muslims, on the one hand and also the jews and the Hindus, on the other, and also the endless show of repudiation of each others’ faith among them. The sagacious mind (of his excellence) then decided to arrange the translations of the sacred books of both the communities, so that with the blessing of the most revered and perfect soul of the age, they both refrain from indulging in hostility and disputes, seek the truth, find out each others’ virtues and vices and endeavour to correct themselves. Also in each community, a group of illiterates, fanatics and triflers gained prominence. Pretending to be the leaders of religion, they have misguided people with their frauds and fallacies to take as significant those matters which are far from the path of wisdom and prudence. These inauspicious impostors because of their ignorance or dishonesty misinterpret the ancient scriptures, the wise sayings and doings of the sages of the past. When books of both these communities are rendered in a simple, clear and pleasant style, simple hearted folks will appreciate the truth and be free from the trivialities of the fools who go around posing as learned and wise. It was therefore ordered that a translation in a plain style of the Mahabharata be prepared in collaboration with the experts of languages.’
As far as the genre of Akhlaq literature (literature on code of conduct) is concerned, one can turn towards a dastur al amal (manual) found in Abul Fazl’s Insha (collection of letters) which instructed Mughal officials (high or low), Princes and nobles on how to conduct themselves,
‘In all works, from routine mundane duties to prayers, they should endeavours to please God…They should not seek solitude like recluses, nor should they mix freely with the commoners as the people of the bazaar do.
When they are free from public work, they should read books written by the pious and saintly, such as the ones on akhlaq that cure moral and spiritual ailments…They should appreciate the truth of religion so that they do not fall into the trap of impostors.
The best prayer is service to humanity. They should welcome all with generosity, whether friends, foes, relatives or strangers.
And they should not interfere in any person’s religion. For, wise people in this worldly matter-which is transient- do not prefer that which harms…………… in moments of anger they should not give up the threat of reason. They should instruct the wise among their servants to check them when they are full of rage or overwhelmed with grief.’
If we turn our gaze away from elite literary productions to the literature produced by the common people, we have a rare autobiography in the 17th century Mughal India. A Jain Merchant Banarsidas (1586-1640’s) composed his autobiography and titled it Ardhkathanak (Half a Tale) in vernacular, Brajbhasha. Banarsidas not only wanted to record experiences of his life but he intended to communicate it to his friends and the posterity. Banarsi’s story is set against a backdrop of Mughal History, spanning the reign of three great kings- the Mughal emperors Akbar, Jahangir and Shahjahan. Banarsidas does not provide us with any great political or social commentary of the times, but he does give us some glimpses of a merchant’s life under the great Mughals.
The Eighteenth century saw the decline of Mughal Empire and the gradual process of colonization of Indian sub continent by the East India Company. The process of colonization was extremely violent and exploitative. The revolt of 1857 was first major resistance against company rule, though it was fought by the vestiges of old order. The Indian people offered resistance against unjust rule of the British government and demanded self rule. Gandhi’s arrival on the scene came as a shot in the arm for nationalism. The literature produced in the 19th and 20th century served the purpose of awakening nationalist consciousness among the people of India. The writings in this period also raised the question of caste and gender inequality as the debate over ‘nation’ took shape. In the following paragraphs, we will examine some such examples.
In 1909 Gandhi wrote a critique of colonialism and western civilization called Hind Swaraj (Indian Home Rule). Through his writing, he communicated to his readers the theory and practice of non violence. In the following excerpts Gandhi answers the queries and doubts of a reader,
‘READER: Is there any historical evidence as to the success of what you have called soul-force or truth force? No instance seems to have happened of any nation having risen through soul force. I still think that the evil doers will not cease doing evil without physical punishment.
GANDHI: …The force of love is the same as the force of the soul or truth. We have evidence of its working at every step. The universe would disappear without the existence of that force….if the story of the universe had commenced with wars, not a man would have been alive today. Those people who have been warred against have disappeared, as, for instance the natives of Australia, of whom hardly a man was left alive by the intruders.Mark, please that these natives did not use soul force in self defence, and it does not require much foresight to know that the Australians will share the same fateas their victims. Those that wield the sword shall perish by the sword.
The fact that there are so many men still alive in the world shows that it is based not on the force of arms but on the force of truth or love. Therefore, the greates and most unimpeachable evidence of the sources of this force is to be found in the fact that, in spite of the wars of the world, it still lives on.
In the face of powerful nationalist movement which also cracked open Indian society along the fault lines of sectarian identity, Tagore’s writing warned against militant nationalism. In the middle of the First World War, Tagore travelled to Japan and the United States. Everywhere, he warned his audience against equating love of one’s nation with the celeberation of military prowess. His lectures were published in a slim book titled Nationalism, that is perhaps his most powerful and compelling piece of non-fiction,
‘The political civilization (nation) which has sprung up from the soil of Europe and is overrunning the whole world, like some prolific weed is based upon exclusiveness. It is always watchful to keep the aliens at bay or to exterminate them. It is carnivorous and cannibalistic in its tendencies, it feeds upon the resources of other peoples and tries to swallow their whole future. It is always afraid of other races achieving eminence, naming it as a peril and tries to thwart all symptoms of greatness outside its own boundaries forcing down weaker races n to be in their place. But while trying to free minds from the arrogant claims of Europe and to help purselves out of the quicksands of our infatuation, we may go to other extremes and bind ourselves with a wholesale suspicion of the west….There is always the natural temptation in us of wishing to pay back Europe in her own coin, and return contempt for contempt. But that again would be to imitate Europe in one of her worst features, which comes out in her behaviour to people whom she describes as yellow or red, brown or black.’
The nation spoke in many voices. One influential voice was of Ambedkar, who had risen against all social odds. In December 1935, Ambedkar was invited by the Jat Pat Todak Mandal, a Hindu reform organization based in the Punjab, to deliver the presidential address at their annual conference. However when Ambedkar sent them the text of his address the invitation was withdrawn. He then published his speech, ‘How to annihilate caste’, a brilliant and withering indictment of the caste system, at his own expense,
‘The Brahmin’s primary concern is to protect ‘his interest’ against those of the non- Brahmins and the non-Brahmin’s primary concern is to protect their interests against those of the Brahmins. The Hindus, therefore, are not merely an assortment of castes but they are so many warring groups each living for itself and for its selfish ideal. There is no doubt in my opinion, that unless you change your social order you can achieve little by way of progress. You cannot build anything on the foundation of caste. You cannot build up a nation, you cannot build up morality. Anything that you will build on the foundations of caste will crack and will never be a whole. The only question that remains to be considered is – How to bring about the reform of the Hindu social order? How to abolish caste?’
The gross gender inequality in the Indian society came to be debated in the feminist literature. In 1942, Kamaladevi Chhattopadhyay was elected the president of the All India Women’s conference. Since she was then in jail she could not assume office. However, after her release from prison in 1944, she presided over the annual conference of the women’s conference held that year in Bombay. Following is the brief excerpt which highlights a feminist perspective on India’s freedom struggle,
‘The Women’s movement does not seek to make women either fight men or imitate them. It rather seeks to instil into them a consciousness of their own faculties and functions and create respect for those of other sex. Thus alone can society be conditioned to accept the two as equals. To fit women theoretically and practically into this scheme, women have to be encouraged to develop their gifts and talents. This has therefore to be one of the main planks of the movement.’