Sanskrit and Sangama Literature

The story of Rama is versified in the Ramayana; the life of Krishna is narrated in the Mahabharata; the Puranas contain the legends and tales of different dynasties; the chronicles of Buddha's life are found in the Jataka tales; while the Agama literatures tell us about the story of the Jain Tirthankaras.

In the last episode we saw how these religious texts are used by the historians to deduce historical inferences and reconstruct the history of the bygone times.

Contemporary Sanskrit and Sangama Literature

Namaskar and welcome to another halt of our journey in time. The past is past, without knowing about it we are often condemned to repeat its darker sides. This phenomenon of human life makes the study of history all the more imperative. Important thus not only is the history of the rulers and the ruled, but also those of the ideas and philosophies that we still continue.

Apart from religious texts that are available to us to know about the ancient Indian society, a large body of non-religious texts is also available to us in the form of treatises, plays, poems, biographies, commentaries etc. These texts are essentially non-religious or secular in nature. Of these, the most important perhaps is the Arthashastra of Kautilya.

The Arthashastra is believed to have been written by Chanakya, the clever and able Brahmin who uprooted the Nandas, helped Chandragupta to ascend the throne of Magadha and became his guide and advisor — it was actually not so. The Arthsastra, in fact, was put into shape nearly five hundred years after Chandragupta — around A.D. 300. Nor is it the work of one author. A computer generated study done recently indicates that three or four authors contributed to it. And although it is the oldest text available to us on statecraft, it mentions as its predecessors, not less than five schools and thirteen individual writers on the subject. Moreover, though the work seems to relate to the age of the Mauryas and especially of Chandragupta, one must remember that what the author wants to project is an ideal state — things as they should be. Hence one needs to be very careful when using the text as historical material. Having said this, it must be admitted that the Arthasastra is a unique and outstanding work of ancient India dealing with practically “every aspect of the theory and practice of government”. Among the subjects it covers are: duties of the king, municipal government, warfare and the use of spies, social customs including rights of women, taxation and economy, irrigation, ships and navigation, census operations, jails, various wings of the army like the cavalry, infantry, chariots and elephants; markets and even horticulture. The author of the Arthasastra has often been called the Indian Machiavelli, but he is certainly more than that. The Arthasastra is much wider in scope dealing with many more aspects of government and society than in Machiavelli’s Prince. And although written much later than the period it refers to, it does help us to reconstruct the character and the times of Chandragupta Maurya.

Another work dealing with this period but of an altogether different nature is the play Mudrarakshasa of Vishakhadutt. This text like that of the Arthasastra, is of a much later day, written during the period of the Guptas, and has as its subject the court intrigues at the time of Chandragupta Maurya. It is largely through this play that the character of Chanakya emerges as we know him today.

Literature, they say, is a mirror of the times and we are fortunate in having a number of plays come down to us from ancient times; although we shall never know the number of not only plays but other literary works which have been lost to us during this passage of time.

Of the plays that are available to us, the most famous is Kalidasa’s Shakuntala with its author - Kalidasa.

Sanskrit plays or natakas constitute a rich source for the history of ancient India and Kalidasa enjoys the status of the most eminent playwright of ancient India. His play Sakuntala has enjoyed immense popularity not only here in India but practically the world over ever since Sir William Jones published an English translation of it in 1789.

Among other well-known plays of Kalidasa are Malvika-Agnimitra, Kumar-Sambhava and Meghduta.

In Kalidasa we find this literary form in full maturity but it is difficult to trace its development. Kalidasa himself mentions his predecessors many of whose works seem to have disappeared forever. The one playwright, who was praised by many of his successors including Kalidasa, was Bhasa.

A bunch of thirteen plays of Bhasa was discovered in the early years of the last (twentieth) century. Of these thirteen - the most well known is Swapnavasvadatta. The precise date of Bhasa is not known, but considering the style of the language together with the dates of other playwrights who mention him — Bhasa may be placed in the second or the third century A.D.

The oldest playwright known to us is, however, Asvaghosh, who was a contemporary of Kanishka, the Kushana ruler who ruled in the First century AD.

Asvaghosha’s three plays were discovered in Turfan in Central Asia. The most well-known of these is Sariputra Prakarana, which is based on the conversion of Sariputta by the Buddha.

Asvaghosha is more famous for his work Buddhacharita, written in an epic style describing the life of the Buddha. The work enjoyed a popularity not only in India but also China and Tibet.

Another of Kalidasa’s predecessors was Shudraka, whose play Mrichcchakatikam or the ‘Clay Cart’ “gives us a glimpse into the mind and civilization of the day.”

Drama, as a form of literature enjoyed such popularity in ancient India that even Harsha - the famous king of Kanauj in the seventh century - is said to have authored at least three plays himself. Of the three, Ratnavali - a romantic comedy - is perhaps the best known.


For a historian, more than the dramas, it is the biographies which are much more important — dealing as they do directly with historical incidents and personalities, although in an exaggerated form and style.

Of the biographies, the most well known is Harshacharita, that of king Harsha we have just mentioned, by Banabhatta.

Some other works in this class were Vakpatiraja’s Gaudavaho (A.D. 725), which centers around King Yasovarman of Kanauj. According to Romila Thapar, this “was the last major work in the older tradition of Prakrit literature.”

Another well known biographical work was Vikramdevacharita by Bilhana (eleventh century) in which we find the story of the Chalukya king Vikramaditya.

Two another pieces of non-religious literature available to us to study the past are the the Panchatantra of Vishnu Sharma and Ashtadhyayi of Panini. The former is a collection of fables meant for imparting instruction in statecraft. Each fable - many with animals as characters - has a moral attached to it. “Never was a school textbook better written”, says A.L. Basham.

Panini’s Ashtadhyayi is a work of Sanskrit grammar - the oldest and the best in this category anywhere in the world. Composed around 400 B.C., the work yields valuable material on the society and economy of the times.

Sangam Literature

The works we have described were all composed in north India. At the turn of the Christian era, that is, around the first century A.D., we find the first evidence of a rich literary tradition in the south. The origins of this tradition are lost in myths and unverifiable legends. It is said that Madura, the capital of the Tamil country, hosted three major sangams or congregations of literateurs. Nothing remains of the first sagam. Of the second, only one work, Tolkappiyam - a Tamil Grammar (composed in about 500 B.C.) - survives. With the third sangam, we enter into a historical phase.

At the third Sangama was compiled the Ettuthogai or eight anthologies comprising over 2000 poems, which as Basham says, “are the greatest monument of ancient Tamil literature.” Though basically these are works of literature, they provide “a mine of useful information regarding the life of the Tamils of about two thousand years ago.”

They also help us reconstruct the early political history of the region by providing information on the Pandyas, Cholas and the Cheras — the three important ruling dynasties of the south. Among these compositions is the famous Kural of Tiruvalluvar. According to tradition, he faced great difficulty in getting his work approved by the third sangam, but later it was accepted as a masterpiece and enjoys great popularity even today.

About the Sangama literature, famous German writer Albert Schweitzer had once said, “There hardly exists in the literature of the world a collection of maxims in which we find so much lofty wisdom.”

The literature, whether religious or secular in nature, is the reflection of the society and truly one of the best source for unravelling the past. The rituals, customs, manners, practices, traditions, lingual articulations and narrations contained in these texts, provide a mine of information about the life styles and living conditions of the different strata of the society.

However, while all these literary gems are of indigenous origin, there are some invaluable literary compilations from the hands of the foreigners.

We will tell you more about it in the next episode of the History of India.

It's Good Bye for now.

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