Sanskrit Literature

The Vedas marked the beginning of literature in Sanskrit. There are four Vedas, the Rig, the Yajur, the Sama and the Atharva. Scholars find these works should have been composed between 2000 BC and 600 BC. This is approximately the period of pre-classical Sanskrit, which came to be known later as Vedic Sanskrit. Of these, the Rig Veda contains hymns, to be recited by the chief priest of the yajna, a sacrifice. Rig Veda has 1028 hymns in it. But they are not the work of a single author, but of several authors. This is established from the fact that the style of the language and the way it is structured has a lot of changes, variations. It is not only that several authors can be seen behind the work, but several centuries too. The Yajurveda has certain formulas, to be recited by the officiating priest. The Yajurveda has not much of any literary brilliance. It is all simple and straight prose. The Samaveda, contains formulas of songs, and to be chanted by the special singers. The last one, the Atharva veda contains incantations, spells, charms and hymns. And this veda is of brilliant literary qualities. The early people of India were not in the habit of recording the happenings around them. Quite naturally, there has not been any record about the writing of the Vedas. The Hindu masters have described the four Vedas as apaurusheya, to mean 'not of any human work', but directly revealed. And so these are shrutis (what is heard) and to be kept as smrutis (to be kept memorized). The sages who composed the Vedas were seers or whose who were able to see things clearly in their mind. They were described as mantradrashtas, or those who were able to see the mantras (the mystical utterance in a poetic syllabic structure). The stanzas of the vedas could have been handed down from generation to generation through the oral tradition, and later by writing them on the bark of certain trees or on palm leaves. These mediums would not last for long, but certain manuscripts have been traced by researchers from Nepal and Benares, some five hundred years ago.

The term 'Veda' means 'knowledge', 'wisdom' or 'vision' in English. The term has its root in 'vid'', which finds similarity in German, Swedish, Danish, Russian, Dutch and some other European languages. The Rig Veda was translated into German by Karl Geldner in 1920s, and it was reprinted by the Harvard University Press in 2003. All the Vedas too are available in English translation. These four vedas are considered as the foundation of Hindu traditions. But the later religious teachings in India, the Jainism, the Buddhism and Sikhism do not admit the vedas as the basic works defining the course of life. The laws of the vedas are said to regulate the social, legal, domestic and religious customs of the traditional Hindus. Each of the vedas consists of four parts – the Samhitas, the Brahmanas, the Aranyakas, and the Upanishads. The Samhitas are collections of mantras or hymns, the Brahmanas contain ritualistic texts, the Aranyakas theologies, and they serve as objects of meditation for ascetics living in forests and deal with mysticism and symbolism; and the Upanishads deal with philosophic problems. The Upanishads are intended for inner or mystic teaching. The term 'Upanishad' etymologically is 'sitting by the side of the teacher to learn' (upa = near, ni = down, shad = to sit). There are 108 important Upanishads out of which 10 are considered as the foundation. These ten are: the Isavasya Upanishad, the Kena Upanishad, the Katha Upanishad, the Prashna Upanishad, the Mundaka Upanishad, the Mandukya Upanishad, the Taittiriya Upanishad, the Aitareya Upanishad, the Chhandogya Upanishad, and the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad.

The Upanishads do not speak of any god of the religious context. But the god of the Upanishads is the Ultimate Reality, which is not cast in any mould, but is the ultimate itself, beyond which there is nothing. Though the Upanishads are mainly religious in their thrust, they rank high as literature.

The Vedic period is considered to be between approximately 2000 BC and 500 BC. Scholars have noted that the Sanskrit of this period is "highly archaic and pithy". It is at this point that Panini makes his appearance with his eight-chaptered grammar for Sanskrit, the Ashtadhyayi, which recorded the rules for the usage of the language. Containing some 4000 rules of word structure, and sentence structure, vowels, consonants, nouns, and verbs and morpho-phonemics or sandhi, Panini's great work is still used in the teaching of Sanskrit and also in discussions on comparative grammar. But before Panini, Sanskrit gave the world two of the greatest of works in literature – the magnificent epics of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, composed, according to scholars, between 12th and 2nd centuries BC. The two epics have "evolved through centuries and finally being put into writing sometime in the 2nd century AD", observed A.L. Basham, in his masterly work of history, The Wonder That Was India, and attested by other scholars.