Literature in Ancient India

Literature in Ancient India
Posted on 02-08-2023

Literature in Ancient India

India stands as a unique repository of knowledge and wisdom, where an abundance of literature has been crafted over centuries. Spanning more than 300 years, the literary tradition of India was largely shaped by Sanskrit, initially in its Vedic form and later in its classical form. This rich heritage of written expression has played a pivotal role in preserving and disseminating intellectual pursuits throughout the country's history.

Ancient Indian Literature

Ancient Indian literature boasts a remarkable tapestry of diverse literary forms, transcending the boundaries of religion. The Rig Veda, the oldest known Indian literary work, stands as a testament to the profound wisdom and expression of its time. Comprising 1028 hymns in Vedic Sanskrit, the Rig Veda lays the foundation for a plethora of literary masterpieces that followed.

While religious texts form a significant portion of the ancient Indian literature, it would be inaccurate to confine it solely to religious themes. Indian literature encompasses a vast array of genres, including epics, songs, dramatic and didactic poetry, narratives, scientific writings, oral poetry, and music, each contributing to the rich literary legacy of the land.

The Ramayana and the Mahabharata, two of the most renowned ancient Indian epics, have captivated generations with their epic tales of valor, morality, and complex human emotions. Preceding the Gupta dynasty, a vibrant period emerged where secular literary works flourished. Poetry and drama, in particular, reached their zenith during this era.

The literary landscape of ancient India was diverse, addressing political events, allegories, comedies, romances, and philosophical themes. Southern India, in particular, witnessed the rise of significant literary works written in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, and Malayalam, four Dravidian languages that developed their own distinct literature and script.

Among these languages, Tamil takes pride in being the earliest with a literary tradition dating back to the first decades of the Christian era. The establishment of three Sangams, gatherings of poets and writers, played a crucial role in shaping Tamil literature. Sangam literature delves into a myriad of themes, including politics, love, and warfare, leaving an indelible mark on the literary heritage of the region.

Vedic Literature

The period between the decline of the Indus Valley Civilization and the emergence of the second urbanization in the central Indo-Gangetic Plain around 600 BCE is known as the Vedic period or Vedic age (c. 1500–c. 500 BCE).

During this time, the Vedic literature was composed in the northern Indian subcontinent, between 1300 and 900 BCE. The Vedas, extensive collections of religious texts, were written in Vedic Sanskrit and hold a significant place in both Sanskrit literature and Hinduism. They are considered the earliest scriptures of Hinduism and are revered as sacred knowledge.

Traditionally, it is believed that the Vedas were passed down orally from one generation to the next, making them a part of the Shruti literature. The term "Shruti" means "that which is heard," emphasizing their oral transmission and divine origin. The four Vedas are the Rig Veda, Sama Veda, Yajur Veda, and Atharva Veda, each with its distinctive mantra text known as a Samhita.

In Vedic literature, there are two main categories: Shruti literature and Smriti literature.

  1. Shruti Literature: The term "Shruti Literature" refers to the sacred texts that include not only the Vedas but also the Brahmanas, Aranyakas, and Upanishads. The term "Shruti" emphasizes that these texts were divinely revealed and heard by ancient sages. As a result, they are considered eternal and form the foundation of Hindu religious practices and beliefs.

  2. Smriti Literature: On the other hand, "Smriti Literature" consists of supplementary texts that are based on human memory and are not considered divinely revealed like the Shruti texts. The term "Smriti" means "that which is remembered." Smriti literature comprises a diverse range of texts, including the Vedangas (ancillary sciences related to Vedic studies), Shad Darshana (the six philosophical systems of ancient India), Puranas (mythological and historical narratives), Itihasas (epic narratives like the Mahabharata and Ramayana), Upveda (auxiliary sciences like Ayurveda), Tantras (texts focused on rituals and spiritual practices), and Upangas (subsidiary texts).

The distinction between Shruti and Smriti literature is significant in understanding the basis and authority of various texts in the Hindu tradition. While the Vedas and their associated texts hold an immutable status due to their divine revelation, the Smriti texts are seen as valuable sources of knowledge that can evolve over time.

In summary, the Vedic period in India witnessed the composition of the Vedic literature, including the sacred Vedas, which were written in Vedic Sanskrit. These texts are classified into Shruti and Smriti literature, with the former considered divinely revealed and eternal, while the latter is considered supplementary and subject to human memory and interpretation. Together, these texts form the foundational scriptures of Hinduism and play a crucial role in shaping the religious and philosophical fabric of ancient India.

Ramayana And Mahabharata

The ancient Indian epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, have remained integral to the ethnic memory of the Indian people for millennia. Passed down through generations, these epics were originally transmitted orally by skilled singers and storytellers before being recorded in written form around the second century BCE.

Credited to Maharishi Valmiki, the Ramayana is an epic poem comprising 24,000 verses divided into seven Khandas, or volumes. Its poetic style serves both entertainment and educational purposes. The Ramayana narrates the heroic tale of Rama, the prince of Ayodhya, and imparts valuable lessons on how to achieve the four Purusharthas of human existence: Dharma (righteousness), Artha (prosperity), Kama (desires), and Moksha (liberation).

On the other hand, the Mahabharata stands as the longest poem ever written, consisting of one million lines. It is often referred to as the Itihasa Purana, meaning "Mythical History," as it not only portrays past events but also presents timeless truths and principles that continue to hold relevance. The Mahabharata, written by Vyasa, weaves together a complex narrative revolving around the succession struggle between the Pandavas and the Kauravas for the throne. It interweaves various incidents and subplots to create a grand epic.

One of the most significant sections of the Mahabharata is the Bhagavad Gita, a spiritual dialogue between Lord Krishna and the warrior prince Arjuna. This sacred conversation provides an integrated perspective on Dharma, emphasizing the performance of righteous duties in a selfless manner, known as Nishkama Karma.

Both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata transcend time and continue to captivate the hearts and minds of people across generations. They hold not only historical importance but also profound philosophical and ethical teachings that resonate with humanity's eternal quest for knowledge, wisdom, and virtue.

In summary, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are ancient Indian epics that have been cherished by generations as repositories of cultural and moral values. Rooted in the oral tradition, they were eventually recorded in writing and have since endured as timeless classics. While the Ramayana narrates the story of Rama and his quest for righteousness, the Mahabharata weaves together a rich tapestry of narratives, including the iconic Bhagavad Gita, which imparts profound lessons on righteous action and duty. Together, these epics epitomize the eternal essence of Indian literature and serve as a source of inspiration and guidance for humanity.


The Ramayana and the Mahabharata played pivotal roles in the development of Hinduism, branching out from the ancient Vedic faith. The term "Purana" in Sanskrit literally means "to resurrect the old," and it was during the third to eleventh centuries AD that the Puranas were written.

The Puranas form a vast corpus of literature that addresses a wide range of subjects, including cosmology, genealogy, medicine, astronomy, deities, grammar, demigods, heroes, and sages. One of their primary purposes was to establish the authenticity and significance of the Vedas to the general populace. To achieve this, the Puranas employ well-known folklore and mythological tales to convey profound philosophical and theological principles.

These sacred texts are enriched with numerous tales and anecdotes from India's religious, social, and cultural past. When paired with the Ithihasas (the Ramayana and the Mahabharata), the Puranas present a comprehensive picture of Indian history, mythology, and spirituality.

Attributed to Lomaharshana, also known as Ved Vyasa, the 18 Upa Puranas further supplement the main Puranas, adding additional layers of knowledge and understanding to various aspects of Hindu thought and belief.

Overall, the Puranas represent a treasure trove of wisdom, providing insights into the ancient Indian worldview, moral teachings, and profound spiritual truths. By blending mythology with philosophical concepts, these texts have played a vital role in shaping the multifaceted tapestry of Hinduism, making it a dynamic and evolving religion that continues to resonate with people from all walks of life.

Earlier Buddhist writings

In 483 BC, the teachings of the Buddha were thoroughly examined and endorsed during the First Council. Subsequently, these teachings were categorized into the Three Pitakas. Around 25 BCE, these instructions were committed to writing in the Pali language, constituting the earliest Buddhist literature.

The Sutta Pitaka is a compilation of dialogues between the Buddha and his disciples, capturing the essence of his teachings and insights. It offers profound philosophical and ethical discussions that continue to be a fundamental source of Buddhist doctrine.

Complementing the Sutta Pitaka is the Vinaya Pitaka, which comprises a comprehensive set of rules and guidelines for the organization and conduct of the monastic community. This code of discipline is vital in maintaining the harmony and ethical standards of the Buddhist monastic order.

The Abhidhamma Pitaka presents a systematic and analytical exploration of the philosophical teachings and intellectual contributions of the Buddhist monks. This intricate study of Buddhist thought delves into profound concepts and spiritual theories.

Beyond the Three Pitakas, the Buddhist literature includes essential texts like the Divyavadana, Dipavamsa, Mahavamsa, and Milind Panha, among others. The Milindapanho, for instance, is a compilation of conversations between the Indo-Greek king Menander and the Buddhist sage Nagasena, offering valuable insights into Buddhist philosophy and its application in daily life.

The Jatakas constitute another significant facet of early Buddhist literature, encompassing a collection of tales that have been widely depicted in sculptures and artworks. These narratives narrate the Buddha's previous lives as he progressed towards attaining enlightenment.

Notably, the Sanskrit book Buddhacharita, which beautifully chronicles the life of the Buddha, is credited to the renowned author Ashvaghosha. This biographical work offers a captivating portrayal of the Buddha's spiritual journey and teachings.

Together, the Buddhist scriptures and texts form a comprehensive body of knowledge that encapsulates the profound teachings, philosophy, and moral principles of Buddhism. They serve as a guiding light for millions of followers, fostering compassion, wisdom, and a path towards spiritual awakening.

Important Indian ancient Sanskrit literary works


The renowned play "Mudrarakshasa," authored by Visakhadatta, unfolds during a fascinating era in Indian history, spanning the 4th to 8th centuries CE. Set in the sixth century CE, the play revolves around Chanakya's compelling political intrigue, aiming to persuade Rakshasa to support Chandragupta's cause. Chanakya seeks Rakshasa's alliance to provide Chandragupta with a capable minister by his side. The title "Mudrarakshasa" alludes to Rakshasa's signet ring, which is taken by a spy for Chanakya, giving rise to the dramatic narrative.


The ancient Indian text "Arthashastra," attributed to the philosopher and prime minister Kautilya (also known as Chanakya), stands as a comprehensive treatise on statecraft, political science, economics, and military strategy. Composed in Sanskrit between the 2nd century BCE and 3rd century CE, the Arthashastra delves into various aspects of governance, economics, military tactics, and social organization. It serves as an invaluable guide encompassing the intricacies of politics, governmental functioning, and strategic administration.


Written by the celebrated poet Kalidasa, the Sanskrit play "Malavikagnimitram" dates back to the 5th century. It marks Kalidasa's debut play and draws inspiration from events during the reign of Pushyamitra Shunga. The narrative unfolds around Agnimitra, the Shunga Emperor in Vidisha, and his affection for the enchanting handmaiden of his chief queen, Malavika. The play weaves a captivating tale of love, intrigue, and royal court dynamics, offering a glimpse into the life and emotions of a powerful emperor.

These literary masterpieces, spanning different centuries and composed by brilliant minds, continue to enthrall readers and scholars alike. The enduring allure of these works lies in their profound insights into human nature, political machinations, and timeless themes that resonate across generations.


During the 5th century CE, the celebrated playwright Kalidasa authored the play "Vikramorvasiyam." The story revolves around a human who falls in love with a celestial maiden. Notably, the play is famous for a captivating "crazy scene" where a grieving king wanders through a picturesque forest, addressing various flowers and trees as if they were his beloved. According to one interpretation, the title's term "Vikrama" may allude to Vikramaditya, who was Kalidasa's patron king. This play remains an enduring masterpiece of its time, showcasing Kalidasa's exceptional literary prowess and creativity.


In the 5th century CE, the renowned poet Kalidasa crafted the literary masterpiece known as "Raghuvamsa." The play, attributed to Raghuvamsa Kalidasa, holds great honor and acclaim. It revolves around the ancestors, descendants, and legendary warrior Raghu, who exemplifies heroism and power. Raghuvamsa vividly chronicles the lives of India's most illustrious military rulers, among whom Lord Rama stands out as the most renowned, thanks to the preservation of his life's story in the ancient epic Ramayana. This play is a testament to Kalidasa's remarkable storytelling abilities and enduring legacy as a literary genius of his era.


During the 5th century CE, Sudraka authored the captivating drama "Mricchakatika," which unfolds during the reign of King Plaka of the Pradyota dynasty in the historic city of Ujjayani, India. The play follows the story of Vasantasena, a wealthy courtesan or nagarvadhu, who falls in love with Charudatta, a noble yet impoverished young Brahmin. "Mricchakatika" stands out among other Sanskrit plays of the time due to its focus on a hypothetical situation rather than retelling a classic tale or legend.

In the 6th century, Bharavi created the epic poem "Kiratarjuniya," which is hailed as one of the most powerful pieces of Sanskrit literature. The poem narrates the battle between Lord Shiva and Arjuna, who assumes the form of a kirata, a mountain-dwelling hunter, at Indrakeeladri Hills near Vijayawada. This epic, comprising eighteen cantos, ranks among the three main Sanskrit mahakavyas, along with "Naisadhacarita" and "Shishupala Vadha."

In the 7th or 8th century, Magha penned the "Shishupala Vadha," a masterpiece of classical Sanskrit poetry. This kavya, based on the Mahabharata, depicts Lord Krishna's wrath towards Shishupala, the king of the Chedis in central India, after the latter repeatedly insults him in an assembly, leading to Shishupala's demise.

The renowned "Kamasutra," authored by Vatsyayana, emerged during the period from 400 BCE to 300 CE. This remarkable work of Sanskrit literature defied traditional caste and class norms (varna and jati) and artfully combined prose with poetry in the anustubh meter. It explores various aspects of human life, including desire, sexuality, and emotional fulfillment, with reference to the Purusharthas or acceptable life goals. The book covers topics such as courtship, finding a partner, flirting, and maintaining a successful marriage.

Around the third century BCE to the third century CE, South India witnessed the Sangam Period, during which the four Dravidian languages—Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, and Malayalam—evolved with their own literature and scripts. The Sangam literature was anthologized and censored by distinguished thinkers at the sangams, gatherings of poets and scribes. The works from this period are among the earliest examples of Dravidian literature and encompass themes of politics, love, and war. Notable works include Ettutogai, Pattuppattu, and Tolkappiyam. Thiruvalluvar, the renowned author, wrote the influential Kural, addressing various aspects of life and religion. Elango Adigal's Silappathikaram and Sittalai Sattanar's Manimegalai are two other significant sagas from this era, offering insights into Sangam politics and society.

Importance of Ancient Indian Literary Works

Ancient Indian literary works hold immense significance beyond the well-known Vedas and epics. They offer valuable insights into various aspects of life, encompassing not only spiritual and mythological themes but also practical knowledge, governance, economics, and more.

One of the crucial contributions of ancient literature is the Dharmashastras, which elucidate a person's duties and character development. These texts also delve into fields like mathematics and science, revealing the intellectual depth of the ancient Indian scholars.

Kautilya's Arthashastra, written in Sanskrit, is a notable example that explores economic and governmental policies, showcasing the ancient understanding of statecraft and administration.

Buddhist literature written in the Pali language also gained popularity, encompassing diverse works on poetry, philosophy, and grammar, offering a comprehensive perspective on Buddhism's teachings and principles.

The ancient Indian literature not only enriches the mind but also influences a person's moral and ethical growth, guiding them on the path to happiness and self-discovery. The Vedas, Shastras, and Upanishads all play a crucial role in shaping an individual's character.

Sanskrit poets of the past covered a wide range of subjects in their writings, including love, nature, moral lessons, panegyric, and narratives. Their verses passionately celebrated physical love, viewing nature in connection with human emotions and experiences.

Among the remarkable literary achievements, Kalidasa's Sanskrit Kavya stands out, attaining a level of quality and perfection that remains unparalleled in the literary world. The elegance and depth of Kalidasa's works continue to inspire generations, leaving a lasting impact on literature and culture.

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