Nearly all Sanskrit literature, except that dealing with grammar and philosophy, is in verse. The first period (c.500–c.50 B.C.) of the Sanskrit age is one of epics. They are divided into two main groupings—the natural epics, i.e., those derived from old stories, and those which come from artificial epics called kavya. The oldest and most representative of the natural school is the Mahabharata, while the oldest and best-known of the artificial epics is the Ramayana. The Puranas, a group of 18 epics, didactic and sectarian in tone, are a direct offshoot of the Mahabharata.
In the court epics (c.200 B.C.–c.A.D. 1100), most of which were derived from the Ramayana, subject matter gradually became subordinated to form, and elaborate laws were set up to regulate style. The lyric poems are artificial in technique and mainly stanzaic. The most common form, the sloka, developed from the Vedic anushtubh, a stanza of four octosyllabic lines. Part of the lyric poetry is comprised of gemlike miniatures, portraying emotion and describing nature; most of it is erotic. However, many lyrics are ethical in tone. These reflect the doctrine of the transmigration of souls in a prevailing melancholy tone and stress the vanity of human life.
Sanskrit drama (c.A.D. 400–A.D. 1100) had its beginnings in those hymns of the Rig-Veda which contain dialogues. Staged drama probably derives from the dance and from religious ceremonial. It is characterized by the complete absence of tragedy; death never occurs on the stage. Other typical features are the alternation of lyrical stanzas with prose dialogue and the use of Sanskrit for some characters and Prakrit for others (see Prakrit literature).
In Sanskrit drama the stories are borrowed from legend, and love is the usual theme. The play almost always opens with a prayer and is followed by a dialogue between the stage manager and one of the actors, referring to the author and the play. There were no theaters, so the plays were performed in the concert rooms of palaces. The most famous drama was the Sakuntala of Kalidasa. Other major dramatists were Bhasa, Harsa, and Bhavabhuti (see Asian drama).
There is a didactic quality in all of Sanskrit literature, but it is most pronounced in fairy tales and fables (c.A.D. 400–A.D. 1100). Characteristically, different stories are inserted within the framework of a single narration. The characters of the tale themselves tell stories until there are many levels to the narrative. The Panchatantra is the most important work in this style. The sententious element reached its height in the Hitopadesa, which was derived from the Panchatantra.
Sanskrit literature of the modern period consists mainly of academic exercises. The main body of modern Indian literature is written in various vernacular languages as well as in English.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.