Indian literature

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The earliest works of Indian literature were orally transmitted. Sanskrit literature begins with the oral literature of the Rig Veda. The Sanskrit epics Ramayana and Mahabharata appeared towards the end of the first millennium BCE. Classical Sanskrit literature developed rapidly during the first few centuries of the first millennium BCE, as did the Tamil Sangam literature, and the Pāli Canon.


  • The Mussalman invaders sacked the Buddhist universities of Nalanda, Vikramshila, Jagaddala, Odantapuri to name only a few. They razed to the ground Buddhist monasteries with which the country was studded. The monks fled away in thousands to Nepal, Tibet and other places outside India. A very large number were killed outright by the Muslim commanders. How the Buddhist priesthood perished by the sword of the Muslim invaders has been recorded by the Muslim historians themselves. Summarizing the evidence relating to the slaughter of the Buddhist Monks perpetrated by the Musalman General in the course of his invasion of Bihar in 1197 AD, Mr. Vincent Smith says, "The Musalman General, who had already made his name a terror by repeated plundering expeditions in Bihar, seized the capital by a daring stroke... Great quantities of plunder were obtained, and the slaughter of the 'shaven headed Brahmans', that is to say the Buddhist monks, was so thoroughly completed, that when the victor sought for someone capable of explaining the contents of the books in the libraries of the monasteries, not a living man could be found who was able to read them. 'It was discovered,' we are told, 'that the whole of that fortress and city was a college, and in the Hindi tongue they call a college Bihar.'
    • B. R. Ambedkar, "The decline and fall of Buddhism," Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches, Vol. III, Government of Maharashtra. 1987, p. 232-233, quoting Vincent Smith
  • As the Mahabharata resembles the Iliad in being the story of a great war fought by gods and men, and partly occasioned by the loss of a beautiful woman from one nation to another, so the Ramayana resembles the Odyssey, and tells of a hero's hardships and wanderings, and of his wife's patient waiting for reunion with him.
  • In one sense drama in India is as old as the Vedas, for at least the germ of drama lies in the Upanishads.
  • Ever since Sir William Jones translated it and Goethe praised it, the most famous of Hindu dramas has been the Sbakuntala of Kalidasa.
  • Perhaps the final stimulus to drama came from the intercourse, established by Alexander's invasion, between India and Greece.
  • Hindu literature is especially rich in fables; indeed, India is probably responsible for most of the fables that have passed like an international currency across the frontiers of the world.
  • It strikes everyone in beginning to form an acquaintance with the treasures of Indian literature, that a land so rich in intellectual products and those of the profoundest order of thought..."
    • Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel . in De Riencourt, Amaury The Soul of India Harper & Brothers Publishers New York 1960 p. 301
  • "I am quite ready to take the Oriental learning at the valuation of the Orientalists themselves. I have never found one among them who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia. The intrinsic superiority of the Western literature is indeed fully admitted by those members of the committee who support the oriental plan of education. [...] It is, I believe, no exaggeration to say, that all the historical information which has been collected from all the books written may be found in the most paltry abridgments used at preparatory schools in England."
  • Human life would not be sufficient to make oneself acquainted with any considerable part of Hindu literature.
    • William Jones, source: Language in Contemporary India, Suresh K. Sharma.Quoted from Gewali, Salil (2013). Great Minds on India. New Delhi: Penguin Random House.
  • Since the Renaissance there has been no event of such world-wide significance in the history of culture as the discovery of Sanskrit literature in the latter part of the eighteenth century.
    • Arthur A. Macdonell, A History of Sanskrit Literature Chapter 1
  • Sikander burnt all books the same wise as fire burns hay. All the scintillating works faced destruction in the same manner that lotus flowers face with the onset of frosty winter.
    • About Sikandar Butshikan. Srivara, Zaina Rajtarangini.
  • We cannot explain the development of the whole of this great literature if we assume as late a date as round about 1200 BC or 1500 BC as its starting-point.
    • M. Winternitz: History of Indian Literature (1907, reprint by Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi 1987), vol. 1, p.288.
  • 'Those who expect', writes he, 'from a people like the Hindus a species of composition of precisely the same character as the historical works of Greece and Rome commit the very gregarious error of overlooking the peculiarities which distinguish the natives of India from all other races, and which strongly discriminate their intellectual productions of every kind from those of the West. Their philosophy, their poetry, their architecture, are marked with traits of originality; and the same may be expected to pervade their history, which, like the arts enumerated, took a character from its intimate association with the religion of the people. It must be recollected, moreover,' that the chronicles of all the polished nations of Europe, were, at a much more recent date, as crude, as wild, and as barren, as those of the early Rajputs.' He adds, 'My own animadversions upon the defective condition of the annals of Rajwarra have more than once been checked by a very just remark: 'When our princes were in exile, driven from hold to hold, and compelled to dwell in the clefts of the mountains, often doubtful whether they would not be forced to abandon the very meal preparing for them, was that a time to think of historical records?' 'If we consider the political changes and convulsions which have happened in Hindustan since Mahmood's invasion, and the intolerant bigotry of many of his successors, we shall be able to account for the paucity of its national works on history, without being driven to the improbable conclusion, that the Hindus were ignorant of an art which has been cultivated in other countries from almost the earliest ages. Is it to be imagined that a nation so highly civilized as the Hindus, amongst whom the exact sciences flourished in perfection, by whom the fine arts, architecture, sculpture, poetry, music, were not only cultivated, but taught and defined by the nicest and most elaborate rules, were totally unacquainted with the simple art of recording the events of their history, the character of their princes and the acts of their reigns?' The fact appears to be that 'After eight centuries of galling subjection to conquerors totally ignorant of the classical language of the Hindus; after every capital city had been repeatedly stormed and sacked by barbarous, bigoted, and exasperated foes; it is too much to expect that the literature of the country should not have sustained, in common with other interests, irretrievable losses.'
    • James Tod, quoted in K.S. Lal, The Legacy of Muslim Rule in India
  • Of the Vedic poetic art Watkins writes: “The language of India from its earliest documentation in the Rigveda has raised the art of the phonetic figure to what many would consider its highest form”.
    • Watkins quoted from Nicholas Kazanas, "Indo-European Deities and the Rigveda," JIES 29 (2001), p. 257. quoting Watkins
  • Tibet preserved as best as it could, what India was no longer in a position to do. For example, 4000 books belonging to the Sanskrit, Pali and Prakrit literature were translated into Tibetan language. Today, about 3800 of them are no longer even known in India. They were so completely destroyed. The work of destruction was so complete. Today much of old India is found in neighbouring countries like Tibet and Siam and Cambodia; and India's old past history cannot be reconstructed except with their aid.
    • Ram Swarup, On Hinduism (2000)
  • [...] India has as rich a culture, as creative an imagination and wit and humor as any China has to offer, and that India was China's teacher in religion and imaginative literature, and the world's teacher in trigonometry, quadratic equations, grammar, phonetics, Arabian Nights, animal fables, chess, as well as in philosophy, and that she inspired Boccaccio, Goethe, Herder, Schopenhauer, Emerson, and probably also old Aesop.
    • The Wisdom of China and India - By Lin Yutang p. 3-4
  • In the ancient Indian scriptures, the idea of man is quite illimitable and sublime … He is at length lost in the Supreme Entity himself.
    • Henry David Thoreau. source: Walden, Henry David Thoreau. Quoted from Gewali, Salil (2013). Great Minds on India. New Delhi: Penguin Random House.
  • “By annihilating native literature, by sweeping away from all sources of pride and pleasure in their own mental efforts, by rendering a whole people dependent upon a remote and unknown country for all their ideas and the words in which to clothe them, we should degrade their character, depress their energies and render them incapable of aspiring to any intellectual distinction.”
    • (Horace Wilson: “Education of the natives of India”, Asiatic Journal (1836), quoted p.26) quoted from Koenraad Elst, On Modi Time : Merits And Flaws of Hindu Activism In Its Day Of Incumbency – 2015 Ch 29
  • India was China’s teacher in religion and imaginative literature, and the world’s teacher in trigonometry, quadratic equations, grammar, phonetics, Arabian Nights, animal fables, chess, as well as in philosophy, and she inspired Boccaccio, Goethe, Herder, Schopenhauer, Emerson, and probably also old Aesop.
    • Lin Yutang. source: The Wisdom of China and India, Lin Yutang. Quoted from Gewali, Salil (2013). Great Minds on India. New Delhi: Penguin Random House.
  • “Scarcely a subject can be named, with the single exception of historiography, not furnishing a greater number of texts, and commentaries or commentaries on commentaries, than any other language of the ancient world”.
    • Monier Williams, in his Sanskrit-English dictionary (Introduction, page 21). quoted in [1]
  • It is the duty of Indian writers to give expression to the changes taking place in Indian life and to assist the spirit of progress in the country by introducing scientific rationalism in literature. They should undertake to develop an attitude of literary criticism which will discourage the general reactionary and revivalist tendencies on questions like family, religion, sex, war and society and to combat literary trends reflecting communalism, racial antagonism, sexual libertinism…
  • It is the object of our Association [IPWA] to rescue literature from the conservative classes... to bring the arts into the closest touch with the people… as well as lead us to the future we envisage.
    • Manifesto of the IPWA. Quoted in : Soviet-Pakistan Relations and Post-Soviet Dynamics, 1947–92, Hafeez Malik; A History of the Indian Novel in English, Ulka Anjaria; Marxist Cultural Movement in India: 1936-1947; Comintern Aesthetics.

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