Indian literature refers to the literature produced on the Indian subcontinent until 1947 and in the Republic of India thereafter.
The Republic of India has 22 officially recognized languages. The earliest works of Indian literature were orally transmitted. Sanskrit literature begins with the Rig Veda a collection of sacred hymns dating to the period 1500-1200 bce. The Sanskrit epics Ramayana and Mahabharata appeared towards the end of the first millennium bce.
Classical Sanskrit literature flourished in the first few centuries of the first millennium ce, as did the Tamil Sangam literature, and the Pali Canon. While most traditions of historical writing were related to kings, other traditions developed around religious institutions.
These included the Buddhist, Jaina, and brahmanical institutions. Of these, the early Buddhist tradition is perhaps the best-known at present. Buddhist traditions record the convening of three (according to some versions four) Buddhist councils, where early Buddhist doctrines and teachings were recorded. Gradually, as the monastic order was consolidated, more systematic records were kept, and a system of chronology, marking years in terms of the mahaparinirvana or the death of the Buddha, was evolved.
Maintaining such records probably became more important as monasteries became rich institutions, receiving endowments of villages, lands, and other goods, as well as cash, from benefactors including kings. Such chronicles were best preserved in Sri Lanka, where there was a close bonding between the state and the monasteries. This relationship was documented in texts such as the Dipavamsa and the Mahavamsa.
However, our perception of the scope of history has now expanded considerably. To us therefore, history is much more than a chronicle of kings. But a close look at the ancient historical works suggest that many of our concerns today were over looked or lost sight of in them.
Many of the ancient works were composed by literate men, generally (though not always) Brahmanas, for consumption by the ruling elite. They were designed to proclaim and legitimize claims to power by aspirants. They were also deployed to consolidate claims of more established rulers. Thus, the concerns of both authors and patrons seem rather narrow. Vast sections of the population, including common women and men, find little or no place within such narratives.
At the outset, these texts were opened up for security using modern techniques of analysis in the colonial context. Works that purported to be itihas as (literally ‘so it was’) and piranhas (‘old’) were compared with histories produced in ancient Greece and Rome, and were found wanting.
They were found to be especially deficient in terms of spatial and chronological precision, which was regarded as the minimum requirement of a historical work. And this was then used to argue, implicitly and often explicitly, that, as they lacked a sense of history, early Indians and by extension their descendants were intellectually inferior to their western counterparts. Evidently, history and notions of the past were inextricably enmeshed in notions of power.
As few earliest instances of events that were regarded as significant by those who chronicled them, come from the Rigveda (c. second millennium bce). These include verses that were identified as danastutis (literally ‘in praise of gifts’). These were priests, and usually mention the name of the donor.
Traditionally, the Mahabharata is recognized as in itihasa while the Ramayana is regarded as mahakavya (great poem). Each of these texts has a long and complicated history. The kernel of the stories contained in the epics may date back to the early centuries of the first millennium bce, but the texts were finally written down much later (c. fourth- fifth centuries ce.) As such, the texts have undergone alterations and additions over several centuries.
The Kurus and Panchalas in general are mentioned in later Vedic literature (c. first half of the 1st millennium bce). While both these lineages were important in the Mahabharata, references to specific personages mentioned in the epic are relatively sparse in the Vedic corpus.
References to the locale of the Ramayana, Kosala and Videha, are even fewer, and, once again, the principle characters of the epic hardly figure in later Vedic literature. Archaeological excavations and explorations indicate that sites such as Hastinapura and Indraprastha (associated with Mahabharat) and Ayodhya (associated with the Ramayana) were small, pre-urban settlements during this period.
The Mahabharata contains the genealogies of the lunar (chandravamsa) lineage, while the Ramayana contains the genealogy of the solar (suryavamsa) lineage. Several ruling families in the early medieval period (c. seventh century ce) traced descent from these lineages. While the genealogies may not be literally true, they are important for what they suggest about socio-political processes.
By the middle of the first millennium ce, another category of literature, the puranas, was written down. Like the epics, the antecedents of the Puranas can be traced back for several centuries. And as in the case of the Mahabharata, a social group known as the sutas evidently played an important role in the composition, complication and transmission of at least some of the narratives that were included in the Puranas.
The sutas are often regarded as bards. They were important in early states, so much so that they are listed amongst the “jewels” or principal supporters of the raja in the later Vedic texts. They were expected to act as messengers of the king, accompany him in battle, and maintain as well as narrate stories about his exploits.