India is a land that abounds in culture and we are a people that are awfully proud of Indian Literature.
For a land that has been the object of desire of a number of kings and kingmakers, it does not come as a surprise that our culture at some point has been influenced by these foreign presences and has in ways absorbed their culture into itself.
Oxford dictionary defines culture as, “the beliefs and attitudes about something that people in a particular group or organization share”.
Thus by extending this definition to literature, we can define literary culture as the culture that is related to the characteristics of literature or scholarly writing.
Now that we’ve established what literary culture is, we can get down to how the literary culture of India has evolved over the years.
India has 22 officially recognized languages and each language has a history of its own. Thus, we can safely say that the literary culture here is rich and extensive.
To go into the details of how much each language has contributed to this culture would be time-consuming in the least but we could have a glance at the ways in which they’ve shaped our literary history.
The earliest works of literature in Indian history belong to the early Vedic Period [1500 to 1000 BC].
The Vedas, to be more precise, the Rig Veda-the oldest of the four Vedas is the forerunner in our literary history.
Written in Sanskrit, the mother of most South Asian languages of today, their origin traces back to around 1000 BC. The Vedas are said to be “apourusheya” meaning that they do not have a physical origin i.e they were not composed by any man.
The Vedas dawned on the sages when they were immersed in meditation and were then passed on to their disciples by word of mouth.
They are a part of sruthi (that which is heard) literature as opposed to other texts of the same period which are classified under smriti (memory/written) literature.
In due course of time, Vyasa took upon himself to separate the Vedas and classified them into four parts. They are Rig Veda, Yajur Veda, Sama Veda and Atharva Veda.
Out of the four, the Rig Veda is hardest to comprehend for the modern day man and consists of hymns for recitation.
The Yajur Veda contains rules and regulations on the performance of yagnas. It is further divided into Krishna Yajurveda and Shukla Yajurveda.
Sama Veda deals with the style and pronunciation of the hymns in the Vedas and the Atharva Veda is a storehouse of charms and magical incantations.
There is a further division of these Vedas into Brahmana, Aranyaka, Samhita, and Upanishad. These, however, make up a major part of the literature of the Early Vedic period.
Later Vedic Period
The later Vedic period [1000-500 BC] saw the advent of epics like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.
Written by Valmiki, Ramayana is the story of the life of the protagonist Rama. It is a telling tale of justice, steadfastness, humility, loyalty and many such qualities that we seem to have left illustrated in these texts.
Mahabharata by sage Vyasa is a tale of politics and divine intervention, of the triumph of good over evil irrespective of the odds.
The 18 Puranas which are central to Sanskrit literature were also composed anonymously by various sages during this period. They not only tell stories of forgotten legends, they hide in their layered subtlety, answers to numerous mysteries of life.
Literature history would remain incomplete without Manusmriti (the laws of Manu) which paints a very clear picture of the fundamental duties and rights of a man much before the drafting of our Constitution.
From the 3rd to 5th CE, there was a gradual development of two new languages-Prakrit and Pali, which was the result of the difficulty in understanding Sanskrit.
The key literary contributions in Prakrit are plays by Ashvaghosha and Vararuchi’s Prakrita Prakasha–a treatise on Prakrit grammar.
Pali was more popular outside the Indian sub-continent such as Sri Lanka and South East Asia. It was the language of the Buddhists. Notable contributions are Jataka Tales, Dhammapada, Mahavamsa and Atthakatha.
Some classical pieces of literature belonging to the far end of this period include Meghadutam, Abhijnana Shakuntalam and Raghuvamsa (to mention some) by Kalidasa, Dashakumaracharitam by Dandi, Bhasa’s collection of works titled Bhasanatakachakram, Shishupalavadham by Magha, Kirataarjuneeyam by Bharavi and Naishadheeyacharitam by Sri Harsha.
This period is considered to be the golden period of Sanskrit and Indian literature.
The Mughal Era
The next most significant contribution came from the Mughal era [1526-1857].
The Mughals brought with them a language and culture so intrinsically different from ours that the natives found it difficult to accept it at first.
Eventually, the Persian language and the Islamic culture formed a comfortable niche for itself in the Indian subcontinent and in the hearts of the people.
This period was characterized by a mixing of cultures which resulted in a new and beautiful Indo-Islamic culture. The consequences of this can be seen in the architecture and literature of that period.
Biographies were composed on the lives of the rulers, historical accounts of India by foreign travelers were recorded and literature flourished under the patronages of kings like saplings during the rains.
Volumes of Persian literature were published during this period. These works can broadly be classified into two types: Original compositions and Translations.
Shaikh Abu-al-Fazal-ibn Mubarak, popularly known as Abul Fazl was one of the most celebrated writers of this time.
In Ain-i-Akbari, Fazl lists the names of the poets who were under the patronage of Akbar thus giving us an insider’s view of the famous poets of the time, their exchanges with writer’s from outside of India and the cultural growth during the period.
Among other original compositions, historical accounts took precedence over accounting for famous works like Tabaqat-i-Akbari by Nizam-ud-Din Ahmad, Humayun-Nama by Gulbadan Begum and, Tazkiratul-Waqiat by Jauhar.
Outstanding Sanskrit works such as the Mahabharata, Ramayana, the Atharva Veda and the Panchatantra were translated into Persian. Tuzak-i-Baburi by Babur which was in Turkish was translated to Persian.
Not only did Persian literature prosper during this age, it also left an impression on the native Indian literature style.
Renowned Indian poets include Tulsi Das, Sur Das and Ram Das.
Persian literature comprises mainly of poems themed on love and many Indian poets began composing on these lines and in turn, the Muslim poets too began to appreciate and incorporate indigenous styles in their work. A stellar example of this is Padmavat by Malik Muhammad Jayasi.
Bengali and Punjabi literature saw remarkable growth as well during this period. The Guru Granth Sahib was compiled during this period.
The most endearing part of this era was the communion of two individually beautiful cultures to give birth to some of the best works of World art.
Literary activities were not just confined to the elite, reading and writing of literature was popular among the masses as well.
Therefore we can say that the Mughal period saw one of the biggest and most productive literary movements of the world.
Hymns for Freedom
Post-1857, India was immersed in a fight for independence and pro nationalism was the loudest cry of all.
Markets were flooded with books rich in Indian history, print media came into the picture and articles urging Indians to fight for their motherland were published and then taken down by the British government on accounts of indicting them and in the midst of all this rose Rabindranath Tagore.
His contribution to modern literature is unparalleled. Gitanjali, written by him is a crowning jewel in poetry and also won him the Nobel Prize in 1913.
He was also a prolific composer and Amar Shonar Bangla by him was adopted as the national anthem of Bangladesh and Jana Gana Mana became the national anthem of our country.
To try and summarise the literary history of more than a thousand years in just a thousand words would serve as an injustice to the brilliant writers and poets that this country has seen.
It does, however, bring into perspective the pricelessness of our culture and prioritise the need to preserve our literature for he who does not know history tends to repeat it.