Indian Literature, writings in the languages and literary traditions of the Indian subcontinent. The subcontinent consists of three countries: India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. The political division of the area into three nations took place in the 20th century; before that, the entire region was generally referred to as India. For centuries Indian society has been characterized by diversity—the people of modern India speak 18 major languages and many other minor languages and dialects; Urdu is the principal language of Pakistan, and Urdu and Bengali are used in Bangladesh. The people of the subcontinent also practice all the world’s major religions. Throughout its history, India has absorbed and transformed the cultures of the peoples who have moved through the region. As a result, the Indian literary tradition is one of the world’s oldest and richest. Religion has long exercised a strong influence on Indian writing.
The major religions of the area have been Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Islam. Throughout the history of Indian literature, certain religious doctrines have formed common threads. One such doctrine is karma—the chain of good and bad actions and their inevitable consequences, which result in the repeated birth and death of the soul. The mythology of the dominant Hindu religion portrays the deities Vishnu, Shiva, the Goddess (Devi), and others. This mythology has influenced Indian texts, from ancient epics in the Sanskrit language to medieval poems in the various languages of different regions to modern works in English. The Vedas, which are Hindu sacred texts, are the earliest examples of Indian literature. The Vedas were composed between about 1500 bc and 1000 bc in Old Sanskrit, also called Vedic Sanskrit. This language belongs to the Indo-Aryan branch of the Indo-European language family.
Indo-Aryan languages dominated northern India in ancient times, and Sanskrit became the major language of Indian religious and philosophical writing and classical literature. It also served as a common language with which scholars from different regions could communicate. No longer spoken widely, it is maintained as a literary language in modern India, meaning that people still use it for written works. The emergence of the popular religions Buddhism and Jainism in the 6th century bc gave rise to literature in Pali and in the several dialects of Sanskrit known as Prakrit (meaning “natural language”). Meanwhile, Tamil, a Dravidian language, emerged as the most important language in the south.
A recorded literature in Tamil dates from the 1st century ad. Rich literary traditions have emerged in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, and Malayalam, which are modern languages that developed from Old Tamil and its dialects. Between the 10th and 18th centuries, the medieval dialects of the earlier languages evolved into the modern languages of India. Eighteen of these languages now have official status in India, as does English. As the different tongues evolved, a distinctive literature with particular styles and themes developed in each tongue. At the same time, Indian literature was influenced by the Persian language and its literature, which various Muslim conquerors brought to the Indian subcontinent.
Muslims also introduced Islam to India, and Islamic philosophy and traditions affected Indian literature. After the British became active in India in the 1700s, English language and writing had a significant impact on Indian literature. Oral traditions have always been important in Indian literature. Many storytellers present traditional Indian texts by reciting them, often with improvisation. Others use song, dance, or drama to tell tales. In both its oral and written forms, Indian literature has produced great works that have influenced national and regional literary traditions in other parts of the world.