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Indian Literature Essay


Indian Literature, literature in the languages of India, as well as those of Pakistan. For information on the literature written in the classicial language,Sanskrit,.The Indian literary tradition is primarily one of verse and is also essentially oral. The earliest works were composed to be sung or recited and were so transmitted for many generations before being written down. As a result, the earliest records of a text may be later by several centuries than the conjectured date of its composition. Furthermore, perhaps because so much Indian literature is either religious or a reworking of familiar stories from the Sanskrit epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and the mythological writings known as Puranas, the authors often remain anonymous. Biographical details of the lives of most of the earlier Indian writers exist only in much later stories and legends, so that any history of Indian literature is bound to raise more questions than it answers. Often, much less is known about an Indian poet who died in the early 19th century than of the English medieval poet Geoffrey Chaucer or of the Latin poet Virgil.



Much traditional Indian literature is derived in theme and form not only from Sanskrit literature but from the Buddhist and Jain texts written in the Pali language and the other Prakrits (medieval dialects of Sanskrit). This applies to literature in the Dravidian languages of the south as well as to literature in the Indo-Iranian languages of the north. Successive invasions of Persians and Turks, beginning in the 14th century, resulted by about 1700 in most of India being governed by Muslim rulers. The influence of Persian and Islamic culture is strongest in literature written in Urdu, although important Islamic strands can be found in other literatures as well, especially those written in Bengali (Bangla), Gujarati, and Kashmiri. After 1817, when the British controlled nearly all of India, entirely new literary values were established that remain dominant today.



The only Indian writings that incontestably pre-date the influence of classical Sanskrit are those in the Tamil language. Anthologies of secular lyrics on the themes of love and war, together with the grammatical-stylistic work Tolkappiyam (Old Composition), were once thought to be very ancient; they are now believed to date no earlier than from about the 1st to the 5th century ad. Later, between the 6th and 9th centuries, Tamil sectarian devotional poems were composed, often claimed as the first examples of the Indian bhakti tradition (see below). At some indeterminate date between the 2nd and 5th centuries, two long Tamil verse romances (sometimes called epics) were written: Cilappatikaram (The Jewelled Anklet) by Ilanko Atikal, which has been translated into English (1939 and 1965); and its sequel Manimekalai (The Girdle of Gems), a Buddhist work by Cattanar.



The first true works of literature in most of the main indigenous Indian languages tend to date from about 1200. Before then, any work of literature would have been composed in the literary languages: Sanskrit or one of the Prakrits in the north or Tamil in the Dravidian south.

A Sanskrit Epic Influence

In this early period, which ended in about 1500, the main literary productions in all the languages of India were versions of stories from the Sanskrit epics and the Puranas. Many of the vernacular treatments of the Ramayana, Mahabharata, and Bhagavata-Purana, well known to educated Indian readers even today, were written during this period. For example, the first true Malayalam work, which is a version of the Ramayana, dates from about the 13th century.


Other Themes

Other themes were also treated in medieval Indian literature. The earliest works in many of the languages were sectarian,designed to advance or to celebrate some unorthodox regional belief. Examples are the Caryapadas, Tantric verses of the 12th century that are the earliest surviving works in Bengali, and the Lilacaritra (c. 1280), a Marathi prose account of the words and deeds of the founder of the Mahanubhava sect. In Kannada (Kanarese) from the 10th century, and later in Gujarati from the 13th century, the first truly indigenous works are Jain romances; ostensibly the lives of Jain saints, these are actually popular tales based on Sanskrit and Pali themes. Tales besides these sectarian works were composed; examples in Rajasthani are bardic tales of chivalry and heroic resistance to the first Muslim invasions—such as the 12th-century epic poem Prithiraja-raso by Chand Bardai of Lahore.

Popular stories and ballads were also composed, such as those of East Bengal. Later important religious literatures developed that were associated with certain regional philosophies and sects: texts in Tamil from the 13th to the 15th century devoted to the medieval Hindu Shaiva-siddhanta sect; the works of the Lingayats (a Hindu sect devoted to the worship of Shiva) in Kannada, especially the vacanas, or “sayings”, of Basava, the mid-12th-century founder of the sect, and his disciples; and the Tantric texts, especially those from north-east India, which developed later into genres such as the mangala-kavya (poetry of an auspicious happening) of Bengal.

This verse was addressed to deities such as Manasa (a snake goddess), purely local forms of the female divine principle called Devi . Most important of all for later Indian literature were the first traces in the vernacular languages of the northern Indian cults of Krishna and of Rama. The Krishna story developed in Sanskrit from the Mahabharata through the Bhagavata-Purana, to the 12th-century poem by Jaydev, called the Gitagovinda (The Cowherd’s Song); but in about 1400, a group of religious love poems written in Maithili (eastern Hindi of Bihar) by the poet Vidyapati were a seminal influence on the cult of Radha-Krishna in Bengal and the whole religio-erotic literature associated with it.


The Bhakti Tradition

The full flowering of the Radha-Krishna cult, under the Hindu mystics Caitanya in Bengal and Vallabhacharya at Mathura, involved bhakti. The word bhakti implies a personal devotion to a god far different from the rituals of Brahmanism—an intense longing comparable to the desire of lovers or of a
child separated from his or her mother. Indeed, bhakti may be conceived of in terms of all forms of human love. Although earlier traces of this attitude are found in the work of the Tamil Alvars (mystics who wrote ecstatic hymns to Vishnu between the 7th and 10th centuries), the enthusiasms of the Sufi mystics of Islam probably produced the surge of bhakti that flooded every channel of Indian intellectual and religious life beginning in the late 15th century. The sentiment was the same, but the recipient varied by region.

Beside the writings of the devotees of Radha-Krishna, bhakti was addressed to Rama (an avatar of Vishnu), most notably in the Avadhi (eastern Hindi) works of Tulsi Das; his Ramcaritmanas (Lake of the Acts of Rama, 1574-1577; trans. 1952) has become the authoritative, repeatedly recited version of the Ramayana for the whole Hindi-speaking north. The early gurus, or founders of the Sikh religion, especially Nanak and Arjun, wrote bhakti hymns to their concepts of deity. These are the first written documents in Punjabi (Panjabi) and form part of the Adi Granth (First, or Original, Book), the sacred scripture of the Sikhs, which was first compiled by Arjun in 1604. In the 16th century, in other regions, bhakti was directed to other forms of divinity. For example, the Rajasthani princess and poet Mira Bai addressed her lyric verse to Krishna, as did the Gujarati poet Narsimh Mehta.



In the literature from about 1500 to 1800, the stream of reworkings of the traditional Sanskrit epics continued unabated, while at the same time the use of Urdu and of Persian literary forms arose.


Traditional Material

In the 16th century, Jagannath Das wrote an Oriya version of the Bhagavata and Tuncattu Eruttacchan, the so-called father of Malayalam literature, wrote recensions of traditional literature. To these were added, particularly in the 18th century, a deliberate imitation of Sanskritic forms and metres in addition to a highly Sanskritic vocabulary by pandita, or “learned” poets, or by court poets like those of the Telugu-speaking kingdom of Vijaynagar. Historical events were recounted in 18th-century Assamese and Marathi prose chronicles, ballads, and folk drama involving much dance and song.


Urdu Literature

During this period, Indian literature was also written in Urdu, a new language. Urdu, spoken in the Delhi region, is similar to Hindi and contains many words from Arabic and Persian. The Urdu poets almost always wrote in Persian forms, using the ghazal for love poetry in addition to an Islamic form of bhakti, the masnavi for narrative verse, and the marsiya for elegies. Writing in Urdu began first in the Islamic kingdoms of the Deccan, where literary experiment was apparently easier and the prestige of the orthodox literary language, Persian, was less strong; it culminated there in the lyrics of Wali. Urdu then gained use as a literary language in Delhi and Lucknow. The ghazals of Mir and Ghalib mark the highest achievement of Urdu lyric verse. The Urdu poets were mostly sophisticated, urban artists, but some adopted the idiom of folk poetry, and this is typical of the verse written in Punjabi, Pushtu, Sindhi, or other regional languages.

Poets such as Ghalib, for example, lived and worked during the British era, when a literary revolution occurred in all the Indian languages as a result of contact with Western thought, when the printing press was introduced (by Christian missionaries), and when the influence of Western educational institutions was strong. During the mid-19th century in the great ports of Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras, a prose literary tradition arose—encompassing the novel, short story, essay, and literary drama (this last incorporating both classical Sanskrit and Western models)—that gradually engulfed the customary Indian verse genres.

The northern heartland of Delhi and Uttar Pradesh was the last to be affected by this new tradition; and because Muslims for the most part did not take advantage of the new education, Urdu writing preserved much of its integrity. Urdu poets remained faithful to the old forms and metres while Bengalis were imitating such English poets as Percy Bysshe Shelley in the 1840s or T. S. Eliot in the 1940s.


The celebrated Urdu poet Ghalib has often been termed a “light tower in the Urdu literature”. The Punjabi government established a Ghalib literary award in his memory, in 1998.


During the last 150 years many writers have contributed to the development of modern Indian literature, writing in any of 15 major languages (including, of course, English). In the process of Westernization, Bengali has led the way and today has one of the most extensive literatures of any Indian language. One of its greatest representatives is Rabindranath Tagore, the first Indian to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (1913). Much of his prose and verse is available in his own English translations.

Anita Desai

In her colourful novels and short stories portraying life in India, author Anita Desai describes the aspirations and struggles of ordinary people in her homeland. She published her first novel, Cry, the Peacock, in 1963.

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Work by two other great 20th-century Indian leaders and writers is also widely known through translation: the verse of the Islamic leader and philosopher Sir Muhammad Iqbal, originally written in Urdu and Persian; and the autobiography of Mohandas K. Gandhi, My Experiments with Truth, originally written in Gujarati between 1927 and 1929 and now considered a classic. Although the bulk of later 20th-century Indian writing remains untranslated, several writers working in English are relatively well known to the West. They include Mulk Raj Anand, among whose many works the early affectionate Untouchable (1935) and Coolie (1936) are novels of social protest; and R. K. Narayan, writer of novels and tales of village life in southern India.

The first of Narayan’s many works, Swami and Friends, appeared in 1935; among his more recent titles are The English Teacher (1980), The Vendor of Sweets (1983), and Under the Banyan Tree (1985). Among the younger authors writing of modern India with nostalgia for the past is Anita Desai—as in Clear Light of Day (1980). Her In Custody (1984) is the story of a teacher’s fatal enchantment with poetry. Ved Mehta, although long resident in the United States, recalls his Indian roots in a series of memoirs of his family and of his education at schools for the blind in India and America; among these works are Vedi (1982) and Sound Shadows of the New World (1986).

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