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Palm-leaf manuscripts at Asiatic Library, Calcutta
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India's rich literary heritage was passed from generation to generation through the oral tradition, by Brahmin priests who faithfully memorized ancient texts, and inscribed on palm-leaf manuscripts as shown here. The country's earliest surviving literature, the Vedas are books of religious hymns. The Rig-Veda, the oldest, was composed in an early form of Sanskrit from about 1500 to 1000 BCE. The great ancient epics of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana (the story of Rama, who is an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu) are tales of heroic deeds that illustrate an individual's proper conduct in the world through the Hindu virtue of dharma. The memorable stories, characters, and themes of the epics have inspired countless works and have been translated into many languages.
Growing and crystallizing in oral and then written form, these epics reached their final written form in the fourth or fifth century CE, around the time of the Gupta Empire, a period that revived classical texts and inspired a flowering of Sanskrit literature. The great Sanskrit poems and plays of the poet Kalidasa, whose works drew on the legendary epics, and India's famous treatise on erotic love, the Kama Sutra, also date to the Gupta period. These works reveal tremendous detail about ancient Indian society, religion, and culture and have captured the popular imagination throughout Asia.
Brahmins are members of the Hindu priestly class or caste. Brahmins are considered the highest of the four main castes in traditional Hindu society, followed by the Kshatriyas (warriors and rulers), Vaishyas (traders and merchants), and Shudras (laborers and servants). Brahmins' role as priests and scholars dates back to the Vedic period, and since that time, Brahmins have preserved and passed down the faith's religious rites and hymns, from father to son, with exact precision, initially through oral transmission and then by writing them in Sanskrit. Even today, Brahmin priests are the only ones permitted to conduct Hindu religious rituals at temples and elsewhere. In addition to their roles as priests, Brahmins have dominated many spheres of Indian life—intellectual, cultural, and political—as a result of their high social standing and tradition of education over centuries.
The Vedas (sacred knowledge) are Hinduism's oldest and most sacred texts, composed between 1500 BCE and 600 BCE, and compiled by Vyasa Krishna Dwaipayana. The texts are collections of hymns and ritual instructions used to perform Vedic ceremonies, and the theology and philosophy they contain form the foundation of the indigenous religious systems of India which today we call Hinduism.
The oldest of the four works is the Rig-Veda, a collection of over 1,000 hymns, many of which invoke the deities Indra and Agni, the gods of war and fire, respectively. The remaining books are the Atharva-Veda, a collection of myths, verses, spells, and prayers named after the priest Atharavan; the Yajur-Veda, a book detailing Vedic sacrifice; and the Sama-Veda, a collection of liturgical chants.
Textual commentaries written by priests are attached to and elaborate on each of the Vedas and are also considered part of Vedic literature. These commentaries include the Brahmanas, Aranyakas, and Upanishads.
The Vedas are considered divine revelation or sruti ("that which has been heard") as opposed to texts of human origin, smrti ("that which is remembered"). Brahmin priests methodically memorized the content of the Vedas to ensure their consistent transmission to subsequent generations. The Vedas also provide early records of astronomy and mathematics in India that came out of Vedic ritual and temple construction.
The Mahabharata ("The Great Tale of the Bharatas") is one of two major epics in ancient Indian literature, the other being the Ramayana. The story first began in the oral tradition during the first millennium BCE and was composed in Sanskrit over centuries, beginning perhaps as early as 800 or 900 BCE, and reaching its final written form around the fourth century BCE. Attributed to the poet Vyasa, the epic is composed of nearly 100,000 verses divided into 18 books. The sixth book contains the central text of Hinduism, the Bhagavad Gita ("Song of the Bountiful Lord"), which discusses the four goals of life or purushartas—artha (worldly wealth and success), kama (pleasure and desire), dharma (righteousness), and moksha (knowledge and liberation from the cycle of birth and death). A dialogue between the warrior Arjuna and Krishna, the Bhagavad Gita makes dharma its central lesson: hesitating before the prospect of war, Krishna reminds the hero Arjuna of his selfless duty or dharma.
Set in the kingdom of Kurukshetra on India's northern plains, the epic narrates a succession struggle among members of the Bharata ruling family that results in a ruinous civil war. The Pandava brothers are pitted against their rival cousins, the Kauravas, who divest the eldest Pandava brother of his kingdom and his wife in a fixed gambling match. The brothers are forced into exile for 13 years during which time they prepare for war with their cousins. The Pandavas prevail in an 18-day battle that causes great loss of life on both sides. In contrast with the Vedas, which are considered "sruti" or divine revelation, the epics are considered smrti ("that which is remembered") or of human origin.
One of two major Sanskrit epic poems in ancient Indian literature, the other being the Mahabharata, the Ramayana ("Life of Rama") is thought to have been composed in Sanskrit between 500 BCE and 200 CE by the sage Valmiki, who based his text on older stories. Like the Mahabharata, the Ramayana is a core text in Hinduism and illustrates Hindu virtues. In seven books, the epic recounts the story of Rama, a legendary prince and king of Kosala, and his perfect wife Sita. The work lends itself to an allegorical or spiritual reading in which Rama and Sita are incarnations of the deities Vishnu and Vishnu's wife Lakshmi. In Hinduism, Rama represents the ideal of an individual living life according to dharma, and Hindus today revere him as a deity: indeed in North India he is widely seen as the supreme deity.
The epic takes place in Ayodhya, which since the 5th century CE has been identified with the city which bears that name today on the Gogra river in Uttar Pradesh state. After Prince Rama and his wife Sita are banished from their kingdom, Sita is abducted by a demon king, Ravana. Prince Rama saves his wife and defeats Ravana with the aid of his brother Lakshman and loyal friend Hanuman, along with his army of monkeys. Years later, Rama questions his wife's chastity during her abduction and exiles her to the forest, where she gives birth to twin sons and raises them in the poet Valmiki's ashram. Prithvi, the goddess associated with Earth, receives Sita into her underground kingdom as proof of Sita's innocence. The tale has been interpreted and reinvented by numerous cultures and continues to be an enduring work of art, with some three hundred of variations on the story in 20 languages across southern Asia alone. It has been claimed that the 78 episode Indian TV version aired in 1987/8 had the largest ever TV audience.
The ideal son, ruler, and husband, Rama is, according to Hindu belief, the seventh incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, who came to earth to restore order to the universe by vanquishing the demon-king Ravana. Rama was the eldest son of King Dasharath of Ayodhya and Queen Kaushalya. He had three half-brothers, Lakshman, Bharata (who also appears in Jain scriptures), and Shatrughna, sons of the king’s two other primary queens, Sumitra and Kaikeyi. Rama won the hand of his wife, Sita, by being the only suitor who could string and wield a magical bow that had been bestowed on her father by the god Shiva.
Rama was endowed with great strength, wisdom, beauty, and wealth but also humility, which made him beloved among his family members and the people of Ayodhya. He was the kingdom’s heir apparent until Queen Kaikeyi manipulated King Dasharath to make her son, Bharata, the successor and banish Rama to the forest for fourteen years. Rama’s exile and subsequent quest to defeat Ravana, who abducted Sita, and regain his rightful kingdom is chronicled in the Hindu epic poem the Ramayana. Rama’s actions throughout his many trials make him the exemplar of reason, strength, and rectitude, and consequently, he has become one of the most venerated Hindu deities. He is commonly represented as a standing figure, with an arrow in his right hand and a bow in his left, attended by his faithful wife, Sita, devoted half-brother, Lakshman, and loyal friend, Hanuman.
In Hinduism, Vishnu is the preserver and maintainer of the universe. Vishnu, along with Brahma, the creator, and Shiva, the destroyer, are the three main gods of Hinduism. Vishnu is worshipped directly or in his incarnations (physical forms), especially Rama and Krishna. According to Hindu belief, Vishnu descended to earth to restore order and justice to a threatened world and to save mankind. He has been incarnated 10 times in animal, supernatural, and human forms, including the Buddha. His 10th avatar is yet to come. Vishnu is commonly worshiped by chanting the Vishnu sahasranama, his thousand names.
Vishnu is represented either standing or sitting with four arms and a dark or blue complexion. In each hand, he typically holds four main attributes: a conch shell, a wheel, a mace, and a lotus blossom. He wears a miraculous jewel "divine jewel," Kaustubha, around his neck and on his chest is a curl of hair, the srivatsa. Another familiar depiction of Vishnu is of him sleeping on a thousand-headed serpent called Ananta (or Sesa) that floats on the cosmic ocean. From his navel emerges a lotus in which Brahma is born to create the world. Although he has two consorts, Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, and Bhudevi, the earth goddess, he is most often united with Lakshmi, including in all his incarnations.
An ancient Indo-European language, Sanskrit is widely believed to have been introduced to the Indian subcontinent by outsiders who called themselves "Aryans" (or noble ones) and who progressively migrated to the Indian subcontinent from the northwest starting around 2000 BCE. Sanskrit's first written record can be found in the Rig-Veda (c. 1500 BCE). It is divided into two general categories, the more ancient Vedic Sanskrit (approximately 1500–200 BCE) and Classical Sanskrit (approximately 500 BCE–1000 CE).
The writing of the great Indian epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata (c. 400 BCE) is thought to have taken place between 400 BCE and 100 BCE. Between 200 CE and 1000 CE Sanskrit developed into an international scholarly and liturgical language across south Asia, rather like Latin in the medieval West.
In the 18th century, Sir William Jones, a judge and language scholar, theorized that Sanskrit was linked to Greek and Latin through a common original language. His work, along with that of others interested in Asian history and culture, advanced philology and European knowledge and awareness of India.
Many of the languages spoken in India today are descended from Sanskrit, including Sindhi, Marathi, Bengali, Punjabi, Hindi, and Urdu. Used primarily for religious and ceremonial purposes in modern India, Sanskrit is one of the country's 23 official languages (which includes English).
Kalidasa was a renowned Sanskrit dramatist and poet. He is best known for several plays, written in the 4th and early 5th century CE, the earliest of which is probably the Malavikaagnimitra (Malavikaa and Agnimitra), a work concerned with palace intrigue. It is of special interest because the hero is a historical figure, King Agnimitra, whose father, Pushhpamitra, wrested the kingship of northern India from the Mauryan king Brihadratha about 185 BCE and established the Sunga dynasty, which held power for more than a century. The Vikramorvashiiya (Urvashii Won Through Valor) is based on the old legend of the love of the mortal Pururavaas for the heavenly damsel Urvashii. The legend occurs in embryonic form in a hymn of the Rig Veda and in a much amplified version in the Shatapathabrahmana.
The third play, Abhijnanasakuntala (Shakuntalaa Recognized by the Token Ring), is the work by which Kalidasa is best known not only in India but throughout the world. It was the first work of Kalidasa to be translated into English from which was made a German translation in 1791 that evoked the often quoted admiration by Goethe. The influence of the Shakuntala outside India is evident not only in the abundance of translations in many languages, but also in its adaptation to the operatic stage by Paderewski, Weinggartner, and Alfano. In addition to these three plays Kalidasa wrote two long epic poems, the Kumaarasambhava (Birth of Kumaara) and the Raghuvamsha (Dynasty of Raghu). Finally there are two lyric poems, the Meghaduuta (Cloud Messenger) and the Ritusamhaara (Description of the Seasons).
Attributed to the sage Vatsyayana, the Kama Sutra is a treatise on erotic love thought to have been written under the Gupta Empire in the fourth or fifth century CE. Kama means love, desire, or pleasure in Sanskrit, and the Sutra is the earliest surviving example of the kama shastra, or science of erotica genre, that would become popular in later centuries. Kama is one of the four goals of human life described in the Vedas, the other three being dharma (duty and social obligation), artha (power and success), and moksa (religious liberation).
The Kama Sutra is composed of seven books with two or more chapters each, and much of the book gives advice to the urban male or nagaraka about courtship. Women were encouraged to learn 64 practices of the kama shastra, including singing, dancing, and even carpentry, and solving riddles. The Kama Sutra treats sex as both an art and a science and divides men and women into sexual types, discusses sexual positions, details appropriate conduct for married women and provides advice for courtesans. The Kama Sutra became the archetype for subsequent works on the subject of erotic love in India and influenced later Sanskrit erotic poetry. In 1883, a translation of the work into English published by English explorer and anthropologist Sir Richard F. Burton and Forster Fitzgerald Arbuthnot popularized the work in the West.
In South India, traditional scribes have recorded a substantial body of India's literary and scientific tradition on strips of smoke-treated palm leaves for over 2,000 years. Working under the patronage of kings and temple authorities, the scribes set down works in Tamil, the classical language of the region, and in Sanskrit using a script called Grantha. Using a stylus, the scribes etched the characters onto the dried leaf without breaking it and then, to increase contrast and readability, applied lampblack (fine black soot used as pigment) or turmeric over the letters. The shelf life of these manuscripts, in south India's tropical climate, was three to four centuries, after which patrons would order copies made with new palm leaves.
The wider use of the printing press in the 19th century removed the need for such transcriptions, although one current estimate indicates that about 100,000 palm-leaf manuscripts may still be extant in South India, with thousands of others dispersed throughout the subcontinent. These manuscripts are nearing the end of their lifespan and are facing disintegration, so projects are underway to recover, preserve, and translate them to ensure that the traditional knowledge that they contain is not lost to history. Much of the ancient literature of South India remains either lost or undiscovered.
- How did Indians preserve their literature and customs over the centuries? In modern times, how do we ensure our records will be preserved for years to come?
- Despite all of India's modernizations, why will it likely be difficult to do away with all aspects of the caste system?
- How do Hindus differentiate between the importance of the Bhagavad Gita and the Vedas?
- What role do the Mahabharata and the Ramayana play in Indian history? What are some other cultures' epic stories?