India is revered for its rich and glorious past, and what reveals the ancestral wealth is the knowledge and wisdom captured in the literature of Ancient and Medieval India. To date, perhaps no other civilisation or nation of the world can boast about the versatile myriads of knowledge and learning.
Ancient Indian literature is the earliest existing roots of music, dance, arts, science, mathematics, medicine, warfare, etc., whose discovery has enriched not only the modern society in India but also has a sheering influence upon global cultures. History suggests that the earliest surviving records of the oldest form of Indian Literature are that of the Vedas, written during 1500-1200 BCE. Quite often, it is regarded that literature arose in the form of hymns, which might have emerged as a part of community scholastic discussions and learning. Sanskrit was the earliest language in which literature was defined and read. The genre of ancient literature paved the way to medieval and modern literary sources.
Major Scriptures of Hinduism (Sanātana Dharma)
Hindu scriptures, which consists of most ancient form of literature in the Indian subcontinent, are predominantly subdivided into two distinguishable subparts – the Shruti, and the Smriti. While Shruti, for which the Sanskrit meaning refers to ‘the literature that is heard or revealed’, Smriti is perceived as the ‘knowledge that is remembered and is acquired with experience’. Vedas and Upanishads are a part of Shruti.
Smriti is further subdivided into Itihas, comprising of the two great epics-Ramayana and Mahabharata; Bhagavad Gita, the most influential religious text of the Hindus, considered to be part of Mahabharata; religious manual of Kalpa-sutra; and Puranas, dealing with myth and folklore. Many non-canonical tales of morals and folklore, being a part of oral tradition, form a part of Hindu scriptures.
Vedas, also known as Apaurusheya is thought to be of divine origin. The truth about the Hindus, their origin, and ancestral progeny is compiled in the Vedas. Vedas are primarily divided into four subparts- the Samhitas, the Brahmanas, the Aranyakas, and the Upanishads. The Samhitas is the oldest of all Vedas and is bifurcated into Rig Veda, which sings of the hymns, praising God; Yajur Veda, a manual for all priestly sacrifices; Sama Veda which has all the hymns of the tunes to be sung for all sacrificial occasions; and Atharva Veda, which contains all the traditions, rituals and procedures for everyday life.
Though the Upanishads had originally emerged from the Vedic tradition it stands as one of the most important factors shaping Hinduism. A huge section of oral tradition is dedicated to the Upanishads. The Sanskrit word, Upanishads (Upa-ni-shad) implies the meaning ‘those who sit beside teachers’. Historical pieces of evidence suggest that Upanishads were composed around 800-200 BCE and were framed in partly prose and partly verse methodology. They teach the principle of ‘the Brahman’ as the sole sacred power, governing reality.
The Puranas is deemed as the encyclopaedic collection of myth, legend, genealogy written in the form of narrative couplets. Mainly, it deals with the five spheres of learning – ‘the primary creation of the Universe’, ‘secondary creation after periodic annihilation’, ‘the genealogy of Gods and Patriarchs’, ‘the reigns of the first superior humans or Manus’, and ‘the history of the origin of the solar dynasty, and the lunar dynasty’.
Itihas, or the two great epics – Ramayana and Mahabharata form one of the earliest significant definitions of Ancient India. Ramayana was framed in the form of 24,000 couplets, later compiled into seven books, and written by Valmiki. It narrates the story of Rama’s heroism and virtues, who saves his abducted wife and the virtues of his loyalty, honour, responsibility towards his family and citizens.
Mahabharata draws a picture of Greater India. It was written by Vyasa between 500BCE-100CE and is divided into 18 books. It narrates the struggle and great war between the cousins, the Kauravas, and the Pandavas for dharma and rightful control of power. Bhagavad Gita, is the sacred book of the Hindus, derived from the sixth book of the Mahabharata. It speaks of the dialectical exchange between the Pandava, Arjun, and his charioteer, Krishna. The Bhagavad Gita teaches about life which every citizen must follow.
Major Scriptures of Jainism
The emergence of the Jain literature is regarded as ambiguous, and this is mainly because of the fact that written records were not established in ancient times. The subsequent Jain monks and nuns were prohibited from possessing books or religious texts as they had to follow their ‘vow of non-acquisition’. The basic development of theology took after Mahavira distributed his teachings among learned monks, who thereby memorized it and passed it to their trusted, knowledgeable disciples.
Much of literature is either moulded in accordance to the will of the preachers or lost in the midway before reaching the devotees. However, the major disruption occurred with the famine of 350 BCE, which washed away most of the scriptures, and took the lives of many monks, and along with them, the memory perished. After that, arose the necessity to preserve knowledge. Jain literature is divided into two forms-Agam literature, and Non-Agam literature.
The Agamas or Agam literature is regarded as the sacred literature of the Jains which has compiled all the surviving texts of Mahavira’s teachings. It was written in Prakrit, the locally spoken language of the times. The initial compilation of the texts was done by the Ganadharas(the immediate disciples of Mahavira, possessing perfect and accurate knowledge) and Srutikevalis(monks possessing knowledge of more than ten Purvas), and forms the canonical scriptures of Svetambara Jainism. The Agam literature is further bifurcated into two sects-Ang-agams, consisting of twelve books compiled by Ganadharas; and Ang-bahya-agams, compiled by the Srutikevalis.
Jains have also developed a genre of Non-Agam literature, also known as non-canonical literature, like Ajitha purana, Atma Siddhi, Purvas etc., which acts as a commentary to Agam literature and is mainly compiled by monks, nuns and scholar. It is written in various Indian vernacular languages to aid moral teachings.
Major Scriptures of Buddhism
The spread of ancient Buddhist literature has been a backbone to the access of Medieval Indian history across the world. Initially, the teachings were exempted from being written and propelled orally among the common masses in the Magadhi language. The Sangha memorized the Buddhist verses and performed in the public religious congregation to reiterate teachings among the common masses. But the need to document teachings gave birth to canonical literature, dealing with the Pali Tripitaka, the Sanskrit Tripitaka, and the Mahanayas text; and non-canonical Buddhist literature, dealing with Jatakas, Tantric texts, etc.
The Tripitaka, written in Pali is considered the most sacred text among Buddhists. It is subdivided into three forms of literature-Vinaya Pitaka, concentrating upon the teachings of discipline, followed in monastic life; the Sutta Pitaka, dealing with the teachings of Dhamma to be followed; and the Abhidhamma Pitaka, which deals with the philosophical analysis of religion and life. Just like the Tripitaka in Pali, a Sanskrit version of Tripitaka was developed simultaneously and is embraced in translations by different parts of the world.
The rapid growth of the Mahanayas introduced new Buddhist sutras, which formed an important section of Buddhist literature. Among them, nine of the sutras were the most important. Some of the sutras like the Prajnaparamita Sutra involved wisdom and perfection and spread the teachings of Sunyata or emptiness. The Saddharma Pundarika Sutra deals with ‘the praises and teachings of the Bodhisattva’.
The tantric verses and the Jatakas are the most crucial non-canonical text of Buddhism. While Jatakas are mostly short stories and tales from the life of Buddha, taught to children, the Tantric verses took the form of Kriya Tantra (consists of ceremonial rituals); Carya Tantra(practical rites); Yoga Tantra(performing Yoga), and Anuttarayoga Tantra (dealing with a higher level of mysticism).
Major Scriptures of Sikhism
Sikhism emerged in India from around 1500 CE, with the teachings and ideology of Guru Nanak. The Adi Granth, also known as Guru Granth Sahib is the most popular and only canonical scripture of Sikhism.
Adi Granth is worshipped as the holiest of all scriptures of Sikhism. It is abruptly a compilation of more than 6000 hymns of the ten Sikh Gurus, along with teachings of various medieval saints of various religions and faiths. The first compilation of the verses was done in 1604 CE at Amritsar, by Arjun Singh, the fifth Sikh Guru. He had included his own hymns and teachings, and his predecessors’ teachings, followed by some selections of devotional songs of Kabir and Hindu saints.
In the year 1704 CE, the tenth and last Sikh guru, Guru Govind Singh added his own hymns and teachings to the existing ones along with the hymns of his immediate predecessor, Guru Tegh Bahadur. Adi Granth is placed in all Gurdwaras and is worshipped. The book opens with the hymns known as Mul Mantra, followed by Japji, written by Guru Nanak and is observed as the most important recital. The religious scripture is written in the form of beautiful hymns and songs.
Dasam Granth is observed as the second most important religious scripture and is the most worshipped non-canonical book. It is the collection of all the writings that deal with Guru Gobind Singh. This versatile literature is the compilation of hymns, philosophical writings, excerpts from Hindu mythology, the autobiography of Sikh leaders in vernacular languages of Braj Bhasa, Hindi, Persian, and Punjabi.
Other Major Scriptures and Texts
Besides theological scriptures, literature, medicine, mathematics, and other science treatises constitute a major section of ancient and medieval texts. The Arthashastra by Chanakya, written during the Mauryan rule remains the most important treatise on state polity, economics, and military strategy.
The Panchatantra, written in 200BC by Pandit Vishnu Sharma remains as the most important children’s fables to date. Sangam Literature, written in Tamil, around 1BC-4BC remains very unique and distinct to Indian literature as it teaches mostly about love and heroism, and displaying the freshness of Indian landscape and culture. Sakuntala and Meghduta, written by Kalidasa, during the reign of the Gupta Dynasty, are taught to be the most significant dramas of Indian Literature. Kamasutra, a treatise in love and pleasure is one of the most celebrated books in the world. It was also written during the Gupta reign by Vatsyayana. Charaka Samhita is one of the two surviving earliest texts of medicine.
Lessons and Learnings
Literature has the ability to transform minds of the person who reads it, and gives birth to new thoughts. The first and foremost contribution of Indian scriptures is teaching its citizens the ability to think and learn, to question and criticise, to act and follow.
The Indian scriptures have also influenced the world due to their significant advancements in comparison to the times or the era when it was composed. The ideology and spirit of the hymns and verses are the sounds of the past that we need to embrace and learn. Not only does it offer the realm of spirituality to enrich the thoughts, but focuses upon the understanding of rich heritage of Bharatvarsha.