Just like China, India has over
two millennia old literary
history. But unlike the Chinese
early literary works which were
either poetic or philosophical
works, the earliest literary
works in India were the
Sanskrit sacred Vedic texts
Early Sanskrit Literature
The first Indian literary work was a
collection of Sanskrit hymns that was
orally transmitted. The so-called Vedas
which were either sung or recited are
thought to have been composed as early as
1500 to 1200 BCE but they were written
down only at the end of the first
millennium BCE, while the oldest Veda
texts date to around 11th century.
Prominent literary works in Sanskrit of
course also include the famous Ramayana
and Mahabharata epic poems which are
thought to have been created sometime
between the 6th and 1st century BCE.
Classical Sanskrit Literature
Despite the fact that India is home to many
different languages, religious importance of
the early Sanskrit texts and the influence of
Sanskrit on many Indian languages enabled
Sanskrit literature to flourish over one
millennium. Unfortunately, most Sanskrit
works from the so-called classical Sanskrit
literature have been lost.
Medieval Indian Literature
With the exception of south India where Tamil
literature has been produced from the ancient
times, medieval Indian literature remained
strongly influenced by the Sanskrit literature.
However, literary works that were created
between the 11th and early 19th century also
reveal a major influence of Buddhist and Jain
works. At the same time, Sanskrit gradually
give way to the Prakrit language, especially in
Buddhist and Jain texts as well as other
common Indian languages.
The Muslim invasions from the early 8th century
onwards and of course the arrival of the British
also left their mark on Indian literature. The
period following the decline of the Classical
Sanskrit literature until the mid-19th century was
dominated by the so-called bhakti or devotional
poetry in all Indian languages.
Modern Indian Literature
The period of the modern Indian literature
starts with the first movements for
independence in the mid-19th century. The
early modern Indian literature, however, was
greatly influenced by both adoption of the
Western thoughts and ideas on the one hand
and their rejection on the other.
Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) was the
youngest son of Debendranath Tagore, a leader of
the Brahmo Samaj, which was a new religious sect
in nineteenth-century Bengal and which attempted
a revival of the ultimate monistic basis of Hinduism
as laid down in the Upanishads. He was educated at
home; and although at seventeen he was sent to
England for formal schooling, he did not finish his
studies there. In his mature years, in addition to his
many-sided literary activities, he managed the
family estates, a project which brought him into
close touch with common humanity and increased
his interest in social reforms. He also started an
experimental school at Shantiniketan where he tried
his Upanishadic ideals of education.
From time to time he participated in the Indian
nationalist movement, though in his own non
sentimental and visionary way; and Gandhi, the
political father of modern India, was his devoted friend.
Tagore was knighted by the ruling British Government
in 1915, but within a few years he resigned the honour
as a protest against British policies in India.
Tagore had early success as a writer in his native
Bengal. With his translations of some of his poems
he became rapidly known in the West. In fact his
fame attained a luminous height, taking him across
continents on lecture tours and tours of friendship.
For the world he became the voice of India‘
spiritual heritage; and for India, especially for
Bengal, he became a great living institution.