Sanskrit Literature, classical literature of India written in the Sanskrit language. It may be divided into the Vedic period (circa 1500 BC-200 BC), when the Vedic form of Sanskrit was in use, and the Sanskrit period (200 BC-c. AD 1100), when classical Sanskrit had developed from Vedic. Notwithstanding the chronological continuity of Indian writings, the spirit of Sanskrit-period literature differs greatly from that of the Vedic period. The chief distinction between the two is that Vedic literature, consisting of the Vedas (Veda), Brahmanas, and Upanishads, is essentially religious, whereas classical Sanskrit literature is, with rare exceptions, secular. In the Vedas the lyric and legendary forms are in the service of prayer, or exposition of the ritual; in Sanskrit epics such as the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, didactic, lyric, and dramatic forms have been developed far beyond their earlier state for more purely literary, aesthetic, or moral purposes. In Sanskrit literature, moreover, with the exception of the Mahabharata and the Puranas, the authors are generally definite persons, more or less well known, whereas the writings of the Vedic period go back either to families of poets or to religious schools.

The form and style of classical Sanskrit literature is, as a rule, different from that of the Vedas. Vedic prose was developed in the Yajur-Veda, Brahmanas, and Upanishads to a tolerably high pitch; in classical Sanskrit, aside from the strained scientific language of philosophical and grammatical treatises, prose writing is to be found only in fables, fairy tales, romances, and partly in the drama. Nor has this prose improved in stylistic quality, as compared with its earlier counterpart. On the contrary, it has become progressively more awkward, full of long, difficult compounds and rhetorical constructions. Sanskrit poetry also differs from Vedic poetry. The bulk of the poetry, especially the epic, is composed in the sloka meter, a development of the Vedic anushtubh stanza of four octosyllabic lines of essentially iambic cadence. Numerous other meters, however, usually built up on Vedic prototypes, have become more elaborate than their old originals, and in the main, more artistic and beautiful.


Classical Sanskrit literature may be divided into epic, lyric, didactic, dramatic, and narrative verses and didactic, dramatic, and narrative prose. Epic poetry falls into two classes, the freer narrative epic, termed itihasa ("leg-end") or purana ("ancient tale"), and the artistic or artificial epic, called kavya ("poetic product"). The great epic called the Mahabharata (between 300 BC and AD 300) is by far the most important representative of the purana. Of somewhat similar free style are the 18 Puranas of a much later date. The beginnings of the artistic style are seen in the Ramayana (begun 3rd century BC). The finished epic kavya form, however, was not evolved until the time of Kalidasa, about the 5th century AD. This poet and dramatist is the author of the two best-known Sanskrit artistic epics, the Kumarasambhava and the Raghuvamsa.

Ramayana (Sanskrit, "Story of Rama"), shorter of the two great Sanskrit epics of ancient India, the other being the Mahabharata. Rich in its descriptions and poetic language, it consists of seven books and 24,000 couplets and has been translated into many languages. It was probably begun in the 3rd century BC, with the beginning and possibly the ending added later. The Ramayana tells of the birth and education of Rama, a prince and the seventh incarnation of the god Vishnu, and recounts his winning of the hand of Sita in marriage. Displaced as rightful heir to his father's throne, Rama goes into exile, accompanied by Sita and by his brother Lakshmana. Sita is carried off by the demon king Ravana. With the aid of the monkey general Hanuman and an army of monkeys and bears, Rama, after a long search, slays Ravana and rescues Sita. Rama regains his throne and rules wisely. In the probable addition, Sita is accused in rumors of adultery during her captivity. Although innocent, she bears Rama's twin sons in exile, sheltered by the hermit Valmiki, said to be the author of the poem. After many years Rama and Sita are reunited.

Although basically a secular work, the Ramayana incorporates much of the sacred Vedic material ,Rama, Sita, Lakshmana, and Hanuman are widely revered as ideal embodiments of princely heroism, wifely and brotherly devotion, and loyal service, respectively. Reciting the Ramayana is considered a religious act, and scenes from the epic are dramatized throughout India and Southeast Asia. Known widely through translations and recensions (the best-known version being that of the 16th-century Hindu poet Tulsi Das), the Ramayana exerted enormous influence on later Indian literature.



Mahabharata (Sanskrit, Great Story), longer of the two great epic poems of ancient India; the other is the Ramayana. Although both are basically secular works, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana are ritually recited and are thought to confer religious merit on their hearers.

The central theme of the Mahabharata is the contest between two noble families, the Pandavas and their blood relatives the Kauravas, for possession of a kingdom in northern India. The most important segment of the poem is the Bhagavad-Gita, a dialogue between Krishna, the eighth incarnation of the god Vishnu, and the Pandava hero Arjuna on the meaning of life. It has influenced devout Hindu believers for centuries. The Mahabharata was composed beginning about 300 BC and received numerous additions until about AD 300. It is divided into 18 books containing altogether about 200,000 lines of verse interspersed with short prose passages. The Harivansha, one of several late appendixes to the poem, discusses at length the life and genealogy of Krishna.


Bhagavad-Gita ("Song of the Lord"), a Sanskrit poem, consisting of 700 verses divided into 18 chapters, that is regarded by most Hindus as their most important text-the essence of their belief. Almost every significant Hindu philosopher has written a commentary on the Gita, and new translations and interpretations continue to appear.

The Gita, which is set in Book VI of the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata, is in the form of a dialogue between the incarnate god Krishna and a human hero, Prince Arjuna, on the holy field of Kurukshetra, before the great Mahabharata battle. Arjuna expresses his unwillingness to engage in a war against friends and relatives. Krishna's reply is an exhortation for Arjuna to do his own duty, that is, as a warrior, to fight and kill. Krishna then explains the nature of the soul and the proper way to reach God.

Incorporating many doctrines, such as the immortality of the individual soul (atman) and its identity with the supreme godhead (Brahman), the process of reincarnation, and the need to renounce the fruits of one's actions, the Gita draws heavily on the teachings of the Upanishads and the philosophy of Sankhya. Spirit (purusha) and matter or nature (prakriti), which is divided into the triple strands of goodness, passion, and darkness, are complementary. Krishna reconciles the opposing claims of sacrifice and worldly duty, on the one hand, with meditation and renunciation, on the other hand, through devotion to God . This god appears briefly in his terrifying doomsday form before turning back into the compassionate human form of Krishna.