India as the Birthplace of Modern Literature

Indian achievements in fields like mathematics, philosophy and sciences are fairly well known among Indians and well-educated people from other countries. But the Indian Civilization’s achievements in the field of literature go vastly unsung. Most scholars concentrate on the Vedas, Upanishads, and other religious texts. Classical Sanskrit literature is largely ignored outside select academic circles. There are two literary forms that owe a lot, if not their modern origins, to Sanskrit writers – drama and short-stories.

Origins of Indian Drama

Comparison is often made between Greek and Indian drama. Early historians (usually westerners) attributed Greek influence to Sanskrit plays. Berriedale Keith, who was a professor of Sanskrit & Comparative Philology at University of Edinburg wrote “It is undoubtedly a matter far from easy for people to create from materials such as existed in India a true drama…”[i]

In recent times, such ill-informed views have been discarded. Contrary to Professor Keith’s claims there was a vast repository of epics, religious beliefs and mythology in India to provide creative impetus to playwrights. The Mahabharata and the Ramayana themselves were veritable gold-mines for prospective writers.

The other problem with the “Greek-influence theory” is that Indian drama is vastly different from those of the Greeks in subject-matter, plot and sentiments. Greek drama had only two forms, comedy and tragedy. In contrast, Natya-sastra (treatise on drama) identifies 10 types of plays (Rupakas) – heroic comedy (Nataka), bourgeois comedy (Prakarana), supernatural drama (Samavakara), seeking a maiden hard to obtain (Ihamrga), legendary (Dima), military spectacle (Vyayoga), isolated act (Anka), farce (Prahasana), monologue (Bhana) and erotic (Vithi).[ii]

P. Lal who translated several Sanskrit plays into English wrote: “One might point to the insular, indolent, and refined nature of Indian society at the time Bharata wrote [Natya-sastra]; free from military threat, it could devote itself to the pursuit of the ideal, the spiritual, and the blissful. Greek society, threatened by the ever-present Persian tiger outside its gates, produced an art for which properly purged pity, the impulse to approach sentimentally, and terror… because these are emotions highly undesirable in a martial society – and all Athens was a standing army.”[iii]

As regards to the origin of Sanskrit drama, the words J.A.B. van Buitenen, professor of Sanskrit and Indic studies at University of Chicago probably summarize it best: “No Hellenistic influence has yet been discovered as the source of the classical Indian theatre. Its roots are obscure. As so frequently happens with high Sanskrit literature, the Indian drama first appears as an accomplished fact…. It would not in any case be wise to look for any single origin, in dialogue hymns of the Rid Veda, or in mystery plays of the conquest of demons by a locally popular god, or in the conversations of the epics. All of these may well have contributed to the drama; but essentially it emerged as a genre sui generis.”[iv]

Characteristics of Sanskrit Drama

The theory of rasa is key to appreciating Sanskrit drama. Natya-sastra describes rasa is a dispassionate delight created in the minds of the audience by a skillful playwright. In order to create rasa, a play must portray various situations as it develops: [v]

· Desire, affection, erotic longing (rati or sringara)

· Laughter, comic or farcical joy (hasa or hasya) but not laughter involving cynicism or scorn

· Anger (krodha) arising from feeling of ill-treatment

· Sadness (soka) as a result of sepration from a loved one

· Pride (utsaha)

· Fear (bhaya)

· Aversion (bibhatsa)

· Wonder (adbhuta)

In addition to these eight “major” sentiments, Natya-sastra mentions 33 minor sentiments that are usable within a play. But a good play balances these eight major sentiments harmoniously.

Social Criticism in Indian Drama

If, as is widely believed, most drama was performed in the courts of kings and other established institutions, then free speech in ancient India was well and thriving! From criticizing kings to making fun of Brahmins, playwrights did it all.

In Kalidasa’s Shakuntala (200 BC to 400 AD), the jester expresses frustration at king Dushyanta: “This king will be my death! What a hunter – he does nothing but hunt…here he comes with a covey of beauties around him – bows in their hands and garlands of flower. I’ll have to pretend I have rheumatism or something.”

In Shudraka’s Mrcchakatika (100 BC to 100 AD), a Brahmin makes fun of his sacred thread: “The sacred thread is a useful thing for a Brahmin like me. It’s just the thing to measure walls; it’s handy to pull up jewelry, to pick locks; and if a snake bites, it’s first-class for first aid.”

In Mudrarakshasha (850 to 861 AD), an executioner complains loudly: “Execute Chandanadasa! Haven’t I better work to do? What does Chanakya think he’s doing – making us responsible for his dirty work!”

Origins of Indian Short Stories

Story-telling, it is often said, is one of the greatest gifts of India to the world outside. It is theorized that this genre emerged when stories told by illiterate villagers for centuries was committed to script in the literary language of that period.

Jatakas (birth stories of Buddha in innumerable previous lives), are the earliest collection of Indian short stories. While there are reflections of oral literature in the Brahmanas (1000 – 500 BC) and epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata are themselves vast reservoir of stories, Jatakas are the first stories aimed at common people. Unlike prior religious texts, these were written in Pali, the language of common people instead of Sanskrit.

The Jatakas were followed by the Panchatantra, a collection of stories classified into five chapters. Other popular books in this genre are the Hitopadesa (a distillation of stories from Panchatantra) and Katha Sarit Sagar (a collection of more than 300 short stories).

Characteristics of Indian Short Stories

One of the most interesting characteristic of Indian stories is their universal appeal. These stories have gotten into some of the most famous collections in the world including the Arabian Nights, the Fables of La Fontaine, the stories of Grimm and the fairy tales of Anderson. Several techniques and themes that were developed in India have become universal norms for story-telling:

· A story embedded within a story (which was considerably borrowed in Arabian Nights)

· Stories told in order to teach morals

· An overarching theme of dharma – good begets good, folly is punished, the clever are rewarded, etc

J. A. B van Buitenen writes: “Hinduism, which likes classifying, has classed all human goals under for rubrics: Virtue, Profit, Pleasure, and Salvation. It is in the pursuit of profit and pleasure that we find most of our characters [in Indian stories] living. And in doing so they give us fascinating insight into another aspect of the workaday morality and the workaday reality of classical and medieval India.”[vi]

Influence of Indian Literature

Indian works had a tremendous influence on literatures of other countries. In his introduction to an English translation of Panchatantra, Arthur Ryder remarks: “The Panchatantra contains the most widely known stories in the world. If it were further declared that the Panchatantra is the best collection of stories in the world, the assertion could be hardly disproved.”[vii]

Two hundred different versions of the Panchatantra are known in some sixty-odd languages. Some have called this the most widespread non-religious book. All western versions are derived from a translation by a Persian doctor (550 AD), a Syriac version (570 AD) and an Arabic one (750 AD). These were later translated into Greek, Hebrew and Latin (by John of Capua, 1270 AD). From Latin they were translated into German and Italian (Doni, 1529 AD). The Italian version of Doni was translated into English by Sir Henry North in 1570 AD.

The drama best known to Europeans is the Shakuntala of Kalidasa, which was translated into English by Sir William Jones in 1789. It made a profound impression upon such scholars as Goethe, and created a literary sensation in Europe.[viii]

There are many similarities between classical Indian drama and classical English drama during the time of Shakespeare. Many themes and styles that were developed by Indian dramatists are displayed in English works. Scholarly study on the possibility of Indian influence on English plays has been to my knowledge not yet been published or publicized. But such a study would be extremely helpful in tracing the origins of modern English literature.

One of the most important contributions of ancient Indian writers has been the plethora of story ideas that have been subsequently borrowed by other artists. I remember a controversy generated sometime ago by the alleged plagiarism of the story line of a Hollywood movie “Indecent Proposal” by an Indian filmmaker.[ix] Well, the story was eerily similar alright. Similar to a story told in the Katha Sarit Sagar written in 1070 AD. According to this story, a greedy merchant has a beautiful devoted wife who catches the eyes of a rich visitor from another country. The visitor offers the merchant “500 hundred horses and 5,000 garments” in exchange for a night with the merchant’s wife. The greedy merchant agrees, and his marriage breaks apart soon after. So how novel was the theme of Indecent Proposal? Not very, it turns out. As some budding artists despair, “there’s not much new to say anymore… it’s all been said and done before.”


[i] The Sanskrit Drama by A. Berriedale Keith, Oxford University Press. 1924.

[ii] Natya-sastra. The book is attributed to sage Bharata. It was probably written between 200 BC and 300 AD.

[iii] Great Sanskrit Plays, A New Directions Book. 1957

[iv] The Literatures of India – An Introduction, The University of Chicago Press. 1974

[v] Source: Great Sanskrit Plays, A New Directions Book. 1957

[vi] The Literatures of India – An Introduction, The University of Chicago Press. 1974

[vii] The Panchatantra, University of Chicago Press. 1925

[viii] Source: A Short History of the Drama by Martha Fletcher Bellinger. Henry Holt and Company. 1927.

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