10 Sanskrit texts everyone must read

Here's a list that will give help you get a flavour of what Sanskrit is about.

 |  4-minute read |   15-12-2014
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With a corpus that stretches over thousands of years and covers so many different domains, all lists are subjective and arbitrary and leave out so many others, all equally deserving of mention. But to get a flavour of what Sanskrit is about, this is my top ten reading list. Its numbering doesn't reflect any prioritisation. Obviously, it also reflects my biases.

  1. Valmiki Ramayana - Valmiki was the first Sanskrit poet. He invented the shloka. In roughly 25,000 shlokas, this is the first work of Sanskrit literature, though other Sanskrit texts pre-date Valmiki. This is beautiful poetry, especially in the first 6 kandas, and unlike classical Sanskrit literature, it is simple in structure, easily understood. Yes, the Ramayana is about Rama's journey and it has religious significance. But it is much more.
  2. Mahabharata - As poetry, most of the Mahabharata is not as good as the Ramayana, since there have probably been multiple composers, not just Vedavyasa. Depending on the version, 85,000 to 100,000 shlokas is huge. It resonates because human sentiments and dilemmas are eternal, though the context changes. The Mahabharata isn't just about the core Kuru-Pandava story. It has geography, governance, dharma, royal policy. It has multiple Gitas, of which, the Bhagavad Gita is one.
  3. The Puranas - Vedavyasa didn't end with the Mahabharata. He composed the Puranas. The 18 major Puranas amount to 400,000 shlokas. (It is a different matter that Vedavyasa probably composed only one original Purana text.) Many of the stories and popular practices we are familiar with don't come from Veda, Vedanta and Vedanga, or even the 2 itihasa-es of Ramayana and Mahabharata, but the Puranas, particularly the 18 major Puranas. The list of 18 varies. So when I say Purana, I mean both the Vayu and the Shiva. Though not quite a Purana, I would include Hari Vamsha too.
  4. Arthashastra - Kautilya/Chanakya's Arthashastra is a remarkable text on statecraft and governance and covers international relations, strategy, taxation and jurisprudence. There are similar sections in Shanti and Anushasana Parvas of Mahabharata too. Though the antecedents are a little bit more uncertain, I would include the aphorisms known as Chanakya's Niti too.
  5. Panchatantra - Artha Shastra is about teaching kings, after a fashion. This naturally takes us to Vishnu Sharma's Panchatantra, and even the allied text of Hitopadesha. These are allegories, a bit like Aesop's Fables. The Sanskrit is simple and through these allegories, one learns about human behaviour and policy, not only for princes. Many of these stories are familiar, through popular renderings. Why not read them in the Sanskrit and get the context of Sanskrit phrases and shlokas that are often cited?
  6. Kalidasa - The beauty of classical Sanskrit literature is represented by Kalidasa. The Sanskrit becomes more complicated and one needs a commentary. Each person has a favourite. I would pick Meghadutam, Raghuvamsham and Kumarasambhavam. But for the record, let me mention Abhijnanashakuntalam and Vikramorvashiyam. The beauty of similes/metaphors and geographical descriptions leaves you spellbound. I challenge anyone to find a poet where a toadstool has figured in his/her poetry. (Meghadutam).
  7. Mahakavyas - This is cheating, because I am throwing in multiple authors in this category. There is a specific definition of a Mahakavya (great poetic work). Other than Kalidasa, we then have Bharavi's Kiratarjuniya, Magha's Shishupala-Vadha, Shriharsha's Naishada Charitra and perhaps Bhatti's Bhattikavya. With a little bit more of cheating, if one throws in Dandin's Dashakumaracharita, we have covered all of classical Sanskrit literature.
  8. The literature story can't be complete without Jayadeva and Gitagovindam, which brought a completely different character to Sanskrit poetry, such as rhyming, in addition to the tradition of metres (chhanda). Just so that we don't think there is no tradition of satire in Sanskrit, how about adding Kshemendra? Although not quite satire, this is the right place to mention Bhartihari, especially the Shatakatraya. Since I have brought in Kshemendra (and Kashmir), how can one not mention Kalhana's Rajatarangini, the only proper "history".
  9. Vedanta/Vedanga - This is a bit of cheating again, since too many texts are being clubbed under the same heading. By Vedanta, I primarily mean the 11 major Upanishads. It is important to read them in Sanskrit, with commentaries. Translations, however good, don't suffice. Though not quite "Vedanta", one can conveniently slip in Patanjali's Yoga Sutras. Under the guise of Vedanga, I am slipping in several major texts on phonetics, grammar, etymology, metres, rituals and astronomy. Though outside Vedanga proper, Ayurveda texts like Charaka and Sushruta.
  10. Dharmasutras and Dharmashastras - Since they form the basis of jurisprudence, personal law and practices and since they are often maligned by people who haven't read them, how can one ignore these? I am ducking the distinction between Dharmasutras and Dharmashastras. I would include Apasthambha, Gautama, Vasishtha, Manu, Yajnavalkya, Narada, Vishnu and Brihasapati in the essential list.


Bibek Debroy Bibek Debroy @bibekdebroy

The writer is Member, NITI Aayog.

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