It is estimated that internet traffic today is close to 32 terabytes per second. That is much more than all our ancient literature put together multiplied several times. But before the dawn of the internet, it was only in India where we had so much information that it would evoke wonder. Even today, a survey of the ancient literature of India makes our heads reel.
If we just consider the Sanskrit language, which was the lingua franca of ancient India, we’re talking about entire libraries – several thousands of books and several millions of pages. A human lifetime is insufficient to read them all even if that was the only thing we did. People who are interested in the works of our ancestors often ask: So, where do we start? For ease of comprehension, we may divide our ancient works into six broad categories: Vedas, Upavedas, Vedangas, Puranas, Darshanas, and Kavyas.
In general, the word veda means "knowledge", but specifically it refers to the four foundational works of Hinduism – Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda, and Atharvaveda. The Vedas are the foremost revealed scriptures of our tradition. It is the collective wisdom of our ancient seers – both men and women.
Each of the four Vedas is further sub-divided into four sections: Samhita (devotional poems and prayers), Brahmana (details of rituals and philosophy behind them), Aranyaka (contemplative/meditative verses), and Upanishad (distilled wisdom). However, these are not strict divisions and we find a lot of overlap in the different sections. Of all these works, the oldest is Rigveda Samhita. It’s also the oldest work known to humankind.
In each of these sub-divisions, we find many works. In other words, there are several Samhitas or Upanishads associated with a given Veda.
Upavedas are secondary bodies of knowledge. Roughly speaking, while the Vedas are spiritual in nature, the Upavedas are secular. While the Vedas focus on the inner world, the Upavedas focus on the outer world. The Vedas deal with the ideal, while the Upavedas deal with the material. The four Upavedas are – Ayurveda (texts of health and wellness), Arthaveda (texts of economics, polity, governance, etc.), Gandharvaveda (texts dealing with the various arts) and Sthapatyaveda (texts of engineering, architecture, et al).
Texts like Shushruta Samhita, Charaka Samhita, and Ashtanga Hridaya come under Ayurveda. Texts like Arthashastra, Panchatantra, and Hitopadesha come under Arthaveda. Texts like Kamasutra, Natyashastra, and Dhvanyaloka come under Gandharvaveda. Texts like Manasara Mayamatam, Vishvarupam, and Rupavastumandana come under Sthapatyaveda.
Vedangas are branches of knowledge that are necessary in order to learn the Vedas. They build a strong foundation in the language. There are six subjects that come under the Vedanga – Siksha (pronunciation, phonetics), Vyakarana (grammar), Nirukta (semantic etymology), Chandas (prosody, poetic meters), Jyotisha (astrology, astronomy), and Kalpa (rituals, law, et al).
Kalpa comprises a huge body of knowledge that includes the dharmasutras (texts about dharma, law, rituals), the grihyasutras (texts about family life, running a household), the srautasutras (texts about conducting Vedic rituals), the sulbasutras (texts about the geometry and construction of Vedic altars), the smrtis (texts of law, society), and the agamas (texts about the temple tradition).
Puranas are old episodes and stories that were composed for the education of the common folk. While they deal largely with fantastic stories and anecdotes of several sages and kings, at their core, they contain the philosophy of the Vedas.
There are eighteen Mahapuranas (including the Bhagavata purana, Shiva purana, Brahma purana, and Padma purana), 18 Upapuranas, the two Itihasas (historical epics) – Ramayana and Mahabharata, as well as the various Sthalapuranas (local folk traditions).
In these texts, there is a great mix of fact and fantasy, often making it difficult to separate the two. While it would be incorrect to call them history, it would be a huge mistake to ignore the historical elements in them.
The word darshana means "point of view". It basically refers to philosophy. There are six classical schools of Indian philosophy and three unorthodox schools.
The six classical schools are Sankhya (method of reasoning and enumeration), Yoga (union of body and mind), Nyaya (study of knowledge and methods of learning), Vaisheshika (study of existence and nature of reality), Mimamsa (philosophy of rituals), and Vedanta (introspective wisdom). The three unorthodox schools are Jaina (Jainism), Bauddha (Buddhism), and Lokayata (materialistic atheism).
These nine schools of Indian philosophy pretty much cover the entire gamut of fundamental philosophy of the world.
While the word kavya means poetry, it refers to any work that evokes rasa (aesthetic experience). In general, it refers to works of literature – poetry, epic poems, didactic verse, historic poetry, prose, songs, and plays.
When speaking of Kavya, we would do well to start with Kalidasa, who has a place among the great poets of the world. His body of work including epic poems and plays is unmatched.
In the epic poem tradition, we have other greats like Kumaradasa, Bharavi, Bhatti, Kshemendra, Magha, Vagbhata, and Sriharsha. In the historical poetry tradition, we have poets like Ashvaghosha, Mahendravarma, Bodhayana, Kalhana, Hemachandra, and Gangadevi.
In the lyrical poetry tradition, we have Halashatavahana, Bhartrhari, Jayadeva, and Amaruka. Among those who wrote didactic poetry, we have Damodaragupta, Bhallata, and Nilakanta Dikshita.
Bana, Somadeva, Dandi, Rajashekhara, and Merutunga wrote important prose works. Bhasa, Shudraka, Dinnaga, Vishakadatta, and Bhavabhuti were among the great playwrights.
Apart from these prominent litterateurs, there are hundreds of others who have composed works of lasting importance to Sanskrit and to the Indian literary tradition.
Even this brief survey of compositions in the Sanskrit language is enough to suggest the brilliance and depth of our ancestors. We are truly fortunate to inherit such a magnificent intellectual tradition that has remained unbroken for nearly 6,000 years.
Aiyar, T K Ramachandra. A Short History of Sanskrit Literature. Palghat: R S Vadhyar & Sons, 1989
Ganesh, Shatavadhani R and Ravikumar, Hari. Bodies of Knowledge in Hinduism. IndiaFacts, 2015
Ganesh, Shatavadhani R and Ravikumar, Hari. Foundational Texts of Hinduism. IndiaFacts, 2015