On Sanskrit - Modern Sanskrit Literature

Modern Sanskrit Literature

Modern Sanskrit Literature

The story of the modern Sanskrit literature does not coincide exactly with that of the other Indian literatures during the corresponding period. But there is an undoubted link between the two. In the beginning, the Indian climate for literature was greatly determined by the impact of English literature and Western thought. The intellectuals, who were few in number but were powerful by their talent and originative vigour, admitted practically the occidental view of our past culture as only a half-civilisation. Their governing ideals were borrowed from the West or at least centrally inspired by the purely Western spirit and type of their education. This movement of thought did not and could not endure. Although something of it still continues, its engrossing power has passed away. However, three important consequences that resulted during this period were of immense value from the point of view of the re-awakening of India. The first result was that Indian mind revived its old unresting thirst for all kinds of knowledge; the critical faculty of the human mind and passion for exhaustive observation began to become more generalised as an essential equipment of the intellect. Secondly, modern ideas became fixed before our view in such a way that we were obliged to consider them and deal with them in a rather radical manner. Finally, we were obliged to look upon our past with new eyes, and we began to bring out from the ancient knowledge a new light and its new potentiality of creation and evolution.

During the next period the occidental idea and inspiration remained, but it drew itself willingly to ancient ideas contained in the Sanskrit and other classical languages and it coloured itself more and more with their essential spirit. In due course, this suffusing element over-flooded and the thought and spirit became characteristically Indian. The works of Bankim Chandra Chatterjee and Rabindra Nath Tagore illustrate this stage of transition. Parallel to this movement, there was a current of vindication and re-acceptance of everything Indian because it was Indian. This current marked the beginning of a more subtle assimilation and fusion. For the process of vindication necessitated some kind of a synthesis of the old mentality and the new, the traditional and the critical mind. As a result, there was a seeking to arrive at the spirit of the ancient culture and increasing readiness to remould, to reject the outworn and to admit whatever new motives seemed assimilable to the old spirituality. This provided a greater freedom to the Indian spirit for a larger and progressive evolution. We may mention in this connection that Swami Vivekananda was the leading examplar and the most powerful exponent of the freer dealing with the past and the present, of preservation by reconstruction.

Modern Sanskrit Literature

Modern Sanskrit Literature

But the issue of Indian culture and external influences continued to occupy the best minds of our country, and the evolution of the modern Sanskrit literature has to be seen in this context. A number of Sanskrit scholars and writers felt encouraged to utilise the available opportunity for self­-developed transformation and of an immense and vigorous renascence. The taking over in literature the form of the novel, the short story, the critical essay, and a number of other adoptions testifies to this new spirit of assimilative appropriation, atmasatkarana.

At this stage, three important lines of development began to become quite clear. Firstly, it became clear that the recovery of the old spiritual knowledge and experience in all its splendour, depth and height was the most essential work of the Indian renaissance. Secondly, it was felt that the recovered spirituality should flow into new forms of philosophy, literature, art, science and critical knowledge. And, thirdly, there grew a feeling that modern problems should be dealt with in the light of Indian spirit and there should be a bold attempt to build up spiritualised society. Much initial work was attempted in respect of these three elements of re­awakening. But we have to admit that during the last five or six decades there has been deviation from these perceptions and the earlier promises have hardly been fulfilled or have been fulfilled only inadequately.


It is this which explains a general climate of dissatisfaction in respect of every field of creative activity. We expected more, and we have been found wanting. This also explains why there is dissatisfaction in regard to the achievements of the modern Sanskrit literature, and why there is a demand for innovations. In some quarters, it is felt that the modern Sanskrit literature is too much tied up with the tradition and that it is not able to meet the needs of the time by effecting radical innovations.

It is admitted that Sanskrit poets of our own times have adopted contemporary themes for the Mahakavyas, and some of the Sanskrit dramas come nearer to the modern taste. It is also admitted that some genuine lyricists have produced remarkable lyrics; Appa Shastri's "Panjarabaddhah Shukah" has often been quoted as an example of the lyric which deals with the burning problems of the present. One may also refer to Dr. Varnekar's Teertha Bharatam, Shri Rama Sangitika and Shri Krishna Sangitika, and several others, which continue the tradition of Jayadeva's "Geeta Govinda" with refreshing beauty. Novels such as Shivraj Vijaya of Pandit Ambika Dutt Vyasa and Anandavardhana's "Kusumalakshmih" reflect refreshing advance in the needed new directions.

Modern Sanskrit Literature

Modern Sanskrit Literature

It is also acknowledged that there is a good crop of short stories in recent times and some of them show admirably the technique and spirit of innovative modern short story. It is also appreciated that critical essays have attained some kind of maturity, although a great number of them are research articles. It has also been noted that the publication of journals in Sanskrit has been a remarkable phenomenon and that the establishment of Sanskrit Universities, Rashtriya Sanskrit Sansthan and Kendriya Sanskrit Vidyapeethas in the country have encouraged the development of Sanskrit literature, including research literature. The contributions made by several Departments of Sanskrit in various Universities and those of institutions like Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute have also been appreciated. But it is still felt that the modern Sanskrit literature is still groping and has still not found the right rhythm and law of its development in the context of rapidly changing scenario of today.

One must, however, try to understand and appreciate tremendous handicaps under which the contemporary Sanskrit author is working. The genius of a language and literature develops at the right pace when there is a widespread communication and interchange not only among the scholars, but also among larger sections of society and people in general. Such a condition does not obtain adequately in regard to Sanskrit. Secondly, the educational system prevents or discourages study of Sanskrit literature and classical traditions. In an environment where market value tends to be an exclusive consideration for the pursuit of any discipline of knowledge, important subjects like Sanskrit and classical languages, philosophy, spirituality tend to be neglected almost totally. Indological research is at a very low ebb. The number of Indologists is dwindling, and the facilities for studies of ancient traditions are very poor. A radical change in respect of all these factors must come about if Sanskrit can make the right promises and fulfil them.

The greatest demand that is being made on the Sanskrit author is that he should combine, both in substance and style, the elements of sublimity, modernity and luminosity. But it is not sufficiently realised what exactly are the implications of this demand. The heritage of the Sanskrit literature is very vast; it is extremely varied, and unless the best of the Sanskrit traditions is sufficiently understood and digested, one cannot expect self-possession and innovative mastery of self-expression. In reality, the modern Sanskrit author is required to understand, assimilate and embody the spirit and atmosphere of different epochs of Sanskrit literature before he can give adequate expression to his imagination, to his feeling of substance, and to the required variations of style.

Modern Sanskrit Literature

Modern Sanskrit Literature


But why do we turn to tradition? Is it because we are tradition-bound? The answer is, No.      

Sanskrit literature has been great in its past, and it would be natural to expect to regain its greatness even as it emerges into the new age of renaissance. Before it began to decline, this literature passed through important stages of varied greatness, and we need to understand them if we are to understand the real genius and direction of this literature. Surprisingly, our very first record of Sanskrit literature consists of exquisite poetry and sublimest substance. This is unlike any other literature in the world. We find that the creators of this record, the Vedic Rishis, were masters of consummate technique, their rhythms were great in movement and subtle in modulation. Their speech was lyric by intensity and epic by elevation. And they spoke of the human struggle and of the epic battle for the higher realisation of the supreme reality and of the attainment of immortality. And, these records contain the secrets of the methods and results of the highest knowledge.

Again, the second stage of Sanskrit literature is marked by the Upanishads which are the supreme works of the Indian mind. Upanishads contain sublimest poetry and they are a record of deepest spiritual experiences. They are documents of revelatory and intuitive philosophy of an inexhaustible light, power and largeness. As in the Vedas so in the Upanishads, we find unfailing inspiration expressing itself in inevitable expression, bearing the power of mantra. Where else shall be find the heritage such as that of the Upanishads which contain epic hymns of self-knowledge and world-knowledge and God-knowledge?

The third stage of Sanskrit literature is represented by the two epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Apart from the heroic stories which they contain, they reflect a period of highly developed intellectual, ethical and social culture. They are not only great poems but also dharmashastras. Mahabharata has been built like a vast national temple, and it is representative of the central ideas and ideals of Indian life and culture. Vedic traditions and the ideas of the Upanishads and of the great philosophies are brought in as in the Gita, and they are interwoven into epic narrative. The Ramayana is the work of the same essential kind as the Mahabharata. But it is less philosophic, more poetic, more artistic. The ethical and aesthetic mind of India finds in the Ramayana a harmonious unity and it reached an unexampled pure wideness and beauty of self-expression. While the diction of the Mahabharata is spontaneous and almost ascetic in its simplicity and directness, that of the Ramayana is shaped in a more attractive mould, a marvel of sweetness and strength, lucidity of warmth and grace. These two epics are so wonderful not only in their poetic quality but also in their epic grandeur of substance that there is no wonder that the contemporary Sanskrit authors, like many other authors in other Indian languages, are often tempted to go back to these epics.

Modern Sanskrit Literature

Modern Sanskrit Literature

The fourth stage of Sanskrit literature is that of the classical age. This period marks a long and opulent maturity, and as its sequence, an equally opulent and richly coloured decline. The difference in spirit and mould between the epics and the speech of Bhartrihari and Kalidasa is enormous. The language and movement of the epics have vigour, freedom and spontaneous force; the speech of Kalidasa is an accomplished art; it is an intellectual and aesthetic creation; it is consummate, deliberate, finely ornate; it is carved like a statue and coloured like a painting; there is a masterly artifice and device, and yet it is not artificial. It is carefully natural and bears the accomplished air of ease. As in the epics, so in Kalidasa, we have an exposition of the contemporary Indian culture. Just as we find national consciousness in Valmiki and Vyasa, so we find it also in Kalidasa. Kalidasa had a richly stored mind, possessed of all the learnings of his time, and without the touch of pedantry, Kalidasa expounds the culture of his time through the artistic and poetic creations which reached some kind of perfection.

In due course, the creations of Sanskrit literature tended to become more decorative rather than creative. We find that intellect had become too detached and too critical observant to live things with the natural force of the life or with the intuitive identity. This is the quality and also the malady of an overdeveloped intellectualism which invites any literature to a period of decline. In the case of Sanskrit literature, decline was gradual. Evolution of the culture appeared more and more in the philosophic writings of the time. At the same time, there were refreshing jets of religious poetry of Puranas and the Tantras. Even in the philosophic literature, while we do not find the epic greatness of the Upanishads, or of the Gita. we have still during this period admirable literature combining philosophic genius with a remarkable literary talent. Some of the poems are noble and careful constructions, embodying the highest thought, using well all the weighty, compact and sparing phrases of the classical Sanskrit speech. And they achieved the harmony and noble elegance of its rhythm. These merits are seen at their best in poems like the Viveka Chudamani attributed to Shankaracharya. In the Puranas and Tantras we find an immense and complex body of psycho-spiritual experience, and there is also a system of physical images each with its psychical significance. The Puranas are essentially a true religious poetry, an art of aesthetic presentation of religious truth. Some of these Puranas are remarkable literary creations and they maintain much of the direct force and height of the old epic style. There are also as in Vishnu Purana and in the Bhagavata, lyrical elements of lucid sweetness and beauty and a number of narratives of the finest verve and skilful simplicity of poetic workmanship.


We cannot review here the entire course of Sanskrit literature and refer to the immense literary activity of which we have only a few surviving remnants. This is not a place where we can speak of the greatness of the Veda and the Upanishad, of the Mahabharata and Ramayana, of Bhartrihari and Kalidasa. Nor can we discuss great writers like Magha, Bharavi, Bhasa, Bana or Harsha or great works such as Jatakas, Katha Sarit Sagar, Panchatantra, Hitopadesha and others. We cannot even dilate on the greatness and poetic beauty of Jayadeva's Geet Govinda, or of Puranas and Tantras or of writings of great scholars. Nor do we have the space to discuss the reasons for the decline of Sanskrit literature. But we must mention that the literature of the Sanskrit tongue did not come to any abrupt end. Poetry of the classical type continued to be written especially in the South down to a comparatively late period. Even then, Sanskrit continues to remain still the language of philosophy and of all kinds of scholarship, and we have today a vibrant modern Sanskrit literature.

Modern Sanskrit Literature

Modern Sanskrit Literature

But mere survival and mere living and vibrating is not enough. We need to arrive and we need to move towards fulfilment.

At this stage, what is important is to derive lessons from the tradition for purposes of the discovering of directions and indications of innovations. First of all, it may be said that the dominant trend of the tradition is its emphasis on spiritual experience. Throughout the history of Sanskrit literature, there has been the celebration of the spirit, not in any dogmatic manner, but in the manner of refreshing, renewal and repeated personal discovery, as also of expansion and opening of new domains by subtilisation and increasing effectivity. This is the dominant concern, and in our rush for innovations, we should not ignore or bury this concern. The majesty and grandeur of the Sanskrit literature owes primarily to the highest substance of spiritual experience and varieties of spiritual realisation. Innovations here would be to reawaken our interest in this domain and recover the past and the present contributions, particularly of modern India in the field of the synthesis of spiritual experience, exemplified so greatly in Sri Ramakrishna, Swami Vivekananda and Sri Aurobindo. In doing so, we shall have followed the direction that emerges from the Veda and the Upanishads and the entire history of Sanskrit literature. Thus, we shall regain for ourselves and for posterity a vast field of the sovereign theme of the synthesis Spirit and Matter.

The second lesson that we can derive is that of the spiritual and the intellectual, the spiritual and the ethical, and the spiritual and aesthetic need not quarrel. Mahabharata and Ramayana have shown admirably how these important motives of life can be blended. A similar blending can be attempted as an innovation in the context of the modern and post-modern era. We have to take note of the contemporary explosion of intellectual, critical, scientific and technical knowledge. We need even to run faster than the advancing age. The subjectivism of the 20th  century, which promised deeper understanding of human psychology and a deeper understanding of cultural, social and political upheavals of our times, has failed to achieve its goal. In the meantime, we are witnessing an unprecedented crisis and we seem to be confronted with dilemmas of intellectual and ethical dimensions. Somewhat like Arjuna, we are in need of a new light, a need of Krishna. It is true that literature is not supposed to be a means of didactic instruction or moral preaching or prescription. But it can legitimately be expected that literature should present sensitive and profounder experiences of the dilemmas and of the acute search, that it should bring home to the reader deeper and deeper perceptions of what lies behind the appearances, that it should translate in literary forms the largest and profoundest issues in a manner that stirs the deepest recesses of the soul. The demands of innovation that we can make on Sanskrit literature are in this direction.

The third lesson that we can derive from the classical age is that the sensuous and sublime can also be combined, that the highest artistry can be expressed with naturalness, ease and perfection. Interest of life and pursuit of beauty, even sensuous beauty, were blended by Kalidasa with intellectual passion for higher things, religious ideas, ethical ideal, even the greatness of ascetic self-mastery. This difficult balance would seem to be so relevant today when the life of senses has become overwhelming, and we are obliged to admit the values of sense-life and yet to transmute them into their corresponding sublime and spiritual values. Here lies perhaps one of the most difficult challenges to the modern author when he is seeking innovations. Can we, as in the Kena Upanishad, see the sight of our sight, hearing of our hearing, mind of our mind, speech of our speech, life of our life-breath?

Modern Sanskrit Literature

Modern Sanskrit Literature

Both in substance and style, the modern author is asked to reveal the profoundest truths that lie behind the sense-life and sense-experience. In this task, help can be obtained not from only the lessons of our classical age, but also of English poetry, since it started with the experiences of the physical consciousness, powerfully expressed by Chaucer, and it passed through Shakespeare, the creator and master of vital poetry which centred a great deal on the emotional, dynamic and sensuous elements of the human experience. And in the poetry of Wordsworth, Byron, Shelly and Keats, we have rendering of the truth of the spirit by passing behind the appearances of the sense-life and intellectual life. In some great moments of this poetry we find a native voice of the spirit, in Wordsworth's revelations of the spiritual presence in the Nature and its scenes, in Byron's rare forceful sincerities, but most of all perhaps in the lyrical cry and ethereal light of Shelly. Finally, we get in Keats a turning away to a rich artistic and sensuous poetical speech, marvellous in its perception and opulence, resource and colour.

This and recent English poetry, as also relevant Continental and American and Asiatic poetry could be very useful in effecting innovations. But our search in modern Sanskrit literature has to be for a still greater fulfilment. It is the grand possibility of an orchestral symphony and of the rich music of the intellectual, ethical, aesthetic, vital, sensuous experiences bathed, surcharged and transformed with the supreme intuitive and revelatory light and expression. Here we have to get back to the Veda and the Upanishad, to Ila and Saraswati, to the goddess Vak and derive from the deepest inspiration and open our gates of the future.

Again, as an important lesson of our past story of Sanskrit literature, we have to note when literature becomes more decorative, when creativity and naturalness and spontaneity begin to recede, and when the substance of writing begins to dwell on lower ranges, many defects begin to arise, and we must avoid them if we are to create once again living and great literature. In all our innovative effort, we need to strive to combine three highest intensities, namely, the highest intensity of rhythm and word movement, the highest intensity of interwoven verbal form and thought substance, and the highest intensity of the soul's vision of truth. These intensities are not foreign to the Sanskrit literature. But they need to be brought forward, re-cultivated and made manifest more and more increasingly in terms and in the context of the contemporary situation, both national and global. It is easier for Sanskrit than in the case of many other languages. For Sanskrit is the most perfect literary instrument. It is at once majestic and sweet and flexible; it is vibrant and subtle; and it has expressed the sublimest themes of human culture with supreme suggestiveness, colour and precision.


In the end, I should like to emphasise that Sanskrit literature can offer a ready means of creative unfailing sense of unity and solidarity of Indian culture. Vyasa, Valmiki and Kalidasa are our three greatest national poets, who have imparted to Sanskrit the air and atmosphere of the inner soul of India. Through Sanskrit, the inner unity of India, rooted in its soul, begins to express itself spontaneously and inevitably. Therefore, the growth and development of Sanskrit literature has also to be viewed from this extremely important point of view.

The central challenge before Sanskrit literature today is to find ways and means by which it can grow rapidly so as to meet the highest demands that are being made upon it. It is also important that increasing number of authors of other Indian languages should take to Sanskrit and contribute to its development. Finally, this work has to be done both creatively and deliberately.

Modern Sanskrit Literature

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