Classical Indian Literature
Gupta Era
320 ce — 550 ce
Gupta dynasty was founded by
Chandra Gupta I
Development of Mahayana
Classical Age in north India
Cave paintings at Ajanta
Sakuntala, Jataka,
Panchatantra and Kamasutra
were written
Aryabhatta’s Astronomy.
Kumardevi and Chandragupta I
(Minted by their son Samudragupta)
335-370 ce
Gold Dinar
Weight: 7.8 gm
Obverse: King and queen
Mahayana Buddhism
Buddhism split into two sects, Mahayana and
Hinayana (Theravada).
Mahayana laid stress on the concept of the
Bodhisattva or `one destined to be the Buddha' and
also conceived of Eternal Buddhas who resemble
gods or deities.
Hinayana regarded the Buddha as a man and had a
doctrine, Theravada, stressing the salvation of the
The interaction of Mahayana philosophy and
Hinduism gave rise to Tantric Buddhism or
 During the 4th century c.e. in a
remote valley, work began on the
Ajanta Caves to create a complex of
Buddhist monasteries and prayer
 As centuries passed, numerous
Buddhist monks and artisans dug
out a set of twenty-nine caves,
converting some to cells, and others
to monasteries and Buddhist
 These caves are adorned with
elaborate sculptures and paintings
which have withstood the ravages
of time
Ajanta Caves
 The Ajanta caves depict
the stories of Buddhism
spanning from the period
from 200 bce to 650 ce.
 The 29 caves were built
by Buddhist monks using
simple tools like hammer
& chisel.
 The elaborate and
exquisite sculptures and
paintings depict stories
from Jataka tales .
 The caves also house
images of nymphs and
The Jataka
The Language of Classical Literature
Samskrta: Sanskrit
 “perfected, classified refined”
 “Correct speech”
 Codified and frozen in the Astadhyahi : the rules of
 Considered ideal language for classics
Prakrta: Prakrit
 “original or natural”
 Dialects that changed and developed with spoken
 Kavya – the “poetry” of the
classical canon
 Permeated with the culture of the
Gupta courts
 Kavi, learned poets, wrote under
the patronage of kings for audiences
of connoisseurs
 sahrdaya – “with heart,
 rasika – “enjoyer of aesthetic
 Highly formulated norms and
 Many works on poetic theory
Kavya Genres
 Mahakavya: great poem or court epic – contains lyric stanzas
with elaborate figures of speech and emphasizes description
 Natya: drama
 employs both prose and verse
 includes Sanskrit and Prakrit
 wider range of characters
 lyrical description more than dramatic action
 Muktaka: short lyric poems
 Bhartrhari: pointed epigrams
 Kalidasa: idyllic verses on nature
 Amaru: erotic vignettes
 Katha or Akhyika: narrative tales
 Pancatantra: collection of animal fables
 Somadeva’s Kathasaritsagara (Ocean to the Rivers of Story):
picaresque, marvelous tales, romances
Aims for Human Conduct, Worldly Wisdom
 The Nagaraka – gentleman, citizen, courtier –
cultivated life as art with the 4 aims for human conduct:
 Dharma: religious duty
 Artha: wealth, politics, public life
 Kama: erotic pleasure and the emotions
 Vitsyayana’s Kamasutra
 Moksa: liberation from the chain of birth and death in
which souls are trapped because of Karma
 Karma implies fluid relationships between divine, human and
animal worlds
 gods become human, humans may achieve bodhisattva status
or may be reincarnated as animals
Women in Classical Literature
 Courtly ideal wives like
Sita – chaste, loyal,
submissive, long-suffering
 Wives in merchant-class
stories – chaste,
independent, powerful
 Courtesans – erotic,
beautiful, intelligent,
ruthless, rapacious,
 Religious contemplatives
– figures of authority and
free agents
ca. 2nd – 3rd ce
 Pancatantra: The Five Strategies
 Collection of folk tales and fables
within frame tales
 Brought by Arabs into Europe –
model and source for 1001 Nights,
Boccaccio’s The Decameron,
Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales,
Grimms’ Fairy Tales, La
Fontaine’s Fables, etc.
 Central concern is niti – conduct
– political expediency and social
 Visnusarman allegedly used the
fables to teach 3 dim-witted
princes the science of politics
The Pancatantra’s
5 Strategies
 Book I : “The Loss of
 “Leap and Creep”
 “ The Blue Jackal”
 “Forethought, Readywit and
 Book II : “The Winning of
 Book III: “Crows and Owls”
 strategies of alliance and war
 “Mouse-Maid Made Mouse”
 Book IV: “Loss of Gains”
 Book V: “Ill-Considered
 “The Loyal Mungoose”
 Drsyakavya: poetry to be seen as
opposed to sravyakavya: poetry to be
 Bharata’s Natyasastra – authoritative
text on dramatic aesthetics and theory
 Abhinaya: “a symphony of languages”
– verbal text, stylized gesture, facial
expression, eye movement, music, dance
 8 fundamental emotions, bhava,
expressed in 8 major rasas, stylized
representations of the emotions –
universal rather than particular
 No tragedy in Indian drama –
impossible in the Hindu and Buddhist
conception of the universe of karma
linking humans with nature and the
cosmos through networks of volition,
Video on Indian Natya
action and response – open-ended
cycles of time
Dramatic Conventions
 Performed at seasonal festivals and celebrations such as
weddings, the dramas were regarded as rites of renewal and order
 Characters are types, not individuals
 Contrasts and complements among diverse elements:
 lyric verse and prose dialogue
 erotic and heroic moods
 heroic king and gluttonous buffoon
 Sanskrit spoken by noblemen, Prakrit spoken by women,
children and men of lower caste
 domestic and public worlds; worlds of the court and of
nature; worlds of the human and divine
 emotional universes of men and women
 The dramatist and poet is regarded
as the greatest figure in classical
Sanskrit literature.
 His three surviving plays are
Abhijnanasakuntala (Sakunatala
and the Ring of Recognition),
Vikramorvasi, and
 These court dramas in verse,
nataka, relate fanciful or
mythological tales of profound
romantic love intensified and
matured by adversity.
 In Kalidasa's two epics,
Raghuvansa and Kumarasambhava,
delicate descriptions of nature are
mingled with battle scenes.
 The other poems of Kalidasa are
shorter and almost purely lyrical.
fl. 4th –5th c. ce
 Nataka: heroic romance
– play about love
between a noble hero
and a beautiful woman
 Dominant mood: the
erotic rasa: tension
between duty, dharma,
and desire, kama
 King Dusyanta falls in
love with Sakuntala,
daughter of the nymph
Menaka and foster
daughter of the ascetic
hermit-sage, Kanva.

Classical Indian Literature