Essay on the Composition of Vedic Literature in Ancient India

The Vedic literature, verse and prose, was composed and handed down orally. This was a remarkable achievement, and it was only possible be­cause there existed a class of people, the Brahmans, the major effort of whose lives was devoted to this end. At the same time it had a limiting effect, inas­much as such literature as remains is confined mainly to the religious sphere.

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The introduction of writing took place probably about the same time as Panini was codifying the rules of the Sanskrit language, and it rendered pos­sible a vast extension of the uses to which the recently codified language could be put.


Nevertheless the process was at first slow, due partly to the above- mentioned competition of Middle Indo-Aryan. The Sanskrit literature pre­served from the time of Panini and the centuries immediately following is still mainly religious, consisting of various siitras attached to the Vedic schools. Their language corresponds mainly to that of Panini, but tolerates a number of irregularities which would not later be allowed.

In the field of secular literature Sanskrit epic poetry was the next most im­portant development, but the oral tradition in this field seems to have con­tinued for some time, so that it was not until considerably later that the written epics in the form that we have them took shape. The epic language also, though following Panini as a rule, admits a considerable number of irregularities.

The use of Sanskrit prose for scientific, technical, and philoso­phical purposes is first exemplified on a large scale by the Mahabhashya, Patanjali’s commentary on Katyayana’s Varttikas to Panini’s grammar, which can be dated with some certainty to the second century b.c.

After this time, and particularly during the early centuries of the Christian era, a great corpus of technical scientific literature, covering the fields of philosophy, medicine, politics, and administration, etc., came into existence. In the same period the rules of Panini were more strictly applied, and deviations from them were disapproved.


Classical poetry, in so far as it is preserved, is rather late, beginning with Kalidasa, who is probably to be placed in the fifth century a.d., but its earlier cultivation is attested in inscriptions, in Buddhist literature (Asvaghosha), and by occasional references in Patanjali. The drama also was probably established in the period immediately preceding the Christian era, and it continued to flourish in the early centuries a.d., but here again the examples that are preserved are much later.

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