Sanskrit Religious Texts :
The earliest writing is in the form of Rig Vedic poetry in Sanskrit. The Rigveda consists of 1028 suktas or hymns which are distributed in ten books called mandalas. The Samaveda consists of hymns taken from the Rig Veda for the purposes of devotional singing during sacrifices. The Yajurveda and the Atharvaveda are the texts of the post-Rig Vedic times. The Yajurveda contains hymns and rituals that reflect the social and political milieu of the times. The Atharvaveda contains charms and spells to ward of evil spirits and diseases. Each of these Vedas is again divided into four parts – Samhitas (the principal text containing the mantras), Brahmanas (their application to religious rituals), Aranyakas (portions meant for deep meditation and for those living in forests) and lastly the Upanishads. The Upanishads form the concluding part of the Vedic literature and are referred to as the Vedanta, the quintessence of Vedic thought, vision and wisdom. They are also called Veda Sirsha, the top-ranking text in the Vedic lore. The Muktika Upanishad lists 108 Upanishads, of which Adi Sankara commented on eleven — Isha, Kena, Katha, Prasna, Mundaka, Mandukva, Taittiriva, Aitereya, Chandogya, Brihadaranyaka and Narisimhapurvatapini.
The next great texts in Sanskrit were the two great epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata composed by Valmiki and Vyasa respectively. The Puranas, which are dated later than the two great Epics, are the epic legends comprising of five main topics: sarga (creation), pratisarga (dissolution and recreation), vamsa (divine genealogies), manvantara (ages of Manu) and vamsanucarita (dynastic history). The five additional topics are vrtii (means of livelihood), raksa (incarnation of gods), mukti (final emancipation), hetu (living beings) and apsaraya (Brahman). The Puranas are 18 in number viz., Brahma, Padma, Visnu, Vayu, Bhagavata, Naradiya, Markandeya, Agni, Bhavisya, Brahma-vaivarta, Varaha, Linga, Skanda, Vamana, Kurma, Matsya, Garuda and the Brahmanda Puranas. There are also 18 Upapuranas: Sanatkumara, Narasimha, Nanda, Sivadharma, Durvasas, Naradiya, Kapila, Vamana, Usanas, Manava, Varuna, Kali, Maheswara, Samba, Saura, Parasara, Marica and the Bhargava Puranas.
The Manu Smriti (or Barghu Samhita), belonging to 1st century BC, is the best illustrator of the Dharma-sastras or Smritis or the Hindu religious laws. It consists of twelve chapters, five of which are devoted to rules of conduct for persons belonging to different varnas and asramas. The other important Smritis include Yajnavalkya Smriti (4-5 century AD), Katyayana Smriti-saroddhara, Brahaspati Smriti and the Narada Smriti. Hemadri’s Chaturvarga-cintamani can be described as a ‘digest of law’ since it deals with various topics of religious significance.
The next important group of religious texts in Sanskrit are the Agama Sastras or the Tantric texts which are subdivided into three categories: the Agamas, the Samhitas and the Tantras, which relates to the Saiva, the Vaisnava and the Sakta sects respectively.
Stotra literature is also an important form of ancient Sanskrit literature. It consists of hymns addressed to Shiva, Vishnu, Shakti, Surya and Ganapati. Examples include, Bana’s Chandi-sataka, Mayura’s Surya-sataka, Shankaracharya’s Ananda-lahari, Saundarya-lahari and Carpata-panjari, Muka’s Pancasati, Pushpadanta’s Sivamahimmah-stotra, Anardavardhana’s Devi-sataka, Bhatta Naryanan’s Stava-cintamani and Kulasekhara’s Mukunda-mala.
Among the Jains, the earliest work in Sanskrit devoted to religious writing is Umasvamin’s Tattvarthadhigama-Sutra, which epitomises the whole Jaina creed in about 375 sutras arranged in ten chapters. There are many commentaries written on this work in Sanskrit, which includes Pujyapada’s Sarvartha-siddhi-vrtti (6th century), Akalanka’s Tattvartha-raja-varttika (8thcentury) and Vidyanandin’s Tattvartha-sloka-varttika (9th century). The other important Jain texts in Sanskrit are Subhachandra’s Jnanarvana and Hemachandra’s Yogasastra, Ravisena’s Padmacharita (7th century), Jinasena’s Harivamsa Purana (8th century) and Mahapurana of Jinasena and Gunabhadra (9th century). Harisena’s Katha kosa (10th century) is the best example of Jain short stories in Sanskrit. Hymns and Jain lyrical poetry is best depicted by Bhaktambara-stotra of Manatunga, Kalyana-mandira-stotra of Vadiraja, Visapahara-stotra of Dhananjaya and Jina-chaturvimsatika of Bhupala.
Among the Buddhist texts, the Mahavastu is one of the most important works belonging to the Hinayana School. It is an encyclopaedia of Buddhist legends and doctrines. The Buddhist texts in Sanskrit were enriched by great writers like Asvaghosa, Nagarjuna, Aryadeva, Asanga, Vasubandhu, Dinnaga, Vasumitra, Dharmapala, Dharmakirti, Santideva and Santaraksita. The Buddhacharita and Saundarananda are the two masterpieces of Asvaghosa. The Sariputra-prakarma, a drama in nine acts, is the oldest dramatic work extant in Sanskrit literature. The other great Buddhist texts in Sanskrit are Nagarjuna’s Madhyamika-karika and Mahdyamika-sastra, Aryadeva’s Catuhsataka, Asanga’s Yogacara-bhumi-sastra, Vasubandhu’s Vimsika and Trimsika, Dinnaga’s Nyayapravesa, Dharmakriti’s Nyayabindu, Shantideva’s Siksa-sammucchaya and Santaraksita’s Tattva-sangraha.
Sanskrit Poetry :
Panani, who lived between 500 and 350 B.C., is considered as the author of one of the first long poems in Sanskrit called Jambavati-vijaya or Patala-vijaya. Patanjali (2nd century B.C.) mentions a poem called Vararuca-kavyam written by Katyayana (third century B.C.). In his Sringarapraka, Bhoja quotes a half-verse written by Katyayana which is a poetical fancy on river Ganga. Kalidasa, the greatest of all poets, produced great works like Ritusamhara, Meghaduta, Kumarasambhava, Raghuvamsa, Abhijnana Sakuntalam, Malavikaagnimitra and Vikrama-urvasiyam. Bhairavi’s Kiratarjuniya, Magha’s Shishupala-vadha, Harsha’s Naisadhiyacharita constitute the Pancha-Mahakvyas or the five great pentads, along with Kalidasa’s Raghuvamsa and Meghaduta. The other great poetic works in Sanskrit include Subhandu’s Vasavadatta, Bana’s Kadambari and Harshacharita, Dandin’s Avantisundarikatha or the Dasakumaracharita, Ratanakara’s Haravijaya, Anandavardhana’s Arjunacharita, Dhanapala’s Tilakamanjari, Rajasekhara’s Haravilasa, Umapatidhara’s Chandrachudcharita, Agasta Pandita’s Balabharata, Vedanta Desika’s Yadavabhyudya and Sukumara’s Krishnavilasa. The earliest historical kavya is Bhuvanabhyudaya written by Sankuka of Kashmir. Others in this category include Padmagupta Parimala’s Navasahasankacharita, Bilhana’s Vikramankadevacharita, Kalhana’s Rajatarangini, Ksemendra’s Nripavali, Nandin’s Ramacharita, Chandakavi’s Prithviraja-vijaya, Someshvara’s Mirti-kaumudi, Vastupalacharita, Sukrita-sankirtana and Vasanta-vilasa and Narasimha’s Kakatiyacharita.
Campu Kavya: The mixed style of writing using both prose and verse together was described by Dandin as Campu. The Damayanthikatha (Nala-campu) written by Trivikrama in the 10th century is the earliest specimen of campu kavya. Other examples are Harichandra’s Jivandhara-campu, the Bhoja-campu of King Bhoja, Nilakantha-vijaya by Nilakantha Dikshita (1637) and Visvagunadarsa of Venkatadhvarin.
Sanskrit Prose :
Sanskrit prose is fairly diverse and comprises of short stories, fables and historical texts. The Brahmanas represent the earliest specimen of Sanskrit prose. Yaska’s Nirukta is an important treatise on the science of etymology. There are two types of Sanskrit prose narratives: katha (which has an imaginary plot) and akhyayika (which is based on a historical anecdote). Bana’s Kadambari and Harshacharita, Subandhu’s Vasavadutta, Dandin’s Dasakumaracharita are the four great works in Sanskrit prose. Some other great works in Sanskrit prose include Vatsayayana’s Kamasutra, Kautilya’s Arthasastra and Rajasekhara’s Kavyamimsa.
The earliest known fables are Gunadhya’s Brihatkatha (composed in Paisaci, an earlier form of Prakrit), Kathasaritsagara by Somadeva and Brihat-kathamanjari by Ksemendra. The Panchatantra written by Vishnu Sharma and Hitopadesa are famous Sanskrit fables.
Scientific Literature in Sanskrit :
Several important scientific texts have been written in Sanskrit covering diverse topics like alchemy, astrology, astronomy, cookery, erotics, gemmology, grammar, mathematics and medicine. Some of these are Nagarjuna’s ‘Rasaratnakara’, Madhava’s ‘Sarva-darsana-sangraha’ and Somadeva’s ‘Rasendra-cudamani’ (Alchemy); Karttikeya’s ‘Vahatagrantha’, Asvin’s ‘Asvini Samhita’, Bharadvaja’s ‘Dhatulakshana’ and Madhavakara’s ‘Rugviniscaya’ or ‘Nidana’ (Medicine); Palakapya’s ‘Gajurveda’ and Salihotra’s ‘Asva-sastra’ (Veterinary Science); Agastya’s ‘Ratna-sastra’ and Buddhabhatta’s ‘Ratna-pariksa’ (Gemmology); Nala’s ‘Nalapaka’ and Manirama Sharma’s ‘Pakavijnana’ (Cookery); Aryabhatta’s ‘Aryabhatiya’, Varahamihira’s ‘Pancha-siddhantika’, Brahmagupta’s ‘Brahmasphuta-siddhanta’ and Bhaskaracharya’s ‘Siddhanta-shiromani’ (Astronomy); Mahiviracharya’s ‘Ganita-sarasangraha’; Sridhara’s ‘Trisati’ and Narayana’s ‘Ganita-kaumudi’ (Mathematics); Varahamihira’s ‘Brihat samhita’ and Kalidasa’s ‘Suryasiddhanta’ (Astrology); Vatsyayana’s ‘Kamasutra’ and Yaodhara’s ‘Jyamangala’ (Erotics) and Panani’s ‘Astadhhyayi’ (Grammar).
Sanskrit Literature under different Political Rules :
Sanskrit literature was patronised by different political rules in India. Undoubtedly, the Gupta period (300-500 A.D.) can be considered as the golden era of Sanskrit literature, which saw great poets and writers like Kalidasa, Bairavi, Sudraka, Visakadatta, Subhandu, Vishnu Sharma and Dandi (‘Kavyadarasa’). The Satavahana rulers (3 B.C. to 3 A.D.) patronised Sanskrit, in addition to Prakrit. The Pallava kings (350-898 A.D.) were great patrons of Sanskrit literature. Vatsyayana (‘Nyayabhasya’) and Dharmapala belonged to this period. Mahindravarman I authored the celebrated Sanskrit farce ‘Mattavilasaprahasana’. Some Sanskrit works were also produced during the Vijayanagara Empire (1336-1565 A.D.), which include: ‘Yadavabhyudayam’ by Vedantha Desika and ‘Parasara Smruti’ ‘Vyakhaya’ of Madhavacharya.
The Mughals extended their patronage to Sanskrit along with other languages. Akbar appointed Bhanuchandra and Siddhachandra who wrote a commentary on Bana’s ‘Kadambari’. Several Sanskrit works like the ‘Ramayana’, the ‘Mahabharata’, Bhaskara’s ‘Lilavati’ and ‘Panchatantra’ and the story of ‘Nala-Damayanti’ were translated into Persian during Akbar’s time. Rudra’s ‘Kirtisamullasa’ and ‘Danashahcharita’ and Jagannath’s ‘Manoramakucamaradana’ were the notable works produced during Jahangir’s time. Shah Jahan’s period saw works like ‘Rasa Gangadhara’ and ‘Ganga Lahiri’ by Jagannatha Panditaraya and ‘Siddhantasarvabhauma’ by Munishvar. Even Aurangzeb’s time witnessed some great Sanskrit works like ‘Rasakalpadruma’ by Chaturbhuja and ‘Muhurtamala’ by Raghunath.