1. Introduction
    • – Why study Classics in Sanskrit ? Why study Sanskrit[i] ?
    • 1.1 Early Sanskrit literature (Prior to 3000 BCE)
    • 1.2 Valmiki Vyasa literature (Circa 3000 BCE)
  1. Prior to Kalidasa (3000 BCE to 200 A D)
    • 2.1. Panini, Bhasa, Asvaghosha, Dignanga
    • 2.2. Kalidasa
  1. Post Kalidasa :
    • Bhavabhuti,
    • Bhartruhari ,
    • Bharavi, Magha
    • Sri Harsha, Rajashekhara, Jagannatha
  1. Prose writers: Dandin, Bana,
  2. Stylistic compositions: Chitra Kavya, Slsesha
  3. Special Class of Literary compositions: Subhahsitas
  4. Saint –Poets: Religious literature, Devotional literature Stotras
  5. Modern writings- Sanskrit Today


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1. Introduction:  Sanskrit is the preferred language, for centuries by classical creative writers of India, to craft creative thought in to elegant aesthetic expressions[1] . The exploration of appreciation of elegance of Sanskrit compositions amongst world class literature begins with ‘Vedas’, the oldest compositions ‘ heard in a transcendental state of consciousness’ , in the vicissitudes of Sindu Sarasvati province, in as early a period as 7000 BCE. The immortal Sanskrit literary work ‘Ramayana’ by Valmiki follows it, as a curtain raiser leading to the epic poetry ‘Mahabharata (circa 3100 BCE). The trend continues to be seen as classical Sanskrit poetry, with its culmination in the genius of Kalidasa (circa 200 BCE to 400 AD), whose poetry and dramas, remain unsurpassed even to this day!

Post Kalidasa, there are several classical creative literary compositions of diverse nature with an unbroken chain of literary activity in India, till 1700 AD. Though Sanskrit faded out from the position of ‘language of masses’ since 1000 AD (cira) in India, yielding power to regional languages, it retained its unchallenged supremacy as ‘Grand mother of Indian Languages’ to stay safe in ‘royal courts and sacred corridors of religious institutions’. Sanskrit never lost its connectivity to society and place in community. Even to this day, Sanskrit stays in the heart of the masses, embedded as a part of sacred vocabulary of culture, religion and spirituality. Sanskrit vocabulary (primary and derived) permeates the persona and place names in regional languages and dialects. Use of Sanskrit is invariable integral component of cultural performances and rites of passage.

This article provides glimpses of select compositions considered most elegant from Sanskrit literature. These are appreciated by connoisseurs over centuries, long after the original poets passed out of their mortal coil!

Why study Classics in Sanskrit ? Why study Sanskrit [2] ? The short answer is that in classical works we learn the ABC’s of our own tradition. (http://www.udallasclassics.org/whyClassics.html )

The availability of Sanskrit classical literary compositions by great poets in source language and idiom is one of the ways to take a peep in to the ancient Indian wisdom. The variety of compositions separated centuries apart, shows the pathways of literature, through which ancient Indian wisdom is continuing to flow across generations, to set standards, shape and refine the taste-buds of community to enjoy the beauty and elegance of aesthetics expressions.

The quotes below are pointers to the benefits classical [3] Sanskrit literature studies.

  • “If I was asked what the greatest treasure which India possesses is and what is her greatest heritage, I would answer unhesitatingly that it is the Sanskrit language and literature and all that it contains. This is a magnificent inheritance, and so long as this endures and influences the life of our people, so long will the basic genius of India continue.”       – Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru (Quoted from The Discovery of India)
  • India built up a magnificent language, Sanskrit, and through this language, and its art and architecture, it sent its vibrant message to far away countries. It produced the Upanishads, the Gita and the Buddha. Hardly any language in the world has probably played as vital a part in the history of a race as Sanskrit has. It was not only the vehicle of the highest thought and some of the finest literature, but it became the uniting bond for India, even though there were political divisions. The Ramayana and the Mahabharata were woven into the texture of millions of lives in every generation for a thousand years. I have often wondered if our race forgot the Buddha, the Upanishads and the great epics, what then would it be like? (Jawaharlal Nehru, Azad Memorial Address, cited in The Wonder that Was Sanskrit 160.

Sanskrit is the classical language of ancient Indian spiritual and social literature. Creative Literary compositions are penned even to this day in India, and is read and appreciated amongst literary circles. Select Sanskrit literary compositions, appreciated widely in Sanskrit connoisseurs reading circles are placed below. These selections from classical Sanskrit literature illustrate the aesthetic beauty of thought (Rasa) couched in elegant composition (Chandas) delivering ever-fresh emotions (Bhaava).

Focus of selections in this document: The focus of selections here is on classical Sanskrit literature, placed technically under the category of ‘Kavya-Nataka’, primarily used for the objective of enjoying elegant aesthetic literary expressions (Kavya- Rasa-Aasvada Vinoda). The vedic resources and other classes of ‘Smriti –Purana, Sutra, Nibandha – Itihasa ’ come under ‘Shastra’ category. They are special categories of compositions and serve a different purpose. They also abound in elegant expressions and wise statements.


1.1 . Selections from Early Sanskrit literature
Vedas are the earliest known sanskrit literature. These are placed in a time period prior to 7000 BCE.   Vedic hymns are also the earliest spiritual literature in Sanskrit language, which carries several poetic descriptions of nature.

(Ushas sukta: The Sun rise) ; Grand description of river Sarsavati flowing full (Sarasvati Sukta)

Ramayana ( prior to 3000 BCE) is the next major work ‘ Aadi-Kavya’ First and primary literary composition of Sanskrit literature. Composed by Valmiki, in sloka meter, it a voluminous work of 24,000 verses organized in six cantos and sub-cantos. According to tradition, this work was sung in assemblies and communities to the tune of musical instruments, by professional bards.

(Select slokas from Ramayana)

Mahabharata (circa 3000 BCE) is the next voluminous and progressively compiled epic poetry (Itihasa). Major part of Mahabharata , a work with a measure of one lakh couplets is in Sloka meter. According to tradition, Mahabharata along with Ramayana were performed as dance-drama ballet performances ( harikatha-kar, paryana-pravachana ) at public places, during events of social and religious significance. The kings, connoisseurs and religious institutions supported such performances.

(selections from Mahabharata)

This way, these Sanskrit literary works of pre-Christian era are passing through generations of Sanskrit lovers as ‘sung poetry – sacred chanting ’ delivering the experience of original composition in sound and elegant metrical flow.

[1] ‘Vakyam rasatmakam kavyam –is the standard definition of literature.

[2]   The following concluding part of the Inaugural Lecture for the Boden Professorship, University of Oxford, by

  1. Minkowski on 7 March, 2006 is worth contemplating deeply. (http://users.ox.ac.uk/~ball2185/Minkowski.Inaugural.pdf )


All of this began with a rude question: what should the study of Sanskrit at Oxford be for?

I hope that by now this audience will agree with me at least about what it should not be for. The study of Sanskrit at Oxford should not be to serve as the handmaiden of state purposes, nor to bring about the religious conversion of “natives.” Nor should it be for the sake of invidious cultural comparison; nor to celebrate or endorse social practices that institutionalize human degradation. [Nor, one hopes, should it be solely for encouraging self-congratulation among the very clever.] But after leaving those rejected possibilities aside, there are plenty of beneficial ones left, and one can hope to add yet more.

South Asia is a hugely populous, and increasingly influential, part of the world. Its history is now tied inseparably with Britain’s, as a glance at the faces on any British street tells us. Lately, however, the study of that connected history has been neglected in Britain. And yet, all of our present experience of the rapidly globalizing world tells us that if we are to do well at making our way with one another in the present, an understanding of the histories of the world’s societies, in all their intellectual and cultural depth, has never been more important. The study of Sanskrit remains a necessary part of gaining that understanding. What then, should the study of Sanskrit be for? Many things.

We must give the basic scholarly practices of the subject their due, getting the facts of the matter right, and making headway against the enormous mass of unexamined manuscript material, before this material is lost to worms, mildew, and other hazards.

The amount of literary material that is extant in Sanskrit represents a huge intellectual effort, on the part of many individuals and collective groups, over many centuries. We must understand what it meant for the actors themselves to make such an effort, in their own times and places.

At the same time, we would do well to relax the clenched posture that now holds tight the boundary of our discipline, and to allow this eminently interesting material to be drawn into the global understanding of our present: to make available whatever potential there is in this material that might be of use in our own world, while maintaining responsible custody of the rest.

Finally, part of our work must also include making a reckoning with the past of the subject, in two forms: the history of the field as it has been carried out for the past two centuries, under the circumstances described earlier, and the history of the social implications of the Sanskritic knowledge systems.

Ancient and medieval Indian societies, like many other societies, past and present, incorporated social disparities, and hereditary forms of servitude. Some of our material assumes, even asserts, that social order. If any useful potential is to be reclaimed from the study of Sanskrit, some reckoning with this troublesome aspect of our subject’s past is also necessary.

But that would be a worthwhile undertaking. After all, the study of Sanskrit has intrinsic worth. The merit and value and interest that were mentioned earlier, while we were still sitting at Balliol’s table, are genuine, and evergreen. There are some Sanskrit texts that everyone would be better off for having read. And there are many recondite joys waiting to be discovered, while wandering the vast uplands of Sanskrit literature, which lie open to expansive, inviting skies.

[3] Some of these thoughts on world classics study is equally applicable to Sanskrit classics studies.

  • “The crown of literature is poetry.” ( William Somerset Maugham (1874-1965). )
  • “The decline of literature indicates the decline of a nation.” (- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, German poet, novelist, playwright, and scientific theorist (1749-1832)
  • “It takes a great deal of history to produce a little literature.” (- Henry James – (1843-1916))
  • What makes a book great, a so-called classic, it its quality of always being modern, of its author, though he be long dead, continuing to speak to each new generation.”
  • What makes a book great, a so-called classic, it its quality of always being modern, of its author, though he be long dead, continuing to speak to each new generation.” – Lawrence Clark Powell ( American Librarian, Writer and Critic, 1906-2001)
  • “A classic is classic not because it conforms to certain structural rules, or fits certain definitions (of which its author had quite probably never heard). It is classic because of a certain eternal and irrepressible freshness.” Edith Wharton (American Novelist and short-story writer, 1862-1937).