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The Tradition of Sanskrit Literature

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  • 0:00 Sanskrit Literature
  • 1:39 The Vedas & Upanishads
  • 2:41 The Great Epics
  • 4:57 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

Despite not being native to India, Sanskrit has had an enormous impact on Indian cultural life. This lesson explains both the history of Sanskrit's arrival in India as well as the role its writings played in religious life.

Importance of Sanskrit Literature

Sanskrit is the classical language of India. This means that much of the great works of the Indian past were composed in Sanskrit, much like the great works of Western literature were composed in Greek or Latin, like the Odyssey or the Aeneid. In fact, Sanskrit is related to Greek and Latin and, therefore, English, as all four languages (and many others) are Indo-European languages. Amazingly, some historians even say that people who originally spoke the languages that would soon become Sanskrit, Greek, Latin and many others, actually lived in Central Asia around 10,000 years ago. This is confirmed in Indian folklore, which says that invaders arrived with the tales that would eventually become the works of Sanskrit literature from the same parts of Central Asia that the speakers of the first Indo-European languages came from.

However, it isn't just great works of literature that were composed in Sanskrit. Many of the greatest religious texts in Indian history, especially those related to Hinduism or Brahmanism, were composed in Sanskrit thousands of years ago. This makes Sanskrit an even more important language to the study of early India. In fact, it is often hard to tell where a piece of literature in Sanskrit stops being just a good story and starts being a religiously important document. Actually, the change has been gradual for some works, as we shall see.

The Vedas and the Upanishads

With the Aryan Invasion of India, so too came the Vedas. The Vedas are a collection of religious writings that deal with the great kings of the past fighting with the various enemies of righteousness. The themes of these works laid the groundwork for much of what would later become Hinduism. These were composed in the years before and after the great invasion of India, but were not written down until after the conquest was complete. This collection of hymns, stories and poems is among the oldest religious texts in the world.

One work that would evolve out of the Vedas was the Upanishads, which originally began as a set of explanatory stories about the Vedas, but is now included as part of the holy scriptures by its own merits. Like the Vedas, the Upanishads discusses the great ideals of service, duty and honor, but does so in a more mystical way than the earlier writings.

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