Ancient Indian Literature

As you read in the section on art, Ancient India had one of the oldest forms of writing in the world. These pictographs (picture-writing) were most likely used for government business and trade and for marking one’s own property.

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SanskritMany years later, the Indian people developed an alphabet and a written language called Sanskrit, and began writing literature.

As with many things in the life of the Indian people, religion had a great influence on their literature. The people of ancient India (from around1500-1200 B.C.) wrote a collection of poems and hymns in praise of their many gods. These are known as the Vedas, and they’re considered as some of the oldest texts in the world. There are four Vedas, and each deals with a different area of knowledge. The Rig Veda, the most famous one, tells Hindus how to celebrate holy days, and contains hymns and poems.

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Another book, called the Upanishads, was written later, and explains many of the Vedas. It also deals with nature and the relationship between the soul and the main god, Brahman.

The Bhagavad Gita (“The Song of the God”) is a part of the epic poem called Mahabharata and is revered by most Hindus as a very important book. The Mahabharata is said to be the longest poem in the world at 100,000 stanzas long! The Bhagavad Gita tells people how they should behave.

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About 300 B.C., the Indian people began to write Jataka tales. These are stories of Buddha in his earlier lives, before he became Buddha. Like our fables, these stories have a moral, to teach the reader some kind of lesson. The Turtle Who Couldn’t Stop Talking is one of them. Can you guess what lesson that one teaches?

Then there are the epic stories like Ramayana and Mahabharata. These tell the stories of the gods as a human beings. The god Vishnu appears as Rama, the hero of the Ramayana, and Krishna, the hero in the Mahabharata. Here’s an example.

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Rama and Sita

RamaRama was the son of an old king, who decided he was ready to pass on his kingdom to his son. But Rama’s step-mother wanted her own son, Bharat, to inherit the kingdom. She asked her husband to send Rama to the forest for 14 years and make Bharat king instead. The king did what his wife asked, even though he did not agree with it.

Rama took his wife Sita and his brother Lakshman and went to the forest. They build a house there and lived happily for some years. One day, Sita saw a beautiful little fawn and asked Rama to catch it for her. He chased the fawn deep into the woods. He could not catch it, and soon realized he was lost.

Meanwhile, someone tricked Lakshman into running into the forest by imitating Rama’s voice, calling for help. When Sita was left alone, Ravana, the prince of demons, appeared before her. He grabbed Sita, took her into his magic chariot, and sailed away across the sky with her.

When he realized he’d been tricked and Sita had been taken away, Rama set out to find her. With an army of monkeys, he confronted Ravana and killed him. By this time, the 14 years had passed, and Rama and Sita flew on a magic chariot drawn by swans, back home to claim their rightful place as king and queen.

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