Sanskrit, meaning cultured and refined, the classical language of ancient India, is one of the oldest and most systematic languages of the world. Many people think of Sanskrit in terms of Hindu religious literature because of the Veda Mantras and Slokas which are in use not only in India but throughout the Hindu diaspora in the world even today. But there are other dimensions to the language in terms of poetry, drama, stories and epics and also of science and technology. We shall try to see briefly the works in different areas other than that of religion. Two things have to be borne in mind. What we see here is only a brief glimpse and that most of these works were written even before sixth century A D.
Drama and poetry
In Sanskrit there are works of poetry called Kavyas, where we have stanzas that read the same backwards and forwards, that use sophisticated metaphors and that employ words that can be split in different ways to produce different meanings. The greatest works of poetry are called the Maha Kavyas or great compositions and a few Maha Kavyas are:
- Raghuvamsa by Kalidasa.- The theme is the kings of solar dynasty
- Kumara Sambhavam by Kalidasa. - The theme is the penance of Parvathi Devi and her wedding with Lord Siva, leading to the birth of Lord Muruga.
- Kirata Arjuniyam by Bhaaravi - The theme is the confrontation between one of the Pandavas, Arjuna and Lord Siva, who comes in the guise of a hunter to test him.
- Sisupala Vadham by Magha – The theme is the challenge and the insults that Sisupala hurls against Lord Krishna which culminates in Lord Krishna beheading him with Sudarsan Chakra
- Naishadiya Charitram by Sri Harsha – The theme is the love of King Nala for Damayanthi, the Swayamvaram and their marriage
Kalidasa is hailed as the greatest Sanskrit poet and dramatist. Besides the two Maha kavyas he has written the lyrical poems, Ritusamhara, a youthful exuberant work on the seasons and Meghadootam, described as one of the masterpieces of world literature. He has also written the plays Malavikagnimitram, Vikramorvasiyam, and Abhijnana Sakunthalam. Sir Monier-Williams (1819-1899) Orientalist, professor of Sanskrit at Oxford in 1860 says of Abhijnana Sakunthalam “No one can read this act (4th Act), nor indeed any act of play without being struck with the raciness and elevation of its author's genius, the exuberance and glow of his fancy, his ardent love of the beautiful, his deep sympathy with nature and nature's loveliest scenes, his profound knowledge of the human heart, his delicate appreciation of its most refined feelings, his familiarity with its conflicting sentiments and emotions." Though his plays and poems are available now in original and translation, we do not have an authentic biography of his life.
The drama Mritchakatika of Sudraka is considered to be earliest known Sanskrit play. Of this Sir Monier- Williams observes "The dexterity with which the plot is arranged, the ingenuity with which the incidents are connected, the skill with which the characters are delineated and contrasted, the boldness and felicity of the diction are scarcely unworthy of our own great dramatists. Nor does the parallel fail in the management of the stage business, in minute directions to the actors and various scenic artifices.” Nagananda, by King Harsha, is an outstanding drama that outlines the story of King Jimutavahana, who sacrifices himself to save the tribe of serpents. The Natya Shastra, "Scripture of Dance," which is also a "Science of Theatre'" is a keystone work in Sanskrit literature on the subject of stagecraft. The Gita Govinda (The song of Govinda) by Jayadeva is a lyrical work of great beauty that tells the story of Krishna's love for Radha. Even today the Ashtapadis of the Gita Govinda are used in Bharatanatyam and Odissi performances. The Nītiśataka, Śrīngāraśataka and Vairāgyaśataka of Raja Bhartrihari are notable works, each containing hundred verses on morals, love, and renunciation
Panchatantra and Hitopadesha are the two most important collections. These were originally intended as manuals for the instruction of kings in domestic and foreign policy. They are also called nīti-śāstra, or "Science of Political Ethics". The Katha-sarita-sagara (An Ocean of Stories) by Somadeva is an important work in verse in 22,000 slokas. Vikrama and Vetāla series of stories occur in this. Dasakumaracarita of Dandin dealing with the adventures of ten princes is a romantic tale in prose, what we call as novel today.
Ramayana and Mahabharatha are the two well-known great epics which are known as Itihasas which mean “it has occurred.” Itihasas are based on history with the emphasis on Dharmic values weaving mythology, philosophy and a number of sub stories in the narration. The Ramayana has 24,000 verses fully in metre and the Mahabharata qualifies as the world's largest epic with 100,000 verses. The Mahabharata says, "what is here may be elsewhere, what is not here is nowhere.” Both the epics give a wealth of historical and geographical information.