Afro-Asian Literature: Indian Literature in a Nutshell

  1. Identify outstanding writers and their major works in Afro-Asian literature
  2. Be familiar with the literary history, philosophy, religious beliefs and culture of the Afro-Asian nations
  3. Interpret the significance and meaning of selected literary pieces
  4. Point out the universal themes, issues, and subject matter that dominate Afro-Asian literature
The Indus civilization flourished in northern India between 2500 and 1500 B.C. The Aryans, a group of nomadic warriors and herders, were the earliest known migrants into India.  They brought with them a well-developed language and literature and a set of religious beliefs.
  • Vedic Period (1500 B.C. – 500 B.C.).  This period is named for the Vedas,a set of hymns that formed the cornerstone of Aryan culture.  Hindus consider the Vedas, which were transmitted orally by priests, to be the most sacred of all literature for they believe these to have been revealed to humans directly by the gods.
  • Epic and Buddhist Age (500 B.C. – A.D.).  The period of composition two great epics, Mahabharata and the Ramayana.  This time was also the growth of later Vedic literature, new Sanskrit literature, and the Buddhist literature in Pali.
  • Classical Period  (A.D. – 1000 A.D.).  The main literary language of northern India during this period was Sanskrit, in contrast with the Dravidian languages of southern India.  Sanskrit, which means ‘perfect speech’ is considered a sacred language is spoken by the gods and goddesses. 
  • Medieval and Modern Age  ( A.D. 1000 – present).  Persian influences on literature were considerable this period.  Persian was the court language of the Moslem rulers.  In the 18th century, India was directly under the British Crown and remained so until its Independence in1947.
Indian creativity is evident in religion as the country is the birthplace of two important faiths:  Hinduism, the dominant religion, and Buddhism, which ironically became extinct in India but spread throughout Asia. Hinduism, literally “the belief of the people of India”, is the predominant faith of India and of no other nation. The Hindus are deeply absorbed with God and the creation of the universe.
  • The Purusarthas are the three ends of man: dharma – virtue. Duty, righteousness, moral law; artha- wealth; and karma- love or pleasure. A fourth end is moksha- the renunciation of duty, wealth, and love in order to seek spiritual perfection.  It is achieved after the release from samsara, the cycle of births and deaths.
  • The Hindus believe that all reality is one and spiritual, and that each individual soul is identical with this reality and shares its characteristics: pure being, intelligence, and bliss.  Everything that seems to divide the soul from this reality is maya or illusion.
  • The Hindus regard Purusha, the universal spirit as the soul and original source of the universe.  As the universal soul, Purusha is the life-giving principle in all animated beings.  As a personified human being, Purusha’s body is the source of all creation.  The four Varnas serve as the theoretical basis for the organization of the Hindu society.  These were thought to have been created from Purusha’s body:
    1. The Brahman (priest) was Purusha’s mouth.  Their duty is to perform sacrifices, to study and to teach the Vedas, and to guard the rules of Dharma.  Because of their sacred work, they are supreme in purity and rank.
    2. The Ksatriyas (warriors) are the arms.  From this class arose the kings who are the protectors of society.
    3. The Vaisyas (peasants) are the thighs.  They live by trading, herding, and farming.
    4. The Surdas (serfs) are the feet.  They engage in handicrafts and manual occupation and they serve meekly the three classes above them. They are strictly forbidden to mate with persons of higher varna.
Buddhism originated in India in the 6thcentury B.C.  This religion is based on the teachings of Siddharta Gautama called Buddha or the ‘Enlightened One’.  Much of Buddha’s teaching is focused on self-awareness and self-development in order to attain nirvana or enlightenment.
  • According to Buddhist beliefs, human beings are bound to the wheel of life which is a continual cycle of birth, death, and suffering.  This cycle is an effect of karma in which a person’s present life and experiences are the results of past thoughts and actions, and these present thoughts and actions likewise create those of the future.
  • The Buddhist scriptures uphold the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path.  The Four Noble Truths that  lead to the end of suffering are:
    1. life is suffering;
    2. the cause of suffering is desire;
    3. the removal of the desire of suffering, and
    4. the Noble Eightfold Paths.
  • The Noble Eightfold Paths consist of:
    1. right understanding,
    2. right thought,
    3. right speech,
    4. right action,
    5. right means of livelihood,
    6. right effort,
    7. right consideration, and
    8. right meditation.
  • The Vedasform a collection of sacred among hymn or verse composed in archaic Sanskrit the Indo-European speaking people who entered India from the Iranian regions.  Most scholars believed it to have the period of about 1500- 1200 B.C.
  • The Dhammapada (Way of Truth) is an anthology of basic Buddhist teaching in a simple aphoristic style. One of the best known books of the Pali Buddhist canon it contains 423 stanzas arranged in 26 chapters.
  • The Upanishads form a highly sophisticated commentary on the religious thought suggested by the poetic hymns of the Rigveda.  The name implies, according to same traditions, ‘sitting at the feet of the teacher.’
    1. The most important philosophical doctrine is the concept of a single supreme being, the Brahman, and knowledge is directed toward reunion with it by the human soul, the Atman or self.
    2. The nature of eternal life is discussed and such themes as the transmigration of souls and causality in creation.
The two major Indian epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, are the literary embodiments of Hinduism. The Mahabharata is longer and more important, but the Ramayana seems to be more interesting for modern audience.
  1. The Mahabharata consists of a mass of legendary and didactic material that tells of the struggle for supremacy between two groups of cousins, the Kauravas, and the Pandavas.  The traditional date for the war is 3102 B.C.
    • The poem is made up of the almost 100,000 couplets divided into 18 parvans or sections.
    • Authorship is traditionally ascribed to the sage Vsaya, although it is more likely that he compiled existing material.
    • It is an exposition on dharma (codes of conduct), including the proper conduct of a king, of a warrior. Of a man living in times of calamity, and of a person seeking to attain emancipation from rebirth.
  2. The Bhagavad Gita (The blessed Lord’s Song) is one of the greatest and most beautiful of the Hindu scriptures.  It is regarded by the Hindus in somewhat the same way as the Gospels are by Christians. It forms part of Book IV and is written in the form of a dialogue between the warrior Prince Arjuna and his friend and charioteer, Krishna, who is also an earthly incarnation of the god Vishnu.
  3. The Ramayana was composed in Sanskrit, probably not before 300 B.C., by the poet Valmiki, and consists of some 24,000 couplets divided into seven books. It reflects the Hindu values and forms of social organization, the theory of karma, the ideas of wifehood, and feelings about caste, honor, and promises.
    • The poem describes the royal birth of Rama, his tutelage under the sage Visavamitra, and his success in bending Siva’s mighty bow, thus winning Sita, the daughter of King Janaka, for his wife. After Rama is banished from his position as heir by intrigue, he retreats to the forest with his wife and his half brother, Laksmana. There Ravana, the demon-king of Lanka, carries off Sita, who resolutely rejects his attention. After numerous adventures, Rama slays Ravana and rescues Sita. When they return to his kingdom, however, Rama learns that the people question the queen’s chastity, and he banishes her to the forest where she gives birth to Rama’s two sons. The family is reunited when he comes of age, but Sita, after again protesting her innocence, received by the earth, which swallows her up.
  • The Panchatantra is a collection of Indian beast fables originally written in Sanskrit. In Europe, the work was known under the title The Fables of Bidpai after the narrator, and Indian sage named Bidpai, (called Vidyapati in Sanskrit). In theory, the Panchatantra is intended as a textbook of Artha (worldly wisdom); the aphorisms tend to glorify shrewdness and cleverness more than the helping of others.
  • Sakuntala is a Sanskrit drama by Kalidasa.  Love is the central emotion that binds the characters Sakuntala and king Dushyanta. What begins as a physical attraction for both of them becomes spiritual in the end as their love endures and surpasses all difficulties. King Dushyanta is a noble and pious king who upholds his duties above personal desire. Sakuntala, on the other hand, is a young girl who matures beautifully because of her kindness, courage, and strength of will. After a period of suffering, the two are eventually reunited.
  • The Little Clay Cart (Mrcchakatika) is attributed to Shudraka, a king. The characters in this play include a Brahman merchant who has lost his money through liberality, a rich courtesan in love with a poor young man, many descriptions of resplendent palaces, and both comic and tragic or near-tragic emotional situations
  • Gitanjali: Song Offerings was originally published in India in 1910 and its translation followed in1912. In these prose translations, Rabindranath Tagore uses imagery from nature to express the themes of love and the internal conflict between spiritual longings and earthly desires.
  • The Taj Mahal a poem by Sahir Ludhianvi is about the mausoleum in North India built by the Mogul emperor Shah Jahan for his wife Mumtaz-i-Mahal. The façade of this grandiose structure is made of white marble and is surrounded by water gardens, gateways, and walks. The tomb at the center of the dome stands on a square block with towers at each corner. The construction of the building took twenty years to complete involving some 20,000 workers.
  • On Learning to be an Indian an essay by Santha Rama Rau illustrates the telling effects of colonization on the lives of the people particularly the younger generation. The writer humorously narrates the conflicts that arise between her grandmother’s traditional Indian values and her own British upbringing.
  1. Kalidasa a Sanskrit poet and dramatist is probably the greatest Indian writer of all time. As with most classical Indian authors, little is known about Kalidasa’s person or his historical relationships. His poems suggest that he was a Brahman (priest). Many works are traditionally ascribed to the poet, but scholars have identified only six as genuine.
  2. Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) The son of a Great Sage, Tagore is a Bengali poet and mystic who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913. The death of his wife and two children brought him years to sadness but this also inspired some of his best poetry. Tagore is also a gifted composer and a painter.
  3. Kamala Markandaya (1924). Her works concern the struggles of contemporary Indians with conflicting Eastern and Western values. A Brahman, she studied at Madras University then settled in England and married an Englishman. In her fiction, Western values typically are viewed as modern and materialistic, and Indian values as spiritual and traditional.
    • Nectar in a Sieve. Her first novel and most popular work is about an Indian peasant’s narrative of her difficult life.
  1. R.K. Narayan (1906). One of the finest Indian authors of his generation writing in English. He briefly worked as a teacher before deciding to devote himself fulltime to writing. All of Narayan’s works are set in the fictitious South Indian town of Malgundi. They typically portray the peculiarities of human relationships and the ironies of Indian daily life, in which modern urban existence clashes with ancient tradition. His style is graceful, marked by genial humor, elegance, and simplicity.
  2. Anita Desai (1937). An English-language Indian novelist and author of children’s books, she is considered India’s premier imagist writer. She excelled in evoking character and mood through visual images. Most of her works reflect Desei’s tragic view of life.
    • Cry, the Peacock. Her novel addressing the theme of the suppression and oppression of Indian women.
    • Clear Light of Day. This is a highly evocative portrait of two sisters caught in the lassitude of Indian life. Considered her most successful work, shortlisted for the 1980 Booker Prize.
    • Fir on the Mountain. This won her the Royal Society of Literature’s Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize.