French researchers chronicling 3000 years of Indian literature

Seventy French scholars and researchers have taken up a project to chronicle the journey of Indian literature for the last 3,000 years.

The French government is funding the project undertaken by two leading French institutes, Nicholas Dejenne and Claudine Le Blanc.

India literature

Indian literature refers to the literature produced on the Indian subcontinent until 1947 and in the Republic of India thereafter. The Republic of India has 22 officially recognized languages.

The earliest works of Indian literature were orally transmitted. Sanskrit literature begins with the oral literature of the Rig Veda a collection of sacred hymns dating to the period 1500–1200 BCE.

The Sanskrit epics Ramayana and Mahabharata appeared towards the end of the first millennium BCE. Classical Sanskrit literature developed rapidly during the first few centuries of the first millennium BCE, as did the Tamil Sangam literature, and the Pāli Canon.

In the medieval period, literature in Kannada and Telugu appeared in the 9th and 11th centuries respectivelyLater, literature in Marathi, Odia and Bengali appeared. thereafter literature in various dialects of Hindi, Persian, and Urdu began to appear as well. Early in the 20th century, Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore became India’s first Nobel laureate.

In contemporary Indian literature, there are two major literary awards; these are the Sahitya Akademi Fellowship and the Jnanpith Award. Eight Jnanpith Awards each have been awarded in Hindi and Kannada, followed by five in Bengali and Malayalam, four in Odia, three in Gujarati, Marathi, Telugu and Urdu, two each in Assamese and Tamil, and one in Sanskrit.

Sanskrit and Early Indian Literature

Modern linguistic knowledge of the process of assimilation of Indo-Aryan language comes through the Sanskrit language employed in the sacred literature known as the Vedas. Over a period of centuries, Indo-Aryan languages came to predominate in the northern and central portions of South Asia.

Sanskrit is the ancient language of India and the sacred language of Hinduism. The Asian cousin of Latin and Greek, it is ideal for chanting as it is full of sounds that resonate in a special way. Traditionally it was a taboo for any caste other than Brahmans (India’s highest caste) to learn Sanskrit—”the language of the gods.” The Hindu epic Ramayana described a lower caste man who had molten metal poured in his ear after he listened to Sanskrit scriptures reserved for upper class Brahmans.

As Indo-Aryan speakers spread across northern and central India, their languages experienced constant change and development. By about 500 B.C., Prakrits, or “common” forms of speech, were widespread throughout the north. By about the same time, the “sacred,” “polished,” or “pure” tongue-Sanskrit-used in religious rites had also developed along independent lines, changing significantly from the form used in the Vedas. However, its use in ritual settings encouraged the retention of archaic forms lost in the Prakrits. Concerns for the purity and correctness of Sanskrit gave rise to an elaborate science of grammar and phonetics and an alphabetical system seen by some scholars as superior to the Roman system. By the fourth century B.C., these trends had culminated in the work of Panini, whose Sanskrit grammar, the Ashtadhyayi (Eight Chapters), set the basic form of Sanskrit for subsequent generations. Panini’s work is often compared to Euclid’s as an intellectual feat of systematization.

The Prakrits continued to evolve through everyday use. One of these dialects was Pali, which was spoken in the western portion of peninsular India. Pali became the language of Theravada Buddhism; eventually it came to be identified exclusively with religious contexts. By around A.D. 500, the Prakrits had changed further into Apabhramshas, or the “decayed” speech; it is from these dialects that the contemporary Indo-Aryan languages of South Asia developed. The rudiments of modern Indo-Aryan vernaculars were in place by about A.D. 1000 to 1300.

Panchatantra and Other Old Indian Stories

The Panchatantra is one of the best-known collections of old stories. “Panchatantra” is a Sanskrit word that means “five books.” Each book has a framework story, sort of like Arabian Nights, into which shorter stories are interwoven. The fable-like stories ar e full of humor and sagely advice. Many scholars say that The Panchatantra was originally composed in Kashmir about 200 B.C. According to legend, it was written for three princes to teach them the principals of “right living.” Many of the stories are attributed to a writer named Bidpai, a wise man from India.

The Gupta period (A.D. 320 to 647) literature consists of fables and folktales written in Sanskrit. These stories spread west to Persia, Egypt, and Greece, and became the basis for many Islamic literary works such as, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves and Aladdin and his Magic Lamp. The Panchatantra and Kamasutra were written during this period. [Source: Glorious Indi]

Storytelling has been a popular form of entertainment in India for centuries. Many regions and ethnic groups have their traditions of folk stories. The Hitopadesa (“Book of Good Counsel” in Sanskrit) is another book of fables written after The Panchatantra. The stories from Arabian Nights are very popular in India, Many of the stories originated in India. Ancient philosophers were articulated by Shakyamuni.

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