The Literatures of India Part I

So, this is not exactly a review but more of an informative piece on what I am currently reading in. Most religions follow rules which come in the form of a religious book or literature, how these books have been complied is a curiosity of mine. As you may know I am originally from the Western state of India, Gujarat, where religion particularly Hinduism is highly prominent in a person’s everyday life. My mum can be seen as a faith driven woman, in turn my sisters and I follow the same religious views. However, I believe I regurgitate the information that I witness and have been told rather than understanding their origins and meanings, therefore my first insight to Indian literature will be The Mahabharata. To go into The Mahabharata primarily the Veda’s needs to be highlighted.

At the beginning of Indian literature stands the ‘The Mahabharata’. It can be argued that it started during Vedic corpus as this proceeded the Indian epics, in the form of highly distinguished poetry of the Veda, however, a great body of the texts are in terms of ritual and religion which after this period literature starts anew. As the Veda are extremely sacred in the Indian tradition it is not simply referred to as literature. The Veda’s are considered a mantra (a sacred utterance, a numinous sound, a syllable, word or phonemes, or group of words in Sanskrit believed by practitioners to have psychological and spiritual powers) and became property to certain priestly casts. The interest moved further away from the meaning and more dependent on the niceties of the pronunciation. I have seen this repetitively at functions such as weddings, where the bride and grooms family are following rituals but I’m guessing that majority of the people in the room have no idea what is being said (I didn’t at my sister’s wedding). I went to a wedding at the Hari Krishna Temple in Watford and the priest explained in English the meaning behind the Sanskrit rituals, giving value to the poetic words, it’s a shame so very few people understand it.

The Vedic poets made it harder for latter generations to follow their meaning due to ambiguous vocabulary, complicated grammatical forms and cryptic references to ancient myths and names that throughout time have been forgotten. The concern was directly removed from the meaning and placed on what was going on ritually and cosmetically as they were spoken. This was displayed in ‘The Brahmanas’ (1000 – 800 BC) the ‘handbook’ for the priest which only includes the first word of each line as a trigger. I applaud the mere fact that so much information, coordinated with hand gestures have been memorised by priests over the years, but for the lovers of poetry it is a sad fact that the meaning behind such illustrious poetry has been lost. The Vedas were only known to a limited amount of people, never available to be accessed by the public unless recited during a ceremony. But from what I have witnessed over the years the volume and speed at which the rituals are recited are not loud or slow enough to make the lines comprehensible.

From later examples it can be guessed that the contents of the literature complied of mythological lore, great exploits of individual chefs, their families, dynasties, how battles were won, how one tribe achieved paramountcy over another, new land created by burning down forests. In the Veda itself are mentions of ‘praises of heroes’ where this could be the beginning of the epics in The Mahabharata. This was in the form of ballots and tales, describing individual heroic achievements out of which epics are built. Different professional reciters would have different repertoires of these. The reciters would have been a close companion of the person about whose family the ballots were sung, or someone who witnessed the warriors triumph. History would be edited into legend and legend into history and stories of ‘how it was’ would be passed on from generation to generation.

I’m not going to go into The Mahabharata on this post as it is quite long already! Please let me know if you have found this informative, see you in Part II for The Marabharata.

Poonam