It might sound trite but it must be stated over and over again that Sanskrit has played a very important role in shaping India. Numerous pieces of priceless works of literary, social, political, economic and scientific significance have been written in this Indian language. I would not say that these gems would never have emerged without Sanskrit, but one cannot deny that the arrival of Sanskrit as a language, made perfect by Panini, greatly helped in the promotion and dissemination of knowledge.
The greatest works in Sanskrit are perhaps the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, but let us discover some other classics that defined the society and the thinking of ancient and early medieval India.
Written: Around 500 AD
The only surviving work on mathematics from India’s ancient world, this brilliant treatise has been found to be accurate on many levels. For instance, Aryabhatta’s calculations on the time taken by Earth to go around the Sun is just three minutes and twenty seconds more than actual. The book was one of the earliest to mention that the Earth rotates around its axis and that the light of the moon is because of the reflection of light from the Sun.
‘Aryabhatiya’ would go on to influence the entire Islamic world’s knowledge of astronomy.
Written: Between 300 to 700 AD
That Chanakya was behind the rise of Chandragupta Maurya and the downfall of the Nanda Dynasty is perhaps known by schoolchildren too. But how he did that is not known to those who have not read ‘Mudrarakshasa’. It is through Vishakhadatta’s historical drama that we are able to measure the guile of the great Mauryan statesman. The book is about how Chanakya devises a ploy to get a ring of Rakshasa, the prime minister of the last ruler of the Nanda Dynasty, Dhana Nanda, and use it to further his goal of making a young Chandragupta Maurya sit on the throne of Magadha.
Written: Between 2nd and 3rd centuries BC
Author: Kautilya (Chanakya)
Thousands of years before Italian diplomat and political theorist Niccolò Machiavelli shook the world with ‘The Prince’, there was ‘Arthashastra’. The book on statecraft deals with politics, policies, military strategy, laws, economics and conduct of a ruler. For its highly methodical approach to the subjects, the book remains relevant to this day to planners, strategists, lawmakers and anyone in the world of business management.
You can say that ‘Arthashastra’ was a kind of Constitution of ancient India.
Written: Between 1st and 4th centuries BC.
While Kalidasa is unarguably ancient India’s greatest storyteller, his most defining work is ‘Abhigyanashakuntalam’. A love story, it has been told and retold in multiple formats in books or motion picture. Translated into many languages across the world, ‘Abhigyanashakuntalam’ stands as a masterpiece among Sanskrit literary works.
Written: 3rd century BC
Author: Vishnu Sharma
Ask any child in India if they have read the stories from Panchatantra and the answer is most likely to be in the affirmative. In fact, Panchatantra takes a very unique form of storytelling, with animals as the characters. Captivating stories containing useful morals on life, that’s what Panchtantra is all about.
6. Kama Sutra
Written: 2nd century BC
This work of literature needs no mention. Translated in multiple languages all over the world, Kama Sutra is the greatest proof that ancient India had an outlook more modern than any society in the world today, including modern India. Erotic literature often blurs the border between classical and cheap but not Kama Sutra. Vatsyayana writes the epic erotic book in prose capturing the beauty of love and sex in a way no one has been able to do since.
Written: Between 6th and 4th centuries BC
‘Ashtadhyayi’ lays down the rules of Sanskrit grammar. Though not the first Sanskrit grammar work, it is the most authoritative one. The rules of grammar written in ‘Ashtadhyayi’ forms the foundation of Sanskrit writing. In fact all the major Sanskrit works were written after Panini’s ‘Ashtadhyayi’. You can say that Panini’s painstaking, complex and logically structured work gave Sanskrit’s syntax the perfection it is hailed for even to this date.
8. Yoga Sutras
Written in: 400 AD
There are only 196 of them, and by the 12th century AD Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras were translated into many languages both Indian and foreign. Then they were lost and it was not before Swami Vivekananda revived the art of yoga and its learning that the world rediscovered Patanjali’s work. The yoga as you know it today and all its asanas were written down by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras.
Written in: 7th century AD
If it were not for Banabhatta, we would have perhaps lost a significant portion of India’s ancient history. ‘Harshacharita’ documents the life and times of Harshavardhana, often described as the last ruler of ancient India. Since Banabhatta was Harsha’s court poet, flowery praise of the king can be found in the work. Nevertheless, it is one of the most important biographies that introduce us to a period of history just before the advent of Islam in India. In fact, Harsha himself was a writer of many Sanskrit plays such as ‘Nagananda’ and ‘Varshavali’
Written in: 12th century AD
It is through ‘Rajatarangini’ that we come to know of the genealogy of the kings of Kashmir. Kalhana has listed the names of all the kings who ruled Kashmir for over 2000 years before the time of the work. Without ‘Rajatarangini’, the Hindu history of Kashmir would have remained lost to the world.
The books prove that ancient India was a hub of science, arts and culture with a very progressive mindset. That many of these, including Kama Sutra, influenced the works of later Islamic scholars highlights how invaluable the knowledge contained in them is.