The form and style of classical Sanskrit literature is, as a rule, different from that of the Vedas. Vedic prose was developed in the Yajur-Veda, Brahmanas, and Upanishads to a tolerably high pitch; in classical Sanskrit, aside from the strained scientific language of philosophical and grammatical treatises, prose writing is to be found only in fables, fairy tales, romances, and partly in the drama. Nor has this prose improved in stylistic quality, as compared with its earlier counterpart. On the contrary, it has become progressively more awkward, full of long, difficult compounds and rhetorical constructions. Sanskrit poetry also differs from Vedic poetry. The bulk of the poetry, especially the epic, is composed in the sloka meter, a development of the Vedic anushtubh stanza of four octosyllabic lines of essentially iambic cadence. Numerous other meters, however, usually built up on Vedic prototypes, have become more elaborate than their old originals, and in the main, more artistic and beautiful.
Classical Sanskrit literature may be divided into epic, lyric, didactic, dramatic, and narrative verses and didactic, dramatic, and narrative prose. Epic poetry falls into two classes, the freer narrative epic, termed itihasa ("leg-end") or purana ("ancient tale"), and the artistic or artificial epic, called kavya ("poetic product"). The great epic called the Mahabharata (between 300 BC and AD 300) is by far the most important representative of the purana. Of somewhat similar free style are the 18 Puranas of a much later date. The beginnings of the artistic style are seen in the Ramayana (begun 3rd century BC). The finished epic kavya form, however, was not evolved until the time of Kalidasa, about the 5th century AD. This poet and dramatist is the author of the two best-known Sanskrit artistic epics, the Kumarasambhava and the Raghuvamsa.
Lyric poetry has its individual traits, the most important of which is the refined elaboration of the single strophe, as opposed to continuous composition. The forms of these strophes are highly elaborate and almost infinitely varied. The most elaborated of the longer lyric compositions are the Meghaduta and the Ritusamhara, both works by Kalidasa. The theme of the former work is a message sent on a cloud by an exiled yaksha, or supernatural being, to his love. The Ritusamhara is famous for its descriptions of tropical nature in India, interspersed with expressions of emotion.
The bulk of lyric poetry, however, is in single miniature stanzas, which suggest strongly the didactic proverb poetry that Indians also cultivated with great success. The most famous collection of such stanzas, that of Bhartrihari, perhaps the greatest poet of India next to Kalidasa, consists of lyric, didactic, and erotic poems. Considered the second great master of the erotic stanza is Amaru, who is probably of a later date than Bhartrihari. His collection is known as Amarusataka.
Even in lyrics, however, the Indian tendency toward speculation and reflection, which plays such an important part in Hinduism, is evident. Not only has this tendency been the basis of much that is best in the religion and philosophy of India, but it has also assumed shape in another important product of Indian literature, the gnomic, didactic, sententious stanza, which may be called the proverb. Some 8000 of these stanzas have been collected from all parts of Sanskrit literature; they begin with the Mahabharata and are found in almost every moral appended to the fable literature. Their keynote is again the vanity of human life and the sublime happiness that attends withdrawal from the world.
The Sanskrit drama is one of the latest, although one of the most interesting, products of Sanskrit literature. This class of works probably dates from the 5th or 6th century AD; certain Vedic hymns in dialogue are all that the earliest time suggests as a possible, but very doubtful, basis of the drama. The Sanskrit name for "drama" is nataka, from the root nat, nrit, meaning "to dance," and it is certain that dances contributed to the development of the drama. Dancing played a considerable part in various religious ceremonies; at a later period the worship of Shiva and Vishnu, and especially of Vishnu's incarnation, the god Krishna, was accompanied by pantomimic dances. The pantomimes reproduced the heroic deeds of these gods and were accompanied by songs. Popular performances of this sort, the yatras, have survived to the present day in the Bengal region of the Indian subcontinent.
The themes of Indian drama are for the most part those of the heroic legends in the epics or in historical Indian courts. On the whole, the dramatic themes are not different from those of the tales and romances in narrative form.
The chief dramatic writer of India is Kalidasa, the author of Shakuntala, master also of epic and lyric poetry. From a time somewhat earlier than that of Kalidasa comes the drama Mricchakatika, said to have been written by King Sudraka but more probably composed by Dandin or by some other poet at Sudraka's court. During the 7th century, the Indian emperor Harsha is reputed to have written three well-known dramas. The dramas of Bhavabhuti, who is, next to Kalidasa and Dandin, the most distinguished of the Hindu dramatists, date from the 8th century.
No department of Indian literature is more interesting to the student of comparative literature than that comprising the fables and fairy tales. Scarcely a single motif of European fable collections is not to be found in some Indian collection, and there is good reason to believe that the bulk of this kind of literature originated in India. The earliest and most important collection of Indian fables is Buddhistic and is written in the Pali language; it appears to date to the 4th century BC. This collection, comprising stories of former lives of Buddha, is known as the Jatakas. The two most important Sanskrit collections, the Panchatantra and the Hitopadesa, are both based on Buddhist sources.
A noteworthy feature of the Sanskrit collections of fables and fairy tales is the insertion of a number of different stories within the frame of a single narrative, a style of narration that was borrowed by other Oriental peoples, the most familiar instance being that of the Arabian Nights. The Panchatantra passed from a Pahlavi translation of the original Sanskrit into Arabic, Greek, Persian, Turkish, Syriac, Hebrew, Latin, and German and from German into other European languages. The Hitopadesa, said to have been composed by Narayana, purports to be an excerpt from the Panchatantra and other books. The most famous collection of fairy tales is the very extensive Kathasaritsagara, composed by the Kashmėri poet Somadeva about AD 1070.
India abounds in all forms of scientific literature, written in tolerably good Sanskrit even to the present day. The ancient legal books of the Veda continue in modern poetical Dharmashastras and Smritis, of which the Manu Smriti, or Law of Manu (Manu), and Yajnavalkya are the most famous examples. Rooted in the Upanishads are the six Hindu systems of philosophy (Vedanta, Yoga, Mimamsa, Nyaya, Sankhya, and Vaisheshika) and their abundant writings. Grammar, etymology, lexicography, prosody, rhetoric, music, and architecture each have a technical literature of wide scope and importance. The earliest works of an etymological character are the Vedic glosses of Yaska; later (4th century BC), but far more important, is the grammar of Panini and his commentators Katyayana and Pataņjali. Mathematics and astronomy were eagerly cultivated from very early times, the so-called Arabic numerals coming to the Arabs from India and designated by them as Hindu numerals. Indian medical science may have begun to develop before the beginning of the Christian era, for one of its leading authorities, Caraka, was the chief physician of King Kanishka. The beginnings of Indian medical science reach back to the writings in the Atharva-Veda.