Indian Literature

In the field of Indian literature, you might have heard of the name 'Rabindranath Tagore' or the sacred Indian text called the 'Mahabharata,' but have you heard of Dalit writers and Marathi literature? 

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Table of contents

    In this article, we will be covering Ancient and Modern Indian Literature. We will also be looking at the parts of Indian literature that no one looks into, such as the different languages in Indian literature, women writers, etc.

    In the section ‘Indian literature Summary’, we will briefly cover the historical and political influences of Indian literature, such as British imperialism, industrialisation, and the Indian Renaissance. We will also have a quick look at key figures in Indian literature such as Rabindranath Tagore and the Dalits.

    In the section ‘Indian literature timeline,’ we will follow the journey from the first-ever piece of Indian literature to modern Indian literature. We will then be focussing on facts about Indian literature including the characteristics of Indian literature, and finally, be looking at examples of Indian literature.

    Indian literature: Summary

    Modern Indian literature was formed during the anti-colonial movement against British imperialism in India. Indian writers used Western forms of writing such as essays, drama and fiction to tell their stories and represent the Indian experience.

    Industrialisation and urbanisation also made Indian writers aware of the world around them. Science and rationality played a key part in modern Indian literature as Indian writers began to question certain institutions and norms. Rather than attacking the themes of pre-modern Indian literature (centred around themes of other-worldliness), modern Indian literature created new gods in their current society, the gods being man and nature.

    During the Indian Renaissance (beginning in the mid-nineteenth century), hope for India’s independent future was a central theme in Indian literature. Another important theme was creation of a new system in India.

    Rabindranath Tagore, one of modern India’s most well-known writers, covered these themes in his writing. Tagore was also the first Indian to receive a Nobel prize for writing. In his play ‘Bisorjon’ (1890), he presented how following previous conventions was unrealistic and no longer served a purpose. In his poem, ‘Gitanjali’ (1910), the line below is reminiscent of hope not just for the individual but hope for the whole nation of India.

    Even at the cost of renouncing my life, let me light this lamp of love.' 1

    However, after gaining independence in 1947, India entered an era of disenchantment due to events such as the Muslim-Hindu riots, the murder of Mahatma Gandhi and the division of the country into India and Pakistan. As a result, the ‘Progressive Writer’ movement in India was formed. The goal was end exploitation and inequality. Also, a new contemplative form of modernism emerged.

    From this point on, themes of observing society and human life pervaded Indian literature. Individualism and modernist practices, such as the French school of existentialist philosophy, also influenced Indian literature, as well as looking back at British injustices against Indians.

    This period in India also led to the rise of writers from marginalised groups such as Dalits and women.

    Indian literature, an image of Gandhi, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Mahatma Gandhi.

    Dalit writers

    Dalits are people who are in the lowest caste of the Indian caste system. They are also called 'untouchables.'

    Dalit writers followed the teachings of their first modern Dalit leader, B. R. Ambedkar, in their writing. They criticised the caste system of India and the injustices they had to face being Dalit people and questioned the notion of rebirth in the Hindu caste system.

    Hindu caste system is based on the belief in karma and reincarnation in Hinduism. Hindus are divided between the four castes: Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and the Shudras, based on the events of their past life, their karma and what family they come from.

    We have to change even the sun above. 2

    This quote highlights just how deep-rooted the caste system was in Indian society and the hard work the Dalit had to do to gain equal rights.

    The re-telling of Dalit experiences created a new aspect of the autobiographical genre as Dalit writers challenged the stories of respectable societies in India.

    Women writers

    The writing of Indian female writers after the 1970s produced a novel perspective of the world. Women like Bengali writer Mahashweta Devi and Malayalam writer Sugathakumari focussed on and celebrated the female perspectives of Indian society.

    The emergence of feminist movements in India gave women writers the power to challenge the male perspective and assert their writing style.

    Indian English literature

    Indian English literature began in the early nineteenth century and grew during British imperialism in India. It started due to the British government’s educational reforms in India, missionary work and the response to English literature and language from upper-class Indian people.

    The Charter Act of 1813 gave power to England to reform the education of native Indians.

    The 1935 English Education Act of William Bentinck made English compulsory in Indian education and made English literature a central subject in Indian schools.

    Even before this, English teaching occurred in Indian colleges (as well as subjects on Christianity).

    Indian literature: Timeline

    The first ancient Indian literature in the first millennium BCE comprised the Rig Veda (1500 BCE), the Ramayana (500 BCE) and the Mahabharata (400 BCE), and was written in the Sanskrit language. Later in the medieval period, the Kannada and Telugu languages emerged and then, later on, came Bengali, Urdu and Marathi Indian literature.

    Sanskrit language comes from the Indo-Aryan group and is the foundation of almost all Indian languages.

    The Vedas were based on Hinduism and included the Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samveda, and Mahabharata. Ramayana by Valmiki and Mahabharata by Mehrishi Ved Vyas were Hindu epics and were written in epic Sanskrit.

    Ramayana: The Ramayana is an ancient epic written in the Sanskrit language telling the story of Rama rescuing his wife Sita, with the help of an army of monkeys, from Ravana.

    Mahabharata: Another ancient epic also written in Sanskrit, the Mahabharata tells the story of two sides of a family, the Kauravas and Pandavas, as they battle for the throne of Hastinapura in the Kurukshetra War.

    Furthermore, Classical Sanskrit Literature consisted of:

    • the Raghuvamsha (400 CE) and Meghdoota (400 BCE) (by Kalidasa)
    • Shakuntala (300 BCE) and Arthashastra (100 BCE) (by Chanakya)
    • Kamasutra (200 BCE) (by Vatsyayayana)
    • Ashtadhyayi (500 BCE) (by Panini).

    The Pali literature comprises the philosophical work of the Buddhists and involves:

    • The Jaatak Kathayein (300 BCE)
    • Mahavamsa (400 BCE)
    • Atthhakatha (200 BCE)
    • Dhammapada (100 BCE)

    It was during the medieval era that Indian literature started to get noticed. The Indian poets Sant Kabir and Tulsidas were most popular during this period. Later on, in the medieval era, Indian literature started to be written in various languages such as Malayali, Bengali, Manipuri, Malayalam, Kannada, Assamese, Marathi, Punjabi, Gujarati, Tamil, Urdu, Rajasthani, Telugu, etc.

    A brief outline of Indian literature written in different languages

    As presented in previous paragraphs, Indian literature has been written in various languages. Learn in more detail about some of them.

    Bengali literature

    Bengali literature is well known due to the work of Rabindranath Tagore, whose poems usually focused on mysticism, spirituality, or nature.

    Tagore even created the national anthem of India, Jana Gana Mana (1911). Other well-known writers included Sunil Gangopadhyay and Bankim Chandra Chatterjee.

    Gujarati literature

    The most well-known name in Gujarati literature is Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, who was the father of the nation. Between 1915 and 1845, Gandhi and Gujarat Vidaypath were the main sources of literary activities and where new thoughts and philosophies would occur. Umashakar Joshi, Pannalal Patel and Shamal Bhatt were other renowned Gujrati writers.

    Malayalam literature

    This literature consists of songs from different genres; it is also famous for its poetic compositions, such as the Adhyathmaramayanam by the father of the Malayalam language.

    Manipuri literature

    Part of Manipuri literature’s important scriptures (lasting thousands of years) were burnt due to the burning of ancient scriptures by the previous King Santidas Gosain and also the burning of Puya Meithaba (1729). Despite this, it is still known for its great writers and poets from Manipur, Tripura, Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Assam.

    Marathi language

    This literature is known for writers and poets such as Vijay Tendulkar, Ramdas, and Mukteshwar, who translated the Mahabharata into Marathi. Marathi writers also liked to write about social reformation.

    Rajasthani literature

    This literature consisted of the work of Jain writers. During the medieval period, Rajasthani literature was focused on poetry written in honour of the Maharajas and Rajas at the time. Today’s Rajasthani literature is well-known due to the work of Suryamal Misran.

    Telugu literature

    Vemana created many poems in the Telugu language, and these were to be read by the common man. As a result, common people could relate to his writing, and Vemana became popular. Other important writers of this form of Indian literature include Ravuri Bharadwaj and C.Narayana Reddy.

    Tamil literature

    Tamil literature has lasted for at least 2000 years; the writers focus on various social, religious and political themes. Tamil literature was influenced by Muslim, European, Saivite and Vaishvanite writers as well. During the nineteenth century, novel writing, short stories and poetry emerged in Tamil literature.

    Urdu literature

    Known as the ‘Kohinoor Language,’ Urdu is considered the most sophisticated and grand Indian language. Urdu poetry is renowned not only in India but also in the entire world. Poets such as Mirza Ghalib, Iqbal, and Faiz are greatly known in Urdu literature.

    Indian literature, an Indian flag flying on the flagpole, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Indian flag.

    Facts about Indian Literature

    The following text presents Indian literature from different perspectives.

    Indian literature characteristics

    We will focus on several main concepts, starting with religion.


    Heaven (Mukti) and Reincarnation are the two main concepts of Hinduism. To get to Heaven, giving charity (Dana) is important, and this is greatly highlighted In the Vedas.

    In India, religion plays a key role in people’s lives, and this is explored in Indian literature such as the Veda.

    Obedience & Values

    Being obedient to God or a senior (whether that be senior by age or authority), keeping your promises to people, being brave during the war, and having moral values is key in Indian literature, and these topics are explored in various epics and sacred texts.

    In the Ramayana, Ram obeys his father when he is told to go into exile.

    Good deeds

    The concept of reincarnation states that the actions done in one’s past determines one’s present. In other words, if you do good deeds now, you will be rewarded with a noble birth during the reincarnation process.

    The process of reincarnation is told in the Ramayana, where Ram is the reincarnation of Lord Vishnu.

    Poetic composition/ form

    In ancient India, Indian literature was written in verses, and poetic form was the standard form of writing.

    The Mahabharata has more than 100,000 verses.

    The Ramayana has over 24,000 verses.

    The Mantras (500 BCE), sacred books, were also written in poetic form and are read during times of worship.

    Morality & Bravery

    The Dharma in India follows that good morals will be rewarded, and those with bad morals will be punished; the Dharma is practised in Indian literature. The caste system was created according to the Vedas.

    In Hinduism, the Dharma (righteousness) is one of the four components of the aims of life, the others being Karma (desire), Artha (wealth) and Moksha (liberation).


    The most famous texts of Indian literature, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, are family epics and follow the lives of extended families, including aunts, uncles, and cousins.

    Theatre and dance

    The four Vedas refer to dance and the importance of theatrical performance. In fact, theatre and dance are not only a characteristic of Indian literature but also of Indian dramas.

    Indian literature: Examples

    Fianlly, we'll explore some examples of Indian literature.

    Panchatantra (200 BCE)

    It is said that the Panchatantra was created in Kashmir around 200 BC and was written for three princes to teach them the principles of living correctly. It is one of the most known collections of old Indian stories. Panchatantra is Sanskrit for ‘five books,’ each book of the Panchatantra has a framework structure with shorter stories within. The stories are like fables and contain humour, wisdom and advice.

    The Panchatantra was written during the Gupta Period (320 AD to 647), when Indian literature was mostly folktales and fables. The stories then spread to the west to countries like Egypt, Greece and Persia and became the foundation for many Islamic literary texts such as Aladdin and his Magic Lamp and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.

    Little Black Sambo (1899)

    Originally published as a children’s book written and illustrated by Helen Bannerman, it was a favourite for half a century before the word ‘Sambo’ became known as a racial slur in certain countries.

    In Little Black Sambo, Sambo is a South Indian boy living in India who ends up giving up his colourful, vibrant clothes, umbrella, and shoes to four hungry tigers so that they will not eat him. However, the tigers are vain, and each of the four thinks they are better looking than the other; they start chasing each other until they all turn into a pool of melted butter. Sambo gets all his clothes back, and his mother (Black Mumbo) makes pancakes using the butter.

    The God of Small Things (1997)

    This final example of Indian literature is The God of Small Things. Arundhati Roy took approximately four years to complete this debut novel about fraternal twins and also about how little things can make a huge difference in people’s lives. It was set in Kerala in 1969 and was granted the Booker Prize in 1997.

    Indian Literature - Key takeaways

    • Modern Indian literature formed during the anti-colonial movement against British imperialism in India.
    • During the Indian Renaissance (beginning in the mid-nineteenth century), hope for India’s independent future was a central theme in Indian literature. Creating a new system in India was also another important theme.
    • In their writings, Dalit writers followed the teachings of their first modern Dalit leader, B. R. Ambedkar. They criticised the caste system of India and the injustices they had to face being Dalit people, and also questioned the notion of rebirth in the Hindu caste system.

    • The emergence of feminist movements in India gave women writers the power to challenge the male perspective and assert their writing style.

    • In the first millennium BCE, ancient Indian literature comprised the Rig Veda, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and was written in the Sanskrit language.

    1. Rabindranath Tagore, 'Gitanjali,' 1910

    2. Arjun Dangle, 'No Entry For The New Sun,' 1992

    Frequently Asked Questions about Indian Literature

    What is Indian literature in English?

    Indian literature in English is literature written by Indians in English.

    How did English ruin Indian literature?

    Some people believe the English language ruined Indian literature because of India's ‘linguistic hierarchy’. If a person in India cannot speak English, job and even life opportunities are restricted.

    What is Indian literature known for?

    Indian literature is known for religious and philosophical texts, as well as family epics, devotional and erotic writing, folktales, court poetry, and plays.

    What are the characteristics of Indian literature?

    The characteristics of Indian literature include themes of religion, obedience and values, good deeds, poetic form, morality and bravery, family theatre, and dance. 

    Who started Indian literature? 

    The 'Father' of Modern Indian Literature and Indian theatre is Bharatendu Harishchandra.

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