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The cradle of writing
The eastern heritage
     India and the Vedas
     Mahabharata and Ramayana....

The western heritage
Greek drama
Greek history
Greek philosophy
Augustus and patronage
4th - 8th century
8th - 11th century
12th - 13th century
The Italian awakening
The path to Chaucer
17th century
18th century
Late 18th century
18th - 19th century
To be completed

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India and the Vedas: 1500-400 BC

The Sanskrit literature of India dates back in oral tradition to the middle of the second millennium BC. It enshrines the Vedic religion of the newcomers into India at this time, the Aryans.

The earliest and best known of the four Vedas is the Rigveda, a collection of temple hymns. Of the other three, the Samaveda and the Yajurveda are collections of priestly chants and prayers for use during sacrificial rituals; the Atharveda is more concerned with religion in the life of the individual worshipper.


Loosely attached to the four Vedas are the more mystical texts called in modern times the Upanishads (from a Sanskrit word meaning 'sitting down near'). Written down over a long period from oral tradition (a process largely complete by about 400 BC), they deal with the nature of the individual soul and of the ultimate divine being - and with how the one may gradually approach the other.

The Upanishads complete the so-called Vedic period of Sanskrit literature, essentially religious in its concerns. Nevertheless, one of the central texts of Hinduism, the Bhagavad Gita, comes from an epic poem of the next period (usually referred to as the Classical period). It is a speculative dialogue during a lull before one of the many battles in the Mahabharata.


Mahabharata and Ramayana: from the 4th century BC

The Mahabharata ('Great Epic of the Bharata Dynasty') is by far the longer of India's two national epics. It is a massive compilation of chronicle and myth, brought together from about the 4th century BC and probably reaching its present form by about AD 200. It is traditionally (but most improbably) attributed to a single author, a wise man by the name of Vyasa.

The poem amounts to nearly 100,000 couplets, about seven times as long as the Odyssey and the Iliad combined. Like the Homeric poems, it probably derives from historical events - and events of much the same period (somewhere between 1400 and 1000 BC).


Unlike the Mahabharata, the somewhat shorter Ramayana ('Romance of Rama') does show signs of being largely the work of a single author - the poet Valmiki, writing in about 300 BC.

A reasonably coherent story, full of romance and adventure, it has remained immensely popular in India for more than two millennia. Passages from it are frequently recited. Rama's adventures provide many of the scenes depicted in Hindu sculpture and painting; and a dramatic version of the story is performed every year in the towns and villages of north India in the pageant of Ram-Lila.


China: from 1100 BC

Poems ranging in date from 1100 to 600 BC are collected in the earliest work of Chinese literature, the Shijing or 'Classic of Poetry'. Most of them are lyrical and often wistful - as, for example, in the poignant appeal of a girl Growing old without a lover. This collection of about 300 poems has a profound influence on the development of literature in China, inclining writers to delicate impressionism rather than the more violent epic tradition of India and Europe.

The poems of the Shijing are gathered together shortly before the time of Confucius. He makes much use of the collection as a source of quotations, and it becomes known as one of the five Confucian Classics.


The other four Confucian Classics are of less interest from a literary point of view. The best known, the I Ching or 'Classic of Changes', is a book of divination. The Li Chi or 'Book of Rites' gives instruction in matters of ritual and good behaviour, a subject of great importance to Confucius. Passages from this text have been memorized over the centuries by generations of well-behaved Chinese schoolchildren.

The Shu Ching or 'Classic of Documents' is a collection of state papers of various kinds. And the Ch'un Ch'iu is a history of the state of Lu, the birthplace of Confucius, from the 8th to the 5th century BC.


The solemnity of the official works of Confucianism is somewhat offset by the Lun Yu or 'Analects', a collection of the master's sayings gathered together a century or so after his death. Here his ideas seem much less predictable than one would imagine. Indeed the glimpses of Confucius among his disciples are often quite surprising.

The other important Chinese book of this period is also an antidote to rigid Confucianism. It is the Daodejing ('The Way and its Power'), the manual of China's alternative religion, Daoism.


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