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India Golden Period - 200BCE-500CE - Language And Literature

Prem Nagar

The period witnessed exceptional scholarship in Languages and literature. There were major developments in grammar, script, use and analysis of words.  Among the important grammatical expositions, was the massive text by Patañjali (200BCE), containing the analysis of speech sounds – “syllables”.  It was empirically discovered that the cognition of meaning occurs through a built-in “seed” in the vocal phrases, technically labelled as sphota, the “burst”.  Script mimicked the oral syllables that symbolically represented sound based in “places and manner of articulation”.  The symbolic visual representation through BrāhmÄ« and KharoṣṭhÄ« script led to the adaptation in Sanskrit, Prakrit, Pāli and Apabhraṃśa language. 

Descendant of BrāhmÄ« with variations formed Tamil-BrāhmÄ«, Odia for Odia, Kadamba for Kannada, Bhattiprolu for Telugu and Malayalam used Brahmic script for Vatteluttu alphabets. In Devanagari, a modern form of BrāhmÄ«: “ka” is written as क in Sanskrit, Prakrit, Pāli and Apabhraṃśa; କ (Odia); க (Tamil); ಕ (Kannada); à°• (Telugu); and Malayalam à´•(ka).  Sanskrit language codification helped the codification of other languages. (Figure 1 and 2). Migration of people from one region to other and urbanization with trade helped create new words, and new ways of communications. This became the foundation of a pan-Indian literary base in process of later development to the flourishing modern Indian literature. 

The language spread in India during the period is reconstructed in Figure 3.  Sanskrit evolved from the Vedic literature; Odia, a refined form of Odra Magadhi and Prakrit emerged through vernacular with dominant Shauraseni-Prakrit; Pāḷi, the vernacular of Magadha and Apabhraṃśa, a deviance, became a mixed language.  Southern languages, Old Tamil, Kannada, Telugu and Malayalam, descended from Proto-Dravidian language.  Script enabled the recording of the pre-existing oral texts.  Recorded texts facilitated disseminations of literature to regions and in educating the society. 

Piá¹…gala (200BCE) authored a sutras style Chandaḥśāstra on Sanskrit prosody. This was a systematic enumeration of meters with fixed patterns of short and long syllables, which epitomize modern binary numeral system.  The metric composition of poetry was further creatively assembled to depict human emotions and natural events through renderings in human voice.  The signature is unique to India. 

Nāṭyaśāstra, a handbook of dramatic art of all aspects of drama, dance, music, poetics, general aesthetics and organization of stage and auditorium, originally compiled by Bharata had prolific use during the period.  Rasa, the psychological manifestation and Bhava, the expression of sentiments developed as the principles of aesthetics.  (Figure 4).  Poetic ornamentation (Alaá¹…kāra Śāstra), an art of graceful speech, earlier beginning through Ṛgveda, and was formalized through the Nāṭyaśāstra.  Kālidāsa (5th century CE) perfected this in his lyrical composition, MeghadÅ«ta, using cloud as messenger to convey love. In another long epical poem, Kumārasambhavam, he portrayed romance (Śṛṅgāra rasa) as the nature of the universe.   

Different regions in India developed their unique style of storytelling. Pañcatantra (200BCE-300CE), by ViṣṇuÅ›arman, has been one of the most translated texts in the world. It is a collection of interrelated fables (Animal stories), composed in verse and prose.  Puranas dealt with cosmology and were used to instill moral values by retelling legends, folklores and history as dramatic stories.  The storyteller Vyasa made commentary on the text through the narration.  Storytelling combined poetry, music, drama, dance and philosophy.  Mahabharata, the epic, and other texts were narratively expanded through this process.

Takshashila of Gandhara(modern Pakistan) was the ancient University where students of twelve years were admitted for educational exercise in the Vedas, the Puranas, Philosophy, Military Science, Archery, Astronomy and the Natural Sciences.  Nāgārjuna (150–250CE) developed the Buddhist doctrine of Intermediate mādhyamikā with tenets of ‘all is void’ śūnyavāda, ‘all is real’ sarvāstivāda and ‘idealism of the mind only’ yogācāra. The Buddhist’s Mahayana chronicle Arya-Manjushri-Mula-Kalpa in Sanskrit language chronicled history through Buddhist principles.   Around 450CE, Nālandā, a Buddhist monastery, transformed itself into a renowned center of learning in Magadha (Figure 5). 

Jain Sutras Agama literature composed in the Ardhamagadhi-Prakrit and the commentaries were authored by Bhadrabahu II, Devarthi, Gani, Siddhasena, and Divakara in Prakrit, Sanskrit, Apabhramsa, Kannada, and Tamil.  In Tamil Tolkappiyam’s Eluttatikaram, on phoneme; Sollatikaram, on Sound; and Porulatikaram, on prosody and Thiruvalluvar’s Kural were important literature composed during this time.   Vātsyāyana’s KāmasÅ«tra (Principles of Life and Living) was composed (200-300CE). Aesthetics and critical thinking orchestrated the synergy of the wholesomeness of life during the period.


1. Majumdar RC & A D Pusalker (1951) The History and Culture of Indian People: by R.C. Majumdar, et ed. …Publisher: Bhartiya Vidya Bhawan, Mumbai, 400 007

2. Jack Goody (1987). The Interface Between the Written and the Oral. Cambridge University Press. pp. 110–124. ISBN 978-0-521-33794-6.

3. Bharata, the Nāṭyaśāstra, by: Kapila Vatsyayan, Sahitya Akademi, 1996

4. (2003) A Phonemic Code Based Scheme for Effective Processing of Indian Languages; By: Prof. R.K. Joshi, Keyur Shroff and Dr. S. P. Mudur

5. (2015) Rasa-Sāṅkhya -Connecting Rasa to Neuroscience; By: Bijoy M Misra, Prem S Nagar, Bela Kosaras, Jaspal Singh,

6. Generally available on Internet

Seminar Presentation at: https://www.indiadiscoverycenter.org/langlitmain/langlitgolden/


Mr. Prem Nagar leads the Language and Literature track in India Discovery Center project on "Evolution of Indian Culture: Pre-history to 1947AD".

More information and updates on the project are available at


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