Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Sanskrit Literature

Northern India's Classical language, Sanskrit – "that which is perfected" – was formalized in the 4th century BC. Its literature embodies a corpus extending from circa 1500BC through to at least AD1500; some scholars designate the cultural and thus literary "Golden Age" as the 4th-7th centuries AD. Content ranges from the sacred (Vedas) to what some consider the profane (Kamasutra), and style from relatively simple (Buddhacarita) to euphuistically ornate (Vasavadatta).

Although Sanskrit's literary inventory is replete with Stories, many of which might qualify in a broad sense as "fantasies", an annotated listing of the texts in which storytelling per se appears would not be informative as to what the tradition itself esteems: kavya, or "literature as art", profoundly influenced writers in the subcontinent's vernaculars, and in the West inspired the likes of Jean de la Fontaine (1621-1695), Goethe, Hans Christian Andersen and Thomas Mann. Harold Bloom says that "All strong literary originality becomes canonical", and it is in Sanskrit kavya that strong literary originality is to be found. The following discussion is confined to the kavya tradition which most nearly approximates the Western concept of literature.

An acceptable starting point for the exploration of Sanskrit literature as art is the Buddhacarita (circa 1st century AD), Ashvaghosha's metrical life of the Buddha, trans by E H Johnston as The Acts of the Buddha (1935). Recounting the Buddha's journey to enlightenment, it has all the characteristics of kavya: poetic conceits, play of figurative language, and rich description. Unlike the Jatakas, which are popular scriptural tellings of the Buddha's various rebirths, this narrative is consciously crafted, with the kavi (poet) attending to both the manner and the matter of the telling.

The Mahabharata, attributed to one Vyasa, jams nearly every story in the Indian tradition into its some 100,000 two-line verses. It was revised and added to as it travelled from inception circa 400BC to completion circa AD400, and hundreds of peripheral stories nestle within its grand narrative of an internecine war. For depictions of Alternate Worlds, Mythical Creatures and the supernatural, this is a Taproot Text. As it says itself: "What is not found here is found nowhere." The most accessible translation, though yet incomplete, is that begun by the late J A B van Buitenen: The Mahabharata vols 1-3 (1973-8); a full version is that by P C Roy, The Mahabharata (1919-35). The much smaller and more artful Ramayana ("The Wanderings of Rama"), also taking shape over several centuries – 200BC-AD200 – is believed to be mostly the work of a single hand, Valmiki. Concerned with the exile of Rama, the abduction of Sita and the battle to reclaim her, this epic is revered in several Asian cultures. This immensely influential text is filled with the stuff of myth, legend and ethical precepts. A modern translation, The Ramayana of Valmiki (trans Robert Goldman, Sheldon Pollock, Rosalind Lefeber 1984-94; 4 vols out of projected 6) is in progress. Among the several abridgements of the two epics, William Buck's are charming, illustrated, and accessible: The Mahabharata (1973) and King Rama's Way (1976).

The Pancatantra ["The Five Books"] (circa 200BC, trans Arthur W Ryder as The Panchatantra 1955), a book of instruction in the path of wise conduct, is one of India's more renowned works and one of the earliest Indian texts to appear in the West, where, as translations of it proliferated, it became the template for many Fable-style collections of tales. The main framing narrative is a slight one that concerns the education of a certain king's three "supremely blockheaded" sons. Each book then has its own frame, with the prose narrations linked by gnomic verses that serve to draw the reader deeper and deeper into a fantasy world consisting of stories-within-stories-within-stories.

Kalidasa (circa 4th century AD) is certainly the most famous of the Sanskrit poets, his masterpiece being the drama Shakuntala, the tale of a maiden wooed by a king and then, because of an enchantment, abandoned by him. Written in both prose and poetry, the play exemplifies the subtle and sophisticated aesthetic, rasa. Much has been written about the rasa theory, which, some commentators assert, applies to all Indian art, ancient and modern. Kalidasa's narrative poems Kumarasambhava (trans Hank Heifetz as The Origin of the Young God 1985) and Raghuvamsa (trans K N Anantapadmanabhan 1973) and his lyric fantasy Meghaduta (trans Leonard Nathan as The Transport of Love 1976) possess the very best features of kavya. Kalidasa's complete extant works can be found in Works of Kalidasa (1981-4) ed and trans C R Devadhar.

The Brhatkatha ["Great Story"] is a work of kavya known only by reputation and recensions. One, Budhasvamin's Brhatkathashlokasamgraha ["A Collection in Verse of the Great Story"] (circa 8th century AD; trans Ram Prakash Poddar as Budhasvamin's Brhatkatha Shlokasamgraha 1986), is incomplete, but what there is of it presents a coherent story enhanced by subsidiary tales. The other, Somadeva's Brhatkathasaritsagara ["The Ocean of the Rivers of the Great Story"] (circa 12th century AD), also known simply as the Kathasaritsagara, is a huge collection of stories framed and intricately emboxed. A monumental 10-volume translation by C H Tawney as The Ocean of Story (1925) was ed N M Penzer, who meticulously traced literary and folklore references, Eastern and Western, and minutely detailed the scope of this extraordinary compendium of storytelling.

The ne plus ultra of kavya are the three prose fantasies of Dandin, Subandhu and Banabhatta, composed in the late 6th and early 7th centuries AD. Dandin's Dashakumaracarita (trans Arthur W Ryder as Tales of the Ten Princes 1927), a framed interweaving of related adventures in an easy prose, renders a fairly realistic depiction of street life. Subandhu's Vasavadatta (trans Louis H Gray 1912) is intended for the rasika or connoisseur and does not lend itself to a felicitous translation. The kavya tradition peaks with Banabhatta's Kadambari (trans Gwendolyn Layne 1991), the story of the Moon god's descent into incarnation after incarnation and his love for the eponymous heroine. Among his contemporaries and in the vernaculars, Banabhatta was deemed the finest practitioner of prose Sanskrit.

As a perfected language, Sanskrit could only be gilded, never modified. Kavis eventually made the language itself a focus for what early Orientalists called "perverted ingenuity" – linguistic pyrotechnics. By the 12th century, manner finally completely overthrows matter so that two and even three stories are told simultaneously, depending on how the strings of compounds are broken up and which meanings are taken from the immense Sanskrit lexicon. Not much attention has been given to these curiosities, which are obviously difficult to translate, but they are in and of themselves examples of a kind of literature as Fantasy Art: what else does one call 30 stanzas which when read forwards tell Rama's story and, backwards, Krishna's? [GL]

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.