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CHAPTER I. ANCIENT INDIA

The Vedas. Buddhist Literature. Great Epic Poems, then very Diverse, much Shorter Poems. Dramatic Literature. Moral Literature.

THE VEDAS.—The ancient Indians, who spoke Sanscrit, possess a literature which goes back, perhaps, to the fifteenth century before Christ. At first, like all other races, they possessed a sacred literature intimately bound up with their religion. The earliest volumes of sacred literature are the Vedas. They describe and glorify the gods then worshipped, to wit, Agni, god of fire, of the domestic hearth, of the celestial fire (the sun), of the atmospheric fire (lightning); Indra, god of atmosphere, analogous to Zeus of the Greeks; Soma, the moon; Varuna, the nocturnal vault, the god who rewards the good and punishes the evil; Rudra, the irascible god, more evil than well disposed, though sometimes helpful; others too, very numerous.

The style of the Vedas is continually poetic and metaphorical. They contain a sort of metaphysics as well as continual allegories.

BUDDHA.—Buddhism, a philosophical religion, sufficiently analogous to Christianity, which Sakyamuni, surnamed Buddha (the wise), spread through India towards 550 B.C., created a new literature. It taught, as will be remembered, the equality of all castes in the sight of religion, metempsychosis, charity, and detachment from all passions and desires in order to arrive at absolute calm (nirvana). The literature it inspired was primarily gnomic, that is, sententious, analogous to that of Pythagoras, with a tendency towards little moral tales and parables, as in the Gospel.

This literature subsequently expanded into large and even immense epic poems, of which the principal are the Mahabharata and the Ramayana.

THE MAHABHARATA; THE RAMAYANA.—The Mahabharata (that is, the great history of the Bharatas) is a legend or a novel in verse intersected with moral digressions, with episodes vaguely related to the subject, with discourses and prayers. There are charming episodes full of delicate sensibility, of moving tenderness—that is to say, of human beauty, comparable to the farewells of Hector and Andromache in Homer; and everywhere, amid tediousness and monotony, is found a powerful and superabundant imagination.

The Ramayana, the name of the author of which, Valmiki, has come down to us, is a poem yet more vast and unequal. There are portions which to us are quite unreadable, and there are others comparable to the most imposing and most touching in all epic poetry. Reduced to its theme, the subject of Mahabharata is extremely simple; it is the history of Prince Rama, dispossessed of his throne, who saw his beloved wife, Sita, ravished by the monstrous demon Ravana, who made alliance with the good monkeys and with them constructed a bridge over the sea to reach the island on which Sita was detained, who vanquished and slew Ravana, who re-found Sita, and finally went back happily to his kingdom, which had also been re-conquered.

The most noticeable exterior characteristic of the Mahabharata is the almost constant mingling of men and animals, a mingling which one feels is in conformity with the dogma of the transmigration of souls. Not only monkeys but vultures, eagles, gazelles, etc., are brought into the work and form important personages. We are in the epoch when the animals spoke. Battles are numerous and described in great detail; the Ramayana is the Iliad of the Indians; pathetic scenes, as well as those of love, of friendship, of gratitude are not rare, and are sometimes exquisite. The whole poem is imbued with a great feeling of humanity, heroism, and justice. Victory is to the good and right is triumphant; the gods permit that the just should suffer and be compelled to struggle; but invariably it is only for a time and the merited happiness is at the end of all.

After these two vast giant epics there were written among the Indians a number of shorter narrative poems, very varied both in tone and manner, which suggest an uninterrupted succession of highly important and animated schools of literature. Nearer to our own time—that is, towards the fifth or sixth century of our era, lyric poetry and the drama were, as it were, detached from the epopee and existed on their own merits. Songs of love, of hate, of sadness, or of triumph took ample scope; they were more often melancholy than sad, for India is the land of optimism, or at least of resignation.

DRAMATIC POETRY.—As for the dramatic poetry, that is very curious; it is not mixed with epopee in the precise sense of the word; but it is continually mingled with descriptions of nature, with word-paintings of nature and invocations to nature. The Indian dramatic poet did not separate man from the air he breathed nor from the world around him; in recalling the moment of the day or night in which the scene takes place, the actual hour, the poet, no doubt in obedience to a law dictated to him by his public, kept his characters in communication with earth and heaven, with the dawn he described, the moon he painted, the evening he caused to be seen, the plants he portrayed as withering or reviving, the birds which he showed everywhere in the country or returning to their habitation, etc.

From the purely dramatic aspect, these plays are often affecting or curious, possessing penetrating and thoughtful psychology. The most celebrated dramas still left to us of the Indian stage are The Chariot of Baked Clay and the affecting and delicate Sakuntala the gem of Indian literature, the work of the poet Kalidas, who was also a remarkable lyric poet.

GNOMIC POETRY.—Gnomic, that is sententious, poetry, which, it has been indicated, very early enjoyed high appreciation among the Indians, long continued to obtain their approval. It was always wise and often intellectual. The collection of Barthari, who belonged to the sixth or seventh century A.D., contains thoughts which would do honour to the highest moralists of the most enlightened epochs. “The fortune, ample or restricted, which the Creator hath inscribed on thy forehead thou wilt assuredly attain; wert thou in the desert or in the gold-mines of Meru, more couldst thou not acquire. Therefore, of what avail to torment thyself and to humiliate thyself before the powerful. A pot does not draw more water from the sea than from a well.”

And this might be by a modern man opposing La Rochefoucauld: “The modest man is one poor in spirit, the devout a hypocrite, the honest man is artful, the hero is a barbarian, the ascetic is a fool, the unreserved a chatterbox, the prudent a waverer. Tell me, which is the virtue among all the virtues that human malice cannot vilify?”

Here, finally, is a truth for all time: “It is easy to persuade the ignorant, still easier to persuade the very wise; but he who hath a commencement of wisdom Brahma himself could not cajole.”

Indian literature continued to be productive, though losing much of its fecundity, until the fifteenth or sixteenth century of our era. Without exaggeration, it is permissible to conject that its scope extended over twenty-five centuries. It possesses the uniquely honourable trait that it is, assuredly, the only one which owes nothing to any other and is literally indigenous.