Characteristics of Indian Literature




A study of the characteristics of Indian Literature naturally should follow an examination of those aspects of Indian consciousness, as distinguished from the English consciousness, upon which an Indian is nurtured from birth upwards, and which, when time comes of making literature, permeate through it. There was some truth in Rudyard Kipling’s oft-quoted line, ‘East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,’ particularly in the earlier part. It is possible for them to meet on a common ground; eastern literature might be of appeal and perennial source of charm for the writers and readers in the West, as it really has been, and the same, without any fear of carping, might be said of western literature. No ban can ever be imposed upon the actions and interactions of one literature upon the other. Influences have been so common of the one moulding the other, directly or indirectly, in recent times. So great sometimes is the preponderance of the one in the other that only a subtle eye can detect the effect, owing to the influence of the one upon the other, and not merely a casual similarity. Despite this contact between two different modes of expression and thought in Literature, it is nevertheless true that outside infiltration, however great and diffusive, cannot drown the indigenous characteristics in its flood. On taking the case of Indian Literatures today we find that though almost all of them have been moulded in some form or the other by English Literature or the literatures of other countries through the English translations of their works, yet the native character of our Literature still continues to shine resplendently. Whatever we have taken from an alien source we have tried to make our own. Indians have been from times immemorial extremely adaptable. Indian genius has always been eclectic. To strike a balance and a compromise, as the circumstances permitted, without losing their native character had been a constant feature of Indian life. What then are these characteristics of the Indian consciousness, which the Indian Literatures retain even up to this day, in spite of so many inroads from an alien source upon it? Wherein lies the  “Indian-ness of the Indians?”


The first and foremost characteristic of Indian consciousness is the widespread belief in Mukti, and in reincarnation. It is a powerful obsession with the Indians. There is nothing like it in western consciousness. A westerner would turn away from it as something strange and unknown. But it happens to be the basic belief of the Indian. It is his life breath. What is not an Indian prepared to sacrifice if he can only attain to this state of highest being, to which all his visible efforts and invisible aspirations are directed? Widows in Indian homes are living examples of self-immolation and denial voluntarily accepted in the resplendent hope, at no remote period, to rise higher from the fetters of life and attain to the free state of the soul, as it should be called. A perpetual obsession with the Indian, this belief colours his whole life.


Very closely attendant upon the Indian’s belief in Mukti, is his belief in the doctrine of Karma. It is second to the first only in the determination of his attitude towards life. Man is a portion of eternal loveliness. Trailing clouds of glory do we come from God who is our home. We are such and such because we did such and such in the past. Our actions in a previous birth determine our state in the present. Charitable deeds are commonly done in the hope of getting a suitable recompense for them in a future birth. You ask a rich man why he is born rich. The answer readily forthcoming would be: he is rich because he did noble deeds in a previous birth. A poor man accumulates the hoard of noble acts here so that they may stand by him in a future existence in providing him with peace and plenty. Our deeds follow us from afar, and what we have been, makes us what we are. Such a belief, as it is generally stated, leads to passivity or a sort of resignation, which has won for the Indian the doubtful appellation of the “Lotus Eater”. Man reaps as he has sown. Nothing more than this should he ever hope for. This preordination is followed by an inaction, which some may consider harmful for the material progress of a country.


Obedience to authority is another feature of Indian consciousness. The spirit of defiance, so natural in the West, is unknown in India. Traditions cling fast. It is difficult to unfetter the ties of traditions. You challenge, defy and interrogate, and immediately you will have a stupendous chain of the ancient modes of your country to leash you in obedience to its general will, even though it may mean your ruination. There have been many manifestations of the ‘just-flesh’ in recent times. But that has all been done under the impact of the West. In the spirit of challenge, wherever it has been visible, you fall upon a plastic having a clear impress of the stamp of the West upon it.


Other characteristics are, firstly a repudiation of “I” and “Thou”, disappearance of the egotistic complex, secondly, the absence of the aesthetic detachment, thirdly, the continual search of the omnipresent God and the desire of the human soul to become one with Him. The individual does not count. He is a part of something bigger, which is also stern to subjugate the individual will. Sacrifice is the ideal. To do good to others is the beau ideal of human life. Individual will is subordinated to a higher will. There is a recognition that man must move and live in God. Divine powers are there within himself, not without. The kingdom of God is within you. God is transcendent and immanent both. Humility is the quality of godliness and, therefore, should be practiced. Vain glory and pride are the wine of the devil, and so it is better to avoid them.


These are some points to be noted in connection with Indian consciousness. Literature is the visible form of this consciousness. It is a live organism of the multiple instincts and impulses and urges of man. Indian Literature is permeated with this consciousness which a study of some of the classics of Indian Literature will at once reveal. This consciousness is at the back-bone of Indian Literature. Characteristics of Indian Literature would be a sort of an expatiation of the features of the same consciousness, for the one is so closely interlinked with the other, and is a clearer and broader denomination of the same thing. It would, however, be worth while noting some salient characteristics of Indian Literature.


Firstly, one who plunges deeply into the classics of Indian Literature would observe the intimate alliance, really speaking, the perfect fusion, between poetry and religion. Religion is the very breath of Indian life and Literature. Not merely the outward rituals of religion, which sometimes cling to it so fast that any attempt to shake off its sloughs results in failures, but it is the outlook of an inspired mystic, who for the composition of his verses seizes upon the substance of stars, moon, sun, trees, plants, mountains, flowers, desires, aspirations, the hidden springs of passions, and various other lovely phenomena of nature and human life, so that in its finished form it becomes a sort of a religious amalgam of all these things enumerated above.


It is the ultimate nature of reality upon which the Indian poet ever keeps his steadfast gaze. Other things are all vanity of vanity, a maya, dust, having no substance or shape. Wisdom and the spirit of the universe alone live. Like Wordsworth, he perceives the sympathies, “more tranquil yet of kindred birth that steal upon the meditative mind and grow with thought.” The Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Bhagavadgita, the Rigveda, the Upanishads, etc., the great sacred books of the East, are saturated with the subtle or emphatic spirit of religion. In their substance they are religious books, and works of stupendous thought. They are not sectarian. No better instance can one have of the immanent or transcendental personality of the Divine Self than in these works. On the contrary, English poetry is secular; it is mundane. Not that there are no religious poems in English Literature. The old English poetry is tinged with religion and in modern poetry also an attempt at a religious renovation in poetry has been made by Francis Thompson, but it is an acknowledged fact that the religious content of English poetry, whether of modern times or old ones, is not very profound, e inspiration, which is the fountain-source of all great poetry is not deep. English poetry is but quasi-religious in character. But Indian Poetry is rarely marked by an absence of the religious motive. The Jap Sahib of the Sikhs, an immortal poem, is throughout religious. The secret of such a state of affairs is that in India the intellect is subordinated to intuition, dogma to experience. “Religion in India,” as Sir Radhakrishnan seeks to explain in his Hindu View of Life “is not the acceptance of academic abstraction or the celebration of ceremonies, but a kind of life or experience, insight into the nature of Reality (darsana) or experience of Reality (anubhava).”


Secondly, poetry and music .are indissolubly inter-woven with each other. One cannot be separated from the other. The two are hand-maidens. They are the two hands of a clock, without the difference of one being big and the other small. Indian poetry loses much of its original, mellifluous and elusive music by being transplanted into an alien tongue. Yet translations there are of Indian poetry. They have been exceedingly popular with the Europeans. All the saint poets of India carried their message into the hearts of the common hearers all over the country and the secret of their wide appeal has been that their message or philosophy, whatever you call it, was couched in music. Kabir, Mirabai, Surdas, Tulsidas, Tukaram are some of these saint poets of India, Kabir’s poems have been translated into English by so great an Indian poet as RabindranathTagore. All Kabir’s songs are worthy to be called poems, if poetry is an expression of simple terminology of the heart-felt emotions of human beings. Some of the music of the original retained in the translation as the following poem would show:


“The middle region of the sky, wherein the spirit dwelleth,

Is radiant with the music of Light;

There, where the pure and white music blossoms,

My Lord takes His delight.

In the wondrous effulgence of each hair of His body,

The brightness of millions of suns and of moons is lost,

On that shore there is a city where the rain of nectar pours and pours,

And never ceases.

Kabir says: “Come, Dharmadas, and see my great Lord’s Durbar”.


Rabindranath Tagore’s poems, to take another example, are invariably set to music. His Gitanjali is a gorgeous display of human emotions in rainbow colours and rhythmical setting. A work of this type was alien to western consciousness and enthusiastically it was hailed as a bright star from the East. Its resplendent beauty, as soon as it was published, caught the fancy of the westerners. The immense popularity of the book with W. B. Yeats and A.E, two Irish poets, is too well-known to need a citation here. There goes a saying in the East that even passages from prose would be better understood when recited. Rabindranath Tagore was fully aware of this fact while writing his poems.


Thirdly, Indian Literature is soaked in the element of love. Human love has come up for treatment in all its aspects. There is a great mass of love poetry that centres round Radha and Krishna, the eternal woman and the eternal man. It is the poetry of sringar or the poetry of passion. It is the passion of the sweet illusion of love, which revels in wasting itself. “As long as youth, spring, and dreams are with us”, says Puran Singh, “so long will this kind of poetry be fascinating”. This is the only kind of poetry in India which, being possessed of a spontaneous innocence is free from religious expression and meaning. But here also, as is quite natural to Indian genius, human love soars to the divine. The secular love with all its passionate effulgence reads in its deeper significance as the love of the human soul for the Divine Being. Various stages of this spiritual quest are described in the love of Krishna for Radha, or better, of Radha for Krishna. Nevertheless, this poetry remains the highest ideal of the aesthetic delight of self-realization, for “all art”, as a critic once said, “consists in making statues and pictures that can move with our own life and self-realization.” Kalidas’ Shakuntala is a well-known drama of human love. Love lyrics of the Punjabi Literature are intense, for they have in them the potency of stirring blood in the dead frames of human body. The voice of Punjabi Literature is that of the feminine. Always surrounded by danger and in-security, attendant upon foreign inroads to the Punjab, man was often subjected in mediaeval times to a lack of peace and permanence of home; tragic lamentations of a deep poignant nature rose from the heart of the mother, sister or the wife who express a joy of a comparatively greater feeling and passion on the arrival of their hero home. Punjabi love poetry is so intense, because it is the creation of war. The following is an example of how a Punjabi girl, like a love-lorn nightingale, is singing her pain aloud, in the absence of her husband, who has now taken up the sword to strike the enemy dead or die himself:


White as pearls are his teeth and his eyebrows so black,

Wondrous are the curves and lines of the mysterious man,

His crimson turban has disappeared in the blue, my love is gone,

Turn thy back on me, O wearer of the crimson turban.

I do a hundred things for him and fly myself in a hundred ways,

But the wearer of the crimson turban doth not enter my chamber.

Nor doth he come at night on my roof,

Oh! the day when I met him.


It does not, however, mean that western poetry does not harp upon the theme of love. There is such a great element of love in English poetry. You have no English novel, which does not make love as its pivot, with rare and negligible exceptions. But what strikes one by way of a difference between the treatment of love in these two widely divergent literatures Eastern and Western, is that love in Eastern Literature pulsates with a spiritual fire, which is more or less absent in Western Literature. Love is the East soars m the empyrean, in the West no attempt is made to lift it above the earth.


Fourthly, there is no tragedy in Indian Literature. Unlike the Greeks and the philosophers of the pessimist school, who hold that the true vision is the tragic, Indians believe that Tragedy is not the fundamental aspect of life. The Indian’s preference for comedy or romance does not amount to his aversion to face the tragic facts of life. The reason lies deeper. As Puran Singh writes in The Spirit of Oriental Poetry, in India “tragedy is a surface phenomenon, there is no hell save what we create for ourselves. Life is an infinite Paradise! They who writ tragedies are not yet enlightened. The function of poetry is to help us win our paradise”. Tragedy, unlike as in the West, belongs to the accidents of life. It is not a fundamental or constructive element in the vision of Reality. Tragedy is not so popular in India as tragi-comedy, though we are getting used to it on account of the influence which the plays, particularly tragedies of Shakespeare, have exercised on the minds of the educated Indians in the recent past. There is no tragedy worth the name in ancient Sanskrit Literature.


Fifthly, Indian Literature is eclectic. There is always an attempt at a synthesis. Like the Indian genius, Indian Literature has been exceedingly absorbent. Whatever fell to it in course of time was made by it as its own. The many alien inroads into the country left their impress upon the country’s ideals and thoughts. Instead of eschewing the foreign, a quick acceptance was made of them and m the process of assimilation their trace was lost in the stupendous organism of the Indian mind. History has repeated itself in the first quarter of the present century and we find from our study of contemporary Indian thought that in every sphere of life, politics, economics, religion, literature, and society, people are endeavoring to strike a compromise between the alien and their own. Old Indian thought is fast changing and it is being built a superstructure of a compound of the old and the new. Radhakrishnan is doing in philosophy what Mahatma Gandhi has done in politics and what Rabindranath Tagore did in the sphere of literature. These are the three great Indian thinkers of the present century, in their thoughts is reflected the spirit of the age. They truly represent us, as our beacon lights. You read their works and you find a nice syncretisation. In literature, the old Ideals of asceticism, pessimism, transmigration, Karma, pantheism, exclusiveness and aloofness are being gradually superseded or transformed under the plastic stress of western civilization, by the western concepts of individual freedom, emphasis on personality, rejection of pessimism, and in its place a spirit of joy pervading everywhere, scientific materialism, the idea of progress, respect for women, eradication of untouchability etc. There has been an alliance between the Lotus-eaters and Ulysses.