Growth of Sanskrit literature
According to Max Muller, there was a sudden break in the growth of Sanskrit Literature in the early centuries of the Christian era. This continues until Kalidasa inaugurated the Renaissance of Sanskrit literature. Scholars of Sanskrit now no longer accept this view of Max Muller because the works of Asvaghosa, Bhasa and Bharata among others disproves the theory. There is no doubt, however, that Sanskrit literature attained its perfection in both form and content during the Gupta period. It was the great age of Sanskrit. This actually replaced Prakrit and also epigraphs. It also brought changes in the religious and philosophical literature of Jains and Buddhists. Sanskrit became the language of the learned not only in India but also in Indo-China and Indonesia.
The Mahabharata and the Smritis
The Gupta age thus witnessed not only the revival but also the highest point of development or perfection of Sanskrit literature. It was in this period that the Mahabharata, with the inclusion of didactic stories, was compiled in its present form by the descendents of Bhrigu. Bhrigu was also the authors of the Manu Smriti. The Yajnavalkya-smriti was also compiled during the Gupta age. The Narada-smriti seems to have been written a little earlier than the Yajnavalkya-smriti. Probably it belongs to the early fourth century A.D. To a slightly later date belongs the Brhaspati-smriti. From the production of these three smritis it is evident that during the Gupta period the legal thought and procedure was being revised in the light of changing conditions.
Indian Puranas were an efficient medium of popular instruction. The Puranas in this period dealt with many new topics besides the old pancha-laksanas and these can be mentioned as follows
Sarga or creation of the universe;
Pratisarga or recreation after destruction;
Vamsa or the genealogy;
Manvantara or the great periods of time with Manu as the primal ancestor; and Vaihsanucharita or history of both solar and lunar dynasties.
The views of new sects now found expression in the Puranas e.g., Pasupata in Vayu and Linga, Sattva in Visnu, Dattatreya in Markandeya, etc. Sun worship is practiced by the Magas. Mahatma of particular shrines and places of pilgrimages came to be added to old texts as new sections. The Purana texts now formed the most important medium of popular education. It is evident from the inclusion of many secular subjects in them e.g., poetics, dramaturgy, grammar, lexicography, astronomy, astrology, polity, war, architecture and medicine in the Agni Purana. Perfumery and the lapidary art were included in the Garuda Purana and arts of dancing, painting and sculpture was included in the Vishnudharmottara Purana as well.
Sahkhya: The Sahkhya system of philosophy lost ground in the Gupta period because the epics absorbed its theism and its categories of Prakriti, Purusa and Gunas were taken over by Vedanta. In this period Ishvarakrisna composed his Sankhyakarika in the 4th century A.D. This is the earliest and the most popular work on the Sahkhya system.
Yoga: In the kingdom or reign of Gupta, Vyasa bhasya in C. 300 A.D. composed the Yoga sutras of Patanjali. This work, for the first time, gives the standard exposition of the Yoga philosophy and is quite indispensable to understand its main principles as well.
Nyaya-Vaisesika: Vatsyayana, a scholar of Kanchi, towards the end of the 4th century A.D. composed the Nyaya-bhasya, which is a most authoritative commentary on the Sutras till now. He criticizes the views of the Madhyamika and Yogachara schools of Buddhist philosophy. A little later flourished Prashastapada has given the earliest independent and systematic exposition of Vaisesika philosophy in his Padarthadharmasargraha. The scholars of Nyaya Philosophy, during the period devoted themselves to the discussion of the problems connected with Pramanas or mechanism of knowledge and also syllogism.
Mimamsa: The Sabara-bhasya is a standard commentary on the Mimamsa Sutras of Jaimini. This was composed in C. 300 A.D. This work contains a systematic exposition of the Mimamsa philosophy. The school during the Gupta period ceased to concern itself with the rules about the exposition of rituals, but had entered into the whole field of philosophy, advocating own views about the nature of soul, God, salvation etc.
Vedanta: No work of this school has come down from the Gupta period as well. But from the sections added to the Brahmasutras it appears that the philosophers of this school were busy refuting the views of the Madhyamika and Yogachara schools of Buddhist philosophy.
Towards the end of the Gupta period, Haribhadra composed his works and commentaries in Sanskrit. Of some other Jain scholars of Digambara sect who wrote in Sanskrit can be mentioned as Samantabhadra, Pugyapaday Akalanka and Manatunga. It is during this period the Buddhist scholars first used Sanskrit mixed with Pali in their works. These were mixed in Sanskrit. But later, as early as the first and the second century A.D., they used pure Sanskrit language in their works. Asvaghosha's Buddhacharita and Saddharma Pundarika, which is a sacred work of the Mahayana School, both of them are in pure Sanskrit.
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