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Sanskrit literature in the Gupta empire: 4th - 6th c. AD

The final flowering of Sanskrit literature takes place at the courts of the Gupta dynasty. By this time the spoken languages of India have long been evolving in their own separate directions. Sanskrit has become a literary language, known and used only by a small educated minority - much like Latin in medieval Europe.

The poems and plays of the Gupta period are correspondingly artificial in style, but at their best they have considerable charm. Shakuntala, a play of about AD 400 by Kalidasa, has been popular far beyond India's borders ever since its translation into English and German in the 18th century.

Kalidasa is the most distinguished of India's Sanskrit authors. He is believed to have lived at the court of Chandra Gupta II, son of Samudra Gupta, in the late 4th century. This is a time of peace and prosperity in India, and Kalidasa's work is sophisticated and courtly.

In epic poetry and drama, often with elaborate metrical schemes, he recreates stories from traditional Sanskrit literature. Raghuvamsha celebrates the exploits of Rama, as described in the Ramayana. Kalidasa's most famous work, Shakuntala, dramatizes in elegantly languid fashion a complex incident from the Mahabharata. A ruler loves a beautiful hermit girl who turns out, happily, to be the daughter of a famous warrior.

St Augustine: AD 387-430

The first Christian writer since St Paul to reach a wide readership is also the last great figure in the story of Latin literature. Confessions, his account of his early life and conversion to Christianity, is the world's first autobiography, introducing the genre with a masterpiece. And the massive City of God is one of the most influential works of Christian philosophy.

The author of these very different but seminal works is the bishop of Hippo in north Africa, St Augustine.

Confessions: AD c.400

Augustine's famous Confessions is essentially a spiritual autobiography, written from the viewpoint of a Christian bishop describing how he came to the truth. It provides a rare and fascinating glimpse of the prevailing influences on an intelligent young man in the declining years of the Roman empire and the early centuries of established Christianity.

Augustine's mother, Monica, is a Christian; his father is a pagan; but their main concern is that their brilliant son shall thrive in the world, probably as a civil servant. Instead, as a student at Carthage, he becomes interested in philosophy and launches into a precarious existence as a freelance teacher.

The first prevailing fashion to take his fancy is Manichaeism, to which he subscribes for some nine years. This religion, devised by Mani in Persia in the 3rd century AD, attempts a synthesis of Zoroastrianism, Buddhism and Christianity. The resulting truth, enlivened by a colourful theology invented by Mani, is that life is an eternal struggle between two irreconcilable opposites - Good and Evil, which can be seen also as light and darkness.

Jesus plays a large part in Mani's theology, and Augustine's account reveals how easily the Manichees find followers within an ostensibly Christian community. But the next stage of his own development derives from a more central influence on early Christianity, that of Neo-Platonism.

Formulated by Plotinus (a 3rd-century philosopher teaching in Rome), Neo-Platonism is less literal than Manichaeism but deals with the same contrast at the heart of all religious thought - between the pure and the impure, or the spiritual and the material.

The ideas of Plotinus derive at several removes from Plato's theory of Forms, but they add a more religious element. The ultimate reality, called the One or the Good, is at the far extreme of a hierarchy; everyday material existence is at our end. In between are successive spheres of higher experience ('soul' nearest to us, then 'mind'). Each individual, by looking inward to these more refined realities, may approach the One.

This Neo-Platonic scheme allows more scope for God than Manichaeism, and it brings Augustine an intense mystical experience. The disappointing brevity of this experience convinces him that he is still too bound up in the flesh, prompting the most famous confession of his Confessions - that on many occasions in his amorous youth, knowing his duty, he has prayed to God with the words 'Give me chastity and continence, but not yet'.

Augustine is finally brought to Christianity after hearing the sermons of Ambrose in Milan, where he has taken a post as professor of rhetoric. Baptized by Ambrose in AD 387, he returns to Africa - where he is ordained a priest in 391 and becomes bishop of Hippo in 396.

Arabic oral poetry: pre-Islamic

The poems of the Arab nomads are invented, embroidered, recited by specialists known as sha'ir (meaning approximately 'one who knows', and therefore close to the English word 'seer'). Recorded in anthologies of the 8th century and 9th century, and dating from perhaps two centuries earlier, the surviving examples provide a rare glimpse of poems from a pre-literate era.

They fall into two categories. The earlier tradition consists of short poems of a passionately partisan kind. With few exceptions, the theme is praise of one's own tribe or abuse of the enemy. The other kind of poem, known as qasidah, is longer (up to 100 lines) and more elaborate in form.

The qasidah consists of four sections, the first three of which have well-established themes. In the opening section (nasib), the poet describes himself on a journey with some companions; they reach a deserted encampment, and he tells how he was once here with a loved one until fate parted them when their tribes moved on to fresh pastures (a sentimental beginning considered essential to put the listeners in a good mood).

The second section is devoted to praise of an animal, the camel on which the poet is riding. The third is a tour de force, describing a dramatic scene such as a hunt or battle. With the fourth section the poet finally reaches his topic - again usually praise, of tribe or patron or of the poet himself.

T'ang poetry: 7th - 9th century

Chinese poetry achieves its golden age during the T'ang dynasty. The ability to turn an elegant verse is so much part of civilized life that almost 50,000 poems (by some 2300 poets) survive from the period.

Poetry is a social activity. Friends write stanzas for each other to commemorate an occasion, and competitive improvization is a favourite game at a party or on a picnic. Early in the dynasty news of a child prodigy, a girl of seven, reaches the court. She is brought before the empress and is asked to improvize on the theme of bidding farewell to her brothers. The Resulting poem, delivered in this alarming context, is brilliant - though no doubt polished in the telling.

Chinese scholar officials, pleasantly torn between Confucianism and Daoism, write poetry when they are in their Daoist vein. Verses are composed when the official is on a journey with friends, or on holiday, or in temporary retirement in a thatched cottage in some delighful landscape.

Most of the leading poets, though their inspiration lies among friends in the countryside, are also on the fringes of imperial court life. In this balance they echo to some extent the experience of Horace in imperial Rome. Like his short odes, the favourite T'ang form known as lü-shih ('regulated verse') is distinguished by its finely honed elegance.

Wang Wei, Li Po and Tu Fu: 8th century

The three greatest T'ang poets are exact contemporaries in the early 8th century. One of them, Wang Wei, begins his career with a brilliant success in the official examinations but he rarely holds the high positions which this would normally imply (ssee Chinese examinations). More important to him is his villa in the mountains south of the capital city, at Wang-ch'uan.

The beauty of the landscape inspires Wang Wei both as painter and poet. None of his paintings survive, but later Chinese landscapes reveal the closely related influence of the countryside in both art forms. A poet of the next dynasty writes of Wang Wei that there are pictures in his poems and poems in his pictures.

The other two leading T'ang poets, Li Po and Tu Fu, are unsuccessful in the examinations (see Chinese examinations). Instead they regularly present poems to the imperial court in the hope of finding preferment. Occasionally they are successful. But both men, for much of their lives, lead a nomadic existence - supporting themselves on small farms, or lodging in Daoist monasteries.

Nevertheless they are able to acquire great fame in their lifetime as poets, thanks to the extensive network of educated Chinese officialdom. In 744 (when Li is 43 and Tu 32) their paths cross for the first time, and the two poets become firm friends. Friendship and Chinese poetry are closely linked.

The first Japanese texts: 8th century

A powerful influence reaching Japan from China (along with Buddhism, the bureaucracy of Confucianism and even the game of go) is Chinese literature and the Chinese script. When the first texts reach Japan, perhaps in the 4th century AD, the Japanese language has not yet been written down. The first Japanese scribes adapt the Chinese characters to the needs of a very different language, in an unnatural alliance which has remained awkward ever since.

The earliest surviving works in Japanese date from the flowering of court life at Nara in the 8th century. There are compilations of legend and history, and a magnificent anthology of early Japanese poems.

The historical works are the Kojiki, or 'Records of Ancient Matters', compiled in712, and the Nihongi, or 'Written Chronicles of Japan', which follows in 720. Both are gathered from oral sources by court scholars, who read them to the emperor when required. Kojiki deals mainly with legend, whereas Nihongi brings Japanese history up to697.

From about759 a group of poets compile the Manyoshu, an anthology of some 4500 poems by more than 450 authors. The verses are simple, direct and powerful - particularly in the short 5-line form known as the tanka, which becomes an important and lasting part of the Japanese literary tradition.

The original cliff-hangers: from the 8th century

The Thousand and One Nights, better known in the west as the Arabian Nights, is a collection in Arabic of popular tales handed down in an oral tradition. The earliest historically identifiable details in the stories suggest that they are first gathered together in the late 8th century, in the Baghdad of Harun al-Rashid. They continue to be added to, with the collection probably reaching its present form in Cairo in the 15th century.

The tales are held together within the framework of another story, taking place in the harem of a fierce and bitter sultan.

The sultan, Shahryar, hates all women because he discovers that his wife has been unfaithful to him. He kills her and then, in his bitterness, marries and kills a new wife each night. This grisly saga continues until his latest wife, Shahrazad (or Scheherazade), devises a brilliant but alarming plan for staying alive. Every evening she tells her murderous husband a story, but leaves it incomplete - promising to tell him the end on the following day.

It is a perfect device for an open-ended collection of tales. Several of Shahrazad's stories, such as Aladdin, Ali Baba and Sindbad the Sailor, have become known and loved throughout the world.

Greek and Arabic scholarship: from the 8th century

The eastern Mediterranean coast, occupied so rapidly by the Arabs in the 7th century, has been part of the Greek world since the time of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC. Conquest by the Romans does not displace Greek civilization in this region, nor at first do the Arab caliphs. They rule over communities which understand Greek and which possess manuscripts of the classic works of Greek literature. Many have already been translated in Antioch into Syriac - a local version of Aramaic. Of the medical works of Galen, for example, as many as 130 exist in Syriac.

In the 8th century, when the caliphate has moved to Baghdad, scholars begin translating these available Greek and Syriac texts into Arabic.

Science and philosophy are of equal interest to the Arabs, and they find a full measure of each in Aristotle. Of the many learned commentators on his work, three are outstanding. Each writes on medicine as well as philosophy, combining the practical and theoretical. The first is born in the eastern part of the Arab world, in Turkestan. The other two come from Spain, and one of them is Jewish rather than Muslim.

Avicenna, born near Bukhara in980, has Persian as his native language but he writes mostly in Arabic. He is known in particular for two great encyclopedic compilations, one of philosophy (Ash-Shifa, 'The Recovery') and the other of medicine (Al-Qanun fi'l-Tibb, 'The Canon of Medicine').

Averroës and Maimonides are born in Cordoba within a few years of each other, in1126 and 1135 respectively. They both become leading physicians as well as philosophers. But their religion affects their careers differently.

Averroës, a Muslim, is for a while the chief physician to the ruler of the Almohads, who capture Cordoba in 1148. He lives his whole life in Cordoba and makes his reputation with his extensive commentaries on Aristotle. He also writes a complete handbook of medicine (Al-Kulliyyat, 'The Compendium').

Maimonides, by contrast, leaves Cordoba as a child, with his family, when the new rulers of the Almohads - failing to live up to the tradition of previous Muslim dynasties in Spain - introduce restrictions on the local Jews. He eventually settles in Cairo, where he becomes the city's leading rabbi and for a while a court physician to Saladin.

Maimonides' best-known philosophical work, with the endearing title Guide of the Perplexed, is a treatise in Arabic which attempts to reconcile Aristotelian philosophy with Jewish rabbinic theology.

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