Sanskrit language is truly a
fountainhead, if one surveys its three thousand years of its existence.
The story of the origin of Sanskrit began right from the Vedic age,
sailing through the post-Vedic years and centuries later till today. The
Aryans collected the mass of hymns, rituals and poems about their gods
in the four Vedas (10th century BC) which document the various dialects
that they brought to India (but that wasnt the Sanskrit we know of
today). From the Punjab, where the Aryans settled first after they came
from Central Asia, their speech spread along the east as far as present
Bihar by about 600 BC. Obviously this Vedic or Old Indo-Aryan language
met with the language of the Dravidians (who were then not restricted to
just the southern regions) and Austrics, and some give and take
happened. The result was Prakrit or Middle Indo-Aryan dialect which soon
engulfed the whole country in the north, east and centre. The Aryan
invasion was moving towards completion.
Meanwhile, the pure Aryans in Punjab were very unhappy about their sacred language getting defiled. So between 8th and 4th century BC, they came up with Classical Sanskrit, based on the old Vedic speech. But for all practical purposes, the origin of the language is taken to be the old Vedic Sanskrit.
But Prakrit dialects were already on their steady journey of spreading and mixing. Buddhists picked up one of these dialects around the 6th century BC and developed it into Pali. The process of simplification of the dialects continued throughout the Middle Indo-Aryan stage, culminating in the Apabhramsa stage in 600AD. Further modification of the regional Apabhramsas during 600-1000AD gave rise to the New Indo-Aryan languages of the present day.
But even while other languages were taking shape, Sanskrit continued to be the vehicle of creative and all other scholarly work. The sheer volume of work in Sanskrit is formidable. With the Vedas was laid the foundation stone of Vedic literature and all Sanskrit literature thereafter. From religion and philosophy to grammar, phonetics, etymology, lexicography, astronomy, astrology, sociology, sex, politics, arts and aesthetics, Sanskrit ruled. Sanskrit is also the language of Indias two most talked about epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The Puranas are perhaps the most interesting collection of works in Sanskrit. The Puranas contain all the fodder for stories about the Hindu gods and goddesses.
Literary activities burst forth with the playwright Bharatas (200BC) Natya Shastra, the Bible of dramatic criticism. The earliest plays were those of Bhasa, but were soon overshadowed by Kalidasas Shakuntala, a model for ages. History tells us that Kalidasa was the greatest of fools in his early years. He is known to have hacked at the very branch he was sitting on! Anyway, Shakuntala was a heroic play, while Shudrakas Mrichchhakatika, was a play of the social class. Bhavabhuti (circa 700AD) was another well-known figure, his best being Malatimadhava and Uttaramacharita, the latter based on the story of the Ramayana.
Some of the greatest Sanskrit poems are Kalidasas Raghuvamsa and Kumarasambhava, Kiratarjuniya of Bharavi (550AD), Sishupalavadha of Magha (7th century AD) and Naishadhiyacharita of Sriharsha (12th century AD). All of them draw from the Mahabharata, the source for many writers even today. Shorter poems of great depth were composed on a single theme like love, morality, detachment and sometimes of grave matters. The earliest and best collections of such verses called Muktakas are those of Bhartrihari and Amaruka.
Much of the early prose work in Sanskrit has not survived. Of the remaining, some of the best are Vasavadatta of Subandhu, Kadambari and Harshacharita of Bana (7th century AD) and Dasakumaracharita of Dandin (7th century AD). The Panchatantra and Hitopadesha are collections of wit and wisdom in the Indian style, teaching polity and proper conduct through animal fables and aphorisms.
With a glorious life of over 3000 years, Sanskrit continues to be a living language even today, bobbing up during Hindu ceremonies when mantras (ritual verses) are chanted. And though restricted, its still a medium of literary expression, but great works have long stopped being written.