Epics

The Great Grand Epics of India

Brief Introduction

“Yada yada hi dharmasya

glanir bhavati bharata

abhyutthanam adharmasya

tadatmanam srjamy aham”

(Bhagwat Gita: Chapter 4 verse 7)

“Sri Krishna said: Whenever righteousness declines, O descendant of Bharata, and unrighteousness prevails, I manifest Myself.”

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These profound words are etched in every Indian’s heart and soul, no matter which century she is born in, to which caste or creed, everyone knows these words of Lord Krishna; words that have a philosophical meaning, words that talk about a divine scheme of things which might be hard for some of us to contemplate, but no one can deny its power for these words still influence us all.

And so does the story of a great king who brought an end to the evil, giving every Indian across the world the festival of lights – Diwali.

Such is the reach of the great epics of India, such is the magnificence of epic poems – The Ramayana and The Mahabharata – that both the texts are still very much alive, guiding through, warning about and presenting life as it is.

These extensive ancient epic poems, The Ramayana with 24,000 verses in Sanskrit, credited to the sage Valmiki and The Mahabharata with an overwhelming 200,000 verse lines and long prose passages in Sanskrit, making it the longest epic poem in the world, credited to the sage Vyasa, are astoundingly both simple and complex, meaning that, while a little school kid can narrate its storyline in one go, a scholar might find it hard to encapsulate its essence in even hundred pages.

These two epics of India present us with a whole new world of characters, tales, ideas, powers, fears and also a mirror that holds an answer for every individual.

The Ramayana and The Mahabharata came long after The Vedas. The Vedic literature is vast; it contains the highest spiritual thoughts of our Rishis (sages). But the language and the complexity of the thoughts barred it from being accessed by the commoners as the people found it hard to study, to understand the depth of The Vedas, Upanishads and Aranyakas.

Thus, the Rishis, the seers, shaped the philosophical texts in the form of a story, so that the core message could spread amongst one and all. And so it did, in the form of the legendary story of Lord Rama and the epic war fought inKurukshetra.


Ramayana – The Story

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Rāmacandra standing in a rocky landscape with Laksmana and the bear and monkey chiefs of his army.
[Source – Wikimedia Commons]

Rama was the eldest son of the king of Ayodhya, Dashratha and queen Kaushalya. Rama was the epitome of magnificence and great virtue. After his tutelage under the great sage Vishvamitra, Rama got married to the sublime Sita, but only after bending God Shiva’s mighty bow at her Swayamvar.

When the old King Dashratha expressed his desire of crowning Rama as his successor, his second queen Kaikeyi, provoked by her maid Manthara, reminded the king of the two boons he had promised her in exchange for saving his life once. Kaikeyi thus demanded to send Rama to exile for 14 years and to make Bharat, her own son, the new king of Ayodhya.

After Rama is banished, he retreats to the forest with Sita and his favourite half-brother, Lakshmana, to spend 14 years in exile. A shocked Bharat goes to the forest and pleads with Rama to return to Ayodhya, but on Rama’s refusal, he takes his foot-wear to place on the throne and to rule the country on behalf of his elder brother.

The epic explicitly narrates the journey of Rama, Sita and Lakshmana in exile; the hardships they face, the various people they encounter and several lessons learnt. There Sita is abducted by the king of Rakshasas, Ravana, while her two protectors are busy pursuing a golden deer sent to the forest to mislead them.

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In Lanka, Sita resolutely rejects Ravana’s attentions, and Rama and his brother set out to rescue her. After several adventures, they enter into alliance with Sugriva, king of the monkeys, and, with the assistance of the monkey-general Hanuman and later Ravana’s own brother, Vibhishana, they attack Lanka.

Rama slays Ravana and rescues Sita, who undergoes an ordeal by fire to clear herself of suspicions of infidelity. When they return to Ayodhya, however, Rama learns that the people still question the queen’s chastity, and he banishes a pregnant Sita to the forest. There she meets the sage Valmiki and at his hermitage gives birth to Rama’s two sons – Lava and Kusha.

The family is reunited when the sons come of age, but Sita, after again protesting her innocence, plunges into the earth – her mother – who receives her and swallows her up.


Mahabharata – The Story

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Draupadi and the five Pandavas; a painting by Raja Ravi Varma.
[Source – Wikimedia Commons]

The kings and generals of the Lunar Dynasty – Shantanu, Bichitrabirya and Bhishma – successfully ruled a place called Hastinapur. King Bichitrabirya had two sons –Dhritarashtra and Pandu. Since the elder Dhritarashtra was blind, his younger brother Pandu ascended the throne after the death of their father.

Pandu had five sons named as Yudhisthir, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadev. They were known as the Pandavas and a hundred sons of Dhritarashtra were known as the Kauravas. Duryodhan was the first among the sons of Dhritarashtra.

After the death of king Pandu, his five sons were given one portion of the kingdom to rule where the Pandavas built their capital and named it Indraprastha. Envious of their success, the Kauravas invited the Pandava brothers to play the game of Dice with them with a bet over victory or defeat. Playing with a trick, the Kauravas defeated the Pandava king Yudhisthira again and again.

According to the bet, the defeated brothers agreed to live the life of exiles in forests for twelve years, and thereafter to spend one more year in disguise to escape detection.

During this period the five brothers end up marrying Draupadi due to their mother’s misunderstanding – one of the rare examples of polyandry in Sanskrit literature.

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After thirteen years the Pandava brothers returned and asked the Kauravas for their kingdom, but the Kaurava king Duryodhan refused to give back their territory. Because of this injustice, a fierce battle was fought between the Pandavas and Kauravas in the field of Kurukshetra.

With Krishna on their side, the Pandavas won the war. All the Kauravas are annihilated, and, on the victorious side, only the five Pandava brothers and Krishna survived.

The Pandavas got the whole kingdom and Yudhisthira became king. But, in deep repentance over the death of his kith and kin, Yudhisthira left the throne in the hands of Parikshita, the son of dead Abhimanyu, and left for the Himalayas with his four brothers and wife, Draupadi.

One by one they fall on the way, and Yudhisthira alone reaches the gate of heaven. After further tests of his faithfulness and constancy, he is finally reunited with his brothers and wife, as well as with his enemies, the Kauravas, to enjoy perpetual bliss.


Influence on the Society

Ramayana, also considered to be the Adi-Kavya (first poem), was written for the masses with the purpose to show mankind a virtuous path. Hence, this epic has inspired and regulated the Indian way of life like a social and moral constitution. Ramayana depicts the values of truthfulness, morality and nobility as supreme ideals of life; it emphasises on the duties of relationships, portraying ideal characters like the ideal father, the ideal servant, the ideal brother, the ideal husband and the ideal king.

Rama, Sita, Lakshmana, Bharat, Hanuman, Shatrughna, Vibhishan and Ravana are characters vital not only to the cultural consciousness of India but also Nepal, Sri Lanka and south-east Asian countries such as Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Thus, we find many versions of the Ramayana within India, besides Buddhist, Sikh and Jain adaptations; there are also Cambodian, Indonesian, Filipino, Thai, Lao, Burmese and Malaysian versions of the tale.

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Thai Khon Dance, performance at Frankfurt/Main, Germany (2006). Khon is based on the tales of the epic Ramakien (Thai adaptation of Indian Hindi epic Ramayana), as Thai literature and drama draws great inspiration from Indian arts and legend.
[Source – Wikimedia Commons]

The Mahabharata, which is more complex and realistic with polity, caste, gender roles and the problems of how to act in a particular situation, is aptly called sometimes the Fifth Veda. Like Ramayana, it also aims to guide the public to live an honest and diligent life, to follow the path of Dharma.

With this central theme, Vyasa added many legends, traditions, Puranic episodes, accounts of other royal dynasties, as well as descriptions of prevailing socio-religious systems, customs and manners, moral values, political conditions, traditions of war and diplomacy, and faiths and beliefs of the people.

The Mahabharata described the virtues of vigour for worldly existence as well as of the higher ideals of life like truthfulness and righteousness. At several places, Vyasa included deeper philosophies and spiritual thoughts to create awareness about man’s divine existence.

A short section of Mahabharata adds to its magnificence, it is the famous Bhagawat Gita – the song of the god – containing the essence of Upanishads, which is considered as the core of the highest knowledge for mankind. On the battlefield of Kurukshetra, commander of the Pandava forces, Arjuna, after seeing his own family lined up against him, realises that war is futile and will lead only to bloodshed. Thus, Arjuna declares to Krishna, his charioteer that he won’t fight.

It is in this crucial situation that Krishna, the Supreme Being in human form, utters the words of wisdom, concerning the creation and existence, the inner purpose of life and the value of duty, as well as the true awareness regarding the reality and the unreality. Krishna’s spiritual utterance on Karma, Gyana and Bhakti-Work, Wisdom and Devotion reveals to Arjuna the real meaning of life.

He realized the truth that while he was doing a deed, he was not the ‘DOER’ himself – he was only an instrument of the Divine Will to uphold a sacred cause for sacred truth and justice. Work without attachment or desire for the result will lead to true knowledge which ultimately will lead man to a stage of devotion for a selfless, detached and peaceful life.

The Holy Gita is regarded as the sacred-most scripture of the Hindus and a unique contribution to mankind’s spiritual consciousness.

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Both Mahabharata and Ramayana together form the Hindu Itihas (history) and though the archaeological facts do not support these detailed tales, people have wholeheartedly accepted it as the truth.

The impact on Indian literature, art and culture has been so deep and profound that even today we see books are being written to analyse one or the other aspect of these epics; apart from TV serials, theatre plays, films and the famous Ram-Leela (enactment of Ramayana), simplified versions of these texts with illustrations are created for children, and hence, this knowledge, through the technique of storytelling is being passed on and on.

Mahabharata teaches the truths of the tricky world and also takes us to the root of our being so that we first fight the battle within and then partake in the battle in the outer world. And the idealistic world of Ramayana, where good and evil take firm stands against each other, reminds us that even if evil is all-powerful and wise, the virtuous always wins in the end.

Rama’s journey to win over the sinful is relatable to the journey an individual takes to fight her own weaknesses; the individual has to banish her desires and struggle for her purpose in life, and with ‘Rama like focus’, one can become victorious in all the battles.

Such individual battles are what we see vividly in Mahabharata, for example – all the five Pandavas fought for a different reason – Yudhishtira fought for the war was inevitable, Arjuna fought for Krishna showed him the ultimate truth, Bheema fought for the sake of Draupadi, Nakul and Sehdev fought for it was what their elders wanted.

This is what makes these epic poems timeless, unique and so relatable. There is righteousness, honesty, duty, spirituality and metaphysics in both the epic poems, but the fact that both reach out to the individual and both give emphasis to individuality, makes it stand apart from the other epic works in the world.

Neither the society, the family nor the beloved is responsible for your decisions, it is you alone who is responsible. Thus, it is all up to you, your thoughts, your actions – the true power is in your own hands.


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Journeying Backwards and Forwards and Sideways

 “The time scheme of the epic is somewhat puzzling to us who are habituated to a mere horizontal sequence of events. Valmiki composed (Ramayana) as if he had a past tale to tell, and yet it was broadcast to the world by Kusa and Lava, the sons of Rama, who heard it directly from the author.

One has to set aside all one’s habitual notions of movement and get used to a narrative going backwards and forwards and sideways.

When we take into consideration the fact that a king ruled for sixty thousand or more years, enjoying an appropriate longevity, it seems quite feasible that the character whose past or middle period is being written about continues to live and turns up to have a word with the historian.”

An excerpt from R.K Narayan’s book ‘Gods, Demons and Others’, Chapter 3, Valmiki

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The myths, the legends, the folktales, the epic victories and defeats, the deaths and rebirths simplify the reality of the extraordinary spirit – confounded and weakened often by tribulations or lulled by indolence – that resides within us all.

These stories take myriad routes, journeying from the world of Gods to the world of Demons, concluding on a high and happy note, introducing one to the game of life, entrusting then the secrets to win.

Every emotion makes an appearance here; ego clashes until it shatters to accept change; Gods create obstacles almost breaking one’s spirit, but blesses the resilient one in the end with immortality and splendour.

These unfathomable, and at times a bit ridiculous, tales are the means to measure the unfathomable, ridiculous reality we live in; these tales, the bases of our culture, our rituals and an amalgamation of past societies, lead us.

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Journeying through the circle of life.
[Image from Pixabay.]

Splendidly well-adjusted to change, it accepts deletions, additions, revisions without much hullaballoo. It revels in various versions and shades read throughout the country. Same gods-goddesses, demons, sages, avatars… often playing different roles, but embarking on similar journeys.

Written in a playful and ambitious tone these valued legends, retold by storytellers in every generation, are our inheritance; it holds a secret for every tenacious individual.

It is not a particular theme that is the moral of the story here but the journey, the journey with its endless possibilities and absurdities, twists crafted by the capricious fate and the supremacy of time that gives us insight into our understanding of life.

And such has been the role of the myths, legends and epics and of course, the storytellers and it continues.


The renowned author R. K Narayan’s Gods, Demons and Others is an interesting and engaging read, one that opens the gates to Indian mythology for one and all.


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