Spiritual

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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Canonized For Love

John Donne was a prominent 17th century Metaphysical Poet.
Poster design by Jagriti Rumi.

Love is pure truth, a divine experience, a way to live more and surpass even death.

It is a sublime fantasy that is real and better than the material world. Love is life’s paradox.

This is the idea that John Donne is expressing in the poem The Canonization. It is a reply as well as a declaration that the poet makes to the world- a world that treats lovers harshly.

He scorns the worldly, he questions the inquisitive, he proves the myths true, he places his love high and announces it as canonized.

The sudden change in his tone doesn’t bother if one recognises the powerful and apt imagery he has used in the poem.

The very first line ‘For God’s sake, hold your tongue, and let me love’ hits hard, but certainly in a good manner. In fact, it catches the interest of the reader at once.

The poem is like a necklace, beaded with beautiful and grand images like –

‘What merchant’s ships have my sighs drowned?’

‘And we in us find the eagle and the dove

The phoenix riddle hath more wit/ By us; we two being one, are it’

‘As well a well-wrought urn becomes/ The greatest ashes, as half-acre tombs/ And by these hymns, all shall approve / Us canonized for Love.’

Countries, towns, courts: beg from above/ A pattern of your love!

‘And if unfit for tombs and hearse/ Our legend be, it will be fit for verse’ (Stanza 4)
Image by Prawny from Pixabay

These are not empty expressions as every word in the poem is linked with the central theme – love.

If we randomly pick one word from each stanza, it will still be related to the poem.

For example, ‘improve’ (stanza 1) – one who is in love grows as an individual and improves by learning to be selfless; ‘remove’ (stanza 2) – when in love you cannot dwell on hatred, and so the negativity is removed to make space for hope; ‘Mysterious’ (stanza 3) – love is an easy mystery; ‘legend’ (stanza 4) – we all remember love stories as legends, sadly these are mostly incomplete ones; ‘mirrors’ (stanza 5) – love is as reflective as a mirror.

Love is closely related to asceticism in the poem, which is one of the conceits (an ingenious or fanciful comparison or metaphor) used by the poet.

He proves it with great subtlety that the lovers need nothing from the world; they complete each other and hence, know inner peace.

The poet says that the lovers rise to such a level that they become one and enter a divine world, thus leaving the material world behind. They dwell in each other’s simple presence.

In the last stanza, after canonizing himself and his lover, the poet says that his pious canonized love would be celebrated in the world by one and all.

He ends by completing the canonization of his love, placing it on a high pedestal, and separating it from the worldly pleasures.

‘And if no piece of chronicle we prove/ We’ll build in sonnets pretty rooms’ (Stanza 4).
Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

Canonization, the title of the poem, seems to be a question and an answer at the same time. As one wonders about how love can be canonized and attain sainthood, the divine nature of the poet’s love presented in the poem gradually justifies the same.

The poet shows that his love is spiritual not merely physical, that his union with his lover has made them blissful and assures that it will radiate amongst the others.

His canonized love is not against the world rather it is for the world, acting as an inspiration. His love is not harming anyone but is a liberating force, just like a saint’s.

John Donne’s The Canonization is a smart poem with brilliant use of wit, the quintessential quality of a metaphysical poet.

He celebrates love in a simple, forthright tone that makes this 17th-century poem wondrously alive in today’s world as well.

‘Alas, alas, who’s injured by my love?’ (Stanza 2)

‘Call her one, me another fly/ We’re tapers too, and at our own cost die’ (Stanza 3)

There is a message hidden in this poem and the title ‘canonization’ is the key to unveil it. Donne wants to share that every one of us, whatever be our rank in the society that runs according to the man-made rules, has the ability to reach the divine state.

Sainthood according to him is not reserved for some but is achievable by all.

What we need is to rise above the material world, to resurrect ourselves through true love. Here the beloved represents anything- a person, God, nature, the entire world.

Love is the best, the all-embracing way to reach the sublime state as it is love that makes a person truly selfless and compassionate.

Even today if someone pursues this path, they will know that they are canonized, for they are in love.

Love is to be selfless and compassionate.
Image by Nika Akin from Pixabay

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I wish to SEE Tibet

Certain things are meant to be, but while we are living a moment, we rarely understand this beautiful phenomenon.

I am calling it a beautiful phenomenon because sooner or later we are able to gauge its magnanimity and purity. Everything simply falls into place.  

Early last year, I bought a book from a second hand street bookshop. The cover page captured my attention and reading a few lines here and there, I told myself that I am in for a treat. And happily, I wasn’t wrong.  

The last time I saw Tibet’ took me to the land of the gods, to an eternal pilgrimage, to witness the serene beauty of the pious land and gave me a humbling experience.

Yes, the book is magical. There were times when a mere description of the icy winds blowing in a small village, Thokchen, at a height of almost 15,700 feet, made me quiver and a few lines about the picturesque valley that the author gazed upon left me in a trance.

His visits to the ancient and grand monasteries – Drepung, Sera and Ganden, to the fabulous Jokhang temple in Lhasa, to the royal palaces – Potala and Norbulingka – of His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama and especially his journey to the Kailashnath and Mansarovar offered me a spiritual spectacle, a chance to feel the presence of the Supreme One.

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This fabulous travelogue by Bimal Dey along with presenting the reader with the wonderful scenic beauty of Tibet talks about its rich culture, about the mystical Lamas, about the simple, poor but happy people of Tibet.

What makes his journey to Tibet an immensely special tale is the fact that he traveled in the year 1956, when he was only 16, along with a group of lamas and theirs was the last group of pilgrims to do so until the dawn of the 21st century.  

The book cover. [Source – goodreads.com]

The glory of Tibet, the land that accepted Buddhism wholly and spread its enlightening knowledge everywhere in the world, is now a tale of the past. With the Revered Dalai Lama living a life of a refugee in India since 1959 and the maximum number of Tibetan lamas either living in India or abroad, the spirit of Tibet has weakened.

Tibet, under the rule of China, is not what it was. Can development now seen in Tibet be acknowledged when the soul of the land is quietly being crushed every day?

The number of monasteries destroyed in the past, the so called Cultural Revolution that took place in Tibet, the bloodshed of countless monks and nuns, the sudden disappearances of the religious leaders, the number of Tibetans who have given into self-immolation will shock you, it will dishearten you.  

I was aware about the plight of the Tibetans before I read this book. Reading about their on-going fight troubled me as I felt helpless. But slowly something brought a change, my efforts to understand Buddhism through whatever means possible, made me realize that Buddhahood is present in everyone, it cannot be conquered, it cannot be oppressed.

Rather, if one starts recognizing it, such a person can achieve complete freedom. And I concluded and told myself that Tibet is free.  

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Prayer flags. [ Source – Pixabay]

‘The last time I saw Tibet’ was meant to be read by me because after finishing this book I again felt that Tibet is free. How lovely this feeling is, how empowering! Such is the positivity with which this book has been written.

All the facts will defy this statement at the moment, but Tibet, its culture and its religion is not about facts, it is about the spiritual connection with the Ultimate One, with the Lord Buddha, the enlightened one, whose blessings are always there with every free mind.

Caught in the political drama some may not be able to understand this, Tibet –the roof of the world, where gods reside- is, was and will remain free.

Time, no matter years or decades, will seal this thought with grandeur that the peaceful land of Tibet deserves.

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Tibet… picturesque, peaceful and pious. [Source – Pixabay]

Also, read about the history of Tibet here.  


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