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The Great Hindu Epics

The epics of India – although not as known in the Western world – are some amazing tales that depict human life with a complexity and a richness that will amaze you.

The Mahabharata, with its complex story of war; the Bhagavad Gita, with its moral and ethical complexity; and the Ramayana, with its representation of how humans should behave… these are some incredible tales, tales that you will love and will help you understand the depth of Indian culture.

Highlights

  • The Mahabharata, the longest epic poem in the world, represents the core of India and its culture
  • Arjuna is one of the most complex and most interesting characters in world mythology
  • Part of the Mahabharata, the Bhagavad Gita acts as a spiritual and moral guide for all Hindus
  • Ramayana tells the story of Rama, whose ideal life is the perfect representation of Dharma
  • The tale is an allegory about human duties and rights

The Great Epics

The Mahabharata and the Ramayana are the two main epics of India. They are both written in Sanskrit, and together form the canon of Hindu scripture: Itihasa – “Writer has himself witnessed the story”, or Mahakavya, the “Great Compositions”. They are both extremely famous in India and, over the centuries, have inspired writers from all over the world.

The Ramayana tells the Story of Rama. The tradition identifies the author with Valmiki, who probably lived between 400 and 200 BCE. The story narrates the life of Rama from birth to death, praising his heroism and virtuosity.

The Mahabharata was written by the legendary Vyasa between 400 and 100 BCE. The poem has been edited and modified by a high number of writers, and the poem emerged three times its original size.

A story part of the Mahabharata became the famous Bhagavad Gita (“the Lord’s Song): nowadays it is Hinduism’s most popular scripture – Gandhi described it as a “spiritual dictionary”. The Bhagavad Gita is also the poem that brought Krishna inside the Hindu pantheon, as a new incarnation of Vishnu.

Skip ahead:
1. The Mahabharata
2. The Bhagavad Gita
3. The Ramayana

 

The Mahabharata

The Mahabharata is the longest epic poem in the word: it consists of over 200,000 individual verse line and long passages written in prose. It has a total word count of 1.8 million, i.e. ten times the Iliad and the Odyssey combined.

To world literature, the Mahabharata has the same importance of the Bible, the works of Shakespeare, the Quran and the poems of Homer.

The author

According to the tradition, the Mahabharata was written by Vyasa, a sage that is also a major character inside the poem. The oldest parts of the poem are not older than 400 BCE, even if maybe the epic originated between the 8th and the 9th centuries BCE.

It is likely that the text reached the form we know today during the Gupta period (around the 4th century CE).

Vyasa is considered to be one of the seven immortals (the “Chiranjivins”), and the festival of Guru Purnima is held in his honor. According to the tradition, Vyasa dictated the text, while Ganesha wrote it down.

The protagonist

Even if there are dozens of major characters, one of the most important ones is undoubtedly Arjuna, the son of Pandu. He was one of the five Pandava brothers who fought against the Kauravas.

Arjuna was famous to be an extremely skilled archer and for its close relationship with Krishna, who became his charioteer. In the poem, Krishna acts as a moral guide for Arjuna: every time he has to face a dilemma, Krishna advises and guides him. All their conversation comprises the Bhagavad Gita (see below).

One of the most famous episodes of his youth is the archery competition. While exercising with a bow, the students have to shoot the eye of a wooden bird from afar – and while all the other students were distracted by the things surrounding the bird, Arjuna could only see his target, and this great focus allowed him to hit the eye on the first shot.

Another famous story sees Arjuna fighting against 100,000 enemies in one day to avenge the death of his son, killed by the enemy king. Arjuna had pledged that he would slay him before nightfall or kill himself in case of failure.

The plot

This famous poem narrates the story of two families, the Pandavas and the Kauravas, who fought against each other in the Kurukshetra War. This war was a battle for the throne of Hastinapura, the kingdom ruled by the Kuru clan. The main story is interwoven with many secondary plots.

Duryodhana, the eldest of the Kauravas, was younger than Yudhishthira, the eldest of the Pandavas, and both of them claimed the right to inherit the throne. This rivalry and enmity had existed between them since childhood.

To try and solve this problem, Duryodhana’s uncle arranged a dice game in which the two rivals bet everything and Yudhishthira lost his wealth and kingdom. Afterward, the Kauravas brothers tried to disrobe Draupadi, the wife of all five Pandava brothers in front of the court to shame her, but her sari kept growing magically to cover her.

The Pandavas were forced into exile for 13 years after the game of dice. During their exile, they experienced many adventures and prepared alliances for future conflict.

At the end of Pandavas’ exile, they negotiated to return to Indraprastha, but this request was denied by Duryodhana as the Pandavas had broken their banishment earlier and were discovered in the 13th year of exile hiding in the court of Virata. Because of this, they wouldn’t be able to return. The Pandavas were unwilling to accept this and declared war on the Kauravas.

The Hind god, Krishna considered the Pandavas to be his human instruments, so he took their side and acted as the chariot driver for the master warrior, Arjuna. The struggle culminates in the battle of Kurukshetra which the Pandavas eventually win. It is in the middle of this war that Krishna delivered his famous speech on the eternal reality of immortality and the duties of human beings.

The poem ends with the death of Krishna and the end of his dynasty. The Pandava brothers then ascend to heaven. In Hinduism, all these episodes mark the beginning of the age of Kali Yuga, the final age of humankind where there are no values and people are headed towards destruction.

Artwork that depicts the characters of the Mahabharata

The Groups of Monuments at Mamallapuram is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is best known for its 7th and 8th-century Hindu religious monuments.

The group consists of 40 ancient monuments and Hindu temples, including the rock reliefs depicting the descent of the Ganges and Arjuna’s Penance, processional chariots, and cave temples showing stories from the Mahabharata.

the descent of the ganges in mamallapuram-tamil nadu The rock reliefs depict the descent of the Ganges

Bhima Ratha, an example of the artwork cut from a single stone, is a chariot that carved out of a long piece of granite. This work of art gets its name from one of the Pandava brothers, Bhima. It is the third chariot after Arjuna’s and Draupadi’s chariots which share a platform with a lion and Nandi, the bull.

The Five Rathas, Yudhishthir Ratha, Bhima Ratha, Arjuna Ratha, Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu, Bhima Ratha gets its name from one of the Pandava brothers, Bhima.

Angkor Wat, the grandest of all Khmer temples in Cambodia and also one of the largest religious monuments in the world, contains beautiful carvings from the Ramayana and Mahabharata epics.

The reliefs in Angkor Wat’s west gallery and south section tells the story of the Battle of Kurukshetra, with the Kauravas advancing from the left and the Pandavas from the right.

the kauravas The Kauravas is advancing into the battle

At the heart of the battle, the fighting is intense. Arjuna can be seen at the head of the Pandava army firing an arrow from his chariot. His chariot has four arms, identifying him as Krishna.

 

The Bhagavad Gita

The Bhagavad Gita is a Sanskrit scripture, part of the Mahabharata. The entire narrative of the scripture is composed of a dialogue between Arjuna and his guide, Krishna.

When the war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas begins, Arjuna has to face heavy moral dilemmas that caused the violence and death that will come with the war. He wonders if he should renounce and ask Krishna for advice.

Krishna tells him to fulfill his warrior duty to uphold the Dharma, and in doing so Krishna offers a summary of what Hindu thinks about the dharma and the yogic ideals of moksha.

Narrative

As said, the Gita is a conversation between Krishna and Arjuna. The two talk right before the beginning of the war where the two massive armies of the Pandavas and Kauravas are about to destroy each other. This is a famous discourse on morality and contains the core values of Hindu religion and philosophy.

Arjuna, eager for war, asks Krishna to drive him in the middle of the battlefield: he sees that he will have to fight against some of his relatives, friends, and teachers. He doesn't want to kill them and is thus filled with despair. He drops the bow and wonders if he should just go away.

Krishina Krishina acts as the chariot driver for the master warrior, Arjuna

The two talks and Krishna resolve Arjuna's dilemmas. Even if their dialogue is set in the war context, the narrative is structured for the abstract to all situations, trying to answer basic questions about human life: its purpose, its origin, and meaning.

Spiritual concepts of the Gita

The importance of the Bhagavad Gita relies on trying to synthesize the various religious tradition of Hinduism. The text avoids indicating just one “right” spiritual path; instead, it harmonizes different ways of life and spiritual views.

The text tries to answer the questions of what a virtuous path is and how one can achieve spiritual liberation. The Gita discusses the three dominant trends in Hinduism – enlightenment-based renunciation, dharma-based householder life, and devotion-based theism – trying to forge harmony between the three.

In doing so, the Bhagavad Gita recommends that, instead of choosing one path, one should embrace all of them. People must do the right thing because they have understood that it is right, not because of its fruits – desires are the main reason why people are distorted from the spiritual life.

According to the Gita, there are many ways to spiritual realization because everyone has a different personality and a different temperament. According to one's personality, there are several paths to choose from: the path of knowledge; devotion; action; and meditation.

 

The Ramayana

The Ramayana is the other epic poem of India, forming, along with the Mahabharata, the Hindu Itihasa (meaning “history” in Hindi). The epic narrates the life of Rama, the prince of the Kosala Kingdom, and the author is believed to be Valmiki.

Various scholars estimate that the earliest parts of the text were written from the 7th to the 4th century BCE and that the text grew with later additions around the 3rd century CE. It is easy to see that the Ramayana is one of the oldest epics in the world, and also one of the longest ones: it consists of 24,000 verses.

Hindus consider it to be the "first poem", and the main theme is the depiction of the duties of relationships, with characters representing the ideal father, the ideal servant, the ideal king, etc. Like the Mahabharata, the Ramayana doesn't simply tell a story: it presents the teaching of the Hindu stages, with plenty of allegorical elements.

Besides the original Indian one, there are many other versions of the tale, found in countries like the Philippines, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Malaysia.

The author

According to the legend, the Ramayana was written by Valmiki, revered in India as the “first poet”. The Ramayana composed by Valmiki is dated from 500 BCE to 100 BCE, according to various scholars.

Of course, even if Valmiki is the original author, the Ramayana, like any other epic tale, went through a process of interpolations and redactions, and thus it is impossible to date it accurately.

Valmiki was a literary genius, whose philosophic skepticism earned him the status of an outlaw. Valmiki, besides being the author of the poem, is also an important character: he meets Rama during his exile and talks with him and – in the versions were Rama banishes his wife – he gives shelter to Sita and teaches the Ramayana to the two twins sons of Rama.

The protagonist

As the name says, the Ramayana tells the story of Rama, the seventh avatar of Vishnu and, along with Krishna and Gautama Buddha, his most popular incarnation. In some traditions of Hinduism, he is considered to be the Supreme Being.

Rama was the son of the king of Kosala and was married to Sita. Though part of the royal family, he lived a hard life, mostly because of some unexpected changes, that he was exiled and faced ethical questions and moral dilemmas.

His story discusses duties, rights, and social responsibilities in an allegorical way. Rama is a model character, and his life is a representation of the dharma.

Rama is extremely popular in India, and his character inspired other works of art, such as the Adhyatma Ramayana – a spiritual treatise; and the Ramcharitmanas – a popular dissertation that inspired the Ramilila festival performances.

The plot

Rama, the ideal hero and a powerful and virtuous prince of Ayodhya, was born during an age terrorized by the demon Ravana.

During his youth, he managed to perform an incredible act that no other human being was ever capable of doing, he lifted and pulled the string of the bow of Shiva. This accomplishment earned him the right to marry the beautiful Sita. Other suitors for her hand could not even manage to lift the bow off the ground.

Just before Rama is about to inherit the throne, his father is forced to exile him for fourteen years under the influence of his stepmother. Rama accepted his exile and his wife and brother, Lakshman, went with him. They lived a simple life and spent time visiting the dwellings of many holy sages.

While they were in the forest, the demon Ravana kidnaped Sita and tried to seduce her, but she rejected him for 10 months.

To get her back, Rama and his brother formed an alliance with the monkey king, Sugriva. Rama asked Sugriva to rescue his wife Sita, and in return, he promised to help Sugriva to kill his brother, Vali, and reinstate the kingship of Vanaras.

monkey The monkey king, Sugriva, is fighting with his brother, Vali

Rama and Lakshman then invaded Ravana’s palace with the help of Sugriva and an army of monkeys. After many battles, Rama defeated Ravana and won back Sita. During the battle, Lakshman was gravely wounded but was saved by a magical mountain herb brought by Sugriva.

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