Ramayana and Mahabharata: Stories, Similarities and Differences

Ramayana and Mahabharata: Stories, Similarities and Differences

By CarolUpdated Oct. 19, 2021

The Ramayana and the Mahabharata are two of India's greatest epics that have influenced the Hindu way of thinking and belief system. The two epics are believed to be partially based on historical events and are considered to be "itihasa" in Sanskrit, which means historical texts.

Even though they are two different stories, there are many similarities that can be found between the two as they share a similar historical and cultural background.

Ramayana and Mahabharata

Ramayana and Mahabharata Comparison Overview

  The Ramayana The Mahabharata
Similarities Involvement of Hindu gods, including the avatars of Vishnu
Theme of duty
Similar plot:
1. Royal princes are exiled
2. Winning the hand of a princess through a skills contest
3. Great war to defeat the enemy
Differences Attributed to Valmiki, around the 5th century Attributed to Vyasa, from the 4th century
Long poem containing 24,000 verses Very long poem containing 100,000 verses
Idealistic story Less idealistic, more realistic
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What's the story of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata?

Both Ramayana and Mahabharata are epics written in the form of poems and took place in ancient Hindu kingdoms on the Indian subcontinent. As they are both very long, it is difficult to summarize them without leaving out important details, but having said that, here is the essence of the stories:

The Ramayana

Indian deities Rama and Sita Indian deities Rama and Sita

The word Ramayana literally means the journey of Rama. It is a story of the triumph of good over evil that is shown through the victory of Rama who defeated the demon Ravana who had abducted his wife. Rama is perceived as the ideal man in Hindu culture. He is portrayed as loyal, dutiful, righteous, courageous, wise, strong, and even handsome. 

Rama was born as the eldest of the sons of the King of the Kosala Kingdom. However, due to turmoil in family relationships, he was exiled for fourteen years. As a dutiful son, he willingly went on exile with his wife, Sita, and his younger brother, Lakshmana. During the exile, Sita was abducted by Ravana, the demon king of Lanka (present-day Sri Lanka). In his search for Sita, Rama befriended Hanuman, a monkey-human god, who was a great help to the prince.

Finally, they were able to defeat Ravana through a fierce battle and save Sita. However, this was not the end of the story as Sita had to prove her chastity by walking through fire before Rama was willing to take her back. Fortunately, with the help of the gods, she was able to do so and remained unharmed.

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The Mahabharata

Mahabharata Mahabharata

The Mahabharata is essentially the story of the rivalry between two bands of brothers in the Hastinapura Kingdom, which culminates in a great battle.

The Pandavas are the five sons of Pandu, the rightful king of the Hastinapura Kingdom. His eldest two sons were Yudhistira and Arjuna. On the other hand, the Kauravas are the one hundred sons of Dhritarashtra, who is Pandu's blind elder brother. The eldest of the Kauravas is Duryodhana, who is the main antagonist in the story. Duryodhana lives against dharma (moral order) and is portrayed as greedy, jealous, and evil.

In the story, Duryodhana invited the Pandavas to a game of dice where the Yudhistira staked everything and lost. Consequently, the Pandavas then had to go on exile for a total of thirteen years, during which they prepared themselves for war. At the end of their exile, the Pandavas and the Kauravas gathered their allies and went to war against each other.

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Similarities Between the Ramayana and Mahabharata

Despite being completely different stories, there are many similarities between the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Here are just some of them:

1.Presence of Hindu Gods

vishnu Vishnu

Hindu gods appear in both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. In the Ramayana, Rama himself is the 7th avatar of the god Vishnu. His goal was to defeat Ravana and to restore dharma. Another Hindu god present in the Ramayana is Hanuman, Rama's helper. In Hindu culture, Hanuman is perceived as the god of strength and can be distinguished by his monkey-like appearance.

Similarly, there are Hindu gods present throughout the Mahabharata. Krishna himself, who is Arjuna's charioteer and advisor, is the 8th avatar of Vishnu. Krishna plays an important role through his encouragement of Arjuna to proceed with the war and defeat Duryodhana.

Ramayana and Mahabharata Krishna and Arjuna

2.Similar Theme of Duty

Another similarity between the Ramayana and the Mahabharata is their main theme of duty, also known as the Hindu term dharma, which pertains to maintaining rightful order and morality. Rama agreed to go on exile for fourteen years in order to fulfill his dharma as a son. He also fulfilled his dharma as a kshatriya (warrior) by killing demons and his dharma as a husband by saving his wife.

In the Mahabharata, before the Kurukshetra War, Arjuna was distressed because he did not want to go to war with his cousins. However, through the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna explains to Arjuna that he must fulfill his duty as a warrior and proceed with the war even if he does not want to. Both stories idealize fulfilling one's dharma despite one's desires.

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3.Similar Plot

There are also many similarities in the plot of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. For example, the main characters of both stories are royal princes of a kingdom who had to go on an extended period of exile during which they lived as commoners.

Another similarity is that both Arjuna from the Mahabharata and Rama from the Ramayana won the hands of their wives, Draupadi and Sita, through skill contests in a neighboring kingdom. Draupadi and Sita are both famed for their beauty.

Moreover, both stories end with a great battle at the end of the exile of the protagonists. Through this battle, Rama successfully defeated Ravana, while the Pandavas defeated Duryodhana and the Kauravas.

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Differences Between the Ramayana and Mahabharata

Having said all the similarities above, there are also significant differences between the two epics:

1.Different Authors

The Ramayana is traditionally thought to be written by a sage called Maharishi Valmiki around 5th century BC, making it older than the Mahabharata. Valmiki wrote himself into the story. According to the story, when Sita was banished by Rama after Rama became king, Valmiki provided shelter for her and her two sons.

Likewise, the authorship of the Mahabharata is also shrouded with legends and its author is incorporated into the story. It is believed that Vyasa, who is the grandfather of the Kauravas and Pandavas, dictated the story to Ganesha, the elephant-headed god of knowledge. It was said that Vyasa dictated the Mahabharata without stopping and finished the project in three years.

Ramayana and Mahabharata Ganesha

However, scholars debate whether Vyasa was the real author or just a symbolic author. The literal meaning of Vyasa is "compiler". It is likely that the Mahabharata was compiled by many people over several centuries.

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2.Different Length

The Ramayana itself is a very lengthy story with almost 24,000 verses. It is more than twice the length of the bible, but the Mahabharata is even longer. The Mahabharata is the longest epic poem ever written, consisting of 100,000 verses, or 1.8 million words in total which is 4 times the length of the Ramayana.

The story of the Ramayana covers a much shorter period than the Mahabharata. It begins with Rama's father's struggle to have children and ends with Rama's triumph over evil. The plot is relatively less complicated and follows a clearer progression.

On the other hand, the Mahabharata covers up to four generations of stories, beginning with Arjuna's great grandparents. The Mahabharata's plot is also much more complex as there are numerous side stories about many of the various characters involved.

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3.Different Philosophies

The Ramayana is an idealistic story where the distinction between good and bad is clear. Rama is a good person. He is the ideal son, brother, and husband. Ravana, on the other hand, is the evil lustful demon that needs to be defeated.

The Mahabharata is a less black-and-white story with less than ideal characters. The main protagonists in the story, Arjuna and Yudhistira, are portrayed as honorable individuals with character flaws. Yudhistira, the rightful king, lost everything in a game of dice due to his greed and weakness for gambling.

Like Rama, Arjuna also won his wife, Draupadi in a contest. However, he did not defend Draupadi with the same passion that Rama sought to rescue Sita. Arjuna willingly shared her with his brothers, making her the wife of five husbands. He also did not come to her defense when she was assaulted by the Kauravas.

While the Ramayana shows how a person should live in righteousness and in accordance with dharma, the Mahabharata shows that in real life, things are often more complicated.

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The Significance of the Ramayana and Mahabharata

Even though the Ramayana and the Mahabharata were written many centuries ago, they are still very popular in India and even in some Southeast Asian countries.

Performances based on the Ramayana and the Mahabharata can be seen during various festivals in India. For example, theatrical productions of the Ramayana (Ramlila) can be seen at the end of Navratri, which is a 9-day Hindu festival that takes place in September or October.

Performances based on the Mahabharata can also be watched during the Mahabharata festival which takes place in December. This festival is celebrated in Kurukshetra, Haryana, the location of the great battle in the story.

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