THE PERIOD OF THE EPICS
POST HARAPPAN PERIOD: THE AGE OF THE EPICS
Following in the ‘footsteps’ of the Vedas and alongside the construction of the Upanishads were the compilation of the Epics, Mahabharata, Ramayana and the most sacred of the Hindu philosophical writing contained in the Bhagavad-Gita. The events narrated in the epics are dated well back to the era of the Vedas and passed down through generations by oral traditions and only written down much later. Many of the common laws the Hindus abide by and to some extent laid down in the modern Indian legal system flow from these influential texts.
One of the two great epics of Hindu mythology, Mahabharata contains over 100,000 verses. The date of the events recounted in Mahabharata had traditionally been 3102 BCE but most scholars consider dates between 1400 and 900 BC as more likely. And for many centuries the oral tradition told and retold the stories to generations of the early Hindus. Although no one is sure about when it was written down, historians generally believe it to have been completed between 300BCE and 300 CE. Bhagavad Gita, the most sacred text of the Hindus occupies a crucial part of the story of Mahabharata and it is given a special place in Hindu philosophy. While the central theme of Ramayana is that of the virtuous life of Rama, the Mahabharata deals with the triumph of good over evil, of a systematic treatment of Dharma.
The heroes of Mahabharata are the Pandavas, the five sons of Pandu (Yudhisthira, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva). Through numerous plots and subplots, the Mahabharata unfolds their struggle with the 100 evil children of Pandu’s brother Dhritarashtra. A systematic treatment of Dharma pervades the plots thoughout the story and it culminates in an epic battle. The story of Mahabharata also includes numerous stories revolving around the early childhood of Krishna, the many attempts on his life by demons, his miraculous survival after each ordeal and his many escapades with the “gopis” (cowherd women).
THE BHAGAVAD GITA:
This, the most revered of the Hindu scriptures is filled with passages that extol the virtues of dharma or one’s duty. When confronted by many of his teachers and elders who were on the side of the Kauravas (the enemies), in despair Arjuna hesitates; Krishna, his charioteer and advisor explains the dharma dictates action (“Karma yoga”). In 700 verses contained in 18 chapters, these words evolve into an exquisite philosophical treatise. For examples of the nature of the verses the reader is directed to the link given below and at the beginning of this segment of Indian history. In essence the Gita is laying down the rules of moral conduct; the wise among human beings are expected to see good in all living creatures equally.
This text was first written by the sage Valmiki but the story was (just like the Mahabharata) passed down for several centuries before him by the oral tradition. Rama (an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, the Preserver) is worshipped as a perfect soul, the ideal husband, the just king. This story is thus of virtues and just as the Mahabharata, Ramayana lays down the foundation of the Hindu laws of conduct.
Based in Ayodhya, Rama is the heir to throne but was exiled to the forest with his wife Sita and his brother Lakshmana. As fate would have it, Sita is abducted by the demon king of Lanka, the fierce, 10-headed Ravana. The search for Sita was aided by the monkey general Hanuman. This monkey general is thus also deified in Ramayana. After an epic battle, Rama defeats Ravana and brings Sita back to his kingdom. However, his subjects question Sita’s chastity and Rama responds to this by banishing her to a hermitage. While the story revolves around the virtues of Rama in all his dealings, just as in Mahabharata, the story is told through innumerable side plots and events.
Along with the stories of Krishna’s childhood pranks and his youth and the many plots in the battle of Mahabharata, the story of Ramayana is told and retold in classical dances and drama both in India and other Hindu centers such as in Cambodia, Thailand and in Bali of Indonesia.