The Literature Book (Big Ideas Simply Explained) (2016)
The great Sanskrit epics
3rd millennium BCE Vyasa writes the original version of the Mahabharata, in which he appears as a character.
c.1700–500 BCE The Vedas (the Rig Veda, Yajur Veda, Sama Veda and Atharva Veda) are composed in Sanskrit, and together constitute the first of the Hindu scriptures.
c.5th–4th century BCE According to tradition, Valmiki writes the Ramayana, using the sloka (meaning “song”) which becomes the standard Sanskrit verse form.
c.250 BCE–1000 CE A canon of Hindu texts known as the Puranas develops. It includes the genealogy of the deities and narratives of cosmology.
The epic poetry of the Indian subcontinent is among the oldest known literature, and it emerged from a long oral tradition of storytelling and reciting. As with other ancient literature, the tales are a mixture of mythology, legends, and historical events, which developed over centuries and were eventually written down.
In addition to this epic poetry, ancient Indian writing includes the Vedas, which are the central sacred texts of Brahminical Hinduism, recorded from around the middle of the 2nd millennium BCE. The Vedas and the poetry were written in Sanskrit, which was regarded as the common literary language of ancient India, and is the language from which many Indo-European languages evolved.
Up to the 1st century CE, Sanskrit literature was dominated by the Vedas and two great epic poems: the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Although the Ramayana contains historical narrative, mythology, and folktales, it appears to be an original work by a single poet, and is traditionally attributed to the sage Valmiki. In contrast, the Mahabharata, the better known and much longer of the two, has a more complex provenance, which suggests a long period of evolution.
"Poets have told it before, poets are telling it now, other poets shall tell this history on earth in the future."
A gift of Vishnu
The Mahabharata probably first took shape in the 9th century BCE and only reached its final form in around the 4th century BCE. The work is very long and comprises more than 100,000 verse couplets, known as shloka, divided into 18 books, or parvas. As well as recounting the story of two warring families, it tells of their history, and that of India and the Hindu religion that is integral to it. At the outset, the narrator of the first book, the Adi Parva (“The Book of the Beginning”), explains: “Whatever is here, is found elsewhere. But what is not here, is nowhere else.”
According to tradition, and as described in its opening section, the Mahabharata was written by a poet and wise man called Vyasa. Said to have lived in the 3rd millennium BCE, Vyasa was an avatar (incarnation) of the Hindu god Vishnu. The narrator of the greater part of the epic is Vyasa’s disciple Vaisampayana, but two other people also narrate sections: a minstrel-sage, Ugrasrava Sauti, and a courtier, Sanjaya.
Vaisampayana explains how Vyasa dictated the entire story to the elephant-headed god Ganesha in a single sitting. Subsequently, many years later, Vaisampayana’s story takes its final form as the Mahabharata when it is retold by Sauti to a meeting of Hindu sages, as described in the Adi Parva. This complicated nesting of frame narratives probably reflects the existence of different historical versions of the story before it took the shape we know today.
It is also typical of the way in which the historical, mythological, and religious intertwine throughout the Mahabharata. Although the central plot concerns the split in the ruling Bharata family of northern India, and the ensuing battle at Kurukshetra and its aftermath, the story is given a mythical dimension by the introduction of the character Krishna, another avatar of Vishnu. There are also numerous subplots, and several philosophical and religious digressions, one of which, the Bhagavad Gita, has become important in its own right. The epic explores themes of family ties and conflict, duty and courage, fate and choice, and presents them in a series of allegories to explain the elements of dharma, a complex concept of “correct conduct”.
The sage Vyasa dictates the epic Mahabharata, which means “Great Story of the Bharata”, referring to a ruling family of northern India. The scribe is elephant-headed god Ganesha.
After its explanatory preamble, the Mahabharata proper describes how the ruling clan of the Kuru becomes divided into two rival families, the Kaurava and the Pandava. These are the descendants of two princes, the blind Dhritarashtra and his brother Pandu. The enmity begins when Dhritarashtra is denied the throne because of his disability. Pandu becomes king instead, but a curse prevents him from fathering children. The gods, however, impregnate his wife and the line of Pandava seems safe. But the 100 sons of Dhritarashtra feel that they have a claim to the kingdom, and after Yudhishtira, the eldest Pandava, is crowned, they trick him into losing everything in a game of dice. In disgrace, the Pandavas are sent into exile.
Some years later, the five Pandava brothers return to claim the throne, and so starts the series of battles at Kurukshetra. The second son of Pandu, Arjuna, goes into war with his cousin and close companion Krishna as his charioteer, but only reluctantly joins the fight after Krishna persuades him that it is his duty to fight for what is right. The war turns out to be a bloodbath, in which almost all the Kauravas are slaughtered; the few who survive take their revenge on the Pandava troops by murdering them in their sleep. Only the five brothers survive the massacre, and they ensure the Kauravas are wiped out completely.
Yudhishtira becomes king again, but the victory is hollow and the poem goes on to detail the war’s awful aftermath. Krishna, or at least this particular incarnation of Vishnu, is accidentally killed, and the Pandavas begin their long, dangerous journey to heaven. Only at the very end are the brothers reunited, and reconciled with their cousins the Kauravas, in the spiritual world.
"Man is not the master of destiny, but a wooden doll that is strung on a string."
Arjuna’s desire to behave in accordance with dharma causes him to waver before acting, but his charioteer Krishna guides him on the path of correct conduct.
Dharma is a recurrent theme in the Mahabharata, both in terms of how this notion applies to each of us in every situation, and of how it is a difficult path to follow, because of human weaknesses and the force of fate. As Kripa – one of the Kauravas – says in the tenth book, Sauptika Parva (“The Book of the Sleeping Warriors”), “There are two forces: fate and human effort – all men depend on and are bound by these, there is nothing else”. What is right and wrong is seldom clear, and it is by reconciling conflicting interests such as love and duty that we can achieve liberation from the cycle of life, death, and rebirth.
In each of the Mahabharata’s episodes human strengths and weaknesses are contrasted, and the battle between right and wrong, writ large in the devastating war between the Kauravas and the Pandavas, is shown to be complex, subtle, and ultimately destructive. While most of the poem shows its characters dealing with moral dilemmas in their human affairs, in the final sections, and especially after the death of Krishna, we see them facing up to their spiritual fate. The story ends, after much tragedy and conflict, with the protagonists achieving eternal bliss, but also with the warning that the human struggles continue here on Earth.
Dhritarashtra reaches out blindly for his wife Gandhari, who has bound her eyes to share his darkened world. Bad actions in a previous life meant his disability was a consequence of karma.
The Mahabharata’s wide-ranging storyline and subject matter, built on favourite mythological and historical stories with a moral and religious message, have ensured the epic’s popularity up to the present day. Such was its success that for several centuries only the Ramayana could rival its claim to be the great Sanskrit epic. While it cannot match the Mahabharata for sheer scope and excitement, the Ramayana is more consistent and elegantly poetic, and together the two inspired a school of Sanskrit epic poetry that flourished from the 1st to the 7th centuries CE. As sources of Hindu wisdom and Indian history and mythology, the great epics enjoy a cultural value in India comparable with Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey in the West.
"When the Gods deal defeat to a person, they first take his mind away, so that he sees things wrongly."
The Bhagavad Gita
At the heart of the epic Mahabharata is the war at Kurukshetra, beginning with the sixth book, which includes a section now known as the Bhagavad Gita, the “Song of the Blessed”. Prior to battle, Arjuna, the Pandava prince, recognizes members of his family in the opposing Kaurava army, and lays down his bow. But his cousin and companion Krishna reminds him of his duty to fight this just war. The philosophical dialogue between them is described in the 700-verse Bhagavad Gita, which has become an important Hindu scripture in its own right, explaining such concepts as dharma (right conduct), karma (intentions and outcomes), and moksha (liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth). Although Krishna’s counsel is specific to Arjuna’s duty to fight, the battleground setting can be interpreted as a metaphor for the opposing forces of good and evil in general, and Arjuna’s crisis of conscience as representing the choices we all must make.
See also: The Epic of Gilgamesh • Iliad • One Thousand and One Nights • Ramayana • The Canterbury Tales • Midnight’s Children • A Suitable Boy