The Sanskrit Epics

by John Brockington

“Whatever is here concerning the four aims of mankind may be found elsewhere, but what is absent from here does not exist anywhere.” This assertion, which prefaces and concludes the Mahābhārata narrative (at 1.56.33 and 18.5.38), illustrates well the encyclopedic nature of the larger of the two Sanskrit epics in its present form. The two epics are indeed among the largest literary works in the world: the Mahābhārata, “the great story/war of Bharata’s descendants,” traditionally contains 100,000 verses and even the text established in the Critical Edition has nearly 75,000, while the other epic, the Rāmāyaa, “the journey/career of Rāma,” though less than a third as long, still contains almost 20,000 verses. However, these originally orally transmitted bardic poems have grown to this immense size over an extended period of time, from around the fifth century BCE to the fourth century CE by the usual reckoning, and in the process have gained substantial additions to their narratives and also – particularly in the case of the Mahābhārata– didactic elements, while their basically heroic ethos has been transformed into a religious outlook as a major figure in each came to be identified as an avatāra, “descent,” of Viṣṇu.











Manuscript illustration of the Battle of Kurukshetra

Originating in the period following that of the Vedic literature and reflecting the interests and concerns of the katriya aristocracy, the epics reveal much about the process by which the more theistic emphases of classical Hinduism emerged from late Vedic ritualism. Their origins may perhaps be traced to some of the ballads about gods and heroes recited within the overall context of Vedic rituals, but their real growth was owed to the bardic tradition which emerged at the courts of katriya rulers, where stories about the exploits of heroes were naturally welcomed. The framework stories of both epics present them as oral compositions and show the importance not only of the bard or reciter, but also of the audience in their transmission, while also setting them within the largest possible context. For the Mahābhārata, this means that the first 50 or so sections of its first book are concerned with the origins of the world and then the ancestry of the epic’s heroes. However, at some point around the middle of their main period of growth (possibly the first century CE), each epic was committed to writing and their transmission passed into the hands of the brāhmans, the main custodians by then of traditional values. These two developments may well be linked and have occurred simultaneously.

The basic plot of the Mahābhārata, which is traditionally ascribed to the sage Vyāsa, “the arranger,” concerns the struggle for control of the Kuru kingdom between two sets of cousins: the hundred sons of Dhṛtarāṣṭra, usually called the Kauravas, and the five sons of Pāṇḍu, the Pāṇḍavas. Both fathers have ruled in turn, so the line of succession to the throne is by no means clear and the rights of the situation are debatable. This leads eventually to open warfare between the cousins, although this is preceded by various events of which the most significant is the dicing match in which the oldest Pāṇḍava, Yudhiṣṭhira, first loses everything to the Kaurava champion and then the five brothers, along with their wife Draupadī, are exiled to the forest for 12 years, plus a further year to be spent undetected within society. After their return and the continued refusal by the Kauravas to reach an agreement, war becomes inevitable and, as the actual battle is about to begin, the third Pāṇḍava brother, Arjuna, confides to his friend Kṛṣṇa, chief of the Yādavas, his qualms about fighting the opposing side because they are his relatives. This is the setting for Kṛṣṇa’s sermon to him, the Bhagavadgītā, which has become the best known part of the whole epic. The battle itself, over 18 days, occupies the middle part of the epic (itself comprising 18 books) and is followed by the lamentations of the women, two lengthy books of advice to Yudhiṣṭhira by the dying Bhīṣma (the senior member of the family), and several shorter books narrating various events up to the end of the Pāṇḍavas’ lives.

Krishna, Arjuna at Kurukshetra, 18–19th century painting

Whereas the Mahābhārata has been regarded by several modern scholars as an exploration of the problems involved in establishing the nature of dharma and in applying it in particular situations, the Rāmāyaa is an affirmation of the centrality of dharma to all right endeavour. The Rāmāyaa ascribed to Vālmīki contains the story of prince Rāma and his adventures when exiled to the forest by the machinations of his step-mother; when Kaikeyīabruptly demands his banishment, Rāma accepts his father Daśaratha’s reluctant decree with absolute submission and with the calm self-control which regularly characterizes him. The narrative thus ranges from accounts of intrigue at Daśaratha’s court in Ayodhyāto wanderings among hermits in the forest, and culminates in the great battle for Laṇkā, when Rāvana, the king of the Rākṣasas, is punished for his abduction of Rāma’s wife, Sītā. In his search for Sītā, Rāma is helped by the monkey counselor, Hanumān, who becomes a much-loved figure as the story develops, because of his devotion to Rāma. The Rāmāyaa thus deals with some of the most basic themes of human existence and constitutes a powerful exploration of the concept of dharma.

Deity and Ritual

Within the narratives of both epics the older pattern of deities and of rituals based on sacrifice, leading to heaven (svarga), is more prominent, but the newer patterns of worship, usually seen as leading to liberation (moka), do also occur from time to time – and are then more predominant in the didactic parts. The deities alluded to or playing any part in the narrative are largely those of the Vedic pantheon. Indra is particularly prominent, both as the leader of the gods and as the performer of various heroic deeds (in particular the slaying of Vṛtra), among the gods mentioned in the Mahābhārata. In the story about the five Pāṇḍavas being actually fathered by the gods, Indra fathers Arjuna, the finest warrior among them. In the RāmāyaaRāma is compared most often with Indra and at the climax of the whole story, in his duel with Rāvana, he receives the help of Indra’s charioteer, Mātali. Yama appears quite often in similes and in various boastings by the warriors of the Mahābhārata, where his role in the older pantheon as the king of the dead makes this natural (a role that is at odds with the later concept of sasāra), and similarly in the Rāmāyaaa common formulaic expression refers to leading or sending warriors to Yama’s abode. The fire-god, Agni, also plays quite an appreciable role in the narrative of the Mahābhārataand, in a development of the basic narrative of the Rāmāyaa, he returns Sītāto Rāma with her purity vindicated by her passing through the fire. Even Varuṇa still appears as a lingering survival, mainly as the lord of the ocean but also in the notion that heroes are equal to Indra and Varuṇa. In general, the opposition between Devas and Asuras, their contests for supremacy and the myth of the churning of the ocean all show a Vedic or immediately post-Vedic pattern. Even in the allusions or episodes relating to Viṣṇu or Śiva there are still traces of the older pattern, with Viṣṇu, for example, still in some passages subordinate to Indra.

The religious activities mentioned within the main narratives also reveal a pattern which still reflects the Vedic situation to a large extent, while the actual narrative of the Mahābhārata is built around the rājasūya (in the dicing game and the other events of the second book) and around other rituals at various points; there are even occasional direct references to Vedic ritual officiants or the ritual itself in the narrative books. On the other hand, some late parts of the narrative provide the earliest instances of the practice of pilgrimage to tīrthas, which becomes such a feature of later Hinduism, while on occasion more popular beliefs, such as in omens and portents, are included. In the Rāmāyaa, the commonest rituals mentioned are the morning and evening worship, but sacrifice in general, various individual sacrifices and the sacrificial altar are all mentioned occasionally in the core narrative, although little detail is given. Significantly sanyāsa and related terms for renunciation do not occur within the Rāmāyaa, whereas it is found occasionally in the Mahābhārata; indeed, the various forest sages who feature in the Rāmāyaa narrative are clearly hermits (vānaprastha), not ascetics (sanyāsin). Another aspect in which the Rāmāyaaappears more archaic is that its earliest parts largely ignore the concept of sasāra, mentioning instead svarga, “heaven,” while both sasāra and karma do feature in parts of the Mahābhārata narrative.

By the middle of the period of growth of the epics, not only are Viṣṇu and Śiva becoming more significant but also the figure of Brahmābecomes important for a time, in the last century or two BCE and the first century or so CE. Basically Brahma¯ represents a fusion of the Upaniṣadic absolute, Brahman, with the concept of a creator deity, and so he is credited with some of the cosmogonic myths told in the later vedic period about Prajāpati. He is often called Pitāmaha, “grandfather,” or Svayaṃbhū, “self-born,” and he is especially linked with Brāhmans and ascetics (e.g. Mbh. 1.203). His main attribute is to distribute favours and particularly weapons to those who have pleased him by their ascetic penance, as he does in the Rāmāyaato both Rāvana and his son, Indrajit, although he does also on occasion utter curses. However, it is Brahmāwho leads the gods when they assemble at the end of the main Rāmāyaanarrative to reveal to Rāma his divinity (Ram. 6.105). There are possible hints of the classical trimūrti concept – which links Brahmā, Viṣṇu, and Śiva together rather arbitrarily – a couple of times in the Mahābhārata (12.328.17 and 13.14.183), but already in the later parts of the epics Viṣṇu and Śiva have totally eclipsed Brahma, just as the importance of Indra has significantly declined.

The complementarity of Viṣṇu and Śiva in the Mahābhārata is a feature which has been highlighted from a structuralist perspective by several scholars (Biardeau, Hiltebeitel, and others). Since both epics eventually become Vaiṣṇava works, the Vaiṣṇava aspects come to dominate, but this should not obscure the fact that Śiva plays an appreciable role in the Mahābhārata narrative: for example, he ordains that Draupadīshall have five husbands (1.157 and 1.189), Arjuna struggles with the Kirāṭa who is Śiva in disguise (3.38–41), Śiva goes before Arjuna in the battle killing those whom Arjuna will strike (7.173), and Aśvatthāman invokes Śiva before the night attack in which he murders the remaining Pāṇḍava forces (10.7). Not all of these fit the pattern of Śiva as the destroyer and Kṛṣṇa as the preserver so often posited (and in broad terms correctly so). Indeed, there are occasional references which link him with birth and fertility: in particular, Gāndhārīgained the boon of a hundred sons from him (1.103.9) and Sagara that of many sons (3.104). Śiva is less often mentioned in the Rāmāyaathan in the Mahābhārata, although he becomes more prominent in the first and last books, which extend the main narrative backwards (to the birth of Rāma and his brothers) and forwards (to Rāma’s righteous rule, rāmarājya, after the victory over Rāvana – whose previous exploits fill the first part of the last book – up to his final departure from this world).

The Mahābhārata

Within the narrative of the Mahābhārata, Kṛṣṇa plays a prominent but scarcely central role, one which nonetheless is enhanced as he comes to be seen as divine. the sanskrit epics 119To be exact, he appears in a dual role, as the Yādava chief who sides with the Pāṇḍavas and gives them frequently devious and unscrupulous advice, and as the supreme personal deity who only occasionally reveals his true identity (most notably, of course, to Arjuna in the Bhagavadgītā). This less than central position is to some extent modified in the 16th book, the Mausalaparvan or “Book of the Clubs,” which tells the story of the deaths of Kṛṣṇa and his half-brother Balarāma (also called Baladeva and Sam. karṣaṇa) and is then more fully remedied in the Harivaśa, “the dynasty of Hari” (i.e. Viṣṇu = Kṛṣṇa), composed during the second half of the period of growth of the Mahābhārata itself as a supplement to it; Kṛṣṇa’s centrality in the Harivaśa is in marked contrast to the Mahābhārata, where he stands aside from the central action. In the Mahābhārata narrative, Kṛṣṇa is most prominent in the preparations for war, when he acts as a negotiator on the Pāṇḍavas behalf with the Kauravas (e.g. 5.30 and 5.71) but appears as one of the strongest protagonists of the conflict, urging Yudhiṣṭhira on. So too, in the Bhagavadgītā (6.23–40), Kṛṣṇa encourages his friend Arjuna, for whom he has agreed to act as charioteer, to abandon his misgivings and to engage in the battle.

The inclusion of the Bhagavadgītā at this crucial point of the Mahābhārata narrative sets it firmly in the battle context and it is precisely the ethics of Arjuna’s position which is the starting point for Kṛṣṇa’s discourse, although as a whole it develops a philosophically and theologically significant message which ranges far beyond its immediate setting; that setting was, however, undoubtedly useful in securing it a much wider popular audience than was enjoyed by the Vedic literature and it seems clear that it was subsequently inserted within the Mahābhārata for just that reason. The contrast between Kṛṣṇa’s revelation of himself as the supreme deity and Arjuna’s casual familiarity with him in the rest of the epic is indeed striking. Kṛṣṇa begins his answer to Arjuna’s doubts by stressing the need to fulfil one’s role in society and asserting that, since the self (ātman) is eternal and indestructible, it does not die with the body and so, since death is not final, there is no need to grieve over the imminent deaths in battle. He then goes on to affirm that all activity is a sacrifice if undertaken correctly, in a spirit of detachment, thus incorporating both sacrifice and renunciation within the context of life in the world; actions as such have no particular effect, provided one acts without interest in the result, and indeed actions are in reality performed by the gun. as, the constituents of nature, which are completely separate from the ātman. Other themes which Kṛṣṇa explores are Brahman, the self-discipline of yoga, the nature of the supreme deity and his attributes, and loyal service (bhakti) to the deity; the Bhagavadgītā thus synthesizes into an overall theistic framework various strands of thought then current, while drawing most heavily on the Upaniṣads.

The climax of the Bhagavadgītā  comes in the theophany in the eleventh chapter, where Kṛṣṇa reveals to Arjuna his universal, terrifying form, which produces in Arjuna the response of humble adoration and penitence for his former casual attitude (soon to be resumed). In the remaining chapters, which contain a variety of topics, there is a gradual return to the theme of devotion or bhakti, which reaches its climax in Kṛṣṇa’s declaration of his attachment (bhakti) to Arjuna and the promise that by his grace he can be reached and entered into. This way of devotion is available to all, unlike the way of knowledge, which few can achieve, or the way of action without attachment, and so is superior to either. It is worth noting that Kṛṣṇa presents himself in the Bhagavadgītāas the supreme, identical to or more often superior to Brahman and that there is no real trace of his identification with Viṣṇu, either directly or as avatāra.

The substantial transformation in the view of Kṛṣṇa which we find in the Harivaśa (which revolves around the figure of Kṛṣṇa) is undoubtedly one of the most pivotal innovations in the history of Hinduism. Here for the first time is presented Kṛṣṇa the child hero of the forests in Vṛndāvana and protector of cows, the figure who over the centuries is to become the adorable infant, the cowherd and the lover of the cowgirls (gopīs). Although there may be occasional hints of this facet of his nature in the Mahābhārata(but this is debatable), the Harivaśa provides the first connected account of this and other aspects of his life, such as the taming of the water snake Kāliya (55–6), his lifting of Mount Govardhana in defiance of Indra, whose continuing decline is still more marked in other episodes (60–1), the killing of his evil uncle Kaṃsa (72–76), the attack on Mathurāby Jarāsaṃdha (80–2) and the move from Mathurāto the new city of Dvārakā(84 and 93). Equally, his older brother Balarāma, who appears in only a minor role in the Mahābhārata, is now a much more important figure and there is much about the youthful exploits of the two brothers. The other members of their clan are still presented in the Harivaśa as being generally ignorant of Kṛṣṇa’s divine nature, in which it contrasts with later narrations in, for example, the Viṣṇuand Bhāgavata Purān. as.

The Rāmāyaa

In the RāmāyaaRāmais, of course, central and its portrayal of him as the katriya ideal or prince and warrior prompts the understanding of Rāmaas an avatāra of Viṣṇuand eventually as supreme deity himself precisely through dharma; an alternative view stresses the theme of the divine king in Indian thought as the key to Rāma’s divinity (on this view, present from the earliest phases of the epic). In the core narrative, the second to sixth books, Rāmais presented as the outstanding martial figure (often compared to Indra, the divine warrior) whose adherence to ethical values is equally outstanding (he is frequently called “the best of upholders of dharma”), a basically human but exemplary figure. As his moral elevation is emphasized, various episodes of the original story receive a moralistic gloss, in order to eliminate the possibility of moral lapses on his part; so, for example, his killing of the vānara chief Vālin while the latter is fighting his brother Sugrīva, with whom Rāmahas made a pact, is given an elaborate justification, as are his martial activities to protect the hermits while they go about their religious activities (basically in terms of his the sanskrit epics 121duty as a prince to uphold law and order). Similarly, the comparison with Indra gives way to an identification with Viṣṇu, first seen at the conclusion of the sixth book – a later expansion – where various gods, led by Brahmā, gather to reveal his divinity to Rāma(6.105). This recognition is, however, expressed in terms of identity and not yet as incarnation.

The increasing veneration shown to Rāma is then reflected in the first and seventh books, which include not only material presenting Rāma as divine but also narratives enhancing the status of his opponent Rāvana and so indirectly of Rāma, the only person able to defeat him. The purpose of the first book is to narrate Rāma’s birth, youthful exploits, and marriage, and generally to provide a framework for the narrative; at the gods’ request, Viṣṇu agrees to become incarnate as Daśaratha’s four sons as the only means of destroying Rāvana, the evil king of Laṇkā. The last book is set in Ayodhyāafter Rāma’s victorious return to rule in Ayodhyābut the first half details Rāvana’s genealogy and his misdeeds before his encounter with Rāma (making him into an adversary of the gods), while the rest of the book deals with events after Rāma’s installation; these include Rāma reluctantly ordering Sītā’s exile to Vālmīki’s hermitage (placing public opinion above his own feelings for his wife) and the birth of the twins, Kuśa and Lava, at Vālmīki’s hermitage. Eventually, after a long and prosperous reign, described in ideal terms, Rāma settles the kingdom on his sons and publicly immolates himself in the river Sarayu (thus returning to his form as Viṣṇu).

Whereas the Mahābhāratanarrative of Kṛṣṇawas next developed in a supplement to it, the Harivaśa, the account of Rāmain the Rāmāyaṇais developed in the Purāṇas and in the later Sanskrit Rāmāyaṇ. as. Thus, for example, the KūrmaPurān. a account contains the important theological development of the illusory Sītācreated by Agni before she is seized by Rāvaṇa, thus safeguarding the real Sītā’s purity; this motif then occurs also in the Adhyātma Rāmāyaa, Tulsīdās’s Rāmcaritmānas and elsewhere. The later Sanskrit Rāmāyaas give a Vedāntin slant to the emerging bhakti emphasis; the Yogāvasiṣṭha, though claiming to be by Vālmīki, also asserts that it is the twelfth telling of the story and lays considerable stress on Rāmaas a liberated being (jīvanmukta) in a unique blend of abstract philosophy and vivid narrative, while the Adhyātma Rāmāyaateaches a form of Advaita Vedānta combined with belief in Rāma’s saving grace and also incorporates the Rāmagītā, perhaps the first significant attempt to give Rāmaa teaching role analogous to Kṛṣṇa’s. Already in the Adhyātma Rāmāyaawe see a motif which is common in many later retellings, that those killed by Rāmaare thereby blessed. The first version of the Rāmāyaṇa in a regional language is Kampaṉ’s Tamil Irāmāvatāram, appearing in the wake of the impassioned bhaktipoetry of the Āḻvārs; already in this there is something of the emphasis on the name of Rāmawhich becomes so significant later. In North India, the first major adaptation is that into Bengali by Kr. ttibās but the Hindi Rāmcaritmānas of Tulsīdās has become much the best known, notable for its vision of Rāma’s righteous rule and the saving power of his name, as well as for its use as the base text for the Rāmlīlā, a dramatic enactment of the story staged annually by local communities across much of North India.

Doctrinal Developments

Kṛṣṇaand Rāmaare the most widely worshipped of the avatāras of Viṣṇubut the avatāra concept as such only begins to emerge in the later stages of development of the epics, even though the Bhagavadgītā is commonly regarded as proclaiming the basic rationale for Viṣṇu’s “descents,” when Kṛṣṇadeclares that he incarnates himself in age after age to destroy the wicked and to protect the righteous (4.5–8). Indeed, didactic parts of the Mahābhāratalist just four or six of Viṣṇu’s “manifestations” (prādurbhāva, the term it uses rather than the later term avatāra), while the Rāmāyaṇashows no awareness of the concept. The fish, matsya, which saved Manu from a great deluge is identified with Brahmāin the Mahābhārata(3.195), just as in the Rāmāyaṇa(6.105) the boar which raises the earth from the waters is Brahmā; their identification with Viṣṇucomeslater. The exploits of Rāma Jāmadagnya (later known more commonly as Paraśurāma) are given some prominence in the Mahābhārataand he also occurs in an episode in the first book of the Rāmāyaṇawhere he is worsted by the young Rāma Dāśarathi. The Mahābhārataalso lists Vāmana, the dwarf, and Narasiṃha (12.326 and 337) and predicts the future avatāra, Kalkin (3.188–9). In the version of the Vāmana myth found in the Rāmāyaṇa (1.28.2–11), Viṣṇupresents the three worlds that he has regained to Indra, who by implication is still superior to him.

The lists of Viṣṇu’s manifestations occur within the didactic portions (primarily books 12–13) which also contain a significant amount of material relating to the emergence of Vaiṣṇavism as such, as well as a certain amount of broadly philosophic material. The process of fusion of Nārāyaṇa with Viṣṇuis under way by now; whereas the story of Mārkaṇd.eya entering the mouth of Nārāyaṇa and seeing the whole universe inside his body (3.186) uses only the name Nārāyaṇa and there is no hint of his identity with Viṣṇuor KṛṣṇaVāsudeva, in the Nārāyaīya (12.321–39) from chapter 328 onwards the name Viṣṇuis often used instead of Nārāyaṇa, while elsewhere it is often stated that Arjuna and Kṛṣṇaare Nara and Nārāyaṇa, who are ancient ṛṣis, sages, and also divine beings noted for the eternality and perfection of their friendship. The Nārāyaīya is the main but relatively late passage (probably no earlier than the third century CE) on worship of Nārāyaṇa and is clearly a composite text: the first six chapters form a complex sequence of emboxed narratives, while the remaining chapters contain a series of subsequent expansions. With its doctrine of the fourfold nature of the supreme being, it presents the formative stages of the Pāñcarātra system, which appears to have stood somewhat outside the mainstream of orthodoxy.

The text declares that the supreme deity Nārāyaṇa is gracious to those who are single-mindedly devoted to him and that they attain the highest goal, which is Vāsudeva, thus bringing into relationship with Nārāyaṇa the name Vāsudeva which is elsewhere regarded as a patronymic of Kṛṣṇa. Nārāyaṇa explains to his devotee, the ancient seer Nārada, that Vāsudeva is the supreme purua, the inner the sanskrit epics 123 ruler of everyone, Nārāyaṇa himself being the ordainer of the universe and thecreator. Much of the first six chapters of the text presents the doctrine of theinaccessibility of the supreme deity through the story of Nārada’s journey to amysterious white continent, śvetadvīpa, inhabited by white beings who worshipNārāyaṇa, who is invisible to all except his exclusive devotees. The worshippersare called by various names, Bhāgavata, Sātvata, Ekāntin, and Pāñcarātra (thevariety no doubt indicating the existence of differing groups, the Bhāgavatasno doubt being the worshippers of Kṛṣṇaas bhagavat, the lord), and overallthe impression is of several originally separate trends that are in the processof merging.

Doctrinally too the Nārāyaīya shows a blend of Upaniṣadic monism, dualistic elements similar to Sāṃkhya and Yoga, and Brāhmanical ritualism, with the devotional worship of a personal deity – through a synthesis of several separate passages – and assigning a higher value to ritual and asceticism than in the comparable synthesis presented in the slightly earlier Bhagavadgītā. Virtually every mention of the term Pāñcarātra occurs within the Nārāyaīya, which is also the only part of the Mahābhāratawhere the theory of the vyūhas, the divine expansions, is presented in detail. This represents an adaptation of the story of Kṛṣṇaand his relatives to a cosmogonic perspective. Beneath Viṣṇu-Nārāyaṇa, the immutable ultimate deity, are the four vyūhas, who take charge of creation: Vāsudeva, presented as superior to the other three, gives rise to Saṃkarṣaṇa, from whom emanates Pradyumna (who, however, in the Yādava lineage is Kṛṣṇa’s son), who in turn fathers Aniruddha. After this the gross creation commences through the agency of Brahmā, but all activity belongs to the four divine forms, who are also assimilated to the tattvas, constituent principles of Sāṃkhya. This theory seems to have evolved around the first to second century CE concurrently with the avatāra theory, which in the long run becomes more popular. Although the developed Pāñcarātra system is mainly concerned with ritual practice, there is surprisingly little about this aspect in the Mahābhārata.

Sākhya and Yoga

These two long books of the Mahābhāratain which Bhīṣma propounds his advice to Yudhiṣṭhira contain a substantial amount of teaching which can broadly be called philosophical, of which the largest part is related to the later Sāṃkhya and Yoga systems, but there are also passages relating to a number of other approaches; these are mostly to be found in the third section of the Śāntiparvan, called the Mokadharmaparvan (12.168–353). In addition, there are similar passages elsewhere in the Mahābhārata, most obviously the Bhagavadgītā, but also the recapitulation of it which Kṛṣṇadelivers to Arjuna after the battle (the Anugītā, 14.16–50), an early such passage attributed to the mythical sage Sanatsujāta (the Sanatsujātīya, 5.43–5) and a few others. In contrast, neither Sāṃkhya nor Yoga occur in the Rāmāyaṇa. While in the Mahābhāratathe concept 124 john brockingtonof karma as the determinant of human destiny is on the whole the dominant one, the prevalence of other views about this, not uncommonly in the narrative and even occasionally in the didactic parts, is worth noting. In various passages fate (daiva, etc.), time, death, nature and one’s own nature are each regarded as the supreme principle; ideas were still evidently in flux and indeed we see here the more popular equivalent of the ferment of ideas recorded in the Upaniṣads.

More traditional practices are still advocated and even deliberately contrasted with the philosophical approaches labeled Sāṃkhya and Yoga (which in any case are emerging trends rather than definite systems – the terms may at times mean no more than theory and practice respectively) or with developing Vaiṣṇava theism. For example, in one passage (12.189–93), Bhīṣma declares that japa, the murmuring of Vedic verses, constitutes a way of life belonging to the Vedic tradition and distinct from Sāṃkhya and Yoga – which he has treated successively in the two preceding chapters – and he emphasizes that someone practicing japaselflessly is equal to a Yogin in achievements; the passage is clearly intended to defend this traditional practice from the challenge of the newer ideas. Again, immediately after the Nārāyaīya – and so in implicit contrast to it – comes an episode designed to extol the merits of living on the grain gleaned after harvest (12.340–53, cf. 3.245–7). Other passages tackle the emerging ethical and religious issues of nonviolence (ahisā), vegetarianism, and veneration of the cow (e.g. 12.253–6, 257, 260–2 and 264, and 13.115–17).

Several teachers are cited in the Mokadharmaparvan as teaching some form of Sāṃkhya, but the doctrines attributed to them vary and are not necessarily specific to Sāṃkhya; three of these teachers are often referred to later as important precursors of the developed system (Kapila, Āsuri, and Pañcaśikha). However, most epic descriptions of Sāṃkhya are not by Sāṃkhya teachers but report their views. Although consequently these passages are not primary sources for knowledge about the system, they do include ideas then current and may well have been composed during the period when Sāṃkhya schools were emerging. Indeed, Sāṃkhya had not assumed its later distinctive shape even by the end of the epic period; the nearest approach to the classical system is found in the very late Anugītā, which also incorporates significant Yoga elements. One early passage (12.187 ª 12.239–40) contains a synthesis of ancient cosmological speculations and yogic theories of evolution. Other passages mention three types of Sāṃkhya thinkers – those who accept just 24 categories, those who accept 25, and those who accept 26, the last being the supreme deity – but mostly the versions of Sāṃkhya found in the Mahābhārataare nontheistic, unlike Yoga. The clearest theistic version is found in the Bhagavadgītā.

Yoga and yogins occur quite widely in the Mahābhāratain contexts which suggest a wider and to some extent a different understanding of the terms than that found in classical Yoga. Also, the older practice of tapas and that of Yoga are often linked (but are often seen just as effective means to gain worldly ends). However, by the time of the Nārāyaīya, tapas and Yoga are both being subordinated to bhakti, with Nārāyan. a identifying himself as the goal of Yoga proclaimed in Yoga texts (12.326.65), while the juxtaposition of Sāṃkhya and Yoga the sanskrit epics 125has become a commonplace in the Nārāyaīya, whereas they are more distinct and even contrasted in earlier passages. In all the Yoga passages there is a strong emphasis on discipline and control of the senses; the supernatural powers to which they lead should be avoided by the true Yogin, for the proper goal is the attainment of the state of Brahman or union with the one. Yoga practice, as presented in the Mahābhārata, comprises four main aspects of general preparations through moral conduct; diet, posture and surroundings; breath-control; and withdrawal of the senses, concentration and meditation. Although īśvara, the supreme deity, is recognized, he is not active and tends to be equated with the self in its enlightened state. Two striking aspects of Yoga in the Mahābhārataare the concern with techniques of dying and the use of the imagery of light. These are sometimes combined as in the death of Drona, where he resorts to Yoga, becomes a light, and ascends to heaven, so that it seems to those below that there are two suns in the sky (7.165.35–40).

In addition to this more obviously philosophical material in its third section, the Śāntiparvan also contains in its first two sections much material that, in the context of its broadly practical purpose, also has religious implications. These two sections focus on and take their names from the duties of kings, rājadharma, and what is allowable in hard times, āpaddharma, both incorporating the term dharma with its meanings of morality and tradition. The second in particular has had considerable influence on later Hinduism through its accommodation of theory – for example, that Brāhmans should only teach – with actual practice – that in reality they follow a wider range of occupations in order to earn a living.

Later Influence

The influence of the epics on later Hinduism, and more generally on Indian culture as a whole, is shown not only by the summaries of the stories of Rāmaand Kṛṣṇain the Purāṇas and by the later Sanskrit Rāmāyaṇas that have already been briefly mentioned but also in pure literature, art and theatre right up to the present day. Indeed, the impact extends more widely still, since the Jain universal history makes the Kṛṣṇastory a model for much of its structure, while versions of the Rāmastory are found in both Buddhist and Jain texts in India and spread throughout Southeast Asia and as far as China and Japan, with the story on occasion being localized in the individual cultures (this is seen most obviously in Thailand, where the Thai kings were frequently called Rāma and the Thai capital was named Ayutthiya after Rāma’s Ayodhyā), and many plays on the Rāmaand Pāṇḍavastories are performed in the Wayang Kulit puppet theatre of Java. The plots of much of classical Sanskrit literature are drawn from one or other of the epics (and even now modern Indian writers not infrequently draw on them). Sculptural representations are found on temples in North India from perhaps as early as the fifth century CE and one of the most famous examples of South Indian art is the carving, covering a massive granite outcrop, of Arjuna’s Penance or the Descent of the Gaṇgāfrom the Mahābhāratacarved at Māmallapuram in the middle of the seventh century. Scenes drawn specifically from the Mahābhārataand Rāmāyaṇa (not simply of the Rāmaand Kṛṣṇastories) are carved on the outer walls of temples in many regions and at many periods. Miniature painters in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries frequently illustrated episodes from the epics, under both Mughal and Rājput patronage, with several complete illustrated manuscripts being produced, some on a very lavish scale.

Adaptations of both epics into modern Indian languages were commonly among the first significant works to be produced in each language; in all of these adaptations the religious aspects are given greater prominence and the original heroic emphasis is correspondingly reduced. The earliest examples come from the Dravidian languages of South India but in due course, from about the fifteenth century, adaptations in the languages of North India followed. Their importance to the culture as a whole is clearly demonstrated by the fact that the great Mughal emperor Akbar commissioned translations of both into Persian in

the 1580s as part of his strategy for understanding his subjects, just as the guru of the Marāṭhīnationalist leader, Śivājī, used the Rāmāyaastory in the service of Marāṭhānationalism against Muslim rule in the seventeenth century. The popularity of the serializations shown on Indian television (the Rāmāyaa in 1987–8, the Mahābhārata in 1989–90) and subsequently made available on video (and so accessible to Hindus abroad as well) has been enormous, but one of the most striking features about them was the extent to which their format was dictated by traditional religious values and thus the viewing of them was treated as a form of worship; much of the style and presentation of the Rāmāyaaserial was based on that of the Rāmlīlā, that traditional community-based dramatic presentation of the story which is performed annually in so many locations across North India and which has clearly played so major a part in the popularity of the Rāmastory and in particular in its broad appeal beyond sectarian boundaries. It is no surprise, therefore, that various political parties have appropriated the Rāmastory and in particular the concept of rāmrāj (rāmarājya, Rāma’s righteous rule) for their own purposes, from the Ram Rajya Parishad through to the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Ramjanmabhumi agitation.

As the vital link between the Vedas, commonly regarded as the source of authority within Hinduism, and the popular forms of Hinduism first found in the Purāṇas and still current today, the two Sanskrit epics have played a significant role in shaping that family of religions. The designation of the Mahābhārata as the “fifth Veda” makes a claim both to continuity and to the authoritativeness of the Vedas – an authority which also includes a claim to comprehensiveness (as in the assertion quoted at the beginning of this chapter). This continuity is also implicit in the belief that the Mahābhārata was first recited by Vyāsa (“arranger”), the sage whom tradition regards as the compiler of the Vedas and often the composer of the Purāṇas. The equivalent for the Rāmāyaa is the tradition, recorded late in its development at the beginning of the first book, that its author Vālmīki is granted a vision of Brahmā, the creator deity, who the sanskrit epics 127 commissions him to compose the story of the ideal person, Rāma, just identified as such by the sage Nārada.

This continuity lies not only in the extended period over which both epics were growing to their present dimensions but also in the way that both were taken up by all succeeding periods both culturally and religiously, so that they have become part of the very fabric of the culture. Indeed, they have been used not only in support of traditional orthodoxy, as one might expect, but also by many marginalized groups who have found a special affinity with one of their characters; for example, Sītā’s trials have enabled women to air the problem of a husband’s neglect, Rāvana’s defiance of the establishment has been glorified by some South Indians and some outcaste groups, and Vālmīki has become central to the beliefs of one untouchable group. Such selective appropriation of the epic narratives serves to underline both their richness and their flexibility. Yet the position of the epics within Hindu culture is even more basic than that: A. K. Ramanujan’s assertion that no Indian ever hears the Rāmāyaṇa story for the first time conveys the very real truth, applicable to both epics, that their stories and their characters are integral to every Hindu’s consciousness.


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