Historic facts about Mahabharata & Ramayana

Educated Indians, even the best of their kind, might not be able to tell correctly the historic facts about our great classics, our Vedas, Epics, Brahmanas, Sutras etc. Our education is at fault greatly. But more to the point, our traditional gurukula education was based on caste and as such the vast masses of non-Brahmin castes were left in total darkness about the classics.
One more contributing factor has been our tradition of popularisation of the epics, and their morals for the masses.

Prof. Arthur A Macdonell’s classic history published in 1900, still remains the best account of Sanskrit literature. No Indian can feel educated unless he or she has some knowledge of our own great classics. Excerpts. The history of ancient Indian literature naturally falls into two main periods. The first is the Vedic, which beginning perhaps as early as 1500 B.C., extends in its latest phase to about 200 B.C. In the former half of the Vedic age the character of its literature was creative and poetical, while the centre of culture lay in the territory of the Indus and its tributaries, the modern Panjab; in the latter half, literature was theologically speculative in matter and prosaic in form, while the centre of intellectual life had shifted to the valley of the Ganges.

The second period, concurrent with the final offshoots of Vedic literature and closing with the Muhammadan conquest after 1000 A.D. is the Sanskrit period strictly speaking. In various branches of scientific literature, in phonetics, grammar, mathematics, astronomy, medicine and law, the Indians also achieved notable results. In some of these subjects their attainments are, indeed, far in advance of what was accomplished by the Greeks. History is the one weak spot in Indian literature. It is, in fact, non-existent. The total lack of the historical sense is so characteristic, that the whole course of Sanskrit literature is darkened by the shadow of this defect, suffering as it does from an entire absence of exact chronology.

In the first place, early India wrote no history because it never made any. The ancient Indians never went through a struggle for life, like the Greeks in the Persian and the Romans in the Punic wars, such as would have welded their tribes into a nation and developed greatness. Secondly, the Brahmans, whose task it would naturally have been to record great deeds, had early embraced the doctrine that all action and existence are a positive evil, and could therefore have felt but little inclination to chronicle historical events. Such being the case, definite dates do not begin to appear in Indian literary history till about A.D.500.

The Mahabharata, which in its present form consists of over 100,000 slokas, equal to about eight times as much as the Iliad and Odyssey put together, is by far the longest poem known to literary history. It is conglomerate of epic and didactic matter divided into eighteen books called parvenus, with a nineteenth, the Harivamsa, as a supplement.

The epic kernel of the Mahabharata, or the `Great Battle of the descendants of Bharata,’ consisting of about 200,000 slikas, describes the eighteen days fight between Duryodhana, leader of the Kurus, and Yudhisthira, chief of the Pandus, who were cousins, both descended from King Bharata, son of Sakuntala. Within this narrative frame has come to be included a vast number of old legends about gods, kinds and sages; accounts of cosmogony and theogony; disquisitions on philosophy, laws, religion and the duties of the military caste.

Entire works are sometimes inserted to illustrate a particular statement. Thus, while the two armies are drawn up prepared for battle, a whole philosophical poem, in eighteen cantos, the Bhagavadgita, is recited to the hero Arjuna, who hesitates to advance and fight against his kin. Hence the Mahabharata claims to be not only a heroic poem (kavya), but a compendium teaching, in accordance with the Veda. A smrti or work of sacred tradition, which expounds the whole duty of man, and is intended for the religious instruction of all Hindus. There can be little doubt that the original kernel of the epic has as a historical background an ancient conflict between the two neighbouring tribes of the Kurus and Panchalas, who finally coalesced into a single people.

In the Yajurvedas these two tribes already appear united, and in the Kathaka King Dhrtarastra Vaicitravirya, one of the chief figures of the Mahabharata, is mentioned as a well known person. Hence the historical germ of the great epic is to be traced to a very early period, which cannot well be later than the tenth century B.C.
It thus at last assumed the character of a vast treatise on duty (dharma), in which the divine origin and immutability of Brahman institutions, the eternity of the caste system and the subordination of all to the priests, are laid down. When the Mahabharata attributes its origin to Vyasa, it implies a belief in a final redaction, for the name simply means `Arranger.’

In its present form the Ramayana consists of about 24,000 slokas and is divided into seven books. It has been preserved in three distinct recensions, the West Indian (A), the Bengal (B), and the Bombay (C). About one-third of the slokas in each recension occurs in neither of the other two. The Ramayana was treated as a regular kavya or artificial epic, of fate which the Mahabharata escaped because it early lost its original character, and came to be regarded as a didactic work. The careful investigations of Prof.Jacobi have shown that the Ramayana originally consisted of five books only.
The seventh is undoubtedly a later addition, for the conclusion of the sixth was evidently at one time the end of the whole poem. Again, the first book has several passages which conflict with statements in the later books.

We are told in the Ramayana itself that the poem was either recited by professional minstrels or sung to the accompaniment of a stringed instrument, being handed down orally, in the first place by Rama’s two sons Kusa and Lava. These names are nothing more than the inventions of popular etymology meant to explain the Sanskrit word kusilava `bard’ or `actor’. The new parts were incorporated before the three recensions which have come down to un arose, but a considerable time must have elapsed between the composition of the original poem and that of the additions. For the tribal hero of the former has in the latter been transformed into a national hero, the moral ideal of the people; and the human hero, (like Krishna in the Mahabharata) of the five genuine books (excepting a few interpolations) has in the first and last become deified and identified with the god Visnu, his divine nature in these additions being always present to the minds of their authors. Here, too, Valmiki, the composer of the Ramayana, appears as a contemporary of Rama, and is already regarded as a seer. A long interval of time must have been necessary for such transformations as these. As to the place of its origin, there is good reason for believing that the Ramayana arose in Kosala, the country ruled by the race of Iksvaku in Ayodhya (Oudh).

For we are told in the seventh book (canto 45) that the hermitage of Valmiki lay on the south bank of the Ganges; the poet must further have been connected with the royal house of Ayodhya, as the banished Sita took refuge in his hermitage, where her twin sons were born, brought up and later learnt the epic from his lips; and lastly, the statement is made in the first book (canto 3) that the Ramayana arose in the family of Iksvakus. In Ayodhya, then there must have been current among the court bards (suta) a number of epic tales narrating the fortunes of the Iksvaku hero Rama. The original part of the Ramayana appears to have been completed at a time when the epic kernel of the Mahabharata had not as yet assumed definite shape. For, while the heroes of the latter are not mentioned in the Ramayana, the story of Rama is often referred to in the longer epic.


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