The Puranas and Epics – That Which is Remembered

The second category of Hindu sacred text is Smrti, “that which is remembered” of which the Puranas and the epics Mahabharata and Ramayana are the most influential. Many scholars believe them also to be the richest collections of mythology in the world.

The Puranas There are eighteen major Puranas and several minor ones, each composed of myths and legends of the gods and goddesses, hymns, an outline of ancient Indian history, cosmology, rules of life, rituals, instructions on spiritual matters. They date from 1500 BC in oral form to 500 AD in the written and are semi-sacred remembrances and interpretations which continue to evolve through scholarly debate up to the present day.

The most important Puranas, as they relate to sacred sculpture, are the Vishnu Purana, Shiva Purana and Markendeya Purana (The Goddess) and the Bhagavata Purana (Krishna). Other Puranas are Vayu, Agni, Skanda, Kalki, Lingam, all telling stories of the interaction between gods and between gods and mortals. These are the stories that bring the gods to life and render them relevant to the ordinary worshipper.

The Epics The Bhagavad Gita and The Ramayana, remain two of the most influential writings in Hinduism. They remain hugely popular today, and their impact upon Indian culture cannot be overstated (note 1).

The Mahabharata, or Great Epic of the Bharata Dynasty, is 1.8 million words divided into 18 books, or parvans, and the most substantial single work of literature in existence, and perhaps the most unstructured and chaotic (note 2). Elements of the Mahabharata may date back to pre-Vedic times around 800 BC, though it probably reached its final form about 500 AD, a time when Hinduism was moving from Vedic sacrificial ritual towards sectarianism with the growing popularity of Saivism, Vaishnavism and Shaktism. Tradition has the entire epic authored by the sage Vyasa, but it is unlikely the work of one individual (note 3).

The Bhagavad Gita or “Song of the Lord” is found in chapters 23 to 40 of Book VI of The Mahabharata. The Gita, as it is popularly known, is a priceless collection of divinely inspired metaphors with many levels of meaning. Perhaps composed around 100 BC, the Gita is relatively brief at 700 verses in 18 chapters and a little more than a fifth of the Mahabharata’s text. As to its other non-Gita content, the Mahabharata reveals early Vaisnava theology, particularly regarding Krishna, and a vast quantity of mythological and instructional material regarding dharma, the moral law supporting society and the universe, as well as svadharma, or individual dharma, which varies according to specific circumstances such as age, gender, place in society, or whether or not that person is seeking moksha or liberation from samsara and rebirth. The wisdom found within the Mahabharata is fundamental to Hindus as a guide to leading a virtuous life, which may be why it is often referred to as ‘The Fifth Veda”.

The Gita’s epic tale takes the form of a conversation between Prince Arjuna and Krishna, Vishnu’s seventh incarnation, on a battlefield before fighting commences (note 4). The battle will decide who will be the next king of Bharata (note 5), Arjuna’s brother or his paternal cousin. Arjuna is torn between his belief in non-violence (ahimsa) and his role as a warrior going into battle against his cousins, friends and teachers. He turns to his friend and charioteer, Krishna, for counsel (note 6) and as their conversation progresses, Krishna reveals himself as divine. Their discussion soon rises to a general discourse on theosophical matters with particular emphasis upon the importance of following one’s Dharma, or social duty. Krishna tells the warrior;

  •  he needs to remain faithful to his personal dharma, or svadharma,
  • Arjuna’s soul, or Atman, will not be destroyed when he dies,
  • his salvation depends upon his knowledge (jnana), work and devotion (Bhakti), and
  • Arjuna’s first loyalty is to God.

These points are expanded upon as the two friends discuss Arjuna’s ethical dilemma. Krishna tells him he must fight detached from the results of his actions and within the rules of the warriors’ dharma. Indeed, not to act according to one’s dharma is wrong. With the right understanding, one need not renounce actions but merely the desire (kama) for the fruits of actions, acting without desire (nishkama karma). Of course, Krishna isn’t speaking to only Arjuna; he is speaking to us all.

By directing Hindus to fulfil their dharma (“better one’s duty ill-done than another’s well-performed. Gita 3:35), the Bhagavadgita bridges the gap between ascetic practice as a path to liberation (Moksha), on the one hand, and life’s daily reality on the other. For those who must live in the world, the Bhagavad Gita gives a moral code and hope for final liberation (Moksha) from the endless cycle of birth, pointless life, death and rebirth. Because God is in all beings as their physical and metaphysical essence, and because God exists collectively in human society, a Hindu should see no difference between themselves and others. They should know that God’s presence in others obliges them to nurture the wellbeing of both individuals and society.

Krishna introduces the philosophy of Samkhya yoga where soul and matter are separate, therefore when the body dies, the Atman will either transmigrate through rebirth or, for those who understand The Vedas, achieve either union with God (Moksha) or extinction (Nirvana). Either way, they are liberated from the wheel of rebirth (Samsara).

Throughout their discussion, Arjuna begins to suspect his friend Krishna may be a god and asks his friend to reveal his true cosmic nature. Krishna gives Arjuna divine sight before assuming Vishvarupa, his universal form, with innumerable forms, eyes, faces, mouths and arms. He is the infinite universe, without beginning or end. Unable to bear the sight, and quaking with fear, Arjuna begs Krishna to return to his previous form, which the god consents to do, resuming his role as his friend.

With Prince Arjuna’s mind clear about what he must do, the battle commences and after culminating in a series of horrific struggles over 18 days on the field of Kurukshetra (about 100 miles northwest of present-day Delhi), only Arjuna, his four brothers and Krishna survive (note 7).

These few paragraphs are a gross oversimplification of Krishna’s contribution to Hinduism in the Gita, just as it unfairly glosses over a dramatic storyline and some very interesting participants. Here’s a link to the complete Bhagavad Gita;

The Ramayana. Tradition has the Ramayana composed by the poet Valmiki between 700 and 500 BC and consists of over 24,000 couplets divided into 500 or so chapters over seven books. The oldest copy was recently discovered and dates from the 6th century AD. Should you wish to read The Ramayana in English, The Beauty of the Valmiki Ramayana by Bibek Debroy is critically acclaimed.

The Ramayana tells the story of Rama, the 7th incarnation of Vishnu, who chose to be born into the powerful royal family of Ayodhya of north India. His stepmother, Kaikeyi, plots against him and, to settle a dispute over succession, Rama renounces his claim and accompanied by his bride, Sita, and younger brother Lakshmana, exile themselves from court, where the three live a simple life in the forest for fourteen years. One day Soorpanka, a rakshasa (demon princess), tries to seduce Rama. Lakshmana attacks her, cutting off her ears, nose and breasts. Soorpanka returns to her brother Ravana, the ten-headed ruler of Lanka and after hearing about Sita’s incomparable beauty, Ravana sends one of his demons disguised as a magical golden deer to entice her. Sita sees the deer and asks Rama to capture it for her as a pet. Rama agrees, but before he and Lakshmana leave to chase the deer, draw a protective circle around Sita and tell her, she will be safe as long as she does not step outside the circle. Rama and Lakshmana chase the deer for miles before realizing it’s a trap. After Rama and Lakshmana leave, Ravana appears as a holy man begging alms. The moment Sita steps outside the circle to give him food, Ravana grabs her and carries her off to his kingdom in Lanka. Over the next 14 months, Ravana attempts to seduce Sita but is spurned.

Naturally, Rama and Lakshmana set out to rescue Sita, and in the forests of Kikinda, meet Hanuman, the powerful general of a monkey army. Hanuman’s father is the wind which enables the monkey general to fly to Lanka and find Sita sitting in a grove. Hanuman comforts her, telling her Rama will soon come to save her. Ravana’s men capture Hanuman, and Ravana orders them to wrap Hanuman’s tail in cloth and to set it on fire. Hanuman escapes and, hopping from housetop to housetop, sets Lanka on fire before flying back to Rama with Sita’s whereabouts.

Rama, Lakshmana and Hanuman’s monkey army build a causeway from the tip of India to Lanka and cross over for an epic battle. Rama kills several of Ravana’s brothers and eventually confronts the ten-headed Ravana.

He kills Ravana and frees Sita but is concerned she has been unfaithful during her long captivity. As the dutiful wife, Sita undergoes a trial by fire to prove her chastity (note 8). Rama takes her back (note 9), and they return to rule Ayodhya.

Note 1 – In 1987-8, it is said that India came to a complete standstill whenever a TV episode of the Ramayana was aired.

Note 2 – In 1919 a project was undertaken by the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute to distill the available copies of The Mahabharata into one Critical Edition

Note 3 – One of the Mahabharata’s origin myths says the holy sage, Vyasa, dictated the Mahabharata to Ganesha, who, when his pen broke, snapped off the tip of one of his tusks to serve as a pen to keep the dictation flowing.

Note 4 – Scholars put the date of the battle at around 3000 BC, but this is conjecture as no evidence outside The Gita has been found. 

Note 5 – “Bharata” is synonymous with the term “India.” Indians will often think of themselves as a native of Bharata. 

Note 6 – Whenever demons threaten the stability of the social order, Vishnu incarnates down to earth as a mortal being. Arjuna, at this point, is unaware that his friend and charioteer is Vishnu’s seventh incarnation and therefore divine.

Note 7 – Remember, Krishna was born human and will therefore die. Which is exactly what happened 36 years after the battle when he is mistaken for a deer by a hunter. The arrow hits him in his only vulnerable spot, his heel, and if this sounds familiar, the same fate befell Achilles in Homer’s Illiad. The similarities between the two epics may not be coincidental; there was a great deal of back and forth between classical Greece and India, and it’s entirely possible a copy of The Gita was on Homer’s bookshelf. 

Note 8 – The fire sacrifice is very likely the oldest form of Vedic worship though rather than sacrificing humans, symbolic offerings were – and are – made instead. A possible exception could be the practice of suttee where a wife would immolate herself on her husband’s funeral pyre. Although never widely practiced, among the elites suttee was held to be the epitome of wifely devotion. Suttee has been linked to the myth of the goddess Sati, who burned herself to death in a fire she created through the heat of her yogic power after her father insulted her husband, Shiva. Sati was reborn as Uma/Parvati.

Note 9 – Sita’s role in the Ramayana has historically been held up as the feminine ideal; modest, chaste, innocent and dutiful. The cultural importance of this epic tale and other parables has moulded the feminine role in marriage and society at large for centuries. However, in modern India, Sita, as the wifely role model, is increasingly out of date though in the rural areas in particular there remains a very long way to go.