India’s Ancient Epics and Tales

The Indian subcontinent is also called South Asia and has not been politically united, although it is cohesive in its social and cultural practices. There is a distinct “cultural zone” within Asia, very different in art, language, population, religion, and ways of life.

The Prehistoric Origins of Indian Literature

The kinds of stories ancient Indian literature tells, the forms they take, and the themes they explore are connected to the subcontinent’s past before the appearance of historical records. The Indus-Harrappan people had a writing system of their own. The Indo-Aryan people began to arrive on the Indian subcontinent as early as 2000 B.C. They were originally nomadic and pastoral. Different sub-groups continually moved into new areas. Indo-Aryans settled in Punjab, and by the second millennium B.C., they had organized agrarian villages. Small family farms with animals have endured for over 3,000 years. The “holy cow” is an image that the Indo-Aryans created in their earliest poems on the subcontinent. Their language eventually became Sanskrit, the medium of the largest body of Indian literature, and was produced continuously from 1200 B.C. to 1800 C.E. Sanskrit is related to Greek and Latin: they share grammar, sentence structures, and common roots in the vocabulary. All three languages, along with ancient Persian, may have evolved from a single source called proto-Indo-European, a language presumably used by the ancestors of the Greeks, Romans, Indo-Iranians, and Indo-Aryans a few thousand years earlier.

There are connections among these scattered peoples. They worship pantheons of gods, establish social hierarchies, practice rituals and customs, and adopt political models that resemble each other. Songs, tales, and cycles of myths are similar. By the first millennium B.C., Greek, Sanskrit, and Latin were highly differentiated, so their emerging literatures developed along independent trajectories. They still contained remarkable echoes of one another.

Orality and Writing in India

The first works on the subcontinent were hymns and ritual formulas in Sanskrit including commentary and theological material gathered into four large groups called the Vedas. This work grew into an entire philosophy called the Upanisads. Developed between 1200 and 700 B.C., much of this work is considered scripture and revealed knowledge. The structure includes mantras, poetry and verse, but are viewed as divine knowledge passed down to humans from the gods. Since divine revelation and knowledge need to be explained to human audiences, the Vedas and the Upanisads engendered many works of authoritative and specialized commentary, compendiums and rule books. This all evolved into Hinduism.

The Hindu canon was transmitted orally. Specialist priests and scholars belonging to the brahmana caste are trained from early childhood and taught orally for 12 years. The scholars come to know the text backwards and forwards. Unlike a bard, a Vedic reciter communicates divine revelation, and hence is not free to invent, embellish, or err. Brahmi migrated rapidly across South Asia after 250 B.C. spawning what would eventually become, over the next 1,500 years or so, the dozen distinct script systems in which most of the languages of the region are recorded. Brahmi also migrated out of India and helped spawn more literature and reading. For more than a millennium, the principal form of a Sanskrit book was a palm-leaf manuscript.

Society, Politics, and Religion

The first Vedic hymns were likely composed in Punjab. The society was based around agriculture and cattle. Their political form was a small republic centered around an urban capital ruled by a lineage of hereditary monarchs. A couple centuries later there were larger kingdoms and armies. The Maurya dynasty established the subcontinent’s first empire. This evolving world was shaped by the religion we now call Hinduism. The universe is fashioned in a vast process of self-generation. All primordial substance is godhead itself. Godhead is the “god beyond god” and is absolute and undifferentiated original matter of the universe. It divides itself into everything that exists. It is eternal and indestructible, and hence has no beginning or end. Godhead is unknowable, unimaginable, and indescribable. God is everywhere and in everything: pantheism. Godhead is also called Purusa (spirit), but in the Upanisads it is renamed Brahman. There is the belief that this world will end when the godhead re-gathers itself together. Any life-form’s ultimate goal is to be reunited with absolute godhead; for an individual soul or atman, such a union with the elemental stuff of the universe is possible only if it can achieve moksa, or “liberation,” for its differentiated existence. Since godhead can take on countless forms, there cannot be any one true representation of divinity, so…polytheism: the belief that there are many gods. This is a fundamentally pluralistic religion, tolerant of the worship of many different gods in many different ways, and of the pursuit of divergent ways of life, each of which has the potential to discover a path to maksa for an individual atman.

The Religious Contexts of Epic and Tale

Valmiki’s Ramayana is classified as the first poem in Sanskrit. It emphasizes imaginative and aesthetic excellence outside a religious context. In this framework, Visnu is the “supreme god” who manifests all aspects of godhead. Vedic rituals and a social hierarchy were important. There were four main caste groups: priests, warriors, traders, servants/cultivators. The hierarchy was divinely ordained and immutable meaning that an individual cannot migrate from one caste to another. Legitimate spouses must belong to the same caste-group. Ramayana also depicts a society of villages and small republics in which dynasties of kings do not yet pursue imperial ambitions. They preserve the divine order: humans, animals, plants, demons, celestial beings, and gods.

In the Mahabharata the village society was a more complex urban world with dynastic kingdoms on the verge of imperial formations. There was the addition of “untouchables” and foreigners with each caste-group being differentiated into numerous specific castes. The Mahabharata explores multiple marriages and reproductive relationships, overlaying polygamy with polyandry and complicating issues of legitimacy, illegitimacy, and legacy by birth. There were more complex and varying views on how action can accord with divine law. Many judgments regarding the rightness and wrongness of particular actions founder in uncertainty.

The Bhagavad-gita, which is part of the Mahabharata, tackles the dilemmas of karma in the most difficult of situations: when is war just, how can violence and killing ever be justified, and under what circumstances can human beings even conceive of taking up arms against family and loved ones? The philosophical and theological arguments about the human and the divine, and about social and political organization, launched by the Indo-Aryans toward the end of the second millennium B.C., thus reach a poetic culmination in the encyclopedic structure of the Mahabharata a thousand years later.

By the 6th century B.C. there began to appear responses to the Hindu theology of Brahman and atman; the writers were Mahavira and Siddhartha-Gautama Buddha (who went on to launch Buddhism). Buddhism was more severely skeptical and atheistic. There is no god beyond god and no substantial reality. That we possess an enduring self is an illusion. The only end of life can be a “snuffing out” or extinction of illusory identity (nirvana) which is the opposite of what Hindus call moksa, the liberation of a substantial atman from a material body for reunification with the ultimate, primordial substance: Brahman. Buddhism does accept the reality of karma and rebirth: our illusory self is reborn numerous times because it believes it has a persistent identity. This delusion ends when the self reaches Enlightenment and extinguishing itself. Such a rejection of Hinduism finds a narrative exposition in the Jataka tales: part of the canon of Theravada Buddhism in the Pali language. It contains a playful irreverence and philosophical dissidence and is a profound cultural alternative to the heroic Hindu worlds. For most of the ancient period the Indian subcontinent was not politically united. Down to modern times, South Asia has come to be divided into seven nations. In ancient times Jainism and Buddhism were dissenting from Hinduism. Later, other faiths, such as Zoroastrianism, Christianity and Sikhism also saw their times.

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I'm a doctor of philosophy in Literary and Cultural Studies which makes me interested in everything! I possess special training in text analysis, African American literature, Women and Gender Studies, American lit, World Lit and writing. I work as an assistant professor of English in Memphis.

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