The Maha-Bharata And Ramayana
( Originally Published 1939 )
ANCIENT INDIA, like ancient Greece, boasts of two great Epics. The Maha-Bharata, based on the legends and traditions of a great historical war, is the lliad of India. The Ramayana, describing the wanderings and adventures of a prince banished from his country, has so far something in common with the Odyssey.
The scene of the Maha-Bharata is the ancient kingdom of the Kurus, which flourished along the upper course of the Ganges; and the historical fact on which the Epic is based is a great war which took place between the Kurus and a neighbouring tribe, the Panchalas, in the thirteenth or fourteenth century before Christ.
According to the Epic, Pandu and Dhritarashtra, who was born blind, were brothers. Pandu died early, and Dhrita-rashtra became king of the Kurus, and brought up the five sons of Pandu along with his hundred sons.
Yudhishthir, the eldest son of Pandu, was a man of truth and piety; Bhima, the second, was a stalwart fighter; and Arlun, the third son, distinguished himself above all the other princes in arms. The two youngest brothers, Nakula and Sahadeva, were twins. Duryodhan was the eldest son of Dhrita-rashtra and was jealous of his cousins, the sons of Pandu. A tournament was held, and in the course of the day a warrior named Karna, of unknown origin, appeared on the scene and proved himself a worthy rival of Arjun. The rivalry between Arjun and Karna is the leading thought of the Epic, as the rivalry between Achilles and Hector is the leading thought of the lliad.
It is only necessary to add that the sons of Pandu, as well as Karna, were, like the heroes of Homer, god-born chiefs. Some god inspired the birth of each. Yudhishthir was the son of Dharma, or Virtue, Bhima of Vayu or Wind, Arjun of Indra or Rain-god, the two youngest were the sons of the Aswin twins and Karna was the son of Surya. the Sun, but was believed by himself and by all others to be the son of a simple chariot-driver.
The Ramayana, like the Maha-Bharata, is a growth of centuries, but the main story is more distinctly the creation of one mind. Among the many cultured races that flourished in Northern India about a thousand years before Christ, the Kosalas of Oudh and the Videhas of North Behar were perhaps the most cultured. Their monarchs were famed for their Iearning as well as for their prowess. Their priests distinguished themselves by founding schools of Iearning, which were known all over India. Their sacrifices and gifts to the learned drew together the most renowned men of the age from distant regions. Their celebrated Universities (Parishads) were frequented by students from surrounding countries. Their compilations of the old Vedic Hymns were used in various parts of India. Their elaborate Brahmanas or Commentaries on the Vedas were handed down from generation to generation by priestly families. Their researches into the mysteries of the Soul, and into the nature of the One Universal Soul which pervades the creation, are still preserved in the ancient Upanishads, and are among the most valuable heritages which have been left to us by the ancients. And their researches and discoveries in science and philosophy gave them the foremost place among the gifted races of ancient India.
It would appear that the flourishing period of the Kosalas and the Videhas had already passed away and the traditions of their prowess and learning had become a revered memory in India, when the poet composed the great Epic which perpetuates their fame. Distance of time lent a higher lustre to the achievements of these gifted races and the age in which they flourished appeared to their descendants as the Golden Age of India. To the imagination of the poet, the age of the Kosalas and Videhas was associated with all that is great and glorious, all that is righteous and true. His description of Ayodhya, the capital town of Kosalas, is a description of an ideal seat of righteousness. Dasa-ratha, the king of the Kosalas, is an ideal king, Iabouring for the good of a Ioyal people. Rama, the eldest son of Dasaratha and the hero of the Epic, is an ideal prince, brave and accomplished, devoted to his duty, unfaltering in his truth. The king of the Videhas, Janak, is a monarch and a saint. Sita, the daughter of Janak and the heroine of the Epic, is the ideal of a faithful woman and a devoted Wife. A pious reverence for the past pervades the great Epic; a lofty admiration of what is true and ennobling in the human character sanctifies the work; and delineations of the domestic life and the domestic virtues of the ancient Hindus, rich in hearts of and pathos, endear the picture to the tenderness the people of India to the present day.
It is probable that the first connected narrative of this Epic was composed within a few centuries after the glorious age of the Kosalas and the Videhas. But the work became so popular that it grew with age. It grew, not like the Maha-Bharata by the incorporation of new episodes, tales and traditions, but by fresh descriptions of the same scenes and incidents. Generations of poets were never tired of adding to the description of scenes which were dear to the Hindu, and patient Hindu listeners were never tired of listening to such repetitions. The virtues of Rama and the faithfulness of Sita were described again and again in added lines and cantos. The grief of the old monarch at the banishment of the prince, and the sorrows of the mother at parting from her son, were depicted by succeeding versifiers in fresh verses. The loving devotion of Rama's brothers, the sanctity of saints, and the peacefulness of the hermitages visited by Rama, were described with endless reiteration. The long account of the grief of Rama at the loss of his wife, and stories of unending battles waged for her recovery, occupied generations of busy interpolators.
The foregoing account of the genesis and growth of 'the Ramayana will indicate in what respects it resembles the Maha-Bharata, and in what respects the two Indian Epics differ from eale other. The Maha-Bharata grew out of the Iegends and traditions of a great historical war between the Kurus and the Panchalas; the Ramayana grew out of the recollections of the golden age of the Kosalas and the Videhas. The characters of the Maha-Bharata are characters of flesh and blood, with the virtues and crimes of great actors in the historic world; the characters of the Ramayana are more often the ideals of manly devotion to truth, and of womanly faithfulness and Iove in domestic life. The poet of the Maha-Bharata relies on the real or supposed incidents of a war handed down from generation to generation in songs and ballads, and weaves them into an immortal work of art; the poet of the Ramayana conjures up the memories of a golden age, constructs lofty ideals of piety and faith, and describes with infinite pathos domestic scenes and domestic affections which endear the work to modern Hindus. As a heroic poem the Maha-Bharata stands on a higher IeveI; as a poem delineating the softer emotions of our everyday life the Ramayana sends its roots deeper into the hearts and minds of the millions in India.
And yet, without rivalling the heroic grandeur of the Maha-Bharata, the Ramayana is immeasurably superior in its delineation of these softer and perhaps deeper emotions which enter into our everyday life, and hold the world together. And these descriptions, essentially of Hindu life, are yet so true to nature that they apply to all races and nations.
There is something indescribably touching and tender in the description of the love of Rama for his subjects and the loyalty of his people towards Rama, that IoyaIty which has ever been a part of the Hindu character in every age.
Deeper than this was Rama's duty towards his father and his father's fondness for Rama; and the portion of the Epic which narrates the dark scheme by which the prince was at last torn from the heart and home of his dying father is one of the most powerful and pathetic passages in Indian literature. The stepmother of Rama, won by the virtues and the kindliness of the prince, regards his proposed coronation with pride and pleasure, but her old nurse creeps into her confidence like a creeping serpent, and envenoms her heart with the poison of her own wickedness. She arouses the slumbering jealousy of a woman and awakens the alarms of a mother.
The nurse's dark insinuations work on the mind of the queen till she becomes a desperate woman, resolved to maintain her own influence on her husband, and to see her own son on the throne. The determination of the young queen tells with terrible effect on, the weakness and vacillation of a feeble old monarch, and Rama is banished at last. And the scene closes with a pathetic story in which the monarch recounts his misdeed of past years, accepts his present suffering as the fruit of that misdeed, and dies in agony for his banished son.
The inner workings of the human heart and of human motives, the dark intrigue of a scheming dependent, the awakening jealousy and alarm of a wife and a mother, the determination of a woman and an imperious queen, and the feebleness and despair and death of a fond old father and husband, have never been more vividly described. Shakespeare himself has not depicted the workings of stormy passions in the human heart more graphically or more vividly, with greater truth or with more terrible power.
It is truth and power in the depicting of such scenes, and not in the delineation of warriors and warlike incidents, that the Ramayana excels. It is in the delineation of domestic incidents, domestic affections and domestic jealousies, which are appreciated by the prince and the peasant alike, that the Ramayana bases its appeal to the hearts of the million in India. And beyond all this, the righteous devotion of Rama, and the faithfulness and womanly Iove of Sita, run like two threads of gold through the whole fabric of the Epic, and ennoble and sanctify the work in the eyes of Hindus.
Rama and Sita are the Hindu ideals of a Perfect Man and a Perfect Woman; their truth under trials and temptations, their endurance under privations, and their devotion to duty under all vicissitudes of fortune, form the Hindu ideal of a Perfect Life. In this respect the Ramayana gives us a true picture of Hindu faith and righteous life as Dante's "Divine Comedy" gives us a picture of the faith and belief of the Middle Ages in Europe. Our own ideals in the present day may not be the ideals of the tenth century before Christ or the fourteenth century after Christ; but mankind will not willingly let die those great creations of the past which shadow forth the ideals and beliefs of interesting periods in the progress of human civilisation.
Sorrow and suffering, trial and endurance, are a part of the Hindu ideal of a Perfect Life of righteousness. Rama suffers for fourteen years in exile, and is chastened by privations and misfortunes, before he ascends the throne of his father. In a humble way this course of training was passed through by every pious Hindu of the ancient times. Every Aryan boy in India was taken away from his parents at an early age, and lived the hard Iife of an anchorite under his teacher for twelve or twenty-four or thirty-six years, before he entered the married life and settled down as a householder. Every Aryan boy assumed the rough garment and the staff and girdle of a student, lived as a mendicant and begged his food from door to door, attended on his preceptor as a menial, and thus trained himself in endurance and suffering as well as in the traditional learning of the age, before he became a householder. The pious Hindu saw in Rama's Iife the ideal of a true Hindu life, the success and the triumph which foIIow upon endurance and faith and devotion to duty. It is the truth and endurance of Rama under sufferings and privations which impart the deepest lessons to the Hindu character, and is the highest ideal of a Hindu righteous Iife. The ancient ideal may seem to us farfetched in these days, but we can never fully comprehend the great moral Epic of the Hindus unless we endeavour to study fully and clearly its relations to old Hindu ideas and old Hindu life.
And if trial and endurance are a part of a Hindu's ideal of a man's life, devotion and self abnegation are still more essentially a part of his ideal of a woman's life. Sita holds a place in the hearts of women in India which no other creation of a poet's imagination holds among any other nation on earth. There is not a Hindu woman whose earliest and tenderest recollections do not cling round the story of Sita's sufferings and Sita's faithfulness, told in the nursery, taught in the family circle, remembered and cherished through Iife. Sita's adventures in a desolate forest and in a hostile prison only represent in an exaggerated form the humbler trials of a woman's Iife; and Sita's endurance and faithfulness teach her devotion to duty in all trials and troubles of life.
The ideal of life was joy and beauty and gladness in ancient Greece; the ideal of Iife was piety and endurance and devotion in ancient India. The tale of Helen was a tale of womanly beauty and loveliness while charmed the western world. The tale of Sita was a tale of womanly faith and self-abnegation which charmed and fascinated the Hindu world. Repeated trials bring out in brighter relief the unfaltering truth of Sita's character; she goes to a second banishment in the woods with the same trust and devotion to her lord as before, and she returns once more, and sinks into the bosom of her Mother Earth, true in death as she had been true in life. The creative imagination of the Hindus has conceived no Ioftier and holier character than Sita : the literature of the world has not produced a higher ideal of womanly love, womanly truth, and womanly devotion.
The modern reader wiII now comprehend why India produced, and has preserved for well-nigh three thousand years, two Epics instead of one national Epic. No work of the imagination abides long unless it is animated by some sparks of imperishable truth, unless it truly embodies some portion of our human feelings, human faith and human life. The Maha-Bharata depicts the political life of ancient India, with all its valour and heroism, ambition and lofty chivalry. The Ramayana embodies the domestic and religious life of ancient India, with all its tenderness and sweetness, its endurance and devotion. The one picture without the other were incomplete, and we should know but little of the ancient Hindus if we did not comprehend their inner life and faith as well as their political life and warlike virtues. The two together give us a true and graphic picture of ancient Indian life and civilisation; and no nation on earth has preserved a more faithful picture of its glorious past.