The Epics, the Puranas, Buddhist and the Jaina Texts

The religious texts of the past provide a keyhole view into the life styles of the people for whom they were written. In the last episode we saw how the collective attainments of the early inhabitants of this country culminated in compilation of Vedic literature. The Rog Veda, dealing with Prayers, Yajur Veda, containing hyms for oblations, Sama Veda, having metrical rendition of the prayers and hyms and Atharva Veda, composed of mantras dealing with ailments and their cure, all resulted in the codification of human knowledge.

With the ancillary texts - the Brahmanas, the Aranyakas and the Upnishads, the entire corpus of Vedic Literature come down to us as the earliest literary source for reconstruction of Indian history.

The Epics, the Puranas, Buddhist and the Jaina Texts

Namaskar and welcome to the History of India.

There could hardly be anyone in this country who is not familiar with the names of Rama and Krishna. Hindus worship them as incarnations of the Supreme Being, manifested in the form of the Nourisher and Sustainer - Vishnu.
The texts associated with these two deities are two great Sanskrit epics the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. These epics give us an insight into the political and social conditions of the people in their times.

Ramayana consists of about 24,000 verses. Its theme revolves around its central character Rama. Its story starts at Ayodhya, which is ruled by King Dashrath of Ikshvaku dynasty. King Dashrath's plan to install his eldest son Rama as his successor is thwarted by his other queen Kekayi, and the intrigue that follows, Rama, alongwith his wife Sita and younger brother Lakshmana, is banished from the kingdom for 14 years.

During the period of exile, Sita is abducted by Ravana, the evil king of Lanka. Rama organises an army with the help of Sugriva, and his aide Hanumana. In the ensuing battle, Ravana is slain, his brother Vibhishana is crowned as the new king of Lanka, and Sita is reunited with Rama. Just at this time, the period of exile too comes to an end. Victorious Rama returns to Ayodhya, where his other brother Bharata, offers him the throne.

The story of Ramayana would thus have ended on a happy note. But this was not to be. It is continued in what is an obvious later interpolation.

The people of Ayodhya are not able to accept a queen who has spent time in the company of a man other than her husband. Sita proves her innocence by undergoing a trial by fire but Rama - the ideal king - ruler of Rama Rajya - the ideal State - must listen to his people. He banishes Sita into the forest. There, Sita, in the hermitage of the sage Valmiki, gives birth to two sons - Lava and Kusa - who are so powerful as to challenge Rama’s power. Rama, on recognizing them, wants to unite with his family but Sita prays to mother earth - from which she had sprung - to take her back. The earth opens her bosom and takes back her daughter.
These are the dry-bones of a work which has ruled the hearts of millions of Indians through centuries. The work, originally said to have been authored by Valmiki, has undergone several adaptations of which the most well-known is Ramacharit Manas by Tulsidas.

The other epic, which is several times larger than Ramayana is Mahabharata. In fact it is the longest poem in the world, containing over 1,00,000 verses, which makes it seven times the length of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey put togather. According to Pandit Nehru, Mahabharata an encyclopaedia of tradition and legend, and political and social institutions of ancient India.
Mahabharata centres round a feud between the Kauravas who ruled at Hastinapur and their cousins Pandavas. In a striking analogy with the Ramayana, the Pandavas too are banished from the kingdom for 13 years. Even after the completion of the exile, the Pandavas are denied of their rightful claim by the Kauravas. And this results in the fieriest battle ever fought on earth.

The central theme of the Mahabharat too grew through later interpolations and got broken or superimposed with several sub-themes like the stories of Sakuntala, Nala-Damayanti, Savitri and other mythical characters. Said to be authored by the sage Vyasa, it may almost be taken for granted that the name is a collective noun, standing for many authors who have contributed to its making, the most important interpolation being the Bhagavad-Gita or the ‘Song Celestial.’

Another class of literature of ancient India whose historicity was doubted — in fact, totally dismissed — but later found to yield historical material when studied carefully are the Puranas.

The major Puranas are eighteen in number, of which the most important are the Vayu, Vishnu, Agni, and the Bhagavata, Vamana, Varaha, and the Markandeya Purana. Although they look back to the Vedic period, they were composed much later, that is, from the Gupta period onwards. These are mostly collections of legends and religious instructions but they also contain genealogies of different ruling dynasties in ancient India. In fact, the early Britishers who had very little historical material to go by except for archaeological remains depended on the Puranas for reconstructing the political history of ancient India. They are supposed to contain the genealogies of rulers right from the first known king — Manu — from whom all mankind is supposed to have descended. They bring these lists of kings down to the third or the fourth century A.D.

Because of their unhistorical character, several scholars initially dismissed them as sources for the study of ancient Indian history. It was F.E. Pargiter, a Judge of the Calcutta High Court in the early years of the last century, who after a study of some thirty years, extracted whatever historical material he found in the Puranas and published his results in the now famous book Ancient Indian Historical Tradition, (1922). Subsequent scholars of the Puranic tradition have, by and large, followed in his footsteps.

Buddhist Texts

During the sixh century AD, the voices of protests against the Vedic rituals and the brahmanical orthodoxy crystallized into the form of two important religious movements - the Buddhism and the Jainism. The literature of both these religions was composed in the popular language of the time - Pali and Prakrit.

Among the Buddhist texts the most important compilations are the Jatakas, stories based on the previous lives of the Buddha before he became the Buddha. It is believed that Buddha had to pass through 550 lives before he became the Buddha; and each Jataka, in the style of a folk narrative, tells the story of each of these births. According to the well-known Buddhist scholar, Rhys Davids, the Jatakas are the oldest, the most complete and the most important collection of folklore extant. Though reduced to writing about three hundred years after the Buddha - in the second century B.C. - and though basically folk tales, these stories give a glimpse of the life of the people — the society and the economy through three centuries. There are also references to kingdoms the Magadha, Kashi, Kosal and Anga and their rulers.

Two other Buddhist texts which shed valuable light on the history of the period and especially the India-Sri Lanka relations are the Dipavamsa and the Mahavamsa composed in the fourth and the sixth century A.D. respectively. Both these were composed in Pali but are of Sri Lankan origin. They, in fact, give a connected historical account of Sri Lanka and have also proved an invaluable source for the history of India - especially of the period of Asoka and after. It was while translating Dipavamsa in English that George Turnour came across the important passage which fixed the identity of Asoka as “the grandson of Chandragupta, and own son of Bindusara”. Both the texts also help us to sort out problems connected with the chronology of the period.

Jaina Texts

The texts of Jainism were reduced to writing much later - in around the fifth century A.D. - that is, about one thousand years after the period of Mahavira. They were done so in Valabhi in Gujarat, but they yield some material on the history of Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh in the age of Mahavira - besides, of course, on the history of Jainism itself.

These writings are called ‘Agama’, and have undergone several changes over the centuries. The texts now available are claimed by the Svetambara sect — one of the two main sects of Jainism, the other being the Digambara. Though there are indications in these texts that there existed older texts which contained the principles enshrined in the unified religion, these are no more available.

The religious texts of the Hindus, the Buddhists or the Jainas were primarily composed to propound their ideas and traditions. However, to a historian, they provide a rich source of information about the contemporary life.

In our next episode we will tell you about some non religious texts of ancient India, which are churned by the historians to extracts the historical deductions.

Do join us then on our continuing quest to explore the history of our people.

Untill then: Jai Hind.

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