A summary of the origins of Indian Literature - The Vedas (sacred scriptures), Ramayana, Mahabharata and the Bhagavad-Gita (Gita)
(Literature you may have heard of, perhaps forgot or just never knew)
The article below is just an introduction to the historical events that inspired and led to the creation of these classic pieces of literature - The Vedas, Ramayana, Mahabharata and the Gita (some of the oldest texts in the world). It is not a summary of the teachings or stories but only how it all began. These books are deep reflective pieces that mean many things to many people and can be interpreted in different ways.I have added links below for further reading and interpretations to help achieve a greater understanding. The only video link attached is the Annenberg Video on The Bhagavad Gita (a very interesting 30 mins), which gives a broad overview of the beginners’ version of the core philosophies of the Gita.
Origins of Indian Literature
The kinds of stories Indian literature tells, the forms they take and themes they explore are connected to the subcontinent’s past, before the appearance of historical records. The earliest societies settled in the Indus Valley and Harappa (ca.2600-1900 B.C.E (Before Common Era)). They established a network across what is now Pakistan and western India and had extensive contact with Mesopotamia (currently Iraq). The Indus-Harappan people developed their own writing system that is still un-deciphered even though a lot is known about their material culture. Conquered or gradually displaced by the Indo-Aryans, overcome by economic, political or natural disasters this population receded by 1900 B.C.E., some still perhaps surviving among the aboriginal and other ancient groups dispersed across the Indian peninsula.
The Indo-Aryan may have arrived as early as 2000 B.C.E. to create new settled societies. Originally a nomadic pastoral people, who moved with vast herds of cattle in search of grazing land they eventually settled in Punjab (now divided between Pakistan and India) in the second millennium B.C.E., and established agrarian village societies, different from the Indo-Harappan predecessors who focused on trade. This innovation with its focus on agriculture (small family farms) and animal husbandry (mainly cows) proved to be an enduring social form for the past 3500 years. In the mid-twentieth century Mahatma Gandhi famously characterized India as a “land of villages” (because it still had nearly 750,000 such villages).
The Indo-Aryans brought with them the language that eventually became Sanskrit, the medium of the largest body of Indian literature. Sanskrit intimately related to Greek and Latin shares much of their grammar and sentence structure. All three languages including ancient Persian may have evolved from a single source called proto-Indo-European and presumably used by ancestors of Greeks, Romans, Indo-Iranians and Indo-Aryan a few thousand years earlier. By the first millennium B.C.E., Greek, Sanskrit and Latin were highly differentiated from one another and their emerging literature – from, respectively, Homer (ca. eight century B.C.E.); Valmiki (ca. eight century B.C.E.), author of the original Ramayana; and Virgil (first century B.C.E.) that developed independently, but they still contained remarkable echoes of one another that cannot be fully explained.
The early writing system of the Indus-Harappan people did not survive and by about 500 B.C.E., a new system appeared, called the Brahmi script, in which writing proceeds from left to right and used alphabetical and diacritical marks to represent syllables. The Brahmi script migrated out of India and became a transnational phenomenon of world importance, it gave rise to scripts of Tibetan (Tibet), Burmese (Myanmar), Thai (Thailand), Javanese and Sumatran (Indonesia), Cham (Vietnam) and Tagalog (Philippines) and launched literacy and literature across a wide area of Asia.
The Vedas are among the oldest sacred texts developed between 1200 and 700 B.C.E. Much of it was classified as scripture (sruti, revelation that is heard) and revealed knowledge (veda). The first works were hymns and ritual formulas (mantras) composed in Sanskrit, which were gathered with commentary and other theological material in four large groupings of discourse called the Vedas; these gave rise to an extensive, interconnected body of philosophy called the Upanishads, fifty-two of which are important.
Although the Vedic hymns are in verse, and some in poetry of the highest order, and even though the visionaries (rishis) who “received them from the gods” are called kavis (poets) the texts themselves are not classified as kavya (poetry). From this perspective, mantras are of divine origin and hence sacred, whereas poetry – no matter how beautiful and profound – is made by human authors and hence always mundane. Since divine revelation and knowledge needs to be explained to human audiences, the Vedas and the Upanishads created many works of authoritative and specialized commentary (sastras) as well as numerous compendiums and rule books (sutras), which, by the latter half of the first millennium B.C.E. became part of the canon of Vedic religion and, centuries later, of classical Hinduism, one of the most important cultural forces on the subcontinent.
The Hindu canon as a whole was transmitted orally, which is still practiced in our times, by specialist priests and scholars belonging to the brahmana caste. Taught for a dozen years, a good Vedic priest who specializes in the Rig-Veda (ca. 1000 B.C.E.), for example can recite all 1,028 hymns in its 10 books, can confirm their correct order, can reproduce any individual verse at will, and can orally list every occurrence of a given work in the text. Unlike a bard, a Vedic reciter communicates divine revelation, and hence is not free to invent, embellish or err.
The first Vedic hymns (ca. 1200 B.C.E.) and the first collection of hymns, the Rig-Vedasamhita(ca. 1000 B.C.E.) were most likely composed in Punjab, “the land of five rivers” that are tributaries of the Indus. By the seventh century B.C.E., the expansion of agriculture and cattle breeding produced enough prosperity to support the first towns and cities across northern India, such as Banaras and Ayodhya (which still flourishes today), thus emerged the first recognizable political forms in India: the small republic centered around an urban capital, not unlike a city-state, ruled by a lineage of hereditary monarchs. This became both the historical context and the narrative setting for the first Sanskrit epic, TheRamayana, begun in the sixth century B.C.E. and composed on the central Gangetic plains.
Centuries later, small republics grew to become more affluent societies, shortly after which Alexander the Great invaded western and northern India reaching Punjab in 329 B.C.E. and leaving behind a Greek colony in Gandhara (today’s Peshwar and Swat Valley region). The Maurya dynasty established the subcontinent’s first empire, situated imaginatively in the transitional period between small republics and vast empires, and where the other ancient Sanskrit epic was born, the Mahabharata (ca. 400 B.C.E – 400 C.E.) which represents a world of powerful monarchies and many medium sized kingdoms.
The origins - ‘moksa’, or ‘liberation’
As we see from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata (Gita is part of the Mahabaratha), one of the most influential ideas in Hinduism is that the universe as it exists is fashioned in a vast process of self-generation, in which all the primordial substance made is godhead itself. Godhead or “the god beyond god,” is the absolute and undifferentiated original matter of the universe and it divides itself into everything that exists. It is eternal and indestructible, and hence has no beginning and no end in time. God in this view is not a creator god, an anthropomorphic father, or a wrathful or vengeful deity; godhead is unknowable, unimaginable, and indescribable. Since everything that exists is made out of the godhead (and there is no other elementary matter in the universe), god is everywhere and in everything – a view that constitutes pantheism. In the Upanishads, this all-pervading godhead is renamed Brahman (not to be confused with the priestly caste-group brahmana, or Brahma, the later, anthropomorphic “god of creation”).
The soul, spirit, or “self” (atman) that animates every living creature is nothing but a piece of Brahman, which is also eternal and indestructible. The universe as we know it has a beginning in cosmic time, and therefore also comes to an end; since godhead cyclically differentiates itself into a particular universe, all its indestructible substance must return to it at the end of a cycle, and be reintegrated into its primordial state. Any life-form’s ultimate goal therefore is to be united with the absolute godhead. Therefore for any soul to be reunited, such a union is only possible if it can achieve ‘moksa’, or ‘liberation’ from its material existence. Works such as the Ramayana, Mahabharata and in particular the Gita, shows us how to achieve this liberation as each of the popular gods becomes an aspect or manifestation of godhead in an anthropomorphic (having human form), which is especially useful in making divinity accessible to humans.
Vishnu and Shiva are manifestations of godhead in equal parts. Vishnu is the god of preservation and Shiva the god of destruction. The same is true of Brahma, god of creation. Because Hinduism, in the final analysis does not attribute gender to godhead, the same goes for the goddesses Laksmi, Parvati and Sarasvati (consorts of Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma respectively). Since godhead can take on any one true representation of divinity; from its earliest phase Hinduism committed itself to polytheism, the belief that there are many gods. From its very beginnings in agrarian Indo-Aryan society in northern India, Hinduism emerged as a pluralistic religion, tolerant (in principle) 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 the path to moksa for an individual atman.
Valmiki’s Ramayana, composed and transmitted orally at the onset, is classified as the first poem in Sanskrit because it emphasizes imaginative and aesthetic excellence outside a religious context. It is nearly one and a half times the combined length of Homer’s Iliad and the Odyssey and was originally composed in Sanskrit around the sixth century B.C.E. It is divided into seven books and contains about 24,000 couplets (slokas). In this framework, Vishnu is the supreme god who manifests all aspects of godhead; and Vedic rituals are essential for pleasing various gods and ensuring that individuals can pursue moksa . This epic depicts a hierarchical society divided into four main caste-groups by birth: brahmanas (priests), ksatriyas (warriors), vaisyas (traders) and sudras (servants and cultivators). The Ramayana also depicts a society of villages and small republics, in which dynasties of kings do not yet pursue imperial ambitions; their role here is to preserve the divine order of things in both the mundane world and the cosmos, populated by humans, animals, plants, inanimate things as well as demons, celestial beings and gods. Rama, the main character is an avatar and the seventh incarnation of Lord Vishnu (main godhead) who was born to end the reign of the demonic king Ravana. The Ramayana is many things to many people. It is a tale of adventure across a vast land, from palace to sea; a love story about an ideal prince and an ideal woman, a heroic epic about injustice and war, abduction and disinheritance, but also a tale about gods, humans, animals, and demons with supernatural powers. It explains the ways of the gods to human beings, and offers a model of justice and prosperity on earth. During the past two millennia, Valmiki’s Ramayana has spread astonishingly far. In India, hundreds of translations, imitations, adaptations and retelling have appeared in dozens of languages that gradually replaced Sanskrit, such as Kamban’s Iramavataram (Tamil, twelfth century) and Tulsidas’s Ramacaritamanasa (Avadhi/Hindi, sixteenth century) and have become literary classics and when performed orally it’s called Rama-katha. Outside India, the Ramayana migrated to the Persian, Arabic and Chinese worlds. The epic also reached every part of Southeast Asia from Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. Stories of Ram, Sita, Laksmana, Hanumana and Ravana are among the best known for almost half the world’s population today.
The Mahabharata written by Krsna Dvaipayana (commonly known as Vedavyasa), is the longest poem in the world, about eight times the combined length of Homer’s Iliad and the Odyssey. It is one of the oldest compositions in world literature to offer sustained reflection on the possibilities of a just war and a harmonious society, and it does so by telling the story of a dynasty of kings in northern India deeply divided by the pursuit of power and wealth. The original version in Sanskrit contains about 100,000 verses. The epic is divided into 18 major books, which is further divided into a total of 100 minor books. The first five books deal with the origins and earlier history of the dynasty; books six to nine covers the war itself (which lasts for 18 days) and the nine remaining books describes the aftermath of the violence over decades, which bring an entire age to a close. The Mahabharata is composed later than the Ramayana, and it is where the village society coexists with a more complex urban world: the land is now divided into many sizeable kingdoms on the verge of imperial formations. The four caste-groups are now divided into five, with the addition of the “untouchables” and the foreigners (such as Greeks left behind by Alexander’s army).
The Mahabharata centers on the eight incarnation of Lord Vishnu (main godhead) who is born as Lord Krishna to bring to an end to the evil Kauravas. The epic’s main events centers around three brothers, Dhritarastra, Pandu and Vidura and the difficulties of succession to the throne that arises with the next generation. The children of Dhritarastra, collectively called the Kauravas –Duryodhana the eldest son (the epic’s villain), one hundred sons and a daughter;and the sons of Pandu (heroes of the epic) collectively called the Pandavas - Yudhisthira, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva. The Mahabharata tells several stories at once, interweaving them at many levels, delivered in many interacting voices, and speaking from distinct perspectives about the characters, events, and situations that make up the whole.
Ever since its completion around 400 C.E., the Mahabharata has been a constant reference point in Indian literature. With its numerous stories, this epic has served as a general reservoir of stories to live by: individual episodes illustrate situations we typically encounter, mirror many of the ethical dilemmas we face and offer solutions we can apply to our own lives. It provides a comprehensive education in politics, ethics and morality. In particular the Bhagavad-Gita which is a part of book 6 of the Mahabharata has been translated into all the major languages of the world.
The Bhagavad-Gita is an integral part of the Mahabharata and was originally composed as the sixty-third minor book of that epic and included in its sixth major book, Bhisma. It is a poem within a poem and is best interpreted in relation to the epic’s larger narrative, setting and background. It can be read and understood by itself for its philosophical message as a meditation on universal issues. The structure of the Bhagavad-Gita as a whole has two layers of interspersed dialogue: one between Sanjaya and Dhritarastra, which defines the outer frame of the book, and the other between Arjuna and Krsna, which occurs in the inner frame of the book. The Bhagavad-Gita asks the most difficult of questions. What is a just war, and when can the use of armed conflict resolve a political stalemate be justified? Under what circumstances is it possible to engage in a violent conflict with family members, clansmen, teachers and friends – the very people who have nurtured us since infancy – and claim a victory that is morally right? What is such victory worth if, in the name of life, wealth, or truth, it destroys what we love?
As a philosophical poem, the Bhagavad-Gita does not provide simple answers, but offers explanations that are appropriately difficult because they involve dilemmas that cannot be resolved once and for all. It is divided into eighteen chapters or cantos composed in verse. Its translations contains, in part, Krsna’s instructions to Arjuna about what is involved in war, violence, duty, courage, life and death (among other things), why it is essential to fight a just war, even if it means destroying precious lives. When taken in excerpts, this argument can be, and often has been, easily misunderstood. The message does not offer general justification for violence to settle major disputes, but to be justified when every possible option for a peaceful resolution has been explored with the full scope of the law, and all such options have failed. Even more so, in a just war, only the thoroughly trained and disciplined warrior can use violence, and even he can do so only when he is in complete control of himself and selflessly pursues his duty as defined by dharma. This epic has been translated into all the major languages of the world, and has become an indispensable part of world literature.
Martin Puchner, General editor et al. The Norton Anthology World Literature,3rd edition, Vol A. NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012.
Please note that all materials above are taken directly from the Norton Anthology World Literature, Vol A. I would definitely recommend buying and owing the complete set of the Norton Anthology, volumes A, B and C and hope this can get you back into reading the classics. There is a great deal that is missing here that can be found in those books. It was a very enlightening reading experience, but of course nothing beats reading the original works of the Vedas, Ramayana, Mahabharata and the Bhagavad-Gita. Happy reading – Shanti