A History of Sanskrit Literature/Chapter 10
In turning from the Vedic to the Sanskrit period, we are confronted with a literature which is essentially different from that of the earlier age in matter, spirit, and form. Vedic literature is essentially religious; Sanskrit literature, abundantly developed in every other direction, is profane. But, doubtless as a result of the speculative tendencies of the Upanishads, a moralising spirit at the same time breathes through it as a whole. The religion itself which now prevails is very different from that of the Vedic age. For in the new period the three great gods, Brahmā, Vishṇu, and Çiva are the chief objects of worship. The important deities of the Veda have sunk to a subordinate position, though Indra is still relatively prominent as the chief of a warrior's heaven. Some new gods of lesser rank have arisen, such as Kubera, god of wealth; Gaṇeça, god of learning; Kārttikeya, god of war; Çrī or Lakshmī, goddess of beauty and fortune; Durgā or Pārvatī, the terrible spouse of Çiva; besides the serpent deities and several classes of demigods and demons.
While the spirit of Vedic literature, at least in its earlier phase, is optimistic, Sanskrit poetry is pervaded by Weltschmerz, resulting from the now universally accepted doctrine of transmigration. To that doctrine, according to which beings pass by gradations from Brahmā through men and animals to the lowest forms of existence, is doubtless also largely due the fantastic element characteristic of this later poetry. Here, for instance, we read of Vishṇu coming down to earth in the shape of animals, of sages and saints wandering between heaven and earth, of human kings visiting Indra in heaven.
Hand in hand with this fondness for introducing the marvellous and supernatural into the description of human events goes a tendency to exaggeration. Thus King Viçvāmitra, we are told, practised penance for thousands of years in succession; and the power of asceticism is described as so great as to cause even the worlds and the gods to tremble. The very bulk of the Mahābhārata, consisting as it does of more than 200,000 lines, is a concrete illustration of this defective sense of proportion.
As regards the form in which it is presented to us, Sanskrit literature contrasts with that of both the earlier and the later Vedic period. While prose was employed in the Yajurvedas and the Brāhmaṇas, and finally attained to a certain degree of development, it almost disappears in Sanskrit, nearly every branch of literature being treated in verse, often much to the detriment of the subject, as in the case of law. The only departments almost entirely restricted to the use of prose are grammar and philosophy, but the cramped and enigmatical style in which these subjects are treated hardly deserves the name of prose at all. Literary prose is found only in fables, fairy tales, romances, and partially in the drama. In consequence of this neglect, the prose of the later period compares unfavourably with that of the Brāhmaṇas. Even the style of the romances or prose kāvyas, subject as it is to the strict rules of poetics, is as clumsy as that of the grammatical commentaries; for the use of immense compounds, like those of the Sūtras, is one of its essential characteristics.
Sanskrit literature, then, resembles that of the earlier Vedic age in being almost entirely metrical. But the metres in which it is written, though nearly all based on those of the Veda, are different. The bulk of the literature is composed in the çloka, a development of the Vedic anushṭubh stanza of four octosyllabic lines; but while all four lines ended iambically in the prototype, the first and third line have in the çloka acquired a trochaic rhythm. The numerous other metres employed in the classical poetry have become much more elaborate than their Vedic originals by having the quantity of every syllable in the line strictly determined.
The style, too, excepting the two old epics, is in Sanskrit poetry made more artificial by the frequent use of long compounds, as well as by the application of the elaborate rules of poetics, while the language is regulated by the grammar of Pāṇini. Thus classical Sanskrit literature, teeming as it does with fantastic and exaggerated ideas, while bound by the strictest rules of form, is like a tropical garden full of luxuriant and rank growth, in which, however, many a fair flower of true poetry may be culled.
It is impossible even for the Sanskrit scholar who has not lived in India to appreciate fully the merits of this later poetry, much more so for those who can only become acquainted with it in translations. For, in the first place, the metres, artificial and elaborate though they are, have a beauty of their own which cannot be reproduced in other languages. Again, to understand it thoroughly, the reader must have seen the tropical plains and forests of Hindustan steeped in intense sunshine or bathed in brilliant moonlight; he must have viewed the silent ascetic seated at the foot of the sacred fig-tree; he must have experienced the feelings inspired by the approach of the monsoon; he must have watched beast and bird disporting themselves in tank and river; he must know the varying aspects of Nature in the different seasons; in short, he must be acquainted with all the sights and sounds of an Indian landscape, the mere allusion to one of which may call up some familiar scene or touch some chord of sentiment. Otherwise, for instance, the mango-tree, the red Açoka, the orange Kadamba, the various creepers, the different kinds of lotus, the mention of each of which should convey a vivid picture, are but empty names. Without a knowledge, moreover, of the habits, modes of thought, and traditions of the people, much must remain meaningless. But those who are properly equipped can see many beauties in classical Sanskrit poetry which are entirely lost to others. Thus a distinguished scholar known to the present writer has entered so fully into the spirit of that poetry, that he is unable to derive pleasure from any other.
It would be a mistake to suppose that Sanskrit literature came into being only at the close of the Vedic period, or that it merely forms its continuation and development. As a profane literature, it must, in its earliest phases, which are lost, have been contemporaneous with the religious literature of the Vedas. Beside the productions of the latest Vedic period, that of the Upanishads and Sūtras, there grew up, on the one hand, the rich Pāli literature of Buddhism, and, on the other, the earliest form of Sanskrit poetry in the shape of epic tales. We have seen that even the Rigveda contains some hymns of a narrative character. Later we find in the Brāhmaṇas a number of short legends, mostly in prose, but sometimes partly metrical, as the story of Çunaḥçepa in the Aitareya. Again, the Nirukta, which must date from the fifth century B.C., contains many prose tales, and the oldest existing collection of Vedic legend, the metrical Bṛihaddevatā, cannot belong to a much later time.
Sanskrit epic poetry falls into two main classes. That which comprises old stories goes by the name of Itihāsa, "legend," Ākhyāna, "narrative," or Purāṇa, "ancient tale," while the other is called Kāvya or artificial epic. The Mahābhārata is the chief and oldest representative of the former group, the Rāmāyaṇa of the latter. Both these great epics are composed in the same form of the çloka metre as that employed in classical Sanskrit poetry. The Mahābhārata, however, also contains, as remnants of an older phase, archaic verses in the upajāti and vaṃçastha (developments of the Vedic trishṭubh and jagatī) metres, besides preserving some old prose stories in what is otherwise an entirely metrical work. It further differs from the sister epic in introducing speeches with words, such as "Bṛihadaçva spake," which do not form part of the verse, and which may be survivals of prose narrative connecting old epic songs. The Rāmāyaṇa, again, is, in the main, the work of a single poet, homogeneous in plan and execution, composed in the east of India. The Mahābhārata, arising in the western half of the country, is a congeries of parts, the only unity about which is the connectedness of the epic cycle with which they deal; its epic kernel, moreover, which forms only about one-fifth of the whole work, has become so overgrown with didactic matter, that in its final shape it is not an epic at all, but an encyclopædia of moral teaching.
The Mahābhārata, which in its present form consists of over 100,000 çlokas, equal to about eight times as much as the Iliad and Odyssey put together, is by far the longest poem known to literary history. It is a conglomerate of epic and didactic matter divided into eighteen books called parvan, with a nineteenth, the Harivaṃça, as a supplement. The books vary very considerably in length, the twelfth being the longest, with nearly 14,000, the seventeenth the shortest, with only 312 çlokas. All the eighteen books, excepting the eighth and the last three, are divided into subordinate parvans; each book is also cut up into chapters (adhyāyas).
No European edition of the whole epic has yet been undertaken. This remains one of the great tasks reserved for the future of Sanskrit philology, and can only be accomplished by the collaboration of several scholars. There are complete MSS. of the Mahābhārata in London, Oxford, Paris, and Berlin, besides many others in different parts of India; while the number of MSS. containing only parts of the poem can hardly be counted.
Three main editions of the epic have appeared in India. The editio princeps, including the Harivaṃça, but without any commentary, was published in four volumes at Calcutta in 1834-39. Another and better edition, which has subsequently been reproduced several times, was printed at Bombay in 1863. This edition, though not including the supplementary book, contains the commentary of Nīlakaṇṭha. These two editions do not on the whole differ considerably. Being derived from a common source, they represent one and the same recension. The Bombay edition, however, generally has the better readings. It contains about 200 çlokas more than the Calcutta edition, but these additions are of no importance.
A third edition, printed in Telugu characters, was published in four volumes at Madras in 1855-60. It includes the Harivaṃça and extracts from Nīlakaṇṭha's commentary. This edition represents a distinct South Indian recension, which seems to differ from that of the North about as much as the three recensions of the Rāmāyaṇa do from one another. Both recensions are of about equal length, omissions in the first being compensated by others in the second. Sometimes one has the better text, sometimes the other.
The epic kernel of the Mahābhārata, or the "Great Battle of the descendants of Bharata," consisting of about 20,000 çlokas, describes the eighteen days' fight between Duryodhana, leader of the Kurus, and Yudhishṭhira, chief of the Pāṇḍus, who were cousins, both descended from King Bharata, son of Çakuntalā. Within this narrative frame has come to be included a vast number of old legends about gods, kings, and sages; accounts of cosmogony and theogony; disquisitions on philosophy, law, religion, and the duties of the military caste. These lengthy and heterogeneous interpolations render it very difficult to follow the thread of the narrative. Entire works are sometimes inserted to illustrate a particular statement. Thus, while the two armies are drawn up prepared for battle, a whole philosophical poem, in eighteen cantos, the Bhagavadgītā, is recited to the hero Arjuna, who hesitates to advance and fight against his kin. Hence the Mahābhārata claims to be not only a heroic poem (kāvya), but a compendium teaching, in accordance with the Veda, the fourfold end of human existence (spiritual merit, wealth, pleasure, and salvation), a smṛiti or work of sacred tradition, which expounds the whole duty of man, and is intended for the religious instruction of all Hindus. Thus, in one (I. lxii. 35) of many similar passages, it makes the statement about itself that "this collection of all sacred texts, in which the greatness of cows and Brahmans is exalted, must be listened to by virtuous-minded men." Its title, Kārshṇa Veda, or "Veda of Kṛishṇa" (a form of Vishṇu), the occurrence of a famous invocation of Nārāyaṇa and Nara (names of Vishṇu) and Sarasvatī (Vishṇu's wife) at the beginning of each of its larger sections, and the prevalence of Vishnuite doctrines throughout the work, prove it to have been a smṛiti of the ancient Vishnuite sect of the Bhāgavatas.
Thus it is clear that the Mahābhārata in its present shape contains an epic nucleus, that it favours the worship of Vishṇu, and that it has become a comprehensive didactic work. We further find in Book I. the direct statements that the poem at one time contained 24,000 çlokas before the episodes (upākhyāna) were added, that it originally consisted of only 8800 çlokas, and that it has three beginnings. These data render it probable that the epic underwent three stages of development from the time it first assumed definite shape; and this conclusion is corroborated by various internal and external arguments.
There can be little doubt that the original kernel of the epic has as a historical background an ancient conflict between the two neighbouring tribes of the Kurus and Panchālas, who finally coalesced into a single people. In the Yajurvedas these two tribes already appear united, and in the Kāṭhaka King Dhṛitarāshṭra Vaichitravīrya, one of the chief figures of the Mahābhārata is mentioned as a well-known person. Hence the historical germ of the great epic is to be traced to a very early period, which cannot well be later than the tenth century B.C. Old songs about the ancient feud and the heroes who played a part in it, must have been handed down by word of mouth and recited in popular assemblies or at great public sacrifices.
These disconnected battle-songs were, we must assume, worked up by some poetic genius into a comparatively short epic, describing the tragic fate of the Kuru race, who, with justice and virtue on their side, perished through the treachery of the victorious sons of Pāṇḍu, with Kṛishṇa at their head. To the period of this original epic doubtless belong the traces the Mahābhārata has preserved unchanged of the heroic spirit and the customs of ancient times, so different from the later state of things which the Mahābhārata as a whole reflects. To this period also belongs the figure of Brahmā as the highest god. The evidence of Pāli literature shows that Brahmā already occupied that position in Buddha's time. We may, then, perhaps assume that the original form of our epic came into being about the fifth century B.C. The oldest evidence we have for the existence of the Mahābhārata in some shape or other is to be found in Āçvalāyana's Gṛihya Sūtra, where a Bhārata and Mahābhārata are mentioned. This would also point to about the fifth century B.C. To the next stage, in which the epic, handed down by rhapsodists, swelled to a length of about 20,000 çlokas, belongs the representation of the victorious Pāṇḍus in a favourable light, and the introduction on a level with Brahmā of the two other great gods, Çiva, and especially Vishṇu, of whom Kṛishṇa appears as an incarnation.
We gather from the account of Megasthenes that about 300 B.C., these two gods were already prominent, and the people were divided into Çivaites and Vishnuites. Moreover, the Yavanas or Greeks are mentioned in the Mahābhārata as allies of the Kurus, and even the Çakas (Scythians) and Pahlavas (Parthians) are named along with them; Hindu temples are also referred to as well as Buddhist relic mounds. Thus an extension of the original epic must have taken place after 300 B.C. and by the beginning of our era.
The Brahmans knew how to utilise the great influence of the old epic tradition by gradually incorporating didactic matter calculated to impress upon the people, and especially on kings, the doctrines of the priestly caste. It thus at last assumed the character of a vast treatise on duty (dharma), in which the divine origin and immutability of Brahman institutions, the eternity of the caste system, and the subordination of all to the priests, are laid down. When the Mahābhārata attributes its origin to Vyāsa, it implies a belief in a final redaction, for the name simply means "Arranger." Dahlmann has recently put forward the theory that the great epic was a didactic work from the very outset; this view, however, appears to be quite irreconcilable with the data of the poem, and is not likely to find any support among scholars. What evidence have we as to when the Mahābhārata attained to the form in which we possess it? There is an inscription in a land grant dating from 462 A.D. or at the latest 532 A.D., which proves incontrovertibly that the epic about 500 A.D. was practically of exactly the same length as it is stated to have in the survey of contents (anukramaṇikā) given in Book I., and as it actually has now; for it contains the following words: "It has been declared in the Mahābhārata, the compilation embracing 100,000 verses, by the highest sage, Vyāsa, the Vyāsa of the Vedas, the son of Parāçara." This quotation at the same time proves that the epic at that date included the very long 12th and 13th, as well as the extensive supplementary book, the Harivaṃça, without any one of which it would have been impossible to speak even approximately of 100,000 verses. There are also several land grants, dated between 450 and 500 A.D., and found in various parts of India, which quote the Mahābhārata as an authority teaching the rewards of pious donors and the punishments of impious despoilers. This shows that in the middle of the fifth century it already possessed the same character as at present, that of a Smṛiti or Dharmaçāstra. It is only reasonable to suppose that it had acquired this character at least a century earlier, or by about 350 A.D. Further research in the writings of the Northern Buddhists and their dated Chinese translations will probably enable us to put this date back by some centuries. We are already justified in considering it likely that the great epic had become a didactic compendium before the beginning of our era. In any case, the present state of our knowledge entirely disproves the suggestions put forward by Prof. Holtzmann in his work on the Mahābhārata, that the epic was turned into a Dharmaçāstra by the Brahmans after 900 A.D., and that whole books were added at this late period.
The literary evidence of Sanskrit authors from about 600 to 1100 A.D. supplies us with a considerable amount of information as to the state of the great epic during those five centuries. An examination of the works of Bāṇa, and of his predecessor Subandhu, shows that these authors, who belong to the beginning of the seventh century, not only studied and made use of legends from every one of the eighteen books of the Mahābhārata for the poetical embellishment of their works, but were even acquainted with the Harivaṃça. We also know that in Bāṇa's time the Bhagavadgītā was included in the great epic. The same writer mentions that the Mahābhārata was recited in the temple of Mahākāla at Ujjain. That such recitation was already a widespread practice at that time is corroborated by an inscription of about 600 A.D. from the remote Indian colony of Kamboja, which states that copies of the Mahābhārata, as well as of the Rāmāyaṇa and of an unnamed Purāṇa, were presented to a temple there, and that the donor had made arrangements to ensure their daily recitation in perpetuity. This evidence shows that the Mahābhārata cannot have been a mere heroic poem, but must have borne the character of a Smṛiti work of long-established authority. Even at the present day both public and private recitations of the Epics and Purāṇas are common in India, and are always instituted for the edification and religious instruction of worshippers in temples or of members of the family. As a rule, the Sanskrit texts are not only declaimed, but also explained in the vernacular tongue for the benefit both of women, and of such males as belong to classes unacquainted with the learned language of the Brahmans.
We next come to the eminent Mīmāṃsā philosopher Kumārila, who has been proved to have flourished in the first half of the eighth century A.D. In the small portion of his great commentary, entitled Tantra-vārttika, which has been examined, no fewer than ten of the eighteen books of the Mahābhārata are named, quoted, or referred to. It is clear that the epic as known to him not only included the first book (ādiparvan), but that that book in his time closely resembled the form of its text which we possess. It even appears to have contained the first section, called anukramaṇikā or "Survey of contents," and the second, entitled parva-saṃgraha or "Synopsis of sections." Kumārila also knew Books XII. and XIII., which have frequently been pronounced to be of late origin, as well as XIX. It is evident from his treatment of the epic that he regarded it as a work of sacred tradition and of great antiquity, intended from the beginning for the instruction of all the four castes. To him it is not an account of the great war between the Kauravas and Pāṇḍus; the descriptions of battles were only used for the purpose of rousing the martial instincts of the warrior caste.
The great Vedāntist philosopher Çankarāchārya, who wrote his commentary in 804 A.D., often quotes the Mahābhārata as a Smṛiti, and in discussing a verse from Book XII. expressly states that the Mahābhārata was intended for the religious instruction of those classes who by their position are debarred from studying the Vedas and the Vedānta.
From the middle of the eleventh century A.D. we have the oldest known abstract of the Mahābhārata, the work of the Kashmirian poet Kshemendra, entitled Bhārata-Manjarī. This condensation is specially important, because it enables the scholar to determine the state of the text in detail at that time. Professor Bühler's careful comparison of the MSS. of this work with the great epic has led him to the conclusion that Kshemendra's original did not differ from the Mahābhārata as we have it at present in any other way than two classes of MSS. differ from each other. This poetical epitome shows several omissions, but these are on the whole of such a nature as is to be expected in any similar abridgment. It is, however, likely that twelve chapters (342-353) of Book XII., treating of Nārāyaṇa, which the abbreviator passes over, did not exist in the original known to him. There can, moreover, be no doubt that the forms of several proper names found in the Manjarī are better and older than those given by the editions of the Mahābhārata. Though the division of the original into eighteen books is found in the abridgment also, it is made up by turning the third section (gadā-parvan) of Book IX. (çalya-parvan) into a separate book, while combining Books XII. and XIII. into a single one. This variation probably represents an old division, as it occurs in many MSS. of the Mahābhārata.
Another work of importance in determining the state of the Mahābhārata is a Javanese translation of the epic, also dating from the eleventh century.
The best-known commentator of the Mahābhārata is Nīlakaṇṭha, who lived at Kūrpara, to the west of the Godāvarī, in Mahārāshṭra, and, according to Burnell, belongs to the sixteenth century. Older than Nīlakaṇṭha, who quotes him, is Arjuna Miçra, whose commentary, along with that of Nīlakaṇṭha, appears in an edition of the Mahābhārata begun at Calcutta in 1875. The earliest extant commentator of the great epic is Sarvajna Nārāyaṇa, large fragments of whose notes have been preserved, and who cannot have written later than in the second half of the fourteenth century, but may be somewhat older.
The main story of the Mahābhārata in the briefest possible outline is as follows: In the country of the Bharatas, which, from the name of the ruling race, had come to be called Kurukshetra, or "Land of the Kurus," there lived at Hastināpura, fifty-seven miles north-east of the modern Delhi, two princes named Dhṛitarāshṭra and Pāṇḍu. The elder of these brothers being blind, Pāṇḍu succeeded to the throne and reigned gloriously. He had five sons called Pāṇḍavas, the chief of whom were Yudhishṭhira, Bhīma, and Arjuna. Dhṛitarāshṭra had a hundred sons, usually called Kauravas, or Kuru princes, the most prominent of whom was Duryodhana. On the premature death of Pāṇḍu, Dhṛitarāshṭra took over the reins of government, and receiving his five nephews into his palace, had them brought up with his own sons. As the Pāṇḍus distinguished themselves greatly in feats of arms and helped him to victory, the king appointed his eldest nephew, Yudhishṭhira, to be heir-apparent. The Pāṇḍu princes, however, soon found it necessary to escape from the plots their cousins now began to set on foot against them. They made their way to the king of Panchāla, whose daughter Draupadī was won, in a contest between many kings and heroes, by Arjuna, who alone was able to bend the king's great bow and to hit a certain mark. In order to avoid strife, Draupadī consented to become the common wife of the five princes. At Draupadī's svayaṃvara (public choice of a husband) the Pāṇḍus made acquaintance with Kṛishṇa, the hero of the Yādavas, who from this time onward became their fast friend and adviser. Dhṛitarāshṭra, thinking it best to conciliate the Pāṇḍavas in view of their double alliance with the Panchālas and Yādavas, now divided his kingdom, giving Hastināpura to his sons, and to his nephews a district where they built the city of Indraprastha, the modern Delhi (i.).
Here the Pāṇḍavas ruled wisely and prospered greatly. Duryodhana's jealousy being aroused, he resolved to ruin his cousins, with the aid of his uncle Çakuni, a skilful gamester. Dhṛitarāshṭra was accordingly induced to invite the Pāṇḍus to Hastināpura. Here Yudhishṭhira, accepting the challenge to play at dice with Duryodhana, lost everything, his kingdom, his wealth, his army, his brothers, and finally Draupadī. In the end a compromise was made by which the Pāṇḍavas agreed to go into banishment for twelve years, and to remain incognito for a thirteenth, after which they might return and regain their kingdom (ii.).
With Draupadī they accordingly departed to the Kāmyaka forest on the Sarasvatī. The account of their twelve years' life here, and the many legends told to console them in their exile, constitute the vana-parvan or "Forest book," one of the longest in the poem (iii.).
The thirteenth year they spent in disguise as servants of Virāṭa, king of the Matsyas. At this time the Kurus, in alliance with another king, invaded the country of the Matsyas, causing much distress. Then the Pāṇḍus arose, put the enemy to flight, and restored the king. They now made themselves known, and entered into an alliance with the king (iv.).
Their message demanding back their possessions receiving no answer, they prepared for war. The rival armies met in the sacred region of Kurukshetra, with numerous allies on both sides. Joined with the Kurus were, among others, the people of Kosala, Videha, Anga, Banga (Bengal), Kalinga on the east, and those of Sindhu, Gandhāra, Bahlīka (Balk), together with the Çakas and Yavanas on the west. The Pāṇḍus, on the other hand, were aided by the Panchālas, the Matsyas, part of the Yādavas under Kṛishṇa, besides the kings of Kāçi (Benares), Chedi, Magadha, and others (v.).
The battle raged for eighteen days, till all the Kurus were destroyed, and only the Pāṇḍavas and Kṛishṇa with his charioteer escaped alive. The account of it extends over five books (vi.-x.). Then follows a description of the obsequies of the dead (xi.). In the next two books, Bhīma, the leader of the Kurus, on his deathbed, instructs Yudhishṭhira for about 20,000 çlokas on the duties of kings and other topics.
The Pāṇḍus having been reconciled to the old king Dhṛitarāshṭra, Yudhishṭhira was crowned king in Hastināpura, and instituted a great horse-sacrifice (xiv.). Dhṛitarāshṭra having remained at Hastināpura for fifteen years, at length retired, with his wife Gāndhārī, to the jungle, where they perished in a forest conflagration (xv.). Among the Yādavas, who had taken different sides in the great war, an internecine conflict broke out, which resulted in the annihilation of this people. Kṛishṇa sadly withdrew to the wilderness, where he was accidentally shot dead by a hunter (xvi.).
The Pāṇḍus themselves, at last weary of life, leaving the young prince Parīkshit, grandson of Arjuna, to rule over Hastināpura, retired to the forest, and dying as they wandered towards Meru, the mountain of the gods (xvii.), ascended to heaven with their faithful spouse (xviii.).
Here the framework of the great epic, which begins at the commencement of the first book, comes to an end. King Parīkshit having died of snake-bite, his son Janamejaya instituted a great sacrifice to the serpents. At that sacrifice the epic was recited by Vaiçampāyana, who had learnt it from Vyāsa. The latter, we are told, after arranging the four Vedas, composed the Mahābhārata, which treats of the excellence of the Pāṇḍus, the greatness of Kṛishṇa, and the wickedness of the sons of Dhṛitarāshṭra.
The supplementary book, the Harivaṃça, or "Family of Vishṇu," is concerned only with Kṛishṇa. It contains more than 16,000 çlokas, and is divided into three sections. The first of these describes the history of Kṛishṇa's ancestors down to the time of Vishṇu's incarnation in him; the second gives an account of Kṛishṇa's exploits; the third treats of the future corruptions of the Kali, or fourth age of the world.
The episodes of the Mahābhārata are numerous and often very extensive, constituting, as we have seen, about four-fifths of the whole poem. Many of them are interesting for various reasons, and some are distinguished by considerable poetic beauty. One of them, the story of Çakuntalā (occurring in Book I.), supplied Kālidāsa with the subject of his famous play. Episodes are specially plentiful in Book III., being related to while away the time of the exiled Pāṇḍus. Here is found the Matsyopākhyāna, or "Episode of the fish," being the story of the flood, narrated with more diffuseness than the simple story told in the Çatapatha Brāhmaṇa. The fish here declares itself to be Brahmā, Lord of creatures, and not yet Vishṇu, as in the Bhāgavata Purāṇa. Manu no longer appears as the progenitor of mankind, but as a creator who produces all beings and worlds anew by means of his ascetic power.
Another episode is the history of Rāma, interesting in its relation to Vālmīki's Rāmāyaṇa, which deals with the same subject at much greater length. The myth of the descent of the Ganges from heaven to earth, here narrated, is told in the Rāmāyaṇa also.
Another legend is that of the sage Ṛiçya-çṛinga, who having produced rain in the country of Lomapāda, king of the Angas, was rewarded with the hand of the princess Çāntā, and performed that sacrifice for King Daçaratha which brought about the birth of Rāma. This episode is peculiarly important from a critical point of view, as the legend recurs not only in the Rāmāyaṇa, but also in the Padma Purāṇa, the Skanda Purāṇa, and a number of other sources.
Of special interest is the story of King Uçīnara, son of Çibi, who sacrificed his life to save a pigeon from a hawk. It is told again in another part of Book III. about Çibi himself, as well as in Book XIII. about Vṛishadarbha, son of Çibi. Distinctly Buddhistic in origin and character, the story is famous in Pāli as well as Sanskrit literature, and spread beyond the limits of India.
The story of the abduction of Draupadī forms an episode of her life while she dwelt with the Pāṇḍus in the Kāmyaka forest. Accidentally seen when alone by King Jayadratha of Sindhu, who was passing with a great army, and fell in love with her at first sight, she was forcibly carried off, and only rescued after a terrible fight, in which the Pāṇḍus annihilated Jayadratha's host. Interesting as an illustration of the mythological ideas of the age is the episode which describes the journey of Arjuna to Indra's heaven. Here we see the mighty warrior-god of the Vedas transformed into a glorified king of later times, living a life of ease amid the splendours of his celestial court, where the ear is lulled by strains of music, while the eye is ravished by the graceful dancing and exquisite beauty of heavenly nymphs.
In the story of Sāvitrī we have one of the finest of the many ideal female characters which the older epic poetry of India has created. Sāvitrī, daughter of Açvapati, king of Madra, chooses as her husband Satyavat, the handsome and noble son of a blind and exiled king, who dwells in a forest hermitage. Though warned by the sage Nārada that the prince is fated to live but a single year, she persists in her choice, and after the wedding departs with her husband to his father's forest retreat. Here she lives happily till she begins to be tortured with anxiety on the approach of the fatal day. When it arrives, she follows her husband on his way to cut wood in the forest. After a time he lies down exhausted. Yama, the god of death, appears, and taking his soul, departs. As Sāvitrī persistently follows him, Yama grants her various boons, always excepting the life of her husband; but yielding at last to her importunities, he restores the soul to the lifeless body. Satyavat recovers, and lives happily for many years with his faithful Sāvitrī.
One of the oldest and most beautiful stories inserted in the Mahābhārata is the Nalopākhyāna, or "Episode of Nala." It is one of the least corrupted of the episodes, its great popularity having prevented the transforming hand of an editor from introducing Çiva and Vishṇu, or from effacing the simplicity of the manners it depicts—the prince, for instance, cooks his own food—or from changing the character of Indra, and other old traits. The poem is pervaded by a high tone of morality, manifested above all in the heroic devotion and fidelity of Damayantī, its leading character. It also contains many passages distinguished by tender pathos.
The story is told by the wise Bṛihadaçva to the exiled Yudhishṭhira, in order to console him for the loss of the kingdom he has forfeited at play. Nala, prince of Nishada, chosen from among many competitors for her hand by Damayantī, princess of Vidarbha, passes several years of happy married life with her. Then, possessed by the demon Kali, and indulging in gambling, he loses his kingdom and all his possessions. Wandering half naked in the forest with Damayantī, he abandons her in his frenzy. Very pathetic is the scene describing how he repeatedly returns to the spot where his wife lies asleep on the ground before he finally deserts her. Equally touching are the accounts of her terror on awaking to find herself alone in the forest, and of her lamentations as she roams in search of her husband, and calls out to him—
- Hero, valiant, knowing duty,
- To honour faithful, lord of earth,
- If thou art within this forest,
- Then show thee in thy proper form.
- Shall I hear the voice of Nala,
- Sweet as the draught of Amṛita,
- With its deep and gentle accent,
- Like rumble of the thunder-cloud,
- Saying "Daughter of Vidarbha!"
- To me with clear and blessed sound,
- Rich, like Vedas murmured flowing,
- At once destroying all my grief? There are graphic descriptions of the beauties and terrors of the tropical forest in which Damayantī wanders. At last she finds her way back to her father's court at Kuṇḍina. Many and striking are the similes with which the poet dwells on the grief and wasted form of the princess in her separation from her husband. She is
- Like the young moon's slender crescent
- Obscured by black clouds in the sky;
- Like the lotus-flower uprooted,
- All parched and withered by the sun;
- Like the pallid night, when Rāhu
- Has swallowed up the darkened moon.
Nala, meanwhile, transformed into a dwarf, has become charioteer to the king of Oudh. Damayantī at last hears news leading her to suspect her husband's whereabouts. She accordingly holds out hopes of her hand to the king of Oudh, on condition of his driving the distance of 500 miles to Kuṇḍina in a single day. Nala, acting as his charioteer, accomplishes the feat, and is rewarded by the king with the secret of the highest skill in dicing. Recognised by his wife in spite of his disguise, he regains his true form. He plays again, and wins back his lost kingdom. Thus after years of adventure, sorrow, and humiliation he is at last reunited with Damayantī, with whom he spends the rest of his days in happiness.Though several supernatural and miraculous features like those which occur in fairy tales are found in the episode of Nala, they are not sufficient to mar the spirit of true poetry which pervades the story as a whole.
Closely connected with the Mahābhārata is a distinct class of eighteen epic works, didactic in character and sectarian in purpose, going by the name of Purāṇa. The term purāṇa is already found in the Brāhmaṇas designating cosmogonic inquiries generally. It is also used in the Mahābhārata somewhat vaguely to express "ancient legendary lore," implying didactic as well as narrative matter, and pointing to an old collection of epic stories. One passage of the epic (I. v. 1) describes purāṇa as containing stories of the gods and genealogies of the sages. In Book XVIII., as well as in the Harivaṃça, mention is even made of eighteen Purāṇas, which, however, have not been preserved; for those known to us are all, on the whole, later than the Mahābhārata, and for the most part derive their legends of ancient days from the great epic itself. Nevertheless they contain much that is old; and it is not always possible to assume that the passages they have in common with the Mahābhārata and Manu have been borrowed from those works. They are connected by many threads with the old law-books (smṛitis) and the Vedas, representing probably a development of older works of the same class. In that part of their contents which is peculiar to them, the Purāṇas agree so closely, being often verbally identical for pages, that they must be derived from some older collection as a common source. Most of them are introduced in exactly the same way as the Mahābhārata, Ugraçravas, the son of Lomaharshaṇa, being represented as relating their contents to Çaunaka on the occasion of a sacrifice in the Naimisha forest. The object of most of these legendary compilations is to recommend the sectarian cult of Vishṇu, though some of them favour the worship of Çiva.
Besides cosmogony, they deal with mythical descriptions of the earth, the doctrine of the cosmic ages, the exploits of ancient gods, saints, and heroes, accounts of the Avatārs of Vishṇu, the genealogies of the Solar and Lunar race of kings, and enumerations of the thousand names of Vishṇu or of Çiva. They also contain rules about the worship of the gods by means of prayers, fastings, votive offerings, festivals, and pilgrimages.
The Vāyu, which appears to be one of the oldest, coincides in part of its matter with the Mahābhārata, but is more closely connected with the Harivaṃça, the passage which deals with the creation of the world often agreeing verbatim with the corresponding part of the latter poem.
The relationship of the Matsya Purāṇa to the great epic and its supplementary book as sources is similarly intimate. It is introduced with the story of Manu and the Fish (Matsya). The Kūrma, besides giving an account of the various Avatārs of Vishṇu (of which the tortoise or kūrma is one), of the genealogies of gods and kings, as well as other matters, contains an extensive account of the world in accordance with the accepted cosmological notions of the Mahābhārata and of the Purāṇas in general. The world is here represented as consisting of seven concentric islands separated by different oceans. The central island, with Mount Meru in the middle, is Jambu-dvīpa, of which Bhārata-varsha, the "kingdom of the Bharatas," or India, is the main division.
The Mārkaṇḍeya, which expressly recognises the priority of the Mahābhārata, is so called because it is related by the sage Mārkaṇḍeya to explain difficulties suggested by the epic, such as, How could Kṛishṇa become a man? Its leading feature is narrative and it is the least sectarian of the Purāṇas.
The extensive Padma Purāṇa, which contains a great many stories agreeing with those of the Mahābhārata, is, on the other hand, strongly Vishnuite in tone. Yet this, as well as the Mārkaṇḍeya, expressly states the doctrine of the Tri-mūrti or Trinity, that Brahmā, Vishṇu, and Çiva are only one being. This doctrine, already to be found in the Harivaṃça, is not so prominent in post-Vedic literature as is commonly supposed. It is interesting to note that the story of Rāma, as told in the Padma Purāṇa, follows not only the Rāmāyaṇa but also Kālidāsa's account in the Raghuvaṃça, with which it often agrees literally. Again, the story of Çakuntalā is related, not in accordance with the Mahābhārata, but with Kālidāsa's drama.
The Brahmā-vaivarta Purāṇa is also strongly sectarian in favour of Vishṇu in the form of Kṛishṇa. It is to be noted that both here and in the Padma Purāṇa an important part is played by Kṛishṇa's mistress Rādhā, who is unknown to the Harivaṃça, the Vishṇu, and even the Bhāgavata Purāṇa.
The Vishṇu Purāṇa, which very often agrees with the Mahābhārata in its subject-matter, corresponds most closely to the Indian definition of a Purāṇa, as treating of the five topics of primary creation, secondary creation, genealogies of gods and patriarchs, reigns of various Manus, and the history of the old dynasties of kings.
The Bhāgavata Purāṇa, which consists of about 18,000 çlokas, derives its name from being dedicated to the glorification of Bhāgavata or Vishṇu. It is later than the Vishṇu, which it presupposes, probably dating from the thirteenth century. It exercises a more powerful influence in India than any other Purāṇa. The most popular part is the tenth book, which narrates in detail the history of Kṛishṇa, and has been translated into perhaps every one of the vernacular languages of India.
Those which specially favour the cult of Çiva are the Skanda, the Çiva, the Linga, and the Bhavishya or Bhavishyat Purāṇas. The latter two contain little narrative matter, being rather ritual in character. A Bhavishyat Purāṇa is already mentioned in the Āpastamba Dharma Sūtra.
Besides these eighteen Purāṇas there is also an equal number of secondary works of the same class called Upa-purāṇas, in which the epic matter has become entirely subordinate to the ritual element.
Though there is, as we shall see, good reason for supposing that the original part of the Rāmāyaṇa assumed shape at a time when the Mahābhārata was still in a state of flux, we have deferred describing it on account of its connection with the subsequent development of epic poetry in Sanskrit literature. In its present form the Rāmāyaṇa consists of about 24,000 çlokas, and is divided into seven books. It has been preserved in three distinct recensions, the West Indian (A), the Bengal (B), and the Bombay (C). About one-third of the çlokas in each recension occurs in neither of the other two. The Bombay recension has in most cases preserved the oldest form of the text; for, as the other two arose in the centres of classical Sanskrit literature, where the Gauḍa and the Vaidarbha styles of composition respectively flourished, the irregularities of the epic language have been removed in them. The Rāmāyaṇa was here treated as a regular kāvya or artificial epic, a fate which the Mahābhārata escaped because it early lost its original character, and came to be regarded as a didactic work. These two later recensions must not, however, be looked upon as mere revisions of the Bombay text. The variations of all three are of such a kind that they can for the most part be accounted for only by the fluctuations of oral tradition among the professional reciters of the epic, at the time when the three recensions assumed definite shape in different parts of the country by being committed to writing. After having been thus fixed, the fate of each of these recensions was of course similar to that of any other text. They appear to go back to comparatively early times. For quotations from the Rāmāyaṇa occurring in works that belong to the eighth and ninth centuries A.D. show that a recension allied to the present C, and probably another allied to the present A, existed at that period. Moreover, Kshemendra's poetical abstract of the epic, the Rāmāyaṇa-kathāsāra-manjarī, which follows the contents of the original step by step, proves that its author used A, and perhaps B also, in the middle of the eleventh century. Bhoja, the composer of another epitome, the Rāmāyaṇa-champū, probably used C in the same century.
The careful investigations of Professor Jacobi have shown that the Rāmāyaṇa originally consisted of five books only (ii.-vi.). The seventh is undoubtedly a later addition, for the conclusion of the sixth was evidently at one time the end of the whole poem. Again, the first book has several passages which conflict with statements in the later books. It further contains two tables of contents (in cantos i. and iii.) which were clearly made at different times; for one of them takes no notice of the first and last books, and must, therefore, have been made before these were added. What was obviously a part of the commencement of the original poem has been separated from its continuation at the opening of Book II., and now forms the beginning of the fifth canto of Book I. Some cantos have also been interpolated in the genuine books. As Professor Jacobi shows, all these additions to the original body of the epic have been for the most part so loosely attached that the junctures are easy to recognise. They are, however, pervaded by the same spirit as the older part. There is, therefore, no reason for the supposition that they are due to a Brahman revision intended to transform a poem originally meant for the warrior caste. They seem rather to owe their origin simply to the desire of professional rhapsodists to meet the demands of the popular taste. We are told in the Rāmāyaṇa itself that the poem was either recited by professional minstrels or sung to the accompaniment of a stringed instrument, being handed down orally, in the first place by Rāma's two sons Kuça and Lava. These names are nothing more than the inventions of popular etymology meant to explain the Sanskrit word kuçīlava, "bard" or "actor." The new parts were incorporated before the three recensions which have come down to us arose, but a considerable time must have elapsed between the composition of the original poem and that of the additions. For the tribal hero of the former has in the latter been transformed into a national hero, the moral ideal of the people; and the human hero (like Kṛishṇa in the Mahābhārata) of the five genuine books (excepting a few interpolations) has in the first and last become deified and identified with the god Vishṇu, his divine nature in these additions being always present to the minds of their authors. Here, too, Vālmīki, the composer of the Rāmāyaṇa, appears as a contemporary of Rāma, and is already regarded as a seer. A long interval of time must have been necessary for such transformations as these.
As to the place of its origin, there is good reason for believing that the Rāmāyaṇa arose in Kosala, the country ruled by the race of Ikshvāku in Ayodhyā (Oudh). For we are told in the seventh book (canto 45) that the hermitage of Vālmīki lay on the south bank of the Ganges; the poet must further have been connected with the royal house of Ayodhyā, as the banished Sītā took refuge in his hermitage, where her twin sons were born, brought up, and later learnt the epic from his lips; and lastly, the statement is made in the first book (canto 5) that the Rāmāyaṇa arose in the family of the Ikshvākus. In Ayodhyā, then, there must have been current among the court bards (sūta) a number of epic tales narrating the fortunes of the Ikshvāku hero Rāma. Such legends, we may assume, Vālmīki worked up into a single homogeneous production, which, as the earliest epic of importance conforming to the rules of poetics, justly received the name of ādi-kāvya, or "first artificial poem," from its author's successors. This work was then learnt by professional rhapsodists (kuçīlava) and recited by them in public as they wandered about the country.
The original part of the Rāmāyaṇa appears to have been completed at a time when the epic kernel of the Mahābhārata had not as yet assumed definite shape. For while the heroes of the latter are not mentioned in the Rāmāyaṇa, the story of Rāma is often referred to in the longer epic. Again, in a passage of Book VII. of the Mahābhārata, which cannot be regarded as a later addition, two lines are quoted as Vālmīki's that occur unaltered in Book VI. of the Rāmāyaṇa. The poem of Vālmīki must, therefore, have been generally known as an old work before the Mahābhārata assumed a coherent form. In Book III. (cantos 277-291) of the latter epic, moreover, there is a Rāmopākhyāna or "Episode of Rāma," which seems to be based on the Rāmāyaṇa, as it contains several verses agreeing more or less with Vālmīki's lines, and its author presupposes on the part of his audience a knowledge of the Rāmāyaṇa as represented by the Bombay recension.
A further question of importance in determining the age of the Rāmāyaṇa is its relation to Buddhistic literature. Now, the story of Rāma is found in a somewhat altered form in one of the Pāli Birth-Stories, the Daçaratha Jātaka. As this version confines itself to the first part of Rāma's adventures, his sojourn in the forest, it might at first sight seem to be the older of the two. There is, however, at least an indication that the second part of the story, the expedition to Lankā, was also known to the author of the Jātaka; for while Vālmīki's poem concludes with the reunion of Rāma and Sītā, the Jātaka is made to end with the marriage of the couple after the manner of fairy tales, there being at the same time traces that they were wedded all along in the original source of the legend. Moreover, a verse from the old part of the Rāmāyaṇa (vi. 128) actually occurs in a Pāli form embedded in the prose of this Jātaka.
It might, indeed, be inferred from the greater freedom with which they handle the çloka metre that the canonical Buddhistic writings are older than the Rāmāyaṇa, in which the çloka is of the classical Sanskrit type. But, as a matter of fact, these Pāli works on the whole observe the laws of the classical çloka, their metrical irregularities being most probably caused by the recent application of Pāli to literary purposes as well as by the inferior preservation of Pāli works. On the other hand, Buddhistic literature early made use of the Āryā metre, which, though so popular in classical Sanskrit poetry, is not yet to be found in the Sanskrit epics.
The only mention of Buddha in the Rāmāyaṇa occurs in a passage which is evidently interpolated. Hence the balance of the evidence in relation to Buddhism seems to favour the pre-Buddhistic origin of the genuine Rāmāyaṇa.
The question whether the Greeks were known to the author of our epic is, of course, also of chronological moment. An examination of the poem shows that the Yavanas (Greeks) are only mentioned twice, once in Book I. and once in a canto of Book IV., which Professor Jacobi shows to be an interpolation. The only conclusion to be drawn from this is that the additions to the original poem were made some time after 300 B.C. Professor Weber's assumption of Greek influence in the story of the Rāmāyaṇa seems to lack foundation. For the tale of the abduction of Sītā and the expedition to Lankā for her recovery has no real correspondence with that of the rape of Helen and the Trojan war. Nor is there any sufficient reason to suppose that the account of Rāma bending a powerful bow in order to win Sītā was borrowed from the adventures of Ulysses. Stories of similar feats of strength for a like object are to be found in the poetry of other nations besides the Greeks, and could easily have arisen independently.
The political aspect of Eastern India as revealed by the Rāmāyaṇa sheds some additional light on the age of the epic. In the first place, no mention is made of the city of Pāṭaliputra (Patna), which was founded by King Kālāçoka (under whom the second Buddhist council was held at Vaiçālī about 380 B.C.), and which by the time of Megasthenes (300 B.C.) had become the capital of India. Yet Rāma is in Book I. (canto 35) described as passing the very spot where that city stood, and the poet makes a point (in cantos 32-33) of referring to the foundation of a number of cities in Eastern Hindustan, such as Kauçāmbī, Kānyakubja, and Kāmpilya, in order to show how far the fame of the Rāmāyaṇa spread beyond the confines of Kosala, the land of its origin. Had Pāṭaliputra existed at the time, it could not have failed to be mentioned.
It is further a noteworthy fact that the capital of Kosala is in the original Rāmāyaṇa regularly called Ayodhyā, while the Buddhists, Jains, Greeks, and Patanjali always give it the name of Sāketa. Now in the last book of the Rāmāyaṇa we are told that Rāma's son, Lava, fixed the seat of his government at Çrāvastī, a city not mentioned at all in the old part of the epic; and in Buddha's time King Prasenajit of Kosala is known to have reigned at Çrāvastī. All this points to the conclusion that the original Rāmāyaṇa was composed when the ancient Ayodhyā had not yet been deserted, but was still the chief city of Kosala, when its new name of Sāketa was still unknown, and before the seat of government was transferred to Çrāvastī.
Again, in the old part of Book I., Mithilā and Viçālā are spoken of as twin cities under separate rulers, while we know that by Buddha's time they had coalesced to the famous city of Vaiçālī, which was then ruled by an oligarchy.
The political conditions described in the Rāmāyaṇa indicate the patriarchal rule of kings possessing only a small territory, and never point to the existence of more complex states; while the references of the poets of the Mahābhārata to the dominions in Eastern India ruled by a powerful king, Jarāsandha, and embracing many lands besides Magadha, reflect the political conditions of the fourth century B.C. The cumulative evidence of the above arguments makes it difficult to avoid the conclusion that the kernel of the Rāmāyaṇa was composed before 500 B.C., while the more recent portions were probably not added till the second century B.C. and later.
This conclusion does not at first sight seem to be borne out by the linguistic evidence of the Rāmāyaṇa. For the epic (ārsha) dialect of the Bombay recension, which is practically the same as that of the Mahābhārata, both betrays a stage of development decidedly later than that of Pāṇini, and is taken no notice of by that grammarian. But it is, for all that, not necessarily later in date. For Pāṇini deals only with the refined Sanskrit of the cultured (çishṭa), that is to say, of the Brahmans, which would be more archaic than the popular dialect of wandering rhapsodists; and he would naturally have ignored the latter. Now at the time of the Açoka inscriptions, or hardly more than half a century later than Pāṇini, Prākrit was the language of the people in the part of India where the Rāmāyaṇa was composed. It is, therefore, not at all likely that the Rāmāyaṇa, which aimed at popularity, should have been composed as late as the time of Pāṇini, when it could not have been generally understood. If the language of the epic is later than Pāṇini, it is difficult to see how it escaped the dominating influence of his grammar. It is more likely that the popular Sanskrit of the epics received general currency at a much earlier date by the composition of a poem like that of Vālmīki. A searching comparative investigation of the classical Kāvyas will probably show that they are linguistically more closely connected with the old epic poetry, and that they deviate more from the Pāṇinean standard than is usually supposed.
In style the Rāmāyaṇa is already far removed from the naïve popular epic, in which the story is the chief thing, and not its form. Vālmīki is rich in similes, which he often cumulates; he not infrequently uses the cognate figure called rūpaka or "identification" (e.g. "foot-lotus") with much skill, and also occasionally employs other ornaments familiar to the classical poets, besides approximating to them in the style of his descriptions. The Rāmāyaṇa, in fact, represents the dawn of the later artificial poetry (kāvya), which was in all probability the direct continuation and development of the art handed down by the rhapsodists who recited Vālmīki's work. Such a relationship is distinctly recognised by the authors of the great classical epics (mahākavis) when they refer to him as the ādi-kavi or "first poet."
The story of the Rāmāyaṇa, as narrated in the five genuine books, consists of two distinct parts. The first describes the events at the court of King Daçaratha at Ayodhyā and their consequences. Here we have a purely human and natural account of the intrigues of a queen to set her son upon the throne. There is nothing fantastic in the narrative, nor has it any mythological background. If the epic ended with the return of Rāma's brother, Bharata, to the capital, after the old king's death, it might pass for a historical saga. For Ikshvāku, Daçaratha, and Rāma are the names of celebrated and mighty kings, mentioned even in the Rigveda, though not there connected with one another in any way.
The character of the second part is entirely different. Based on a foundation of myths, it is full of the marvellous and fantastic. The oldest theory as to the significance of the story was that of Lassen, who held that it was intended to represent allegorically the first attempt of the Aryans to conquer the South. But Rāma is nowhere described as founding an Aryan realm in the Dekhan, nor is any such intention on his part indicated anywhere in the epic. Weber subsequently expressed the same view in a somewhat modified form. According to him, the Rāmāyaṇa was meant to account for the spread of Aryan culture to the South and to Ceylon. But this form of the allegorical theory also lacks any confirmation from the statements of the epic itself; for Rāma's expedition is nowhere represented as producing any change or improvement in the civilisation of the South. The poet knows nothing about the Dekhan beyond the fact that Brahman hermitages are to be found there. Otherwise it is a region haunted by the monsters and fabulous beings with which an Indian imagination would people an unknown land.
There is much more probability in the opinion of Jacobi, that the Rāmāyaṇa contains no allegory at all, but is based on Indian mythology. The foundation of the second part would thus be a celestial myth of the Veda transformed into a narrative of earthly adventures according to a not uncommon development. Sītā can be traced to the Rigveda, where she appears as the Furrow personified and invoked as a goddess. In some of the Gṛihya Sūtras she again appears as a genius of the ploughed field, is praised as a being of great beauty, and is accounted the wife of Indra or Parjanya, the rain-god. There are traces of this origin in the Rāmāyaṇa itself. For Sītā is represented (i. 66) as having emerged from the earth when her father Janaka was once ploughing, and at last she disappears underground in the arms of the goddess Earth (vii. 97). Her husband, Rāma, would be no other than Indra, and his conflict with Rāvaṇa, chief of the demons, would represent the Indra-Vṛitra myth of the Rigveda. This identification is confirmed by the name of Rāvaṇa's son being Indrajit, "Conqueror of Indra," or Indraçatru, "Foe of Indra," the latter being actually an epithet of Vṛitra in the Rigveda. Rāvaṇa's most notable feat, the rape of Sītā, has its prototype in the stealing of the cows recovered by Indra. Hanumat, the chief of the monkeys and Rāma's ally in the recovery of Sītā, is the son of the wind-god, with the patronymic Māruti, and is described as flying hundreds of leagues through the air to find Sītā. Hence in his figure perhaps survives a reminiscence of Indra's alliance with the Maruts in his conflict with Vṛitra, and of the dog Saramā, who, as Indra's messenger, crosses the waters of the Rasā and tracks the cows. Saramā recurs as the name of a demoness who consoles Sītā in her captivity. The name of Hanumat being Sanskrit, the character is probably not borrowed from the aborigines. As Hanumat is at the present day the tutelary deity of village settlements all over India, Prof. Jacobi's surmise that he must have been connected with agriculture, and may have been a genius of the monsoon, has some probability.
The main story of the Rāmāyaṇa begins with an account of the city of Ayodhyā under the rule of the mighty King Daçaratha, the sons of whose three wives, Kauçalyā, Kaikeyī, and Sumitrā, are Rāma, Bharata, and Lakshmaṇa respectively. Rāma is married to Sītā, daughter of Janaka, king of Videha. Daçaratha, feeling the approach of old age, one day announces in a great assembly that he desires to make Rāma heir-apparent, an announcement received with general rejoicing because of Rāma's great popularity. Kaikeyī, meanwhile, wishing her son Bharata to succeed, reminds the king that he had once offered her the choice of two boons, of which she had as yet not availed herself. When Daçaratha at last promises to fulfil whatever she may desire, Kaikeyī requests him to appoint Bharata his successor, and to banish Rāma for fourteen years. The king, having in vain implored her to retract, passes a sleepless night. Next day, when the solemn consecration of Rāma is to take place, Daçaratha sends for his son and informs him of his fate. Rāma receives the news calmly and prepares to obey his father's command as his highest duty. Sītā and Lakshmaṇa resolve on sharing his fortunes, and accompany him in his exile. The aged king, overcome with grief at parting from his son, withdraws from Kaikeyī, and passing the remainder of his days with Rāma's mother, Kauçalyā, finally dies lamenting for his banished son. Rāma has meanwhile lived peacefully and happily with Sītā and his brother in the wild forest of Daṇḍaka. On the death of the old king, Bharata, who in the interval has lived with the parents of his mother, is summoned to the throne. Refusing the succession with noble indignation, he sets out for the forest in order to bring Rāma back to Ayodhyā. Rāma, though much moved by his brother's request, declines to return because he must fulfil his vow of exile. Taking off his gold-embroidered shoes, he gives them to Bharata as a sign that he hands over his inheritance to him. Bharata returning to Ayodhyā, places Rāma's shoes on the throne, and keeping the royal umbrella over them, holds council and dispenses justice by their side.
Rāma now sets about the task of combating the formidable giants that infest the Daṇḍaka forest and are a terror to the pious hermits settled there. Having, by the advice of the sage Agastya, procured the weapons of Indra, he begins a successful conflict, in which he slays many thousands of demons. Their chief, Rāvaṇa, enraged and determined on revenge, turns one of his followers into a golden deer, which appears to Sītā. While Rāma and Lakshmaṇa are engaged, at her request, in pursuit of it, Rāvaṇa in the guise of an ascetic approaches Sītā, carries her off by force, and wounds the vulture Jaṭāyu, which guards her abode. Rāma on his return is seized with grief and despair; but, as he is burning the remains of the vulture, a voice from the pyre proclaims to him how he can conquer his foes and recover his wife. He now proceeds to conclude a solemn alliance with the chiefs of the monkeys, Hanumat and Sugrīva. With the help of the latter, Rāma slays the terrible giant Bali. Hanumat meanwhile crosses from the mainland to the island of Lankā, the abode of Rāvaṇa, in search of Sītā. Here he finds her wandering sadly in a grove and announces to her that deliverance is at hand. After slaying a number of demons, he returns and reports his discovery to Rāma. A plan of campaign is now arranged. The monkeys having miraculously built a bridge from the continent to Lankā with the aid of the god of the sea, Rāma leads his army across, slays Rāvaṇa, and wins back Sītā. After she has purified herself from the suspicion of infidelity by the ordeal of fire, Rāma joyfully returns with her to Ayodhyā, where he reigns gloriously in association with his faithful brother Bharata, and gladdens his subjects with a new golden age.
Such in bare outline is the main story of the Rāmāyaṇa. By the addition of the first and last books Vālmīki's epic has in the following way been transformed into a poem meant to glorify the god Vishṇu. Rāvaṇa, having obtained from Brahmā the boon of being invulnerable to gods, demigods, and demons, abuses his immunity in so terrible a manner that the gods are reduced to despair. Bethinking themselves at last that Rāvaṇa had in his arrogance forgotten to ask that he should not be wounded by men, they implore Vishṇu to allow himself to be born as a man for the destruction of the demon. Vishṇu, consenting, is born as Rāma, and accomplishes the task. At the end of the seventh book Brahmā and the other gods come to Rāma, pay homage to him, and proclaim that he is really Vishṇu, "the glorious lord of the discus." The belief here expressed that Rāma is an incarnation of Vishṇu, the highest god, has secured to the hero of our epic the worship of the Hindus down to the present day. That belief, forming the fundamental doctrine of the religious system of Rāmānuja in the twelfth and of Rāmānanda in the fourteenth century, has done much to counteract the spread of the degrading superstitions and impurities of Çivaism both in the South and in the North of India.
The Rāmāyaṇa contains several interesting episodes, though, of course, far fewer than the Mahābhārata. One of them, a thoroughly Indian story, full of exaggerations and impossibilities, is the legend, told in Book I., of the descent of the Ganges. It relates how the sacred river was brought down from heaven to earth in order to purify the remains of the 60,000 sons of King Sagara, who were reduced to ashes by the sage Kapila when his devotions were disturbed by them.
Another episode (i. 52-65) is that of Viçvāmitra, a powerful king, who comes into conflict with the great sage Vasishṭha by endeavouring to take away his miraculous cow by force. Viçvāmitra then engages in mighty penances, in which he resists the seductions of beautiful nymphs, and which extend over thousands of years, till he finally attains Brahmanhood, and is reconciled with his rival, Vasishṭha.
The short episode which relates the origin of the çloka metre is one of the most attractive and poetical. Vālmīki in his forest hermitage is preparing to describe worthily the fortunes of Rāma. While he is watching a fond pair of birds on the bank of the river, the male is suddenly shot by a hunter, and falls dead on the ground, weltering in his blood. Vālmīki, deeply touched by the grief of the bereaved female, involuntarily utters words lamenting the death of her mate and threatening vengeance on the wicked murderer. But, strange to tell, his utterance is no ordinary speech and flows in a melodious stream. As he wanders, lost in thought, towards his hut, Brahmā appears and announces to the poet that he has unconsciously created the rhythm of the çloka metre. The deity then bids him compose in this measure the divine poem on the life and deeds of Rāma. This story may have a historical significance, for it indicates with some probability that the classical form of the çloka was first fixed by Vālmīki, the author of the original part of the Rāmāyaṇa.
The epic contains the following verse foretelling its everlasting fame:—
- As long as mountain ranges stand
- And rivers flow upon the earth:
- So long will this Rāmāyaṇa
- Survive upon the lips of men.
This prophecy has been perhaps even more abundantly fulfilled than the well-known prediction of Horace. No product of Sanskrit literature has enjoyed a greater popularity in India down to the present day than the Rāmāyaṇa. Its story furnishes the subject of many other Sanskrit poems as well as plays, and still delights, from the lips of reciters, the hearts of myriads of the Indian people, as at the great annual Rāma festival held at Benares. It has been translated into many Indian vernaculars. Above all, it inspired the greatest poet of mediæval Hindustan, Tulsī Dās, to compose in Hindī his version of the epic entitled Rām Charit Mānas, which, with its ideal standard of virtue and purity, is a kind of bible to a hundred millions of the people of Northern India.