The most famous Hindu epic literature arose in India during the Vedic period (c. 1000–c. 500 b.c.e), which helped define the essentials of Indian belief and culture.
While Hinduism is not the sole religion in the region, these texts set forth many of the ideas and practices held sacred by many people throughout the world. Hindu epic literature is still very much treasured in modern times.
It was during the Vedic period that four of the most treasured sources of Hindu spiritualism arose. In the ancient language of Sanskrit, veda means truth or knowledge. The Vedic library, which lends its name to this era, contains hundreds of texts. Four of the main texts of Hindu epic literature are the Upanishads, the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, and Puranas. While the Upanishads are in fact religious texts, when combined with the other two, the foundations of Hindu beliefs are firmly expressed.
The Upanishads was written between approximately 600 to 300 b.c.e. The word Upanishads means sitting down near, or sitting reverently at the feet of, and contain over 300 pieces. These texts defined the core of Hindu beliefs, while not being philosophical texts themselves.
The Upanishads are the cornerstone of Hindu spirituality, exploring the interaction of humanity with the universe. The overall concepts involved in the Upanishads consider how people can discern what is truth, knowledge, and inner peace. The many sections of the texts address the attainment of wisdom, consciousness, and the operation of the universe. In ideas that would especially being addressed in future texts, attaining a true, perfect self was paramount. In the idea of reincarnation, what actions a person performs in his current life will determine what happens in his future existence.
The idea of the self, and attaining sense of the self, is especially important in these scriptures. Performing selfless acts for the benefits of others is what helps one to achieve knowledge of the self. Good and evil acts are addressed, as are examples of proper and improper behavior.
The Mahabharata and the Ramayana are considered to be the two greatest epics in Hindu literature, carrying on the ideas first expressed in the Upanishads. The Mahabharata is an epic poem with over 90,000 verses, close to 2 million words. It is more than 10 times the length of the Christian Bible. Considering the length of the epic, the amount of time spent in composing it is under scrutiny. The composition has often been subscribed to Maha Rishi Veda Vyasa, but the time span that many believed was used in creating this piece ranges from 6 b.c.e. to the first century c.e.
The Mahabharata, which can be translated into the Great Book of the Bharatas, is a tale of two warring families, both of whom claimed to be descendants of Bharat, believed the founder of the Indo-Aryans. The events described in the Mahabharata most likely took place somewhere around the time of the 12th century b.c.e. The story both begins and ends on the battlefield, although along the way there are numerous digressions. Many of the ideas and the spirituality in texts such as the Upanishads are related again in the Mahabharata.
One of the important aspects of the Mahabharata is often separated as its own text called the Bhagavad Gita, which translates into the Song of the Lord. The much revered Hindu God Krishna is mentioned prominently in the Mahabharata, while previously left out of other Hindu texts. Krishna is one of the 10 avatars of the Hindu god Vishnu, who often assumes a new form in order to descend to earth in times of troubles.
In the Gita, Krishna is a charioteer to Arjuna, a central character. Krishna previously kept his divinity a secret from Arjuna. The Gita begins on the field of battle when Arjuna is preparing for what will be an incredibly violent and devastating conflict. There, on the field of battle, Arjuna reflects upon his sadness upon having to fight, and kill, members of his own family, as well as friends in his attempt to defend the claim his elder brother had to the throne of the Kurus. Krishna serves Arjuna as both a charioteer and adviser. As the battle is about to begin, the blind king Dhritarashtra learns of the entire exchange through Sanjaya, who is able to relate what is going on.
In revealing his true self to Arjuna, Krishna enlightens Arjuna about the nature of the self, life and death, and the importance of proper behavior. First and foremost, Krishna describes how the body may die but the self does not. The soul is eternal and will assume a new form in the next lifetime. While people may face bodily death, the soul will never die. Again the concept of how what one does in his current life will affect what happens in the next is related.
Krishna also describes to Arjuna the concept of duty. One has a responsibility to action, but not to enjoy the fruits of those actions, similar to the idea that Jesus later related in Christianity, that is, one does good not for reward but because of how it benefits others. Krishna also relates to Arjuna the importance of choosing the right path, being self-controlled, and having the desire to serve others. Those who can detach themselves from the desires of the world will attain the perfection of the self.
When Krishna reveals his divinity to Arjuna, he also instills the concept of devotion and love. Those who devote themselves to him, and seek true reality, will achieve the best state possible. Krishna especially tells Arjuna the power and importance of meditation, which will help one both renounce the results of actions as well as attain immediate peace. One should never waver in the desire to achieve spiritual perfection.
Krishna is still, to this day, one of the most popular of the Hindu gods. One of the misunderstandings of Hinduism is that of the number of gods. Quite often, it is simply one god merely manifested in different forms. There are some who argue that Krishna and Jesus Christ are one and the same. Many of the messages presented in the Gita are identical to those in the New Testament, such as devotion, and doing good for its own sake and not for any reward.
Alongside the Gita, Mahabharata, and Upanishads is the epic tale the Ramayana which translates often into, The Travels of Rama, or The Story of Rama. Written in Sanskrit, the Ramayana is believed to be work by the poet Valmiki, who produced the tale around 300 b.c.e. Over the following centuries, even into contemporary times, the story of Rama has been told and retold in various forms and languages. As in the Gita, and like Krishna, Rama is an avatar of the god Vishnu.
The principal characters in the Ramayana are Rama; his wife, Sita; his brother, Lasksmana; Hunaman the monkey king; and the demon Ravana. Ravana had received a boon from Brahma, the principal Hindu god, that he could not be killed by any other divinity or demon, in return for his penance of 10,000 years. Immortality could not be granted to Ravana, and since he did not believe a man could kill him, this was left off of his requested boon. Ravana, with 10 heads and 20 arms, becomes a feared demon, the king of Lanka, and begins to lay waste to the earth. Vishnu again returns to earth in the form of a man, Rama, in order to kill the demon.
When Rama is born and grows into a man he is immensely popular both within his household and within the kingdom of his father, Dasaratha. Rama is to be the next king. Rama is wed to the beautiful Sita, who herself is a reincarnation of Laxmi, the wife of Vishnu. Dasaratha is tricked by one of his wives to exile Rama to the forest for 14 years. As is revealed, Dasaratha once accidentally killed a man and was told that he himself would be separated from his own son. Rama accepts the exile and leaves along with Sita and Laksmana, who refuses to abandon his brother.
Ravana sees Sita and immediately falls in love. Sita, however, is faithful. In using trickery of his own, Ravana kidnaps Sita and takes her to Lanka. Despite being held captive, Sita never wavers in her love and devotion for Rama. The rest of the story is how Rama, Laksmana, and eventually Hunaman track down Sita and rescue her. There are numerous epic battles along the way, and eventually Rama slays the demon Ravana. Although they are reunited, Rama banishes Sita to the very forest where they were once exiled together, where she maintains her innocence and devotion to Rama and gives birth to twins. At the end of the tale the two are reunited as they shed their mortal bodies and return to their celestial world.
The Ramayana still plays an important part in contemporary religious beliefs. This is a tale of love, devotion, and the battle between evil and good, as well as accepting the consequences of one’s actions. Devotion to Rama remains as strong as ever for many, as are the moral lessons embodied in the tale. In some places the Ramlila, The Play of Rama, is an important annual event.
In terms of devotion to specific gods, Puranas takes the concepts and characters explored in previous texts and expands upon them. Puranas is believed to have been composed between 300 and 1200 c.e. When compared to the other texts, the historical content in these writings may not be as accurate or factual historically, but many of the concepts remain the same, especially the epic battles between good and evil. Not just gods are described, but also kings and sages. Some gods may have from one to 12 different pieces dedicated to them.
Many parts of Hindu epic literature continue to be performed throughout the world. The Mahabharata and Ramayana remain as popular as ever. New translations of these works continue to be produced, although in the case of pieces such as the Ramayana, finding a definitive text from which to work is often a difficult chore. These works continued to be enjoyed, and revered, by people everywhere. These writings help spread, and preserve, Hindu beliefs throughout the centuries. In fact many believe that it was not so much the Upanishads as it was the Mahabharata and Ramayana that promoted Hindu spiritual beliefs and kept them alive for so long, even though the historical accuracy or factuality is often in question, something that is part of any religion’s background. Regardless of these issues, Hinduism continues to be a major religious presence with millions of followers worldwide.