Column | Ramayana, Mahabharata and the idea of dharma

While the dharma-shastra was for the elite, the epics were for the masses

January 19, 2024 11:04 am | Updated January 22, 2024 03:55 pm IST

 A mural from Thailand, depicting Rama from the ‘Ramakien’.

 A mural from Thailand, depicting Rama from the ‘Ramakien’. | Photo Credit: Getty images

The earliest Ramayana retellings do not refer to the Lakshman rekha. The earliest Mahabharata retellings do not refer to Draupadi’s vastra-haran. Both these ideas come from later versions of the epics. Does that make the oldest versions, composed in Sanskrit, the authentic narratives over which layers were added to make them more appealing to new target audiences?

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Original geography

When we scan the Vedic corpus, we do come across names such as Dasharatha, Shantanu, Yayati and Krishna; but none of the stories of Ramayana and Mahabharata. The best evidence we have of these stories’ antiquity is from the Ganga basin when red-black pottery was replaced by painted greyware 3,000 years ago; here, villages of the 21st century continue to have names found in the two epics.

We hear of the phrase itihasa-purana in late Vedic literature (800 CE). It refers to the hundreds of stories found in the Vedic corpus explaining how various mantras came into being, how they summoned gods to help people and how various rituals originated. But there is no mention of Ramayana or Mahabharata.

Mahabharata is located on a stretch between what is today Delhi and Gujarat (Dwarka). Ramayana indicates movement through Bihar (Videha) towards Narmada. There is no reference to any southern river beyond Narmada in the earliest Ramayana manuscripts. Kishkinda and Lanka as per the oldest texts are full of sal trees, found in present-day Odisha, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, but not in South India.

Mauryan crisis

The epics themselves were written much later, around 2,000 years ago, by which time there were trade routes from the Himalayas to the coasts. By the Mauryan era (300 BCE) the old privileged position of Brahmins was gone. While Mauryan kings did patronise Buddhism, they were essentially cosmopolitan, heavily influenced by the Persians and Greeks. The 2,300-year-old Ashokan edicts indicate familiarity with Buddhists and Brahmins, but but not with the Ramayana or Mahabharata.

The word dhamma was popular among Buddhists and indicated a monastic lifestyle. Brahmins challenged this view and argued that the concept is about fulfilling household obligations. Thus began the movement to popularise dharma through dharma-shastra texts and the Ramayana and Mahabharata. The tales, once told by wandering minstrels, started being narrated by Brahmin priests during royal ceremonies.

The purpose of the tales was not to narrate history, but to remind kings of an ancient glorious time when Vedic ways were respected, and kings were successful as they valued Brahmin advice.

Educational narratives

The composition of the dharma-shastra and itihasa, which began around 300 BCE, found success around 300 CE with the support of the Gupta kings. This was also the period when Ramayana and Mahabharata reached their final form in written Sanskrit.

While the dharma-shastra was for the elite, the epics were for the masses. They helped everyone understand concepts such as raj-dharma (duties of kings), stri-dharma (duties of women), and apad-dharma (duties in times of crisis). The epics were tools to educate newly emerging regional kings of the subcontinent. They also told stories of the price of upsetting Brahmins such as Parashurama and Aurva, whose wrath could destroy kings. This helped establish Brahmins as statecraft consultants.

Soon, every king wanted to mimic ancient Vedic kings. So they sponsored regional works on Ramayana and Mahabharata and read them out in court to affirm their royal status. The earliest stone artworks on the epics appear around the 5th century CE in the Madhya Pradesh region and by 8th century CE in the Deccan region, sponsored by Gupta and Chalukya kings.

The epics inspired kings of Southeast Asia, too. They were carved on grand temple walls in Java’s Prambanan by the 10th century and Cambodia’s Angkor Wat by the 12th century. In the 18th century, the Thai king of Buddhist faith authored the Ramakien to illustrate his vision of ideal kingship.

Since the 19th century, it has become an agenda to project the epics as describing authentic historical events, a privilege given to the Bible by Christians, and to the Quran by Muslims. In each case the belief in historicity has been challenged by scientists, but dismissed by believers. Since belief, not science, props up political power, science will always have to make way for faith. As the history of the epics reveals, it has never been about what actually happened. It has always been about what people gossip about.

Devdutt Pattanaik is author of 50 books on mythology, art and culture.

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