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However, since the ordinary people do not have the erudition to read and understand these books, there are a third set of books, the Itihasas or Epics, which serve the purpose. The profound philosophy of the Upanishads is presented in the form of parables and stories in these epics for the guidance of the common people.
The great epics of Hinduism are the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Yogavasishta and the Harivamsa. They are also called the Suhrit Samhitas or friendly compositions, as they teach the greatest of truths in an easy, friendly way without taxing the mind, as the language is simple and the contents easily understood.
Of these the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are known even to the most illiterate of Hindus as they have come down through the ages by word of mouth. They teach the ideals of Hinduism in a most understandable form and it is because of these books that the most illiterate of our peasants is not ignorant. On the other hand he carries within him the wisdom of the Upanishads which has been conveyed to him by these two major epics in story, ballad or dance form.
The more popular of these two epics is the Ramayana. Also known as the Adi Kavya or the first poetic composition of the world, it was written by the great sage, Rishi Valmiki. In this epic is given the story of Rama, believed to be an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, born on earth to show the path of righteousness.
Dasaratha, king of Ayodhya, had four sons, Rama, born of his first queen, Kausalya. Lakshmana and Shatrughna, born of his second queen, Sumitra and Bharata, born of his favourite queen, Kaikeyi.
Rama was banished to the forest for 14 years at the behest of his step-mother, Kaikeyi, and left with his wife, Seeta, and brother, Lakshmana. In the forest Seeta was abducted by the demon-king, Ravana of Lanka. Rama, helped by an army of monkeys, and by Hanuman, the most loyal of them all, fought and destroyed Ravana and brought back Seeta. He was then crowned king and ruled over Ayodhya.
Rama Rajya, the reign of Rama, was one of idealism and 12 perfection, when no tear was shed nor sorrow experienced. It was a time of peace and joy, an idyllic era for all good people. Ayodhya became a land where tolerance and understanding governed the actions of everyone and even the King's actions were subject to the will of the people. Ideal behaviour of the rulers and ruled, of men and women, were shown by the actions of the characters in this epic, thereby teaching the people, subtly yet effectively, what ideal behaviour should be.
For example, to show the qualities of ideal queens, we have Dasaratha's queens, Kausalya and Sumitra, soft-spoken but strong, who placed the prestige of the king and the kingdom above their love of their sons. Dasaratha had earlier given two boons to Kaikeyi and she asked that Rama be sent to the forest for 14 years and her own son, Bharata, be crowned king. Rama, the ideal son, readily agreed to go and Lakshmana accompanied him. Their mothers, Kausalya and Sumitra, sent away their beloved sons to the forest so that king Dasaratha could keep his word. A second lesson learnt from this was the importance of the spoken word, especially the promises made by a ruler.
Also, the sacrifices of which Hindu women were capable were depicted by several such instances.
To delineate the qualities of a high-principled man, we have Bharata who, on his return from a visit to his uncle, found his brother banished to the forest by his mother and the kingdom his to be ruled, as his father had died of grief meanwhile. However he would not take over as king and, when Rama refused to come back till all 14 years of exile promised by him to his late father and step-mother were over, Bharata took his brother's paduka or wooden slippers, placed them on the throne and ruled as regent till his brother's return.
The qualities of the ideal man, prince and king are learnt by the ordinary people to this day from the character of Rama, of the ideal woman and wife from the strong but gentle character embodied in Seeta, and of the qualities of ideal brothers from the behaviour of Bharata, Lakshmana and Shatrughna.
The ideal qualities of loyalty, unstinted devotion and love are depicted in the character of Hanuman, the monkey, who helped Rama cross over to Lanka and defeat Ravana. When Lakshmana was hit by a poison arrow and needed medicinal herbs from the Oshadhi Mountain in the Himalayas, Hanuman flew north all the way but found, on reaching there, that he could not identify the particular herb asked for. Knowing that his beloved Rama may not live if Lakshmana was not revived, he lifted the whole mountain and carried it all the way back to Lanka.
The potential for good and evil in all beings is brought out again and again. The destruction of evil by good either by oneself or by divine intervention is a constant theme of Hinduism.
Even the demons were not all bad and wicked and are shown as having good qualities also. Ravana, the demon-king of Lanka, was a great scholar. Even though he abducted Seeta to make her his queen, he treated her with respect and regard and never molested or harmed her but awaited her consent to marry her. Hanuman, in his attempt to locate Seeta, visits Lanka, and is greatly struck by Ravana and says, "What courage! What strength! What a combination of great qualities is Ravana!"
Ravana's brother, the demon Kumbhakarna, disapproved strongly of the abduction of Seeta. Yet because he had prospered under Ravana's patronage, and "eaten his salt", he refused to desert his brother in his hour of peril.
The great virtue of loyalty, even for a lost cause, was brought out by such instances.
Through the stories from the Ramayana which are recited to them, the ordinary people learn the difference between right and wrong, develop a high sense of values and understand what ideal behaviour is. The tremendous cultural heritage of the Vedas and Upanishads has reached and permeated to the most illiterate of our people through Sage Valmiki's priceless epic, the Ramayana. This is why our peasants, even those living in remote villages, know to this day what they can expect from the laws of the land and are not ignorant of their rights nor of what is due to the ruled by the rulers. The illiterate peasant trusts his rulers implicitly, expecting another Rama Rajya, and today uses the modern tool of the vote to express his feelings towards his rulers. The illiterate villager is therefore not ignorant as the city educated think him to be.
The second great epic of the Hindus, the Mahabharata, was compiled by Sage Vyasa and revolves around the Great War between two princely families, the righteous five Pandava brothers and their evil cousins, the hundred Kauravas. The central character of the epic is Lord Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu on earth, a man of action and statesman.
When poised on the battlefield ready for battle, Arjuna, the great warrior and one of the Pandava brothers, sees that the enemies that are arrayed before him are his close relations, cousins, uncles and grand-uncles, and refuses to fight or destroy them. Krishna, who acts as his charioteer, advises him on the importance of his dharma or duty as a warrior to fight for righteousness. The Kauravas, representing evil, have to be destroyed to restore Dharma or righteousness in the land.
Swami Vivekananda compares the Kurukshetra battlefield to the world we live in. The five Pandava brothers represent righteousness and the hundred Kauravas the myriad worldly attachments we have to fight against. Arjuna, the soul awakened by the teachings of Krishna, is the general who leads in this battle.
The teachings of Lord Krishna called the Bhagavad Gita, or the Song of the Lord, are part of the discourse between Lord Krishna and Arjuna at Kurukshetra during the great Mahabharata War. In this priceless scripture, Lord Krishna places emphasis on Nishkama Karma or action without desire or passion and without any worry about the fruits or results of one's actions. Through such scriptures the duties of the ideal man were laid down, showing him to be a Yogi, or one unattached to worldly desires, as far as his heart and mind are concerned, but also as a man of action setting right the wrongs of society.
An interesting allegory is the comparison of the Upanishads to a cow, the Bhagavad Gita to milk, Krishna to a cowherd and Arjuna to a calf. In other words, the essence of the Upanishads is milked by Krishna and the milk, the Bhagavad Gita, fed to Ariuna.
The Shantiparva of the Mahabharata contains the teachings of Bhishma Pitamaha, the grand-uncle of the family from which were descended both the Pandavas and the Kauravas. These words of wisdom were uttered while Bhishma was awaiting his death after being seriously wounded in the Great War. In his discourse, Bhishma instructs Yudhishtira, the oldest Pandava brother, on Dharma or righteous conduct and duty, on statecraft and the responsibilities of a ruler. These teachings on Hindu Dharma are without parallel.
From the Mahabharata, therefore, the people learnt the rules and the codes of ideal conduct laid down for man and woman, king and commoner.
Writer – Shakunthala Jagannathan