India’s Ancient Culture
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 5: Introduction to the Epics

In our last sessions we discussed the foundations of Indian culture and the inner contents and classifications of the Vedas. Next, we moved further on to a consideration of special emphasis laid in the course of history on the different sections of the Vedas, with some group or community laying emphasis on the Samhitas, others on the Brahmanas, and others on the Aranyakas and the Upanishads.

The orthodox Vedic pundits who are available to us even today in small numbers in India study the Veda Samhitas by rote, by heart, and they make it a profession. Study of the Veda Samhitas means the capacity to recite the Samhitas. The emphasis is laid on the Brahmanas in the form of the Mimamsa doctrine of ritualism, karma kanda as it is known in Sanskrit, and the externalised form of the application of the Veda mantras. The mantras of the Vedas were originally intended as prayers to the gods, conceived in the beginning as a group superintending over all the powers of nature, later on clubbed together into different categories of ruling powers, and culminating in the end with a monotheistic concept of the one God and the Absolute. This aspect of the Veda mantras was taken up for meditational purposes in the Aranyakas and the Upanishads.

The ethical and the moral side, the sociological side, became the study of the Smritis, eighteen in number, of which the Manusmriti, Yajnavalkya Smriti and Parashara Smriti are the most important. What is it that the Smritis tell us? I am repeating to you what I said the other day. The aims of existence conceived as material needs, emotional needs, ethical needs and moral needs centred round the final aim of life, which is moksha, liberation of the spirit, which achievement was attempted through an internal educational process of actual living in the world through the stages of brahmacharya, grihastha, vanaprastha and sannyasa. All this we have already observed in some detail.

Thus, the aim of life, which is the liberation of the spirit, is the conditioning factor of ethical and moral living in the world – righteousness and justice. Even the permission to have material comforts and emotional satisfactions in our life is determined by the law of universal salvation of the soul. It is very difficult to imagine how every aspect of life has been interpreted in India in terms of the highest aim that is the principal occupation of all mankind. This widespread, well thought-out, precise pattern of living laid down for us by our ancients through the Smritis is forgotten these days. We do not seem to be living for the sake of the ultimate liberation of the spirit. The very idea of it has been brushed aside from our brains on account of intense pressure laid on us by economic factors, physical needs, political conditions, and community values. We live in communities, we have national barriers, we have political limitations of various kinds, and our needs are principally today wrongly conceived as economic and material. We have come down far from the ancient ideal, looking to the effect and the fruit only, which we want to reap and enjoy, without knowing how the fruit will come unless there is a tree which is planted well.

How would you expect material comfort and emotional satisfaction and security of any kind unless there is a law that operates permitting you to have these perquisites? From where will you get your material needs? How will you have mental satisfaction, peace of mind and emotional security? How can you be guarded from the onslaughts of nature and other people in the world? Where comes the necessity for setting up a set of regulations and a system of law and order? On what ground will you contemplate the system of management of human society unless there is a basic, universally acceptable principle? This principle on which every other consideration is based, and has to be based, is the principle of the universal liberation of the spirit – not merely of mankind, but of creation as a whole. Here is the forte, the strong point of India’s culture, which has been misunderstood by modern historians as an otherworldly consideration, which it is not. Liberation of the spirit is not something that is to take place after the death of the body. This is a misguided modern interpretation of wrongly written history. Religion is not a guideline or a map which will take you to the other world. It is a consideration of this world itself.

Actually, this so-called moksha is not outside the world; it is inside the world in the same way as your soul is not outside your body. It is inside you. It is you. What you call liberation of the spirit is nothing but the realisation of the Self of the whole cosmos, the Soul of the universe, and if you consider the soul of the universe is somewhere far off outside the universe, it would be like thinking that your soul is outside the body, and in order to reach your soul you have to move geographically from your body to the soul. What is the distance between your body and your soul? That is the distance between life in this world and life in moksha. There is no distance. This subtlety is not properly grasped by modern theologians, philosophers, historians, and leaders of mankind. “India is a religious country. It is thinking only of the other world.” Especially Christian bigots and evangelists who are trying to throw dust upon Hinduism are very much interested in emphasising this aspect of a so-called wrongly interpreted otherworldly aspect of Hinduism, which Hinduism does not have. And modern education in colleges and universities, being Christian-oriented and Western-oriented practically, has thrust this wrong notion into the brains of modern youth who even now wrongly think that Hindu religion is an otherworldly affair and that it has no concern with modern physical, material, down-to-earth life.

Other doctrines like communism, socialism, etc., which rebut the very idea of religion, also have a wrong notion of what religion actually means because they think that religion does not feed the stomach of a person, it only promises an otherworldly goal to the soul, if it all there is a soul. These are the two errors of extra emphasis laid on the economic and physical side of life without proper understanding of the relation between matter and spirit. Communism, socialism, anti-God and atheistic religions, which are also a kind of religion, arise not because they say something wrong, but because whatever they say is based on wrong foundations.

The relation between this world and the other world, the relation between matter and spirit, the relation between religion and political existence, is like the relation between your body and your soul, so you cannot emphasise too much the body aspect of your life and forget that you have a soul and a consciousness. I am telling you all these things in order to remove from your mind any idea that religion is connected with life in the other world and it is a temple worship of gods who are not in this world. It is the worship of gods who are in this world – not only in this world, but who are the guiding principles of this world. In the same way as the soul is permeating every cell of your body, religious spirit is to permeate every activity of your life. Even your kitchen and bathroom are to be conditioned by this great goal of moksha because nothing that belongs to your body is outside the activity of the spirit or the soul, which you really are. This is something very intricate, and much of it might not have entered your mind in all its implications, but it is good for you to think over this aspect of it.

So these are some of the conclusions that we wisely draw from the contents of the Vedas, the Brahmanas, the Aranyakas, the Upanishads and the Smritis, which laid down for us the pattern of the very concept of the aims of existence – dharma, artha, kama, moksha – in connection with which it became necessary to tell you something more as to what moksha is. Moksha is not something that will take place in the future; it is an eternity that is operating. Moksha is identical with timeless eternity, and therefore inasmuch as it is not in time, it is not a question of tomorrow. It is not an after-death affair. There is no question of ‘after’ because there is no time there. It is a just now, here. That is moksha. This is a hard nut to crack. Ordinary minds cannot grasp this subtlety of the very concept of freedom of the spirit, which is not tomorrow’s matter; it is a matter concerning just this moment, and this place where you are seated. It is a question of here and now, as they say. So much about the basic scriptures, the foundations of Indian culture, which are recorded for us in the Vedas, or the Srutis as they are called, and the Smritis.

The essentials of the practice of religion, the practice of these injunctions of the Vedas and the Smritis, which I tried to delineate in these few days, though they appear to be clear to some extent, they did not become clear to every mind and every person for all times. Even you people who are all well-educated and clear-headed students will not be in a position to keep this in your mind for a long time. After hearing all this, when you go out from this hall, you will again think that God is outside the world, He is above in heaven, and moksha is after death. These ideas will persist in you like a dragon wherever you go, and if such educated persons can find it hard to maintain the true spirit of what culture in the sense of freedom of the spirit is, what to talk of common folk, the rustics, the farmers, the tillers who are more body-oriented than intellectual or spirit-oriented? But to them religion had to give sufficient attention.

The culture of India is not only for intellectuals, it is not only for students in the university, it is not only for Brahmins or pundits, not also merely for Kshatriyas or rulers and administrators, not only for the traders, but also for the lowest downtrodden. The very purpose of the culture of India is to see that the spirit of freedom is inculcated into the minds of even those who do not know what freedom is. Even if you do not know what freedom is, it is necessary for you to be free. You are so very untutored in the art of living that you do not know that you are bound. Merely because you have no consciousness of there being such a thing called freedom, it is not proper for those who have such consciousness to exploit you.

Indian culture is a broad-based, charitable action of enlightened ones for the purpose of bringing the very same enlightenment into those who do not know that they are bound. Even to the lowest and the most unlettered, this spirit of the freedom of the soul has to be introduced gradually by a process of education. Cultural values are actually processes of education. Today we have education, but the subjects are compartmentalised, departmentalised specialisations in certain sciences and the humanities, as we call them. But culture, which is inseparable from true education, is so inclusive that it has not ignored the operation of any aspect of human nature.

Therefore, it became necessary for the promulgators of India’s culture, especially in ancient times, to find some way or means to drive into the minds of those who are not academically qualified, those who are not pundits, what religion is. When I use the word ‘religion’, please be cautious to keep in mind that it is not used in the sense of anything that is not of this world; it is always used in the sense of an enlightening scientific operation taking place in this very earth itself, in your very body. It is an imminence, and not merely a transcendence.

The work of introducing the spirit of true culture, spirituality and religion, bringing it down to the earth, to the streets and the marketplace, to the fields and the shops, was attempted by experts like the writers of our great epics, especially the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The Ramayana and the Mahabharata are known as stories of something that happened years back. In the same way as there are wrong notions of religion and spirituality and moksha, there are wrong notions about the intention behind the Ramayana and Mahabharata epics. These epics were not written merely to tell you some stories. They are not Aesop’s or Grimm’s fairy tales. They are a modus operandi of telling you the very same truth that has been more precisely and scientifically laid down in the Vedas, the Upanishads, and the Smritis.

The Srutis and the Smritis are difficult because they are down to the earth and mathematically pinpointed in their teachings. In mathematics there is no story and there is no emotion in working out calculations of equations, etc., yet it rules the world, as you know. Mathematics is an exact science. Logic is also an exact science. So logic and mathematics, as it were, became the foundations of a precise way of thinking which is at the back of the Veda Samhitas, the Srutis or the Smritis. But we are not always logicians and mathematicians, and exact, precise, calculated thinking is not accessible to every mind everywhere. So the epics tell us in a more satisfying and considerate way what the groundings of the Vedas and the Smritis are by telling us what happened in this connection in ancient times, in historical days. There was the time of Rama, and there was the time of the Pandavas and the Kauravas during the time of Bhagavan Sri Krishna.

We do not merely want to understand things; we also wish to see these things that we are understanding. Calculus is very clear indeed, and the intellect, the reason, is able to appreciate it, but the heart has a reason which the reason does not know, as they say. Sometimes the heart is saying something which the intellect does not say. The intellect accepts everything that is logically presented, but the heart has some problem with the logically acceptable truth because it wants a peculiar kind of satisfaction which only the emotion can understand.

Spiritual seekers, students of culture in the practical aspect of it, should also be a little bit of psychologists. It is not that you are mugging up something that is told to you in textbooks or told to you in colleges by your teachers and professors. It is necessary for you to also know what you are seeking as a student in a college or university. When you try to find out what it is that you require, you must know something about yourself. “I go to the college. I study.” What for? “I need something.” What are your needs? For that you must know something about yourself. Any good cultural student or educationist should be a good psychologist also. You have to know something about your mind, and when you go into the depths of these needs of your personality, you will realise that your emotions are as strong as your intellect, and their needs are as important and urgent as your intellectual requirements. Intellectual education is as important as emotional education, and vice versa, emotional education is as important as intellectual education. The Vedas and Srutis, and the Smritis to which we made reference up to this time, spoke principally to the intellectual and rational side of human nature, not so much the emotional side. The emotion has to be paid sufficient attention, and this work has been attempted by the Ramayana and Mahabharata epics, and some of the Puranas.

An epic, or an Itihasa, as it is called in the Sanskrit language, is basically a history of events that took place some centuries back. We have epics everywhere in the world. We have Greek epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey written by Homer, which delineate the story of the Trojan War and such things, and the achievements of Ulysses, Achilles, and heroes of that kind of the Greek world. The Iliad and the Odyssey are epics. Epics are heroic poems. There is always a spirit of valour, chivalry, a warlike spirit, an action in the epics; and that you will find in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata as we have in the Iliad and the Odyssey. There is another important epic in the Latin language written by Virgil, and that epic is called Aeneid, which refers to Roman history. Then we have got the great epic of Dante, called Divine Comedy in three books, Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso, worth reading indeed. It is a wonderful epic of the ascent of the soul from hell to heaven through the purgation of suffering which it has to undergo on the way. Then we have got Milton’s Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, an English epic. And then we have got stories of Eddas in Iceland culture, epics of Nordic culture, etc.

Likewise, we have heroic poems in India, principally the Ramayana and the Mahabharata in Sanskrit. Actually, India’s culture is not only in Sanskrit. It is also in some other languages, for example, Tamil. The Tamil language is a very, very ancient cultural foundation, and modern English-educated youth have very little access to this culture of the Tamils. As we have got great kavyas or literature in Sanskrit, like Kalidasa, etc., we have got great epics in the Tamil language which are as profound, sometimes I should say more profound, than in Sanskrit verse, such as Cilappatikaram, Manimekalai, Valayapathi, Kundalakeci and Civaka Cintamani. These are the five great Tamil epics. Only those who are capable of understanding this classical Tamil, not the ordinary workaday Tamil, may be able to appreciate the masterly exposition in Tamil of wondrous secrets of human life. We have epics in the Kannada language, in the Telugu language, etc., also adding to the cultural value of the entire country. But the origin of the concept of the epic arose from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, which are translated in poetic style by great experts in other languages also. The idea behind these epics is to instil into our mind an emotional appreciation of the very same truths of the Srutis and the Smritis, the Vedas and the Dharma Shastras.

I again repeat to you to read one or two books that I suggested: Foundations of Indian Culture by Aurobindo, Human Cycle by Aurobindo, Eastern Religions and Western Thought by Dr. Radhakrishnan, and other introductory books like The Spiritual Heritage of India by Swami Prabhananda, and I added one more the other day, Vedic Religion and Philosophy by Swami Prabhananda. Read these books. You will have some idea as to what actually is the implication of what I am speaking to you.

When you read the epics, this glorious Ramayana and the Mahabharata, you will always feel that you are stimulated from inside, as if you are drinking a cup of strong coffee. You are stirred up. After reading some passages of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, you will not be the same person that you were before you took up the book. And they are so impressive, so catching, so enlightening and absorbing, that you would not like to keep the book down. Some of the plays of Shakespeare also are like that. When you start reading some of the plays of Shakespeare, you would not like to keep the book down unless you complete the whole thing – so absorbing, and so very interesting and practical. They are emotionally attractive, and therefore it is that you feel the need to study them right from the beginning to the end. Like attractive novels, they will catch you from the very root of your soul, and you would not like to keep them down unless you go through the whole book, so absorbing they are. So the spirit of a novel, the spirit of a literature, the spirit of a heroic poem, the spirit of a spiritual teaching, all these spirits are found clubbed together in these great epics. Masterly literatures are these Ramayana and Mahabharata epics, the Ramayana written by Valmiki and the Mahabharata written by Sage Vyasa.

The literary aspect of Sanskrit in the epic Ramayana is lyrically oriented, mellifluous, smoothly flowing, calming the spirit, calming the emotions, stilling your passions like the slow, steady, calm and quiet movement of the Ganga in the wintertime. It is not the tumultuous movement of the Ganga during the rainy season; that is the Mahabharata. If you want to know how the Ramayana story moves smoothly, as if it is not moving at all and yet moving, you can see the Ganga moving now. It is moving, yet it does not appear it is moving at all. Calm, quiet, leisurely and majestically, royally, the Ganga is moving now in this season. But see her in the month of July and August; that is the Mahabharata. Great things are coming; huge waves dash over one another. A cataclysm of thoughts, an avalanche of ideas descend on your head when you read the Mahabharata, and you are stirred into a spirit of intense activity and doing something in some way or the other for some purpose. This spirit is instilled in you by the Mahabharata of Vyasa, whereas when you read the Ramayana you are calm, quiet, subdued, and feel sober and restful.

Militant language is used in the Mahabharata Sanskrit; virile poetry is the Mahabharata, whereas the Ramayana may be said to be a feminine type of poetry, calm, quiet, sober, leisurely, not yelling out roughly. Rough and rue poetry is sometimes seen in the Mahabharata. Calm and quiet, beautiful poetry is in the Ramayana.

I shall tell you something about the origin of the Ramayana epic and the origin of the Mahabharata epic for your diversion, as a kind of interesting information which you will be happy to know. Sage Valmiki was walking in the woods, and he saw a hunter shooting a bird, a male bird which was with its consort on a tree. The male and female birds were krounchi. Krouncha is a variety of birds. And the couple were on the tree. A hunter shot an arrow at the male. The poet, Sage Valmiki, was looking at it, feeling grieved and struck to the quick. He uttered one imprecation, cursing this hunter. This verse is the beginning of the Ramayana in Sanskrit. Mā niṣāda pratiṣṭhāṁ tvamagamaḥ śāśvatīḥ samāḥ, yat krauñcamithunādekam avadhīḥ kāmamohitam: Wretched man! Eagerly, affectionately the couple were seated on the tree; the lover and the beloved were sitting in great joy inwardly. You struck one of them cruelly. Therefore, I utter this word: May you not live long. You die as you made the poor bird also die.

Brahma, the Creator, came down immediately upon hearing these words of the great Sage Valmiki and said, “You have glorified Rama, the incarnation of Vishnu in this series of words that you have uttered. I ask you to write the whole story of Rama, the incarnation of Vishnu, in future.”

The sage was stunned. “When did I utter words in praise of Rama? I cursed the hunter; that’s all I said. I never took the name of Rama, I don’t know anything about Vishnu’s incarnation, and I was not in a mood of glorifying anyone. I was, rather, in a mood of cursing.”

“No, it is not so. You thought it is a curse but actually, inadvertently, you uttered not merely prose, you spoke poetry,” said Brahma.

“Poetry? I uttered poetry in cursing?” asked the sage.

This is the first poem, the first verse of a type of a poem in Sanskrit, they say, and so Valmiki is called the original Sanskrit poet of India.

Now, if you want to know how a curse could be construed as a prayer or a glorification of God in the words of this verse, you must know something of Sanskrit; otherwise, my attempt to explain this intricacy is a waste of time because it is a grammatical peculiarity, due to which a curse has become a blessing and a prayer. There is a grammatical peculiarity in the words of the verse which suddenly converts the curse, internally, into a prayer to God Almighty, especially in the form of Rama. This is about the origin of the Ramayana, and on the order received from Brahma the Creator, Valmiki wrote the poem during the time of Rama himself, not after the passing away of Rama. He was a contemporary of Rama. As events took place, he wrote. Some people say that he wrote it even before the events took place on account of his omniscience. So this is the beginning of the Ramayana in Sanskrit poetry.

How did the Mahabharata start? Vyasa Krishna Dvaipayana, as he is called, one of the avataras of Vishnu, wrote the Mahabharata. He prayed to Brahma: “I require a clerical assistant to take down the verses of the great epic that I am thinking of in my mind. Can you think of somebody?”

“Why, no problem. Ganesha is there,” Brahma said. “Ganesha will be your clerk. He will take down whatever you say. Let the epic Mahabharata come. I bless you with success.” So Brahma requested Ganesha, “You please help. He will dictate, and you take it down.”

Ganesha came and sat before the great Vyasa and said, “I shall do your work, but on one condition: My pen should not stop. If you start thinking in the middle and scratching your head, and making me wait for the next word that you speak, I will get up and go away from this place. So you must continuously speak so that my pen should not stop. On that condition I will do this work of writing.”

Vyasa thought, “This is a very great condition you are putting on me.” So he also thought of a peculiar tactic of putting Ganesha to a little difficulty. He said, “I put also one condition, that without understanding what I say, you should not write.” So purposely, to make Ganesha think a little while as to what he is saying, here and there he put such hard-nut verses that it is not easy to make out the meaning. If Ganesha, the Lord of Wisdom, requires time to think of the meaning of some of the verses, you can imagine what they could be. In the whole of the Mahabharata, one lakh of verses, there are eight thousand verses of this kind. They are called knots of Vyasa, eight thousand, and when he uttered those words, Ganesha would think about them. By that time Vyasa would go to the next verse. This is an interesting relationship between the wondrous Vyasa and the more wonderful Ganesha.

The Mahabharata was written as the story of the Pandavas and the Kauravas, as the Ramayana was written by Valmiki as the story of Rama on the one hand and Ravana on the other. A great wonder is this set of epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata; and if you want to read a shortened form, or the abridged form of the great epic, you can read the beautiful English rendering of it by Sri Rajagopalachari. Sri Rajagopalachari’s rendering of the Ramayana and Mahabharata are published by Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Bombay, and he brings the true spirit of the whole epic, though in a very abridged form, about two hundred and fifty pages each. You will know what these great epics are. Rajagopalachari thought our modern youth do not know what is Ramayana, what is Mahabharata. Even the name of these epics they have not heard. Knowing that even modern youth who are so-called educated ones, IAS officers and so on, are not acquainted even with the basic knowledge of the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, Rajagopalachari took them up. He originally wrote it in Tamil, and then he put it in English. So you can read these two books, Rajagopalachari’s rendering of Ramayana and Mahabharata. I am not asking you to read bigger volumes as they are very confusing, so these two are good enough. Today we close with this brief consideration.