Essays in Life and Eternity
by Swami Krishnananda


Chapter 21: The Epics and Puranas

There is a passage in the Mahabharata that the Veda is afraid of one who tries to approach it without having been properly trained in the meaning of the Epics and Puranas, the idea being that the subtle and intricate significance hidden beneath the Vedic lore cannot be properly comprehended without the illustrative, expository and feelingful narrations in the Epic and Purana treatises.

The Ramayana and the Mahabharata are the great Indian Epics, written in magnificent heroic poetry, the first by Valmiki, and the second by Vyasa. The Ramayana excels in its depiction of its superb heroes – the divine majesty and power of Rama, the indomitable strength and chivalry of Lakshmana, the heart-rending goodness and sacrifice of Bharata, the astounding energy and invincibility of Hanuman, the touching simplicity, honesty and straightforwardness of Sita, with a common loyalty and togetherness of all these personages in a grand consummation of achievement humanly conceivable. Lyrical mellifluousness and a subtle inwardly moving force are the characteristics of the poetry of Valmiki. Its beauty may be compared to a flowering rose or lotus in the morning and its irresistible force of conviction to the unshakeable Himalayas. The Mahabharata of Vyasa, on the other hand, is a virile tumult of the waves of stupendous thoughts that drown the reader and at once lift him up to the surface to dash him on its own body, which it does at the same time, in an attempt to energetically portray the frailties of human nature and the irresistible power of God, continuously operating, winklessly awake, in the universe. The heroes of Vyasa are: Krishna, who, as the incarnation of God in this world, moves the earth and the heaven simultaneously with his resistless will and knowledge; Yudhishthira, who embodies righteousness gone to the extreme and virtue breaking with its own weight; Bhima, the iron man who could pound tens of elephants with the blows of his hand, irascible and quick in action; Arjuna, the Indian Achilles, with his ambidexterous archery, who knows not what is missing an aim, the ideal man as the friend of the ideal divinity Krishna; and Draupadi, the vigorous lady in whom one finds an incomparable expression of womanly feeling and comforting grace as well as a manly relentlessness in undertaking and action.

What do these Epics tell us? The art of teaching here is supremely psychological and just fitted to appeal to the emotion and the reason at the same time, together with a power to stimulate the longings of the deepest soul, the self of everyone. If the Veda glories in its peak of sublimity looking on all things down on earth with a condescending concern for even the lowest to enable it to rise to the requirements of the highest attainment, the Epics speak to man as a father would admonish or as a mother would instruct, as a friend would advise or a beloved would coerce. They comprehend in one grasp the needs of people as souls seeking a ray of light from the horizon of life, as verily Heirs-apparent to the throne of Immortality. The seven books of the Ramayana and the eighteen books of the Mahabharata may be said to represent the seven stages in the life of man and the eighteen steps in the effort towards perfection. The innocent childhood of the Pandava brothers in a state of ignorance of their future destiny, as described in the First Book of the Mahabharata; the sudden fortune which befalls them as a windfall in the Second Book; the quick fall of face and ruin of fortune in an exile into wilderness and helpless aloneness as well as an immediate reaction from the protective forces of heaven and earth coming for consideration and rescue, in the Third Book; the life incognito and the precarious existence of the brothers in the Fourth Book; the sudden turning of the tables round and a seeing of God's hand working unmistakably when the sure support of the reliable Krishna comes unasked in the Fifth Book; the battle with fate and the world at large in the Sixth, Seventh, Eighth and Ninth Books; the inscrutable and ununderstandable phases that rock between victory and glory in the Tenth and Eleventh Books; the coming face-to-face with the relief of a total annihilation of every opposition and the readiness to be installed in the fearless possession of mastery and rulership in the Twelfth Book; these are some of the basic features of the story of the Mahabharata. The remaining Books, from the Thirteenth to the Eighteenth, form a sequel to the whole dramatic enactment picturesquely portrayed in the first twelve Books, something like an appendix giving details of the way of an anticlimax and pathos into which the joys and exultations of earthly life sink in a dissociation from all things and a bereavement that cuts off man from every association and tells him that he is to stand alone unbefriended in the world, when Nature's illusions cast him out as an exhausted instrument. The Mahabharata is the grand tale of the rise and fall of the human empire.

The Pranas are chronicles containing ancient history, mythology and longer or shorter discourses in religion, philosophy, Yoga, mystical attainment and spiritual realisation, and several other kindred subjects. Large sections of the Puranas, which are eighteen in number, are devoted to a glorification of the exploits of the great Divinities; Vishnu, Siva, Brahma, Devi, Ganesa and Skanda; either in their original forms or through their manifestations. Also, Surya and Vayu occupy prominent places in the Puranas, and receive great attention. The Puranas also describe at length such other subjects as medicine, art, rhetoric and literary appreciation, grammar, ethics, politics, ritual, social laws of the classes and the stages of life, pilgrimage to holy places, religious vows and observances, exposition on the value of charitable gifts, and the philosophy of Samkhya Yoga and Vedanta, in a variety of ways. They also embody vivid biographies of sages, saints, kings and stalwarts who lived and moved in this world as paragons of wisdom, power and moral toughness. Of the eighteen Puranas, six are devoted to Brahma, six to Vishnu and six to Siva. From the point of view of their essential content, philosophical profundity and religious impressiveness, the most important among them are the Vishnu Purana and the Srimad Bhagavata Purana. The Bhagavata, in particular, deals with practically everything that a standard Purana may be expected to propound in religion, philosophy and theology. The cosmography of the Puranas includes descriptions of the astronomical universe, the solar system and the fourteen worlds or realms of creation. The physical plane itself is said to consist of seven continents and seven oceans, all concentric in their arrangement, every succeeding continent and ocean being double the preceding one in extent. There is also a calculation which states that among the five elements – Earth, Water, Fire, Air and Ether – every succeeding element is ten times the preceding one in largeness.

The philosophy of the Epics and Puranas is essentially the pre-scholastic Vedanta, in which the higher aspects of Samkhya and Yoga become amplified. The metaphysical side of the Mahabharata is a popular exposition of the wisdom of the Upanishads, Brahman getting identified with Narayana as the Supreme Being. The Prakriti and the Purusha of the Samkhya are accepted as working hypotheses, however not existing independently by themselves but as dependent on God, forming His very body. The Yoga system is accepted entirely in its practical aspects. The philosophical portions of the Mahabharata are, the Sanatsujatiya, Bhagavadgita, Moksha Dharma, and Anu Gita, which embody in their togetherness almost everything that one can learn in the field of higher educational instruction.