1. World  Epics & The Mahabharata

Epics are among the lasting creations of many cultures. They have been a source of meaning and inspiration for people. They are also great works of lasting literature.

Ancient Greece had the Iliad and the Odyssey which tell the story of the Trojan War and its aftermath. We know little of historical authenticity about their alleged blind author Homer. Some have even questioned the existence of this personage. In Latin, Virgil's Aeneis (Aeneid), much shorter in length, tells of how Romans emerged from a Trojan who came to the region of Rome . The medieval Nibelungenlied of unknown authorship was inspired by ancient myths about Sigfried and a dwarf people, and of tragic heroes. The Völsunga Saga of Iceland is a work of Norse mythology which talks about the great deeds of Sigurd and Brynhild. The Anglo-Saxon Beowulf extols a hero of another land. In all these instance, Helen and Aeneas and Siegfried and Odin and  Grendel may all be  imaginary characters for us, but there was a time when many believed they had really lived and died, with at least as much conviction as some in our own times who swear that the Lochness monster and UFOs exist.

     Then there were  the Chansons de Geste in medieval France which raised Charlemagne to lofty heights and spoke of happy days when in the morning birds sang sweetly in Latin, and joy inflamed the universe at large. They were semi-historical songs of the great gestures (actions) of heroes who fought the Moors and the Saracens, but aside from Islamic foes, it had its own versions of asuras and rakshasas also.

     As Virgil did for Rome , Firdusi constructed a history - the Shahnama- for his beloved Persia in  120,000 poetic lines, culling stones for his epic edifice from the folklore that pervaded the air about the origin of the world and the history of Iranians till its Islamization. He  spoke with sureness about Gayamurth, Jamshid and Rustam  who lived on and on for  centuries. At one time, the tragic battle between  Rustam and his  lost son Sohrab was no mere fantasy for one of truly Persian blood. They were  as real in the Persian psyche as Achilles was in the Greek mind.

     Many epics were once transmitted from generation to generation through the oral tradition. Thousands of lines of  the Üligers of Mongolia , lengthy narratives of ancient deeds of glory, used to be recited from memory by native rhapsodists. Here may be found historical personages like Genghis Khan, but also  manggus, the polycephalous monster.

Indian culture and civilization owe much of their richness, ideals, and values to great epics: the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and the Kandapuranam, all magnifi­cent and incredibly long poetic compositions.

The Mahabharata con­sists of more than a hundred thousand couplets: the longest epic poem in any language. It is an epic with a hundred side stories, often suggestive of an insight or a moral principle, but always interesting. In some fundamental ways it set the pattern of all history. The work is described as one in which “Devas, Devarishis, and immaculate Brahmarishis of good deeds, have been spoken of; and likewise Yakshas and great Uragas.” It is the narration of the deeds of the good and the great, as well as of the evil and the ignoble in so far as they have had impacts on the course of human events. Is this not what history is all about?

The Mahabharata tells of the conflicts between two families. All of  history may also be looked upon as records of conflicts. There have been conflicts between kingdoms and nations, each trying to expand its own borders by encroaching into the territories of others, or to establish dominion over other people. Philosophers have  propounded mutually opposing interpreta­tions of the world and of scriptures, generating controversies among scholars and godmen.  Every sect with a doctrine, ancient or modern, whether religious or secular, which has claimed to know the ultimate truth, has found itself in belligerent opposition with others. Then again, there have been (and there continue to be) con­flicts between secularism and theology, between political ideologies, between national self-interests, etc. The Mahabharata was prescient in its central theme.

The Mahabharata informs us that it was authored by Rishi (sage) Vyasa. The traditional  belief is that it narrates actual events in a very distant epoch. Scholars suspect that though the central episode may have a factual bearing, the majestic epic grew over the centuries, enriched by the talents of more than just one poetic genius and fertiliz­ed by many imaginative minds. The name Vyasa means the arranger. Scholars are divided as to when the Mahabharata was composed.

In this series of  essays I plan to  reflect on snippets from this epic. I have high regard for its spiritual and religious dimensions, but here I will consider its contents as of an extraordinary literary masterpiece replete with cultural anecdotes, mythological tales, as well as deep insights and commentaries on the human condition.