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THE Sutra literature does not lack connection with the epics, to which we now turn. In the Grihya Sutra of Shankhayana, for example, occur the names of Sumantu, Jaimini, Vaishampayana, and Paila, who are teachers of the great epic Mahabharata; and the list of revered teachers, and no less revered species of literature, mentioned in the Sutra of Ashvalayana includes the Bharata and Mahabharata, while the Shambhavya Sutra also mentions the Mahabharata (it omits Bharata, perhaps as included in the greater name). Although the words are assumed by modern scholars to be interpolated, the reason given, because otherwise it would make the Sutra too later, has never been very cogent, since the end of the Sutras and beginning of the epics probably belong to about the same time. As an indefinite allusion not to a special epic poem but to the kind of poetry are also to be noticed such early references as that of Ashvalayana (III, 3, 1) to Gathas, hero-lauds, tales, and ancient legends.

Epic poetry is divided by the Hindus themselves into two genera, one called ‘tales and legends’ (Itihasa and Purina) and the other called ‘art-poem’ or simply ‘poem’ (Kavya, the production of a Kavi or finished poet); but the compilation named Mahabharata is both Itihasa-Purina, its original designation, and then Kavya, though it is not recognized as a Kavya till the introductory verses exalt it as such. In its origin it was undoubtedly a popular story of the glorified historical character which attaches to tribal lays even today. The second epic, the Ramayana, has always stood as the type and origin of the refined one-author poem, and whatever may have been the date of its germ as a story, as an art-product it is later than the Mahabharata.

Thus the oldest references which may indicate epic poetry point rather to the story of the Bharatas than to the story of Rama. These references, however, in any event are not nearly old enough to warrant the assumption of immense antiquity made by the native tradition. The language of both epics is not Vedic but a popular form of Sanskrit, which was developed by the bards and became the recognized language of narrative poetry; and their metre is the final reproduction of Vedic metres in modern form. Both language and verse are not widely different from those of the latest Sutras. We may reasonably conclude, then, that the latest Sutras and the epics belong to the same period, and that they represent two contemporary styles of literature, the former priestly and the latter secular.

There can be no doubt that, so far as much of their subject-matter is concerned, the epics and the Puranas are the literary descendants of the stories and legends (Itihasas and Puranas) which are mentioned in literature from the time of the Atharvaveda onwards; and the particular legend or historical tale (the two are confused) which is embedded in the Mahabharata or ‘great epic of the Bharatas’ is also not wholly without scholastic affinities. Just as the Brahmanas held the kernel of the Grihya Sutras, so the great epic through its promulgator, as traditionally recorded, is connected with the school of the White Yajurveda. Parashara is a name especially common in this Veda, occurring often in its genealogical lists; and the epic acknowledges the Shatapatha as the greatest of Brahmanas, while the heroes of the epic are particularly mentioned in the Brahmana, and indeed in such a way that Janamejaya, prominent in the epic, is treated as a recent personage by the authors of the latter part of the Brahmana, though the epic treats him as a descendant of the chief epic hero. The explanation of this is not such a mystery as it seemed to Weber, who was unable to reconcile the facts that the same person was the descendant of the later family and yet appeared as an immediate predecessor or contemporary of the earlier. The explanation is simply that at the time of the eleventh Kanda of the Shatapatha Brahmana, Janamejaya to the priestly author was an historical character, while to the epic poet he was legendary, and the poet himself was, if not a bard, a domestic chaplain probably incompetent to analyze history, but anxious to give his tale a noble frame.

Kurus and Pandus 

Other early allusions to epic characters only show that the epic which we now possess was unknown. Vaishampayana and Vyasa are mentioned as early as the Taittiriya Aranyaka, but not as authors or editors of the epic which is now their chief claim to recognition. The word Mahabharata is used by Panini, but only as an adjective which might be applied to anything great connected with the Bharatas, a hero or town, as well as a war or a poem. But above all, the Mahabharata epic is at bottom the story of a feud between Kurus and Pandus, and the Pandus are unknown to the early literature, either Brahmanas or Sutras. The idea that the original epic was a poem commemorating a war between Panchalas and Kurus, which was ably developed by Lassen, and adopted with modifications by Weber, is an ingenious attempt to account for what is assumed to have existed. As a matter of fact a Mahabharata without Pandus is like an Iliad without Achilles and Agamemnon; we know of no such poem. The Kurus and Panchalas are foes in the epic but only as the Pandus ally themselves with the latter. The Kurus of the epic, however, are doubtless the Kurus celebrated in ancient times; even the family records show that the epic reflects the glory of these old aristocrats. Thus the names Amba and Ambika as wives of a Kuru in the Shatapatha Brahmana are preserved in the name Amba (Ambika) as mother of the king of Kurus in the epic. The first occurrence of the name Paudu which can be dated seems to be in a vartiha or supplementary rule to Panini attributed to Katyayana (c. 180 BC). The Pandus, whatever may have been their antiquity, first come into view with the later Buddhist literature, which recognizes the Pandavas as a mountain clan, and possibly in the myth mentioned by Greek writers in regard to a Hindu Heracles and his wife Pandaia, though the latter is indeed of little weight. The epic Pandus are not a people but a family.

It is not till the second century BC that we find unmistakable allusion to what we may probably call our epic poem, in the account of the Mahabhashya, which alludes to a poetic treatment of the epic story and speaks of epic characters. The second century BC is also the period to which those portions belong in which the foreign invaders of the Punjab—Yavanas, Shakas, and Pahlavas—are mentioned. These foreigners are represented as fighting on the side of the Kurus. As for the Panchalas being opponents of the Aryan Kurus, the Shatapatha Brahmana represents them as allies, and in early literature they are frequently mentioned as forming one people, the Kuru-Panchalas. A single reference in a formula may, indeed, imply disdain of the Panchalas on the part of the Kurus, but it is not certain that any racial antagonism existed between the two. We may say with Webers that ‘the epic commemorates a fight between Aryans in Hindustan after the time when the original inhabitants had been overthrown and Brahmanised’, only on the assumption that Kurus, Panchalas, and Pandus were Aryans; but this is doubtful, and the force of the remark is in any case somewhat impaired by the fact that contests between Aryans are no indication of late date, since such contests are commemorated even in the Rigveda.

It is possible that the Panchalas represent five Naga clans (with ala ‘a water-snake’) connected with the Kurus or Krivis (meaning ‘serpent’ or ‘Naga’), and that none of the families is of pure Aryan blood, for the Nagas in the epic are closely related to the Pandus; but all such considerations at present rest on speculation rather than fact.

Whether we are to suppose that, anterior to our extant epic, there was a body of literature which had epic characteristics, must depend also largely on speculation regarding the few well-known facts in the case. These are briefly as follows. At certain ceremonies, not chiefly heroic, Gathas, ‘strophes’, in honor of great men are sung with the lute as accompaniment. These verses apply to men of the past or present, that is, they are laudatory verses of a memorial character. Further, the Grihya Sutras recognize Narashamsis, a sort of hero-lauds, as a literary genre. These may have served as nuclei for the stories of heroes preserved in epic form. In the epic itself genealogy forms an important sub-division, and such a genealogy includes the origin of gods as well as of men. Now the Brahmanas also know what they call the Devajana-vidya, ‘knowledge of the gods' race’; and since the epic genealogy of gods is in many ways indicative of respectable antiquity, it is possible that it derives from such a vidya or science. The stories told in the Brahmanas, like that of Harishchandra in the Aitareya Brahmana, often have epic fullness and likeness, being composed in the later epic verse though in ruder metre. In these also we get a form of narrative told in verse which might presumably have evolved into epic form. A great deal of the inflated epic is didactic, and much of this is derived from didactic sources older than the present epic. Thus dramatic tale, genealogy, and instruction in pedagogic form have all aided in the making of the epic. Even the theology of the epic has its prototype in the Brahmanas, where Vishnu is already the ‘best’ or most fortunate god, and Shiva is already called Mahadeva.

Early Heroic Poetry 

In the hymns of the Rigveda we find stories in verse which appear to need the complement of explanatory prose, and as the epic also has examples of this mingling of verse and prose in the telling of a story, it is possible that we may have the right to presuppose a sort of epic narrative even in the time of the Rigveda. Yet this presumptive epic of the Rigveda is so entirely a matter of theory, and not undisputed theory, that it may be left out of consideration when discussing the historical epic, as the presumptive drama of the Rigveda may be ignored in discussing the origin of Hindu historical drama.

The element in ancient literature which seems at first most likely to have contributed to the rise of epic poetry is that already mentioned under the name of Narashamsi or ‘hero-lauds’, withal not so much on account of the subject-matter as on account of the circumstances in which the lauds were sometimes sung. At the yearlong celebration preparatory to the horse-sacrifice ten days were devoted to a series of lauds of gods and heroes, whereby the nobility and great deeds of kings were sung by priest and warrior musicians in Gathas of an extemporaneous character, while the recitation of legends in verse accompanied various events of life.

Now there are certain scenes in the great epic which lend themselves especially to such an interpretation. One can well believe, for example, that the story of Amba, who was carried off by Bhishma from her home and given to Shalya, was best rendered as a thrilling lay; its intensity is almost equal to that of the gambling-scene. But there are many others not suited for anything save recitation, not to speak of the interminable didactic material loaded upon the epic by the bookful. How are we to reconcile this mass with a theory of lyric recitation or song?

A study of the interpolations in the so-called Southern text shows that thousands of verses of narrative and didactic material have been added to the epic text, and that the redaction comprises a shameless incorporation of material drawn from the Puranas and from the Harivamsha, a sort of Purana which was added to the Mahabharata, as well as elaborations of the original text, sometimes by the insertion of a dozen or so verses, sometimes by the addition to a chapter of half a dozen new chapters narrating feats of the heroes or insisting on the godliness of a demi-god. Now there is no reason not to suppose that the same process has made the Mahabharata what it is from the beginning. It contains at present a hundred thousand verses, with some prose admixture, but internal evidence shows that this is an accumulation; and the text itself admits that it was originally less than nine thousand verses in length. As we have seen above the Grihya Siutra of Ashvalayana mentions both a Bharata and a Mahabharata, no doubt a shorter and a longer version of the same poem. The theme of the epic as a story, the conflict between Kurus and Pandus, is at most not so long, about twenty thousand verses, as the whole Ramayana, or twenty-four thousand verses. In short, in the great epic of India we have a combination of matter, partly epical, partly pedagogic, partly narrative or historical. The genealogies and the religious-didactic parts are not necessarily later in date, but they are later additions to the original material. Some of the additions may be as old as the original or even older, but this does not entitle us to maintain that the epic was originally didactic, nor is this the best explanation of the heterogeneous mass which we call the epic, and which in its present form resembles such a combination as, barring dialectal differences, might be effected by combining a few books of the Iliad with Hesiod, extracts from Euripides, Theocritus, Aristotle, and a few chapters of the New Testament. With this exception, most of the didactic material is not for the everyday man, but distinctly for the military caste. Even the philosophy is not for the philosopher, the priest, but for the king and his nobles. The predominative religion, too, is that of the kingly caste. Indra is their sovereign Lord : and the heaven of Indra, with his celestial nymphs, the Apsarasas, is the reward for kingly duty faithfully performed on earth. The lower castes, Vaishya and Shudra, the agriculturist, the trader, the slave, are scarcely recognized except adventitiously, as it becomes convenient to refer to them. The epic is thoroughly aristocratic, a work completed by priests for warriors, to recount the deeds of warriors and show them the need of priests, who convert to orthodoxy the service of popular gods dear to the local aristocracy. The epic has thus become what it calls itself, the ‘fifth Veda’, and may be regarded either as a didactic storehouse (it calls itself a Dharma Shastra) or as a magnified Itihasa-Purana, which even before the epic existed was regarded as supplementing the Vedas. Both elements are united, religious-didactic and legendary, in such parts as treat of the demons, gods, and seers of old. How ancient may have been collections of such material prior to our extant epic is uncertain; but the evidence for earlier collective works does not appear to be convincing. That a mass of legends existed and that this mass was used by Brahmans and Buddhists alike as they needed them may be granted, just as the mass of fables known to the ancient world was utilized by the epic writers and by those who composed the Buddhist Jatakas, though India had no Aesop.

Characters of the Mahabharata 

Many of the characters of the Mahabharata appear to be real, historical figures. Others are mythical, in that they represent a personality evolved from a divine name or a local hero-god. Thus the name Arjuna is first a title of Indra, whose son the epic Arjuna is; but his cousin Krishna is a local demi-god hero, and there is no reason to doubt the historical character of the king of Magadha who was a foe of this pair and a Shivaite, though what is said about him in the epic may be merely the exaggeration of legend, as sung by the bards who made expeditions with the army and sang the exploits they themselves had seen. The stories of historical characters, like king Janaka, also reflect history through the mists of legend. The complete anthropomorphisation of heavenly beings, which some scholars are reluctant to admit as a possible phenomenon in the best of cases, is found in the Hindu epic, especially in the inserted tales of the gods; but it does not appear at all certain that any epic hero represents a heavenly being in either of the Hindu epics. Krishna in the Mahabharata and Rama in the Ramayana are forms of the sun-god only as being identified with Vishnu as All-god; and in the case of the Ramayana this is a palpably late procedure, while it is doubtful whether Krishna was ever a form of the sun. Both Rama and Krishna appear to have been tribal heroes, mythical perhaps but not products of divine mythology. But, as no attempt has ever been made to separate myth from history in India, it is impossible to say whether Krishna, the divine hero of the Mahabharata, ever really existed, though this is probable. Krishna served as the charioteer of Arjuna, the chief Pandu and epic hero; and though he promised not to fight in person he did all he could to keep up and intensify the enmity between the Pandus and their related foes, the Kurus, not avoiding even tricks opposed to knightly honor. It is not likely that such shameful acts as those recorded of him by his own followers would have been invented of a god, but rather that the tricks belonged to him as a hero, and that no amount of excuse, of which there is enough offered, could do away with the crude facts of tradition, which represented the man-god Krishna as a clever but unscrupulous fighter. A later age exonerated him by offering various excuses, the higher morality of imperative need, the tit-for-tat rule (one sin to offset another), etc., just as it offered various explanatory excuses for the polyandry of the Pandus, who, however, as a northern hill-tribe or family, probably were really polyandrous and needed no excuse.

The Mahabharata and the Ramayana

Although the epic age in India must necessarily be an epoch too elastic for historical purposes, since it is not at all certain, that any one epic statement may not be many years later than another, yet the effect of this now trite observation is to exaggerate the relation between isolated cases and the epic mass. It is true that we have additions to the greater epic which are hundreds of years later than the mass, but it is possible from the mass to get an impression which will represent conditions on the whole, and we are tolerably sure that this whole is bounded by the space of from three to four centuries, since external evidence, inscriptions, the Greek reference to the Indian Homer, etc., prove that the great epic in nearly its present extent existed before the fourth century AD, and negative evidence in India makes it improbable that any epic existed earlier than the fourth century BC. Since the length of the work requires the assumption of several centuries for its completion as it now exists, the centuries immediately preceding our era seem to be those to which it is most reasonable on general grounds to assign the composition of the Mahabharata as a whole. This agrees best also with the external data to which reference has been made in the preceding chapter.

During these centuries we find a revival of Brahmanism, a cult of Vishnuism by the masses and a return to Brahmanism in a modified form indicated by the Shivaite faith of the kings of the north-western part of the country. Now Vishnuism is the cult that permeates the great epic, though it contains tales showing an older Brahmanism, and the Shivaite portions are chiefly late in character. Again it is not unreasonable to assume a certain connection between the two epics. We cannot think of them as isolated productions of the western and eastern parts of the country. That they represent in general a western and eastern cycle of epic material is true, but there are sundry considerations which make it impossible to believe that they arose independently.

In the first place, while the metre of the Mahabharata represents a less polished verse than that of the Ramayana, that metre is so nearly that of the Ramayana, especially in its later portions, that the two are practically the same. Secondly, there are many tales, genealogies, fables, etc., which are identical in the two epics. Thirdly, the phraseology of the two epics is so cast in one mould that hundreds of verse-tags, phrases, similes, etc., are verbally the same. These correspond to the iterata found in Homeric verse, and indicate as do the Grecian parallels that there was a certain common epic body of phrase and fable. Fourthly, the economic conditions and social usages as represented in the two epics are sufficiently alike for us to be able to draw on both together for a picture of the times showing few discordant elements. In detail, the references in the Ramayana betray a later or more advanced stage in some particulars, such as architectural elaboration, plans of temples, etc., which may be due to a higher civilization; but in general the life of priest, noble, people of the lower castes, slaves, etc., is the same in both epics, and except for the use of caste-names does not differ from that exhibited by Buddhistic works of the same period. The chief difference here is that the Buddhists speak more of householder and gildman as if they were separate orders. But the Gehapati or householder is also a common expression for the ordinary man of affairs in Sanskrit works, and the gilds as shown above in discussing the Sutras have their importance admitted by the authors of the Sutras and epics alike. It is therefore more a question of terminology than a vital distinction when we find that the social order is reckoned as composed of priest, warrior, householder, gildman, instead of priest, warrior, and ‘people's man’, Vaishya, as the Brahman priests divided the ‘regenerate members of the community’.

The main difference in the presentation of social data given by the Brahman and the Buddhist is the one already referred to. The Buddhist does not accept the spiritual authority of the Brahman and belittles him as a caste-member; but he cannot rid himself of inherited faith and phrase, and so constantly recognizes him as member of a caste or order like that of the monks. On the other hand, the Buddhist state was a democracy in spirit; the teaching of the church (to use the word) was apt to exalt the humble and lower the aristocracy. The emperor himself was humbled by himself, and his nobles became subject to the religious law of love and kindness, while any common person was magnified for piety and could obtain high office in the council chamber. This was not only theoretically true; it affected the whole constitution of the State. The merchants and farmers and the mass of working people were endowed with a new influence, which superseded for a short time the influence of priest and noble. It is sometimes said that this was no supersession; that Buddhism arose before the four orders were recognized as state constituents, and that in the freer use of householder and merchant (such was really the Setthi or gildman) we have the expression of a freer life not yet bound in four-caste orders. It is probable that at all times the third ‘caste’ was an elastic term for every Aryan not priest or warrior; but it connoted pure blood and hence excluded those ‘mixed castes’ which were sometimes higher, but more often lower, than the house-slave. A great mass of these people were the hill-tribes reduced to servitude or to low pursuits, such as leather-workers, fowlers, etc., all those useful but dirty and disagreeable people whom the Brahman despised and the Buddhist affected to love and honor. But the consideration shown to the low orders and the dignity attained by the merchants under a king who had no use for war are no proof that these traits were antecedent to an acknowledgment of the aristocratic classes. In fact, in the same district in which Buddhism arose and where the Buddhist emperors reigned, some at least of the Upanishads and

Brahmanas were composed, and these pre-Buddhist works all acknowledge as a matter of course the high rank of the two upper castes and the vulgarity of the lower, who exist, especially the farmers, ‘to be eaten’ by the king. The Buddhist attitude then is not an archaic attitude or one subsequently followed by the evolution of a theory of ‘four castes’, but is due to a revolutionary insistence on virtue and use as tests of nobility. It is clear from both epics that the attitude toward the lower castes was not dissimilar to that held by every aristocracy toward the useful but undesirable proletariat. Both epics are from the beginning court-epics, to be recited before nobles and kings and priests at the great sacrifice which designated a supreme ruler, as the earlier texts indicate; but, as the epics themselves intimate, to be recited first at court and then popularized and recited among the people. The description of a recitation of the Mahabharata given in the work itself implies, however, that this was not such a popular recitation as occurs today (for the great epic of India is still recited dramatically to village throngs), but one conducted in the house of a gentleman of leisure for his private entertainment.

Before discussing the conditions found in the epics it will be necessary to mention adversely two hypotheses in regard to the time in which the great epic was composed. Both are exaggerations, based partly on neglect of pertinent data, of views already considered. The first of these is the theory that the Mahabharata is a product of our middle ages, that is, that it was a late output of the renascence. The discovery of inscriptions showing that the epic was essentially the same as it is now centuries before the middle ages of course disproves this ill-considered theory, but the great work in which it is elaborated will always remain a mine of useful information. On the other hand, the theory that the Mahabharata is a work of the fifth or sixth century before Christ and the product of one author who composed it as a law-book, is a caricature of a fruitful idea of the late Professor Buhler. As it violates every known principle of historical criticism it may be passed over without discussion. The epic was composed not by one person nor even by one generation, but by several; it is primarily the story of an historic incident told by the glorifier of kings, the domestic priest and the bard, who are often one.

The Story of the Mahabharata 

The germ of the Mahabharata is the description of the over­throw of the Kurus, a Bharata clan, at the hands of the Pandus. A thinly veiled genealogy represents the Pandus as cousins of the Kurus. In reality, they were a new family or clan, who built up a kingdom and then obtained supreme power by allying themselves with the Panchalas and attacking the Kurus, who are represented as living about sixty miles north of the Pandus’ settlement, which was the present Indarpat (Indraprastha), near Delhi.

The ‘cousins’ called Pandus first excited the jealousy of the Kurus when the latter were obliged to come south and offer tokens of submission to the Pandu king, who had crowned himself as emperor and performed the horse-sacrifice establishing this title. Resorting to trickery, the Kurus invited the Pandus to make them a visit. The somewhat uncouth Pandus, who are described as good examples of nouveaux riches, flaunting in the eyes of their guests all the evidence of their wealth and making the lowly but aristocratic Kurus objects of ridicule, despite their sudden rise to power were not yet adepts in courtly arts, and the chief art for a knightly gentleman of that day was gambling. As the Panclu king says, no gentleman (warrior) can refuse to fight or gamble when challenged. The Kurus were an old house and had the skill of the court at their command, however poor they might be in worldly goods. The Kuru prince, who had been humiliated, concocted a scheme to overthrow the Pandus by gambling. The old king, his father, was a noble at heart as well as by blood and made what protest he could against this scheme, which he knew implied cheating at dice. But he was old and blind; and it was not the custom to pay any regard to what a man said after he grew old.

When any man’s hair grew grey he was expected to abdicate his power in favor of his son and retire from active life. What regard was paid to him thereafter was a matter of courtesy. He usually made over his property to his sons and disappeared literally or to all intent, becoming a wood-dweller. If such was the fate of the ordinary old man, the fate of kings was worse, as there was more to gain by their suppression. No regard at all was paid to the old king, who was king only in name.

The Pandus were challenged to a friendly game of dice to be played in the Kurus’ city. It may be remarked here that the old site of the Kurus at the famous Kuru Plain had evidently been given up, as the Kurus were pushed back to Hastinapur, where they lived at the time of the epic story. The Pandus vaingloriously assented to make this return visit and see their kinsmen in the north. On arriving they were courteously received, and after spending a night with their hosts proceeded to the gambling-hall, where in one throw after another the Kuru prince, playing by proxy and thus securing the aid of the best gambler at court, won all the wealth, family, and kingdom of the Pandu emperor, who, however, ventured to play once more for the stake of banishment. As the emperor had already played the lives of his brothers and wife and lost, this last throw was an effort on the part of the Kurus to get them out of the way without imprisonment or other disgrace which might have occasioned a rising of other allies of the emperor. As it was, the Pandu king gave his word that, if he lost the last throw, he would go into banishment for twelve years with all his family. After the twelve years were over, he and his brothers took refuge with the Matsya clan, and from that vantage-point collected other allies, marched to the Kurus’ land, were met at Kuru Plain, defeated the Kurus, and regained the old power. It is noteworthy that in all the twelve years of banishment the bitterest note in the lamentations of the Pandus is not the loss of the kingdom but the insult to their wife. As related above, they were, a polyandrous race, and the king and his four brothers were husbands of Krishna. When the king had gambled away his brothers and himself, he offered to gamble their wife and did so, though the proceeding raised the legal question whether one who had already made himself a slave could gamble away anything, slaves possessing nothing. The question being over-ruled, however, the wife was dragged off and insulted by the brother of the Kuru prince. Now whenever the Pandus, who are fulfilling the pledge to remain in banishment, begin to bewail and plan revenge, it is the former plight of Krishna Draupadi which evokes most anger. Not the cheating at dice, though that is not forgotten, but the insult to Krishna, who was dragged into the assembly of men and made a slave dishonored, animates the Pandus in their despair and causes Bhima to vow that he will drink the blood of the Kuru prince, a threat which he fulfils on the field thereafter.

There is, under another form, the violation of the rite of hospitality and virtual abduction of Krishna, the same nucleus of tragedy here which makes the simple Ramayana appear like an echo of the Iliad. In the Ramayana, the heroine is carried off by a treacherous fiend, whom Rama pursues and slays after a long interval. But the Ramayana differs essentially from the Mahabharata not only in its style but in its spirit. Its most spirited scenes occur before the epic plot begins. After the introduction, in the history of Sita, Rama, and Ravana, turgidity replaces tragedy, and descriptions of scenery and sentimentality take the place of genuine passion. The didactic overload is indeed lacking, and the Ramayana gains thereby; but in this epic the note of savage lust and passion which is the charm of the Mahabharata, as it reveals genuine feeling of real men, is replaced by the childish laments and pious reflections of Rama, whose foes are demoniac spirits, while his allies and confidants are apes. It is a polished fantasia, the first example of the Kavya or ‘artificial’ poetry, which appeals to the Hindu taste much more than does the rough genuineness of the Great Epic. The Ramayana is in truth artificial in both senses, for one cannot possibly believe the tale; whereas the Mahabharata makes its tale real and one believes it as one believes that the Achaeans overthrew Troy, however embellished the account may be. The fact is that the Great Epic is the one human document after the appeal of religious sincerity in the primitive hymns of the Veda.

The reason for this lies not alone in the fact that literature after the early Vedic age is chiefly liturgical and didactic, for this only shifts the explanation. Sanskrit literature is without power of literary expression from the hymns of the Rigveda to the Upanishads, and again from this time to that which produced the dramatic scenes of the epic, because it was in the hands of priests whose whole interest lay apart from real life. The same spirit which produced the best Vedic hymns, the spirit reflecting independence and freedom, appears in the royal literature, if we may so call it, which stamps the age of the Upanishads and of the great epic in its earlier parts. The Upanishads are in part the product of unpriestly, or at least anti-ritualistic, thought, and the epic also emanates from the throne and not from the altar. As the Upanishads embody the cultured philosophy of king and noble, so the epic scenes of love and war reflect the life of court and camp. They breathe a different spirit, as they come from a different source than does the literature of the Brahman, until indeed the all-grasping hand of the priest seized even the epic tales, and, stifling all that was natural in them, converted them into sermons, to teach the theology of the priest and impart to the king the teaching best calculated to further priestly greed.

Earlier and Later Moral Ideals

The sociological data of the epic period show that society had advanced from a period when rude manners were justifiable and tricks were considered worthy of a warrior to one when a finer morality had begun to temper the crude royal and military spirit. This is sufficient explanation of that historical anomaly found in the Great Epic, the endeavor on the part of the priestly redactors to palliate and excuse the sins of their heroes. Arjuna shoots his rival, Karna, while the latter is helpless. But an act like this, which was doubtless considered clever at first, became repugnant to the later chivalry. Then the demi-god hero Krishna is made to be the source of the sin on the simple ground that if divine Krishna commands, it is right. Arjuna is now made to shoot reluctantly, in obedience to the divine command. But this may not be cited as a precedent against the later code, because it was a special case in which the act was inspired by God from occult motives outside the sphere of human judgment. So with many other sins committed by the heroes. They reflect an old barbarity later excused. It is not necessary to assume with Holtzmann, von Schroeder, and others that the epic tale has been '’set upon its head’, that is, that the whole poem was originally in honor of the Kurus, and was then rewritten to honor the Pandas, and that in this last process the ‘sins of the Pandas’ reveal the original attitude of reproach taken by the Kuru poet. There is a difference morally between the Kurus and Pandas. The Pandas offend against the later military code. Thus the Kurus reproach the Pandas because their chief warrior interfered in a combat between two warriors and killed his friend’s foe, who was being worsted in the fight. The Pandu simply laughs at the reproach. ‘Why’ (says he) ‘of course I killed him. I saw my friend worsted, and interfered just in time to save him’, intimating, as is clearly stated afterwards, that a conflict on a field of battle is not a polite duel (‘That is no way to fight’). But the Kurus are just as wicked as the Pandus, only they are diplomatic. Their sins smack of cultivated wickedness. They get an expert gambler to ruin their rival. They secretly seek to burn their enemies alive. They form a conspiracy and send out ten men under oath to attack Arjuna. They slay Arjuna’s son first, in order to weaken Arjuna’s heart. In a word, they are cunning and sly; the Pandus are brutal and fierce. Two types of civilization are embalmed in the poem.

The most striking difference between the knights of the epic and the priestly power, which in the end controlled them, is that the warrior-caste was the royal caste and hence represented state-power, a political body, whereas the priests were never more than a caste of individuals. They represented no church-power. There is thus a fundamental lack of priestly organization; there is nothing parallel to the Church of Rome in its contests with European state-power. Individual priests, without financial resources but dependent on the local raja for support, could do nothing save persuade the raja. But superstition aided them; and persuasion aided by superstition became a compelling power, which, however, was exerted only for two objects, the exaltation of the individual priest or of the priestly caste and the inculcation of religious and moral precepts, never for the formation of a worldly power within, but independent of the State. There was no caste-head. When strife arose between priests, as it constantly arose apropos of a fat office to be enjoyed (the epic furnishes examples), each individual priest fought for his own hand; he had no bishop over him; and there was no pope to oppose a king. Thus, while the priestly law-book says that ‘the priest is the norm of the world’, the epic says ‘the king is the norm’. The law says that a priest has the right of way even over a king; the epic narrates that a king meets a priest and calls out to him ‘get out of my way’, and despite the law, as cited, smites the priest with his royal whip. Such scenes show that the king is not yet the creature of the priest, but that the epic unconsciously reflects a freer life than that depicted as ideal by the later priests, who teach that the king is a steward divinely appointed to provide for them.

Knights, Priests, and Commoners

Somewhat as in Buddhist literature we must therefore reverse the importance of the two ‘upper castes’, and regard the epic state as consisting in a military power, whose head is the raja; then a priestly power, politically unorganized, but divided into schools; then the merchant-power, represented by gilds, whose powerful heads (mahajana) are of political importance; then the farmers, unorganized but tenacious of certain religious rights and boasting of Aryan blood. The two last classes form one body only because they are neither of them noble (royal) or priestly or un-Aryan. No other tie unites them. The merchants in general belong to the town, the farmers to the country; the two are the historical divisions, brought about by economic conditions, of that order called ‘the people’, in distinction from noble and priest. This was the Aryan state. Below the Aryan constituents were the many who were either remnants of wild tribes or slaves, descendants of conquered clans of other blood. They are all mentioned in the epic, as well as foreigners or barbarians. Although town-life is well known, yet the farmers and cattlemen were perhaps more generally typical, on account of their numerical superiority, of the order to which each belonged. So it is said: ‘Work is for the slave; agriculture for the people-caste’, or again ‘The work of the Vaisha is to tend cattle’; less commonly ‘The duty of the priest is to beg for sustenance; of the warrior, to defend the people; of the people-caste, to make money; of the slave, to work (manually)’. It will be observed that the cattle-raising ‘people’ are ignored in favor of traders in the last citation, though ‘to make money’ may imply farmers and cattlemen as well as traders.

The slave possessed nothing; his tax was paid in manual labor, for he had no money or other possessions, ‘there is no suum in the case of a slave’. The slave comes ‘from the foot of God’ (as the warrior is born of God’s arm) and hence is ‘born to servitude’. The Shudras are especially the slaves of the merchants and farmers; for though they are told to be ‘faithful to priest and warrior’ they are said in particular to ‘serve the people-caste’. They are also marked as the ‘blacks’ in distinction from the priests who are whiter. The military character of the epic precludes much attention to the slaves, who as a fighting host are naturally not of importance, though they may be referred to under the designation ‘the black mass’, for the great hosts led into the field comprise many of the slaves as camp followers and helpers. What is very important is that the lowest Aryan caste, the body of farmers, is on the verge of mingling with the slave-caste. No priest may become a slave, however distressed for sustenance he may become; but a slave may become a herdsman or trader if he cannot support himself by service (this is the epic and legal rule), and in fact the farmer population was largely composed of slaves. In the ethical parts of the epic, where caste-distinctions are theoretically abolished in favor of the rule that ‘there is no distinction of caste’ (religiously), the slave is even allowed to study and may get a reward for practicing religious exercises, and a learned slave gives moral instruction; but this does not seem to correspond to real conditions where the slave is reckoned next to the beast. The old spirit of the Brahman period, which declares that ‘priest, warrior, and people constitute the whole world’ is still practically in force.

The people are settled in small villages around a fort, which remains as a grama or ‘crowd’ (village) or expands into a town, nagara. Small settlements are called ghoshas or pallis, some of them ‘marches’ (prantas, ‘on the border’). The distinction between these and the places called kharvatas and pattanas is not clear, though the grama seems to be smaller than the kharvata, which in turn is smaller than the nagara. Perhaps village, town, city would represent the series. The villages were largely autonomous though under the ‘overlord’ of the king, who administered justice and laid taxes. In all smaller affairs of life, ‘authority rests with the village’, according to law and the epic seems to uphold even family custom as legally sufficient. Thus as one man says that he demands a price for his daughter, because that is his ‘family-custom’, so another defends his occupation of killing animals on the same ground. It has always been the custom of Indian rulers to leave affairs as much as possible in the hands of the local authorities; and the headman of the village or the group of five elders were practically independent, provided the village paid its revenue as assessed by the adhipati or overlord.

The king rules not because of might alone but by virtue of his morality. A wicked king may be deposed; a king who injures his people instead of protecting them should be killed ‘like a mad dog’. Taxes there must be, because the people must be defended, and this costs; but they must be light, and vary according to need. The tax in kind is common. The merchant pays in kind and the ranchman pays in kind, but the town-people are fined in copper money for offences, though bodily punishment takes the place of fines in all cases where there is intent to deceive. Thus the shipping-duties paid by merchants coming from afar are probably in kind. Frequent allusions to merchants using false weights show that a careful supervision of the market-place was necessary. The merchant-gilds were of such authority that the king was not allowed to establish any laws repugnant to the rules of these trade-unions. The heads of gilds are mentioned next after the priests as objects of a king's anxious concern.

Cowboys and Herdsmen 

The large part of the population employed as ranchmen in tending cattle has scarcely been alluded to as yet. They were perhaps the original people, before agriculture was much practised and when merchants were few. At the time of the epic they seem to have become partly cattle-raisers and partly farmers, while the occupation of ranchman proper had fallen into the hands of barbarians who could not understand Aryan speech. Yet the one example of which the epic takes note shows that these were merely the cowboys who guarded royal cattle. The king is here represented as having a royal picnic on the occasion of a cattle-branding, when the court goes into the country and the ‘ears of the cattle are marked’ for the year. It is on this occasion that the Kurus lift the cattle of the Matsyas. Though accounts of such border-raiding in the old Vedic style are rare and this passage in particular can by no means claim special antiquity, yet it doubtless reflects a not uncommon state of affairs. Very little in regard to these lowly members of the State, the cowboys and herdsmen, is to be gleaned from the epic; but one passage states what the low laborer of the ‘people-caste’ is to earn per annum: ‘he should receive the milk of one cow for the care of six cows; and if he tend a hundred head he should, at the end of the year, receive a pair. If he acts for the master as overseer of flocks or in agricultural labor, he should have one-seventh of the proceeds or increase, but, in the case of small cattle, a small part (one-sixteenth)’. The six distresses of a farmer do not include excessive taxation, but raiding by a foreign king is included among them.

The royal soldiery includes not only the nobles of military standing supported by the king but the poor members of the same Aryan order who with the un-Aryan ‘servants’ (not slaves) formed the rank and file of the foot-soldiers. In battle they are mentioned merely as hosts of nameless archers, clingers, rock-throwers, etc., and outside of battle-scenes they are scarcely mentioned at all. It is stated that a rathin’s, ‘car-man's’, wage is one thousand, that is, one thousand (coppers) a month, and that the king pensions the widows of fallen soldiers. The chief moral laws for members of the military caste were hospitality, the sacredness of the refugee, the law not to forget a kindness or a hurt, and the rule already referred to, that when challenged to fight or gamble it was inglorious to refuse. The captured warrior becomes the slave of his captor for a year; if the captor allows him to go free, the captor becomes the captured one’s Guru or his father. The sign of submission is to eat grass. When the Yavanas were conquered they ‘ate grass and leaped into water’. The epic gives this grass-eating sign as a military rule. As compared with a member of the people-caste, whose life is valued at a hundred head of cattle, the warrior’s life is valued at a thousand (paid in case of murder). As for the prominent sins of the royal military caste, they are mentioned as hunting, drinking, gambling, and sensuality withal in a sort of versus memoralis which has come down as an apophthegm of law and epic. Dancing-girls and prostitutes were a part of the royal retinue, and hunting was the chief recreation of kings, deer and tigers, killed by a king with his sword, being the favorite game. Lions were hunted with dogs, as attested by Aelian and mentioned in the epic. The Buddhist prohibition of meat-eating remains as a rule of propriety, but the tales show that eating meat was as common as drinking intoxicants and that this was the regular court practice, while the story of the crowds surrounding a meat-shop, where the complacent owner boasts that he sells but does not himself kill, shows that vegetarianism was by no means universal.

Passing to a wider point of view we must pause to record the fact that certain allusions in the epic to fire-weapons have been adduced to prove that the Hindus used gunpowder in the great War. How baseless is this supposition has already been demonstrated by the present writer, and he can only repeat that all mention of fire-weapons in the Hindu epic refers to arms magically blazing such as arrows or wheels. No gun or cannon is mentioned and gunpowder is unknowns.

King and Councilors 

The epic king is no autocrat; he is upbraided and reproved by his brothers and ministers. If born to the throne and yet defective he is not permitted to become king (‘the gods do not approve of a defective king’,); but if elected he is the leader at home and in the field. He is consecrated by baptism with water poured over him from a sacred horn, and is crowned ‘lord of the earth’. Although the didactic part of the epic emphasizes the importance of councilors and ministers, without whose sanction the king should undertake no important business, yet actually each king is represented as doing what seems good to him without advice, as the various warriors of the family make raids and rape young women from foreign districts without consultation. Indeed, the priest supposed to be special adviser is scarcely mentioned in that capacity, only as an agent in spiritual matters. Resolving on war the kings and allies decide the matter as they will, in the presence of priests, indeed, but the priests are ignored. The sabha or assembly is here simply a military body for consultation. Both priests and people are silent in the face of force. The king’s city was defended by battlemented towers and seven moats. It was laid out in squares and the well-watered streets were lighted with lamps. Only four squares are mentioned in the Ramayana, but the Mahabharata recommends six. The king’s palace included or was near to the court of justice, the official gambling-hall, the music-room, the place for contests with wild beasts and for exhibits of wrestlers. Outside of the inner city were booths for traders, etc., and the less pretentious dwellings, with pleasure parks. Apparently four gates were the usual number, but nine are mentioned and even eleven in other literature, and the Ramayana gives eight to Lanka.

For the common members of the military caste to die in bed was a disgrace. The mass of the soldiers fight for their chief and when he falls they are disorganized and run away. The knights, however, contending for glory as well as for their king, remain fighting though the mass desert them. Their motto is, ‘Sweet it is to die in battle; the path to heaven lies in fighting’. In peace the warrior, supported by the king, lived at ease and the nobles spent the time carousing and enjoying themselves. In war the warrior lived and fought for glory as well as for his chief. In the case of Karna, who was an independent king, revenge and desire for glory are blended; but most of the epic kings are in the war as allies of one side or the other and have no personal motive in fighting except to win renown. ‘A hero lives as long as his fame reaches heaven’; ‘Glory is preferable to life’. And again, ‘Only he who has glory wins heaven’ (says Karna). The exhortation to fight valorously is based upon the precept that whether slaying or slain one is blessed, ‘for he who is slain in battle obtains heaven, and if he slays he obtains fame’. Every hero boasts of his great deeds performed and to be performed, even while deprecating boasting as a folly. The heroes boast of their families as well as of their prowess.

Religion and Philosophy 

The religious and philosophical views of the epics represent every shade of opinion from Vedic theism to philosophical pantheism with later forms of Sun-worship (in both epics) and sectarian cults of Durga, Shiva, and Krishna-Vishnu in the Maha­bharata, and Rama-Vishnuism superimposed upon the cult of Rama as a hero demi-god in the Ramayana. The religion assumed as orthodox in both epics is that which we call Brahmanical. The Vedic gods with Brahma at their head are to be worshipped, as a matter of course. In addition comes the constantly growing tendency to exalt the chieftain demi-god from his position as clan-hero god to a higher power, till he is identified with Vishnu, the popular god of many clans. The cult of Vishnu in this form comes under the hands of philosophers, who we may be sure had nothing to do with the original epic; and as god he is then interpreted according to the philosophical systems of the Sankhya and Vedanta, which are united with the aid of the Yoga system. Of late years it has become usual for scholars to follow the lead of Professor Garbe, who has interpreted the chief philosophical tract of the Mahabharata, the famous Bhagavadgita, as a rewritten Sankhya document of theistic tendency manipulated to serve the ends of Vedanta schoolmen. By excluding all the verses which teach the Vedanta doctrine, Garbe is naturally enabled to show a document which is not Vedantic; and it may be admitted that such a process makes a clearer and more attractive theological tract. But the historical effect produced is fallacious. Exactly the same mixture of Sankhya and Vedanta permeates the teaching of the philosophical epic in many other passages; and unless one is willing to apply the same process and excise all objectionable matter in favor of a theory of Sankhya priority in the philosophical disquisitions of Shanti or ‘quietism’, one has no right to dissect the Bhagavadgita into its supposititious prius and ‘later additions’. The epic philosopher is never a Sankhyan; he is a Sankhya-Yogist, and it is this connecting link of the Yoga which to his mind makes it possible to unite two radically different systems. It must at least remain quite doubtful whether the philosophical parts of the epic, most of which have no radical connection with the poem, were not originally composed in their present form, representing an attempt, on the part of later redactors, to weave into the epic a system of philosophy inculcating the belief in a theistic pantheism derived from Sankhyan principles improved by the Yoga and then combined with the All-soul principle later called Vedanta. Vishnu and Shiva both served the purpose of the philosophical interpretation. Both were popular gods who became the One God in turn (sectarian differences probably representing geographical distinctions), that One God who even in the Upanishads is also the All-god. For this reason many passages of the epic are on the philosophical=religious level of the Shvetashvatara Upanishad.

Two notable attempts to extract historical material from the epic have been made in the last few years. They enlarge the vision of the fighting hosts on the plain of the Kurus both geographically and historically and demand careful examination. The first is the result of a study of the forces named in the epic itself as allies. As already mentioned, the fighting of the Ramayana consists in combats between fiends and monkeys, and unless the monkeys are interpreted as southern Hindus speaking an alien tongue, and for this and other reasons regarded as little better than apes by the Aryan leaders, there is no profit in endeavoring to guess at their real significance. In the Mahabharata, which deals with real people, it is different. The human hosts marshaled as friend or foe by the Pandus and Kurus may be set against each other geographically. There is a certain amount of fiend-fighting, and Nagas of unknown habitat are mentioned as contestants. There are also some allies of unknown geographical provenance. But the chief factors in the great hosts can be distributed geographically. For making such a classification it will be convenient to use the Indian term Madhyadesha, the Middle Country, to denote ‘the whole of the Ganges basin from the Punjab as far as the confines of Bihar’, and to arrange the various peoples who are said to have taken part in the war in relation to this region. The Pandu forces included the king of Magadha associated with the Kashis and Kosalas, the king of Panchala, the king of the Matsyas with mountaineers, the king of Chedi—all representing peoples in Madhyadesha—with some adherents from the north and south, but especially all the Yadus of the west. The Kurus, on the other hand, had as allies the king of Pragjyotisha, the Chinas, and the Kiratas in the north-east; the Kambojas, Yavanas, Shakas, Madras, Kaikeyas, Sindhus and Sauviras in the north-west; the Bhojas in the west; the king of Dakshinapatha in the south; the Andhras in the south-east; and the kings of Mahishmati and Avanti in Madhyadesha. Therefore, since the Yadus of Gujarat came from Mathura, the statement holds that ‘the division of the contending parties may be broadly said to be South Madhyadesha and Panchala against the rest of India. That this is an important conclusion must be admitted. But if it follows that the war was one between southern Madhyadesha, united with Panchala, and the rest of India, how far may we assert that this represents earlier epic conditions before the nations of the Indian sub-continent were all brought into the frame of the epic? Obviously it would not be safe to make too much of a list based on factors of doubtful age, but it is perhaps safe to assert that the central plan, so to speak, is historical, namely the opposition of the less civilized Pandus and the old Panchalas to the orthodox Kurus.

Interpretation of Historical Data

In the opinion of Sir George Grierson we may make a further induction and assert that the Brahmanism of the Kurus represents a later tide of immigration as compared with the anti-Brahmanism of the Panchalas as earlier Aryan immigrants into India. In a way, the anti-Brahmanical party may be said to represent the warrior-spirit as opposed to the priestly, which was defeated in the contest but revenged itself by manipulating the epic to its own glory. It is, however, doubtful whether the Panchalas were earlier immigrants or in early days were regarded as in any way anti-Brahmanical. The further contention, that this unorthodox warrior-spirit produced the work of the Bhagavatas and that the Bhagavadgita emanates from an un-Brahmanical source, is based upon the supposition that the Bhagavadgita and its underlying system of Sankhya philosophy is an exponent of the free eastern anti-Brahmanical or un-Brahmanical life which produced the great heresies of that region, Buddhism and Jainism. One wishes that the veiled history of Hindu thought might be traced back so clearly, but the data at our disposal do not justify us in so summary a method of reconstructing the past. There is no cogent evidence to show that a difference of religious belief had anything to do with the war, or that any racial antagonism lies behind the division of parties, certainly not of parties opposed as primarily Panchalas and Kurus.

Whether the genealogical lists of the epic may impart trustworthy information is a second question of importance. It has been answered affirmatively by Mr Pargiter in the second of his valuable papers on the epics, though with due conservatism in view of the contradictions in the epic itself. The later lists found in the Puranas may be combined with epic data to make a fairly consistent chronological table, but there remains much to be taken for granted. Although the names of kings are given, the length of their reigns must be assumed on some common basis. On the probability that the average length of a Hindu reign was fifteen years and on the assumption that unimportant kings have been omitted once in so often from some of the lists, Mr Pargiter, taking the more complete list of the Solar dynasty as his guide, finds that a period of fourteen hundred years intervened between the first king, ‘son of Manu’ (Ikshvaku) and the great war; that Rama, the hero of the Ramayana, lived in the fifth century before the great war of the Mahabharata; Bharata in the eighth century, etc. The great war itself marks the beginning of the present age (Kali Yuga), ‘about 1100 BC.’