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The Ramayana, is the shorter of the two great epic poems of India, the other
being the Mahabharata
(“Great Epic of the Bharata Dynasty”).
The Ramayana was composed in Sanskrit, during 300 BCE, by the
poet Valmiki and in its present form consists of 24,000 couplets divided into
seven books.
The poem describes the royal birth of the god Rama in the kingdom
of Ayodhya (Oudh), his tutelage under the sage Vishvamitra, and his success in
bending Shiva’s mighty bow at the Svayamvara of Sita, the daughter of King
Janaka, thus winning her for his wife. After Lord Rama is banished from his
position as heir to the kingdom through a palace intrigue, he retreats to the
forest with his wife and his favourite half brother, Lakshmana, to spend 14 years
in exile. There Ravana, the demon-king of Lanka, carries off Sita to his capital
while her two protectors are busy pursuing a golden deer sent to the forest to
mislead them. Sita resolutely rejects Ravana’s attentions, and Lord Rama and his
brother set out to rescue her. After numerous adventures, they enter into
alliance with Sugriva, king of the monkeys, and, with the assistance of the
monkey-general Hanuman and Ravana’s own brother, Vibhishana, they attack
Lanka. Rama slays Ravana and rescues Sita, who undergoes an ordeal by fire in
order to clear herself of suspicions of infidelity. When they return to Ayodhya,
however, Rama learns that the people still question the queen’s chastity, and he
banishes her to the forest. There she meets the sage Valmiki (the author of
the Ramayana) and at his hermitage gives birth to Rama’s two sons. The family is
reunited when the sons come of age, but Sita, after again protesting her
innocence, plunges into the earth, her mother, who receives her and swallows
her up.
Little is known of Sage Valmiki as a historical figure, though he is described as
having been a thief named Ratnakara prior to becoming a sage. Many
translations of the Ramayana into the vernacular languages are themselves
works of great literary artistry, including the Tamil version of Kampan,
the Bengali version of Krittibas, and the Hindi version, Ramcharitmanas,
of Tulsidas. Throughout North India the events of the poem are enacted in an
annual pageant, the Ram Lila, and in South India the two epics,
the Ramayana and
the Mahabharata, make
up the
story repertoire
of kathakali or dance-drama of Malabar.
Later classical poets hailed Valmiki himself as the first true poet (kavi), and
indeed much of his work has a poetic freshness and literary intention that is
the Mahābhārata.
are metaphor and simile, as is also true of later literature. He delights in the
description of pastoral scenes, in lamentations and grand martial spectacles, and
in the idyll of the hermitage, which depicts a serene sage leading a life of quiet
meditation and living on simple forest fare in a tranquil woodland close to a
sacred river.
Vyasa, also called Krishna Dvaipayana or Vedavyasa, (flourished during
1500 BCE] is a legendary Indian sage who is traditionally credited with
composing or compiling the Mahabharata, a collection of legendary
and didactic poetry worked around a central heroic narrative.
According to legend, Vyasa was the son of the ascetic Parashara and a
ferryman’s daughter- Satyavati . He grew up in forests, living with hermits who
taught him the Vedas (ancient sacred literature of India). Thereafter he lived in
the forests near the banks of the river Sarasvati, becoming a teacher and a priest,
fathering a son and disciple, Shuka, and gathering a large group of disciples. Late
in life, living in caves in the Himalayas, he is said to have divided the Vedas into
the four traditional collections, composed the puranas and, in a period of two
and a half years, composed his great poetic work, the Mahabharata, dictating it
to his scribe, Lord Ganesha.
Mahabharata, (Sanskrit: “Great Epic of the Bharata Dynasty”) is one of the
two Sanskrit epic poems of ancient India (the other being the Ramayana).
The Mahabharata is an important source of information on the development
of Hinduism between 400 BCE and 200 CE and is regarded as both a text
about dharma ( moral law) and a history (itihasa]. Appearing in its present form
about 400 CE, the Mahabharata consists of a mass of mythological
and didactic material arranged around a central heroic narrative that tells of the
struggle for sovereignty between two groups of cousins, the Kauravas (sons
of Dhritarashtra, the descendant of Kuru) and the Pandavas (sons of Pandu). The
poem is made up of almost 100,000 couplets—about seven times the length of
the Iliad and the Odyssey combined—divided into 18 parvans, or sections, plus a
supplement titled Harivamsha (“Genealogy of the God Hari”; i.e., of Lord Vishnu.
The epics served as a treasury of stories, which provided themes and characters
for countless poems and plays. The works of the dramatist Bhasa,
notably Svapnavasavadattaand Pratijnayaugandharayana, were the basics of
Sanskrit drama. The popularity of drama necessitated the writing of a work on
dramaturgy, the Natyashastra (“Treatise on Dramatic Art”) by the sage-priest
Bhāsa, (born 3rd century AD, India), is one of the earliest known
Sanskrit dramatists, many of whose complete plays have been found. In 1912 an
Indian scholar discovered and published the texts of 13 of Bhāsa’s dramas,
previously known only by the allusions of ancient Sanskrit dramatists. His best
work, Svapnavāsavadattā (“The Dream of Vāsavadattā”), depicts a king losing
and then regaining his kingdom from a usurper. The majority of his dramas are
ingenious adaptations on themes of heroism and romantic love borrowed
from India’s two great epics, the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata. Bhāsa
deviated from the accepted dramaturgy of the time by portraying battle scenes
and killings on the stage. His influence is seen in the works of the great 5thcentury dramatist Kālidāsa, who consciously imitated and improved upon some
of Bhāsa’s literary motifs.
There is considerable controversy over the authenticity of the Bhāsa plays, but at
least some of them must be authentic, perhaps dating back to the 3rd century.
The plays are based on the epic and on the Bṛhat-kathā narrative cycle (see
below); among the latter, the Svapnavāsavadattā (“The Dream of Vāsavadattā”)
is the most famous. Of considerable interest also is the Daridra-Cārudatta (“The
Poverty of Charudatta”), which became the basis for the play Mṛcchakaṭika –
Mrichhakatika (“Little Clay Cart”) of Śūdraka.
It must be assumed that there was an efflorescence of poetry and theatre in the
city of Ujjayinī, one of the capitals of the Gupta Empire, in the 5th century, for a
number of authors can be placed there during this reign; among these were
Viśākhadatta, Śūdraka, Śyāmilaka, the writer of one of the best farces,
and Kālidāsa, who at the beginning of the development of the genre produced
some of the greatest plays in the tradition.
Nothing is known with certainty of the life of Kālidāsa, the greatest of Sanskrit
poets, but there is substantial agreement that at one time he lived in Ujjayinī
(Ujjain, in the present state of Madhya Pradesh), the capital of Avanti and an
important centre of Sanskrit culture in a commercially busy area. His name,
which means Servitor of Kālī, indicates that he was a follower of the goddess,
whom he was to celebrate as Pārvatī, the daughter of the mountain, in
the Kumārasaṃbhava. It is believed that he lived during the reign of Chandra
Gupta II -Vikramāditya (c. 380–c. 415), and there are reports that he died, by the
hand of an envious courtesan, while he was a guest of King Kumāradāsa of
Ceylon, Sri Lanka.
Compared with those of others, Kālidāsa’s style might be called simple, but it is a
very studied, very felicitous simplicity, hiding the actual complexity of his
constructions. In two of his mahākāvyas, Kālidāsa draws on epic lore. The first,
and probably earlier one, is the Kumārasaṃbhava(“Birth of the War God”),
which describes the courting of the ascetic Śiva, who is meditating in the
mountains, by Pārvatī, the daughter of the Himalayas; the destruction of the god
of love (after his arrow has struck Śiva) by the fire from Śiva’s third eye; and the
wedding of Śiva and Pārvatī, which results in the conception of the war god –
The second mahākāvya, the Raghuvaṃśa(“Dynasty of Raghu”), deals with
themes from the Rāmāyaṇa: it describes the vicissitudes of the Solar dynasty of
the ancient Indian barons, culminating in the Rāmāyaṇa story of Rāma and Sītā.
The Raghuvaṃśa is famous for its beautiful descriptions and incidental
narratives, which give the poem a somewhat episodic character; among them are
a description of the six seasons – Ritusamhara (spring, summer, rainy, autumn,
winter, and dewy).
Unique in Sanskrit love poetry is Kālidāsa’s Meghadūta, in which the poet tries to
go beyond the strophic unity of the short lyric (see below The short lyric), which
normally characterizes love poems, by stringing the stanzas into a narrative.
This innovation did not take hold, though the poem inspired imitations along
precisely the same story line. The Meghadūta is the lament of an
exiled yakṣa who is pining for his beloved on a lonely mountain peak. When, at
the beginning of the monsoon, a cloud perches on the peak, he asks it to deliver a
message to his love in the Himalayan city of Alakā. Most of the poem, composed
in an extremely graceful metre, consists of a description of the landmarks, cities,
and the like on the cloud’s route to Alakā. It must be considered among the finest
poems, if not the finest poem, written in Sanskrit.
the Mālavikāgnimitra (“Agnimitra and Mālavikā”), a harem play of amorous
intrigue at a royal court. The other two are based on old
themes. Vikramorvaśī (“Urvaśī Won by Valour”) is based on a story as old as the
Rigveda, that of the nymph Urvaśī, who is loved by King Purūravas, whom she
marries on certain conditions. An accident happens, and the nymph returns to
heaven, leaving her husband crazed with longing, until a final reunion. But the
Indian tradition holds the Abhijñānaśakuntalā (“Śakuntalā and the Token of
Recognition”) to be the greatest of all Sanskrit plays.
It recounts a Mahābhārata story—of a hermit girl secretly married to a visiting
king, who leaves with her a keepsake that will serve her as a token of
recognition. She gives birth to a son, Bharata, and goes to the King’s court; on the
way she loses the token ring in a river, where a fish swallows it. The King fails to
recognize her and rejects her, and her mother, a nymph, carries her to heaven.
When the ring is recovered by a fisherman and the King’s memory is restored, he
searches for Śakuntalā but does not find her. In the end he meets a boy who
proves to be his son and is restored to him.
Kālidāsa’s great forte is the portrayal of emotions—ordinary enough in
themselves (budding love, love consummated, rejection, despair, a father’s love
for his son)—but Kālidāsa applies to them a mastery of expression and image
that makes the play a work of perennial beauty.
Next to nothing is known of Śūdraka except that he must have hailed from
Ujjayinī. His is the most charming of all prakaraṇa plays (those that are not
based on epic material): the Mṛcchakaṭikā (“Little Clay Cart”)- Mricchakatika,
the story of an impoverished merchant and a courtesan who love each other but
are thwarted by a powerful rival who tries to kill the woman and place the blame
on the hero, Cārudatta ( Charudatta). The play offers a fascinating view of the
different layers of urban society. .
Śrīharsha, or Shriharsha (flourished 12th century) is an Indian author and poet
whose Naishadhiyacharitra, or Nalacharitra, is
popular mahākāvyas in Sanskrit literature. The details of Śrīharsha’s life are
uncertain. Reportedly, when Shrīharsha’s father, a poet in King Vijayachandra’s
court in Kannauj, was disgraced in a poetry contest, he retired and asked
Śrīharsha to avenge him. In time Vijayachandra became Shriharsha’s patron, and
it was at the king’s son –Jayachandra’s
request that the poet
composed Naishadhiyacharitra [ Nalacharitra]. Among his other writings
are treatises on elements of Buddhist and Vedanta beliefs and eulogies on late
kings. Persecuted by a queen jealous of an honour bestowed upon him, he retired
to a quiet life by the Ganges River.
Naishadhiyacharitra, in 22 cantos, is a retelling of the tale of Nala, king of
Nishadha, and Damayantī, princess of Vidarbha, from the Mahabharata. It is a
story of love overcoming obstacles, ending happily in marriage, and the poem is
especially notable for its descriptive embellishments and skillful presentation of
emotion. Śhrīharsha’s mastery of metre is evident, but he has been criticized for
occasional obscurity and excessive verbal ornamentation.
Jayadeva, (flourished 12th century), Indian author of the Sanskrit poem Gita
Govinda (“Song of the Cowherd [Krishna]”) The son of Bhojadeva, a Brahman, he
was born in the village of Kenduli Sasan, Orissa (now Odisha), near the city
of Puri, and was married to Padmavati. Jayadeva was closely associated with the
temple of Jagannatha (Krishna) at Puri, where recitation of his Gita Govinda was
regularly performed by the maharis (temple dancers). Jayadeva has been
honoured for several centuries at an annual festival at his birthplace, during
which his poem is recited.
The Gita Govinda describes the love of Krishna, the divine cowherd, for Radha,
his favourite among the gopis (wives and daughters of the cowherds). The poem
presents, in dramatic form, the lovers’ attraction, estrangement, yearning, and
final reconciliation through the help of a sakhi (female confidant). The poem,
which blends recitative stanzas with 24 short songs, inspired much of the
subsequent poetry and painting in the bhakti(devotional) tradition of Krishna
and Radha throughout India. Songs from the Gita Govinda continue to be sung in
temples, during festivals, and at kirtanas (communal worship through song).
Jayadeva’s work, rather lacking in the grammatical rigidity of the
other mahākāvya writers, has been extremely popular and affords a fine
example of the devotional lyric.