From the Spalding Symposium: On the Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata


In my second blog entry that seeks to compare approaches to the significant past, and future, in Hindu , Buddhist and Jain tradition, I will explore, briefly, the Brahminical epics: Vasiṣṭha, in the Rāmāyaṇa’s second book, provides the following account of the origin of the world in order to instruct his king, Rāma, in the necessity of primogeniture, which Pollock translates as follows:

2.102.2: “I want you now, master of the world, to learn from me the origin of this world. Everything was once just water, and within this water the earth was fashioned. The Sef-existent Brahmā then came into existence with the gods.

2.102.3: He then became a boar, raised up the treasure-laden earth, and created the whole moving world with the help of his accomplished sons.

2.102.4:  Brahmā the everlasting, the eternal and imperishable, arose from space. he begot Marīci, and Marīci a son named Kaśyapa.

2.102.5 Kaśyapa begot Vivasvan, the Sun. Manu is recorded as the sun of Vivasvan – he was the first lord of creatures – and the son of Manu was Ikṣvāku.


There follows a genealogical account of the generations of the solar lineage, which culminates in Rāma:

2.102.29: And you, known far and wide as Rāma, are his eldest son and heir. Assume , then, the kingship that is your own and show regard for the world, your Majesty.


This account presents a history of the universe that is theistic, catalyzed by Brahmā and based on the genealogical succession of royal authority. It makes no mention of the Vedas (which is not inappropriate given the context of the instruction: of a noted Brahmin sage instructing a prince, whose inheritance is being reluctantly set aside by his father, king Daśaratha). The Mahābhārata, in its twelfth book, offers us a little more detail with regard to the creative agency of Brahmā and the Vedas, which I translate as follows:

12.326.104: Hundreds and thousands of mahākalpas pass together with creations and dissolutions, O Indra of Kings. At the beginning of each creation, Brahmā the mighty creation-maker remembers.


A little later on in the same book, Brahmā makes it clear that creation is dependent on the Vedas. I translate a portion of his speech as follows:

12.335.29-30: The Vedas are my most excellent eyes, they are my ultimate strength. They are my great refuge. The Vedas are the highest brahma… Without the Vedas the world of my creation is in darkness. Without the Vedas, how would I dutifully act to create the worlds?


One cannot help but observe that there is a similar change in grammatical person in these two ślokas, as there was in the Buddhavaṃsa; the pivotal statement of the dependency of Brahmā, and thus all living beings, on the Vedas is narrated in the first person. In a text as multi-voiced as the Mahābhārata one cannot, of course, say this is part of a conspicuous pattern of usage. Nonetheless, Brahmā’s speech does, without doubt, add emphasis and drama here. What is clear is that saṃsāra is predicated on the agency of Brahmā and the presence of the Vedas. This cyclical understanding of cosmic time is then fleshed out by the idea of the mahāyuga and yuga, the eon and era respectively. The Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata, somewhat patchily, subscribe to the idea of their being four distinct eras in each eon (the well-known kṛta-, dvāpara-, treta- and kaliyugas, whose moral and religious character vary).

The Mahābhārata combines accounts of creation and, indeed, recreation with a vast amount of concrete genealogical detail and a dependency on prophecy, oath and curse to act as the engine of narrative progression. The genealogies – and associated kinship ideologies – of the Mahābhārata have been explored in great detail by my colleague at Cardiff University, Simon Brodbeck, in his The Mahābharata Patriline.  The brute fact of the genealogical emphasis of the two texts is sufficient for my purposes today.

The Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata are, in contrast, only lightly seasoned with transmigratory narrative.  In the Mahābhārata, the story of Ambā, the reason for Draupadī’s five husbands, the birth of Vidura and a few other isolated tales are all that we are provided with. In the Rāmāyaṇa there is even less in the way of rebirth stories: Kausalyā adduces an earlier birth to explain her misfortune and Sītā’s past life as Vedavatī is mentioned in the context of a prophecy of Rāvaṇa’s eventual demise. Although, there is sometimes mention of the transmigratory benefits of the hearing of the Rāmāyaṇa or Mahābhārata in the two texts (in their phalaśruti), these, as often as not, focus instead on healthy offspring and other more worldly benefits. Taken together it all amounts to little more than the cherry on a rum baba. This is notwithstanding the fact that rebirth is well-established in the – probably – largely contemporaneous Dharmasūtras. For example, the Āpastamba Dharmasūtra states, in Olivelle’s translation:

2.2.6: When a thief or a heinous sinner, whether he is a Brahmin, a Kṣatriya or a Vaiśya, completes his sojourn in the next world living in an interminable hell, he is born here again – a Brahmin as a Cāṇḍāla, a Kṣatriya as a Paulkasa, and a Vaiśya as a Vaiṇa. In like manner, others, when the fall from their castes as a result of singul acts, are born as outcastes in wombs that are the aftermath of their sins.


Indeed, dharmaśāstric literature presents us with vast lists of the transmigratory consequences of wrong doings of various types. This does not translate into a transmigratory narrative ‘web’ of the Buddhist, or Jain, type, however. That is not to say we find no trace of existential angst in Brahminical narratives: the Mahābhārata is full of it. The final book of the Mahābhārata, for example, contains the following passionate denunciation of conditioned existence, which I translate as follows:

18. 47-50. Thousands of mothers and fathers and hundreds of sons and wives proceed enjoying the cycle of death and re-birth and some go beyond. There are thousands of occasions for delight and hundreds for fear and, day after day, the foolish invest in these, while the learned do not. With arms held aloft, I lament, but no one hears me! From Dharma come profit and pleasure; for what purpose does it not serve?  Dharma should never be abandoned: not for pleasure, nor on account of fear or ignorance. The soul is indeed the primary cause. Dharma is eternal, but joy and sorrow are not.  The jīva is eternal but the bondage of the soul will not be!

In the Mahābhārata and Rāmāyaṇa, it seems that rebirth is – more or less – cosmologically and doctrinally integrated (though the details of this integration and where its philosophical loyalties lay are open to question and are the subject of much scholarly debate), but there is a distinct lack of narrative that capitalises on this.

What the Rāmāyaṇa mentions in passing, and the Mahābhārata deals with more fully, is the matter of divine incarnation. Rāma’s divine status is by no means emphasised in the Rāmāyaṇā, but it is mentioned (in, for example, books six and seven of the text). Kṛṣṇa’s divinity is more clearly established in the Mahābhārata (and I do not have time to rehearse the many references to it in, and outside of, the Bhagavadgītā here). Indeed, the Mahābhārata is perhaps more than anything else the story of divine incarnation; all of its major characters are deities that have taken birth to help in the project of the unburdening of the earth of a fractious warrior class (in a fashion that does not seem to sit well with the idea of ethicised  transmigration of either the Buddhist or Jain type). It is also the case that the heroes of the Mahābhārata, the Pāṇḍavas, are, of course, individually fathered by gods (in a process quite separate to their incarnation). The question of the stages of development of a fully fledged avatāra system (of sequential divine incarnation) is beyond the scope of the present paper (but has been cogently discussed by Hiltebeitel in the longer of the two recent books he has recently published on Dharma). The avatāra scheme is deserving of comparison with the patterns of incanration and intervention in Buddhist sources such as the Buddhavaṃsa, and Jain sources, which I will take up in other blog entries soon.

The Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata provide, then, an account of a longue durée of Indian cosmo-history that demonstrates a recurrent commitment to detailing the lineages of prominent kings and sages.  This is undertaken in parallel with a concern to present the gods (and God with a capital G on occasion) as capable of intervention in human life (by means of birth or manifestation or something that blends these two things). We thus have true pedigrees; of ritual specialists (Brahmins) and temporal leaders (Kṣatriyas) and an understanding of divine beings as capable of ‘cosmo-political’ intervention (as, for example, in the unburdening of the earth) and religious instruction (as is offered in the Bhagavad Gītā). However, putting it rather bluntly, the emergent understanding of divine incarnation seems to emphasise the political and social over the renunciative or at least seems to try to have its cake and eat it; Kṛṣṇa offers a teaching that encourages social action – even as one pursues mokṣa – and does so precisely as an intervention in an internecine royal conflict.

Both the Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata demonstrate a lacklustre commitment to transmigratory narratives and constitute a social collective not karmically, but dharmically (by means of the inculcation of commitment to the recurrent necessity to confirm to a ritual and social ‘blueprint’ provided by the Vedas and their associated ancillary literature). They do this while simultaneously demonstrating an inconsistent commitment to a variety of religious philosophies (Vedāntic, Saṅkhyic etc.)  that are likely to have been the subject of śramaṇic influence – including, but not limited to, the ideologies of Buddhists and Jains.

If the Buddhavamṣa is a sutta becoming an epic story (of a rather triumphalist type), then the epics are perhaps the product of a piecemeal and rather reluctant transformation in the opposite direction.

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