These two great poems — Ramayana and Mahabharata — laid the foundation for Indian literary culture and are foundational to the Hindu worldview.
The beginning of European literature is generally traced back to the two Homeric epics, the “Iliad” and “Odyssey,” which are still studied today as great literary masterpieces.
Less well-known, but equally significant, are the two great epics of India: the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Written in Sanskrit, the classical religious language of India, these two epics laid the foundation for Indian literary culture. Both the Ramayana and Mahabharata seem to have been composed by many different contributors over several centuries, not reaching their “final” form until the fourth century A.D.
The Ramayana, or “Journey of Rama,” is a massive work of some 24,000 couplets, about three times the length of Homer's "Iliad." Set in ancient India, it tells the tale of Rama, king of Ayodhya, and his beautiful wife, Sita. Sita's beauty attracts the unwanted attention of the demonic king Ravana, who has usurped power over humans, gods and nature. Ravana kidnaps Sita and carries her off to his island fortress of Sri Lanka.
Rama sets off on a long journey to rescue his wife and, in the process, musters a large army of humans, supernatural beings and animals, including Hanuman, the monkey-god. All nature has allied with Rama against Ravana. After a long journey and fierce battle with a wide array of monsters and magical weapons, Rama manages to slay the demon Ravana and rescue his beloved Sita.
But, as is often the case in ancient Indian literature, nothing is really as it seems. Rama is much more than a mere human hero; he is the seventh incarnation of the great god Vishnu, who has taken human form in order to overthrow the demonic power of Ravana. Thus, the Ramayana is not only a mythic adventure tale of a wandering hero like Homer's "Odyssey," it is the story of the incarnation of the god Vishnu to restore the righteous order of the cosmos that had been destroyed by the tyranny of Ravana.
The tale of Rama is universally commemorated throughout South Asia, from the shadow-puppet plays in Java to modern movies and television dramas in India. Ritually, Rama's defeat of Ravana is celebrated each year in the Ravana-Dahan (burning an effigy of Ravana). Remarkably, a play of the Ramayana and the destruction of Ravana can also be seen each year during the Festival of India at the Krishna Temple in Spanish Fork — a journey of thousands of miles and years from its Indian origins
Like the Ramayana, the Mahabharata (great tale of the Bharata dynasty) is an epic story of adventure, conflict and betrayal. The story focuses on a fratricidal civil war to capture the throne of India. At 200,000 verses, it is the longest poem ever written, nearly 10 times as long as the "Iliad" and "Odyssey" combined — though many diversions and secondary tales have been added to the core story. Cheated in a game of dice out of their legitimate right to the throne by their cousins of the Kaurava clan, the five Pandava brothers and their shared wife, Draupadi, are banished from their capital Hastinapura, which they were destined to rule.
After many adventures, the Pandavas return to reclaim their throne, which culminates in the long and bloody Kurukshetra war against their usurping cousins. After numerous fierce battles and many heroic duels, the Pandava heroes finally emerge victorious.
Like the warriors of the "Iliad," the lords of the Mahabharata are aristocratic warriors fighting from chariots, and the greatest of these chariot warriors is Arjuna. As the great battle is about to begin, Arjuna despairs, realizing that he can be victorious in battle only by killing his Kaurava cousins. Even in victory, many of his friends and relatives will die in the fighting.
Unknown to Arjuna, however, his charioteer Krishna is in reality the eighth incarnation of the god Vishnu — and hence is a reincarnation of Rama from the Ramayana. Krishna suddenly reveals his true divine nature to Arjuna, explaining the cosmic “plan of salvation” as understood by the ancient Hindus.
Krishna's teachings to Arjuna are contained in the Bhagavad-Gita (song of the Lord Krishna). As the classic encapsulation of the Hindu view of duty (dharma), deeds (karma), reincarnation, and ultimate salvation, the Bhagavad-Gita is often published separately from the Mahabharata, serving a role for Hindus similar to the teachings of Jesus Christ in gospels for Christians.
Abridged translations of "The Mahabharata” (J. Smith, 2009) and “The Ramayana” (R.K. Narayan, 2006) are available from Penguin Classics.