There is constant ambiguity when one thinks of the role that ancient literature has to play in a country’s overall development. It is difficult to say whether it should be seen as a source of history, or as evidence of a country’s creative achievements, or as gospel truth that provides substance to a community’s religious and cultural beliefs. In a recent talk held at Lucknow, Congress MP Shashi Tharoor is reported to have said that the Indian epics, Mahabharata and Ramayana, should be taught as literature to school kids rather than as religious texts. Tharoor’s comment is bound to attract backlash from those who firmly believe that the two great epics are distilled Hindu wisdom. However, if one were to examine Tharoor’s remark objectively, one would realise why it is indeed necessary to read the Ramayana and the Mahabharata as literary achievements produced in the Indian subcontinent, rather than as Hindu texts.
In the first place, historians have over and again remarked upon the fact that Hinduism as we know it today is far from being an institutionalised religion like Islam or Christianity. Rather, Hinduism is a way of life, that was given an institutionalised framework when the British colonised the country. Putting things into this perspective, it would be difficult to say that the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, written as they were perhaps between the 4th century BCE and the 4th century CE, carry within them any kind of intentioned religiosity. Unlike the Koran and the Bible that contain the tellings of the Prophet and Jesus, the Ramayana and Mahabharata are basically lengthy poetic narrations with a moralistic, rather than religious bent to it. To read the two epics as a work of religion is unwarranted and nothing but politically motivated.
If one kept aside the given Hindu identity of the two texts and read it like a work of literature, one would be amazed to note the kind of literary marvel created out of the subcontinent so many centuries back. The Mahabharata is believed to be the longest epic poem in the world, much longer than the two great Greek epics- Iliad and Odyssey. Containing about 1,00,000 verses, the epic has within it knowledge of statecraft, philosophy, law and ethics. The Ramayana on the other hand, contains 24,000 verses and is so widely regarded not just in India, but also internationally, that over years several retellings of the epic have been published all over South Asia. The essence of the two epics need to be located in their literary brilliance.
The other thing to take away from both these ethics is the detailing they provide regarding human experience in the first millennium CE. Literature is perhaps one of the best sources of ancient history. It is even more so the case with the Ramayana and Mahabharata due to the fine detailing of human emotions they provide, with which the modern man can relate. This is not to say that the two texts are historically accurate. However, they do provide as reference points to understand ancient Indian society.
The biggest contribution of the two epics, however, is the sort of substance they provide to our identity formation as Indians. As pointed out by Tharoor in the same talk, when schools teach Shakespeare to their students and leave out the ancient Indian texts, we are simply reiterating the fact that the West is superior in their literary achievements. Classical Indian texts need to be made a part of the identity of all Indians, regardless of religion. The literary brilliance that the Ramayana and the Mahabharata is, need to be understood not as the achievement of a glorious Hindu past, but rather as accomplishments of highly skilled, talented writers from the Indian subcontinent.
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