How The Classic Indian Epic Texts Continue To Shape Our Consciousness

Subhash Kak

Aug 28, 2016, 03:22 PM | Updated 03:22 PM IST

The painting depicts the battle of Kurukshetra of the Mahabharata epic. On the left the Pandava hero Arjuna sits behind Krishna, his charioteer. On the right is Karna, commander of the Kaurava army. (Wikimedia Commons)
The painting depicts the battle of Kurukshetra of the Mahabharata epic. On the left the Pandava hero Arjuna sits behind Krishna, his charioteer. On the right is Karna, commander of the Kaurava army. (Wikimedia Commons)
  • Classic epic texts like the Mahabharata, and those pertaining to the epic song and dance traditions, like the Natya Shastra, are explored at length in this essay.
  • There is a brief meditation on the relevance of the epic tradition in contemporary times and its reshaping by technology and globalisation in the future.
  • This is the final in a four-part essay that delves into the various timeless epic song traditions of India and highlights their influence over Indian history and culture.

    The Classic Epic Texts

    The original material of the epic texts is in Sanskrit, but there are also versions in the modern Indian languages. The performance may consist of the singing of the verses from the Sanskrit or other language text along with the discourse in the local language.

    The chief epic metre of Sanskrit poetry is the shloka. It consists of four quarters of eight syllables each. The shloka is really the same as the anushtubh of the Vedic songs which, in turn, is the same as the gayatri with a fourth line added. Other metres include the trishtubh and indravajra (Indra’s thunderbolt) (11x4), indravamsha (Indra’s family) (12x4), vasantatilaka (the ornament of spring) (14x4), malini (the girl wearing a garland) (15x4), prithvi (the earth) (17x4), mandakranta (the slow-stepper) and harini (the doe) (17x4), shardula-vikridita (the tiger’s sport) (19x4), and the sragdhara (the girl with a garland) (21x4).

    Another popular metre is the arya (the lady). It is divided into feet, each containing four instants, counting a prosodically short syllable as one and a long syllable as two instants. The first quarter of the arya stanza contains three such feet; the second, four and a half; the third, three; and the fourth, three and a half, with an extra short syllable after the second foot.

    Of the two great epics, the Mahabharata is the longer one. Consisting of 1,00,000 verses, usually in the shloka metre, it is the world’s longest poem. According to the tradition, it was composed originally by Veda Vyasa as a smaller composition called Jaya, which was 8,800 verses long. He then taught to his pupil Vaishampayana another version that was 24,000 verses long. The final version of 1,00,000 verses emerged much later, thanks to the contributions of Lomaharshana, his son Ugrashrava and others. It was recited in public for the first time in the court of King Janamejaya, the great grandson of Arjuna, one of the heroes of the epic. The story is about intrigue and struggle between two families of cousins, the Kauravas and the Pandavas, which ends in a catastrophic war and the annhilation of the Kauravas. The Pandavas are five brothers married to the mercurial and beautiful Draupadi and befriended by Krishna, the avatara of Vishnu. According to the astronomical tradition, the war took place in 3137 BC whereas the Puranic tradition places it in 1924 BC.

    The other great epic, the Ramayana, is a little longer than one-fourth of the Mahabharata. The traditional author of the Ramayana is the sage Valmiki. The story is about Rama, the perfect man, another avatara of Vishnu, who is exiled to the forest for 14 years together with his wife, Sita. When Sita is abducted by the asura-king Ravana, Rama assembles an army and invades Sri Lanka with the help of the flying hero Hanuman. In the end, Ravana is killed, and Rama and Sita return to their kingdom in Ayodhya. In Puranic genealogies, Rama comes before Krishna, and the Rama story is also summarised in the Mahabharata. By traditional accounts, Krishna lived about 5,100 years ago.

    Apparently, both the epics suffered interpolations and additions, but now critical editions have been prepared. In addition, there are many versions in several languages of India and Southeast Asia. Of the many reworkings of the Ramayana, perhaps the most widely known is Tulasidasa’s Ramacharitamanas (Prasad, 1988), which is also the national scripture of the Indo-Caribbean world.

    The epic stories may be read at various levels that include the spiritual, in which the contest is between the good and the evil within the individual. The epic stories also parallel Vedic ritual with its structural components related to the three domains of earthly power, transgressions of moral and spiritual laws and atonement.

    The Vedic texts are considered equivalent to the tripartite division of the universe as follows: the Rig and the earth, the Yajur and the atmosphere, and the Sama and the heavens. It is the music of the Samaveda that is supposed to make it possible to arrive at transcendence.

    The seven notes of the Samaveda are called “six plus one” because the gods are taken to live on the highest note, whereas humans live in the lower six notes. This parallels the Vedic statement that there exist four kinds of language of which humans have access to only three kinds. The fourth is paravak. The Samaveda contains the world’s oldest notated melodies. The recited form includes extraneous material (stobha) inserted between consecutive words and even between the syllables of one word (Howard, 1977; Deva, 1981).

    The Atharvaveda calls the seven-rayed Sun a cosmic harp connected to the seven breaths of the individual. The vina is a divine instrument, as is the human body itself, taken as a vina. The musical and the narrative forms are intertwined in the Vedic texts.

    The Musical and the Aesthetic Tradition

    We can go back to the Natya Shastra, Dattilam, Brihaddeshi, and the Sangitaratnakara to form an idea of the classical musical tradition in India. These texts not only provide information on the theoretical framework but also information on singing styles. The Brihaddeshi speaks of the classical (marga) and the popular or the regional (deshi), suggesting how the interaction between the two strengthened each of them.

    The aesthetic basis of understanding Indian music is the rasa theory. Rasa is the experience of aesthetic pleasure. Nine rasas are usually listed. They are love (shringara), heroism (vira), disgust (bibhatsa), anger (raudra), mirth (hasya), terror (bhayanaka), compassion (karuna), wonder (adbhuta), and peace (shanti). Sometimes, a tenth rasa, devotion (bhakti), is added to the list. The Natya Shastra lists only eight; it doesn’t have shanti and bhakti. An epic is a performance where vira rasa is predominant, but where other rasas such as shringara are also very important.

    According to the Natya Shastra, the performance takes its recitation from the Rigveda, music from the Samaveda, acting from the Yajurveda, and rasa from the Atharvaveda. In the classical period, a theory of aesthetics arose around the theory of dhvani. Introduced by Anandavardhana in his book Dhvanyaloka or “The Light of Suggestion”, this theory goes beyond the ideas of ornamental qualities in art. Dhvani is the conception that aesthetic appeal arises out of suggestion and not direct statements. Art influences us indirectly, in a subtle manner. This suggestiveness, or capacity to produce subtle impressions, was named vyanjakatva and the artistic composition in which this quality inheres is dhvani.

    The various limbs of a performance are described in the Natya Shastra to be rasa, bhava, abhinaya, dharmi, vritti, pravritti, siddhi, svara, atodya, gana, and ranga. Bhava is the psychological state of mind. Abhinaya is enactment, either as physical, verbal, ornamental or emotional. The dharmi are the modes of expression. They may be lokadharmi (realistic/popular) or natyadharmi (stylised).

    The vrittis are functions or actions. When they are ornamented in natya, we get four vrittis: bharati (pertaining to speech), satvati (speech at the mental level), arabhati (forceful activity of the body), and kaishiki (graceful activity of the body). The pravrittis are the regional styles; siddhi is attainment, which is either human or divine; svaras are the seven musical notes; atodya is instrumental music, which is of four kinds; and gana is singing. The ranga is the place of enactment.

    The connection between language and music is provided by Gandharva Shastra, the traditional musicological science of India. According to the Aitareya Brahmana, the Veda should be sung. The Sanskrit alphabet is divided into svara (same as musical svaras or notes) and vyanjana (consonants). In the Maheshvara Sutras, the basic three svaras are a, i, u, which mirror the tripartite division of the universe: a is earth, i is atmosphere (without i, Shiva becomes Shava, a corpse), and u is Brahman. Along with R (ri) and L (lri), we have five basic svaras. Considering other svaras like A (aa), I (ii), U (uu), e, ai, o, au, the total becomes 12. In Indian music, there are also five primary and two secondary notes. The five primary notes in Sama singing are prathama, dvitiya, tritiya, chaturtha, and mandra; the two secondary ones are krashta and atisvarya. The shuddha and the vikrita notes of the South Indian system also add up to twelve.

    The 33 consonants of the Sanskrit alphabet are taken to be half of the larger total of 66. The total number of shrutis (subnotes) in some reckonings is also taken to be 66, of which the principal ones are 22 (Kak, 2002c). We thus see a striving to put the alphabet of Sanskrit in a one-to-one correspondence with musical notes, which are taken to have a fundamental basis in the very nature of man’s being. This background is to explain the idea that songs may have a deeper spiritual basis not apparent in a reading of the tale being told. It is this reason that the epic songs are not taken to be ordinary stories, but rather as musical material which stimulates centres in the mind through a unique combination of rasas to facilitate self-transformation.

    Contemporary Epic Song Performance

    The singing of epic songs remains an important part of life both in villages and cities (Blackburn, 1989). The regional narratives have variants that weave in later historical episodes related to the area. Sometimes, these variants conflate accounts from different epics and the Puranas. Apart from the performances staged by religious singers and theatrical groups, considerable material is available through records and films. Television serials of the classic epics are shown from time to time.

    The most charismatic performers of classic songs have a following in the Indian community all over the world. During the summer months, these performances are staged at various centres in the lands of the Indian diaspora and play to packed temples and theatres.

    In the Hindi region, Ramalila and Rasalila, around Rama and Krishna, are often the vehicle for performing from the classic stories. Ramalila, which is based on Tulasidasa’s Ramacharitamanasa, is performed for nine days before the festival of Dussehra, which celebrates the slaying of Ravana by Rama.

    The most popular classic epic song narration is that of the Ramayana. In the Hindi world, it is the Ramacharitamanasa of Tulasidasa which is sung in its entirety; the other regions have their versions of the epic. One could have easily added the all-night performance, the jagaran, in which the valorous exploits of the goddess are recounted.

    In the South, Katha singers sing various kinds of epic songs. The accompaniment is by drum, titti (a bagpipe-like instrument made from an entire goatskin), and kommu (a crescent-shaped brass horn). One of the earliest epic songs sung in Andhra Pradesh is the story of Palnadu. Celebrating events that took place nearly a thousand years ago, it can take upto a month to perform. There are other forms such as Kuttiyattam, Ramanattam, and Krishnattam.

    The performances are often held in the monsoon season when agriculture work has come to a halt. Professionals include wandering mendicants, acrobats, and members of agriculture and artisan communities.

    Concluding Remarks

    This four-part essay has presented the classical basis to the epic song traditions of India and highlighted its current situation in parts of the country. Traditionally, the yajamani system, involving reciprocal relationships between hosts and performers, provided the economic basis for the performers. Although the yajamani system has weakened considerably, some reciprocal support is now mediated through panchayats and other institutions. The All India Radio and the television networks have also stepped in to support performance.

    The performers are also taking advantage of technology (like cassettes and now CDs) to popularise the epics. Due to the spiritual angle to some epic songs, there is a conscious attempt by many people to keep the traditions alive.

    The epics have an important role in the self-perception of the community. The popular epics appear to have emerged during a period of crisis and transition. In Maharashtra, the advent of the rule of Shivaji marked a transition that let to a flowering of the arts including the epic song. The reason why Prithviraj and Gorakhnath appear in several epics is because their times represented the breakdown of the previous political order.

    The oral nature of the epics permitted a retelling that was adjusted to the demand of the times.

    If there are no contemporary epics, that may be because either the transition of 1947 is not perceived as having brought about a fundamental change in society, or that film and TV provide new modes of expression that fulfil the same needs as the epic song genre.

    It remains to be seen what the long-term effects of information technology, globalisation, and breakdown of old social institutions will be on the epic song genre in India.

    This essay was originally presented at the seventh International Conference and Festival of Asian Music, Busan, Korea during 26-30 September 2002 and has been republished here with permission.

    Also Read:

    The Enduring Appeal Of The Great Indian Epic Song Tradition

    Rich In Storytelling: The Song Traditions Of Rajasthan, Gujarat And The Ganga Plains

    The Shorter Epics Of India; And How The Epic Song Genre Has Shaped The Identities Of Communities

    Subhash Kak is Regents professor of electrical and computer engineering at Oklahoma State University and a vedic scholar.

    Get Swarajya in your inbox.