Ira Saxena

Epics Created History

The movement of Indian mind is represented, on one side, in the great philosophic systems like Veda’s and Upnishad’s, presenting the truth of highest spiritual knowledge and the psychological seed of Indian culture, on the other by the poetic content of pure literature of the period represented by the great epics – Ramayan and the Mahabharata. It is an ancient historical legend turned into a creative expression of the formative mind of the people. It is poetry rich with meaning, molded in profound thought on life and ethical content. The work of these epics was to popularize the philosophic ideas and cultural practice. Unlike most oral literature the contents of these two heroic stories remain unchanged, transmitting the ethical and social culture through generations over thousands of years.

Philosophy and religion are the soul of Indian culture. Its entire raison d’ etre is the knowledge of the spirit, its experience and the right way to spiritual existence. The ancient civilization of India founded itself very expressly upon four human interests; first, desire and enjoyment, next material needs of the mind and body; thirdly, social life and lastly spiritual liberation, namely, karma, arth, dharma and moksha or effectively action, materialism, religion and salvation. 

The two great epics – Ramayana ‘The Story of Rama’ written by Valmiki and Mahabharat ‘The Great War’ written by the learned sage, Vyaas - are the vestiges of a rich and hoary Indian tradition. In short, the story of Ramayan follows the travails of Prince Rama who is sent into exile by his father for 14 years on the insistence of his stepmother. Accompanied with his newly wedded wife, Sita and brother, Laxman, his adventures in the forest lead him into combats with demon forces resulting in the abduction of Sita by the demon King, Ravana. The exciting encounters with animal kingdom during his search for his wife and many more exploits end in the final battle with the demon forces. The result is victory of good over evil and highlighting ideals in relationships and a value system at the same time.

Mahabharat, on the other hand is the story of the Great War. The Pandava’s and Kaurava’s descend from a great dynasty of rulers. Locked in perpetual acrimony over succession, the cousins get embroiled in bitter confrontations that increase hostility and eventually lead to the battle ground. The battleground symbolises the turmoil and tribulations of the material world and human relationships, where the voice of God through Lord Krishna in Gita, the holy book of Hindus, dictating the philosophy of karma, guides the victory of good over evil. The epic runs into many volumes of enchanting fiction and a depth of thought to those who search the truth.

The mythological stories are a part of traditional life of every Indian child. The Mahabharat handles psychological dilemmas of the weak and ambitious, maturation of sibling rivalry as the princes mature, interpersonal discord and possibly, all conceivable dealings and entanglements of the social relations. Ramayan comes closer to children through its story content which was originally created for all. The tale narrates the conflicts and accomplishments of the hero and imparts direct inference of goodness. Bringing together the basic principles of Indian thought – vasudhaiva kutumbkam – meaning ‘the world is one family’, the story creates a climate of complete harmony between humans and Nature. The communication between humans and aspects of nature are apparent. Throughout the story many sub-plots present animal protagonists like the Jatayu, the king of vultures, Hanuman, the super monkey, Jamvandt, the intelligent bear and the squirrels who got their stripes from the loving caress from Rama. The animals rise in glory above their stature through their sensitivity and sacrifice, always, finding a way to the child’s heart throughout the ages. Since children subscribe easily to animal stories, accepting the disbelief and enchantment, the tale taps upon children psychologically with the use of animal characters excelling in virtue. The dividing line between human, animal and divine ceases and there is a general acceptance of the fact that all forms of life are animated by the same principles of life; man is merely on a higher plane of evolution. Children seek satisfaction from the heroism of lesser characters delivering lessons in social relations, familial bonds and morality. As a literary formula in its barest element it is comprehensible to children since the emphasis is on physical not psychological progress and barriers to overcome are outside rather than inside, and with particular emphasis on more obvious virtues like bravery, sacrifice and loyalty.    

Sometimes orally transmitted, digressive in nature, assimilating inputs from successive generations these epics continued to speak to mankind in many voices regarding issues of fundamental significance. The epic poets sought to explain certain universal questions and through their imagination they have elevated legends into the realm of immortal poetry, stimulating the intellect to wonder about the meaning of life.

In its vast structure, the epics accumulate the essential pulse of life and relationships, even the activity of a philosophic mind. They are the voice of youth of a people that is not just fresh but greatly accomplished, wise and noble. It is an expression not of an individual mind but mind of a people. As a philosopher and freedom fighter Aurobindo wrote “… with a certain measure of truth that whatever is in India is in Mahabharat. The Mahabharat is an expression not of a single individual mind, but of the mind of a nation; it is a poem of itself written by a whole people.”

Both the epics have become a national tradition revealing itself, generation after generation and year after year in different art forms of literature and the Muses. The religious discourses on Gita – the word of God Himself in Mahabharata and the philosophy of karma is a common event, usually performed by learned priests and philosophers, the story of the warring Kaurava and Pandava cousins are rendered by professional storytellers in regional folk performances, which became the chief instruments of popular education and culture. These folk traditions that travelled down in history with the epics are preserved in modern times like an ancient relic. The renditions are energetic and high-pitched, accompanied with basic string and percussion instruments, bringing the saga alive with the force of rhyme and action, offering, even to the illiterate, a dose of philosophy, ethics, social and political ideas, emotion and romance.

Ramayan on the other hand has a wider appeal. It is read with a religious fervour in homes by family members and in public functions, by expert storytellers on a very musical note. The poetry lends a rhythmic simplicity to the couplets that even the raw, untrained person can sing without obvious ostentation. On a regular basis each year the story of Rama manifests in verbal art and enacted in the form of a ballet called Ramlila, absorbing different artistic styles and creative presentations. Every village and city comes alive with Ramlila, enacting the trials of Rama, rounding off with the burst of crackers as the paper effigies of the three demon brothers go up in flames symbolising the victory of good over evil. The strength of the story inspires the flow of narrative in well crafted performances that together ignites the imagination and generates a sublime experience. These renditions of the epic, again, are historical traditions evolving fresh approaches in art and aesthetic substance with every age. 

The conduct of story is the main interest of the poem, striking and effective in detail, always simple, bold and epic in style and pace. The strength of the story element, applicable to the humanity at large, has sustained the vigour of the epics. The whole poem has been built like a national monument; slowly unravelling its complex ideas, chamber by chamber as its sculptures are uplifted, yet adhere truly to humans feeling the strain and stress of real life. The leading motive is the Indian idea of karma and dharma or duty and faith. At the same time it narrates a historical tale communicating the strife between truth and light and the powers of darkness and falsehood - Deva and Asura, God and Titan - but represented in terms of human life. The idea of divine moved by human emotions enables the child to relate easily to the myth structure. The narrative is conscious of the immense forces that work behind our life on the magnificent epic scenery. The Ramayan embodied the human ideals of character, superbly portrayed to appeal to intellect, emotion and aesthetic sense. The epics are grand fusion of the ethical and aesthetic mind of India unified with the beauty of self expression.  

The Epics have cut across regional language boundaries and live in each language, utilizing the anecdotes, phraseology and lyrical quality of the original. Every generation has related to it and found meaning within the framework of every social situation and age. The publishing industry does not tire of producing fresh presentation of the stories. Each rewritten book on the epics or stories from epics presents an immaculate approach, stylistically and aesthetically appropriate for the tale.     

Ira Saxena, India

31st IBBY Congress, Copenhagen 2008


Some Recent Publications by Ira Saxena:    

        1. Papers and Articles in Literary Journals and Conference Proceedings.
         2. Fiction and Non-Fiction:
                     Island of Seagulls   - Novel     Children’s Book Trust, New Delhi
                     Caught by Computer - Novel,     Children’s Book Trust, New Delhi.
                     The Virus Trap          - Novel,     Children’s Book Trust, New Delhi.
                     For the Green Planet – Novel      Children’s book Trust, New Delhi.
                     Triumph of Non-Violence – Non-Fiction   Frank Brothers, New Delhi.
                     Together We Marched  - Story Collection    Publications Division, GOI.
                      Manmauji Mamaji   - Story Collection in Hindi, Children’s Book Trust.
                     Gajmukta Ki Talaash – Novel in Hindi  Children’s Book Trust.
                          (Winner of Shankar’s Award for Writing)     
                      Faces in my Cupboard  - Collection of Stories, Arvind Prakashan.
                      Panna – The Lonely Duckling – Picture Book,    “       “     “
                      Gabbu and his Long Trunk – Picture Book,         “      “     “
                     Tales of Vishnu  – Picture Books, Nita Mehta Publications
                      Tales of Shiva              -     “             “             “                  “
                      Mamaji ne Musibat Pali (Uncle Tames Trouble)    in press
                      Chunnu Dada’s Farmhouse  (Anthology of Pet Stories) 


About the Author

Dr. Ira Saxena:  A child psychologist, writer and critic of children’s books she has been writing mostly realistic stories, novels and non-fiction on the non-violent struggle for India’s Independence. Her short stories and novels on computer crime have been very popular among children. She writes both in Hindi and English for children of all ages. Many of her short stories and novels have won awards. She is the recipient of Shankar’s Silver Medal for Writing in 1996 and has been included in the White Raven’s selection at the International Youth Library in 2000. She is committed to the cause of Children’s literature in India for which she has participated in conferences on children’s literature in India and abroad and published many articles. Ira is a founding member and current Secretary of the Association of Writers and Illustrators for Children in New Delhi, and is involved in development of good literature for children. Her award winning books are, ‘The Virus Trap’, ‘Gajmukta ki Talaash’ and ‘Manmauji Mamaji’.