The Days Of The Epics

ABOUT B.C. 1400 TO ABOUT B.C. 1000

The area of India which has now to be considered is much larger. Oudh,

Northern Behar, and the country about Benares are comprised in it; but

Southern India remains as ever, unknown, even if existent.

The sources of information concerning this period of six hundred years

are also much larger, though in a measure less trustworthy; for the

two g
eat epics of India, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, are

avowedly imaginative, and not--as are the hymns of the Rig-Veda--the

outcome of the daily life of a people, which, like the accretions of a

coral reef, remain to show what manner of creature once lived in them.

Even the remaining Vedas, the Yajur, the Sama and the Atharva, partake

of the same purely literary spirit, although the first and second of

these were probably in existence towards the end of the Vedic period.

The last named is--at least in its recognition as a Sacred Text--of

far later date. All three consist largely of transcripts from

the Rig-Veda, and around each of them, as indeed around the

Rig-Veda-Sanhita itself, there grew up a subsidiary literature called

Brahmanas, the object of which was to explain, consolidate, and

elaborate both the ritual and teaching of the Vedic age, as it became

archaic under the pressure of a greater complexity in life.

It is to the epics and to the Brahmanas, then, that we must look for

what sparse information is to be gleaned concerning India during this

six hundred years or so. It should be remembered that even these books

were to remain truly the "spoken word" for at least two centuries

longer, until the art of writing became known about B.C. 800. As

against this, however, we may set the undoubted fact that such was the

marvellous memory of those early days, that by the close of the Epic

period every syllable of the Rig-Veda had been counted with accuracy,

and the whole carefully compiled, arranged, analysed as it now stands.

To tell the honest truth, the Brahmanas are but a barren field. Full

of elaborate hair-splitting, cumbered with elaborate regulations for

the performance of every rite; prolix, prosy, they reflect only a

religion which was fast breaking down into canonical pomposity. It is

true that towards the end of the Epic period matters improved a

little, and in the teachings of the Upanishads--last of the so-called

"revealed Scriptures" of India--we find a very different note; but as

these seem to belong, by right of birth, more to the Philosophical

period which follows on the Epic, we will reserve them for subsequent


It is, then, to the Mahabharata and to the Ramayana that we must look.

Not, however, for history as history; for the personages, the

incidents in these two great poems are purely mythical.

But that a strong tribe called Bharatas or Kurus who had settled near

Delhi did for long years struggle with another strong tribe called the

Panchalas, who had settled near Kanauj, is more than likely. With this

background, then, of truth, the story of the Mahabharata is a fine

romance, and throws incidentally many a side-light on Hindu society in

these remote ages. But it is prodigiously long. In the only full

English translation which exists it runs to over 7,500 pages of small

type. Anything more discursive cannot be imagined. The introduction of

a single proper name is sufficient to start an entirely new story

concerning every one who was ever connected with it in the most remote

degree. But it is a treasure house of folk-lore and folk tales,

interspersed, quaintly, by keen intellectual reasonings on

philosophical subjects, and still more remarkable efforts to pierce

the great Riddle of the World by mystical speculations. It is,

emphatically, in every line of it, fresh to the uttermost. It is the

outcome of minds--for it is evidently an accretion of many men's

imaginations--that still felt the first stimulus of wonder concerning

all things, to whom nothing was common, nothing impossible.

A redaction even in brief of the Great Epic is beyond the power of any

writer. To begin with, many of the side-issues are to the full as

worthy transcription as those of the main thread of the story; and

then it is almost impossible to make out what the latter really was in

the beginning, before the endless additions and interpolations came to

obscure the original idea.

To most critics this main thread presents itself as a prolonged war

between the Kauravas and their first cousins the Pandavas--in other

words, between the hundred sons of Dhritarashta, the blind king, and

the five sons of his brother Pandu--but to the writer the leit motif

is the story of Bhishma. It is a curious one; in many ways well worthy

of a wider knowledge than it has at present in the West.

Bhishma, then, was the heir of Shantanu, the King of Hastinapur. His

birth belongs to fairy tale, for he was the son of Ganga, the river

goddess, who consented to be the wife of the love-struck Shantanu on

condition that, no matter what he might see, or she might do, no

question should be asked, no remark made. There is therefore a

distinct flavour of the world-wide Undine myth in the tale. In this

case the lover-husband is of the most forbearing type. It is not until

he sees his eighth infant son being relentlessly consigned to the

river that he cries: "Hold! Enough! Who art thou, witch?" In

consequence of this, in truth, somewhat belated curiosity, the goddess

leaves him, after assuring him that her purpose is accomplished. Seven

Holy Ones condemned to fresh life by a venial fault have been released

by early death, and this last child is his to keep as being, indeed,

the pledge of mutual love.

So far good. Bhishma is brought up as the heir until he is adolescent.

Then his father falls in love with a fisherman's daughter who is

obdurate. She refuses to marry, except on the condition that her son,

if one is born, shall inherit the kingdom. Even a promise that this

shall be so is not sufficient for her. She claims that Bhishma must

not only swear to resign his own claim to the throne in favour of her

son, but must also take a solemn vow of perpetual celibacy, so closing

the door against future claims on the part of his children. Devoted to

his father, the boy, just entering on manhood, accedes to the

proposal; his father marries, and dies, leaving a young heir to whom

Bhishma becomes regent. An excellent one, too, as the following

extract concerning his regency will show:--

"In these days the Earth gave abundant harvest and the crops were of

good flavour. The clouds poured rain in season and the trees were full

of fruit and flowers. The draught cattle were all happy, and the birds

and other animals rejoiced exceedingly, while the flowers were

fragrant. The cities and towns were full of merchants and traders and

artists of all descriptions. And the people were brave, learned,

honest and happy. And there were no robbers, nor any one who was

sinful; but devoted to virtuous acts, sacrifices, truth, and regarding

each other with love and affection, the people grew up in prosperity,

rejoicing cheerfully in sports that were perfectly innocent on rivers,

lakes and tanks, in fine groves and charming woods.

"And the capital of the Kurus (Hastinapur), full as the ocean and

teeming with hundreds of palaces and mansions, and possessing gates

and arches dark as the clouds, looked like a second Amaravati

(celestial town). And over all the delightful country whose prosperity

was thus increased were no misers, nor any woman a widow, but the

wells and lakes were ever full, full were the groves of trees, the

houses with wealth, and the whole kingdom with festivities.

"So, the wheel of virtue being thus set in motion by Bhishma, the

subjects of other kingdoms, leaving their homes, came to dwell in the

golden age."

A golden age indeed! A millenium dating a thousand years before the

Christ. And for this, Bhishma the Brother Regent and Satyavati the

Queen-Mother were responsible. The Boy-King appears to have been

but a poor creature. Even Bhishma's famous exploit of carrying off the

three beautiful daughters of the King of Benares--Amva, Amvika and

Amvalika--as brides for the lad, does not seem to have kept him from

evil courses. True, the elder of these three "slender-waisted maidens,

of tapering hips and curling hair," cried off the match by bashfully

telling the softhearted Bhishma that she had set her affections on

some one else; whereupon he, holding that "a woman, whatever her

offence, always deserveth pardon," bid her follow her own

inclinations. Still the two remaining brides did not avail to prevent

the young bridegroom from succumbing to disease, leaving them


Here, then, was a situation. Bhishma and the Queen-Mother, both of an

age, left without an heir! After Eastern fashion she urges him to take

his half-brother's place, and raise up offspring to his father and to

herself. But Bhishma is firm to his oath. "Earth," he says, "may

renounce its scent, water its moisture, light its attribute of showing

form, yea! even the sun may renounce its glory, the comet its heat,

the moon its cool rays, and very space renounce its capacity for

generating sound; but I cannot renounce Truth." Pressed to the

uttermost he can only reiterate: "I will renounce the three worlds,

the empire of heaven, and anything which may be greater than this, but

Truth I will not renounce."

Poor Bhishma! One feels that he is a veritable Sir Galahad, beset by

loving women, for when another father for possible heirs is found,

Amvika, who had expected Bhishma, refuses to look at his successor,

the result being that her son Dhritarashta is born blind, and being

thus unfitted for kingship, Amvalika's son Pandu becomes heir to the


Hinc illae lachrymal! Bhishma's vow of celibacy produces the rivals,

and his part in the epic henceforward shows but dimly on the bloody

background of the long quarrel between the hundred God-given sons of

Dhritarashta, and the five God-begotten sons of Pandu.

Yet, overlaid as it is by diffuse divergencies, the story of

self-sacrifice, of a man whom all women love and none can gain, goes

on. Bhishma, on Pandu's death, installs the blind Dhritarashta as

Regent King, and continues, as ever, faithful to his trust. Once or

twice a ring of human pathos, human regret, is heard in the harmony of

his good counsels, his unswerving loyalty, his fast determination to

"pay the debt arising out of the food which has been given me."

Once when Arjuna, third of the five Pandus, climbs up on his knees,

all dust-laden from some boyish game, and, full of pride and glee,

claims him as father--"I am not thy father, O Bharata!" is the gentle


Again, when Amva, the eldest princess of the three maidens whom

Bhishma had carried off as brides for his brother, returns in tears

from seeking the lover he had allowed her to rejoin, saying that the

prince will have none of Bhishma's leavings, there is human regret in

the latter's refusal to accept the assertion that the carrying off was

equal to a betrothal, and that he is bound in honour to marry the

maiden himself! Yet of this refusal comes much. The injured girl calls

on High Heaven for requital, and though her champion Rama is unable to

conquer the invincible Bhishma, Fate intervenes finally.

Amva's penances, prayers, austerities, find fruit in revenge. She is

born again as Chikandini, the daughter of a great king whose wife

conceals the child's sex for twenty-one years, until, according to the

promise of the Gods, Chikandini becomes in reality Chikandin, the most

beautiful, the most valiant of princes, who is destined in time to

cause the death of Bhishma. For amongst the many confessions of a

soldier's faith which the latter here makes is this: "With one who

hath thrown away his sword, with one fallen, with one flying, with one

yielding, with woman or one bearing the name of woman, or with a low,

vulgar fellow--with all these I do not battle." So Chikandin is beyond

Bhishma's retaliation, and when in the final fight he "struck the

great Bharata full on the breast," the latter "only looked at him with

eyes blazing with wrath; remembering his womanhood, Bhishma struck him


This, however, was not yet to come. Bhishma had as yet to bring up the

five Pandu princes and the hundred sons of Dhritarashta to be good

warriors and true, and in the process we come across many quaint

interludes. The story of Princess Draupadt's Self-choice is charming,

and the description of the ceremony worth giving as a picture of the


"The amphitheatre," we read, "was erected on an auspicious and level

plain to the north-east of the town, surrounded on all sides by

beautiful mansions, enclosed with high walls and a moat with arched

doorways here and there. And the vast amphitheatre was also shaded by

a canopy of various colours, and resounded with the notes of a

thousand trumpets, and was scented with black aloes, and sprinkled

with sandal wood water and adorned with flowers. The high mansions

surrounding it, perfectly white, resembled the cloud-kissing peaks of

Himalaya. And the windows of these mansions were covered with lattice

of gold, and the walls thereof set with diamonds and precious stones.

The staircases were easy of ascent, while the floors were covered with

costly carpets and rugs. Now all these mansions were adorned with

wreaths of flowers and rendered fragrant with excellent aloes. They

were white and spotless as the necks of swans. And they were each

furnished with a hundred doors wide enough to admit a crowd of

persons. And in these seven-storied houses of various sizes, adorned

with costly beds and carpets, lived the monarchs who were invited to

the Self-choice, their persons adorned with every ornament, and

possessed with the hope of excelling each other. Thus the denizens of

the city and the surrounding country, taking their seats on the

platforms, beheld these things.

"And the concourse of princes, gay with the performances of actors and

dancers, increased daily, until on the sixteenth morning the daughter

of the King entered the arena, richly attired and bearing in her hand

a golden dish on which lay offerings to the gods, and a garland of


"Then a priest of the Moon race ignited the sacrificial fires and

poured libations, uttering benedictions; and all the musical

instruments that were playing, stopped, and in the whole amphitheatre

was perfect stillness. Then the Princess' brother, taking his sister

by the hand, cried in a voice low and deep as the kettledrums of the

clouds: 'Hear all ye assembled Princes, hear! This is the bow, these

are the arrows, yonder is the mark! Given Beauty, Strength, Lineage,

he who achieveth the feat hath Princess Draupadi to wife.' Then, for

the sake of her unrivalled Beauty, the young Princes vied with each

other in jealousy, and rising in their royal seats each exclaiming:

'Princess Draupadi shall be mine!' began to exhibit their prowess."

It would take too long to give in extensor how one after the other

the Princes failed to string the mighty bow. How Karna, the

Disinherited Knight of the Romance--in reality uterine brother to the

five Pandu princes, but passing as their deadliest Kuru enemy--strung

it easily, but "turned aside with a laugh of vexation and a glance at

the Sun, his real father," when Princess Draupadi cried: "Hold! I will

have none of mixed blood to my lord!"

How the young Arjuna, second of the five Pandu princes, "first of

car-warriors and wielders of the bow," came disguised as a Brahman

youth and achieved the feat; rousing no remonstrance, it may be

remarked, as to admixture of race from the fair Princess Draupadi.

Then follows the incident of Draupadi marrying the whole five Pandu

brothers, in obedience to their mother's mistaken command. She, when

her five sons appeared in the dusk, "bringing their alms," bid them

share it as ever; so, despite much heart-questioning, the fivefold

wedding took place. It is an incident which is glozed over by ardent

admirers of the Mahabharata, and spoken of deprecatingly, as a mere

myth. Why, it would be difficult to say, since it is palpably held up

to honour as an instance of almost superhuman virtue. It is a

voluntary self-abnegation on the part of the Five Princes, who swear

to set aside jealousy for ever; an attempt on their part to right the

relations between the sexes, and to return to the purer teaching of

old times when, as we are distinctly told, "men and women followed

their own inclinations without shame or sin." Certainly the record of

this union of the Five Brothers to the devoted, almost divine

Draupadi, holds no suspicion of either the one or the other; surely,

therefore, it requires neither disguise nor apology.

Thereinafter, amid ever-recurring sweep of furious blasts and

counterblasts, ever-changing chances of fortune and misfortune, comes

the great gambling scene which, deprived of disagreeable details and

properly staged, should make the fortune of any dramatist who could

really touch it. A fine scene, truly! Yudishthira, eldest of the Pandu

princes, their ruling spirit, the brain, so to speak, of Bhima's

strength, Arjuna's skill, Nakula's devotion, Sahadeva's obedience, had

been challenged to a gambling bout by his chief enemy, Dhritarashta's

eldest son Duryodhana. To this, according to the soldier's code of

honour, there could be no refusal. But Yudishthira, gambler at heart,

would not acknowledge himself beaten. He stakes his riches, his

kingdom, his brothers, himself--last of all, his wife.

Losing her, she is sent for to the gambling saloon. She refuses to

come. Finally, dragged thither by force, she pleads that Yudishthira,

having first gambled away himself, was a slave, and so had no right to

stake a free woman. Then ensues a scene of conflicting passions and

protest which, once read of, lingers in the mind, rising superior to

the certain disagreeable details which undoubtedly disfigure it in the


So the story sweeps on and on, ending really with Bhishma's death on

the field of battle after a final encounter in which Arjuna, realising

that victory is unattainable so long as "the Grandsire" lives, uses

Chikandin, the man-woman, as his shield, and so brings about the

defeat of the otherwise invincible Bhishma. The latter, "lying on his

bed of arrows," surrounded by all the princes, then proceeds to

discourse for long days ("until the sun, entering its northern

declension, permitted him to resign his life-breath") on the whole

duty of mankind, and especially on the duties of kingship.

These discourses, which in the English translation run to over 2000

pages, are marvellously illuminating. When we read in them doctrines

of kingly science which long centuries later were to be re-enunciated

by Machiavelli, when we find in them many a theory of modern science

forestalled by some bold, theoretical plunge into the Infinite, that

Infinite to which "it is impossible to set limits since it is

limitless," we may well pause to ask ourselves how much nearer we are

to discovering the Great Secret than those were who, nearly three

thousand years ago, puzzled themselves over the problem of

consciousness, and why, "when the mind is otherwise engaged, the

life-agent in the body heareth not."

Have we, even in science, gone much further than the assertion that

"Space, which even the Gods cannot measure, is full of blazing and

self-luminous worlds?"

Perhaps we have; but of a certainty we cannot outclass the Mahabharata

in the imagination with which it treats the Insoluble.

"In the Beginning," we read, "was infinite Space motionless,

immoveable. Without Sun, Moon, or Stars, it seemed to be asleep. Then

a darkness grew within the darkness, and water sprang to life."

So, gaining force as it goes like some giant wave, the vast epic

sweeps on, gathering worthless pebbles and hopeless wreckage, with its

thousand facets of bright bold sea, to leave us, after it has crashed

over us, bewildered, storm-shaken on the shore, our heads whirling

with wild memories of flashing, jewel-set cuirasses, "beautiful like

the firmament of night bespangled with stars," of floating veils "like

wind-tossed clouds," of celestial voices, "deep as the kettledrums of

the skies," of "sparkling showers of keen arrows like the rays of the

sun," of "tender, small-waisted maidens," and "mighty, high-souled


It is a marvellous dream, and as one reads it the ceaseless fall of

seas upon a shore seems to fill the ear with the eternal message of

indestructible life.

The Ramayana, great though the epic is, and, in a way, more poetical,

has none of this storm and stress. As R. C. Dutt, in his "Ancient

India," says:--

"On reading it one feels that the real heroic age of India had passed.

We miss the rude and sturdy manners and incidents which mark the

Mahabharata. The heroes of the Ramayana are somewhat tame and

commonplace personages, very respectful to priests, very anxious to

conform to all the rules of decorum and duty, doing a vast amount of

fighting work mechanically, but without the determination, the

persistence of real fighters. A change has come over the spirit of the

nation. It is more polished, more law-abiding, less sturdy, less

heroic. In brief, the two epics give us the change which Hindu life

and society underwent from the commencement to the close of the Epic


Griffiths, in the introduction to his metrical version of the

Ramayana, remarks that one of its most salient features is the

complete absence of any mention of "that mystical devotion which

absorbs all the faculties," to which we have constant reference in the

Mahabharata. The remark is full of critical acumen, and at once

differentiates the varying planes on which the two dramas move.

That of Rama and his long-suffering wife Sita, is, doubtless, the more

human of the two; but there is a grandeur about the story of Bhishma

before which the former crumbles to commonplace. Still, as R. C. Dutt


"There is not a Hindu woman in the length and breadth of India to whom

the story of Sita is not known, and to whom her character is not a

model to strive after and to emulate. Rama, also, though scarcely

equal to Sita in the worth of character, has been a model to man for

his truth, his obedience, his piety. Thus the epic has been for the

millions of India a means of moral education, the value of which can

hardly be over-estimated."

Historically, there is little to be gleaned from it beyond the

conquest of Southern India and Ceylon. Socially, it shows the

accretion of custom, the consolidation of dogma, and the passing of

power from the soldier to the priestly caste. Yet even here it is but

a very modified Brahmanism of which we catch glimpses, and even caste

itself is not as yet crystallised into hard and fast form.

So, with the Ramayana and some few Puranas which, however, will be

better considered in the next chapter, the Epic period closes.

Some few points in it may lay claims to distinct historical basis. The

existence of Janaka, King of Kosala, the father of Sita, the

befriender of wisdom, is so far attested by later writings and by

legend, that his personality gains reality; but it is in the crashing,

confused welter of the Mahabharata that we must look for a just

estimate of what India was like a thousand years before Christ.