The tale of two epics

Indian Mythology, Myth Theory 31 Comments

Published in First City, July 2010


There is a school of thought that says that the Ramayana and the Mahabharata were written as a reaction to counter the rise of monastic orders, especially Buddhism.

Before Buddhism, India was dominated by the Vedic culture, which had no central authority. What bound the culture was an idea, known as the Veda that manifested itself through chants and anchored itself in ritual. From this came a social structure that was multi-layered and fragmented, influenced by many local traditions, with an overarching abstract dominating principle that we now call Vedic. But Buddhism changed all that.

With the arrival of Buddhism, there was suddenly a central authority, a monastic order or Sangha, with principles, rules and codes of conduct. It sought to bring wisdom to the common man in the language of the people. In a way, Buddhism united the subcontinent of India in a way that the Veda did not. The Veda was far too abstract for the common man; its wisdom remained restricted to an intellectual elite called the Brahmin.

The common man worshipped Yakshas, woodland spirits that inhabited the mountains and trees and lakes. They made them offerings of flowers and incense and food. The Yakshas were guardian gods and fertility goddesses that satisfied the immediate daily needs of the people. This worship had strong ritual and emotional constituents, but lacked an intellectual base. Since the Brahmins, lost in their chants and rituals, were indifferent to the needs of the common man, the intellectual gap was filled by the Buddha and his monks. He addressed the needs of the people in simple language. He answered the most fundamental question of humanity: why is there suffering in the world? Naturally Buddha became a star, to be adored, worshipped and even followed. In his presence, the Yakshas became inferior. Former gods became doorkeepers and companions of the Buddha.

Besides Buddhism, there were many other monastic orders flourishing in India in this period. The order, believed to be older than Buddhism, and that survives in India even today, but which did not have as much as an impact as Buddhism is Jainism. Like Buddhism, Jainism is also monastic. And it did have central authority. Historians are of the opinion that there were many other schools around 500 BC, known as the Axis age that sought to fill an intellectual void felt not just in India, but across the world. This was, it must be kept in mind, also the age of the philosophers in Greece and China.

When Alexander came to India in 326 BC, he saw a fragmented country with many kingdoms and no great king. This was a rich land, known for its fabrics and spices and its hunger for gold. This was a land rich in flora and fauna. The people followed strange practices, worshipped strange gods, and were under the influence of gymnosophists or naked wise men. Who were these naked wise men? Were they Vedic Rishis? Were they yogis? Or were they Jain monks? It lacked the political drive that Alexander had encountered in Persia, and in Egypt. He saw a rich land influenced greatly by non-violent and monastic doctrines of Buddhism and Jainism. There was no great emperor, no great challenge to his might.

Western scholars insist that Alexander abandoned his plans to conquer the world, and turned back from the shores of India because his army revolted. Indian stories inform us that this revolt was in part fuelled by the wise men that the soldiers encountered in the subcontinent who spoke of desire and suffering and the futility of ambition. Alexander was influenced by it too. It neutralized his burning ambition and caused him to turn back.

Just as Alexander was influenced by Indian thought, so was India influenced by Greek thought. Indians were now thinking of empires under a central authority, like the Greeks and Persians. Suddenly permanent buildings made of brick and stone became more valued than organic structures made of wood and clay. And the Brahmins, once sidelined by the rising monastic orders, were spearheading the change.

One name stands out. Vishnugupta Chanakya, who transformed a small kingdom in Magadha into an empire the size of which has not matched by any ruler till Aurangzeb, the 17th century Mughal emperor. But like a typical Brahmin, he did not yield the power. He simply inspired and influenced, working from behind the scenes. The power lay with Chandragupta Maurya, who founded the Mauryan Empire.

While Chanakya did yield a profound influence on governance and organizational structure, his impact on the soul of kings was much less. Chandragupta Maurya eventually converted to Jainism. And his grandson, Ashoka, could only find peace, when he embraced Buddhism.

The post-Buddhist Mauryan period is a time when Vedic thought was on a backfoot. The Brahmins content to chant their hymns and perform their rituals realized that they needed to engage more with the masses if Vedic thought had to survive. One can argue that this shift was necessary for political grounds – the Brahmins perhaps had to change if they still wanted to be socially relevant. Or one can argue that the shift was inspired by the genuine desire to ensure Vedic thought was not lost or corrupted. The Brahmins, by their excessive ritualism, had locked it in. And the Buddhists by sharing the Buddha’s simple views had stripped Vedic thought of all mystical charm. This was a period of crisis, or reflection, of reorientation and redefinition. And the answer that the Brahmins came up with was stories!

Human beings have a natural affinity for stories. Its physiological. The Buddha’s teachings were spreading through stories. The story of Buddha’s life was rapidly turning into a great epic that celebrated the monastic ideal. Through tales such as the Jatakas, the Buddhist monks were explaining the theory of karma and the doctrine of detachment, and compassion. The Brahmins had to come up with a story of their own.

So it is not surprising that the Ramayana and the Mahabharata were put into writing in the period following the rise of Buddhism and the fall of the Mauryan empire between 300 BC and 300 AD. One can speculate that the story of Ram and Krishna and the Pandavas and Kauravas did exist in oral forms for centuries before this, but they were not considered worthy of documentation by the Brahmins. Storytellers were part of the ritual tradition, entertaining priests when they took breaks between rituals. These were the Sutas. The Brahmins realized the influence of stories on the general population. They realized that stories, more than rituals and chants, were better vehicles to communicate Vedic truths. With this agenda, Ramayana and Mahabharata, transformed into Adi Purana, the first chronicle of tales of kings, gods and sages, to be followed by many other Puranas. Stories gave rise to the idea of God, and transformed Vedic agnosticism into Hindu theism. Stories inspired the rise of pilgrimages and temples.

Unlike Buddhism, Vedic thought is not monastic. It is both monastic and worldly. It celebrates the tension between the life of a hermit and the life of a householder. In Vedic thought, life is a continuous balancing act between spirit and flesh, the inner and outer world. Thus, both Ramayana and Mahabharata, look down upon monastic orders, and celebrate the idea of dharma, spiritual thinking without renouncing society. The protagonists are householders involved in family intrigues and wars. Marriage and property play a key role in the epics. Both are life affirming, rich with emotion and plot, seducing people out of a sedate monastic way of life. More importantly, the two epics explained a key element of Vedic thought – contextually. The idea that wisdom is not stagnant, it has to readjust to the times. Though both Ram and Krishna are forms of the same God, they function very differently in the two epics which belong to two different eras.

Gradually, the storytellers took the tales to every corner of India. Everyone, in every village, knew of Ram and Krishna. The first literature to be written in regional languages was the Ramayana, the second was the Mahabharata. Temples were being built to celebrate the stories of Ram and Krishna. To ensure that the new story-based religion was comprehensive, monastic thought was not all rejected. It was redefined in the form of Shiva, the great hermit. But even his stories celebrated his marriage. Thus, very subtly, the monastic idea was challenged and eventually overpowered. Not surprisingly by 500 AD, Buddhism was on a wane in India. By 1200 AD, there was no trace of Buddhism in India. But Vedic thought thrived in its new avatar.

  • Chirag Kaku

    loved it! had read something about the Ājīvika earlier…

  • Pulakesh Ray

    Nrisinghaprasad Bhaduri referred in his Mhabharat regarding this,regards

  • Amol

    Liked it . very infomtive

  • Vatish

    It gives me lot of pleasure to read your text and the information you possess about Indian mythology. Thanks for sharing this wonderful information. I have one query Do we have your books in e-format. I purchased many books of yours books online in print. Many times I tried to find who is selling your books in E-format. It’ll be great if we can also get your e-books.

    Please share your thoughts..

    • Devdutt

      Penguin is looking at e-books but it will take at least a year to get it going

  • Ajay K. Merchant


    I read your columns regularly and learn something new all the time. I think you should think of some way to institutionalise this knowledge that you have so it could be passed down generations.

  • Nataraj


    very interesting piece of logic, good and powerful arguments, whether right or not is not the point, I understood the strengths and weakness of the systems. But one point, which failed the test is the Buddhism, which could occupy an important position in one point of time, suddenly became stale and outdated….where as Jainism, with much weaker following could survive centuries. Also Hinduism, or loosely Vedic followers could survive thru stories of Ramayana and Mahabharata….and could retain its flavour of original essence.

    • Padmini Chandrasekaran

      Buddhism travelled to other countries thanks to the efforts of Ashoka, Kanishka and Harsha There was a revival of Hinduism during the Gupta Age furthur strengthened by religious leaders like Shankaracharya and others who travelled the length and breadth of India preaching the tenets of Hinduism. Hinduism imbibes the good qualities of other religions, hence has been able to survive. We learnt non-violence and ‘going vegetarian’from the Jains and were able to incorporate these ideas into Hinduism. In the end Jainism has become an extended arm of Hinduism, intermingling with Hinduism. Whereas Buddhism got severed since monothestic way of life was unacceptable to the Indians, especially to the majority of the people – the HIndus.

      • Navneet

        Buddhism is, like Jainism, atheistic. Not monotheistic.

      • Pathfinder

        @ Padmini

        Its interesting article
        but is not convincing,it lacks logic based on facts. Ramayana and Mahabharata were not composed to challenge Buddhism and Jainism.The name Hinduism is not the proper name of our religion, it’s actual name is Sanatan Dharma.Its not from Jainism that we learned “vegeterianism’ and “non-violence” infact its the other way round.Students in a gurukul used to strictly practice brahmacharya, vegetarinism. In the middle ages the central ideas of Sanatan Dharma were began to be discarded and forgotten and instead replaced by rituals, in order to revive this Bhuddism and Jainsim were born. Within a matter of no time the whole of India embraced Jainism and Bhuddism.Thus bhuddism and jainism and in the future Sikhism were born to reform the corrupt practices that crept into Hindusim(Sanatan Dharma) But unfortunately again Bhuddism,Jainism began to fall back on the promises they made,and soon gave in to corrupt practices, at this moment the Great Shankaracharya appeared on the scene to weed away all these corrupt practices and to re establish Sanatan Dharma. He was soon followed by the likes of Ramanujacharya, Madhvacharya, nimburka etc who further strengthened Sanatan Dharma

        • Pradeep Kadiyala

          I second your point Pathfinder.

        • subhasis ghosh

          One another reason for the decline of Buddhism in India was the prouncement by Adi Shankracharya that Buddha is a Avatar of Vishnu. In one stroke he took away the need of Hindus to “convert” to Buddhism as whatever Buddha had said was now within the realms of Hinduism. This explanation is reinforced by the fact that many Hindus consider Buddhism to be a branch of Hinduism, but the reverse is however not true.

        • Sushma

          Makes sense, well said!

  • Satish Gundawar

    I tend not to believe on this analysis.

  • An interesting perspective!

  • Rohit

    Not convincing… Ramayan is in Thailand, Indinesia, Malaysia, Combodia, Sri Lanka… Saying that it got composed as answer to Buddhism is a lie… Vishnugupt raised Chandragupt, son of Mura Devi, so Maurya, as the virtue of powerful kings of north had declined.

  • Narayanaswamy

    Fundamentally, both could be different branches of the very same tree, its truck and deep roots are same, so both survive on the same roots or truth.

    Sri Krishna says in Srimad Bhagavat Gita :

    “Know thou that Purusha (the Soul) and Prakriti (Nature) are both without origin and eternal; but the modes of Nature (3 gunas) and the lower forms She assumes to our conscious experience have an origin in Prakriti (in the transaction of these two entities)” 13.20

    So, for both The Soul and Prakriti is eternal, other wise it would unnatural or more darkness (as said in the Kena Upanishad) , the only issue or root-cause is the ignorance in the Prakriti not the Prakriti itself.

    What ever is the difference between both is illusion, or however we like to take it as there is no basis for difference.

    Since two parties never exist as distinct as a matter of fact, so let both be winners!

    Then again, the sweet and clam Lord Budha is regarded as the 9th incarnation as evidently seen in many temple, so where is the source of difference?

    It could be summed that the Time is only doing the right thing in its own way for the advancement of Humanity in this planet, its one-and-same.

    The society is always grateful to the scholar Shri Devji, please keep the good work going..

    Thank you indeed.

  • Rishi Narang

    Hey Devdutt,

    Amazing insights. I love history and your articles give me a different view. One query – do you have any plans to put them in hindi? Its a big market if you ask me.

  • Venkat


    Is there any valid proof about what you have said or is this a story based on your assuptions?

  • rijuta

    Hi. That Buddhism spoke of suffering was relevant, then and even now…but what it offered as a solution – to reject the world as an illusion – was relevant perhaps only then, since by then hindu society had become very dry in its application of philosophy, as happens with the wheel of time. But over time, Buddhism’s Truth became too absolute instead of addressing everyday troubles in seeking a Fulfilling life, and finding joy therein, – sure what we see as a real world is not really REAL…but the original Vedic India explained it as a Relative reality – which it is. Creation is not a phantom illusion. And not everyone should feel forced to reject their life. Some rare folk are naturally drawn to this aim, but to expect each one to give up his family as an illusion and leave them to their suffering, is to reject a human being’s plight, his/her dilemma and maybe even harsh ignorance. Hindu philosophy however never judged through guilt, never condemned ‘Living life’. A man may have undue attachments, but they need to be cured here and now. While the Hindu gods give him Grace(to be earned) and empathy, comfort & celebration, Buddhism gave him too absolute a solution, not a Relative, real one. That is why Vedic discourse, and I don’t mean the rituals, but its profound beliefs and thought, had to be reintegrated in India. Because it recognises relative answers for each one, according to his domain of existence. Which is also why India never had a ‘code of conduct’, no commandments, common across all people – and we have treasured that. There is an Absolute at the top even in Vedas, but that doesn’t discount the way of life for those who are yet far from the top of the mountain. Hardships are part of life, and Vedas unveil the hidden delight behind each hardship, anandamaya, not wallowing in the truth of suffering. The reciting of Vedas was restricted to Brahmins yes, but its core principle of relative reality and joy, is in-built on Indian people psychically, and it needed to come to the fore again. To walk away from life into self-extinction may have been needed then, but to ‘stick it out’ and find that Eternity here and now in Life is profounder still.

  • Neelkanth D. Mehta

    i like you way of shifting paradigms.

    In dashavatar, Buddha is also an incarnation of the same GOD that Krishna and Rama are.

    What is interesting and rightly you have made a poin fall of buddhism with the kingdom. It is true, Jainism serviced only because of the kings adopted it.

    This is good for now. Will be back soon.

  • Your arguments that Ramayana and Mahabharata were written post-Buddha is totally unconvincing and rationalizations are very confusing.

    First of all, “326 BC” itself is disputed as Alexander’s arrival date. How many native Indian stories even mention the word “Alexander”? So many distortions of Indian history has arisen from this date.

    Also saying that Indians were thinking about “empire-under-single-authority” only after Greek exposure is wrong. If that is so, why does both Ramayana and Mahabharata attach importance to aSvamedha and rAjasUya yajnas? They both were meant for bringing the whole world under one king. This concept of one king of whole world has always been there throughout epics and puranas.

    Also Sanskrita poet Bhasa had written several skits based on specific characters of Mahabharata even before Buddha. But there is one possible explanation that stories of Kuru/Pandavas existed in some other form before and Mahabharata was later written, but why put it after Buddha specifically? “Retaliation” of Buddhists did not come late until Shankaracharya, pretty much 80% of India was either Buddhists of Jains before Shankaracharya. Even as late as 1000 CE, Rajaraja Chola was a great admirer of Buddha.

  • Mansi

    More than the article.. i like the comments.. interesting.. mine is bigger / better than yours.. :)

    • Avinash

      Like :)

  • aarthi raghavan

    but i feel tht ramayan and mahabharath came before buddhism came.in kurukshetra there is a banyan tree which is said to have been the witness of gitopades.the tree’s age was tested and it came out to be older than 5000 years.this is a proof for the 2 epics to be ancient.buddhism came recently and the 2 epics were not made up against buddhism.

  • Truth Seeker

    Dear Devji,
    I have enjoyed your articles, and analysis. But of late, it seems you are getting carried away, may be because you feel you have mastered the Hindu scriptures to such an extent that you can delude the readers who obviously lack such mastery. In saying that Ramayana and Mahabharat were written as a reaction to Buddhism, is the utmost absurdity even the quashi western scholars like Max Muellers did not express. In saying so, you have simply ignored the contributions of Rishi Valmiki, Ved Vyas etc., who are much earlier historical figures than Buddha. Do you have any scriptural proof, or you are deluding yourself with self concocted theories to which even max Muellers were ashamed of in their later life. Before you write up such concoctions, read the scriptures and be guided accordingly, or provide concrete proof to suggest otherwise.

  • gayathri

    There came a point in history when so called peaceful and nonpartisan religon of budhism which was born out of as ab ti weakness that existed in hindu religion too became excessivly intolerably violet. The reason it spread to countries like china.

    Just like Islam when people were forced to convert to their religon similar conditions were prevailing threatening the existence of Sanatana dharma.

    So as such no religion is bad. It is its caretakers who are bad. It could be any reason. Political, kingdom.

    Then after that last came revival or rebirth of Hinduism through Adi Shankaracharya.

    Yeh sab tho theek hai. Par who is god.

  • Sheeba

    I think some of the people who have commented are missing the point. According to Mr. Devi Dutt the Ramayan and Mahabharat are “Mythologies” not historical facts. He is also talking of a point of view that some theorists have and he happens to subscribes to it. So some of the personal attacks are a bit uncalled for.

    There is also a theory that the making of statues of different gods and godesses in the temples was started only after the Buddhists started making statues of Buddha. Further the Buddhists were influenced by the Greeks who were adept at making statues of the human form

    What would be interesting to know is how much archeoligical evidence has been unearthed to support the either or both of the above “theories” or points of view.

  • Devdutt,

    It seems you may have let your imagination fly a bit too high this time. Reads like a conspiracy theory.. the disjoint & chaotic brahmins secretly collated to executed a coup of faith on south Asia :-D.

    Please understand that your brain processes info through your subjective filters/biases (as Buddha described) and it may help you to be aware of this inherent negativity you harbor towards Buddhism in writing less biased articles on the subject.

    FOOD FOR THOUGHT: One crowning achievement of Buddha was the implicit rejection of GOD and for that reason alone, as our humanity matures along with science, Buddhism may re-emerge to have the final laugh ;-)


  • rudrangshu das

    The author has clearly mentioned that the 2 gr8 hindu epics were documented around 300BC but the stories existed since ages passed through generations by the word of mouth. So I find some of the criticisms in previous comments baseless. As to how the author came to know about the dates of documentation, he should have given some proof or references.

  • sangam

    Both Hinduism and Buddhism is baseless religions. Why I say that , is because it fails to answer a basic fundamental question, why did God created this world in the first place? what was the need? when we look around at the whole creation, nothing Hinduism and Buddhism say’s make any sense. Hinduism is just a way of life. nothing to do with God or purpose of life. sounds mystical and magical but in reality is hollow and empty. People in India follow it out of insecurity. because they think if they don’t then some thing bad will happen to them and some do it out of social pressure.