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.