In this article we will discuss about:- 1. Historical Importance of Epics 2. Political Condition of Epics 3. Social Condition 4. Economic Condition 5. Religious Condition.
Historical Importance of Epics:
It is very difficult to say as to what extent the events narrated in the epics are historical facts. The facts and fictions have been so inter-linked in the narration that one has to be very careful in separating the two.
It cannot be denied that through these epics contain a good deal of mythology and legends they throw a flood of light on the post-Vedic society. From these two epics we are also able to form art idea about the expansion of the Aryans.
For example the story of Ramayana clearly indicates the Aryan expansion into South India and also hints at the use of military force in this process. The epic also makes it clear that the Dravidian culture was also equally superior.
Ravana’s behaviour with Sita when she was under his control at Lanka was more civilized than the behaviour of Laxman to Shurpanakha. Ramayana also gives us genealogies which, if supplemented by those in the Puranas, help us to form some idea about the early history of the Hindu period.
According to V.A. Smith, “The poem (the Ramayana) seems to me to be essentially a work of imagination probably founded on vague traditions of the kingdom of Kosala and its capital Ayodhya.” However it is difficult to accept this view of Smith.
No doubt Ramayana is a literary work full of imagination, yet its characters are historical figures. The different characters reflect the different traits developed by the Aryans during this period. According to Dr. R.C. Majumdar, the Ramayana points out the expansion of Aryan culture over Deccan and South India.
The Mahabharata shows that by that time the whole of India was Aryanised. It also provides us information regarding the various states existing at that time. In the Mahabharata all the Indian princes are shown as taking part in the great struggle.
While the kings of Magadha, Kashi, Kosala, Panchalas, Yadavas, Chedi and Matsya were the allies of the Pandavas, the rulers of Pragjyotish, the Kirtas, the Sakas, Yavanas, Sindhus, Kaikeyes, Bhojas and Dakshinapatha were on the side of the Kaurvas.
Vincent Smith discredits the story of Mahabharata also on the ground that it was impossible for the distant tribes of the south and east to take part in a local war between the chiefs of Hastinapur and Indraprastha. This contention of Smith can be refuted by pointing out that a war spreads like wild fire and a local incident may assume the shape of a great war.
Both the wars of the present centuries which engulfed almost the entire world started on local issues. The two epics may not be historical works about it cannot be denied that the two Epics are very helpful in understanding the social, economic and cultural condition of people at that time.
Political Condition of Epics:
The life of the Epics tells us that the Aryans were no longer divided into small clans or tribes, and powerful states like Panchalas, Pandus, Kosalas, Kashih had come into existence. The rulers of these states assumed the title of Samarats and lived in big cities.
These empires possessed considerable territories as compared to the kingdoms in the Vedic age. These kingdoms were mostly ruled by monarchs, but republics also existed side by side.
Usually there were two types of republics—Gana (individual Republic) and Samghatagana (Confederation of Republics). There is a reference in Mahabharata suggesting that Lord Krishna w is elected as the President of the Samghata-gana comprising of the republics of Yadavas, Kukuras, Bhojas, Andhakas, and Virishnis.
Though the rulers enjoyed extensive powers, often they consulted the people. We have as a instance of their being consulted when Rama was made Yuvaraja and when Rama had been exiled and Dashratha had died.
In the absence of both Rama and Bharata the people suggested the election of another king. The king was expected to act according to the prevailing religion and customs. In fact, Dharma constituted a serious check on the authority of the king.
Another check on the authority of the king was exercised by the Mantri Parishad. The Sabha (Assembly of the people) also restricted the authority of the king. It may be noted that in matter of war and peace the king was free to take independent decisions. Hi usually consulted his allies and friendly kingdoms before embarking on wars.
The king stood at the head of the general administration and carried on the same with the assistance of Ministers and other officials. Some of the prominent officials who assisted the king included, Mantri, Purohita, Chamupati, Duarpala. Karagaradhikari, Yuvraja, Nagar Adhyaksha, Duarpala, Sabhr. Adhyaksha, Dandapala, Dharma Adhyakasha.
However, the will of the king was supreme and he carried on the administration for the general good and happiness of the people.
The village or the grama was the smallest unit of administration and was headed by an official designated as a gramini. Similarly there were other officials who looked after the administration of ten villages, twenty villages, hundred village; and one thousand villi.
These officials were responsible for the collection of taxes and worked under the strict supervision of the superior officers. However, they were ultimately responsible to the king.
The taxes were generally not very oppressive and the people got an adequate return for what they paid to the government. A separate department of Finance existed over which the king exercised I personal supervision. He saw to it that the expenditure did not exceeded the income and a large cash reserve was always maintained in the Treasury.
1. Caste System:
The picture of the society depicted by Epics is identical to the one depicted by the Brahamanas and the Sutras. The caste system was in vogue and the society was divided in more castes than four original castes. This number increased primarily due to the non-absorption of the aborigines into the Aryan fold.
However, the caste system had not yet become very rigid. We get references in Mahabharata where Brahmanas like Dronacharya, Kripa and Asvathama fought.
Similarly, we get a reference that Valmiki, a hunter became a Brahm Rishi. Again Parshurama, a Brahmin became Kshatrya by vocation. Another note-worthy thing about the Epic society is that the Brahmanas did not enjoy supreme position and the Kshatriyas dominated.
Whenever there was difference between the priest and the ruler it was the former who had to yield. In this regard it may be noted that during the Vedic period, the priest enjoyed higher position than the king.
2. The Position of Women:
The women occupied high position in the Epic society. The ladies of the upper classes were particularly given complete freedom regarding the choice of their husbands. The practice of Swyamvra or maiden choice was quite common. Contests of various types were held at the time of the marriage and the woman married only that person who won that contest.
The marriages of Sita and Darupati clearly bear out this practice. The prominent position of the women is also admitted by Mahabharata which describes woman as “half the man. his truest friend, a perpetual spring of virtue, pleasure and wealth— A sweetly speaking wife is a companion in solitude, a father in advice, and a rest in passing through life’s wilderness.”
During the Epic period we find both polygamy (one husband having more than one wives), and Polyandry (one wife having more than one husbands) being practiced. While the king Dasharatha had three wives, Draupati had five Pandavas as her husbands.
The women took part in the philosophical discussions with men. This is testified by the discussion between Yajnavalkya and Gargi and as a well as with his wife at the court of king Janaka of Videha.
According to Dr. R C. Majumdar. “These two instances eloquently learning and mental equipment of women in ancient India, to which it would be difficult to find a parallel in the history of the world.” Widow re-marriage was not practiced and we do not find any mention of it in the two Epics.
The early marriage was also not in practice but towards the close of the Epic age it began to be practiced. This is proved by the early marriage of Abhimanyu. The system of Sati was also in existence in Punjab towards ‘he close of the Epic period. This is proved by Madri burning herself on the pyre of her husband
3. Food and Dress:
In the Epic period we find a transition from meat eating to vegetarianism. Though the people still took meat but slowly they were developing attitude of hate towards it. The impression which earlier existed that the meat-eater were supposed to be vigorous not only in body but also in mind was also fading away.
The intoxicating drink Sura was taken during the Epic period but by and large people had started condemning it and its consumption was not considered good.
In the beginning of the Epic period the art of cutting and sewing clothes was not known to the people. Both males and females used dresses which did not need any stitching. The dress consisted of two oblong pieces of cloth, one of which was tied around loins and the other around body.
Whenever men appeared in public they used turban. While the young people used coloured turbans, the old people wore white turbans. The female dress also consisted of oblong piece of cloth. The lower piece of the cloth was like the modern sari. They also used utlarya for covering the head.
While the married women used coloured uttarya, the widows used white one. Coloured powder was used in the line of parting of hair. The clothes meant for daily use were made of cotton. Silk clothes were also known and were usually used on special occasions.
The Kshatriya’s kept hairs on their head while Brahmanas shaved their heads as well as their chins. The people of the Epic age had great love for ornaments. Both gold and silver ornaments were used. People also used jewels and pearls.
4. System of Education:
A highly developed system of education prevailed in Epic age. Education was imparted free of charge, and the teachers did not receive any regular salary. They mainly lived on the free gifts and presents. Under the system of education great emphasis was laid on the development of character, mental faculties is well as physical development of the students. Education in the villages and towns was provided in schools.
In distant forests Parishads existed where three or four teachers imparted education in religion and philosophy. Sanskrit was the spoken language at least in the beginning of the Epic age. Towards the close of the Epic age Prakrit gained popularity.
During the Epic period Sanskrit grammar made much progress. People also studied philosophy and rhetoric’s. Training was also imparted in music and dancing was considered to be an essential qualification for the girls.
The science of astronomy had also progressed a great deal during the Epic period. The twelve Rashis into which the zodiac were divided were known to the people of the Epic age. They could notice the movements of moon amongst the twenty seven nakshatras. The people of the Epic age, however, did not know about diurnal and annual motion of the Sun.
Economic Condition of Epics:
Agriculture continued to be the main occupation of the people in the epic age and made further progress. On the testimony of Mahabharata we can say that the lands of Kosala, Vatsa, Matsya etc. were very fertile. People knew about irrigation and used manures to increase the fertility of their lands.
The private ownership of the land was recognised and the state claimed one sixth to one-tenth of the produce as its share. In return for this the state not only provided irrigation facilities but also helped the indebted peasants. During this period sugarcane and indigo, two technical crops, were also cultivated.
Cattle breeding was given special attention and was one of the most important means of income for the people. The cow was the most popular animal which the people domesticated. The other animals domesticated at that time were horses and elephants which were in much demand for the army.
Both internal and external trade flourished during the epic period. Most of the businessmen lived in cities. The merchantmen were organised in guilds which were controlled by the Mahajanas. The growth of a large number of cities or ‘nagars’ as testified by the epics further shows that the commercial activities were on the increase.
Each city had a number of guilds, each guild managing a particular craft. Money had come to be established as a standard of value during the epic period, though exchange by barter was also carried on.
Cotton manufactures occupied the first place in industry. Silk and woolen clothes were also manufactured. People also knew about the manufacture of mixed cloth and the art of interlacing. The allied arts like dyeing also made considerable progress.
Fast colours were produced by the people. People also knew about the use of minerals. The minerals were excavated and worked upon by the artisans. During the epic period India produced gold, precious stones and pearls in abundance.
Religious Condition of Epics:
Far reaching changes took place in the religion of the people during the Epic period. The Vedic god and goddesses receded to the background and new gods and goddesses began to worshipped. Important’ god and goddesses of the Epic age were Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, Ganesh, Lakshmi and Parvati. By this time the people had also given up the nature worship. However, they still continued to worship Surya.
Though the people of the Epic age believed in violence, yet the principle of Ahimsa was gaining popularity. Instead of offering animals to the various idols, flour began to be offered. It has been recorded in the Mahabharta that hundreds of kings who had beet kept at the fort of Giribraj for the purpose of sacrifice were protected at the instance of Lord Krishna.
The doctrines of karma and devotion were gaining popularity. According to the doctrine of karma it was believed that the present life of man is the effect of his previous life and his acts in the present life will shape his next life.
Yajanas continued to be performed during the Epic age and were considered an important part of religion. People believed in the observance of fasts as a means for the purification of body and soul. The yoga and the sankhya system—salvation by works and reason— were both known.
Lord Krishna tried to reconcile these two systems in the Bhagavad-Gita. People believed in the theory of punarjanama or re-birth after death. They also performed shraddhas.