The Rise of the Itihasas (Epics) and Puranas :
The Brahmam of the Upanishads, which stirred the awe and reverence of the sages, could be realised only by the cream of mankind, and those who are fit to pursue the path chalked out in the Upanishads are small in number. But religion has to extend beyond realisation and cater to the emotional needs of the lesser category of humanity. No historian of philosophy, to our knowledge, has been able to get over the prejudice that all religious thought subsequent to the Vedas and Upanishads, and apart from the later systematic Vedanta of the Darsana school, is a kind of trash, or, at best, a concession to the weakness of the popular mind. But it need not be emphasised that, if the religion of the Hindus had exhausted itself in the visions of the Vedas and Upanishads and the metaphysics of the intellectual Vedanta, Hinduism would have died out long ago and remained today as a memory, like the cultures of Babylon, Greece or Egypt. The almost universal sweep of the thought of the Hindus has enabled their religion to withstand the onslaughts of foreign culture and pass through the vicissitudes of time.
The appeal of the great religion of Bharathasm is not merely to the intellect or reason, or even to an empirical need, but to man as such. The longings of human nature are not Eastern or Western, but of the world. The awe-inspiring Brahmam or Purusha had to be made accessible to the warrior and the businessman, the servant and the farmer in the fields, in a way intelligible to them all, and practicable to their endowments and temperaments. While the Upanishads called forth special qualifications, the Epics and Puranas came to the help of the general man.
The Ramayanam and the Mahabharatam are the towering Epics of Bharatham. While the Mahabharatam is constructed out of a complicated theme of tradition, mythology, history, philosophy and mysticism, the Ramayanam is a straight and running chronicle depicting the deeds of a divinely great hero who came to set an example to mankind as a whole. The Mahabharatam soars into the realms of the supernatural and the marvellous, giving at the same time an easier exposition of the nature of the goal of human life. The Ramayanam written in the ideal ornate style of Valmiki, mildly shaking the heart of the reader from beginning to end, and giving a silent touch of transformation to the feelings, brings about, without its being known or announced loudly, the requisite regeneration of the human mind into an ideal condition of humaneness, a sense of brotherhood, filial affection, fraternity of feeling, obedience to rule, servicefulness, honesty, firmness in resolution, and an unbounded goodness coupled with an adamantine adherence to truth. The Mahabharata, which is the magnum opus of the brilliant insight of Vyasa, on the other hand, raises a tumult of emotion and feeling and throws the mind to giddy heights, scattering it into the empyrean of a wondrous perfection of the ethical and spiritual ideal, and the student of the Mahabharata finds himself dashed by the waves of the powerful thoughts of Vyasa, now sinking down and now rising up in that ocean of Epic literature. Valmiki and Vyasa are the real builders of Indian culture, and their names will be remembered as long as Hinduism lasts. The great heroes and heroines of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata - Rama, Lakshmana, Bharata, Sita, Hanuman, Krishna, Yudhishthira, Bhishma, Arjuna, Draupadi - are bywords even to a schoolboy in India, and it is impossible to think of these noble personages without a sense of the supernormal creeping into one's veins. It is the Ramayana and the Mahabharata that have driven into the minds of people in India the idea of a compassionate and powerful God ruling the destinies of man and yet ready to help anyone who really craves for His grace. It is the Ramayana and the Mahabharata that have built India through the ages and saturated the Indian mind in religious thought and hammered down the ideal of God-realisation as the goal of human life and the possibility of receiving help in this endeavour from the Rishis and the Avataras of God. It is these sublime Epics that have cemented the hearts of the Hindus into a single whole, and if today India stands as a powerful Nation ready to face undaunted any force that may threaten it from outside, it is because of the moral toughness and courage that has been instilled into the blood of the Nation by the superminds of Valmiki and Vyasa. It is impossible for us here to adequately estimate the indelible impact which the thoughts of Valmiki and Vyasa have produced on the minds of the people of India. They brought into being an effect which cannot be erased out of history, for they touched the being of man.
The great works of Valmiki and Vyasa became the reservoirs for the streams of several inspiring works by the immortal poets of India - Kalidasa, Bhavabhuti, Bharavi, Magha, Sriharsha, Tulasidas, Kamban, and many other writers in poetry and prose, who drew inspiration from the inexhaustible founts of the authors of the two great Epics. The famous saying, 'whatever is of worth in the literature of the world is what has been already spoken by Vyasa (Vyasochhishtam Jagat Sarvam)', gives an idea as to the nature of the contents of the work of Vyasa. In the very words of the Mahabharata, 'whatever is here (in this Epic), whether concerning ethics, politics, human well-being or spiritual salvation, is elsewhere; what is not found here will not be found anywhere else'. The religion that the common Hindu knows and practises is the religion of the Epics and Puranas. It is this prolific literature that has made India spiritual in character. When the religious man of India, in general, prays to God or even contemplates on God, his idea is really that of the God of the Epics and Puranas. This is the popular religion of India, the religion of the masses and of the orthodox religious elite even today. The great religious festivals and ceremonies, rituals, vows and observances practised throughout the country are the result of the untiring proclamations made in this body of literature, ascribed to Valmiki and Vyasa. Under these circumstances, it is surprising that historians of philosophy, even of Indian origin, should have proffered a step-motherly treatment to these works of great literary merit, and in most cases ignored their very existence, as if they are the chaff of religious literature, while in fact it is to these alone that the religious man has clung for centuries down to this day for inspiration and solace in times of emotional depression or dispiritedness in life.
This appraisal of the genius of Valmiki and Vyasa is indeed much less than the regard and attention that these masters and makers of human culture really deserve. We hope that students of the history of philosophy and religion will find time and patience enough to dive again into the depths of this ocean of Epic literature, for no one can be said to have truly grasped the spirit of Indian culture without having mastered the import of these Epics. As it is said in the Mahabharata, 'the Veda is afraid of him who has not studied the Epics and Puranas, for he would indeed kill it with his ignorance of its truth propounded in them.'