What World Religions Teach

By E. G. Parrinder | Go to book overview

Chapter 2

HINDUISM: (2) AVATARS AND DEVOTION

HINDU EPICS

The epics and ancient tales (puranas) are as important to Hindu religious life as the Vedas, and are called 'the fifth Veda,' following the four classical Vedic books with their attached Upanishads. The epics are full of legendary stories of gods and men and throw a flood of light on Hindu mythology and religion.

There are two great epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, composed between 200 B.C. and 200 A.D. The Ramayana, 'the Career of Rama,' was composed by the poet Valmiki in Sanskrit in 24,000 couplets. It was later translated into other Indian languages, and remains very popular; millions of people recite a line or a verse of it every day. It is the story of Prince Rama, who was cheated of his inheritance and went with his wife Sita into exile in the forest. Sita was stolen by Ravana, the demon-king of Ceylon. Rama and his brother, with the help of the monkey-god Hanuman, cross to Ceylon by the islands or in an aerial car, defeat Ravana, and bring Sita back. Then Rama has his throne restored and reigns happily with Sita.

This simple story gains its religious importance because Rama is called an avatar, a 'descent' or incarnation of the god Vishnu. Hence when Rama is adored today it is as a divine being. His name, ' Ram,' is invoked many times, especially at funerals. Sita, though human, is held up as a model of virtue.

The Maha-bharata, the 'great Bharata' story, tells of the struggle of the Bharatas, the name of related tribes of North India; Bharata is the name often given later to the whole of India. The Mahabharata is very long, 100,000 Sanskrit couplets, and it includes a great mass of material of different dates, with legends

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