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India's Great Epics Revisited

Tales of love and war, demons and gods. We look at the ancient epics that still drive rising India.

An artist wearing a mask of demon king Ravana waits to perform at a Ramleela, a theater based on the Ramayana in Mumbai, India, Sunday, Sept. 27, 2009. (AP)

It’s 2010, and the hottest movies in India this summer are based on stories two thousand years old. Tales of love and war and gods and demons, plugged straight in to the politics and passions of today.

To an extent that might amaze Americans with a hazy sense of the Iliad and the Odyssey, Beowulf and Gilgamesh, contemporary India is still fully attuned to the characters and lessons of its ancient epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana.

This Hour, On Point: we’ll go to the great epics, and cultural messages, that still drive a rising India today.


Wendy Doniger, Sanskrit scholar and expert on Hinduism and mythology. She’s a professor of the history of religions at the University of Chicago, and author of many books and translations. Her latest is “The Hindus: An Alternative History.”

Arshia Sattar, translator and author. She translated the “Kathāsaritsāgara” and the “Ramayana” for Penguin books. She teaches narrative and screenwriting at the National Institute of Design and the Film and Television Institute of India.

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  • http://filmigirl.blogspot.com Kara

    I would be curious to hear what she has to say about the recent films “Raavan” and “Raajneeti” which were both modern updates of the mythology. Do they stay true to the spirit of the stories?

  • Kara2

    No, Kara they are said to be modern version just for publicity.

    A Bharatiya.

  • Siva

    There is a view that Ramayana reflects the North-South divide that exists even today. The epic is seen as a symbol of the North’s truimph over the South, while the South glorifies the greatness of Ravana. Even the movie “Ravana” (directed by a South Indian) supposedly brings out the grey shades in personalities between the villian (Ravana) and the hero (Ram).

    I wonder what the views of your guests are.

  • diego

    I disagree when the guest mention that US doesn’t have this alive epic mythical stories and traditions: They have them, but they are newer and they affect the society every day: The Western, the good war, even Star wars are recent examples of well alive american myths in the common discourse.

  • lini alappat

    I believe that Ramayan amd Mahabharata are stories about two great stories told about two kings who lived about 2000 years ago ! They are considered to be “Gods” because they rules their kingdoms in a honest way. thats it! people over the centuries thought that since they did such a good job they must be re-incarnation of Lord Vishnu, since only a god can be so uncorrupt and capable ! I am an atheist and an Indian, so believe that Indian society basically being an Hindu one, thought of Rama as re-incarnations of Hindu Gods and build temples of Rama. I think instead of making films or building temples if people focussed on their virtues maybe we all be will no lesser than Rama himself!.

  • Ellen Dibble

    I would get more from this hour had I downloaded the books to a Kindle or Nook and briefed myself, which would take more than overnight.
    I disagree that we have no such epic framework. We may have a melting pot of epics in this broad nation, more diversity. But my growing up included many children’s versions of Greek and Roman myths and fables, as well as Bible stories, all of which was reinforced by art and music and Greek dramas, year-in, year-out.
    So my curiosity about India’s literary tradition can’t be very rich without that sort of contextualization a child takes in from the environment the epic is rooted in. And I look for books that take that into consideration. I don’t want an academic sense of Hindu narratives that anchor their understanding of being human. I want something more visceral. I’m thinking that can’t be done; it’s too rich.

  • Robert Pierce

    In response to the suggestions that the American equivalent of the Hindu epics are the Bible or Shakespeare, I suggest that the American epic characters are superheros (like Superman) and cartoon characters (like Mickey Mouse) – all produced by commercial enterprises for commercial purposes!

  • Rob gallagher

    Please comment on The Ramayana and the architecture, art and Buddhist – Hindu history of Cambodia

  • Diane Alberts

    I taught World Literature for many years, including in a mostly Christian white community here in Vermont. Because they thought the Genesis was only a rock band and had no idea what passover was, I began to require some exposure to the most common Bible stores, comparing them to those in other cultures. I included the Gita, and the Ramayana. I was almost suspended at one point, not because of liberals worried about too much church influence, but by a conservative Christian!

    I could go on, but no time

  • Sathish Rangan

    Hi,This is an interesting storyline going on.

    Did I hear this correctly: did one of your guest scholars just say that “Rama embraced this falsehood”, while referring to the way he banished Sita?

    ‘d appreciate it if that scholar would clarify.



  • Vyasa Prasad

    Perennial wisdom is an important aspect of the epics. The Ramayana and the Mahabharata make the teachings of more difficult texts like the Upanishads accessible to common people.

  • Ravi

    Interesting topic, it is always good to review some ones work by a peers inside or out side, I believe it is being done these days after 10000 years or so, I am prod I came from Karma Boomi. If its done in the US main stream is OK, and bring the abstract views to concrete is this what Wendy doing?
    These epics are twisted, molded and skewed over the period and totally lost the point they raise.

    Please please do not relate these epics to the movies or to some “B.S”.

    There are lots of good things to know from these two epic. For example Karna or Ekalavya who challenge the elite, even birth of Karna. which is very much happening in modern days.

    And last things is Hinduism is not a religion, it is way of life.

    I would like to guest to comment on this.

  • http://www.ramathelegend.com Barbara Albers Jackson

    There is a graphic novel RAMA THE LEGEND which is narrated by a crow with the personality of a New York teenager and his guru buddy, a mongoose who resembles Gandhi. This Westernized Rama version retains the essence of the legend and speaks the language of American youth. This book has been endorsed by the President of the Hindu Temple Society of North America. http://www.ramathelegend.com

  • http://www.bulentguneralp.com Bulent Guneralp

    In my opinion, Sathya (Truth), Dharma and Moksha that these great epics talk about are dramatically different from what your guests think they are. Therefore, I disagree with many comments they made about these very important subjects. I found those comments misleading.


    Best Indian film I ever watched was Monsoon Wedding.

  • http://www.ubuntuatwork.org Vibha Pingle

    Fabulous discussion! and I’m so glad they mentioned “Sita Sings the Blues” – an amazing visual interpretation of the Ramayana.

  • Ed Peterson

    Great show Tom!!!!!!!!!!!!

    thanks so much,


  • FriendsofIndia

    How dare you not admire India’s super powers! India is the world’s greatest democracy and its only remaining super power. Pax India rules supreme in the world’s economic, political, and military affairs. Our Tata has been lording over the world industries by purchasing such Western properties as LRJ and Corus, and making these former money pits a big success. Our Mittal has been overwhelming the world’s steel makers by swallowing up Arcelor. Our mobile phones have been out-talking all other countries by growing 100 million users every quarter. Our prime minister has been presiding over these big international meetings by sounding our voices over all these heads of all your minor states. Our super aircraft carriers have been patrolling the world’s oceans and scaring all the Ethiopia and Somalian pirates off their pants. This is because India has the world’s most colorful democracy modeled on the many thousands flavors of our curries, and is the world’s top dog for all the world to follow behind our 2.4 billion buttocks. Submit to your fate under our Hindu colossus, beg our 5-rupee meal middle classes, bow to our super powers. Jai Hind!

  • Steve Roberts


    Great program this morning on a subject I knew nothing about! Anybody out there know of the poster that Tom was describing that hung in his study (Vishnu with a thousand warrior forms — or something to that affect)? I was curious as to what it looked like?

  • NotAnotherIndian

    I found Wendy Doniger’s attitude towards Americans to be condescending — nothing in American culture can compare to the great Mahabharata! Americans are not brought up on Mahabharata. Thankfully! Else we would be ridden with superior Brahmins who think nothing of the lower castes and the poor lower caste people, and the poorer souls who are Hindus but have no caste.


    It was wonderful how gracefully she avoided the question of communal riots that broke out over the birthplace of a mythological character. Tom, I admire you for being so politically aware and outspoken in such a subtle way!

  • NotAnotherIndian

    Another example of how “superior” Indians are:


  • http://IndiaHistoryOnline.com Niraj Mohanka

    While delving into the mythology, we shouldn’t forget about the actual historical data regarding the three (3) Epics of Indian History (Dasharajnya, Ramayana and Mahabharata – in that chronological order): http://www.epictrilogy.com http://www.indiahistoryonline.com/chron.html

  • AnIndian


    You can keep Wendy Doniger – we Indians don’t need her and her “alternative history” of Hindus.

    As for “communal” riots in India or the caste system, seems to me that you don’t know anything about the history or political situation of India, as well as the Ayodhya issue, so I’d suggest you do your homework/research before you speak – your comment simply demonstrates your deep ignorance of the issue. Remember what Abe Lincoln said about remaining silent vs. speaking? Good. Now follow it. :)

  • NotAnotherIndian


    I am open to an alternate explanation of the caste system, if you will.

  • AnIndian

    NotAnotherIndian, the wikipedia page on caste system/varna is a good start.

    In short:
    1. First off, it’s not the caste but varna that’s mentioned in the religious books.
    2. Varna was/is a way to classify the society based on the type of work a person did, and all societies have had some kind of classification system.
    3. There is no justification of any discrimination based on varna in any of the books, and one can find numerous examples of mobility from one varna to the other.
    4. Which suggests that the discrimination based on caste system – as well as setting up of strict boundaries between varnas resulting in lack of mobility – was a later phenomenon, and is not backed up by any books. Some historians suggest that the British rule played some part in worsening the caste system situation in Indian society.

    Having said that, my comment should not be seen as a justification of any present-day discrimination based on one’s caste, and this kind of discrimination needs to be phased out by the society. Thankfully, the discrimination part is more limited to rural areas, and caste plays an insignificant part for most city-dwellers. What matters more is who is rich and powerful. Look up Mayawati – the current Chief Minister of an Indian state (Uttar Pradesh).

    People like to mix with and marry those who are of same/similar identity. For example, inter-racial marriages in the American society are still frowned upon and are very uncommon. Blacks have their own churches. There are different work-groups in the US – white-collar, blue-collar, intellectuals, academics etc. and I’m willing to bet that if you make a list of your friends you hang out with on a regular basis, you will not find the entire spectrum represented in that list. Boston is one of the most racially segregated cities in the US, with different parts of the city populated by different people (Dorchester, for example). Liberals mix with other liberals, and so do conservatives, and libertarians seek out like-minded libertarians. So the caste system is along similar lines – it provides an identity. It’s the left wing (what’s new?) in India that makes a big issue out of it – rest of the society is moving ahead with making caste less of an issue.

    Now, I only wish that you and others (On Point) would be similarly comfortable with criticizing Islam and all the negatives it has generated. :)
    Then again, we all know that Hinduism is the soft target, whereas criticizing Islam in public remains taboo. ;)


  • adivasi

    indian culture=adivasi culture,
    ramayana and mahabaratha are colonial/imperialistic propoganda of the chaturvarna indians. They should be kicked out of Jambudweep.

  • Sandra

    Hi Tom, interesting topic. I would like to here more about caste system in India. Somehow the whole world talks about every aspect of India except this one. The country that boasts to be so democratic, liberal, growing power in Asia, how come it still follows and justifies caste system that was created by some priest class to rule and dominate the population in the name of God. People are still consciously/unconsciously maintaining the system by arrange marriage within it’s own caste, by enforcing certain jobs performed by low caste, by the priests who wants to preserve it. And of course the Indian politicians have their own reasons to preserve the system.
    Caste system is nothing but a Nazi mentality and majority of Hindu population still follows it.
    By the way, Ram was a good ruler, but Krishna not so. Krishna did too many politics to create clashes between two clans, and to go for war, supporting one side over the other.
    Ravan was a Dravidian king who obviuosly was depicted bad by the Aryans rulers who invaded India and pushed the Dravidian further south.

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