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Sanskrit Epics and its Modern Relevance: Analysis of Ramayana and Mahabharata

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Society today is deeply attached different types of ideologies, values and beliefs. In considering the Sanskrit epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, both the epics illustrate dharma, family values and political and war strategies. With these two texts as reference, even though modern world views often contradict with the ideas presented in these epics as the importance of values can differ from person to person, Sanskrit epics do have influence on the contemporary world. This idea is based on the fact that Mahabharata and Ramayana showcase moral values and traditions.

Sanskrit literature emerged during the second millennium BC and the texts were written in the Sanskrit language. Sanskrit literature was based on Indian religions like Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism. This type of writing was produced by the Aryans who settled in the northern part of the Indian subcontinent. They attacked and vanquished the ancient India and their literature and religion played an important role in forming the Indian culture. The earliest works of Sanskrit writings such as dramas, poetry, and tales were often passed on orally and later it was written down in manuscripts. Drama rose as a particular type in Sanskrit literature and it was partly influenced by Vedic folklore and Hellenistic drama during the final centuries B.C.E. Bhasa, Kalidasa, Sudraka, Vishakhadatta, and Asvaghosa were some of the most important Sanskrit writers.

Indian writing is believed to be the earliest literature of the world. The Indian epic poetry was written in the Indian subcontinent. Initially, it was written in Sanskrit language and later it was translated into Tamil, Hindi, and Kannada. These epics were generally called as Kavya. The two great and important epics of Sanskrit language are Mahabharata and Ramayana. The central theme of these epics was mostly hero- worship. Mahabharata and Ramayana mirror a time of a well-developed moral, intellectual and social culture. They emphasized greatly on dharma and it focused on thoughts and beliefs of Indian culture and life. These two epics are aesthetic and legendary.

The study of Mahabharata and Ramayana was initially done in the west in the earliest years of Indology and in India it was studied during the middle of the thirteenth century. Mahabharata came quite earlier than Ramayana. These two texts are brought under the same title called Sanskrit epics. But in Indian tradition the title of these texts varies. Mahabharata is often termed as itihasa which means chronicle and Ramayana is called as adikavya which means the first poetic work. In Mahabharata there is always a narrator who speaks rather than sing the verses. In Ramayana the compositions are sung.

Mahabharata is the longest poem ever written in the world and it has 75,000 verses. The author of this itihasa is Vyasa who is also the author of Vedas and Puranas. It was compiled during the third century BCE and third century CE. The text focuses on the four aims of life i.e. dharma, artha, kama, and moksha. The poem focuses on different elements like myths, legends and pilgrimages. The authorship of Ramayana is given to Valmiki and it is dated from 500 BCE to 100 BCE. It consists of 20,000 verses which are divided into seven kandas. It narrates the story of Rama who goes into exile for fourteen years and while living in the forest his wife Sita is abducted by Ravana, the king of Lanka. This results in war and Rama kills Ravana in the battle, saves Sita and goes back to Ayodhya to be the king. Ramayana was translated into vernacualar languages like Tamil, Bengali and Hindi. The events that occurred in Ramayana and Mahabharata can be placed in Tretayuga and Dvapara and Kali yuga. Both the epics have considered to be equally important for their role played in the development of Hinduism between 400 BCE to 200 CE.

The epics play an important role in human life. Often these epics can be identified with our modern life as well. There are numerous lessons that one can learn from these legendary epics. These epic verses center around on a hero who has accomplished many triumphs in his life and they established the traditions that were present in ancient India. They likewise talk about the past of a religion and nation. The story of Ramayana draws out the significance of values and the requirement for them to be educated to the children. These values are highly valued in Indian society and culture. Mahabharata brings to light the politics played in ancient India. It additionally put froths the idea that one should seek or do the duties assigned to them. It insists on following the path of dharma and furthermore discusses the consequences of being untruthful and committing sins. They also teach one about patriotism, the significance of the relationship, love and being a good human with virtues.

The Mahabharata is one of the two greatest Sanskrit epics. The story portrays the battle between the two groups the Pandavs and Kauravas in the Kurukshetra war and their destiny. The life that is portrayed in Mahabharata, the shades of each character, the heroes and villains, their goals and tragedies still have relevance to today’s time and age. The idea of dharma is the thing that Mahabharata keeps on spurring the civilization. “dharma is not a religion; dharma means all kinds of different things depending on the context” (Bibek Debroy). The significant message of Mahabharata is that one should make his or her own decision and that decision should be based on what one perceives to be dharma. This devotional and philosophical text also talks about the “object of human interest” which is also called Purusha. It includes Dharma, Artha, Kama, and Moksha.

Mahabharata, unlike Ramayana, does not deal with good or evil. It is about individuals, their character and individual complexities. It characterizes the issues and solutions which are very relevant to the present scenario and it contains the portrayal of things that can be found in this day and age. Both Ramayana and Mahabharata can be viewed as a source of knowledge and the characters in the story also teaches various virtues. Today's society fails to let go of their ego and the refusal to compromise leads to the destruction of the family. In the story, we can see the cunning character Shakuni who corrupts the mind of Dhritarashtra and his sons and the war was fought between the two clans because of a piece of land. In the case of morality and virtues, Kunti taught her sons the morals and did not give any worldly pleasures. They experienced hardships and faced many obstacles in life. Arjuna and his brothers were respected by the general public and eventually they also win the fight and turn out successful. Whereas Dhritarashtra offered everything for his children and Gandhari sacrificed all the powers that she got from Lord Shiva to protect her son and make him a Vajrakaya. Her sons became evil and they fight for the throne. But ultimately the Pandavs defeated the Kauravas. Here we can see that a vindictive intuition can only lead to one’s downfall. The Kauravas end up losing their lives because of their desire to kill the Pandavas. This can be related to modern days because most of the parents today fail to teach their children the most important thing i.e. morals and virtues. Even though one is successful, if he or she lacks values they are considered to have failed in their life.

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Again, and again Mahabharata keeps emphasizing the importance of dharma. In the epic Arjuna initially hesitates to fight with the Kauravas but Krishna tells him to follow the path of dharma regardless of whether that implied conflicting with his own family. Mahabharata also teaches moral lessons such as how one should not give up on life despite all the obstacles. Karna is the best example of this. He was abandoned as a baby, rejected by those who should love him and he also gave his Kavasa and Kundala which made him immortal to Krishna. Being greedy also leads to destruction. Yudhisthira gambles away all these possessions even his wife. And this dice game is what that ultimately leads to the Kurukshetra war. Little knowledge also proves to be dangerous. Arjuna’s son Abimanyu knew how to break the Chakravyuha. It was Arjuna who told how to break the Chakravyuha to his wife Subhadra. But Abimanyu did not know how to break it when he was inside and this was because Subhadra fell asleep and so did Abimanyu in her womb while Arjuna was narrating. And this is why he did not know how to break it. Friendship is also highly valued by the characters in Mahabharata. This bond is seen between Arjuna, Krishna and Karna, and Duryodhana.

The politics involved in Mahabharata can also be compared to today’s time. In fact, Mahabharata give many political strategies which are practical and applicable. The story can be related to the administration and throughout the years this epic is used for Indian political way of thinking. “Krishna and Shakuni are the two geniuses in Mahabharata.” (Prafulla Kumar Mohanty). Krishna helps the pandavas both politically and economically. Right from the moment when Krishna takes Arjuna to the swayamvara to the moment they are out in Indraprastha, Krishna posed himself as a guide for them. Krishna’s master plan is what helps the Pandavas win the war. Shakuni can be seen as Kauravas mastermind when they play the game of dice. But Shakuni is considered evil and destructive. Sometimes war is justified in the Mahabharata. Both Shakuni and Krishna have the same opinion about war. War is an alternative option when one cannot find solution or conclusion. Krishna even tells Arjuna that one should battle it out when a conclusion cannot be arrived at. But this idea of war is not so relevant to the modern world because persons like Gandhi followed the path of non-violence and this is heavily embedded in the minds of the people.

Both the epics speak about timeless value. The modern world today needs dharma which is significant in both the epics. Ramayana shows three sets of principle which can be related to family, society, and individual. The modern society lacks certain morals and values. Corruption today is uncontrolled and every field like business, politics, education, etc are all corrupted. Ramayana teaches how important it is for one to have social, moral and spiritual values. The character Ravana is a good example of how one’s over ambition and desires can bring death and destruction. In the end of the story he repents saying he had brought ruin upon himself. The knowledge that one gains should also be applied in the places where it is needed. Both Rama and Ravana share a very similar knowledge about all forms of art and craftmanship. But it is Rama who is seen as a godly figure because unlike Ravana who utilized the knowledge he gained for evil purposes; Rama used it to do good deeds. The importance of unity is also highlighted in this story. The relationship that Rama and his bothers Lakshmana, Bharata and Shatrughna shared is one of a kind and this relationship is very hard to be seen among the people of modern world. When the throne was given to Bharata he refused to be the king and he goes in search of Rama. When he meets Rama, he says according to dharma the eldest son should only take the throne but Rama says he cannot go against the words of his father. Bharata then says,

“Put, noble brother, I entreat,

These sandals on thy blesses feet:

These, lord of men, with gold bedecked,

The realm and people will protect.” (The Ramayana, pg780)

This shows the selflessness of Bharata. The cotemporary world lacks the selflessness and the people in it look for their own delight and personal pleasures without thinking about others. This kind of attitude often makes one disregard others. People should move towards the idea of we instead of me. Others characters also show their selflessness. Rama accepts to go in exile to respect his father’s words even when he did not do anything wrong and this is his sacrifice. Lakshmana, stands unwavering by the side of his brother Rama during hard times and this kind of bond is rarely seen in today’s world. Even Sita leaves her luxurious life behind and goes to forest with Rama. Ramayana does not tell anyone to sacrifice themselves instead it tries to inspire others. Selfishness and revenge can lead to unfortunate and tragic situations. Ravana who wanted to take revenge on Rama, abduct Sita but at the end he is killed. Next instance is Kaikeyi, the second wife of Dasharatha who asks the king to fulfil her wish. But this brings distress to all her family members, Dasharatha dies because his elder son is outcasted and Bharata blames her for it. This selfishness only bring sorrow to the characters. Ramayana also speaks of Rama’s glory as a son, brother and a loyal husband. Even though he was a king who could have any number of wives, he remained loyal to Sita. Importance is given to the environment and architecture in Ramayana A historian named A.A. MacDonnell said about Ramayana “Probably no other work of world literature has produced so profound an influence in the life and thought of a people as the Ramayana.” (A.A.MacDonnell). Ramayana gives the message of importance of family values, following dharma, being loyal and helpful. Ramayana helps in human progress and leading a moral life. A close study of the epics can help one have broadminded views and better understanding. The story of Ramayana and Mahabharata has been retold in various occasions, developed or enhanced to suit the taste of the contemporary world and retold once again. Both the epics still remain very popular in India as well as in the world.

Works Cited

  1. Valmiki, & Griffith, Ralph T. H. (Ralph Thomas Hotchkin), 1826-1906. (2008 18). The Rámáyan of Válmíki, translated into English verse. Retrieved from The Rámáyan of Válmíki, translated into English verse
  2. Mohanty, Prafulla Kumar. “The ‘Mahabharata’: A Reading in Political Structuring.” Indian Literature, vol. 49, no. 1 (225), 2005, pp. 146–151. JSTOR, Accessed 14 Mar. 2020.
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