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Indian epic poetry (Sanskrit: Itihāsa; meaning history, lit. "so it happened") is the epic poetry written in the Indian subcontinent. Originally composed in Sanskrit and translated thereafter into Kannada, Tamil and Hindi, it includes some of the oldest epic poetry ever created and some works form the basis of Hindu scripture.
The ancient Sanskrit epics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata, also termed Itihāsa (History) or Mahākāvya ("Great Compositions"), refer to epic poems that form a canon of Hindu scripture. Indeed, the epic form prevailed and verse was and remained until very recently the preferred form of Hindu literary works. Hero-worship was and is a central aspect of Indian culture, and thus readily lent itself to a literary tradition that abounded in epic poetry and literature. The Puranas, a massive collection of verse-form histories of India's many Hindu gods and goddesses, followed in this tradition. Itihāsas and Purāṇas are mentioned already in Atharva Veda and referred to as the fifth Veda.
The famous poet and playwright Kālidāsa also wrote two epics: Raghuvamsha (Dynasty of Raghu) and Kumarasambhava (Birth of Kumar Kartikeya), though they were written in Classical Sanskrit rather than Epic Sanskrit. Other Classical Sanskrit epics are the “Slaying of Śiśupāla” Śiśupālavadha of Māgha, “Arjuna and the Mountain Man” Kirātārjunīya of Bhāravī, the “Adventures of the Prince of Nishadha” Naiṣadhacarita of Śrīharṣa and "Bhaṭṭi's Poem" Bhaṭṭikāvya of Bhaṭṭi.
Kannada epic poetry
Kannada epic poetry mainly consists of Jain religious literature. The most famous poet from this period is Adikavi Pampa (902-975 CE), one of the most famous writers in the Kannada language. His Vikramarjuna Vijaya (also called pampa bharatha) is hailed as a classic even to this day. With this and his other important work Adipurana he set a trend of poetic excellence for the Kannada poets of the future. The former work is an adaptation of the celebrated Mahabharata, and is the first such adaptation in Kannada. Noted for the strong human bent and the dignified style in his writing, Pampa has been one of the most influential writers in Kannada. He is identified as Adi kavi. (First poet) It is only in Kannada that we have a Ramayana and a Mahabharata based on the Jaina tradition in addition to those based on Brahmanical tradition.
Shivakotiacharya was the first writer in prose style. His work Vaddaradhane is dated to 900 CE. Sri Ponna (939-966 CE) is also an important writer from the same period, with Shanti Purana as his magnum opus. Another major writer of the period is Ranna (949-? CE). His most famous works are the Jain religious work Ajita Tirthankara Purana and the Gada Yuddha (The Mace fight), a birds' eye view of the Mahabharata, set in the last day of the Battle of Kurukshetra and relating the story of the Mahabharata through a series of flashbacks. Structurally, the poetry in this period is in the Champu style, essentially poetry interspersed with lyrical prose.
The post-sangam period (2nd century-6th century) saw many great Tamil epics being written, including Cilappatikaram (or Silappadhikaram), Manimegalai, Jeevaga-chintamani, Valayapati and Kundalakesi. Later, during the Chola period, Kamban (12th century) wrote what is considered one of the greatest Tamil epics — the Kamba ramayanam of Kamban, based on the Ramayana.
The first epic to appear in Hindi was Tulsidas' (1543-1623) Ramacharitamanasa, also based on the Ramayana. It is considered a great classic of Hindi epic poetry and literature, and shows the author Tulsidas in complete command over all the important styles of composition — narrative, epic, lyrical and dialectic. He has given a human character to Rama, the Hindu avatar of Vishnu, portraying him as an ideal son, husband, brother and king.
In modern Hindi literature, Kamayani by Jaishankar Prasad has attained the status of an epic. The narrative of Kamayani is based on a popular mythological story, first mentioned in Satapatha Brahmana. It is a story of the great flood and the central characters of the epic poem are Manu (a male) and Shraddha (a female). Manu is representative of the human psyche and Shradha represents love. Another female character is Ida, who represents rationality. Some critics surmise that the three lead characters of Kamayani symbolize a synthesis of knowledge, action and desires in human life.
- Atharva Veda 11.7.24, 15.6.4
- Chāndogya Upaniṣad 7.1.2,4
- Arthur Anthony Macdonell (1900). "The epics". A History of Sanskrit Literature. New York: D. Appleton and company.
- Oliver Fallon (2009). "Introduction". Bhatti’s Poem: The Death of Rávana (Bhaṭṭikāvya). New York: New York University Press, Clay Sanskrit Library.
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