TWO GREAT BOOKS
Everyone has heard of Rama and Sita. Many of you in north India must have seen the giant effigy of Ravana being burnt every year at Dasehra. There are processions, fire-works and shouts of joy. On this day Rama, the good king of Ayodhya, defeated and killed Ravana, the wicked ruler who had stolen his wife Sita. Many parts of India still celebrate Rama’s victory, and all over India people think of him as a perfect man, who always did his duty.
The Ramayana is a great book of the Hindus, and it tells the story of Rama.
When you grow older, you will read this great poem yourself. It has a simple story, which goes something like this:
In the kingdom of Ayodhya there lived a prince called Rama. All the people loved him and wanted him to be king after his father, Dasharatha. But he had a selfish step-mother, Kaikeyi. She was jealous of Rama, because she wanted the throne for her own son Bharata. So she forced the king to banish Rama to the forest for fourteen years. Rama willingly left the palace to obey his father’s command. With him went his loving wife, Sita, and his brother, Lakshmana. In the forest, they could not have any of the comforts of the palace. But none of them felt sorry even for a moment. They enjoyed living close to trees, rivers and animals. Rama and Lakshmana fought the rakshasas or demons in the forest.
There was a demon king called Ravana who had a wicked plan. He sent his uncle, Mareecha, to Rama’s hut disguised as a beautiful deer. Sita was so charmed by the deer, that she asked Rama to capture it for her. Rama went after the deer, but he told Lakshmana to stay and guard Sita. Then by some magic, Lakshmana heard Rama calling for help. He did not know whether he should go to help his brother or stay and guard Sita as he had been ordered to do. At last he went. This was the chance Ravana had been waiting for. He disguised himself as a sannyasi and came to Sita’s hut. He seized her and carried her off to the island of Lanka.
Rama returned to the forest hut empty-handed, because there had been no real deer. When he found Sita gone, he was heart-broken. He set out at once in search of her. And, as before, his devoted brother Lakshmana went with him.
Sugriva, the king of the monkeys, and his minister Hanuman helped the two brave brothers. The army of monkeys hurled rocks and mountains into the sea to build a bridge so that Rama could cross over into Lanka. There Rama fought Ravana and killed him. Sita was rescued and brought back to Ayodhya. The fourteen years of Rama’s banishment were now over, and he was crowned king. The people of Ayodhya were overjoyed at the return of their beloved Rama and lit oil lamps all over the city.
The Mahabharata is another great book of ancient India. It is the story of the sons of Bharat (not Rama’s brother Bharata), who was a great king of the Aryans. India is called Bharatavarsha or the land of Bharat after this famous king.
In the town of Hastinapur on the banks of the Ganga ruled a blind old king named Dhritarashtra. He had a hundred sons, who were called the Kauravas. He also had five nephews, the Pandavas, whom he loved like his own children. Yudhishthira was the eldest of the Pandavas. Bhima, the second Pandava, was so strong that men trembled in fear at his very name. There was no limit to the amount he could eat. It is said that he once ate up seven cartloads of rice! He was also a great cook. Bhima's strength was such that he could uproot trees and use them in battle. The next brother was the brave Arjuna, whose skill in archery was famed throughout the land. Nakula and Sahdeva were the youngest. The eldest Kaurava, Duryodhana, was jealous of his five cousins. He made many attempts to kill them. So the Pandavas left home to make their own fortunes.
During their wanderings, the Pandavas came to the kingdom of Panchala. Here, the lovely princess Draupadi was to marry the man who proved himself the best shot with a bow and arrow. The Pandavas attended the archery contest along with hundreds of other kings and princes. No one could match the skill of Arjuna and he won the hand of Draupadi. When the Pandavas brought her home, they called out to their mother Kunti, “Arjuna has won a wonderful prize!” “Share it like good brothers,” replied Kunti, not knowing what the prize was. And so Draupadi became the wife of all the five brothers.
The Pandavas returned home to Hastinapur. Their uncle felt sorry that they had wandered homeless so long. He gave them half his kingdom. Duryodhana had never liked the Pandavas and was unhappy that his father had given them a share of the kingdom. He thought of a plan to ruin the Pandavas. He invited Yudhishthira to a game of dice. Yudhishthira lost everything. When he had lost even his kingdom he staked himself and his brothers. Luck was against him, and he lost once again. Now all he had left was Draupadi. He staked her and lost her as well. The Kauravas were very pleased and dragged her by her hair into the court. Poor Draupadi could do nothing but pray. The Lord Krishna heard her prayers, and saved her from disgrace.
Duryodhana’s father, Dhritarashtra, was sorry for what had happened to the Pandavas, and gave them back their kingdom. But Duryodhana called Yudhishthira to yet another game of dice. The stake this time was that the losers should go away to the forest for twelve years and spend one more year in hiding without being found out. The Pandavas lost the game. They kept their word and went away to the forest with Draupadi. At the end of the thirteen years, Duryodhana refused to give the kingdom back to them. Instead, he collected a huge army from the farthest corners of the land and declared war on the Pandavas. A large part of the Mahabharata describes this great battle that took place at Kurukshetra and raged for eighteen days. Many great heroes fought on each side. Although the army of the Pandavas was much smaller than that of the Kauravas, they won the great battle. This was mainly because they had the blessing of Krishna. In the end all the Kauravas were killed and Yudhishthira became king of Hastinapur.
After some time, the Pandavas gave up their kingdom and set out in search of heaven. Draupadi was with them, as she had always been. Yudhishthira also took with him a faithful dog who had served him all his life. His brothers had fallen on the way and Yudhishthira reached the gates of heaven alone, except for the dog. There he was told that he would have to leave his dog behind if he wanted to enter heaven. Yudhishthira refused. The Gods were impressed by his devotion, and gladly let them both enter heaven.
The Mahabharata is the longest poem in the world. In it there are hundreds of tales about heroes and Gods, wise men and brave women. Like the Ramayana, it is a mixture of history and legend. The most important part of the Mahabharata is the Bhagvad Gita or the Divine Song. It tells of the time when Arjuna stood with his armies on the battlefield of Kurukshetra and was full of doubt and sorrow. He saw that those he had once loved were ranged opposite him, ready to fight. How could he lift his bow against the cousins with whom he had grown up and the elders whom he loved and respected? Krishna, who drove his chariot, gave him strength and wisdom and told him that the most important thing was to do one's duty without thinking of the results. This is the important message of the Gita.
All Hindus greatly respect the teachings of the Gita and try to follow them. The Gita is also read and respected by many men all over the world who are not Hindus.
Who wrote these great books of the Aryans? Valmiki wrote the Ramayana and Vyasa wrote the Mahabharata. At first they were written in Sanskrit. But both the stories became so popular all over the country that they were in course of time translated into languages that the common people could understand. As time went on, more stories were added to them. The heroes and heroines of these poems became very dear to the people. That is why we still speak of the goodness of Rama, the faithfulness of Sita, the bravery of Arjuna and the devotion of Draupadi.