Indian epic poetry cannot be described in its fullest glory and enormity without comprehending the Epic Period and its political scenario and the entire royal households associated with it and their patronage of arts and literary pursuits. Epic India is that portrayal of Greater India in the Sanskrit epics, namely the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, as well as Puranic literature (the itihasa). The historical contexts of the Sanskrit epics comprise the late Vedic Mahajanapadas (from approximately 1500 B.C.) and the consequent formation of the legendary Mauryan Empire, the beginning of the "golden age" of Classical Sanskrit literature.
In India, literature, like the whole face of nature, is balanced upon a gigantic scale. Poetry, born amidst the majestic panorama of the Himalayas and fostered in a climate which had inflamed the imaginative potential, had developed itself with Oriental extravagance. The Hindus, like the Greeks, have only two great epic poems - the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, enlaced in ancient wonders of Sanskrit literature, considered the most primeval harbingers of the long legends of Epic poetry in India. There is, in fact, an immensity of bulk about this, as about every other department of Sanskrit literature, which to a rather more limited mind, can become absolutely bewildering to such enormousness. In such circumstances, it demands a necessary situation that the framing of epic poetry in India be delineated in detailed format, with its stately splendour and gargantuan glory. Indian epic poetry (standing for Itih?sa in Sanskrit and literally meaning - history, or, stated in a didactic way - "so it happened") pertains to that body of epic poetry, that has been penned in the Indian subcontinent (strictly implying the then periphery of India as a country, including present-day Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan and the other parts of neighbouring countries of Maldives and Tibet). Originally composed in Sanskrit and translated thereafter into Kannada, Tamil and Hindi languages, it incorporates some of the oldest epic poetry ever created and some works form the basis of Hindu scripture.
The term `epic` is utilised mostly to describe a long narrative poem, that relates specific heroic deeds. In literary usage, the term encompasses both oral and written work. Primary examples would be Homer`s Iliad and Odyssey. An epic may be based upon subjects as myriad as heroic legends, myths, beast fables, philosophical theories etc. Since poetry had arrived before prose and because underlying all written forms is some oral strain, the epic too was born out of an oral tradition. Epic poetry has been used the world over, in different ages and countries to transmit from one generation to the other, the tales of the celebrated deeds of their national heroes. "Epic" in a way thus becomes synonymous with heroic oral poetry. One of the primary functions of such poetry is to stir the spirit of the warriors by recollecting past glory and supplying them with models of ideal heroic behaviour. And since the poetry aimed more to educate than to record actual facts, more often than not, the protagonists were exaggerated and idealised, transformed into `Utopian` characters. Their acts began to conform very much to mythological patterns. Over the world, it has been seen that epics bear certain similar qualities. Heroes were born of their illegitimate mother`s union with a divine force (eg. Kunti in Mahabharata), they were brought up in humble surroundings; they possessed marvellous potential and died young (eg. Karna in Mahabharata again). It has also been noticed that most Indo-European epics have their central themes based upon, religion and kingship, physical strength, fruitfulness and productivity, health, riches, beauty etc.
The first traces of epic poetry in India are probably to be determined in Vedic Sanskrit literature, precisely in the hymns of the Rig Veda. The recital of narrative poems was a fundamental part of the religious ceremonies at festivals. It was a common practice to relate and recount stories of gods and heroes. "Songs in praise of men" (gatha narasamsi) are the harbingers of the heroic epic poetry in India, as they talk about the glorious deeds of kings and their warriors. These songs in praise of men, in time, gathered allusions and germinated into epic poems of considerable variety and length and into cycles of epic songs with one protagonist or one great event. The most famous examples of Indian epic poetry are of course the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. It is not however believable that these two being spoken about, could be the only epic poems in India, to have survived in today`s times; others are sadly sure to have been lost to the sands of time. According to legendary scholars, epic poetry in India seems to have been cultivated more in regions of India where the worship of Vishnu as the highest deity had prevailed. The authors, narrators, preservers of this ancient poetry were the bards, or the sutras, who dwelled at the courts of the kings and sang or recited these song cycles at feasts. The sutra of Mahabharata is Sanjaya, who describes to the blind King Dhritarashtra the events taking place o the Kurukshetra battle ground.
Indian epic poetry must have originated in the circle of such bards (Homer is the most famous such bard in the western world). It is highly imperative to understand that what one conceives of presently as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, they are not just unified poems or compilations. They are indeed accumulations of a variety of poems, which throughout centuries have undergone a series of modifications and interpolation and additions. The Mahabharata, especially, is a web of beast fables, mythological narratives and didactic tales and including among other things, the Bhagavad Gita.
Mahabharata i.e., the great narrative of the Bharatas is a true living example of epic poetry in India. Its events and characters speak to every reader, even in the twenty first century. `Maha` means great in Hindi and `Bharat` is a common name for India. It is a multi-textured, multi-hued, extremely influential epic, which attracts attention even today, a case in point being the popularity of the television series and Peter Brook`s adaptation of the epic. The Rig Veda speaks of the Bharatas as a warlike tribe and the Mahabharata is said to start with Bharata, son of Sakuntala and Duhsanta. Among the descendants of Bharata, a ruler named Kuru was central and his descendants were named the Kauravas. The name Kuru thus came to be synonymous with the tribe of the Bharatas and their land is Kurushetra or Kuru-land. A family feud in the royal household of the Kauravas, led to a massive battle, the famed battle of Kurukshetra, which endangers the longevity of the Kaurava royal house and with it, the clan of the Bharatas. The Pandavas i.e. sons of Pandu, suffer from the enmity of Duryodhana and his 99 brothers who are perhaps incarnations of the demons of Kali.
Even in the Ramayana, Ravana and his clan can be interpreted as demons, yet another classic instance of heroic epic poetry in India. The whole story is a transposition at the heroic level, of an Indo-European myth between the gods and the demons since the commencement of the world. It results in a bloody, destiny-deciding battle in which the gods and devils exterminate each other. The destruction of the former order prepares for a newer and better world. And as is the case with most forms of oral poetry across generations, fragments from other tales got added to the actual story of the battle, which is considered to have been an actual historical event that may have taken place somewhere in the upper Gangetic Plain and Yamuna. The Mahabharata is not merely the heroic poem of the Bharatas, but also representative of the entire of `bard poetry`. Some of the poems, which are included in the Mahabharata, are epics by themselves and form therefore, the concept of `epics within epics`.
The Ramayana as compared to Mahabharata is rather shorter and more unified. The authorship is attributed to Valmiki and he is known as adikavi, the author of ornate poetry. In ornate form of Indian epic poetry, greater importance is adhered to the alamkara i.e. embellishments, rather than the form. Ramayana is a popular epic to this day. Old and young, all are familiar with the story of Rama and Sita and Hanuman. Popular sayings and proverbs bear witness to the nation`s familiarity with Ramayana. Rama, the hero of the Ramayana, was probably later made into an incarnation of the god Vishnu. In fact even Hanuman, the monkey king is worshipped all over India and whether this is because of the popularity of the Ramayana or whether the Ramayana came about as a result of the popularity of the monkey god, is a debatable question till in contemporary times.
To the famous poet and playwright Kalidasa is attributed two epics: Raghuvansa and Kumarasambhava; however, Kalidasa was not the precise harbinger of epic poetry in India. The language of these epic texts, termed "Epic Sanskrit", makes up the earliest phase of Classical Sanskrit, following the latest stage of Vedic Sanskrit found in the Shrauta Sutras. The famous poet and playwright Kalidasa, thus, rather bursts into this scenario of Classical Sanskrit, by penning his genius works in Indian epic poetry: Raghuvansa (Dynasty of Raghu) and Kumarasambhava (Birth of Kumar Kartikeya), though they were written in Classical Sanskrit rather than Epic Sanskrit. Other Classical Sanskrit epics comprise the "Slaying of ?i?up?la" ?i?up?lavadha of M?gha, "Arjuna and the Mountain Man" Kir?t?rjun?ya of Bh?rav?, the "Adventures of the Prince of Nishadha" Naisadhacarita of ?r?harsa and "Bhatti`s Poem" Bhattik?vya of Bhatti.
Next in line to the dynasty of epic poetry in India, Kannada epic poetry, had made India proud and prestigious by mainly consisting of Jain religious literature. The most celebrated poet of Kannada epic poetry is Adikavi Pampa (902-975 CE). His Vikramarjuna Vijaya is an adaptation of the illustrious Mahabharata, is acclaimed even in latest times. Like Valmiki, Pampa has also been renamed adikavi. It is only uniquely in Kannada literature that one can witness a Ramayana and a Mahabharata based on the Jain tradition, in addition to those based on Brahmanical tradition. Shivakotiacharya was the first writer in prose style, dedicated solely to the joy of Indian epic poetry. His work Vaddaradhane is dated to 900 CE. Sri Ponna (939-966 CE) is also a decisive writer from the same period, with Shanti-Purana serving as his magnum opus.
The post-sangam period (2nd century-6th century) saw several great Tamil epics being written, including Cilappatikaram, Manimegalai, Jeevaga-chintamani, Valayapati and Kundalakesi literally extolled as the `The Five Great Epics of Tamil Literature`. Later, during the Chola period, Kamban (12th century) wrote what is considered one of the greatest Tamil epics - the Kamba ramayanam of Kamban, based upon the Ramayana.
The religious-philosophical Hindi poem Ramcharitamanas by the poet Tulsi Das, based on the Ramayana was the first instance of Indian epic poetry in the Hindi dialect. Generations of Hindus in all parts of India have made their acquaintanceship of the legend of Rama from such translations. In modern Hindi literature, Kamayani by Jaishankar Prasad has attained the status of an epic poetry in current Indian scenario. The narrative of Kamayani is founded on a popular mythological story, first cited in Satapatha Brahmana. In the prolific Bengali literature too, there also remains magnificent instances of epic poetry in ancient Indian silhouette. Michael Madhusudan Dutt`s Meghnadbodh Kavya is considered to be an epic status, even though it has for its subject, a fragment of the Ramayana. However the extent and wideness of its vision and its many digressions and allusions have led to it being termed as an "epic". In Bengal again, Hemchandra Sen`s Britra Sanghar and Nabinchandra Sen`s Palashir Judho (in three parts) are illustrations of heroic Indian epic poetry.