The Great Historical epics of the Aryans were the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The Ramayana and the Mahabharata exhibit several features that are similar and also different. Being handed down orally from the earliest times, both the epics have undergone tremendous changes throughout their long history and both cannot lay claim to any definitive text. We shall improve our horizon of knowledge by knowing the SERP (Social, Economic, Religious and Political) conditions in these great Epics time.
Historical Epic – Mahabharata
In the time of the Epics, in addition to the four traditional castes, some more castes came into the limelight. That was partly due to the inter-marriages between the different castes. The phenomenon of marriage lost its old sanctity. Polyandry and polygamy were both practised. Dasaratha had three wives, Ravana had many wives and on the other side it is pointed that Draupadi married the five Pandavas. A man not allowed to marry a woman from the lower cast despite he could marry woman from the lower caste. Later on, even that disallowed.
- The shudras occupied a very low position and punished if they practised austerities and penance.
- The practice of Niyoga in vogue.
- There is no reference to widow re-marriage although early marriages started towards the end of the epic page.
- Women not allowed much freedom in the matter of their marriages. Anyhow, the system of Swayamvara for the royal families existed, Swayamvara of Sita and Draupadi are the clear examples.
- Great sanctity attached to cows and vegetarianism became famous.
- And coming to clothing, the dress of a man consisted of two oblong pieces of cloth – one tied round the loins and the other round the body. The dress of a woman consisted of two oblong pieces of cloth- the lower piece of cloth was like a sari and the uttariya cloth was used for covering the head. Widows covering their head with white cloth.
- The rich addicted to gambling and drinking, prostitution was a recognized institution and women of bad character were common in those days. Kings and rich people kept concubines.
- Sanskrit was the spoken language of the people but prakrit was also making a beginning. People studied philosophy and rhetorics. Music and dancing considered to be the qualifications for young girls.
- Astronomy had made great progress in the country. The people had knowledge of the 12 rashis. They had knowledge of the movements of the moon among the 27 nakshatras.
- All astrological considerations based upon the conjunction of the moon with the nakshatras. Their month began with the rising moon.
- Agriculture and the breeding of cattle were still the main occupations of the people. The help of irrigation taken to add to the fertility of the soil.
- Though villages or gramas were popular units of economic life, there are references to the towns or nagaras in the Epic.
- Each nagara had a large number of guilds which managed their own affairs and the king ordinarily did not interfere with their internal affairs.
- Villages used to pay taxes in kind whereas the nagaras in cash.
- Internal and external trade flourished. Money used as the standard of value although exchange by barter system also in practice.
- Generally, cotton cloth manufactured by the people but sometimes silk and woolen clothes also manufactured.
- Minerals excavated and worked by artisans. India produced a large quantity of gold, pearl and precious stones.
Religious Conditions: Many changes took place in the religious space at the time of the Epics.
- The Vedic gods superseded by Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Indra, Surya and Varuna relegated to the background.
- Gods and goddesses like Ganesha and Parvati became famous.
- The avathar or the doctrine of various incarnations of Vishnu became popular.
- Rama and Krishna, worshiped as the incarnations of the Vishnu.
- The Bhagavad Gita is one of the most popular religious books of the Hindus.
Political Conditions: During the period of the Epics, there were a large number of states in India. The ordinary form of government was kingship but there were also republics.
- The king, not an autocrat, required to rule according to the principles of justice and morality.
- If a king in anyway injured his subjects, the latter allowed to kill him like a mad dog.
- The Mahabharata says that “the Gods do not approve of a defective king” and he was liable to lose his throne.
- It was the duty of the king to respect the laws of the Pugas or village communities, Jatis or castes, Janapadas or regions, Srenis or guilds and Kulas or clans.