EPIC genre & Mahabharata
SHORTCUTS on this webpageGeneral Defining Features of the Epic Genre | Oral & Literary Epic Forms
Characteristics of Indian Sanskrit & folk epics | Sources: Epic genre, Mahabharata, & Myth Criticism




From M. H. Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms, 6th ed. (1993)

From Stuart H. Blackburn, Peter J. Claus, Joyce B. Flueckiger, and Susan S. Wadley, eds. Oral Epics of India (1989).

1.  Long narrative poem on serious subject

1.  Narrative:  tells a story in song, poetry, rhythmic prose, with perhaps some unsung parts

2.  Told in formal, elevated style

2.  Poetic: formulaic, ornamental style

3.  Centers on heroic or quasi-divine figures on whose actions depend the fate of a group, a nation, and/or all humankind

[Myth critic Northrop Frye: characters have great powers “acting at or near the limits of desire” -  from The Anatomy of Criticism (1957).]


3.  Heroic: tells adventures of extraordinary people.

a. martial and human blends with the magical and celestial, with no clear division between the two realms; hero/ines often deified after death, crossing from human to divine.

b.  epic hero/ines are not necessarily models or exemplary ideals for human behavior; ie. hero/ine’s actions may not offer practical advice or assistance to the rest of us in living our everyday lives

4.  Action is heroic deeds in battle, long, arduous journeys, or quests

[Myth critic Northrop Frye identifies the quest-myth as the central or “mono-myth” of literature.

[Rene Girard has examined the central role of ritual sacrific and its relation to myths, as integrated into classical Greek tragedy: he argues ritual sacrifice is society’s effort to deflect upon a relatively “sacrificeable” victim the violence that would otherwise be vented on the community as a whole (from La Violence et la sacre 1972).]


4.  Three epic types (in Indian cultures):

a.  martial: war, battle, struggle at center, e.g. for revenge, lost lands, restoration of lost rights;
At stake: power, social obligations, social unity and continuity

b.  sacrificial: heroic act of self-sacrifice or suicide at center, of ten of a woman who becomes a goddess or a sati (immolates herself on husband’s funeral pyre)

c.  romantic:  individual actions celebrated at center though threaten group solidarity;
hero/ine: strong willed, cast out or exiled from social group; relies on cunning rather than martial skills.
Primary conflict: quest for love
Goal: personal freedom

5.  Gods and other supernatural beings take an interest and an active role in human affairs.

[Myth critic Northrup Frye: Western literature is “massively funded by the powerful myths of the Bible and classical [Greek and Roman] culture”]

5.  Deities and humankind:  Gods mix in human affairs for their own  and the cosmos’ benefit; when trouble threatens, the gods shift it to earth; and epic heroes--and by extension the rest of us--become the gods’ scapegoats. .  Epics attribute social, sexual, and moral problems of humankind to the will of the gods (ie. Gods make humans sin, die, and expose humans to appalling social, sexual, and moral conflicts; hero/ines cannot escape fate and evil; human suffering is inevitable and life is ruthlessly fatalistic)


1.  “Traditional epics” are written versions of what were originally oral poems or songs about cultural heroes developed in a warlike age.  E.g. Iliad, Odyssey, Beowolf


1a.  Written versions of Classical Sanskrit epics Mahabharata and Ramayana, widely translated into vernacular, national international languages, transmitted as books, cheap editions, handwritten copies, as well as through oral performance.
1b. Oral regional folk epics, of non-literate and literate groups, have developed, and continue to develop, within the literate cultures of India and the world.  Some of these too are transcribed into written forms.  (Indian regional “folk” epics: folk hero/ines are often reincarnations or reborn Sanskrit epic hero/ines of the Mahabharata and Ramayana)

2.  “Literary epics” are composed first in writing to imitate “traditional epics.”  E.g. Milton’s Paradise Lost


2.  [“Literary epics” are also generated by Indian literate cultures.]



3.  Ceremonial performance, for which style is deliberately distanced from ordinary speech as fitting the grandeur and formality of the heroic subject

3.  Ceremonial performance: Sanskrit classical epics live in contemporary national/regional performance traditions: song-recitation and dance-drama, often entailing spirit possession, trance-dance, and ritual - national and regional retellings of  hero/ine’s stories of sacred epics are believed to summon him/her as god/dess and her/his power.,

Functions of epic performances include:

to ritually protect and cure,

to tell the community’s/culture’s story

to create/help maintain the community’s/culture’s self-identity and continuity

 to warn of what could happen (rather than what did/will happen)

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Indian epics are stories full of marvels, but are also more: they present a mythology (or a religion, to believers) and an interpretation of the human condition.  Documented verifiable evidence is not necessary for a cultural group to claim an epic narrative as its own--to believe it tells the people’s story and their truths.  India’s national and regional story traditions are based and and continue to be shaped by the two classical Sanskrit epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana.  In addition to the narrative (story), Indian oral epics, like the Mahabharata, are often filled with large amounts of didactic material, which works with the narrative to teach lessons, ethical norms, and the collective wisdom of the national or regional culture. 

Sanskrit and folk epics share certain fundamental characteristics (summarized from Stuart H. Blackburn and others, Oral Epics of India):


1.  Recognizable character types repeatedly emerge.  Examples:

            (a) Determined woman (e.g. Drapaudi of Mahabharata is intent upon revenge of her humiliation after she is deeply wronged by the Kauravas when they drag her, with only her robe on stained with her menstrual blood, before the court; she remains opposed to any reconciliation with the Kauravas at the end of the Pandavas’ exile until her honor is avenged);

            (b) Chaste, long-suffering wife (e.g.Sita of Ramayana)

2.  Epics feature complex intergenerational plots and repeat core character triangles: ie. a core character triangle grouping consisting of a lead hero/ine, and two secondary fe/male characters.

Example:  (a) Thoughtful wise modest older brother (Yudhishthira) in triangle with (b) muscular, well-meaning, but slow-witted brother (Bhima), and (c) adventurous, amorous younger brother (Arjuna)

3.  Protagonist’s character develops through repeated story or plot types.  

            (a) Story Type #1:  Most male heroes develop their character in defense of family or kingdom.

(Example: Yudhishthira in Mahabharata; the Pandava brothers’ dominant concern is the vindication and restoration of their rightful claim as heirs to the kingdom of the Kurus)

            (b) Story Type #2:  Hero/ine is involved in erotic/romantic attempts to correct social injustice.

(1) low caste hero courts a high caste woman, thus defying standard caste rules;
(2) hero robs rich to give to the poor;
(3) older brother comes to aid of younger brother)

4.  Most Indian epics focus on male protagonists, and present character attitudes (e.g. toward women and human relationships, e.g. within kinship groups of family or caste) of a male-dominated world.

            (a) “Good” mothers, sisters, and wives, while serving their dharma, are often strong and courageous (e.g. to keep the word of the epic mother Kunti, the Pandavas must share a wife)

            (b)  “Virgin” heroes are often especially fearsome and invincible warriors on the battlefield (e.g.,   e.g. Bhishma’s vow of celibacy makes him a “virgin hero” and a fearsome, invincible warrior on the battlefield--such virgin heroes are common in oral epics;

            (c)  Celibate unmarried women and widows (an “unnatural” state of human affairs, unlike “natural” and “safer” mothers and sisters) are often dangerous and destructive: that is, such women as sexual beings are often presented as a threat to men’s source of strength and should be feared by men (e.g.  Amba as a potential wife who, through deeds of Bhishma, is denied her marital rights, becomes dangerous to him: after a long period of ascetic self-denial and a sex-change, Amba, as Shikandi, will eventually bring about Bhishma’s death in the great battle)

5.  Kinfolk, often the heroes’ close relatives and especially within the same or parallel castes, often pose serious problems in Indian epics and provoke destructive feuds, which drive the epic plot and suggest that people have the most to fear from those who, by birth, “ought” to be on their side.  Such disputes are intrinsically more painful that a state of hostility caused a by a hated outsider; plus family feuds lead epic heroes into impossible situations which often have disastrous results. 

            (a) The Kauravas, cousins of the Pandava heroes, attempt to usurp the Pandava heroes’ legitimate claims to kingship, creating a cosmic threatening feud within the extended family. 

            (b)  Bhishma and Drona, with close ties of kinship and/or caste to both the Pandavas and the Kauravas, are fated to fight on the “wrong” side in the Mahabharata; ironically and adhering to the laws of his dharma, each ends up explaining to the eldest Pandava Yudishthira how he may be killed, and then Yudhishthira, despite his love and loyalty to Bhishma and Drona, will eventually act on the information to cause their eventual death.

6.  Important cult deities play active role in events, even if they are not the central characters. 

            Example:  Krishna, avatar of Vishnu, protects, helps, and advises Arjuna and acts as his charioteer in Mahabharata;  Krishna also instigates and furthers action, as when he overcomes Arjuna’s reluctance to fight just before the battle by preaching the Bhagavad Gita to Arjuna, thus assuring that the battle will begin and dharma will be restored.


1.  Dharma, the cosmic law of righteousness, the moral law, and one’s ethical duty: The Mahabharata may be considered a “great treatise on dharma”, and its epic heroes’ stories drive home the teachings of dharma.  Note well, however, that the teachings of dharma are subtle and not easy to define in specific epic texts: e.g., the dharmas of different characters can be in conflict and epics may present no clear answer to the question of whose dharma should prevail.

Example:  In the Mahabharata, neither side--the Pandava or the Kaurava--has a monopoly on righteousness or dharma, for sometimes the Pandavas act on expediency at crucial junctures in the story, rather than on the dictates of their dharma; while their enemies are not totally without honor.  However, one may consider the Pandavas as heroes and paradigms for their age: they are honored because they try to be true to their dharma in the midst of complexity and conflict, and they are revered for displaying unconditional loyalty to their Lord and their chosen duty.

2.  Fatalism: fate, or daiva, expresses the will of the gods and will be done.  The gods’ cosmic interests are often in conflict with those of humans:  fate, in Indian epics is a strong, oppressive force which manifests itself in unpredictable ways and places the central characters in difficult positions.  Hero/ines’ life problems are often inflicted by their daiva/fate as they face life problems like divided loyalties and death.  However, human fate is shaped by karma (deeds: the conditions of life in each birth/rebirith is determined by the cumulative results of deeds performed in previous lifetimes; the caste one is born into, for example, is the caste one deserves or has earned through karma, according to the moral law of dharma).  The fates of epic heroes, then, are driven by inexorable karmic logic: they may acquiesce to their fates, or they may try to escape their fates, often displaying brilliant improvisation in the attempt, but to no avail.  That is, heroes are caught up in a chain of cause-effect that goes back to their births and deeds (karma)--including the vows the heroes make, for through their vows heroes voice their fates. Epic situations generally confront them with the conflicted question of their dharma.

 Example:  Yudhishthira is the calm, passive, controlled, patient elder brother, concerned with daiva/fate; in contrast to Bhima, his younger brother, who is violent, impetuous, sexually active, and concerned with paurusha (manliness and manly codes of honor).  Near the end of the Mahabharata, Bhima fights a duel with Duryodhara (the eldest Kaurava) using clubs, and Bhima strikes Duryodhara a foul blow, which breaks Duryodhara’s thighs;  this act “breaks the rules” of honorable manly fighting, yet Bhima is fated to kill Duryodhara in this way because he has vowed to do so, just as Duryodhara is fated to be killed in this way for his shameful deed earlier contributing to Drapaudi’s public humiliation.  Each character has performed an earlier deed--Duryodhara has shamefully taunted Drapaudi near the end of the gambling match after Yudhishthira has “lost” her in the game, and Bhima has made a vow to break his thighs in revenge.  Krishna, fate’s representative,  encourages Bhima to strike the “dishonorable” blow (or “fight dirty”). Bhima, concerned with paurusha, protests; Yudhishthira passively and silently awaits the inevitable workings of daiva.  Daiva and paurusha make conflicting demands here, but the only way to fulfill the will of the gods and dharma is to violate the moral code of humankind.  While Bhima’s action is morally ambiguous within the human realm, it enacts daiva and thus serves dharma within the realm of cosmic determinism. 

3.  Doctrine of divine grace and the way of bhakti (devotion, love) to final release (moksha):  The Mahabharata may also be considered to teach these cosmic precepts.  Krishna is omnipresent as the divine manifestation in the midst of human conflicts, and the epic’s heroes are Krishna’s most ardent devotees: they pay Krishna obeisance from the start and extend to Krishna the worship the gods desire.   In turn, Krishna stands by the Pandavas’ side to protect and guide their actions and decisions.

Example:  Krishna reveals to Arjuna, Krishna’s cosmic form and dispels Arjuna’s philosophical doubts and moral scruples before the great battle (in the Bhagavad Gita).  In this way, Krishna allows Arjuna to understand the necessity of killing his kinsmen in the cosmic context.  Krishna’s grace teaches bhakti (love, devotion) as the means to liberation from the wheel of death and rebirth (samsara).

Sources: Epic genre, Mahabharata, & Myth Criticism

Abrams, M. H.  A Glossary of Literary Terms.  6th ed.  New York: Holt, Rinehard, Winston,1993.

Blackburn, Stuart H., and others, eds.  Oral Epics in India.  Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1989.

Davis, Paul, and others, eds.  Western Literature in a World Context. Vol 1: The Ancient World through the Renaissance.  New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995.

Haviland, William A.  Anthropology.  7th ed.  Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1994.

Jussawalla, Feroza.  “Indian Theory and Criticism.” In The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism.  Eds. Michael Groden and Martin Kreiswirth.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.   399-404.

Reeves, Charles Eric.  “Myth Theory and Criticism.” In The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism.  Eds. Michael Groden and Martin Kreiswirth.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.    520-523.

Hum 210 Online Course Pack Table of Contents

Epic Genre & Mahabharata
URL of this webpage: http://web.cocc.edu/cagatucci/classes/hum210/coursepack/epic.htm
Last updated: 25 September 2006