The present Anthology consists of selections from what is known as Itihasa and Purana, the former comprising the two Great Epics of India, namely the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, and the latter including the Puranas and Upa-puranas. Broadly speaking, the Epic, if not the entire Purana, occupies an intermediate stage between the Vedic and the classical Sanskrit literature.
Both the Epics and the Puranas cover an astonishingly extensive literature, growing, as they did, with the growth of centuries; and their contents possess interest of a widely diverse character. Apart from religious significance, they present to us most graphic pictures of the culture and civilization, the political and social life, and the philosophy and thought of Ancient India. The two Epics come up to a total of much more than a hundred thousand stanzas and constitute eight times the size of the Iliad and Odyssey put together; while leaving aside the innumerable Upa-puranas, the extent of the eighteen Puranas would be no less.
Of the two Epics, the more balanced and poetical Ramayana is not unjustly regarded as the first great Kavya, which gives expression to a more developed artistic sense; but the immense and less polished Mahabharata, apart from its inexhaustible legendary, mythological, didactic and philosophical content, is more truly a heroic poem, rough-hewn and gigantic in proportion. The Ramayana delineates the softer emotions of everyday life, with all its tenderness and sweetness, its endurance and devotion; and its characters are accordingly more often ideals of stea fast regard for truth, womanly faithfulness and domestic virtues of affection and friendship. The Mahabharata, on the other hand, mainly depicts, on a much larger canvas, the roughness of political life, with its valour and heroism, ambition and lofty rivalry; and we have characters of flesh and blood, with the good and bad qualities of great actors in a semi-historic world.
Apart from the historical, legendary and geographical information they contain in a greater degree, the Puranas are no less valuable documents than the Epics for a study of the life and thought of ancient times, especially with regard to folk-lore, mythology, morals and religion. None of them presents a consecutive or systematic narrative; but as repositories of ancient lore they string together varied tales, anecdotes and legends of gods and men. Some of them include section on philosophy and statecraft, law and legal institutions, popular rites and festivals, manners and customs, as well as on fine and useful arts, grammar, lexicon, rhetoric, prosody, and even such curious pursuits as elephantlore. Some of the Puranas, again, are of a distinctly sectarian bias, meant to glorify this or that deity, and incidentally describe sacred places of pilgrimage and legends connected with them; while others are almost encyclopaedic in scope and include a vast amount of miscellaneous but instructive information.
It is clear that to make selections from such a vast literature of diverse content and interest is not an easy task; and we must confess at once that it is well nigh impossible to produce, within the limits of space at our disposal, an anthology which would satisfy all tastes. With regard to the Epics some would prefer the main story, while others would favour particular episodes, incidents, or characters. Those who are interested in history, philosophy or politics would fancy passages bearing on these specialized subjects in the Epics as well as in the Puranas ; while those who are of religious bent of mind would seek passages of a pious import for particular sects or cults. Others, again, would be interested in the description of rites and festivals, in the Dharmasastra topics on manners and morals, or in the technical sections on the arts and sciences. Obviously these subjects are not of a wider and more general interest. There is a large number of Subhasitas or Wise Sayings scattered throughout the Epics and Puranas, and their appeal by themselves is perennial; but since a separate anthology is being compiled for them, they are not included by us.
It should also be noted that some of the passages worthy of selection are of inordinate length. The deservedly popular stories, for instance, of Sakuntala, Savitri and Damayanti, fine as they are, cover in the Epic several hundred stanzas each, which could not be accommodated in their entirety. We have, therefore, selected episodes from such well-known stories, although they themselves are episodes in the Epic. We have tried to reduce the length of some passages here and there by small omissions, but this could not be always done without the risk of damage to Epic (or Puranic) method, environment and context. These works have been subjected through centuries to unlimited expansion; and prolixity and diffuseness appear to be not incidental but essential to their leisurely style of exuberant narration. As such, they are the despair of the anthologist.
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