2.1.6- Indian Literature

By: Jasmine Sholapurwalla

Often, the cultural values of a society can best be examined through the historical pieces of literature and drama that civilization produces. One place where this is especially apparent is in the ancient Indian civilization. The Indian epic the Mahābhārata display the morals and beliefs of its region.

These principles include the culture’s views on:
  • Socioeconomic Class System
  • Life after death
  • Gender Relationships
  • Military


The Mahābhārata (translates to "the great tale of the Bhārata dynasty”) is an Indian epic that was written during the period of 400 BCE to 400 CE. It is one of the longest stories in human history and includes the epic Ramayana and the scripture the Bhagavad Gita. Mahābhārata tells the story of two feuding families, the Kaurava clan and the Pandava clan, all descendent from the Kuru family, as they struggle for the throne. It follows the stories of the decedents of the families leading up to the Kurukshetra War, where both families fought to gain control of the city of Hastinapura.

The Kuru family tree. Both the Pandavas (Green) and the Kauravas (Yellow) descended from this family.

Cultural Developments

In the Mahābhārata, many Indian religious, cultural and philosophical developments can be examined through the relationships between the characters.

The Caste System

Through history, the Caste System has played a major part in Hindu and Indian culture. In it, society is organized into four classes that have different functions and rules.

The Mahābhārata especially explains the different positions of the Caste system during the Bhagavad Gita. The Bhagavad Gita is a scene between Lord Krishna (a manifestation of a Hindu God) and a Pandava prince, Arjuna. Here, Lord Krishna is advising Arjuna about his duties as part of the Kshatriya caste when Arjuna is doubting his ability to fight in the Kurukshetra War against his distant kin. Many believe that the Caste System originated in the Bhagavad Gita and take Lord Krishna’s word as law.
Lord Krishna giving Arjuna advice.


Reincarnation is a focal concept in the Hindu way of life and is frequently mentioned in the Mahābhārata. It is the idea that humans experience rebirth after death, either in the form of an animal or a human. When humans achieve moksha, or self-realization in the world around them, they are released from the cycle of reincarnation.

The wheel of rebirth; once a person achieved moksha they are able to leave the cycle.

Quote from the Bhagavad Gita where Lord Krishna is explaining the idea of Reincarnation to Arjuna

One place where reincarnation is seen in the Mahābhārata is in Princess Amba, who vows revenge
on Bhishma, a man who kidnapped her and as a result, made her unmarriable. The princess is later
reborn and kills Bhishma during the Kurukshetra War. Reincarnation is also examined in the
Bhagavad Gita. Here, Lord Krishna is reminding Arjuna of his duty to fight to his caste and not to
worry about death, as those who die will either come back in another form or achieve moksha.

Gender Relationships

The Mahābhārata revolves around the lives of the upper class Hindu society, especially that of the ruling class and the warrior class. Here, women have few rights and are primarily mentioned only when they were getting married or having children.

Princess Amba
One woman who is shown in greater detail is Princess Amba. In the Mahābhārata, Bhishma (who was not invited to participate in the competition) wins Princess Amba and her two sisters, Ambika and Ambalika, during their swayamvara ceremony, a competition where suitors must compete for their hands in marriage. The princesses are brought to marry Bhishma’s brother, Vichitravirya. While Ambika and Ambalika consent to this marriage, Amba refuses, as she wishes to marry another king. Unfortunately, this king refuses to take her as his wife, making Amba unmarriable. She blames Bhishma for her problems, and swears that she will get her revenge on him for ruining her life. Amba vows to kill Bhishma in her next life and commits suicide, as she knows that it will be impossible for her to do so as a woman in her current life.
  • As an upper class woman living in ancient India, Amba had few rights. Her only objective in life was to marry and have kids. When Bhishma ruined this for her by taking her, she had no choice but to leave this society, and chose to do so by taking her own life, hoping that she would have better luck in the next life.
    • However, in her next life Amba is born again as a female named Shikhandini. To fufill her vow of revenge, Shikhandini performs many prayers and transforms into a man named Shikhandi. As a man, Shikhandi is able to get his revenge and kill Bhishma.

Bhishma's deathbed

Another woman who plays a major part is Sita from the story Ramayana. In the story, Sita was kidnapped by a demon, Ravana, and must be saved by her husband, Rama. After a great deal of time, Rama is successful. However, before the pair can be reunited, society forces Sita to undergo the Agni Pariksha, a test where she must prove her purity by jumping into a fire pit.

Sita performing the Agni Pariksha test.

  • While Sita must prove that she kept her purity during her separation from her husband, Rama must take no test. This shows that the Indian people did not have full faith in their women, believing that if they had the chance, the women would partake in immoral behavior. This may explain why Indian women had (and still have) fewer rights than their male counterparts.
Fortunately, after jumping into the fire, Sita is carried out pit by the Lord of Fire, Agni. This proves Sita’s faithfulness to her husband, and she is able to live the rest of her life in peace.


The Mahābhārata is one of the most revered stories in Indian culture. Because majority of the legend takes place leading up to and during the Kurukshetra War, one can infer that military accomplishments mean a great deal to the Indian people. Key scenes of Ramayana and the entirety of the Bhagavad Gita, two of the most important parts of the Mahābhārata, also take place during battle, further proving this claim.

Rama killing the demon, Ravana, during the final battle scene in Ramayana.


The Mahābhārata, along with sub-texts such as Ramayana and the Bhagavad Gita, showcased the major cultural developments and ideals of the ancient Indian civilizations. These values include the culture’s attitude towards life after death through reincarnation, their socioeconomic structure based on the Caste System, the gender relationships and their belief in the greatness of the military. While these stories were written thousands of years ago, today’s Indian culture (especially those coming from Hindu origins) still follow many of the beliefs.


  • Image citations are imbedded in the pictures