Why People Need Epics: Terming and Learning from the Divine Yet Human

A common misconception about classical texts is that they have little to do with us if we are far removed from the times when and places where these texts were composed. But, as persisting products of human authors (whether these authors were mouthpieces for deities or not), classical texts explicitly or implicitly show us something about how to be human. For me, the classics that do so most captivatingly are epics. So tonight I would like to talk about the human needs that epics meet. I will begin with a terminological concern, by attempting to understand why people have applied the label “epic” to certain ancient poems. My main focus, however, will be on what such epics teach—on what they offer not only to their immediate audiences but also to us modern readers. In essence, I am answering the question of why these works have remained popular.
The epics that I have in mind are the Iliad and Odyssey of Greece and the Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata of India. But these pairs of poems do not refer to themselves as “epics.” The Iliad and Odyssey, for instance, imply that they belong to a class of compositions called kléa andrō̂n (or the glorious deeds of men). Indeed, each of these two Greek poems concentrates on a particular man at its outset. Each poem opens by invoking a Muse (one of the divine daughters of Zeus [the king of the gods] and Mnemosyne [the goddess of memory]), and this Muse inspires the narrator of this poem to tell the story of its leading man. [1] Moreover, each poem suggests that its hero will be worthy of kléos (or heroic glory) at a moment when he seems to have diverged temporarily from the trajectory that will take him to this aim. Thus, by book 9 of the Iliad, the Phthian hero Achilles has withdrawn from the Trojan War out of anger at having been dishonored by his army commander, Agamemnon. Still, even though Achilles is fated to claim kléos by killing the Trojan prince Hector and then dying in battle himself, Achilles actually has positioned himself to attain such glory by refraining from fighting. His withdrawal from the battlefield leads Agamemnon to send an embassy to entreat him to return to the fray and to promise him gifts in exchange. Consequently, Achilles’ father figure Phoenix can encourage him to follow in the footsteps of earlier heroes who went on to obtain kléa after allowing themselves to be soothed by similar reconciliatory gestures. [2] Like the Iliad, the Odyssey foreshadows its hero’s achievement of kléos at a time when he appears to have been thrown off the course of this illustrious action. In book 8 of the Odyssey, Odysseus still is wandering after the Trojan War and is away from his home on the island of Ithaca, where he will garner glory by defeating the suitors who seek to marry his wife and to take over his kingdom. Before he can come home, he needs the assistance of Alcinous, the wealthy king of the Phaeacian land of Scheria who hosts Odysseus and helps him to make his way to Ithaca. Yet, even at Alcinous’s court, Odysseus hears of his own impending fame when the Phaeacian poet Demodocus sings of a quarrel that erupted between Odysseus and Achilles. [3] As my fellow presenter Greg Nagy has suggested, the fact that the cause of Achilles and Odysseus’s quarrel is not specified here highlights the distinction between the types of kléos that lie in store for these heroes. [4]
But, while Achilles and Odysseus gain different kinds of glory, their stories both belong to the same category. Yet, this category has limited utility in the sense that later works from Greece or other places need not center on men’s glorious deeds, even as these works resemble the Iliad and Odyssey in certain respects. As an umbrella term for these similar texts, the word “epic” is what modern scholars have settled upon. In my view, “[a]n epic is an extensive poem that has been composed in an elevated style, that treats a pivotal epoch in the past of a particular people, and that endures because it both entertains its audiences and educates them on issues of ultimate importance.” [5] As I have mentioned, the educational aspect of epics will be my focus tonight, but—before I take up this cross-cultural topic—I would like to discuss briefly why the term “epic” has been applied fittingly to the primary Sanskrit poems themselves, even when they have been studied apart from their counterparts in other cultures.
Unlike the Iliad and Odyssey, the Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata do not adopt the same main designation for themselves. Although these Indian poems place themselves in some of the same Sanskrit genres, [6] each poem privileges one category in particular by associating it with the poem’s mythological author.
The human sage to whom the Rāmāyaṇa attributes itself, namely Vālmīki, demonstrates how this work sees itself predominantly as a kāvya (or emotion-evoking poem). The story that the Rāmāyaṇa relates about its own origin in emotion begins with Vālmīki hearing the Rāmāyaṇa story from the celestial sage Nārada and then witnessing a couple of cranes that are initially in the throes of lovemaking but subsequently are separated suddenly by a hostile hunter who kills the male. The dead bird is mourned not only by his mate (who cries out in her compassion) but also by Vālmīki (whose compassion moves him to curse the hunter and thus to utter the first poetic verse). Vālmīki goes on to compose a poem about another couple who will be separated by death, namely King Rāma and Queen Sītā of the city of Ayodhyā. [7] Consequently, Vālmīki’s kāvya, the Rāmāyaṇa, elicits from its audiences the compassion that the she-crane and Vālmīki alike felt when the he-crane was felled.
Even though almost all of the Rāmāyaṇa is occupied by this poem’s recitation by Vālmīki’s students Kuśa and Lava, the twin sons of Rāma and Sītā, [8] the Rāmāyaṇa presents itself as continuing to have the emotional impact of the events that led to the creation of this kāvya. In its emotional immediacy, the Rāmāyaṇa contrasts with the other monumental poem situated in the Rāmāyaṇa’s cultural context. This poem, the Mahābhārata, ascribes itself to another human sage, Vyāsa. But the Mahābhārata treats itself primarily not as a kāvya but as an itihāsa (or mythic history). As a result, the Mahābhārata illuminates most brightly not the events that lead Vyāsa to compose his poem, but the fact of its longstanding completion. [9] Vyāsa’s student Vaiśaṃpāyana recites the Mahābhārata at the prompting of his teacher, who has received a request for the performance of the poem from his great-great-great-grandson, King Janamejaya of the city of Hāstinapura. More specifically, Janamejaya wants to hear from his great-great-great-grandfather (who is human yet happens to be an immortal manifestation of the divine preserver Viṣṇu [10] ) about the great war that broke out between the sons of Vyāsa’s son Dhṛtarāṣṭra and the sons of Vyāsa’s son Pāṇḍu. All of these men are ancestors of Janamejaya who are in the same generation as his great-grandfather, Arjuna—the greatest warrior in the world, who is most famous for the crisis of confidence that he overcomes in the Bhagavadgītā, the most well-known part of the Mahābhārata.
Because the Mahābhārata and the Rāmāyaṇa depict themselves in such different ways—the Rāmāyaṇa, as a kāvya that evokes the emotion of compassion from the audiences responding to its protagonists’ plight; and the Mahābhārata, as an itihāsa that illuminates the legendary acts of warriors from a distant past—a third term is needed to cover both compositions. The word “epic” offers the advantages of applying not just to these Indic works but also to other lengthy, well-wrought, timely, and perpetual poems (such as the primary Hellenic ones).
Once the terminological issue of what to call this quartet of divine yet human compositions is resolved, their contents can be compared. What has allowed all four poems to last over eras of changing literary tastes and changing levels of technological development is the ability of these epics to address the fundamental existential problems confronting people living in the cultures that gave rise to the epics. For instance, communities of poets working between 750 and 700 BC in the area now known as Greece composed the Iliad and Odyssey to pose an answer to the question of what happened to people after they had died. This answer emphasized an afterlife for heroic individuals in the minds of the people who remembered these heroes’ or heroines’ remarkable acts. Accordingly, the Iliad and Odyssey portrayed their heroes, Achilles and Odysseus, as each contending for kléos in an effort to complete deeds so singularly noteworthy that they would be preserved as part of the kléa andrō̂n (the very stuff of ancient Greek epic songs) in all of the ancient Greek city-states. But the heroes of the Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata, Rāma and Yudhiṣṭhira, go after a different kind of goal that reflects the particular cultural context of their own authors. These Indian poets composed their epics largely between 200 BC and 200 AD, during an interimperial period of political fragmentation that saw the rise and fall of numerous petty rulers. In the midst of this societal instability, the authors of the Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata were concerned with how to live righteously in an era when unrighteousness was on the rise. These epics, then, depicted Rāma and Yudhiṣṭhira as each striving for dharma (or righteousness) in the manner of earlier kings elevated as exemplars in legal and literary texts that were influential at the time when the Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata were created.
Although the Greek epics and the Indian epics center on different existential issues, both pairs of poems adopt similar approaches to explore their issues. Each poem pair offers its audiences alternative models for accomplishing its central existential ideal. So one of the two poems features its hero achieving this ideal relatively easily, while the other poem shows its hero struggling to reach this ideal. At least one reason behind these dichotomies relates to their educational value. According to modern psychologists, people observing other people who are modeling certain behaviors are more apt to imitate those models whom they resemble in some respect. [11] Hence, one such psychologist, Donald Meichenbaum, has distinguished “mastery models” (who easily achieve their desired aims) from “coping models” (who struggle in the process of attaining their goals). [12] Given people’s greater propensity to emulate models similar to them, mastery models tend to be imitated by people who perceive their aims as being within easy reach, while coping models tend to be imitated by people who assume that there are impediments in the paths to their goals.
Because the Iliad and Odyssey and the Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata are all culturally representative works that seek to appeal to broad audiences, these epic dyads highlight both mastery models and coping models. More precisely, within each pair of poems, one poem presents a hero who masters what he needs in order to demonstrate his society’s existential ideal, while the other poem proffers a hero who has to cope with difficulties in order to attain this ideal. The contrast between the mastery and coping models of these coupled epics takes symbolic shape in the disparity between their human heroes’ capacities to embody divinity.
The hero of the Iliad, Achilles, is semidivine. As the son of the sea nymph Thetis, he hears from her repeatedly that he is destined to die soon. [13] Even though he leaves the fighting at Troy out of anger at Agamemnon, Achilles re-enters the fray to avenge the death of his companion Patroclus, who was killed by Hector while leading in Achilles’ stead the attack made by the Achaeans (as the Greeks were known then). [14] The display that Achilles makes of slaying Hector demonstrates Achilles’ utter mastery of warfare and the inevitability of his glory—which is to ensue both from his killing of the Trojan and from his own dying in battle. After chasing Hector around Troy three times, Achilles faces off against him and casts a spear through Hector’s neck, so that the Trojan will die nearly immediately. Before dying, however, Hector notes that Achilles now will be worthy of a death at the hands not merely of Hector’s younger brother Paris but additionally of the divine archer Apollo, son of Zeus. As the Iliad ends with the funeral of Hector, a warrior made to rest forever by an antagonist who has been born a demigod, the epic anticipates half-human, half-divine Achilles’ even more glorious death. [15]
If the Iliad sees Achilles mastering with ease the military skills that he needs to achieve a kléos of conquest, then the Odyssey finds Odysseus coping with obstacles in the course of attaining a kléos of restoration. Odysseus, the son of two mortals, seeks to restore his Ithacan kingdom after having left it for the Trojan War a score of years before. [16] But, to claim the kléos associated with replenishing his land and reconnecting with his family members after neglecting them for twenty years, Odysseus first has to survive his harrowing return home and second has to convince his loved ones that he in fact is back. Before he even can set foot on Ithaca again, he suffers through a number of hostile interactions with forces of nature as well as bellicose beings. Thus, he loses the last of his crewmen when the sun god Helius causes them to be punished capitally for feeding on his cattle, and Odysseus loses his raft when the ocean god Poseidon smashes it out of his anger at the Ithacan for blinding Polyphemus (the Cyclops who is a son of this sea deity). [17] Odysseus is left riding his raft’s remaining beam, but leaves it to swim to Scheria. From there, Odysseus requires aid from Alcinous to sail to Ithaca and to take on the tasks of replacing his crops and his flocks at home once he has rid it of the marauding suitors seeking to marry his wife Penelope while depleting his palace’s resources. [18] The success of Odysseus’s restoration project depends upon the help of his swineherd, son, and wife. To each, an incognito Odysseus addresses a deceptive story that is designed to reveal his listener’s loyalty. Luckily, Odysseus’s swineherd (Eumaeus), Odysseus’s son (Telemachus), and Odysseus’s wife (Penelope) all wish for Odysseus’s return, even as it tests their credulousness. [19] As a consequence, Odysseus can re-claim his kingdom and can re-integrate himself among his relatives. His royal glory, however hard-won, is secure by the Odyssey’s conclusion. [20]
The Indian literary tradition is akin to its Greek counterpart in presenting heroic models of mastery and coping. But the ideal that the primary Indian epics enshrine is not glory (or śravas—which is the Sanskrit cognate to Greek kléos) but rather righteousness (or dharma). Dharma is demonstrated consummately in the Rāmāyaṇa, whose hero Rāma is relentlessly and rigidly righteous. Although he has been designated as the crown prince of Ayodhyā, Rāma allows his father to exile him to the forest for fourteen years in order to fulfill an earlier promise made to the younger of Rāma’s two stepmothers. While exiled, Rāma experiences the loss of his bride when the demon Rāvaṇa kidnaps Sītā. [21] The mortal battle that results from this abduction occasions Rāma’s very existence, for the prince actually incarnates half of Viṣṇu. This god agreed to assume human form as Rāma and his three brothers in order to defeat the overweening Rāvaṇa (whose great-great-grandfather, the divine creator Brahmā, had rewarded Rāvaṇa’s austerities by making this demon invincible to all supernatural beings and vulnerable only to humans and other mammals). [22] Yet, even though Rāma bests Rāvaṇa with the help of an army of monkeys and even though Rāma knows that Sītā has remained faithful to him during her captivity, he nonetheless insists that she prove her purity twice. The first time she does so, she undergoes and is unscathed by a fire ordeal. [23] Still, despite her acceptance by her husband and their subsequent engendering of twin sons while reigning together as Ayodhyā’s king and queen, Rāma decides to banish Sītā to the forest to quiet the rumors of her infidelity that have continued to spread among the Ayodhyans. The couple then lives apart for more than twelve years, during which Sītā is sheltered by Vālmīki at his hermitage, where—early on—she gives birth to Rāma’s and her boys. [24] These sons, having been reared by their mother (Sītā) and instructed by their teacher (Vālmīki), perform the sage’s Rāmāyaṇa for their father, who learns from the narrative of the two youths how they and their mother have persisted as hermits. In an interlude in this epic recital, Rāma is amenable to taking back Sītā if she submits to a second public test of her fidelity. But she disappears into the earth, her mother, after imploring this goddess to accept her if she has remained pure for Rāma. Because Sītā was Lakṣmī—the goddess of prosperity and wife of Viṣṇu—reborn, her earthing makes Rāma’s kingdom particularly fruitful. Though Rāma mourns the loss of his consort, he remains the ruler of Ayodhyā for about ten thousand years—millennia that are marked by dharma as Rāma’s subjects experience extreme health, wealth, longevity, fertility, peace, and harmony. [25]
Yet, the subjects of Yudhiṣṭhira, like their woebegone monarch, are not so lucky. Even though the Mahābhārata has this hero win the cataclysmic war that has ripped apart his family, whose members fought on opposite sides, he actually is worse off for his victory. Before he and his four brothers war with their hundred cousins, his city, Indraprastha, recalls Ayodhyā in its growth. Indeed, at this moment, Indraprastha lives up to its reputation as the quintessentially righteous realm ruled by “King Dharma,” this nickname for Yudhiṣṭhira reflecting his superior position as the human son of the deity Dharma. Righteousness itself, however, has declined by the time Yudhiṣṭhira assumes rulership of the whole world in the aftermath of fighting that nearly has emptied the earth of its inhabitants, whose numbers have fallen from 1,660,020,000 before the war to 24,165 afterward. [26] Thus, Yudhiṣṭhira copes not only with the loss of his own relatives and friends, but also with the collapse of society itself, the locus of dharma. Even as the story of Yudhiṣṭhira’s struggles enters Indian literary annals as mythic history, by the end of the Mahābhārata he has relatively little to show for his efforts. The dharma that accrues to him over his thirty-six-year reign is much more measured than is Rāma’s in the Rāmāyaṇa. [27]
The persistence of the Iliad and Odyssey and the Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata till today would seem to stem from each epic pair’s simultaneous cultural specificity and cross-cultural applicability. At the same time that these partnered poems arising in ages generally absent of centralized political authorities teach their audiences what being Greek or being Indian means and thus help to create overarching national cultures, all four works convey through their heroes’ stories the distinction between being divine and being human. Because we all understand how mastery of skills at certain times can yield to coping with difficulties at other times, we see the appeal of models who operate at the extremes of this capability spectrum even as we find ourselves all the more often at its middle. But, even if we do not find ourselves to be identical either to sheer masters or to beleaguered copers, we are richer for our vicarious experiences of all these exemplars’ epic worlds, which are grounded firmly in the human while gazing upward to the divine.


[ back ] 1. Homer, Iliad, ed. David B. Monro and Thomas W. Allen, 3rd ed., vol. 1 of Homeri Opera (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1920), 1.1–7; Homer, Odyssey, ed. Thomas W. Allen, 2nd ed., vol. 3 of Homeri Opera (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1917), 1.1–10.
[ back ] 2. Iliad 9.519–526.
[ back ] 3. Odyssey 8.72–78.
[ back ] 4. Gregory Nagy, The Best of the Achaeans: Concepts of the Hero in Archaic Greek Poetry, rev. ed. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), 59, 45–46, 47, 48–49. For discussion of the different ways in which Nagy and I distinguish Iliadic kléos and Odyssean kléos, see Shubha Pathak, Divine Yet Human Epics: Reflections of Poetic Rulers from Ancient Greece and India (Center for Hellenic Studies, Trustees for Harvard University, 2014), 91–93.
[ back ] 5. Pathak, Divine Yet Human Epics, 1.
[ back ] 6. I have enumerated the Rāmāyaṇa’s and Mahābhārata’s self-categorizations in Pathak, Divine Yet Human Epics, 36–42.
[ back ] 7. The Bālakāṇḍa, ed. G. H. Bhatt, vol. 1 of The Vālmīki-Rāmāyaṇa, ed. G. H. Bhatt (Baroda: Oriental Institute, 1958), 1.1.1–76; 1.2.3, 9–17, 22, 26–41.
[ back ] 8. Rāmāyaṇa 1.5.1–7.100.25.
[ back ] 9. The Ādiparvan, ed. Vishnu S. Sukthankar, vol. 1 of The Mahābhārata, ed. Vishnu S. Sukthankar, S. K. Belvalkar, and P. L. Vaidya (Poona: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1933), 1.54.17–24.
[ back ] 10. Mahābhārata 13.18.31, 12.334.9.
[ back ] 11. Albert Bandura, Principles of Behavior Modification (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969), 171; and Donald H. Meichenbaum, “Examination of Model Characteristics in Reducing Avoidance Behavior,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 17, no. 3 (1971): 298.
[ back ] 12. Meichenbaum, “Model Characteristics,” 298.
[ back ] 13. Iliad 1.414–418, 18.95–96, 24.131–132.
[ back ] 14. Iliad 18.114–116; Iliad 16.
[ back ] 15. Iliad 18.114–125; 9.410–416; 22.248–253, 321–329, 358–363; 24.785–804.
[ back ] 16. Odyssey 2.146–176.
[ back ] 17. Odyssey 12.353–419; 5.291–296, 313–332, 366–370; 11.102–103.
[ back ] 18. Odyssey 5.370–463, 13.70–124, 23.355–358, 4.318–321, 14.89–108, 17.534–538, 23.303–305, 24.458–460.
[ back ] 19. Odyssey 14.191–389; 16.56–149; 19.164–202, 220–248, 268–316.
[ back ] 20. Odyssey 23.55–57, 295–299; 24.504–515; 19.106–114; 24.477–486.
[ back ] 21. Rāmāyaṇa 2.3.3–4, 2.16.20–28, 3.47.15–16.
[ back ] 22. Rāmāyaṇa 1.17.6; 1.15.3–28; 7.229* 1; 7.12.14; 7.2.26–27, 3–4; 7.10.10–20ab.
[ back ] 23. Rāmāyaṇa 6.28.23, 6.97.3–21, 6.103–106.
[ back ] 24. Rāmāyaṇa 7.41.22; 7.44.15–17; 7.42.16–20; 7.56.16–17; 7.57.1–2; 7.58.1; 7.63.1, 5–7; 7.82.1–3; 7.83.6; 7.84.1–3; 7.48.
[ back ] 25. Rāmāyaṇa 1.4.6, 1; 7.85.19; 7.86.2; 7.88; 6.105.25; 7.89.1–10.
[ back ] 26. Mahābhārata 2.30.1–3, 11.26.9–10.
[ back ] 27. Mahābhārata 18.5.31, 16.1.1.