The earliest references to Puranas and Itihasas can be found 2,800 years ago in the Shatapatha Brahmana – however, we do not know the stories that were told at the time. They may have included the story of Ram and Krishna, but we cannot be sure. A little over 2,000 years ago, after centuries of oral transmission, these stories were refined and reframed as the Sanskrit epics Ramayana and Mahabharata.

It is these refined and reframed retellings that we today consider as the “original”. It is here that the idea of dharma is elaborated for the first time in Hindu history, making them the containers of dharma for the world at large.

The word “dharma” does not seem to be a dominant idea in Vedic times. It appears less than a hundred times in the 1,000 hymns of the Rig Veda that are over 3,000 years old.

At the time, dharma referred to social order, as well as the royal obligation to create social order. In the Shatapatha Brahmana, composed sometime later, the meaning of dharma was extended to include overcoming animal instincts, reversing the law of the jungle, and creating a culture where the strong take care of the weak.

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In the Upanishads, dharma is barely referred to. The focus is on the atma – the wise resident of the body that witnesses the human struggle with its animal self. The word “dharma” gained prominence 2,300 years ago, after Emperor Ashoka used the term in his edicts. Dharma was translated into Greek as eusebia, which means veneration of gods, kings and parents, and in Aramaic as qsyt, which means truth. In other words, for the Mauryan ruler of India, dharma was both social behaviour and spiritual belief.

In the five hundred years that followed, a group of texts collectively known as the Dharma-shastras came where dharma was equated with social obligations that were based on vocation (varna dharma), stage of life (ashrama dharma), personality (sva dharma), kingship (raj dharma), womanhood (stri dharma) and monkhood (moksha dharma).

During the very same period, from the third century BCE to third century CE, the Ramayana and Mahabharata, began to receive a lot of Brahmin attention and reached their final form – the forms we are familiar with today. The stories helped people appreciate the complexities of dharma, its contextual nature (yuga dharma), subtlety (sukshma dharma), and dilemmas (dharma-sankat).

Why did dharma become such an important word after the Mauryan era, as compared to the Vedic era? Why was it important for the Brahmins to communicate this idea to the masses? Could it have something to do with Buddhism? Or maybe kingship?

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Creation of the epics

In the Vedas, celestial beings are continuously evoked for their support in living the good life. We are told that the ritual of yagna, if conducted well, results in the reward of swarga, or paradise, in the afterlife. This affirmation of worldly life and all things material waned 2,500 years ago, when the Buddha described the world as a place of suffering. He preached the cessation of desire, renouncing social life, and living as a hermit in pursuit of the oblivion of one’s identity – nibbana (Pali for nirvana). He called this world view “dhamma”, which is the Pali version of the Sanskrit “dharma”. This was radically different from the Vedic world view that connected dharma with royal obligations and social order.

Buddhist monks (Bhikkus) communicated the Buddha’s ideas as Dhamma-pada – the path of dhamma. Brahmins countered this Buddhist tide by compiling and composing the Dharma-shastra, in which greater value was given to marriage, household, social obligations, and worldly life. These were two powerful and parallel discourses that evolved simultaneously and would play a key role in shaping Indian thought hereafter.

However, neither Dhamma-pada nor the Dharma-shastras appealed to the masses. The common folk preferred stories. And so, the Bhikkus composed the Jatakas, a body of literature based on popular folk tales, to teach the masses how dhamma could be practised in daily life. These tales spoke of how the Buddha practised Buddhist ideals even in his previous lives, which earned him merit and enabled him to attain nibbana in his final life. The popularity of the Jataka tales (jataka = birth conditions, astrological chart) forced the Brahmins to shift their attention from rituals and law-books to stories.

This shift had a profound effect on Hinduism – narratives such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata took centre stage, giving rise to the story-based Puranic Hinduism, which was very different from the older, ritual-based Vedic Hinduism. This shift took place between the Mauryan and the Gupta empires, when north India was dominated by Indo-Greek (Yavana) kings, as well as the Kushanas, who came in from Central Asia.

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This is also the period when both Buddhists and Brahmins began concerning themselves with the ideal of kingship. For Buddhists, the king was the protector of Buddhist dhamma. For them, the monastic order founded by the Buddha was greater than kingship. For Brahmins, however, the king was the fountainhead of dharma; he instituted and upheld dharma. To guide him were the epics that told the story of royal families, and the conflicts they faced.

Around 1,500 years ago, when the Gupta dynasty dominated the Gangetic plains, Ram and Krishna were identified as avatars – mortal and finite forms of the immortal and infinite Vishnu on earth. With this, two separate epics – Ramayana and Mahabharata – became two chapters of a larger story, the Vishnu Purana. The earthly events in the epics were part of a divine drama and had cosmic implications. Ram and Krishna became two forms of the same divine being, who functions differently in different contexts, one in a more innocent Treta yuga, while the other in a more corrupt Dvapara yuga, one as king and the other as kingmaker.

This structure illustrated a fundamental principle of the Dharma-shastras: rules could change with space (desha), time (kala) and people (patra) as long as there was no violation of dharma. Dharma was thus not a set of laws; it was a way of being. It was anchored in the human ability to reverse the law of the jungle.

Right from the Shatapatha Brahmana, dharma is linked to the moral uprightness of the strong to help the weak. Adharma, on the other hand, is associated with the human submission to the animal instinct of letting the strong feed on the weak. This can only happen when we become aware of aham or the ego, born out of human insecurities. The Upanishads draw our attention to atma, which is free of insecurities. In Puranic literature, Ram and Krishna are visualised as embodiments of atma. Like the Buddha, Ram and Krishna are at peace as they have outgrown desires.

However, unlike the Buddha, this has not meant renunciation. Both Ram and Krishna engage with the world, as per the demands of their social contexts. They are concerned about the suffering and ignorance of those entrapped by aham around them, those who have yet to discover atma.

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In other words, the two epics brought together the worldliness of the Rig Veda, the mystical wisdom of the Upanishads, and the directives of the Dharma-shastras. Ram in Valmiki’s Ramayana is the embodiment of dharma. Krishna in Vyasa’s Mahabharata enables the Pandavas to resolve ethical and moral issues known as dharma-sankat. As their stories were recounted through the ages, the word “dharma” was repeated a thousand times. It is these epics that fired the imagination of the masses, helped them understand dharma, and made “dharma” a common word in Hindu terminology.

Excerpted with permission from Ramayana Versus Mahabharata: My Playful Comparison, Devdutt Pattanaik, Rupa Publications.