People (including many of my friends :)) throw a strange look at me when I tell them that two of the books that I like very much are Mahabharata and Ramayana (by C.Rajagopalachari). And, the reason for that strange look? These are Hindu epics that dates back to thousands of years and is not fiction or sci-fi or so. Why they think so? The reason is very interesting. A modern guy (or to be apt, a guy in a modern world and time like now) should dance, party and have a lot of fun and even if he likes reading books that should be the ones by Sidney Shelton and folks like him.
For those who think Mahabharata and Ramayana are just stories about the manifestations of Lord Vishnu as Krishna and Rama - "You are just wrong!". It's more than that. The two epics have not left any aspect of life uncovered - they are about love, fortitude, faithfulness, courage and courage in adversity, friendship, honesty, chivalry, loyalty, divinity. They have many more values embedded in them.
We all think we know the stories of Mahabharata and Ramayana. True! Here is what we know:
Pandavas are five brothers ruling Indraprastha and Kauravas, one hundred in number ruling Hastinapura. Yudhistira played dice game with Shakuni and lost everything including his wife Draupathi, his brothers and himself to Kauravas and the Pandavas were sent to forest for 13 years. At the end, Krishna comes to help them. Pandavas and Kauravas fight at Kurukshetra for eighteen days before the latter perish.
The four brothers Rama, Lakshmana, Bharata and Shatrughna living in harmony with great affection to each other and to their parents when Dasharatha decides to make Rama as king of Ayodhya. Mantra, the wicked maid of Kaikeyi invokes rubbish hostile in her mind reminding of the two boons which Dasaratha promised. Kaikeyi asks Dasharatha the two boons - one to make Bharata as king and the another to send Rama to the forest for fourteen years. Rama keeps his father's promise and goes to forest along with Lakshmana and Sita. Dasharatha dies in grief. In the forest, Ravana kidnaps Sita and takes her to Lanka. Rama and Lakshmana with the help of Hanuman and the other vanaras reach Lanka and fight with Ravana killing him and rescuing Sita.
What do we know more about the great epics? Maybe a little more including the stories of Jatayu and Hanuman in Ramayana and the grief of Draupati in Mahabharata. I was also of the same view until I read Rajaji's Mahabharata and Ramayana. As far I know, there is no other book that can narrate the two great epics and the many short stories that are embedded in them in such a beautiful way, highlighting the aspects that I mentioned above.
How many of us really know the story of Trishankhu, the story of Ganga, Bhishma and Vidura and the meeting of Bhima and Hanuman in Mahabharata. Very few. Even I didn’t know many of these. But, after reading the books, I was amazed by the whole lot of the short stories embedded in these great epics and the values of life explained by them.
For example, the story of Ganapati scribing the Mahabharata on an agreement with Vyasa is awesome. Vyasa requesting Ganapati to be the scribe and Ganapati telling him that he can write Mahabharata if Vyasa dictates it without a pause. Vyasa agrees to Ganapati's condition however with a counter stipulation: Ganapati should understand the thing before he writes. Vyasa composes very complex stanzas and while Ganapati writes them down he thinks about the next stanza and hence the great epic was born. Interesting, isn't it?
Also, the story of Shukracharya and Kacha explains us why human beings should never intake wine. Bhima himself exemplifies courage and strength while Bhishma and Vidhura stands for righteousness.
In Ramayana too, Rajaji explains the love between Rama and Sita very beautifully. As I mentioned above, the story of Trishanku, where Vishwamitra takes the impossible challenge of sending the king Trishanku to Swarga in his original human body that makes Vashishta call the former a "Brahmarishi" (we usually tell - it's like getting Brahmarishi post from Vashista's mouth and also the so called 'Trishanku swarga story- it came from this only). The courage, strength and loyalty of Hanuman fills the latter half of Ramayana.
Each phase of Rama's life and each story in the book explains how one should lead a life - how a son should be brave and full of virtues - from the lives of Rama and Bharata - whom I like the most in Ramayana than Rama himself, how a wife should be (from Vaidhehi who is the very form of Lakshmi herself*) and should not be (from Kaikeyi) and how fate can play any role of disaster at any point of our life all due to karma (Kaikeyi is, indeed, a virtuous and loving wife of Dasaratha, but fate came in the form of Mantra and hence gifted us with the story of Ramayana!), Lakshmana - who is skilled at literally everything and is an affectionate brother. I could not explain each and every chapter of the book. But, I am sure you will be able to relish the same when you read the book.
* A note given by Rajaji is woth mentioning here. Though Valmiki got the divine view to see the whole story of Rama when he started writing it, he saw Rama and Sita only as a humans and not as Gods - though here and there he explains the godly qualities of Rama! Rajaji says: "Since Valmiki's hero is just a human with godly qualities, when Rama lost Janaki in the Panchavati forest, he laments like "What a sinner am I! Oh God! Why should it all happen to me?". I really appreciate Rajaji for giving an analogy from the life of Jesus." The author explains:
"...It is said in the Bible that Jesus, nailed to the cross and about to give up his ghost, cried with a loud voice, 'Eloi! Eloi! lama sabachthaani!' which is Hebrew for "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?. The mystery of incarnations is ever the same. They are weighed with the dust and tears of the body they have taken and suffer and grieve like mortals..."
When Thulasidaas and Kamban started with Ramayana, people already had accepted Rama as a God and they could not have imagined Rama otherwise. Hence in Kamban and Thulasidaas' version of the holy epic, we see Rama being portrayed as Vishnu himself, while Valmiki portrays Rama as a human with virtues and godly qualities.
Enjoy these great epics! You will surely do justification to the time you spend.
These books costs very less and can be obtained by sending a DD for Rs.200 (including postal charges) to Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Mumbai.