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Indian epic poetry (Sanskrit: Itihāsa, "legend"; from iti + ha + āsa, lit. "so indeed it was") is the epic poetry written in the Indian subcontinent. Originally composed in Sanskrit and translated thereafter into Kannada, Tamil, Telugu and Hindi, it includes some of the oldest epic poetry ever created and some works form the basis of Hindu scripture.


Sanskrit Epics

The ancient Sanskrit epics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata, also termed Itihāsa (History) or Mahākāvya ("Great Compositions"), refer to epic poems that form a canon of Hindu scripture. Indeed, the epic form prevailed and verse was and remained until very recently the preferred form of Hindu literary works. Hero-worship was and is a central aspect of Indian culture, and thus readily lent itself to a literary tradition that abounded in epic poetry and literature. The Puranas, a massive collection of verse-form histories of India's many Hindu gods and goddesses, followed in this tradition. Itihāsas and Purāṇas are mentioned already in Atharva Veda[1] and referred to as the fifth Veda.[2]

The language of these texts, termed "Epic Sanskrit", constitutes the earliest phase of Classical Sanskrit, following the latest stage of Vedic Sanskrit found in the Shrauta Sutras.

The famous poet and playwright Kālidāsa also wrote two epics: Raghuvamsha (Dynasty of Raghu) and Kumarasambhava (Birth of Kumar Kartikeya), though they were written in Classical Sanskrit rather than Epic Sanskrit. Other Classical Sanskrit epics are the “Slaying of Śiśupāla” Śiśupālavadha of Māgha, “Arjuna and the Mountain Man” Kirātārjunīya of Bhāravi, the “Adventures of the Prince of Nishadha” Naiṣadhacarita of Śrīharṣa and "Bhaṭṭi's Poem" Bhaṭṭikāvya of Bhaṭṭi.

Kannada epic poetry

Kannada epic poetry mainly consists of Jain religious literature. Asaga wrote Vardhaman Charitra (Life of Vardhman Mahavir), an epic which runs in 18 cantos, in 853 CE [3], the first Sanskrit language biography of 24th and last Thirthankara of Jainism, Mahavira, though his Kannada language version of Kalidasa's epic poem, Kumārasambhava, Karnataka Kumarasambhava Kavya is lost [4]. The most famous poet from this period is Adikavi Pampa (902-975 CE), one of the most famous writers in the Kannada language. His Vikramarjuna Vijaya (also called pampa bharatha) is hailed as a classic even to this day. With this and his other important work Adipurana he set a trend of poetic excellence for the Kannada poets of the future. The former work is an adaptation of the celebrated Mahabharata, and is the first such adaptation in Kannada. Noted for the strong human bent and the dignified style in his writing, Pampa has been one of the most influential writers in Kannada. He is identified as Adi kavi. (First poet). It is only in Kannada that we have a Ramayana and a Mahabharata based on the Jaina tradition in addition to those based on Brahmanical tradition.

Shivakotiacharya was the first writer in prose style. His work Vaddaradhane is dated to 900 CE. Sri Ponna (939-966 CE) is also an important writer from the same period, with Shanti Purana as his magnum opus. Another major writer of the period is Ranna (949-? CE). His most famous works are the Jain religious work Ajita Tirthankara Purana and the Gada Yuddha (The Mace fight), a birds' eye view of the Mahabharata, set in the last day of the Battle of Kurukshetra and relating the story of the Mahabharata through a series of flashbacks. Structurally, the poetry in this period is in the Champu style, essentially poetry interspersed with lyrical prose.

Tamil Epics

The post-sangam period (2nd century-6th century) saw many great Tamil epics being written, including Cilappatikaram (or Silappadhikaram), Manimegalai, Jeevaga-chintamani, Valayapati and Kundalakesi. Later, during the Chola period, Kamban (12th century) wrote what is considered one of the greatest Tamil epics — the Kamba ramayanam of Kamban, based on the Ramayana.

Hindi Epics

The first epic to appear in Hindi was Tulsidas' (1543-1623) Ramacharitamanasa, also based on the Ramayana. It is considered a great classic of Hindi epic poetry and literature, and shows the author Tulsidas in complete command over all the important styles of composition — narrative, epic, lyrical and dialectic. He has given a human character to Rama, the Hindu avatar of Vishnu, portraying him as an ideal son, husband, brother and king.

In modern Hindi literature, Kamayani by Jaishankar Prasad has attained the status of an epic. The narrative of Kamayani is based on a popular mythological story, first mentioned in Satapatha Brahmana. It is a story of the great flood and the central characters of the epic poem are Manu (a male) and Shraddha (a female). Manu is representative of the human psyche and Shradha represents love. Another female character is Ida, who represents rationality. Some critics surmise that the three lead characters of Kamayani symbolize a synthesis of knowledge, action and desires in human life.

Apart from Kamayani; Kurukshetra (1946), Rashmirathi (1952) and Urvashi (1961) by Ramdhari Singh 'Dinkar' have attained the status of epic poetry.


  1. ^ Atharva Veda 11.7.24, 15.6.4
  2. ^ Chāndogya Upaniṣad 7.1.2,4
  3. ^ Jain, Kailash Chand (1991). Lord Mahāvīra and his times, Lala S. L. Jain Research Series. Motilal Banarsidass. p. 25. ISBN 8120808053.  
  4. ^ Jain, Kailash Chand (1991). Lord Mahāvīra and his times, Lala S. L. Jain Research Series. Motilal Banarsidass. p. 59. ISBN 8120808053.  


  • Arthur Anthony Macdonell (1900). "The epics". A History of Sanskrit Literature. New York: D. Appleton and company.  
  • Oliver Fallon (2009). "Introduction". Bhatti’s Poem: The Death of Rávana (Bhaṭṭikāvya). New York: New York University Press, Clay Sanskrit Library.  

See also

Redirecting to Indian epic poetry

Simple English

In Sanskrit, Itihasa means history. For Hindus, an Itihasa is a religious story that tells about what happened in the past. Itihasas are usually epic poems. The three most important itihasas to Hindus are the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and the Bhagavad Gita.

The original meaning of Itiihaasa had a more precise connotation than the word History. The etymology attested to by Panini indicates itiha to mean ‘thus indeed , in this tradition’ . One of the earliest references to Itihaasa in the literature of antiquity is in Chanakyas’s Arthashastra. Our investigations lead us to believe that the Maurya empire for which he was the preceptor began in 1534 BCE. He defines Itihaasa, in the context of the syllabus prescribed for training of a Prince, with the following words;

पुराणमितिव्रुत्तमाख्यायिकोदाहरणं धर्मशास्त्रं चेतीतिहासः Puraana (the chronicles of the ancients), Itivrtta (history), Akhyayika (tales), Udaaharana (illustrative stories), Dharmashastra (the canon of Righteous conduct), and Arthashastra (the science of Government) are known by (comprise the corpus of Itihaasah, ) History Kautilya’s Arthashastra, Book 1, Chapter 5 Thus, History in this definition takes on the meaning more akin to the sense of Historiography and is perhaps even more eclectic and appears to indicate a superset of political science and History as we use them today. We feel vindicated therefore in calling our forthcoming conference a conference on Indian History ([1], since we seem to ascribe the same broad meaning that Kautilya did 3 millennia ago.

The quintessential quote is that of Kalhana in the Rajatarangini,12th century CE (1147 to 1149 CE) who is regarded as a modern in Indian parlance धर्मार्थ काममोक्षाणामुपदेश समान्वितं । पुरावृत्तं कथायुत्तरूपमितिहासं प्रचक्षते ।। “Dharmaartha-kaama-moskshanaam upadesa-samanvitam | Puraa-vrttam, kathaa-yuttarupam Ithihaasah prachakshate ||”

History will be the narration of events as they happened, in the form of a story, which will be an advice to the reader to be followed in life, to gain the purusaarthas namely Kama the satiation of desires through Artha the tool, by following the path of Dharma the human code of conduct to gain Moksha or liberation. Clearly there is an emphasis on the traditions and on the utilitarian aspect of History, embedded in the etymology of Itihaasa. The reason we draw emphasis to the ambiguity in the use of the word History is that, in our usage , while we adhere to the broader usage of the word History, it makes for clarity in usage if the Civilizational aspects are distinguished into distinct categories


  1. ICIH2009

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