The word itihAsa splits as iti-ha-Asa and means thus-verily-happened. Therefore itihAsa means history as it truly happened. It consists of the two great epics: The Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The Ramayana of Valmiki (pronounced vAlmIki) has 24000 Slokas and the Mahabharata of Vyasa (pronounced vyAsa) has 100,000. A Sloka in Sanskrit generally means a verse with certain stipulated rhythm in terms of short and long syllables, with 32 syllables in all. Valmiki is known as the earliest poet (Adi-kavi) since he was the first author in Sanskrit who produced Slokas, which was the style adopted by Vyasa later and all writers after Vyasa. Before Valmiki's time there were only the mantras of the vedas, which were terse and difficult to understand. While the vedas are cryptic, and sometimes very prosaic, sophisticated and abstract, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata form a popular veda and provide the simplest and most graphic introduction to Hindu thought, culture and philosophy. Through their chronicles of great epic events they have captivated succeeding generations by their insight into human behaviour and their unexcelled simple style of narration, enriched by a symbiosis of profundity of thought and naivety of context. Indeed in all of history, Valmiki and Vyasa are the two authors who have influenced the largest number of people for the longest period of time.
In the same style of thinking, Rama and Krishna, who are the divines embedded in the two epics respectively, are the Divinities, among all such that ever walked on earth, who have captured the hearts of the largest number of people for the longest period of time.
Public and private recitations of these two epics are common and incessant and this testifies to the religious significance of the two works, which are not just epics in the western sense of the word, but which are scriptures, the very reading of which earns spiritual merit here and hereafter.Many national festivals are based on the stories of these two epics and innumerable Hindus are named after the characters therein. Every Hindu knows the story of the Ramayana and of the Mahabharata, purely by osmosis of the culture, if not by one's own reading. However, for the benefit of those who have not been exposed to the culture, here is an apology for a summary of the two works:
Rama, along with his three brothers, Laksmana, Bharata and Satrughna, were born to Dasaratha, the King of Ayodhya after an elaborate ritual. Their birth itself was a strategic step in a divine cosmic effort to vanquish the demon king Ravana of Lanka who had used his supernatural powers to keep the divines under his thumb. Rama grows up as an ideal man, a role model, and was about to be coronated as the beloved prince of Ayodhya - when Fate plays a diabolical trick. The second Queen Kaikeyi, extracts a promise from the King that Rama will be sent to live in the forest for fourteen years and that her son, Bharata, will be crowned as the Prince Royal. Rama accepts the verdict most willingly because for him the words of the father and mother (though step-mother) are gospel. Sita, Rama's consort, and Lakshmana insist on accompanying him to the forest. In the forest Ravana conspires to kidnap Sita and imprison her in Lanka where he seeks her hand which she refuses in no uncertain terms. Rama and Lakshmana get the help of the monkey kingdom, led by their king Sugriva and their mighty warrior-minister Hanuman, to locate Sita in Lanka, then march to Lanka, wage a long war with Ravana and his clan, kill them all and redeem Sita. The fourteen years of exile are over and Rama returns to Ayodhya, where his devoted brother, not accepting the crown connivingly earned for him by his mother, had kept the kingdom safe for his hero Rama. Rama becomes the King much to the pleasure of humans and celestials alike. Throughout the Ramayana, we see powerful arguments, valid for all time, about what is right and what is wrong. Nowhere else would one find an example of an obviously literary work like the Ramayana, composed for personal aesthetic satisfaction, permeating the life and culture of a whole nation, in the course of a few centuries -- to such an extent that it becomes a religious authority as important as the unwritten vedas themselves. It is said that when the Almighty Himself, who can be known only by the vedas, incarnated as Rama, the son of Dasaratha, the Vedas, on their part, incarnated in the very form of the Ramayana:
veda vedye pare pumsi jAte daSarathAtmaje/
vdaH prAcetasAd-AsIt sAkshAd-rAmAyaNAtmanA //
Just for a tiny, tiny sample I have picked nine shlokas from the Valmiki Ramayana fwhich were actually picked as one shloka per talk on V.R. during a nine day series in Oct-Nov.2018. For these nine shlokas and their meanings, go to 188.8.131.52
The Mahabharata which is eight times longer than the longest piece of European literature, namely Homer's Iliad and Odyssey put together, is mainly the story of the Pandava princes, but there are hundreds of other major stories linked with the main narrative. The one hundred Kauravas, and the five Pandavas, are cousins, born of two brothers. The eldest of the Pandavas, Yudhishtira, is the eldest of them all. But Duryodhana, the eldest of the Kauravas, is obsessed with the passion of ascending to the throne after his blind father, Dhritarashtra, who is on the throne. The rivalry leads to several horrendous schemes on the sly by Duryodhana, led by his uncle Sakuni, that finally the Pandava and their beautiful Queen Draupadi have to undergo not only public humiliation but twelve years of exile in the forest and another year of living incognito. At the end of the thirteenth year, all negotiations fail, including the intervention of Lord Krishna Himself and the Great War ensues. Half of the Mahabharata is occupied with the 18 days of this Great War in which at least four million people die. Enriched by its many digressions and embellishments covering almost every field of human knowledge, the Mahabharata provides the simplest, most graphic, and most detailed introduction to Hindu thought, culture, vision, and practice of religion and philosophy. The innumerable debates on Dharma and Adharma provide the kaleidoscopic backdrop for the moral dilemmas valid for all time. You name any subject; there will be something significant in the Mahabharata about it. Politics and diplomacy, economics and finance, astrology, sports, wrestling, rules of conduct, prayers to God, birth and death, life before birth and after death, near-death-experience, philosophy, psychology, biography, chronology, geography, the origin of the world, cosmology, -- all find a place in it. And all this in easy to understand, simple Sanskrit. The famous Bhagavad-gita the most popular exposition of Hindu philosophy, religion and way of life expounded by Lord Krishna himself, is part of the Mahabharata. In fact so goes the saying: What Vyasa did not write about, does not exist! The ethical parts of the Mahabharata have so decisively influenced the later Hindu writing that it has been accepted as a Fifth veda!
As long as human beings remain what they are and are moved by passions and feelings, as long as the struggle between good and evil continues to rage in the human heart, as long as mankind is faced with the problems of war and peace, the Mahabharata will continue to remain a source of aesthetic enjoyment and moral and intellectual enjoyment. -- Jayaprakash Narayan, in his foreword to The Children's Mahabharata by Shanta Rameshwar Rao, Orient Longmans, 1968.