The Significance of Travel in Epic traditions of the world - Part 1

This article is part 1 of 2 in the series The Significance of Travel in Epic traditions of the world

A paper titled “A Study of the Significance of Travel in Classical Sanskrit Epics with Parallels in Greco-Roman Epics” was presented by Arjun Bharadwaj at the international seminar on “Sanskrit and Cultural Studies: New Perspectives” organized by the Sree Shankaracharya University of Sanskrit, Kalady on 5th June 2017. The current article contains excerpts from the paper.


From pre-historic times, travel to various places has been an activity that has caused immense curiosity, wonder, joy, fear and anxiety to man.  In today’s world, technology has reduced the time and effort involved in traveling and has virtually brought places closer, thereby reducing the associated risks. However, in the times of the epic poets Vālmīki and Vyāsa in India and Homer and Virgil in the West, travel posed unexpected challenges, brought unpredictable outcomes, caused intense emotional upheavals and threw challenges to a person’s very life. When a person is within the comforts of his home and hometown, he tends to take several things for granted, and can afford to remain aloof. The real nature of man and his philosophical outlook towards life can be seen only when he faces adversities, and travel is one such adversity. His very identity is at stake when he is in an alien land. These aspects, which have subconsciously affected the ancient mind, have been used consciously by the epic poets. Travel can also give rise to conflicts of ideas or of moral values, triggering varied emotions. These very emotions serve as the raw material for a poet. A close examination of human values constitutes a primary aspect of all epic traditions.

Travel in early epic poetry

‘Ayana’ in Sanskrit (as in ‘Rāmāyaṇa’) literally means ‘journey’; in modern English, ‘odyssey’ is a synonym for travel. The very names of some of the epics hint at the importance of travel with respect to their protagonists. Rāmāyaṇa is the physical, emotional and spiritual travel of Rāma and the name Mahābhārata hints at the great geographical expanse of the Indian sub-continent. Odyssey and Aeneid are poetic portrays of the travels and travails of Odysseus and Aeneas respectively. The Indian epics Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata have large portions that recount the travels of its primary characters, mainly in forests and to unknown lands. Homer’s Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid, too, have large sections describing the travel of its heroes, but the travel is primarily on the seas.

Rāma is exiled for fourteen years, which he accepts with fortitude and calm, and enjoys his stay in the forest without complaints. He is so much at peace there that he even spends time enjoying the beauty of nature and the changing seasons. Though the Pāṇḍavas and Draupadī, from time to time, repent having gambled in the past and lament their state, they are consoled by the sages who visit them often, which helps them accept their exile gracefully. They make the best use of their time in the forest to hone their skills. By performing arduous penance, Arjuna acquires powerful arrows that help him vanquish the enemies later in the Kurukṣetra war [1] . He also goes to the svarga-loka (‘heavens’) [2] and acquires skills that later help him during their ajñāta-vāsa (living under cover). The Pāṇḍavas even make friends in the forest, and this helps them in their future conquests. The travels and travails of the heroes add a spiritual dimension to their character as they encounter several sages and learned men during their exile. Travel to different places, stories of the legends associated with the places and encounters with great men boost their morale and give the heroes a positive hope for life. This positive outlook and the philosophical attitude of identifying oneself with the whole have shaped both Indian life and its art.

Image Courtesy:- Google image search

In contrast to this, fear and anxiety are constant features in the characters of Odyssey and Aeneid during their travel. They are in constant conflict with nature and try to overpower it, instead of submitting themselves gracefully to it. Thus, their minds are not at peace and this prevents them from enjoying the beauty of nature around them.  Moreover, as large parts of the travel are only on the waters, there is no scope for descriptions of natural beauty.  The monotony of sea-travel is broken now and then by their visits to foreign lands and their encounters with strange people. In the Indian epics, however, travel is accompanied by rich descriptions of natural beauty.

Yet another aspect in which the Indian epics differ from those of the west is that, in the former, entire families travel in the forest -  Rāma, with his brother and wife and the Pāṇḍavas with their wife (and also accompanied by an entourage of brāhmaṇa, saints and others) whereas in the latter, it is mainly the warriors who traverse the seas. Family values, love and affection for each other get strengthened in the Indian epic characters during the long periods when they are away from the kingdom. The members of the family observe strict austerity and observe the rules of vānaprastha (forest life). In the Greco-Roman epics, comradeship and trust strengthens between the warriors at sea, as they face similar adversities. They do not follow austerities and even ransack the kingdoms that they encounter on the way, as is natural to a warrior.  Whereas the whole family returns home safe after the exile in Indian epics, it is only the hero who reaches his destination in the Greco-Roman ones after having lost his comrades.

There is also a marked difference of purpose between the travels of Rāma and the Pāṇḍavas on the one hand and those of the characters in Greco-Roman epics on the other. In the former, it is a conscious decision in fulfillment of an oath, and exile becomes an intended activity. In the latter, however, travel on the seas is a mere means for achieving another end, such as bringing back a woman or for conquering an unknown land. Thus, in the Indian epics, travel is an end in itself but in the Greco-Roman epics, it is a means to a specific end.

At several instances in the Indian epics, nature is personified and it welcomes heroes and takes care of them. Trees, rivers, lakes and the deities associated with them help the heroes during their travel. Later poets such as Bhavabhūti employed the technique of personifying nature in their plays such as the Uttararāmacaritaṃ with great skill.  In the

Image Courtesy:- Google image search

epics of the West, however, it is as if nature and its deities are in a constant fight with the heroes. In spite of these significant differences between the Indian and the Greco-Roman approaches to life and literature, both have stood the test of time and have laid the foundations for oriental and occidental traditions of art.

In India and in the ancient world of Greece and Rome, different places, lakes, rivers and mountains were believed to fulfill different kinds of material and spiritual needs of men. Indian tradition has the concept of ‘tīrtha-yātrā’, which is a sequential journey to specific places, which is absent in the West. The Pāṇḍavas perform a tīrtha-yātrā during their days in the forest [3]. Balarāma, the brother of Kṛṣṇa, performs one such tīrtha-yātrā while the Kurukshetra war is going on.  Although there were many important places in Greece such as Delphi and Dodona that could give mystical rewards, a circuit that would constitute a tīrtha-yātrā was not laid out.

Both the Indian and western epic poets have their heroes removed away from their homes for long durations. This technique gives the poets a chance to portray the developments back home, during their absence. For instance, when the Pāṇḍavas are away in the forest, we get to see the machinations of the Kauravas back home, and their way of administering the kingdom. To cite another example, in the Odyssey, when the hero and king Odysseus is away, we see the ordeals faced by his wife Penelope, the laments of his father Laertes and how a kingdom without its king falls apart and goes to the dogs (quite literally in the Odyssey). Perhaps, Penelope’s devotion and fidelity to her husband would never have come to light had her husband never left her. Thus, travel also separates loved ones from each other and helps the poet show the loyalty they have for each other. The separation of Sītā from Rāma in the Rāmāyaṇa and of Damayanti from Naḻa, which appears as a sub-plot in the Mahābhārata [4], are some examples here.

Many other secondary epic characters too travel. Hanumān travels to bring the Sañjīvini mountain [5]. Sugrīva and Vāli travel great distances too [6]. Telemachus, the son of Odysseus travels in search of his father and the portion of the epic associated with his travels is called Telemachy [7]. Odysseus, under disguise, narrates different versions of his travels to different people and they constitute a few hundred lines of the epic [8], making them a few versions of ‘fake-odyssey’ within the Odyssey.


[1] Kirātārjunīya-upaparva of Vanaparva, sarga: 38-41

[2] Indralokagamana-upaparva of Vanaparva, sarga: 42-51

[3] Tīrtha-yātrā-upaparva of Vanaparva, sarga: 80-157

[4] Naḻopākhyāṇa-upaparva of Vanaparva, sarga: 52-79

[5] Yuddha-kāṇḍa – sarga 74

[6] Kiṣkindhā-kāṇḍa – sarga 9 - 11

[7] Odyssey – Books 1 – 4

[8] Odyssey – Book 14, Book 23

[9] Odyssey – Book 11


  1. Srimad-Valmiki-Ramayanam (Sanskrit, Kannada), original text and Kannada translation by N Ranganatha Sharma, Ramayana Prakashana Samiti (1972)
  2. Critical Edition of the Mahabharata (Sanskrit), The Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute (1987)
  3. 'Homer-Odyssey’ (Greek, English), Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University press, English translation by A.T. Murray and Revised by George E. Dimock (1919)
  4. Virgil-Aeneid’ (Latin, English) Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University press, English translation by H.R. Fairclough and Revised by G.P. Goold (1916)
  5. Raghuvamsham of Kalidasa with Mallinatha’s commentary (Sanskrit), Rastriya-Samskrit Sansthan (2011)
  6. Studies on Ramayana, V Raghavan, Dr. V Rghavan Centre for Performing Arts (2009)
  7. On the meaning of the Mahabharata, V.S. Sukthankar, Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited (1998)
  8. Homer’, M. Bowra, Gerald Duckworth & Company Limited (1972)



The author would like to thank Shatavadhani Dr. R Ganesh for his help in choosing the topic and providing material to write the paper. Thanks to Prof. L.V. Shantakumari for her inputs.


To be continued...




Arjun is a writer, translator, engineer, and enjoys composing poems. He is well-versed in Sanskrit, Kannada, English, Greek, and German languages. His research interests lie in comparative aesthetics of classical Greek and Sanskrit literature. He has deep interest in the theatre arts and music. Arjun has (co-) translated the works of AR Krishna Shastri, DV Gundappa, Dr. SL Bhyrappa, Dr. SR Ramaswamy and Shatavadhani Dr. R Ganesh

Prekshaa Publications

Indian Perspective of Truth and Beauty in Homer’s Epics is a unique work on the comparative study of the Greek Epics Iliad and Odyssey with the Indian Epics – Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata. Homer, who laid the foundations for the classical tradition of the West, occupies a stature similar to that occupied by the seer-poets Vālmīki and Vyāsa, who are synonymous with the Indian culture. The author...

Karnataka’s celebrated polymath, D V Gundappa brings together in the sixth volume of reminiscences character sketches of prominent public figures, liberals, and social workers. These remarkable personages hailing from different corners of South India are from a period that spans from the late nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century. Written in Kannada in the 1970s, these memoirs go...

An Introduction to Hinduism based on Primary Sources

Authors: Śatāvadhānī Dr. R Ganesh, Hari Ravikumar

What is the philosophical basis for Sanātana-dharma, the ancient Indian way of life? What makes it the most inclusive and natural of all religio-philosophical systems in the world?

The Essential Sanātana-dharma serves as a handbook for anyone who wishes to grasp the...

Karnataka’s celebrated polymath, D V Gundappa brings together in the fifth volume, episodes from the lives of traditional savants responsible for upholding the Vedic culture. These memorable characters lived a life of opulence amidst poverty— theirs  was the wealth of the soul, far beyond money and gold. These vidvāns hailed from different corners of the erstwhile Mysore Kingdom and lived in...

Padma Bhushan Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam represents the quintessence of Sage Bharata’s art and Bhārata, the country that gave birth to the peerless seer of the Nāṭya-veda. Padma’s erudition in various streams of Indic knowledge, mastery over many classical arts, deep understanding of the nuances of Indian culture, creative genius, and sublime vision bolstered by the vedāntic and nationalistic...

Bhārata has been a land of plenty in many ways. We have had a timeless tradition of the twofold principle of Brāhma (spirit of wisdom) and Kṣāttra (spirit of valour) nourishing and protecting this sacred land. The Hindu civilisation, rooted in Sanātana-dharma, has constantly been enriched by brāhma and safeguarded by kṣāttra.
The renowned Sanskrit poet and scholar, Śatāvadhānī Dr. R...

ಛಂದೋವಿವೇಕವು ವರ್ಣವೃತ್ತ, ಮಾತ್ರಾಜಾತಿ ಮತ್ತು ಕರ್ಷಣಜಾತಿ ಎಂದು ವಿಭಕ್ತವಾದ ಎಲ್ಲ ಬಗೆಯ ಛಂದಸ್ಸುಗಳನ್ನೂ ವಿವೇಚಿಸುವ ಪ್ರಬಂಧಗಳ ಸಂಕಲನ. ಲೇಖಕರ ದೀರ್ಘಕಾಲಿಕ ಆಲೋಚನೆಯ ಸಾರವನ್ನು ಒಳಗೊಂಡ ಈ ಹೊತ್ತಗೆ ಪ್ರಧಾನವಾಗಿ ಛಂದಸ್ಸಿನ ಸೌಂದರ್ಯವನ್ನು ಲಕ್ಷಿಸುತ್ತದೆ. ತೌಲನಿಕ ವಿಶ್ಲೇಷಣೆ ಮತ್ತು ಅಂತಃಶಾಸ್ತ್ರೀಯ ಅಧ್ಯಯನಗಳ ತೆಕ್ಕೆಗೆ ಬರುವ ಬರೆಹಗಳೂ ಇಲ್ಲಿವೆ. ಶಾಸ್ತ್ರಕಾರನಿಗಲ್ಲದೆ ಸಿದ್ಧಹಸ್ತನಾದ ಕವಿಗೆ ಮಾತ್ರ ಸ್ಫುರಿಸಬಲ್ಲ ಎಷ್ಟೋ ಹೊಳಹುಗಳು ಕೃತಿಯ ಮೌಲಿಕತೆಯನ್ನು ಹೆಚ್ಚಿಸಿವೆ. ಈ...

Karnataka’s celebrated polymath, D V Gundappa brings together in the fourth volume, some character sketches of the Dewans of Mysore preceded by an account of the political framework of the State before Independence and followed by a review of the political conditions of the State after 1940. These remarkable leaders of Mysore lived in a period that spans from the mid-nineteenth century to the...

Bharatiya Kavya-mimamseya Hinnele is a monograph on Indian Aesthetics by Mahamahopadhyaya N. Ranganatha Sharma. The book discusses the history and significance of concepts pivotal to Indian literary theory. It is equally useful to the learned and the laity.

Sahitya-samhite is a collection of literary essays in Kannada. The book discusses aestheticians such as Ananda-vardhana and Rajashekhara; Sanskrit scholars such as Mena Ramakrishna Bhat, Sridhar Bhaskar Varnekar and K S Arjunwadkar; and Kannada litterateurs such as DVG, S L Bhyrappa and S R Ramaswamy. It has a foreword by Shatavadhani Dr. R Ganesh.

The Mahābhārata is the greatest epic in the world both in magnitude and profundity. A veritable cultural compendium of Bhārata-varṣa, it is a product of the creative genius of Maharṣi Kṛṣṇa-dvaipāyana Vyāsa. The epic captures the experiential wisdom of our civilization and all subsequent literary, artistic, and philosophical creations are indebted to it. To read the Mahābhārata is to...

Shiva Rama Krishna

சிவன். ராமன். கிருஷ்ணன்.
இந்திய பாரம்பரியத்தின் முப்பெரும் கதாநாயகர்கள்.
உயர் இந்தியாவில் தலைமுறைகள் பல கடந்தும் கடவுளர்களாக போற்றப்பட்டு வழிகாட்டிகளாக விளங்குபவர்கள்.
மனித ஒற்றுமை நூற்றாண்டுகால பரிணாம வளர்ச்சியின் பரிமாணம்.
தனிநபர்களாகவும், குடும்ப உறுப்பினர்களாகவும், சமுதாய பிரஜைகளாகவும் நாம் அனைவரும் பரிமளிக்கிறோம்.
சிவன் தனிமனித அடையாளமாக அமைகிறான்....

ऋतुभिः सह कवयः सदैव सम्बद्धाः। विशिष्य संस्कृतकवयः। यथा हि ऋतवः प्रतिसंवत्सरं प्रतिनवतामावहन्ति मानवेषु तथैव ऋतुवर्णनान्यपि काव्यरसिकेषु कामपि विच्छित्तिमातन्वते। ऋतुकल्याणं हि सत्यमिदमेव हृदि कृत्वा प्रवृत्तम्। नगरजीवनस्य यान्त्रिकतां मान्त्रिकतां च ध्वनदिदं चम्पूकाव्यं गद्यपद्यमिश्रितमिति सुव्यक्तमेव। ऐदम्पूर्वतया प्रायः पुरीपरिसरप्रसृतानाम् ऋतूनां विलासोऽत्र प्रपञ्चितः। बेङ्गलूरुनामके...

The Art and Science of Avadhānam in Sanskrit is a definitive work on Sāhityāvadhānam, a form of Indian classical art based on multitasking, lateral thinking, and extempore versification. Dotted throughout with tasteful examples, it expounds in great detail on the theory and practice of this unique performing art. It is as much a handbook of performance as it is an anthology of well-turned...

This anthology is a revised edition of the author's 1978 classic. This series of essays, containing his original research in various fields, throws light on the socio-cultural landscape of Tamil Nadu spanning several centuries. These compelling episodes will appeal to scholars and laymen alike.
“When superstitious mediaevalists mislead the country about its judicial past, we have to...

The cultural history of a nation, unlike the customary mainstream history, has a larger time-frame and encompasses the timeless ethos of a society undergirding the course of events and vicissitudes. A major key to the understanding of a society’s unique character is an appreciation of the far-reaching contributions by outstanding personalities of certain periods – especially in the realms of...

Prekṣaṇīyam is an anthology of essays on Indian classical dance and theatre authored by multifaceted scholar and creative genius, Śatāvadhānī Dr. R Ganesh. As a master of śāstra, a performing artiste (of the ancient art of Avadhānam), and a cultured rasika, he brings a unique, holistic perspective to every discussion. These essays deal with the philosophy, history, aesthetics, and practice of...


इदं किञ्चिद्यामलं काव्यं द्वयोः खण्डकाव्ययोः सङ्कलनरूपम्। रामानुरागानलं हि सीतापरित्यागाल्लक्ष्मणवियोगाच्च श्रीरामेणानुभूतं हृदयसङ्क्षोभं वर्णयति । वात्सल्यगोपालकं तु कदाचिद्भानूपरागसमये घटितं यशोदाश्रीकृष्णयोर्मेलनं वर्णयति । इदम्प्रथमतया संस्कृतसाहित्ये सम्पूर्णं काव्यं...


इदं खण्डकाव्यमान्तं मालिनीछन्दसोपनिबद्धं विलसति। मेनकाविश्वामित्रयोः समागमः, तत्फलतया शकुन्तलाया जननम्, मातापितृभ्यां त्यक्तस्य शिशोः कण्वमहर्षिणा परिपालनं चेति काव्यस्यास्येतिवृत्तसङ्क्षेपः।


इदं खण्डकाव्यमान्तं मालिनीछन्दसोपनिबद्धं विलसति। मेनकाविश्वामित्रयोः समागमः, तत्फलतया शकुन्तलाया जननम्, मातापितृभ्यां त्यक्तस्य शिशोः कण्वमहर्षिणा परिपालनं चेति काव्यस्यास्येतिवृत्तसङ्क्षेपः।


इयं रचना दशसु रूपकेष्वन्यतमस्य भाणस्य निदर्शनतामुपैति। एकाङ्करूपकेऽस्मिन् शेखरकनामा चित्रोद्यमलेखकः केनापि हेतुना वियोगम् अनुभवतोश्चित्रलेखामिलिन्दकयोः समागमं सिसाधयिषुः कथामाकाशभाषणरूपेण निर्वहति।


अस्मिन् स्तोत्रकाव्ये भगवन्तं शिवं कविरभिष्टौति। वसन्ततिलकयोपनिबद्धस्य काव्यस्यास्य कविकृतम् उल्लाघनाभिधं व्याख्यानं च वर्तते।

Karnataka’s celebrated polymath, D V Gundappa brings together in the third volume, some character sketches of great literary savants responsible for Kannada renaissance during the first half of the twentieth century. These remarkable...

Karnataka’s celebrated polymath, D V Gundappa brings together in the second volume, episodes from the lives of remarkable exponents of classical music and dance, traditional storytellers, thespians, and connoisseurs; as well as his...

Karnataka’s celebrated polymath, D V Gundappa brings together in the first volume, episodes from the lives of great writers, poets, literary aficionados, exemplars of public life, literary scholars, noble-hearted common folk, advocates...

Evolution of Mahabharata and Other Writings on the Epic is the English translation of S R Ramaswamy's 1972 Kannada classic 'Mahabharatada Belavanige' along with seven of his essays on the great epic. It tells the riveting...

Shiva-Rama-Krishna is an English adaptation of Śatāvadhāni Dr. R Ganesh's popular lecture series on the three great...


ಮಹಾಮಾಹೇಶ್ವರ ಅಭಿನವಗುಪ್ತ ಜಗತ್ತಿನ ವಿದ್ಯಾವಲಯದಲ್ಲಿ ಮರೆಯಲಾಗದ ಹೆಸರು. ಮುಖ್ಯವಾಗಿ ಶೈವದರ್ಶನ ಮತ್ತು ಸೌಂದರ್ಯಮೀಮಾಂಸೆಗಳ ಪರಮಾಚಾರ್ಯನಾಗಿ  ಸಾವಿರ ವರ್ಷಗಳಿಂದ ಇವನು ಜ್ಞಾನಪ್ರಪಂಚವನ್ನು ಪ್ರಭಾವಿಸುತ್ತಲೇ ಇದ್ದಾನೆ. ಭರತಮುನಿಯ ನಾಟ್ಯಶಾಸ್ತ್ರವನ್ನು ಅರ್ಥಮಾಡಿಕೊಳ್ಳಲು ಇವನೊಬ್ಬನೇ ನಮಗಿರುವ ಆಲಂಬನ. ಇದೇ ರೀತಿ ರಸಧ್ವನಿಸಿದ್ಧಾಂತವನ್ನು...


“वागर्थविस्मयास्वादः” प्रमुखतया साहित्यशास्त्रतत्त्वानि विमृशति । अत्र सौन्दर्यर्यशास्त्रीयमूलतत्त्वानि यथा रस-ध्वनि-वक्रता-औचित्यादीनि सुनिपुणं परामृष्टानि प्रतिनवे चिकित्सकप्रज्ञाप्रकाशे। तदन्तर एव संस्कृतवाङ्मयस्य सामर्थ्यसमाविष्कारोऽपि विहितः। क्वचिदिव च्छन्दोमीमांसा च...

The Best of Hiriyanna

The Best of Hiriyanna is a collection of forty-eight essays by Prof. M. Hiriyanna that sheds new light on Sanskrit Literature, Indian...

Stories Behind Verses

Stories Behind Verses is a remarkable collection of over a hundred anecdotes, each of which captures a story behind the composition of a Sanskrit verse. Collected over several years from...