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.
Travel in later epic poetry
Kālidāsa, in the thirteenth canto of his epic poem Raghuvaṃśam adds yet another dimension to travel by elaborating on Rāma’s return journey along with Sītā from Lanka to Ayodhya in the puṣpaka-vimāna (the flying chariot). This travel recapitulates, both literally and figuratively, a bird’s eye view of their journey in the forest and the associated events in reverse chronological order. Before writing the Raghuvaṃśam, Kālidāsa had used the theme of a cloud-messenger in his Meghadūtam, where he looks at the earth through the ‘eyes’ of a cloud, and describes the beauty of nature. He personifies nature and imbues it with emotions. Through his Meghadūtam, Kālidāsa showed that a poem can be interesting even without an intricate story-line. Probably, after having figured out that his attempt at describing the beauty of landscapes as seen from the skies was successful and received well by mature connoisseurs, he employed it in his magnum-opus, the epic poem Raghuvaṃśam. In Meghadūtam, a demi-god Yakṣa, who is stationed on earth, explains to a cloud the path it should take to reach the mythical place, Alakā-nagarī and it is through his words that the journey is described. In the Raghuvaṃśam, however, Rāma and Sītā themselves make the journey through the skies and enjoy the beauty of the landscape, seascape and the skyscape. In the fourth canto of Raghuvaṃśam, Kālidāsa also describes the dig-vijaya-yātrā of Raghu, after whose name the dynasty and the epic poem are named. Raghu travels to different corners of India and is victorious in his conquests. The poet describes the nature and culture of different lands that Raghu visits and that adds several colours to the poem. Whereas the travels of Raghu is dominated by the vīra-rasa (valor) as the governing sentiment, the flight of Rāma and Sītā is full of śṛṅgāra (love) and karuṇa (pathos) rasas.
In the Greco-Roman tradition too, later poets who derived inspiration from the works of Homer and Virgil seem to have devoted large sections of their poems to travel on seas. For instance, Appollonious Rhodus who lived in the first half of 3rd Century CE wrote the Argonautica that deals with the travels of Jason and the Argonauts in their quest for Golden Fleece. The poet describes the travels of the hero to the regions known during his times. A close comparative study of Odysseus's and Jason's travels can also help reveal the new lands the Greeks had discovered and the development in understanding of Geography in the time span of about a thousand years (it is thought that Homer wrote his poems around 8th Century BCE).
In Dante’s thirteen century epic poem, the Divine Comedy, the poet himself travels to several worlds. The travel stands as a metaphor to the poet’s spiritual journey. Milton, in his seventeenth century epic poem The Paradise Lost, describes Satan’s flight to hell.
Rāma’s travel is from the north of India to Sri Lanka in the south, which is also a part of the Greater Indian sub-continent. He then travels back to the north again. His on-ward journey is on land and is long, strenuous and an undulating one, while the return is a quick and easy ride, progressing as the crow flies. Kṛṣṇa’s journey is from the West to East. Thus, the poets Vālmīki and Vyāsa, have covered the length and breadth of India in their poems. There is no mention of travel on the seas at all in Indian epics, while the Western epics involve travel on both land and on the seas. Travel in epics goes beyond terrestrial limitations and the characters visit mystical and semi-mystical worlds too. Arjuna, for instance, visits the heavens to meet his father Indra and Odysseus visits hell to meet his mother. The protagonists experience the cultures of different lands and peoples, and this plays a role in shaping their personalities.
Epic poets have also used travel as a creative technique to bring in the element of geographical expanse and the associated history into their poems. It also helps by providing them with a bigger canvas to paint their poetic picture on. They show us the world as the ancients knew it, and each place that is covered here has its own history or legend. The mythical lands portrayed in the epics show the fascination that the human mind has always had for the super-natural, and also sometimes hints at what they saw as ideal. Myth-creation and their retelling are important aspects that constitute a living tradition and the poets created many myths around various places, and their heroes encounter these during their travels.
Classical literature reflects a community’s culture and outlook towards life; hence, a study of the epics with a focus on travel can also give us an insight into the lives and philosophy of the ancients. It is interesting to note that most of the great epics that have captured the hearts of connoisseurs have substantial portions dedicated to travel. Poets make their characters travel, and use this as a technique that helps them to describe both space and time in a creative manner. It gives them scope to bring in several flavours and different rasas. The current paper has pointed out the wide spectrum of details unfolded by travel, which would not have figured in these epics otherwise. We do not know if the poets actually traveled to these places, but their creative minds have certainly made the journey, and so do the readers’ minds that sail on the ship built by the minds of poets.
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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.