The epic as a poetic genre has lost its currency in our time. Yet, the great epics of the world continue to provide not only fascinating insights but also new myths, symbols and archetypes for writers and lovers of poetry to reflect on. The author, Tapodhir Bhattacharjee, suggests that the classification of an epic into epic of growth and epic of art has no defining merit. The two works of Homer and the one by Valmiki are as masterly and mellow as the later epics of art. An epic can be easily distinguished by its lofty style and holistic approach to life, its ability to integrate different strands of emotions and thoughts and its world view. An epic needs a civilizational mould to acquire its characteristic spirit and shape.

The search for the authentic texts of the two great Indian epics —the Ramayan and the Mahabharat — continues. But one cannot suspend one’s critical judgment till the question of authenticity is settled. From the received texts, it is evident that like all great epics, these two were inspired by an awareness of their cultural milieu and by the floating ideas of their time, bearing on the social, political and spiritual aspects of life. Even if their authors are taken as editors or compilers of accumulated material (the single authorship of the Mahabharat is still questioned), it must be admitted that a great creative power was at work, organizing the vast material into an organic whole. The search for the internal evidence may also be a fruitful endeavour to determine the single authorship. If the work shows uniformity in style and manner of writing, one may arrive at a reasonable conclusion.

Bhattacharjee points out that the original Ramayan had very little that could be considered scriptural. He thinks that the religious note was introduced through interpolations by Brahmins who wanted to foist their ideology on it. But even with these interpolations, the story of the Ramayan still remains that of an idealist out of tune with a world beyond his control. The idea of deus ex machina was seldom used as a poetic device in Indian epics. Devas, naras and asuras were imagined as cohabitants of earth with their respective propensities and powers.

The religious elements entered the texts in a big way through the translations and adaptations of these epics into different Indian languages. These versions, because of their local variations, acquired a flavour of their own, gained popularity and emerged as the fountainhead of the Bhakti movement in various regions of the country. Through the recital of verses, the vast, unlettered masses learnt about ideals to live by. They turned these epic heroes into role models and their apotheosis was the natural final step in the process. In fact, in a way, they have kept the Indian epic tradition alive even to this day.

Bhattacharjee’s book deals exclusively with the epics written in Sanskrit and Bengali. Its title calls for, at least, a brief study of the experiments in epic writing in some other Indian languages. But as far as it goes, it is a competent and comprehensive survey of the history of epics in two Indian languages. It is well-planned and thoroughly researched, and its critical comments on the poetic qualities of the great Indian epics are refreshing. It also stimulates fresh thinking on the subject. The scholarly introduction by professor Sukumari Bhattacharjee is an additional attraction of the book, which will draw the attention of common readers and specialists.