Hinduism – Itihasas & Puranas (Historical and mythological stories) – an introduction…
The stories of Ramayana and Mahabharata (the two epics called Itihasas) are read and reread by majority of religiously and spiritually inclined Hindus from time immemorial . Even in the olden days when there were no printed books, these stories were propagated by Pouranikas (Pundits who are well versed in orally explaining Puranas – divine stories) in public gatherings. It has been a tradition in India that grand parants tell Ramayana and Mahabharata as bed time stories to their grandchildren.
Apart from these two epics, there are 18 Puranas that contain lots of mythological stories, events, and peripheral celestial happenings involving various devatas and Gods.
These two Itihas and 18 puranas are part and parcel of the Smritis (remembered scriptures) . Smritis also include Sutras (cryptic philosophical teachings), Bhashyas (explanatory scriptures on Sruthi – Vedas, Upanishads etc) and so on. In this website, we have considered Itihas and Puranas (story based scriptures) alone in a separate group for the sake of convenience.
Even though there are quite a lot of similarities in the way the two itihasas are structured with stories, events and peripheral documents as in 18 Puranas, the itihas are traditionally kept in a higher pedestal as basic and authoritative reference scriptures for understanding and interpreting dharma. One of the reasons for it could be that Maharshi Valmiki, the author of Ramayana was a living witness at the period of Ramayana; likewise, Maharshi Vyasa, the author of Mahabharata was too a person who was part and parcel of Mahabharata’s vast unfolding of events.
The period of happening of Ramayana was in Treta Yuga, somewhere during 5000 BCE or so (there are contradicting view points to this).
Historically, Mahabharata belongs to Treta Yuga and (derived from various points of views and analysis), the main event of Mahabharata, namely the Kurukshetra war reportedly took place in 3139 BCE. (Of course there are also contradicting view points to this).
Though both are extensively vast poetic works like a kavya (epic) and reportedly contain lots of poetic exaggerations, they have much higher authenticity.