Hinduism Vernacular Oral Epics
Aditya Malik
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0021


Vernacular oral epics occur in local and regional contexts all over the Indian subcontinent, engaging a range of audiences, singers, and ritual specialists. They represent some of the most striking and complex expressions of narrative culture found within Hindu traditions. Usually closely tied to the geography and history of a particular region, their plots invariably play out in a landscape that is recognizable to audiences. Their main characters and themes are intimately connected to the caste identities of singers and audiences, thus making these lengthy and complex narratives a conduit for the (re)creation of social identities, and local, subaltern histories. Oral epics in India emphasize song and declaimed prose, sometimes in distinction to poetry. The singers often make use of complex and rich performative elements such as lengthy painted scrolls, musical instruments, costumes, puppets, and more. Whereas the term vernacular usually suggests a dialect rather than a fully developed language, here it is used in distinction to the classical language, Sanskrit, referring to the evidence that we have of the existence of literary expression in regional languages that began to arise toward the end of the first millennium CE. The emergence of literature in vernacular languages also accompanied the crystallization of cultural, literary, and historical regions. Several oral epics situate themselves at the cusp of this historical development. While some articulate the tensions of a critically transformational period in social and political history, others may have an overtly romantic character expressive of the varied emotions of a passionate and sometimes tragic love between individuals. Indeed, oral epics in India may be classified, according to themes they articulate, into romantic, sacrificial, and martial, rather than solely heroic. Oral epics have rarely existed without some form of interaction or awareness of written texts. Some, for example, even use written texts as ritual props in their renderings. Most utilize lengthy, spoken and sung narratives, while being classified under labels that are not always concomitant with the term “epic,” such as itihasa (history) and kavya (poetry) for the Mahabharata and Ramayana respectively, and katha/kathe, (story), bharat (battle), parvaro (story episode), and git (song) for oral epics. By definition, vernacular oral epics are distinct from the Mahabharata and Ramayana, which were written and composed in Sanskrit; however, oral epics may interact with the Sanskrit in intricate and reflexive ways, extending or reworking themes and even characters from the Sanskrit epics. For example, the plot of an oral epic may deal with unfinished business between characters from the Mahabharata or Ramayana, who may themselves then appear as incarnations or avataras in the oral epics. Moreover, the Mahabharata and Ramayana are also performed in regional languages and local contexts and can, in this sense, also be considered as vernacular oral epics. In general, it can be stated that oral epics exist within an ecology of texts, of which the Mahabharata and Ramayana form a part.

General Overviews

Not many publications provide general overviews of the subject. The few that exist are in the form of introductory chapters to edited volumes, monographs, or longer encyclopedia chapters. Particularly relevant here is Blackburn, et al. 1989, which provides a collection of well researched essays on oral epics from different regions of India. Hiltebeitel 1999 provides a critical overview. Malik 2010 provides a brief discussion of oral epics.

  • Blackburn, Stuart, Peter J. Claus, Joyce B. Flueckiger, and Susan S. Wadley, eds. Oral Epics in India. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1989.

    A pioneering work whose introductory chapter sets down a classificatory system comprising martial, sacrificial, and romantic epics. It deals with the geographical and cultural spread of individual epics and contains a concluding section with short descriptions of several epic traditions together with a synopsis of the story and details of the performance and ritual context.

  • Hiltebeitel, Alf. Rethinking India’s Oral and Classical Epics: Draupadi among Rajputs, Muslims, and Dalits. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226340555.001.0001

    The introduction provides a detailed though critical discussion of various works and their methodologies for analyzing oral epics. This includes the interpretation undertaken by the editors of the Oral Epics in India, as well as the work of other authors who follow a similar historicizing approach in which the heroes of oral epics crystallize through a vertical process of deification from “real” hero to epic hero or deity.

  • Malik, Aditya. “Oral Traditions and Folklore.” In Brill’s Encyclopedia of Hinduism. Vol. II, Sacred Texts, Ritual Traditions, Arts, Concepts. Edited by Knut A. Jacobsen, Helene Basu, and Angelika Malinar, 249–266. Leiden, The Netherlands, and Boston: Brill, 2010.

    The section of oral epics is embedded in a larger article on oral traditions and folklore while discussing some specific cases from Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh, including a synopsis of two epics.

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