There are no non-Buddhist texts that have had such a marked influence on SE Asia as the great Indian epics the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata, their presence is seen in murals and reliefs in many Buddhist, and former Buddhist countries, and the stories are known by the majority of the people, and are probably second only to the Jātakas and the Life of the Buddha in popularity in Buddhist countries.
The stories have been retold in what have become national epics in the vernacular throughout the region, having versions in Thai, Lao, Cambodian, Burmese, Indonesian, Filipino and Malaysian, and a large part of the national cultures of the region is based on these stories. They also form part of the official and court life in Thailand, where all the Kings of the present dynasty are named after the hero of the first of these texts.
However, many western Buddhists in particular know nothing of the stories, not even the outline, and reject them as belonging to a degenerate mixing of cultures. This is very unfortunate indeed, as the stories themselves – while we don’t have to take all the theistic claims regarding them on board – are marvellous tales of courage, spirit, devotion and idealism that have had a profound affect on Buddhist cultures.
One of the main problems people face in familiarising themselves with these texts is the extreme length of the texts: Rāmāyaṇa is 24,000 verses long, and the Mahābhārata is recognised the longest book in the world, being four times that length. However, a lot of the materials now found in the books are accretions, and have nothing, or add nothing, to the main story itself.
Around the turn of the 20th century the great Bengali scholar Romesh C. Dutt produced versions of both these epics in a condensed form, taking a novel approach: they are not retellings in his own words, but verse translations of selected portions of the classic Sanskrit texts, joined together with introductions and occasionally prose summaries. Dutt had a remarkable facility in English, the same sort of facility that his countryman, Rabindranath Tagore, had, and has made the main outline of the stories available in around 2,000 verses each.
I have recently prepared both these texts for publication, as a supplement to the Buddhist texts that appear on the Ancient Buddhist Texts website, as they play such a large part in the Buddhist cultures I am familiar with, and they are at a length which is accessible to all. I hope a knowledge of these texts will help in understanding the art, court life and general culture of SE Asia countries, and will enrich peoples’ appreciation of the same.