Ramayana is Rama+Aayana where aayana means “path or way” in Sanskrit. Hence, Ramayana means “the journey of Rama”. Valmiki Ramayana is the oldest known literary work in the world and hence Valmiki is called Adi Kavi and Ramayana, the Adi Kavya. Ramayana, Mahabharata and the Puranas narrate the history of ancient India and the historical events of the ancient Indian civilization.
Itihasa – recordings of contemporary history
Ramayana and Mahabharata are the oldest texts about the history of Indian civilization and are called Itihasa. Iti ha sa in Sanskrit means “It so happened“, in other words “history“.
A work is called Itihasa when the author of the text is also a witness to the events mentioned in the text. In other words, the author is a contemporary of the historical events and records and documents those events in his work.
Maharshi Valmiki who wrote Ramayana was a contemporary of Rama and witnessed the life of Rama.
Maharshi Vyasa who wrote Mahabharata was a contemporary of the Pandavas and Krishna and witnessed the life of Krishna, the struggle of Pandavas and the Mahabharata war and its aftermath.
Purana – recordings of ancient events
Historical texts where the author is not a direct witness but got to know about the events from his forefathers are called Puranas. Purana means “ancient” events.
There are 18 Maha Puranas or the main puranas. These main puranas have documented the major historical events of ancient India. Then there are numerous upapuranas. Upa means “sub” or minor. The upa puranas document the less known minor events.
Apart from these puranas, there are also Sthala puranas. Sthala means a region or a particular geographic location. So each ancient city or ancient settlements have their own Sthala Purana which provide details about the history of that particular place.
Itihasa-Purana or Puranetihasa – the collective history
Thus, both the Itihasa texts and Purana texts document the ancient history of Indian subcontinent ever since the dawn of civilization. What very few people know though it that it was Maharshi Veda Vyasa who set out to compile all the ancient texts available during his time (the period of Mahabharata) into single large compilations so that they are all available in one place.
Compilation of the the Vedas – The Mega Project by Maharshi Vyasa
Maharshi Vyasa is also known as Veda Vyasa. He did not write the vedas. The vedas were eternal ancient texts with each individual hymns of knowledge having their own author (discoverer of that particular knowledge) in the past.
Maharshi Vyasa undertook a gigantic project of compiling all that knowledge into the four vedas that we know today. Hence he came to be known as Veda Vyasa. He is the compiler of the vedas, not the author. Vedas contained all the knowledge known to mankind in those days, because Maharshi Vyasa had collected and compiled every single knowledge hymn or the vedic hymn. Hence it came to be known that “Vedas contain everything”, or “there is nothing that is not there in the vedas.”. That was because the vedas compiled by Vyasa contained “ALL KNOWLEDGE” known to mankind during the period of Mahabharata.
This was no small task and the entire project was sponsored by the treasury of Hastinapura on the advice of Bhishma.
Mahabharata – The Itihasa work by Maharshi Vyasa
Maharshi Vyasa then went on to author his contemporary history, and wrote the EPIC Itihasa epic, the Mahabharata – the longest literary work in the world till to date. It contains over 200,000 individual verse lines, has around 1.8 million words. The Mahabharata is around ten times the length of the Iliad and the Odyssey combined!
Compilation of the Puranas – Another Mega Project by Maharshi Vyasa and his disciples
Maharshi Vyasa also undertook the mega project of compiling the ancient history known in those days. This was how the Puranas were born. It was another gigantic task that Maharshi Vyasa and his disciples undertook.
Maharshi Vyasa entrusted the Puranasamhita project to his disciple Lomaharshana, who in turn shared the task with his three disciples and managed the entire project. These three, together with Lomaharshana, wrote the Mulasamhita or the main work of the Puranas. From this Mulasamhita the eighteen Maha Puranas were derived.
Hence, Maharshi Valmiki and Veda Vyasa are the founding fathers of the documentation of ancient Indian history and are the original historians of the Indian civilization.