The Itihasas (itihasa is Sanskrit for "history" or "thus verily happened") are narrative traditions composed during the period 500 BC to 1000 AD. They tell the stories of divine incarnations along with much philosophical and ethical reflection. The Itihasas reflect popular, non-Brahmanic interests and the rise of theistic Hinduism focused on Shiva, Vishnu and Shakti. The Itihasas include the Mahabharata and Ramayana epics, two of the most beloved Hindu texts, as well as the Puranas.
At more than 100,000 verses (seven times the length of the Iliad and Odyssey combined), the Mahabharata may be the longest epic poem in the world. Authorship is traditionally attributed to the sage Vyasa; modern scholarship has established its development over several centuries ending in the first century AD. The central theme of the Mahabharata ("Great Tale of the Bharatas") is dharma, especially the dharma of kingship.
The Mahabharata is most well known for the Bhagavad Gita, the single most popular Hindu text. The Bhagavad Gita ("The Song of the Lord") tells the story of King Pandu and his five sons and features a memorable appearance by Krishna, the popular incarnation of Vishnu.
The Ramayana ("March of Rama") was composed around the 2nd century BCE, but likely drew on preexisting oral tradition. It tells the epic story of Rama, the 7th incarnation of the deity Vishnu. Written in high Sanskrit in the form of rhyming couplets, the Ramayana contains seven sections (kandas):
- Bal Kanda - Rama's boyhood
- Ayodhya Kanda - Rama's life in Ayodhya until his banishment
- Aranya - Rama's life in the forest and his abduction by Ravana
- Kishkinda - Rama's stay at Kishkinda, the capital of his monkey ally Sugriva
- Sundara - Rama's journey to Sri Lanka
- Yuddha (or Lanka) - Rama's battle with Ravana, the recovery of Sita and their return to Ayodhya
- Uttara - Rama's life as king in Ayodhya, the birth of his two sons, Sita's test of innocence and return to her mother, and Rama's demise
The Puranas are collections of mythology, hymns, ancient history, rules of life, rituals, instructions and knowledge, cosmology. Most attained their final written form around 500 AD. Today they are among the most commonly used scriptural texts. There are 18 Puranas, with six each dedicated to Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. In all the Puranas the goddess Lakshmi is given a prominent place without any sectarian dispute.
The most important Puranas are:
- Vishnu Purana
- Bhagavata Purana (Krishna)
- Shiva Purana
- Markendeya Purana (to the Goddess)