The epics belong to the class of literature known as smrti (remembered), which is different than shruti (revealed) literature such as the Vedas and Upanishads. Hindus refer to the epics by the Sanskrit word itihasas, which means “history of the people.”

The oral narrative literary tradition was as important in India as it was in all early civilizations. Even though writing existed in Hindu society, the spoken word had greater significance than the written word. In India, much of the sacred (shruti) and popular (smriti) literature remained in the oral tradition long after the invention of writing.

The Mahabharata and the Ramayana are composed in verse and, like epic poems in many other cultures, center around a grand theme; involve a cast of heroic characters; and convey the values, history, and mindset of the culture in which they were composed.