Myth, History, Itihaasa, and the Hindu Dilemma
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Editor’s note: We Hindus are constantly told that we have nothing like historical consciousness, that we do not have any detailed and clear accounts of our historical past, that whatever history we do have is through the accounts of foreign travelers in medieval India and later, and that therefore the accounts of our past in our epics and other texts are unreliable, a mixture of myth and hagiography or worse yet a reflection of the discriminatory, hierarchical, patriarchic, misogynist practices created and curated by crafty Brahmins. The contentious claims about our past therefore has shaped our sense of self, or lack of it, our present-day quarrels about Arya and Dravida, oppressors and oppressed, Brahmins and Shudras, who wrote what, when, why, and whether anything transferred to us over millennia has any worth at all except as a millstone showcasing our hollow or misshapen past, and what we should tell our children about the Indian and Hindu past, and what our contributions to human civilization are.
There is a new historical consciousness, and authors, who might not be trained as “historians” but who bring their skills, talents, and rigor of logic to bear upon their efforts to delve into the Indian past have begun “recovering” some of that for us, getting past the barriers of the establishment historians who are wedded to their Marxist, anti-Hindu, syncretic “idea of India” and who have “sold” the Hindu/Indian past to their western audiences couched in Marxist, sub-altern, feminist, secular gobbledygook. In this context, the works of scholars like Shrikant Talageri, Michel Danino, Jijith Nadumuri Ravi, and others make us more informed readers, helping us sort out original texts from interpolations, tracking data that enables us to map the geographic ambit in the epics, and so on. There is also the work of scholars like Vishwa Adluri and Joydeep Bagchi who are offering directions in the manner in which the epics should be read and understood.
But this delving into the past, even by the most talented of researchers, pose unique challenges in the Indian/Hindu context, demanding us to ask questions like “What is history?”, “What is myth?”, “What is itihaasa?”, and how we sift the “real” from the “myth,” etc.
In this first of a series of articles we offer readers the thoughts of Pankaj Seth based on a couple of Facebook posts of his and his response to the comments they elicited.
How Old is The Mahabharata?
Because the Mahabharata mentions the Vedas and the Vedas do not mention the Mahabharata, the Vedas must be earlier, we believe. This sort of logic dictates historiography. We try to create a linear chain of causal events. We can be relatively confident in our linear chain, its relative order, but we may still not know the absolute age of things.
There are attempts to date the Mahabharata by astronomical means via clues found in the Mahabharata. Whatever asterisms are mentioned, these can be dated. We can extrapolate that since a certain star position is spoken of, and that star position existed so many thousand years ago, the Mahabharata era must have been during that time.
So, let us say that the Mahabharata era was five thousand years ago, or three thousand or seven thousand as some believe. For this exercise it does not matter which date is correct because the question is about what exactly the Mahabharata era was. Was the Mahabharata war a small skirmish between two branches of a family or was it something bigger and involved people and regions beyond the immediate family fiefdom? Given that archeological evidence points to low technology existing several thousand years ago, the Mahabharata war could only have been a low-tech affair, with chariots and spears, and not guns and missiles. It is not very relevant how long ago the war occurred from this point of view, whether it was 3,000 or 7,000 years ago.
The next question is to what extent this small, low-tech event has been amplified into epic proportions by Sage Vyasa as the Mahabharata. Going by archeological evidence we cannot figure out what exactly the fantastic battles involving levitating chariots and weapons that can burn the world down signify or imply. Of course, the most important part of the Mahabharata is the worldview it discloses, which is not strictly historiographic, as some have been studying it as.
Here we must distinguish between “History” and “Itihaasa”. The former is the modern way and its obsessive winding the clock backwards towards some mythic t=0, some big bang, some absolute creation event. This is problematic because our origins have been being wrongly portrayed and we cannot find those origins nor identity significant markers by going this route.
By contrast, Itihaasa points to “Satya” as our origin and identity, and which reflects reality. So, Itihaasa, by pointing away from a merely materialist history, does a very important thing.
Next, the metaphysics of “Consciousness-First” rather than “Materialism” is in operation in the Indian worldview. This too militates against a merely materialist history. And very importantly, this places origin/identity is in the realm of “Mind” and not “Matter”. This metaphysics also allows vertical knowledge transfer from the depth of consciousness to the surface. Due to all this, the issue of origin/identity cannot remain material, nor even temporal, nor even circumscribed by birth/death. The modern lens is not at all able to appreciate the Mahabharata for what it gives if it insists on privileging an absolute, linear, materialist historiography.
So how old is the Mahabharata, or the Ramayana, or the Vedas? Does it matter that we find out? Can we really find out? Should one even think about it?
Flattening Myth into History…
After reading the comments on whether we should investigate our past through the historiographic lens, I think we had better not push historicity too far and that we embrace and become comfortable with the idea of mythopoesis. However, many of us seem to be allergic to the word “myth”. The grand scenes in the itihaasa where chariots fly, the greatness of numbers of fighters, etc., cannot be force-fitted to the archeological data that we now have. The battles in the epics would, we believe, have been rather small skirmishes with copper and iron weapons, of a scale that is not, well, epic. This urge to historicity must not take over and destroy the mythopoesis in the process.
Trying to force fit historicity onto the itihaasa is to misunderstand what itihaasa means. One should not literally translate “it was thus” and think/believe it refers to a material history. We should not end up turning these grand epics into historical events for it would be a kind of vandalism that I hope we grow out of, something we engage in because we are trying to prove a point to westerners. We would be turning something sublime into an ordinary if not a disappointing story in the process.
Therefore, we must first define our terms. They should not have idiosyncratic but common meanings.
- HISTORY: Something which was.
- MYTH: Something which never was but always is (Joseph Campbell).
Also, we have the Sanskrit word “Itihaasa” which is generally translated into “thus it was” and many/most Indians these days take this to mean “historically was”.
We want to project history onto “Itihaasa” because we have been stung by accusations that we do not have an “historical consciousness”.
Obviously, there are many mythic elements in the “Itihaasa” which must be taken out before the Ramayana and Mahabharata would resemble ordinary history. No more talking bears, flying vanaras and flying chariots, no more Bhishma on a bed of arrows for weeks…. All this and so much more must be reduced to some putative, ordinary events which would have occurred historically. We would then be thinking about the Ramayana and Mahabharata in historical terms and imagining kings and their petty skirmishes and not so much hearing the grand civilizational voice of the rishis and sages which rises above petty, historical concerns.
Whether the rishis relied upon current or historical personages and events is not known for certain. A poet can just as easily imagine in freehand style too. I don’t think there is any definitive way to know what if any historical persons and events were the inspiration for the grand personages and the even grander events in “Itihaasa”.
But also, one can see historicity if not history in “Itihaasa” for they contain things like lists of kings which show historicity and perhaps some history too. But for all that, it is mostly unverifiable. But what is mesmerizing about “Itihaasa” is the genius, and its thrust and power which is not dependent on any historical events actually needing to have occurred. It does not matter whether characters are historical or not. But again, because we have been stung, we want to recover, track down, and present our history to claim equal status with those who have “history”. However, we make the mistake of presenting our “Itihaasa” as history, which involves taking out its heart to reduce it into “verifiable” history. We should not push a reductionist/materialist “Itihaasa” as our literal, historical reality, and if we do so we lose the all-important mythic elements.
What then? How can we respond to our critics and to those who mock us as “ahistorical” nonentities? We should answer the charge by saying that we have both history and itihaasa. You see, it’s a false charge that Indians do not have an historical consciousness or preserved history. In fact, we have much preserved history, as much as any civilization if not more, and we have “Itihaasa” too.
The charge that we do not have a history is false, but we have accepted the charge and are trying to present our history. However, we are forwarding itihaasa as history, which is not just wrong but harmful to us. We can simply forward history as it has been recorded in our list of kings, by poets like Kalidasa, by historical evidence of the Mauryas, Shankara, Buddha, Ashoka and others.
The point is that we do have plenty of history to present but we were not taught this history — the history of mathematics, astronomy, medicine and much more by those in charge of educating our children. The fact is that we have always had an historical consciousness except for the loss recently due to colonialism and then due to the Congress Party/Marxist historians’ decisions on teaching faulty and a debilitating version of Indian history.
The power of the Indian civilization is that it goes beyond history to “Itihaasa,” which is a sublime civilizational achievement not found everywhere, and certainly nowhere as well as in India.
Our story is not merely told historically but also via itihaasa which contain deep, universal notions about existence, self, and many grand ideas presented with the poet’s mythic imagination. This imagination of our great poets was not just some free-floating, unanchored, idiosyncratic imagination but one rooted in yogic epistemology, which spoke authoritatively on transcendental matters, way beyond historical realities.
We should present both our historical and itihaasic story. We should not be forwarding itihaasa as a literal “thus it was”. This is frankly embarrassing when it is done, when we forward a muddle of mythic elements as historical. We can do better, much better by keeping history and itihaasa as separate categories, of which Indian civilization has both, and to a grand degree on both counts. We do not need to flatten itihaasa to discover history, though there is nothing wrong with probing itihaasa for its historicity and for clues about possible historical markers.
The question is – “What is gained and lost by taking this historical approach to the study and reading of Itihaasa?”
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. IndiaFacts does not assume any responsibility or liability for the accuracy of any information in this article.