Why “Itihaasa” means “History”

Why “Itihaasa” means “History”

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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 second article in the series of articles we offer readers the thoughts of Koenraad Elst in response to the first, by Pankaj Seth.

Physician Pankaj Seth’s article “Myth, History, Itihaasa, and the Hindu Dilemma” (India Facts, 7 February 2023) raises the question: “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?” The historian’s answer to each of these questions is unambiguously, YES.

Each of these texts is a human artefact. This may sound a little controversial because we have a great many scripture-thumpers who swear that at least the Vedas, but in many respects even the epics (certainly parts of them, like the Bhagavad Gita), are divine revelation standing far above history. But if we stop talking about them and start looking into them, we notice their unmistakable historicity.

Human, all too Human

Their language changes, from Vedic Sanskrit evolving through successive layers of the Vedas down to the Classical Sanskrit of the epics. They relate human events like weddings, wars, and the artists’ never-ending search for patronage, all far below God’s dignity. Their technology evolves, with the Rg-Veda squarely in the Bronze Age, which archaeologists date between the mid-fourth and the mid-second millennium BCE. The Mahabharata is centered around a chariot battle, which points to a specific historical window. The first war-ready chariots found by archaeologists hardly date beyond 2000 BCE (so a Mahabharata battle beyond 3000 BCE is out of the question), and by Roman times, chariots had become a plaything, used for entertainment in the arena. But in-between we have, in the later second millennium, wars involving the Mitanni kingdom, the Hittite empire, and the Pharaonic Egypt who fought with war chariots. Recent finds point to India as the homeland of this technology; so, here it may be centuries earlier, but only a few. We are also helped by contingent discoveries like the desiccation of the Saraswati River, dated to around 1900 BCE: the Rg-Veda still knows it as a mighty river, so it must be older; while the Mahabharata has Krishna’s brother go on pilgrimage to the Saraswati rivulet’s disappearing-point, so it must be younger.

Another less-than-divine aspect of Hindu scriptures is that, like all human endeavors, they are located somewhere. It mentions elephants but no kangaroos or giraffes, and describes mountains, rivers, and forests of Northwestern India. In the case of the Ramayana, a debate is ongoing since the 1950s (and has recently been revived again by Jijith Nadumuri Ravi’s book Geography of Ramayana) whether the sites usually located in South India are not more to the north, such as Kishkindha near present-day Bhopal and Lanka on an island in the Narmada river’s mouth near present-day Surat. The question is still open, and we will not decide it here, but the point is that it presupposes one specific geographical location rather than another — like any other human event. There is no reason why we should exempt these literary compositions from the treatment given by scholars to other books: asking where and when, as also why.

The why behind the epics is fairly clear: they have a didactic value, and they want to teach through illustration certain virtues: Sita’s loyalty to her husband, Rama’s loyalty to his father and to his people, Vidura’s practical wisdom, and Arjun overcoming his all-too-human doubts. This they would do even if the events described in them had been pure fantasy.

But they also have a historical value, basing themselves on events that really happened in the lives of characters that really existed. Whether the whole story of Rama’s itinerary (to comply with his father’s forced promise to his youngest wife, and next to recover his own abducted wife) is historical, we don’t know for sure. These are events that have happened to many (e.g., young Genghiz Khan had to go and recover his abducted bride), so a generic narrative could arbitrarily have been applied to Rama. Then again, this is unlikely, for why would they have projected someone else’s life-story upon Rama? At any rate, Rama’s very existence can be deduced from his placement in the kings-lists.


The kings-lists? Of Egypt and Mesopotamia, no history could have been reconstructed without recourse to their kings-lists, and yet in the case of India, many scholars pooh-pooh these as another case of chaotic Hindu fantasizing. But no, upon scrutiny, they prove to be very consistent, interwoven with and corroborated by many other data in Hindu literature. All the prominent characters in the Vedas, the epics, and also the early Buddhist sources fit neatly in these genealogies.

Inconvenient for mainstream historians is mainly how far back they go. In Egypt, pre-pharaonic kings have been mentioned (e.g., the “Scorpion king”), and in India, a similar thing happens, but far deeper into the past. The oldest ancestors mentioned in the kings-lists are the patriarch Manu, his daughter Ila who becomes the foremother of the Lunar dynasty (including the Rishis, the Bharata dynasty, and Krishna), and his son Ikshvaku who starts the Solar dynasty (including Rama, Mahavira, and the Buddha). They predate the first beginning of the Rg-Veda by dozens of generations, easily beyond 4000 BCE. Historians have their work cut out for them if they care to sit down and systematize the fragments of knowledge dormant in this source.

In his introduction to this article, editor Ramesh Rao laments that Hindus are constantly told how “the accounts of our past in our epics and other texts are unreliable, a mixture of myth and hagiography”, so that the only serious sources about Indian history are those by foreigners: Arrianus (Greek), Xuan Zang (Chinese), Al-Biruni (Arabic-writing Persian). This negative comment is correct insofar that there is no clear chronological system behind Indian historiographical fragments, a remarkable weakness for a civilization that was at the forefront in so many other fields. This contrasts with the situation in China, where we know the exact date of every major event from the ninth century BCE onwards. But on the other hand, where the kings-lists have only a relative but no absolute chronology, they have the merit of going back much deeper in time than any comparable source in other civilizations. No, India is not that backward.

Embellished, but Facts-based

In the process of writing, the narrative was ideologically streamlined and embellished with supernatural feats, but its basis was purely historical. Indeed, it was instrumentalized as a framework for teaching Dharma and Yoga precisely because the stories about momentous events were popular and thus a good vehicle for reaching the people’s minds with any ideological message you wanted to propagate.

The 19th-century skepticism among academics towards ancient narratives, as if Homer’s Troy had never existed and Jesus had never lived (still popular among India’s secularists when applied to “superstitious” Hindu scripture), is an obsolete paradigm. Now we know that Homer (ca. 700 BCE) based himself on various stories about a real war over Troy that had taken place some five centuries earlier (the heyday of chariot warfare, prominent in the Iliad). And few scholars today will deny that Jesus, of whom we may doubt that he was born from a virgin or raised from the dead, had nevertheless been a really existing, wandering, exorcist-healer who fancied himself the Messiah/Christ (the “anointed” crown-prince, predicted to revive King David’s throne) and died on the cross. So similarly, the Kurukshetra war really happened, though the epic report on it has grown richer and more dramatic in the endless retelling.

Even before seriously investigating Pankaj Seth’s question whether “the Mahabharata war [was] a small skirmish between two branches of a family or something bigger [that] involved people and regions beyond the immediate family fiefdom,” this basic insight into the common process of magnifying events in the retelling gives us an outline of an answer. Of course, the historical core of the narrative was a more modest affair than the pan-Indian war that it has become in the final version. Thus, the involvement of the South-Indian dynasties (Chola, Chera, and Pandya, non-existent at the time of the Bharata war) and of the foreign Yavanas (Ionians, known in India only since Alexander), and Chinas (used as a name for the Middle Kingdom only since the third century BCE) are clearly an attempt by the ultimate editors, writing centuries after the actual war, to give a pan-Indian significance and a relevance for their contemporaries to what had originally been a local affair of the Saraswati-Yamuna area.


In their book Sanskrit Untranslatables, Rajiv Malhotra and Satyanarayana Dasa Babaji make much of a difference between “itihaasa” and “history”. Seth does the same: “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.”

We venture to disagree. This is a case of over-interpretation, of reading far too profound contents in an ordinary translation challenge that professional translators would classify as a routine matter in their trade. Malhotra and Babaji think Itihaasas “also contain historical facts, but are neither merely books of history, nor tales of fantasy”. Well, is “history” any different, in the premodern age? When Herodotus coined the term in the present meaning (it originally meant “investigation, inquiry”), he too produced history that falls far short of the academic requirements in today’s History Departments (or in Indian languages: Itihaasa). It contained elements that we now would call fanciful or even mythical. So, the difference is not between an Indian and a Western term, but between the premodern and the modern use of both the Indian and the Western term.

“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.” Oh yes, it refers to “material” history. When, in the fourth generation after the Pandavas, Sage Vaisampayana recited the brief first version of the epic (called Jaya, “Victory”), it is because he wanted to eternalize the facts of what had transpired on the Kurukshetra battlefield. It was the job of ancient poets to administer “undying fame” to their heroic employers. This is not Indian or Western, not cyclical or linear, just glory. Itihasa means iti-ha-asa, “thus indeed it was,” and this is practically synonymous with the definition given by the 19th-century father of modern historiography, Leopold von Ranke: to reconstruct matters “as they really have been”.

It all started as a historical account, “itihasa” in the modern academic sense. As the epic got bigger, more fantastic elements were added, but also very worldly elements spawned by an evolving self-interest of the class to which the editors belonged. This distorting of history has always been an occupational hazard. Thus, we see Rama fraternizing with the tribals (“monkeys”) without being troubled by any caste taboo. But in the younger seventh book of his epic, we see the blatantly casteist episode of Shambuka getting hung around the neck of a by-then already divinized Rama, clearly interpolated to give divine sanction to the newly emerging caste discriminations.

Similarly, the other epic starts with the caste-free love affair of Sage Parashara and ferry-maiden Satyavati (a case of what would later be called varna-sankara, “caste-mixing”), from which the sage par excellence is born: Krishna Dvaipayana a.k.a. Veda Vyasa, the “editor of the Vedas”. Yet shortly thereafter, Princess Draupadi refuses to let Karna compete for her hand because she thinks he is of low caste, clearly a later interpolation from the age of emerging casteism. These two seeming contradictions are not because of some uniquely Hindu mental property but are very down-to-earth cases of projection of a later social concern onto ancient history. Such back-projection is bad history, and it is a well-known ever-looming threat to good history but does not put these passages outside the field of history.


But those all-too-human elements were not the only thing that was added. Seth correctly finds cases of “mythopoesis,” mythmaking in the epics. For the people who had lived through the events, these were generally the most earth-shaking experience of their lives, so they saw them through lenses of the supernatural. The next thing they did was newly apply elements from older myths to fill gaps in the story or provide causal explanations for strange developments.

Thus, a well-known mythical motif from pre-Vedic, proto-Indo-European days is the “narrowly-failed attempt to become invulnerable”. We know it is that old because we see it also appear in branches of the language family (annex literary traditions) far removed from India, too far to be explained by borrowing. Among the Greeks, Achilles is dipped in a magic potion but is held by his heel, so there he remains vulnerable and there he later gets killed. Similarly, among the Scandinavians for Baldr and for Siegfried. Now, in the Mahabharata, this same motif makes two appearances: to become invulnerable, Duryodhana appears naked before his mother, whose eyes have acquired magic power after years of wearing a blindfold, but he is prevailed upon to wear a loincloth, and in that part of his body (euphemistically his “thigh”) he later gets killed. And Krishna receives an ointment from Sage Durvasa, but while applying it to his skin, he remains standing on the soles of his feet, and that is where he is later lethally pierced by an arrow. These candidly mythical motifs, originating in the imagined world of the gods, are added later to make more sense of extraordinary historical events.

We see the same in the Iliad, where for example the interactions of humans are explained as moves on a divine chessboard where the gods in a heavenly conference decide the fate of the mortals below. Likewise in the Bible, otherwise a source of remarkably good historiography for its time, we see the flood getting explained by God’s wrath. In fact, this must be one of the most common mythical motifs of the ancient world: that behind dramatic storms lies the unchained wrath of a thundering Indra or other gods.

This way, the historical narrative based on a report of a real war, whether Homer’s collection of hearsay stories on the Trojan war, or Sanjay’s eyewitness report to the blind king Dhrtarashtra on the Kurukshetra war, gets interspersed with mythical themes. These do not belong to the realm of history but are, indeed, “something which never was but always is,” as Joseph Campbell called it. Therefore, neither the Iliad nor the Mahabharata can be called history in the modern sense, though they can be analysed into an approximative history plus a subsequent overlay of mythical themes.

Down with Decolonization!

Finally, I would like to dissent from Seth’s “decolonizing” concern: “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 want to project history onto ‘Itihaasa’ because we have been stung by accusations that we do not have an ‘historical consciousness’.”

The decolonization paradigm, now wildly popular, greatly exaggerates the importance of the colonial role division between the West and India. As a writer of the book Decolonizing the Hindu Mind, we confess guilt in contributing to this fashionable discourse. More than seventy-five years after independence, we now think it unbecoming to pose as an adolescent rising in revolt against a colonial father who, in the real world, has long gone. Genuine freedom fighters like Ram Swarup and Sita Ram Goel achieved the real decolonization in 1947 and never spoke of India’s later problems in colonial terms. For them, from then on, India was responsible for itself. If India still gives a central role to English or follows a Constitution partly based on the British Government of India Act 1935, this is not because the British or any other outsider is imposing it on Indians, but because Indians have chosen it that way. Indian Nehruvians who carry an idealized West in their heads all the better to disparage the culture they try to “emancipate” themselves from.

So, likewise here, the critique that the epics fall short of the exacting criteria of modern historiography, is not a problem that Westerners are inflicting on Indians. India today has a whole corps of professional historians trained in the historical method, and they too can discern where the epics fall short of being history. Among them, nobody will insist that the epics are to be taken as literal history (though some Sanskrit professors will affirm this much). If you insist that the historical method was developed in the West and imported into India during the colonial period, we trust that it does not form part of the colonial legacy that Indians feel they have to rebel against and annihilate. Nor can we dismiss Indian historians who applied the historical method, like the formidable RC Majumdar, as merely “Westernized”.

If Westerners really look down on Hindu/Indian epics for falling short of the standards of modern history (which I doubt), or if Indians really feel inferior because of this (which is an attitude fostered by the West-oriented Nehruvians), it just shows a common misunderstanding: we are comparing apples with oranges. A Western (or indeed any) history textbook may contain a chapter on emperor Charlemagne’s campaign in Muslim-occupied Spain (ca. 800) but this will not be the epic Chanson de Roland (French: “Song of Roland,” about an officer in Charlemagne’s army), though the latter is based on (essentially) the same primary reports as the former. The West deems its own epics just as much different from history textbooks. To be sure, the standards of what counts as history-writing have improved, but that too is common between India, the West, and other civilizations.

So, any normally educated Westerners will not expect from the Mahabharata that it be a history book. But he may distinguish between different parts of the epic. The first and most basic one, necessary to make the addition of the others possible, is the historical core. The idea that a story like that can be pure fantasy, is a modern notion, with novelists like JRR Tolkien inventing entire histories of civilizations, while in the old days stories were (at least dimly) based on real events.

But then we have several types of later addition. The most profane is the cases of “presentism” by later editors: this projects data valid during the editors’ time onto the protagonists’ time. In reality, “the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”. This presentism, deemed the cardinal sin in historiography, can be a case of poor intellectual rigor, but it can also be a mendacious distortion in order to create a semblance of antiquity or of the blessings by a venerable figure like Rama or Krishna to strengthen a social institution in the editors’ own time. We have given examples of the projection of later emerging caste taboos on an older and less caste-conscious society.

A possible case could also be the projection of later technologies onto ancient events (the way medieval paintings about Jesus in Palestine unselfconsciously have the house types and landscapes in the background that are typical of the painter’s own West-European location). But in the centre of the story this is very unlikely, e.g., that the Kurukshetra warriors use horse-drawn chariots can’t be a later interpolation. A glaring example of an anachronistic interpolation is the “horoscope of Rama”. While the Vedic age had its own notions of astrology, the specific discipline of individual horoscopy was brought from Babylon into India by the Greeks in the first centuries of the Common Era. The birth chart attributed to Rama gives to the perfect man the fitting planetary positions: the planets are in “exaltation” as per the rules of Hellenistic astrology. It must have been added at the very end of the editing process, many centuries after Rama and Valmiki. That some Hindus use it to establish Rama’s birth time is tragi-comic.

The other type of addition concerns the mythical contents. These may be the fruit of the poet’s imagination, e.g., in the Ramayana the flying vimanas (a kind of helicopter, though originally a word for tower); partly borrowed from an existing array of mythical motifs shared by the editors’ culture. The above-mentioned almost-achievement of invulnerability is one example, Arjuna’s profitable son-father relation with Indra another, and Sita’s similar daughter-mother relation with the Earth yet another.

Finally, we have purely didactic additions. We all know of the insertion of the Bhagavad Gita, which after its initial motivation of Arjuna concentrates on explaining the Sankhya-Yoga philosophy. It takes the form of the oldest core of the epic, with Sanjay doing his reporting to Dhrtarashtra; this could be a device by its writer to give it more authority, but the Gita happens to be very interwoven with the rest of the text. At least this reminds us of the unavoidable problem of a chronology of all the layers of a text composed over more than a millennium. Another didactic addition is the Anugita, yet another the long explanation of the Sankhya worldview in the Shanti Parva. The epic was used as the best possible conduit for a message deemed important by its writers, since the narrative had become popular shortly after its emergence.

So… Seth asks: “How can we respond to our critics and to those who mock us as ‘ahistorical’ nonentities?”

Answer: By telling the truth about yourself. Next to the pioneering contributions of India in geometry, calculus, astronomy, hydraulic technology, etc., and its unique foundational work in linguistics, it ought not to be insurmountably difficult to practise modesty and face the fact that India was less than average in history-writing. Its clumsy history-writing nonetheless goes deeper into the past than that of any other country, which is not bad at all, but its absolutely chronology is indeed disappointingly vague. What would you want? Only Allah is perfect.

But the fact that Indian epics are something else than history manuals, that on top of a historical foundation they built a literary masterpiece including fanciful and mythological elements as well as profound philosophical teachings, that is not something in need of special justifications, let alone self-deprecating apologies. Arise, Arjuna!

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.

Koenraad Elst

Dr. Koenraad Elst earned his Ph.D., from the Catholic University of Leuven based on his research on the ideological development of Hindu revivalism. Author of more than a dozen books on Indian society and politics, he has worked in political journalism and as a foreign policy assistant in the Belgian Senate. He has also published about multiculturalism, ancient Chinese history and philosophy, comparative religion, and language policy issues. In the ongoing Aryan homeland debate he has played a key role.