My name is Jijith Nadumuri Ravi
I started reading the Indian epics from the age of ten. The Mahabharata series of the Amar-Chitra Katha 1 books and the Mahabharata of Krishna Dwaipayana Vyasa, in Sanskrit translated to Malayalam by Dr PS Nair were my first books. This became a craze and I continued analyzing these books.
My strong belief is that mythology (Google: Euhemerus) is nothing but a transformation of history. Absolute events transform into history after a few decades and history transforms into mythology after a few centuraries. It is always possible to extract history from mythology and absolute events from history, but with a predictable loss of information.
My view on the Indian epics Mahabharata and Ramayana is that they are the substitutes of history of the period they describe. Just like a candle-light is better than total darkness, these epics serve to tell us something about those periods. In the absence of a proper history to describing these periods, Mahabharata and Ramayana serve as something close to it. They are closer to historical documents than to mythological or imaginative works. It is very inappropriate to dismiss them as mere imaginations or as fables and legends or even as mythology. Careful readers can easily separate, fact and fiction from the narrations in Mahabharata and Ramayana.
I will put it this way:-
- Mahabharata:- Historical content (aprox. 70%) Mythological (non-historic)content (aprox 30%)
- Ramayana:- Historical content (aprox. 60%) Mythological (non-historic) content (aprox 40%)
- Puranas:- Historical content (aprox. 50%) Mythological (non-historic) content (aprox 50%)
Geographical and Historical content in Mahabharata and Ramayana
In Vyasa's own words, Mahabharata is:-
(Mahabharata Book 1, Chapter 1:-) the mystery of the Veda, and other subjects have been explained by me; the various rituals of the Upanishads with the Angas; the compilation of the Puranas and history formed by me and named after the three divisions of time, past, present, and future; the determination of the nature of decay, fear, disease, existence, and non-existence, a description of creeds and of the various modes of life; rule for the four castes, and the import of all the Puranas; an account of asceticism and of the duties of a religious student; the dimensions of the sun and moon, the planets, constellations, and stars, together with the duration of the four ages; the Rik, Sama and Yajur Vedas; also the Adhyatma; the sciences called Nyaya, Orthoephy and Treatment of diseases; charity and Pasupatadharma; birth celestial and human, for particular purposes; also a description of places of pilgrimage and other holy places of rivers, mountains, forests, the ocean, of heavenly cities and the kalpas; the art of war; the different kinds of nations and languages: the nature of the manners of the people; and the all-pervading spirit;—all these have been represented (in this work).
The highest concentration of geographic information in Mahabharata is found at the start of Bhisma Parva (Mahabharata: Book 6 chapters 6 to 12), where he mentions more than 10000 geographic entities like rivers, lakes, place-names and names of kingdoms, regions, and sub-continents. Bhishma parva is belived to be the starting point of the core of Mahabharata, authored by Vyasa known as Jaya. The rest of the epic that preceeds Bhisma Parva and that succeed Sauptika Parva (book 10) is believed to be accumulated over this core called Jaya which grew to the work called Bharata and later to Mahabharata.
Thus true to what Vyasa says, his work Jaya starts with astronomy (contemporary to that period) and geography. After he explained these, in subsequent chapters he explains the major philosophies of the age, in the form of Bhagavat Gita. Some say Bhagavat Gita is a later addition, though Vyasa seems to know much of this philosophy himself, since one of his major activity was to analyse Vedic and non Vedic knowledge and classify the Vedas. The Original Vyasa along with his race of many other Vyasas, probably spanning many generations engaged in this activity for centuries. His descendents, even now use the surname Vyas or Byas. Since Vyasa divided or classified the Vedas he is known as Veda-Vyasa (one who divided or classified the Vedas). Finally, in his work called Jaya he begins the main portion of his work which is the Kurukshetra War, where he describes the art of war, its strategies and finally its ill effects.
The Sabha Parva (Book 2), Chapter 14 contains passages that show glimpses of a political scenario, resulted due to the rising power of Magadha against the established Kuru rulers and how this threat is subdued by the combined policy of the Kurus (represented by the Pandavas) and Yadavas (represented by Krishna). In a later period we see that the Magadhas re-emerged as the major political power overshadowing the Kurus, which is part of the recorded history. Mahabharata also gives a glimps of other cultures like the Naga culture, which was spread all over India before the emergense of the Kurus. Most of the Kuru-Panchala cities had an older name showing there Naga origin, such as Hastinapura of the Kurus, which was formerly known as Naga-pura, Indraprastha of Kurus, which was built by clearing an earlier settlement of Nagas at Khandava-prastha and Ahichatra of Panchalas, which, as the name Ahi (Naga) indicates, belonged to the Nagas.
Ramayana, as the name indicates is a narrative of travels (ayana) of Rama, and thus is related to geography. At least, Valmiki when he named the epic as 'Ramayana', which directly translates to the travels of Rama, had this thought in his mind, and developed his epic to describe the extensive travels made by Rama from Ayodhya to Lanka. In later stages this original intent was long forgotten. Focus was shifted to the tragic story of Rama and Sita.
Divinity of Rama and Krishna
In a much later stage (effected by the Bhakti movement) Rama was considered as an incarnation and thus a divinity. While this transformation is within the scope of Indic-belif system (especially the Vedanta philosophy), which state that divinity is inherent in every human and in evey creature and it is upto every individual to express this divinity, we should not ignore the actual human named Rama and his historicity. Rama was a person, who, due to his inner strength of charecter, was able to express his inherent divinity, to the extent that later generations revered him as a god or as an incarnation (Avatara).
Much the same happened to Krishna, as revealed by epic Mahabharata. My view is that, while it is consistent with the Indic belief-system to consider them as gods, one should not be blind to ignore the actual human-being behind these divinities, to the extent that it becomes impossible for others to analyze their historicity. By the same coin, those who study the historicity of these personalities should not hurt the religious sentiments of people who consider them as divinities. Again, those who adore them as divinities, should know that the images of Rama or Krishna, are a means to attain the ultimate divinity and are not to be mistaken as the ultimate divinity, which as per Vedanta principles, is within ones own self.
Epic literature and fossils
I always tend to think about the similarity of epic literature and fossils. Just like fossils preserve signs of the existence of a creature that lived in the past, epic literature preserve information about the people and their lives in the past distorted yet reconstruct-able. Just like fossils are deposited layer by layer, epic literature is accumulated in layers after layers. By knowing in which fossil-layer a fossil belongs we are able to approximately know in which time the creature is fossilized. Same is more or less true with information crystallized inside layers of epic literature. The epic Mahabharata has several layers which were formed at different periods of time separated by centuries. Same is the case with the Ramayana, the Puranas and the Vedas. Scholars are studying these layers of crystallized information found in the epic literature to understand the life of people belonging to the period in which the layer was formed.
Every civilization had an obsession to become immortal. The Egyptians mummified the dead bodies of their kings and heroes to make them immortal. We find that even after thousands of years their bodies are preserved to today, achieving some sort of immortality. The Indians on the other hand, created the epics, the Puranas and the Vedas. They added what ever they wanted to say into these literature and preserved them through oral traditions, with great care, like the Egyptians preserved their mummies in the pyramids. Thus the Indians gained immortality by constructing pyramids of literature like the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, the Vedas and the Puranas. Thus we could see in Mahabharata, the culture, the politics, the religion and the philosophy of the ancient people of India.
Epic personalities and distant light sources
Another analogy that comes into mind is the nature of epic personalities and their similarities with distant light sources as explained by astronomy. In astronomy we know that some of the distant stars that we think as single are actually binary stars, multiple stars or some times even a galaxy of stars. Some times these stars that appear as one are never related and could be located at locations separated by light-years and appear as one as they happened to be on the same line of sight from us.
This is true with some of the epic personalities like Vyasa and Vasistha. Due to their temporal-distance in the past they seem to us, when analyzing the epic literature, to be a single person. But close study reveals them as a generation of people. Some times multiple personalities that lived at different ages and different places are fused together into one personality. Many personalities in epic literature, including Rama and Krishna shows this fusion of multiple personalities.
Transmission loss of information in epic literature
Deep analysis of epics reveals that at their cores are actual events that occurred in some point of time in the distant past. Later, these turned into contemporary history. But unlike in our age, this historical information was transmitted from generation to generation through oral traditions. Information theory states that loss of information is inevitable due to the principle of entropy that maintains that any ordered system (coded-information being one example of an ordered system) is bound to lose its orderliness and tend to be chaotic. Ancient people who transmitted the epic history through oral traditions invented fables to fill the gaps that formed because of the missing information which was again due to information loss owing to the transmission loss. Thus history turned to mythology.
A typical example is the lack of knowledge of actual number of people who participated in the Kurukshetra War. This was substituted by a table (a hymn) that explains the relations between various divisions of the army like Akshauhini and Anikini (MBh 1.2). If we follow this calculation we get an impossible figure (considering the human-population of that era) as the number of soldiers and animals who took part in the war. Some historians had used this impossibility to rule out the historicity of Kurukshetra War, dismissing it as a fable. By the same way lack of knowledge of exact duration of the war resulted in the myth that it took place in 18 days, making the war much more impossible to occur historically. This is the negative effect of adding fables to historical facts.
Some times the gaps in information is not due to transmission loss. The information required in a later stage some times is never transmitted initially but became a necessity subsequently. An example is the lack of information about the exact origin of the Kauravas and the Pandavas. This lead to the fable that Kauravas were all born out of a dead-fetus born by Gandhari, which were divided into hundred pieces by Vyasa and that the Pandavas were born of the five well known Devas. The fables about the birth of Drona, Kripa, Dhristadyumna and Panchali were also are other examples.
Some times absent information is never substituted by any fable but are approximated by other means. Examples are the names like Panchali and Gandhari (and also Kaikeyi in Ramayana). The original author (Vyasa) seems to be ignorant about their actual maiden names. The name Panchali, Gandhari and Kaikeyi were derived based on their mother-land viz the Panchala, Gandhara and Kekeya Kingdoms. Another name of Panchali, is Draupadi, which is derived from her father Drupada, the king of Panchala. Yet another name of Panchali is Krishna, which could be the name by which she was called by her parents, but we can never be sure, since it can be a name derived from her physical appearance. She was darker in hue compared to other ladies and hence was called Krishna (the dark one). Same applies to Vasudeva Krishna and Krishna Dwaipayana Vyasa.
Steps taken to prevent the transmission loss
The ancient sages had devised a means to minimize the transmission loss by rendering the literature as poems and hymns, coded in a metric-system (Matra:- guru and laghu sounds) so based on their phonetics. This is much like the check-sum used to ensure the integrity of transmitted information in digital transmission. Though this helped to reduce the distortions that occured during oral transmission of epic literature, it could not eliminate the information-loss completely.
Similary one of the major occupation of the ancient sages and people who handled this epic literature though oral transmission was to assemble togather at one place and render the whole epic commited in memory so that others can varify that they are having the same version and errors had not crept in. This tradition is still existing in India, in spite of the fact that the entire epic has already been writen down and commited to text, and now into hypertext over Internet. The myth of Ganesha writing down the Mahabharata, as Vyasa rendered it from his memory is a glimps of the stage at which the orally transmitted epic is writtend down into text for the first time, possibly by Gana-Patis (heads of the republics) of those ages.
Preservation effect of fables
There is a positive effect also in adding fables to historic facts. They serve to make the information more attractive and appealing which could encourage a society who were less inclined in preserving historical fact than in preserving stories that invoke a sense of wonder and those that deals with their religion. The fiction part of the epic serves as an outer envelop that preserve the core historic information by continuous retelling over generations so that they reach us now (like a fruit is preserved by its outer covering, until it is ready to be consumed by its intended consumers). The ancient sages some times deliberately added these fables to the factual information to make the information long lived. This is like the mummification of information, which otherwise could have dissipated completely in course of a few centuries.
Comparing Illiad and Oddyssy to Mahabharata and Ramayana
Comparison of Illiad and Odyssey which are much less in size compared to Ramayana and Mahabharata, to the extent that the later ones are considered some-how to be a retelling of the former (Homeric) works, seems to be like comparing the stars like Sirius and Betelgeuse to the Sun. Due to proximity to Earth, the Sun is the most familiar star for people of Earth. But in absolute terms Sirius and Betelgeuse are obviously much larger and majestic than the Sun. Who ever says that Mahabharata or Ramayana are a retelling of Homeric works are doing this due to their greater familiarity with Homeric works and their lack of familiarity with the works of Vyasa and Valmiki.