History and Myth in Hinduism
Dr Uma Shankari*
We recently started serializing the essays on the temples of India. These essays have been written by Dr Uma Shankari who has done her PhD on the Hindu temples. It had involved living in a small town Thiruvarur, in the Thanjavur region of Tamil Nadu for over two years, visiting several temples in the region, engaging with temple functionaries, exploring the symbolism of the pantheon, myths, beliefs, iconography and worship systems, studying the inscriptions, trying to understand the evolution of the temples and changes through history, and the place of temples in the changing society. The temple study provided the author, a young adult at the time of her reserach, with an entry point into the complex world of the Hindu religion and its relation with the Hindu society, at least as it pertained to the south of India. You can read the first part here. Below is the second part of her essays, which is about the myths and history in Hinduism.
Unlike the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), Hinduism has no one single holy text like the Bible or the Quran to follow or fall back for ultimate reference. The Vedas are supposed to be such a set of ‘revealed books’, revealed just like the Quran. It is also claimed that the Vedas have been passed down orally without any change, but no one can vouch for it, as there was no written text till recently. This equating the Vedas with the Bible was again a trend brought by the British, because they came from a ‘One God-One Book culture’.
In our country very few knew the Vedas in the original, as learning the Vedas was largely restricted to Brahmins. Other castes could study the Vedas, but not teach them or officiate in the rituals. Of those who learnt the Vedas, few understood what is written in them, for the language itself is quite different from the classical Sanskrit. Today, translations of the Vedas exist but that was not so in the past. And even the translations cannot be understood; their meanings are obscure, and we need scholarly interpretations to understand what they mean. But meaning or not, just reciting them is considered a sacred act, and therefore we arrange for Brahmin priests to recite them in the various domestic and public rituals, like marriage, funerals, establishment of temples, etc. this is somewhat like the Quran. Many people know how to read the Quran but don’t know the Arabic language. Just reading the Quran itself is considered a sacred act.
Vedas were passed down by oral instruction only from qualified teachers to qualified students, and that too only to the students who attended the Vedic schools (Veda Paathsaala). And these students mostly belonged to the Brahmin caste. Most of them learnt the Vedas by rote to recite them while officiating in private and public rituals. These schools often did not teach the meanings of these hymns; that was a study meant only for a few specialists.
Apart from the four Vedas, several scriptures, from the greatest antiquity to the most recent times, are treated as reference books and manuals for specific groups of the Hindus to follow – 6 Vedangas (Siksha = phonetics, Chandas- Metre, Vyakarana- grammar, Nirukta=etymology, Kalpa=ritual manuals, Jyothisha=astronomy an astrology), 6 systems of philosophy- (Nyaya, Vaisheshika , Samkhya, Yoga, Mimamsa and Vedanta), 20 smrithis or codes of law, 10 Upanishads or philosophical treatises about God-man-world, sacred epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata (the philosophical treatise of Bhagvad Gita forms a part of Mahabharata), Puranas like Bhagavatam, Devi Mahatmyam, Vishnu Puranam, Siva Puranam, Skanda Puranam – to mention a few. These dealt with the relationship of God-man-world, nature of knowledge and truth, social classification, duties of individuals, specific subjects like astronomy and astrology, medicine, rituals – how to conduct domestic rituals and public rituals, legends of great warriors, saints, and their lives, myths about gods and goddesses, etc. etc. It is not clear who wrote these texts or when they were written. The texts often traced the authorship to an ancient sage or rishi. There have also been additions and interpolations to them time and again, without any mention of who made the additions or what was the original. It is opined by scholars that the first book of the Rig Veda itself is a later-day addition. Mahabharata is a great example of such additions. Vyasa the author of Mahabharata is said to have witnessed the events and also to write about them. Vyasa is supposed to be an immortal sage, and therefore he is said to have authored/ compiled a number of scriptures through the ages, from Vedas to Mahabharata to Yoga Sutras to Vishnu Puranam, Devi Bhagavatam, regardless of time and age. These texts were also largely orally transmitted. They were sometimes written in palm leaf manuscripts.
This is a very different scenario from Abrahamic religious texts, which are authored by or ‘revealed’ to prophets like Moses, or Mohammad, or Jesus Christ, whose lives can be traced to certain definite historical periods, whose writings can be dated by the historians quite precisely, give or take a few years, through internal and external evidence. (https://www.history.com/news/who-wrote-the-bible) Abrahamic religions have been a part of a written text tradition right ancient periods. Writing and recording events of the past and present, and prophesies of future events has been an ancient tradition, right from the Egyptian civilization (around 3000 BCE) through the Babylonian periods (around 1500 BCE). Although they too have their own myths and fables, historical happenings have been recorded in writing with dates and places which are verifiable by modern historians. Their scriptures are also subject to interpretations and re-interpretations, but the range and scope of them is limited, given the fact that they do have a written text, a book which has come down through the ages more or less intact, which acts as the ultimate point of reference.
We are late comers to written text tradition. The first written historical document in India are the edicts of Ashoka in Brahmi script around 300 BC. The first historical written document about India is by travelers like Megasthenes, a Greek traveler with the Prince Alexander at the time of Chandra Gupta Maurya, the grandfather of Ashoka.
I may dare say that Hindus didn’t care about history as it is now understood, as a ‘true’ record of the past – that is, facts, events and trends of the past, to be culled out from historical sources such as documents, archeological materials, and inscriptions. Hindus instead created a huge corpus of myths.
Mythic imagination is a mind game; it is to play with possibilities. It is a space where animals speak with humans, humans speak with gods and goddesses; humans think and do things which are not humanly possible. Myths are ‘true’ not in the sense of what actually happened in the past; they are ‘true’ in their truth; in their essence, in their message, in their principles.
The purpose of Hindu myths was often to tell a story through which to guide the followers to conduct their lives in the right and righteous way, according to their situation. One is required to be wise enough to lead one’s life according to one’s space, time and situation of the individual- ‘desa, kaala, paatra’, and to grapple creatively with all the related moral and emotional dilemmas. It was fully understood that life is ‘transitory’ and change is inevitable and that principles matter, not the specific rules. In times of crisis, one may even change the rules drastically- ‘aapad dharma’– ‘duty when faced with danger’. That is why recourse to myths and parables as guiding principles was resorted to. In the case of rituals too, a rigid formula was not necessary; often ‘substitutes’ to original/correct practices were resorted to, as the saying goes, “if you can’t offer gold to god, place a flower.” Even a sacred Tulasi or Bilva leaf would do; what matters is the devotion or the spirit behind it.
Recording history ‘as it happened’ was not a dominant practice in Hindu history. The Buddhists and Mughals did take up chronicling their history to some limited extent. Hindus also did it to some extent by creating family trees and chronicles; but most of the writings were in the form of parables, myths, hagiographic legends, didactic manuals for ethics/morals, or ritual texts for correct ways to conduct the appropriate rituals. Most of religious instruction and discourse was in the form of oral communication. Reading and writing was accessible to a very few sections of the population. Most of the population depended on oral instruction for education in any sector. (This was in no way a handicap; Indians excelled in many spheres.)
The result was that true facts/events got mixed up with imagined stories, myths, legends and interpretations. Therefore, what we have in India is a rich mythic imagination – a huge corpus of stories/legends accompanied by worship and rituals. New myths and legends keep cropping up and it is difficult to date events with any accuracy. People at large fail to differentiate myths from history. In fact the words, ‘itihas’ and ‘purana’ are used for denoting ‘history’ but the existing puranas and itihasas such as Ramayana, Mahabharata and Bhagavatam or Devi Mahatmiyam are mostly in the idiom of myths rather than history. For instance, was Ram a historical figure? is Ramayana a historical event or is it a story? Did Ram go up to Sri Lanka to defeat Ravana? Even if there was a king called Ram, the story may have gone through many additions and deletions, so that what we know today as Ramayana in India may be a mix of history buried in history and a myth buried in a maze of myths.
The myths also vary from region to region and between different social communities, sometimes completely contradictory to each other. In fact, the mythological corpus in India is a huge maze through which one has to proceed to make sense of the underlying patterns and structures.
The British and other colonial officials, coming from the “book culture” of these religions, were interested in history, (recording of events as they happened in the past) and introduced modern historiography in India. Today history has come to be a respectable discipline in India, taught right from a young age in schools to a very specialized discipline at higher educational levels, involving a serious study of texts, inscriptions and archeological artifacts. It may be said that modern historiography, in India as elsewhere, is also influenced by the ideological moorings of the writers, but there is aspiration and commitment to description and interpretation of true events and trends as reflected in the sources; to be explicit about and to be faithful to the sources of such ‘historical facts’.
The present-day Hindu faces a peculiar dilemma. He is caught between history (which places a record of ‘true’ events of the past), myths (a set of parables and legends which are narrated like history, but which are a mix of true events and imagined stories), and science (in which all ‘truths’ are tentative until proved otherwise). He is also caught between different sects which worship different deities, different regional/caste/family worship traditions. So, he has to perforce sculpt out his own brand of Hinduism!
Of course, he doesn’t do it all by himself; he often inherits his belief system from his family, caste, local community; or/and he imbibes them from the religious leaders – the Babas and the Gurus. And there is no dearth of them. The real point, however, is that he is free to choose, to be totally subjective in what he selects to be his personal faith, his personal God or Goddess, as there is no single reference point to which he needs to adhere.
Does it mean he is totally free to choose? Well, the social communities to which people belong may impose different degrees of restrictions on the individuals. And these can be very oppressive. But these are essentially local/regional communities and an individual can always escape from them to join another sect or religion. We will examine this aspect in the next part of this series.
Image source: https://educationfiber.com/ram-setu-the-march-to-lanka/
*Dr Uma Shankari who has a doctorate in Sociology from the University of Delhi, has been associated with various social movements since early eighties. She has published a book in Tamil which is about the relation between temples and the Hindu religion and society.