Sunday, March 25, 2007

Ramayana - Myth or History?

Author: Sri Atul Sethi
Mythology, it is said, often has its roots in reality. Or, does it? Take the great epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, for instance. The tantalising question that crops up time and again is whether the events mentioned in these epics actually happened? Did the characters described in them actually exist? How much of the epics is fiction and how much history?

"There are no easy answers to these questions," says historian K M Shrimali. "Historically speaking, I have apprehensions about subscribing to the view that Rama was a historical figure. The scale of the event described as the Mahabharata war and its historicity is also suspect," he says.

This view is echoed by R S Sharma, professor emeritus of the department of history at Patna University, who believes, "Although Krishna plays an important role in the Mahabharata, inscriptions and sculptural pieces found in Mathura dating back to 200 BC and 300 AD do not attest to his presence. Because of this, ideas of an epic age based on the Ramayana and Mahabharata have to be discarded."

Not everybody, however, agrees. N S Rajaram, author of the book Search for the Historical Krishna, says that we are on fairly firm ground when it comes to the historicity of Krishna and the Mahabharata war.

"There is sufficient evidence available now to suggest that Krishna was indeed a historical figure, who lived about 5000 years ago. This evidence is not just literary but also archaeological, geographical as well as astronomical," he claims.

According to Rajaram, we now know more about Krishna than about any other ancient figure with the arguable exception of Rama. Even about Rama, there is significant information available to prove that he was a historical personality, claims Pushkar Bhatnagar, author of the book, Dating the era of Lord Ram.

According to Bhatnagar, the clues to the authenticity of the Ramayana and its characters have been provided by Valmiki himself. "Valmiki, who wrote the Ramayana, was a contemporary of Rama. While narrating the events of the epic, he has mentioned the position of planets in the sky at several places.

Using recent planetary software, it has been possible to verify that these planetary positions actually took place precisely as specified in the Ramayana. Not just a stray event but the entire sequence of the planetary positions as described by Valmiki at various stages of Rama's life can be verified today as having taken place," he says.

"This information is significant, since these configurations do not repeat for lakhs of years and cannot be manipulated or imagined so accurately, without the help of sophisticated software. The inference that one can draw is that someone was present there to witness the actual happening of these configurations, which got recorded in the story of Rama," Bhatnagar adds.

Literary evidence abounds for the existence of Krishna also, says Rajaram. This is because, he says, ancient authors have taken enormous pains to preserve accounts of Krishna's life, times and philosophy even if they did embellish some details like the presence of Radha, who was probably never a historical figure.

Although later literature attributed as many as 16,000 wives to Krishna, there's no evidence to show that he had any other wife, apart from Rukmini.

Beginning with the Mahabharata, says Rajaram, there are numerous works belonging to the tradition of itihaas-puraan or religious texts, which when viewed objectively, reveal several other facts about the man, which have to be sifted from later mythological additions to his personality.

"If we look beyond the myths accumulated over millennia, we can get a clear picture of who Krishna actually was. He emerges as a human figure a practical philosopher par excellence who moved away from the ritualistic practices of the Vedic religion of his time to the action-oriented Sankhya philosophy, embodied in his philosophy of karma yoga of the Bhagavad Gita, which till date remains his transcendent legacy.

Contrary to popular imagination, which portrays him as a romantic hero, the image of Krishna that we get from ancient sources is that of an impeccable statesman. He was an austere and studious man, whose main concerns were political stability and ethical and religious reform," he says.

There are a number of non-sectarian, secular works like Panini's grammar and the Chandogya Upanishad which mention Krishna and provide independent support for his historicity, according to Rajaram. Further clinching literary evidence, he adds, is the reference to Krishna as an asura in contemporary Buddhist works like Sutrapitaka and Lalitavistara.

The very fact that Buddhists of the time who viewed Krishna's teachings of nishkama karma (detached action) as inimical to their own teachings, emphasising renunciation found it necessary to try to discredit him by referring to him as an asura shows that he was recognised as a historical figure even by them, says Rajaram.

Geographical evidence for the epics is also abundant, says Bhatnagar. There still exist many places like Rameshwaram, Kishkindha, Kurukshetra, Hastinapura etc where the visits of Rama and Krishna are part of local folklore, he says.

If the epics are indeed true, which period of history can they be placed? "In all probability, the society described in the Mahabharata corresponded to the early Harappan period, before 3000 BC, since this period was a rich one with numerous urban centres, while the society described in the Ramayana was less urbanised and more agrarian.

Most scholars today place the Mahabharata war around 3100 BC. The Mahabharata also states that Brihadbala, 32nd in descent from Rama, was killed by Arjuna's son, Abhimanyu in the war. So we may tentatively place Rama 650 to 750 years before the war," says Rajaram.

According to Bhatnagar however, a period of at least 2000 years separates the two personalities. "This is because on the basis of astronomical dating, we can now say that Rama lived during the 5th century BC, while Krishna is believed by scholars like Aryabhatta to have belonged to the 3rd century BC."

But, why is there not much archaeological evidence that points towards their existence? Because such an effort has not been made in India and systematic excavations have never been carried out, says historian Nandita Krishnan.

"Nobody believed that Homer's Iliad was a true story till Troy was discovered after extensive archaeology. Unfortunately, the sites of the Ramayana and Mahabharata have now been built over many times and it may never be possible to excavate extensively either at Ayodhya or Mathura," she adds.

Lack of archaeological evidence is no excuse for denying the existence of history, sums up Bhatnagar. "If the buildings of that time over 7000 years ago do not exist today, can we just infer that civilisations and personalities of that time also did not exist?"

Article written by Sri Atul Sethi appeared in Times Of India on March 11, 2007.

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