Bharatiya historiography: role of Ramayana and Mahabharata

Bharatiya historiography: role of Ramayana and Mahabharata

Bharatiya historiography cannot be straight-jacketed in the present-day contexts or meanings of ‘history’ as a chronicle, a chronology or narration of human progress.

Bharatiya historiography is founded on brahma yajna and many manifestations of knowledge represented by this aadhyaatmika journey of the practitioner, the aatman. Bharatiya historiography is an integral inquiry into phenomena and in relation to one’s station in life and the dharma to be performed for attaining nihs’reyas and abhyudayam.

Brahma yajna is a process of knowing about the cosmos and includes many facets of learning through many sources.

In the context of brahma yajna, Taittiriya Aranyaka notes:

Somaahutibhir yad atharvaangiraso madhvaahutibhir yad braahman.aaneetihaasaan puraan.aani kalpaan gaathaa naaraas’amseer medaahutitirbhirava tad devas tarpati ta enam truptaa aayushaa tejasaa varcasaa s’riyaa yas’asaa brahma varcasena annaadyena ca tarpayanti (2.10)

Chandogya Upanishad (7.1.4) brackets itihaasa and puraan.a with the Veda:

Mimaamsate ca yo vedaan s.ad.bhiangaih savistaraih

Itihaasa puraan.aani sa bhaved veda paragah

(One who studies thoroughly the Veda along with it’s six limbs and the itihaasa and puraan.a becomes a true knower of the Veda)

The list of history related terms are: braahman.a, itihaasa, puraan.a, kalpa, gaathaa naaraas’amsee, aakhyaana

All these terms are in plural. There are many itihaasa, many puraan.a. The tradition holds the Ramayana and Mahabharata to be itihaasa.

The compound, iti-ha-aasa means ‘so indeed it was’.

Puraan.a means ‘belonging to ancient times’.

Aakhyaana means ‘narrations, recitation of historical narrations’ (S’rimadbhagavatam 1.9.28); aakhyaayika means ‘anectode’.

Itivrtta means ‘kaavya’ or literary works or lores, and can be in three forms: naat.aka, nr.tya, keertana.

kalpa is a cycle of creation. For example, kalpa sutra in the Jaina tradition includes the narrations of the lives of Mahavira and other tirthankara.

Gaatha are meditations. One group of 17 sacred texts called Gaatha in the Avestan tradition, referring to the holy songs of Zarathushtra. In Rigveda (1.167.6, 9.11.4), the term, gaatha is used as a reference to a song. In some contexts, gaatha also refers to poetry of legends or aakhyaana (e.g., S’unahs’epa aakhyaana, Supran.a aakhyaana) or to a metrical part of the Bauddha utra.

Naaraas’amsee gaathaa means ‘songs in praise in the Rigveda’. Some also interpret the term as a reference to anecdotes gleaned from the Veda. (For example, in Brihaddevataa, adhyaaya 2, naaras’amsi, pavamaana and jaatavedas are grouped together as songs to divinities including pavamaana soma, personified material; divinities of Rigveda also include tanoonapat and naaras’amsi who are divinities of the apri rica-s indicating idhma as a form of agni; divinities of Rigveda 1.14-15 include tanoonapat, naaras’amsi, il.aa, barhis).

S’ivagita is included in the uttarakanda of Padma Purana. “The Siva Gita begins with episode from the Ramayana epic, where Rama is despondent over the loss of Sita. At this time, Rama is visited by Sage Agastya, and Sage Agastya prescribes to Rama that he should observe a special vow called the Pasupata vrata. By observing this vow Agastya promises that Rama shall have a vision of Lord Siva, and will receive the Pasupata arrow without which Ravana cannot be defeated. Rama performs the vow and at the end of four months receives a divine vision of Siva. Siva presents Rama with the Pasupata arrow, and Rama in turn asks Lord Siva a series of questions. The dialogue between Sri Rama and Lord Siva makes up the bulk of the Siva Gita.”

Some excerpts have been cited from this text of S’ivagita:

[quote]I am the Rg Veda, the Yajur Veda, the Sāma Veda, the Atharvana, full of sacred mantras, and similarly the distinguished Angiras all originate from Me. ||16||
I am the Itihāsas, the Purāņas, I am the kalpa (cycle of creation), and the performer of the rituals. I am the Narasamsi (hymn of Rudra); I am the Gātha (hymn praising Vedic ritual). I am meditation and the secret wisdom. ||17|| [quote]

The brahmayajna verses cited earlier read with this text show that in the scheme of knowledge and the texts to be read and understood include, apart from the Veda, the itihaasa, puraan.a, kalpa, naaras’amsi and gaatha.

Other terms which have a reference to such studies are: aakhyaana, itivr.tta, vams’a, vams’aanucarita. Good example of vams’a and vams’aanucarita are provided in the work of Bana Bhatta, Harshacarita and of Vakpatiraja, Padmagupta, Atula, Bilhana, Bhulokamalla, Jayanaka, Kalhana.

Veda and Puraan.a are sometimes referred to as apaurusheya:

Atharva veda 11.7.24: rcah saamaani chandaamsi puraan.am yajusaa saha

Ucchis.t.ajjajnire sarve divi deva divis’ritah (Rig, Saama, Yajur and Atharva veda, along with the Puraan.a, and all the divinities residing in heavenly planets appeared from the Supreme).

Atharva Veda 15.6.10,12 also lists itihaasa in the following context:

Sa br.hatim dis’amanuvyacalat

Tam itihaasas’ca puraan.am ca gaathaas’ca

Itihaasasya ca sa vai puraan.asya ca gaathaanaam ca

Naaras’amseenaam ca priyamdhama bhavati ya evam veda

(He moved favourably towards Br.hati and thus the itihaasa, puraan.a, gata and naaras’amsee became favourable to him. One who knows this verily becomes the dear abode of the itihaasa and puraan.a and naaras’amsee)

Gopatha Braahman.a Purva 2.10 notes and adds a new term, anvakhyaata:

Evamime sarve veda nirmitah sa kalpah

Sa rahasyah sa braahman.ah sopanis’at.kah

Setihaasah sa anvakhyatah sa puraan.aah

(In this way all the Veda became manifest along with the Kalpa, Rahasya, braahman.a, Upanishad, itihaasa, anvakhyaata and puraan.a)

Note: these citations and translations from Atharva Veda and Gopatha Braahman.a are after http://kkswami.com/faith/Appendix-10-Sri-Tattva-sandarbha.php

Many aberrations and distortions in understanding the ancient hindu civilization arise from a misunderstanding or lack of understanding of the evolution of historiography in Bharatam as a complement to the ultimate purushaartha of upholding dharma in every action and in every inquiry. The aberrations and distortions in Bharatiya Itihaasa have occurred because of this misunderstanding and jumpting to the wrong conclusion that Bharatiya lack a sense of ‘history’ (as defined by the western academics).

History in bharatiya tradition is an vast and expansive continuum in time and space. The sankalpa mantra uttered before beginning the brahma yajna exemplifies this tradition, first locating the practitioner or student in time and space, before proceeding with the s’ikshaa. In this sikshaa which is also a deekshaa, itihaasa is only one part of studying paraa and aparaa vidyaa. Ramayana and Mahabharata are the itihaasa in this hindu civilization continuum. Both these itihaasa should be viewed only in the cultural context in which they have been communicated to the people through many media such as pravacana, naat.aka, puppetry, dance and song. One has only to see the importance of Ramayana by listening to the kriti-s of Tyagaraja, dances of Thailand or of Mahabharata by viewing the puppet shows in Indonesia.

To say that Ramayana and Mahabharata are not ‘historical texts’ is an unfortunate misunderstanding of the context in which these itihaasa are rendered and accepted by many citizens in many parts of the world, in general, of Bharatam, in particular. I submit that Ramayana and Mahabharata are the sheet-anchors of Bharatiya Itihaasa. We have to research on and delve deep into these texts to document a grand narrative of Bharatiya Itihaasa.

Kalyanaraman

10 Nov. 2007

Sarasvati Research Centre. Kalyan97@gmail.com

2 Responses to Bharatiya historiography: role of Ramayana and Mahabharata

  1. funfacts says:

    I was searching for this kind of a blog for months now. Actually lost the hope of finding one, but here i am🙂 Thanks for the great articles! Looking forward for a little read after dinner🙂

  2. Kaushal says:

    i am looking for a quote in the Mahabharata which goes like this

    itihaasa puranabhyamvedam samupabrnhayet

    on the necessity of studying itihaaasa

    cans somebody diect met the exact quote . I am looking for the earliest referenceto the srtudy of history in ancient india

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