Friday, 7 July 2017

Mahabharatha and Ramayana - History or Mythology?

Mahabharatha and Ramayana are both works of prose/poetry, and are hence subject to exaggerations as figures of speech. However, the problem arises when one takes figures of speech such as personification and pathetic fallacy literally. When one does that, it converts a beautifully written work of prose/poetry into an illogical sounding text, thereby adding the connotation of “mythology” to it. In this post, I intend to show that Mahabharatha and Ramayana are indeed history, by looking at works composed contemporaneously with them that are considered historical, and analyzing what they say about the Mahabharatha and Ramayana. Do they say that these epics are historical, or do they say that the epics are fictional?
However, prior to doing so, I will discuss some of the flaws in the more common arguments presented by Hindus about Ramayana and Mahabharatha being history!
Flawed Arguments About Mahabharatha and Ramayana Being Historical Records
In my opinion, Ramayana and Mahabharata actually took place. However, if we are looking for evidence, it will be hard to find it. Some people use astronomical references in the epics to come to a single date when the epics took place. However, this is not conclusive, as it just tells us the date when the epic was written. It however, does not tell us whether the epic actually took place in real life. What I mean to say is that a date of 1500 BCE for one epic would suggest that the person who wrote the epic lived around 1500 BCE. But it does not clarify whether or not the person writing the epic wrote a work of fiction or non-fiction. Likewise, others have pointed out from research that the floura and fauna at the time of the epics corresponded to an specific ancient period in history. All this suggests is that the poets who wrote the epics lived in that ancient period of time. Whether they wrote the epic as a work of fiction or non-fiction is still unclear. Then we also have those who think that nuclear weapons were used in the Kurukshetra war and weapons like brahmastra were nuclear weapons. They then try to find evidence of nuclear explosions in sites like Harappa and Mohenjo Daro, and subsequently connect the dots to conclude that Mahabharatha took place at those sites and that the damage there is due to the brahmastra. However, such people have to read the epic more carefully. Below is a description of the damage caused by the brahmastra:
Thus assailed on all sides by the foremost of Pandava warriors, Karna invoked into existence the brahmastra and filled all the points of the compass with arrows. The heroic Karna then, like unto a blazing fire having shafts for its scorching flame, careered in battle, burning that forest of Pandavas troops.
Karna Parva: Section 49
Seeing that weapon thus destroyed, the Vrishni hero, addressing Arjuna, said, "Shoot high weapons, O Partha! The son of Radha baffles thy shafts." With proper mantras, Arjuna then fixed the brahmastra on his string, and shrouding all the points of the compass with arrows, Partha struck Karna (with many) arrows.
Karna Parva: Section 90
As we can see here, brahmastra if considered to be a weapon is some sort of weapon/device that allows a warrior to show numerous arrows in all direction at a rapid speed. In my opinion, the brahmastra is a symbolic weapon. It simply symbolizes the rapid speed at which a warrior fires arrows in all directions. When the warrior is in the momentum and fires arrows rapidly in all directions, he is said to have invoked the brahmastra. Then we have the Agneya Astra, which emitted fire on all sides and caused massive destruction. Here is a description of the destruction caused by it:
The valiant Aswatthaman, then, staying resolutely on his car, touched water and invoked the Agneya weapon incapable of being resisted by the very gods. Aiming at all his visible and invisible foes, the preceptor's son, that slayer of hostile heroes, inspired with mantras a blazing shaft possessed of the effulgence of a smokeless fire, and let it off on all sides, filled with rage. Dense showers of arrows then issued from it in the welkin. Endued with fiery flames, those arrows encompassed Partha on all sides.
Drona Parva: Drona-vadha Parva: Section CCI
From this description, the Agneya Astra seems like a dense shower of arrows that emits fire. This Agneya Astra was therefore simply arrows that were dipped in inflammable material, such that once set on fire by the warrior and released, it would seem that they were emitting fire. That is supported by the following passage from Udyoga Parva, where it is mentioned that inflammable matter was taken to the Kuruksetra battlefield, to be used in war:
And furnished with timber and planks for repairing the damages their cars might sustain in the press of battle, with large quivers borne on cars, with tiger-skins and other stiff leather for enveloping the sides of cars, with barbed javelins to be hurled by the hand, with quivers borne on the backs of steeds and elephants, with long-handled spears of iron and missiles, with quivers borne on the backs of foot-soldiers with heavy clubs of woods, with flagstaffs and banners, with long heavy shafts shot from bows, with diverse kinds of nooses and lassoes, with armour of various kinds, with short-pointed clubs of wood, with oil, treacle, and sand, with earthen pots filled with poisonous snakes, with pulverised lac and other inflammable matter, with short spears furnished with tinkling bells, with diverse weapons of iron, and machines, for hurling hot treacle, water, and stones, with whistling clubs of hard wood, with wax and heavy mallets, with clubs of wood having iron spikes, with plough-poles and poisoned darts, with long syringes for pouring warm treacle and planks of cane, with battle-axes and forked lances with spiked gauntlets, with axes and pointed iron-spikes, with cars having their sides covered with skins of tigers, and leopards, with sharp-edged circular planks of wood, with horns, with javelins and various other weapons of attack, with axes of the kutharaspecies, and spades, with cloths steeped in oil, and with clarified butter, the divisions of Duryodhana, glittering with robes embroidered with gold and decked with various kinds of jewels and gems and consisting of warriors endued with handsome persons, blazed forth like fire.
Udyoga Parva: Bhagwat Yana Parva: Section CLVI 
This passage gives rise to the possibility that the inflammable material from the earthen pots was used to generate the fire from well known weapons like the Agneya Astra. If we also read the rest of this passage, it would be obvious that the weapons used were rather primitive, such as javelins, spears, clubs, axes, mallets, stones, etc… This further corroborates the claims that I earlier made, and suggests that there is no way nuclear weapons could be used back in Mahabharatha times!
Hence, most of the arguments given by people who claim that there is evidence that Mahabharatha and Ramayana did take place, are severely flawed.
A More Logical Way to Approach This Problem!
The ways to actually determine if the Mahabharatha and Ramayana happened with certainty would be to analyze historical records, if any, of those kingdoms that were conquered by the Vedic Aryans in the Kurukshetra and Lankan wars. In the Kurukshetra war, most of the Mleecha, Yavana, Rakshasa, and other non-Vedic kings and tribes were slaughtered, hence any look for historical records from those kingdoms would be pointless! Likewise, Lanka was devastated after the war in Ramayana, hence the Lankan records of the destruction would be scarce. Hence, the best option would be to search for oral records of any war. Although historical records may have not been made, or either destroyed due to external factors, the oral tradition would ensure that history would be propagated from one generation to the next. In modern day Sri Lanka, the oral tradition has kept the story of Ravana and Seetha alive. There are places in Sri Lanka that are said to correspond to the epic. For example, it was said that Weragantota was the place where Seetha lived in Lanka, and Gurulupotha was where Ravana’s Vimanas were repaired (Places: Weragantota by Kaviru Gunaratne on Uncovering the True Pearl of the Indian Ocean…). This oral tradition suggests very strongly that Ramayana did have some basis in history.
Kautilya’s Arthashastra
Valmiki Ramayana and Vyasa Mahabharatha, the most ancient versions of the epics, were found by scholars to be composed around 400 BCE to 400 CE. The earliest form of the epics were composed around 400 BCE, and they underwent many changes till they reached their final form in 400 CE. On the other hand, Kautilya’s Arthashatra was composed around 400 BCE to 200 CE. Its earliest form was composed around 400 BCE by Kautilya, and it underwent changes till it reached its final form by 200 CE. This means that it was initially composed around the same time as the epics Mahabharatha and Ramayana. Hence, if Mahabharatha and Ramayana were merely works of fiction, Kautilya would have noticed that, as he lived around the time of the poet(s) who composed the earliest forms of the two epics. For example, it is not too hard for me living in the 21st century to realize whether or not a poem written in the 21st century depicts reality or is a fictional work. I can check if there is an oral tradition or previous records that show that the poem deals with a historical event, by interacting with the poet and looking at his/her sources. Similarly, it would not have been hard for Kautilya to do the same and realize whether or not the epics Mahabharatha and Ramayana are fictional works or not. Hence, one way of approaching the problem of whether or not Mahabharatha and Ramayana actually took place is to scan Kautilya’s Arthashastra for references to Mahabharatha and Ramayana, and see whether or not Mahabharatha and Ramayana are described as historical events, in the Arthashastra:
In Book I of Arthashastra (page 16), Kautilya says:
Rávana unwilling under the influence of vanity to restore a stranger's wife, as well as Duryodhana to part with a portion of his kingdom; Dambhodbhava as well as Arjuna of Haihaya dynasty being so haughty as to despise all people; Vátápi in his attempt under the influence of overjoy to attack Agastya, as well as the corporation of the Vrishnis in their attempt against Dvaipáyana. Thus these and other several kings, falling a prey to the aggregate of the six enemies and having failed to restrain their organs of sense, perished together with their kingdom and relations.
In this passage, Kautilya mentions Duryodhana, Dvaipayana, and the Vrishnis who were from Mahabharatha, and Ravana, Vatapi, and Agastya, who were from Ramayana. He gives us no hint in this text that these were fictional characters or that Mahabharatha or Ramayana were works of fiction. He addresses these characters as “kings”, instead of “mythological kings”, thereby suggesting that these people were actual historical figures, not a figment of the poet’s imagination!
Then, in Book VIII (page 476), Kautilya says:
The fourfold vices due to desire are hunting, gambling, women and drinking. Pisuna says that of hunting and gambling, hunting is a worse vice; for falling into the hand of robbers, enemies and elephants, getting into wild fire, fear, inability to distinguish between the cardinal points, hunger, thirst and loss of life are evils consequent upon hunting, whereas in gambling, the expert gambler wins a victory like Jayatsena and Duryodhana.
No, says Kautilya, of the two parties, one has to suffer from defeat, as is well known from the history of Nala and Yudhishthira; the same wealth that is won like a piece of flesh in gambling, causes enmity. Lack of recognition of wealth properly acquired, acquisition of ill-gotten wealth, loss of wealth without enjoyment, staying away from answering the calls of nature, and contracting diseases from not taking timely meals, are the evils of gambling, whereas in hunting, exercise, the disappearance of phlegm, bile, fat, and sweat, the acquisition of skill in aiming at stationary and moving bodies, the ascertainment of the appearance of beasts when provoked, and occasional march (are its good characteristics).
This passage again mentions Duryodhana, Nala, and Yuddhistira, all of whom were mentioned in Mahabharatha. Furthermore, a phrase from the second paragraph reads “as is well known from the history of Nala and Yudhistira”. The fact that the passage uses the word history implies that Mahabharatha was an actual historical event, not simply a poem that is a work of fiction.
For those that still are not ready to accept that the epics were a work of history and raise the point that it is not logically possible for Gods (Devas) to be a part of history, they should first look at my previous post: Shiva A Pre-Vedic God, Vishnu A Post-Vedic God. In that post, I provide a reference from Mahabharatha that the Devas were not actually God, but instead a tribe of humans that lived in territories North of India.
Furthermore, in Book II (page 73) of Arthashastra, Kautilya says:
In the centre of the city, the apartments of Gods such as Aparájita, Apratihata, Jayanta, Vaijayanta, Siva, Vaisravana, Asvina (divine physicians), and the honourable liquor-house (Srí-madiragriham), shall be situated. In the corners, the guardian deities of the ground shall be appropriately set up. Likewise the principal gates such as Bráhma, Aindra, Yámya, and Sainápatya shall be constructed; and at a distance of 100 bows (dhanus = 108 angulas) from the ditch (on the counterscarp side), places of worship and pilgrimage, groves and buildings shall be constructed. Guardian deities of all quarters shall also be set up in quarters appropriate to them.
We can all agree that Kautilya was a historical figure, and his Arthashastra provided details for a historical kingdom, not a mythological one. Then why does he talk about the apartments of Devas and guardian deities in the kingdom? The logical answer is that these Devas were prominent humans in the kingdom and hence respected by giving them the title of Deva. Since a large portion of Arthashastra is influenced by Mahabharatha, we can apply the same logic to Mahabharatha. The Devas were tribes of humans that were respected with the title of God (Deva) due to the reverence of the Vedic People for them.
From these passages of the Arthashastra, it should be evident that Kautilya, who lived around the same period of the poets that composed the Mahabharatha, knew that Mahabharatha was history, and not mythology.
Vatsyayana’s Kamasutra
The Kamasutra of Vatsyayana was also composed in the same period as the Arthashastra, from 400 BCE to 200 CE, with its earliest form around 400 BCE. Hence, Vatsyayana lived in the same time period as Kautilya and the composers of the epics, Mahabharatha and Ramayana. This means that he would have known whether these epics were actually history or merely a work of fiction. A look at the Kamasutra may therefore indicate whether Vatsyayana considered the epics as history or fiction. Hence, it is imperative to look at some passages from the Kamasutra.
A passage from Chapter 2 (pages 24–25) of the Kamasutra reads:
It is notorious, moreover, that many men who have given themselves up to pleasure alone, have been ruined along with their families and relations. Thus, king Dandakya, of the Bhoja dynasty, carried off a Brahman's daughter with evil intent, and was eventually ruined and lost his kingdom. Indra, too, having violated the chastity of Ahalya, was made to suffer for it. In a like manner the mighty Kichaka, who tried to seduce Draupadi, and Ravana, who attempted to gain over Sita, were punished for their crimes. These and many others fell by reason of their pleasures. 
In this passage, Kichaka, Draupadi, Indra, Ahalya, Ravana and Seetha are mentioned. However, Vatsyayana does not mention that they are mythological characters, thereby implying that the kings and dynasties mentioned in the above passage were real. Hence, according to the Kamasutra as well, which was composed around the same time as the epics, Mahabharatha and Ramayana were not mythologies. Instead, they were history. This supports the view presented in Kautilya’s Arthashastra, and therefore suggests that it is highly likely that the Mahabharatha and Ramayana had their basis in genuine history!

Image result for mahabharata war


  1. Milin patel you disappoint me. you rely on Kautilyas arthashashtra way too much and also used the word characters instead of actual people.

    1. I used the Arthashastra because it is considered a historical document by scholars. The point was to use the passages in this historical document (Arthashastra) regarding Mahabharatha and Ramayana to prove that Kautilya knew that the two epics were itihaasa (history).

      I did not rely on Mahabharatha and Ramayana in this post because one cannot prove the historicity of the epics by referencing the epics themselves. You need some external sources to confirm that the epics were history.

      The point of the post was to prove that Mahabharatha and Ramayana is history. So prior to proving that it is history, it is not correct to address the characters as actual people.