FROM INDUS TO INDEPENDENCE: A TREK THROUGH INDIAN HISTORY

Canberra, 19 December 2012

Part 5  
THE VEDIC AGE (1500 BC – about 500 AD)
Section I: DECIPHERING THE EPICS
The decline and disappearance of the Harappan Civilisation can be regarded as the beginning of recorded history in the Indian context where textual sources provide verifiable information for the historian to analyse. There are also sufficient archaeological sources that are available to reinforce the information in the texts although corroborating identified excavated objects with a particular group or person mentioned in the text could at times become a complicated process. Another point of interest is that the centre of the story now moves to the Gangetic Plains, where it will remain anchored for the rest of the history of the subcontinent with frequent forays back to the west from whence the people had migrated, to the east in a continuation of the migration process and to the south into the Peninsula in conquest, colonisation and secondary migration.
The narrative of the settlements on the Gangetic Plains themselves start with an enigma—in a number of places hoards of copper, dated to sometime before 1000 BC, have been excavated and the reason for their being buried remain a mystery. However, some of the copper is in the form of bars that clearly indicate that copper was traded during this period. There is also speculation that the copper could be reworked and recycled metal from earlier inhabitants of the same plains. The fundamental fact is that when the people from the Indus Valley migrated east, for whatever reason, the plains were not unoccupied and it can be surmised that a certain amount intermingling took place between the new arrivals and the original inhabitants. It is also possible that the original inhabitants moved further east and to the south towards the Vindhya ranges because of the migratory push from the west.
The Texts
There are a number of texts, from different cultures and religions that refer to the beginning of the human race in a common manner with only minor variations. Although the texts of this period in Indian history were initially maintained in the oral tradition, they can be clearly divided into two categories—first, the ones that were memorised with extreme precision and forms the basis for the Vedic corpus of texts, which were subsequently written down centuries later; and second, the other texts that tell the stories of great deeds and of heroes, which were memorised in a much more informal manner, providing individual bards with the opportunity to add-on explanations and extrapolations at will. While this process of embellishments perhaps improved the story, they also ended up gradually corrupting the original story. The major texts in the second category are the epics Mahabharata and Ramayana, and the Puranas, which were written down at a much later date than the Vedic body of texts.
These epics would have assumed their current form around 900-800 BC and are no doubt stories that reflect original and genuine historical events. However, in their repeated telling, later generations have manipulated the stories—through additions and omissions—to suit their own purposes, rather than being faithful to the original. Both the Mahabharata and the Ramayana exist today in several versions (this aspect is discussed in brief, later in this chapter) and is reliably dated as having originated around 500 years after the Vedas. However, both the stories are of events that pre-date all the Vedas except the Rig Veda, which is the first of all the texts. Although it can be ascertained that the basic events described in these texts did take place, because of the embellishments (the add-ons) that they have suffered in their oral travel down generations and millennia, it is difficult to attribute accurate dates to the events and also to separate the core account from the surrounding secondary, and times, obfuscating stories.
The Puranas
Puranas, meaning ‘ancient legends’, dates between 250-500 AD and contains myths, legends, and genealogies of gods, heroes and saints that go back to Manu, considered the first man on earth. Along with the two epics, with which they are closely linked in origin, the Puranas became the scriptures of the common people and thence of popular Hinduism (Hinduism as such will be explained in a later chapter), especially since the Vedas were restricted to initiated men of the higher religious orders. Although in this section the Puranas are being dealt with before the other two epics, they are considered to be the chronological aftermath of Mahabharata and Ramayana. Puranas essentially deal with the work and power of the gods, with Amarasinha, a 5th century AD Sanskrit scholar, identifying the five characteristic topics that are covered in the Puranas—the creation of the universe; its destruction and renovation; the genealogy of gods and patriarchs; the reigns of the Manus, forming the periods called ‘Manwantaras’; and the history of the Solar and Lunar races of kings. Because of this tradition, the Puranas are replete with the names of the protagonists from both the epics, Vedic chiefs and the leaders of the more powerful tribes. It is also certain that the Puranas began with the Aryan bards and have been reworked over time until they were rendered into the written form centuries later. Since the emphasis is on religious fables and genealogies—which could have been manipulated to elevate the pedigree and status of later dynasties and/or accent the importance of the Brahmans (who were slowly becoming the keepers of knowledge and genealogies)—there is obvious dilution of the historical content of the Puranas. There is also a stream of thought that the genealogies by themselves could be authentic while the stories could have been exaggerated to an extent wherein the actual core is difficult to distinguish from the chaff. The Puranas have not been considered unacceptable as history, and they provide perceptions and perspectives of the past from the viewpoint of the time they were written, around the first millennium AD.
Note: Being the scripture of the common and popular concept of Hinduism, it was the Puranas that British scholars initially studied and almost immediately derided as being fanciful and absurd, thereafter generalising this opinion to all other Hindu religious literature. The concept of time, as perceived by the Hindu, (described later as Part 6) wherein tens of thousands of years are considered the blink of an eye, or descriptions of a single king’s rule for a thousand years, made the British academics and intellectuals believe that the Puranas were nothing but whimsical and far-fetched stories of an imaginative mind. This perception did not make these academics even consider the texts to be of religious importance, based at the root of Hinduism. To actually suppose that the Hindus truly believed in ‘330 million gods and goddesses’ is to completely fail to understand Indian imagination and the place of numbers (quantity) within the creative and interpretive Hindu mind. It requires an inborn, not acquired, imagination and revelatory strategy to read and understand the Puranas, something that the ‘scientifically’ trained and educated British academics failed to fathom.

 

The Puranas represent the deep mythic structuring of the Indian traditions. They are the planks through which the orthodox Vedic construction of religion transcends the expanding, modifying and transforming introduction to the concept of Bhakti or ‘devotion’. It is generally accepted that it is the Puranas that made the transition from Vedic Brahminism to popular Hinduism possible, by being within reach and understanding of the common man.
The Story of How it all Began…
The story of the beginning of mankind in Hindu mythology is a variation of the well-known theme of the flood and survival, originating in the legend of the Mesopotamian flood, (borrowed by the Hebrews in the story of Noah’s Ark) and imported to the Harappan society through its trade and commerce connections with Mesopotamia. The Indian story is narrated in one of the most widely known Puaranas, the Matsya or Vishnu Purana. The narrative goes something like this:
The Earth was ruled by the Manus, the first being Manu Svayambhu (the self-born Manu) born directly of the god Brahma. During the time of the seventh Manu there occurred a great flood that submerged everything. However, god Vishnu had forewarned Manu (the seventh) to build a boat and take his family and seven sages of antiquity into it, while god Vishnu himself took the form of a large fish, fastened to boat to himself in the fish form, and swam till the boat was beached on the top of a peak. Manu, his family and the sages returned after the flood waters had receded. The seventh Manu’s progeny became the ancestors of many illustrious lineages, with his eldest son Ikshvaku becoming the ancestor of the Suryavansha (solar lineage) and the youngest child, a daughter, Ila, becoming the ancestor of the Chandravansha (lunar lineage). There are few facts that come out of this remarkable, yet common narrative of the beginning of the human race. One, although he flood took place thousands of years ago, it is a one-time marker of the progress of events. Two, the sequence of descent and the lineage is carried unbroken till the time of the Mahabharata. Three, the Battle of Kurukshetra at the end of the Mahabharata is another time marker, indicating the commencement of the Kali Yuga (to be explained in Part 6). This date has been ascertained through interpreting the planetary configuration as given in the epic itself and corresponds to 3102 BC.
The date of the Battle of Kurukshetra, calculated as 3102 BC is considered by most scholars to be far too early for a number of reasons. First, there is no historical evidence to support this date and dynasties that only existed during the middle of the first millennium AD, when the compilation of the Puranas was complete, have been mentioned in the text. Further, both the epics provide valuable insights into the geographical, social, environmental and economic aspects of the time that does not coincide with the third millennium BC. This highlights a fundamental problem of early Indian history—it is impossible to ascertain any date and then corroborate it with other evidence, invariably there are discrepancies that seem impossible to reconcile.                 
The Epics
The Mahabharata and Ramayana are the two fundamental epics that have sustained, and continue to sustain Hinduism for the common people. The epics, although originating in some event in the past, are not accurate depictions of historical events but should be viewed with an intension of obtaining insights to understanding the past in an indicative manner. There are various dates that are assigned to both the epics, but it is perhaps safe to assume that they refer to events that took place between 750 BC and 500 AD. There are two commonalities in the stories brought out in the texts. First, both are about primogeniture and attempts to usurp kingdoms from the eldest son of the king and second, there is a retreat to exile in both cases of the legitimate heir to the throne.
Primogeniture—the concept by which the eldest son inherits all the lands, status and titles—during this period was highly qualified and the candidate needed to be physically and morally perfect, and also have the approval of peers to assume the kingship. However, it is clear that primogeniture influenced the succession and it was only at a later stage that the acceptance of a ‘divine’ lineage became the cardinal feature on which succession was based. It is also to be noted that during the age of the epics, the society was clan-based and the kingship could have been more in the mould of a Chief amongst equals who demanded and got clan-loyalty in return for protecting the geographical borders of the broader clan-holdings. There has been an interesting and pragmatic explanation given for the exile of the princes—exile was a process through which the clans resolved conflicts of interest that also permitted the deeper encroachment into the subcontinent, which was considered wilderness at that time, to ease the population pressures that would have become apparent. The two epics also provide a clear idea of the prerequisites for an area to become a state, it needed to have an asserted central authority and it was obligatory for the population to have social specialisation.
The Mahabharata
It is almost certain that the original event that was the seed for the epic was a localised feud between two elements within a clan. Over years of retelling the story, the bards included all the clans of the time into the culminating battle of the epic. The composition is attributed to Vyasa who also played a number of enigmatic roles in the epic itself. In its current form, it is no longer the story of a mere feud that led to war but a repository of other sub-stories and morals, some with no connection to the original core story, making it one of the longest single poems. There are also interpolations in the text, the Bhagawad Gita (the song celestial) being considered a later day injection into the text, done perhaps to give the Gita a contextual setting to reside.
The Gist of the Story: The core of the story is the rivalry between two sets of cousins of the Kuru clan, the Kauravas (hundred sons of Dhritarashtra) and the Pandavas (five sons of Pandu) set in and around the plains of Delhi. By primogeniture the eldest Pandava was to succeed to the throne of the Kuru territories because Dhritarashtra was blind and therefore unfit to rule, although the skin ailment of their own father Pandu made their claim uncertain. The culture was still that physical blemish was considered above primogeniture in deciding the succession of chiefs. In order to avoid conflict, Dhritarashtra divided the kingdom into two halves and let the Pandavas rule from Indraprasta (near Delhi). However, the Kauravas were not satisfied and they challenged the Pandavas to a gambling match, the latter staked their patrimony and their joint wife, lost, and were send into exile for thirteen years after which, as a compromise, their kingdom was to be returned. At the end of 13 years, the Kauravas refused to do so and the matter was settled in the Battle of Kurukshetra, which lasted for eighteen days and resulted in the annihilation of the Kauravas and many other clans. The Pandavas, after ruling for many years in peace and prosperity, renounced their kingship and retired to the Himalaya (the abode of the Gods) after installing a grandson on the throne.

 

The entire epic takes place within a clan based society with the scion and chief of the Yadava clan, Krishna, intervening in the action frequently as a mentor to the Pandavas. Krishna is also the mouthpiece for the Bhagawad Gita, and in Mahabharata is portrayed as aloof and formidable with a totally pragmatic approach to life—almost like an indictment of human frailty. The other aspect that Krishna’s intervention indicates is the supreme importance and centrality of clan loyalty prevalent at that time. [The Yadav clan is supposed to have migrated south from Mathura (situated between Delhi and Agra) and reference to them is patchy at best in the Puranas.] The Battle of Kurukshetra ended clan-based societies and saw the beginning of the rule of absolute monarchs, a tradition that continued for centuries thereafter. 
The Ramayana
The Ramayana, much shorter than the Mahabharata, is also an exaggerated version of a local internecine conflict and indicative of the expansion of the kingdoms of the Gangetic plains towards the Vindhya region. Kosala, the primary kingdom of the epic, is described to explain the sophistication of the emerging kingdoms and is reinforced by the terms gram and aranya being used to depict the developed kingdom and the wilderness respectively. Further, the refined people of the grams is contrasted with the rakshasas or demons who were the forest dwellers and tribes practicing what was perceived as a more primitive pattern of life. The transference of the battle further south into the Peninsula and beyond is believed to be the addition of later period editors, as is the description of the wealthy island, Lanka (erstwhile Ceylon and today’s Sri Lanka) and its addition into lore.    
The Nub of the Story: Rama, the heir to the throne of Kosala married Sita the Princess of Videha, but his stepmother wanted her son, Rama’s younger half-brother, to succeed to the throne. Through intrigue she managed to banish Rama for 14 years who went into exile with his wife and another younger half-brother Lakshmana (through another step mother) into the forests of the Peninsula. In the forest, Ravana, the demon King of Lanka abducted Sita. Rama raised an army with the help of Hanuman the leader of the monkeys, fought a fierce battle with Ravana and rescued Sita after killing him and destroying his army. Although Sita was forced to prove her innocence by undergoing a trial by fire, Rama and Sita were reunited, they returned to Kosala where Rama was crowned as king. He was a wise and just ruler whose reign has been mythologised as prosperous and utopian.  

 

The Ramayana today has many variations and versions, each providing different ethical messages. For example, in the Buddhist and Jain versions, Ram and Sita are depicted as brother and sister in keeping with the belief that sibling origin is the purest form of ancestry. Ramayana, much more than Mahabharata, travelled with the immigration of the people, reaching wherever Indian culture went and being interpreted by local people to confirm to their own societal norms. In this fashion the Ramayana has been used to express diverse cultures and provide credence to the local dynasty’s lineage.
A Comparative Analysis of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana
There is much in common to both the epics—both have undergone extensive revisions throughout their existence in the oral tradition and even after they were converted to written texts; the material in the poems cannot be verified and therefore, they cannot be considered sources that provide explanations of historical events; during the period of exile the heroes of both epics obtained new and powerful weapons (the obvious explanation is that these weapons were crafted from the exotic timber and other mineral resources that were indigenous to the wild areas that they were traversing); and the relationship between the epic heroes and the forest dwellers (rakshasas) were the same in both texts, that of a presumed pattern of colonisation or forced settlement.
There are also very noticeable differences between the two. The Mahabharata is centred on the Ganga-Yamuna doab and its core geography is limited to a small area. This is indicated by the division of the kingdom wherein the second capital of Indraprastha, which is stated as being located at the far boundary of the nation, is a mere 60 kilometres from Delhi. The description of the Mahabharata kingdom in terms of its exotic wealth and development can be attributed to the need to legitimise the ambitions of later-day empire builders. For example, the hugely popular TV serial of the 1980s, based on the Mahabharata, catered to the underlying conceits of the Indian public regarding the past, of a pan-Indian pre-history of unbelievable wealth and spectacular sophistication. Further, the Mahabharata is disjointed in certain segments and the narrative indicates that it was certainly compiled over the years by a number of independent bards/writers/priests.
The Ramayana, an epic legitimising monarchical rule, is a much simpler poem and written in a more elegant fashion. There is no proof that Ramayana preceded the Mahabharata, as is commonly believed, and in fact a great deal of circumstantial evidence points to this presumption being incorrect. The Ramayana is situated in the kingdom of Kosala in Eastern UP (middle Ganga region) with its capital Ayodhya located about 500 kilometres east of Hastinapura (the capital of the united Kuru kingdom of Mahabharata). Around 500 BC, the principality of Kashi (variously called Varansi and Benares) in the south was also absorbed into the Kosala clan holdings. [It was here in the 17th century that Tulsidas wrote the Hindi version of the Ramayana that continues to be the primary text of worship for the common man till today.] The Ramayana describes regions that were unknown in the Mahabharata period and while the region of exile in the Mahabharata revolved around the Ganga-Yamuna doab, the area of exile in the Ramayana ranges far into central and south India. There is also the manner in which both have been written—the Mahabharata is written in the past tense till the Kurukshetra war and thereafter in the future tense, which indicates that the war was a watershed moment in time when one era, Dvapara Yuga (the Second Age), ended and the Kali Yuga (the Black Age, still on-going) started. The Ramayana is a living document, so much so that in the 1990s it was the rallying cry of the Hinduism-based political party in India that subsequently won government. [The veneration of the Ramayana is also one of the fundamental reasons for the breakdown of religious harmony within India, personified by the demolition of a mosque in Ayodhya thought to be built over a temple that stood at the place of Ram’s birth, the single most debilitating blow ever to have fallen on India’s proud tradition of secularism.] It is apparent that the two epics have different celestial perspectives in contemporary belief.
There is one fundamental difference between the two epics that make them completely separate texts in their approach to life and demonstration of history. The Mahabharata is essentially a retrospective, something that celebrates a glorious past, something of a ‘last hurrah’, a swan-song of an old order based on clan-kinship, martial ethic and perceived morality. At the end of the Battle of Kurukshetra, the victor, the Pandava king Yudhistira, looks at the carnage and is completely overcome by remorse at the clans that have been destroyed and the kinsmen who have been killed; he decides to retire to the forest to atone, but is stopped by Krishna who states—that the king must rule, just as the warrior must fight, which is the way of Dharma (righteousness), the only quality that can give you final release. The Pandavas reign within the strict code of Dharma and Nyaya (justice), but with the death of Krishna, and the retirement of the Pandavas to the forest the end of the old order is complete. On the other hand, the Ramayana is decidedly foreword looking, and implies the formulations of new ideals. There is no place for remorse when Rama eventually regains his rightful throne, but instead there is celebration and the setting up of the utopian Rama-rajya (the kingdom of Rama), which continues to this day to be the Indian political dream, and evoked throughout the turbulent history of the subcontinent. [In contemporary India, politicians of all hues evoke the memory of the rule of Rama, pledging all kinds of uplifting and good deeds to the general public, if elected. The Hindu nationalist party has not been able to keep the concept as their particular inheritance.] Similarly, Ayodhya, not Hastinapura or Indraprastha (the capital of the undivided Kuru kingdom and the Pandavas kingdom respectively) has been considered the model capital in many subsequent state systems. [For example, Ayuthia, the pre-Bangkok capital of Thai kings is believed to replicate Rama’s Ayodhya; the first part of the name of the capital of the senior sultanate in Java, Ngajodya-karta is a Javanese adaptation of Ayodhya.]
The Ramayana is a much more polished poem and the concepts are more closely related to the ones espoused by later societies, although it is considered to be the older of the two. It is also considered the first literary composition, the adi-kavya (the first poem). Epic literature represents the description of ancient events that emphasise and demonstrate the good points in every culture. They were normally used to propagate the culture to the uninitiated. The theme of exile and a very broad geographical setting for the exile is almost always present because it represents continual migration and settlement, which was a part of normal life in the ancient times. [It has been opined that the sea was the geographic setting for the Odyssey (it represented the migratory movements from an island nation) much like the forests in the Indian context.]
In the course of time, all kinds of editors have converted these two fairly straightforward adventure stories of local feuds and wars into books of devotion, particularly the Ramayana. This poem now has the sanctity and authority of the New Testament for the Christians to millions of Hindus, with Rama having been elevated to a position of being an incarnation of the great god Vishnu, thus becoming a God himself. Religion, like everything else in the evolution of the human race, is also dynamic even though the antecedents can be traced to antiquity.                

About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Political and Defence Analyst specialising in military strategy, national security, and international politics. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

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