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On Itihasa, Historicity and Myth – a Dharmic view

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I came across an interesting passage in RM’s book Being Different which I thought was worth reproducing here. Being Different bookThe excerpt is from a section called “Itihasa Combines History, Myth and More” in the second chapter Yoga: Freedom from History. Many years ago, I read a few aphorisms by Sri Aurobindo which suggested, among other things, that Man has a tendency to make belief and faith contingent upon historicity. I understood only a fraction of their meaning, and it was only later when I came across the commentaries in the book On Thoughts and Aphorisms when I followed a little more. However, I was not yet aware of the importance that the subject of historicity received. Malhotra, having made a study of Sri Aurobindo’s writings and those of numerous others, has brought this aspect out well. This essay pulls many threads together and reading it helped me appreciate and contrast how historicity – in the religio-spiritual or cultural sense – is understood and perceived in the West, and in India. The difference is worth understanding, and gives me a clearer idea about dharmic culture.

The Aphorisms on Historicity by Sri Aurobindo

39. Strange! the Germans have disproved the existence of Christ; yet his crucifixion remains still a greater historic fact than the death of Caesar.

40. Sometimes one is led to think that only those things really matter which have never happened; for beside them most historic achievements seem almost pale and ineffective.

41. There are four very great events in history, the siege of Troy, the life and crucifixion of Christ, the exile of Krishna in Brindavun and the colloquy with Arjuna on the field of Kurukshetra. The siege of Troy created Hellas, the exile in Brindavun created devotional religion, (for before there was only meditation and worship,) Christ from his cross humanised Europe, the colloquy at Kurukshetra will yet liberate humanity. Yet it is said that none of these four events ever happened.

42. They say that the Gospels are forgeries and Krishna a creation of the poets. Thank God then for the forgeries and bow down before the creators.

Malhotra writes :

Itihasa Combines History, Myth and More

Dharma traditions deal with their past through ‘itihasa’, a Sanskrit term sometimes translated as ‘myth’ or simply ‘narrative’. It is important to clarify the use of the terms ‘history’ and ‘myth’ here. In the West, it is common to refer to stories such as those of Lord Krishna and Rama as ‘myths’. In popular parlance, the word ‘myth’ usually refers to that which is imaginary, fantastical, fictional, or even superstitious, primitive or false. What is significant is that it is viewed, at least in the West, as the opposite of truth. European scholars studying Greco-Roman classics and pre-Christian Europe created this normative category and used it to describe the narratives or claims of people and places that were colonized or that existed outside the perimeter of Christianity. The term ‘myth’ conjures up images of  magical gods, goddesses, spirits and demons of the sort one would find in an Indiana Jones movie or fantasy. These may be considered interesting or exotic or even beautiful, but they are not reliable accounts of the truth.

History versus Myth

The Western view that ‘history’ and ‘myth’ are mutually exclusive has its roots in Judeo-Christian conditioning. One of the letters to early Christian congregations in the New Testament asserts:

We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of His majesty’ (2 Peter 1:16). 1

Until the European Enlightenment, biblical literature was widely accepted as historical fact. Today, while biblical scholarship regards the Bible to be as much a repository of poetry, mythology, and social mores as scripture, those stories that are central to Christian dogma are held to be indisputable historical facts.

To a great many westerners, the religious narratives of other cultures are ‘myths’ (or, more politely put, ‘sacred stories’), whereas they regard their own narratives as historically true. The former are depicted as fantasies and often the basis of erroneous views. These other civilizations are believed to lack the West’s unbroken continuity with the past and ability to extend successfully into the future.

Formal education and even family upbringing in the West are fixated on installing a unique historical identity. This is especially true in the US, where there are thousands of historical societies specializing in all sorts of local histories. These are highly respected as civic organizations and receive massive amounts of public funding and tax exemption. Not only are the Founding Fathers in every child’s curriculum; the flag is venerated almost as if it were a deity, and there are formal rules on the proper way to fold and carry it. Of course, the dharma civilizations too have historical records, and Indians have a long tradition of historical memory – though the dharma is not contingent upon history. 2 The West, aware that literal history is not emphasized in dharmic cultures, continues to insist that the stories of India are entirely mythical with no historical substrate. For example, although the existence of the River Sarasvati – mentioned so prominently in the Vedas – is now established on the basis of satellite imagery and modern geology, and Lord Krishna’s city of Dvaraka has been discovered off the coast of Gujarat, the traditional accounts of India remain classified as myths in Western scholarship. 3 It is important to note that, while these discoveries are of some anthropological value, dharmic spiritual practices do not rely on them.

Ancient Dwarka, Dvarka, City of Krishna

A sketch of the ancient city of Dwarka being flooded


In dharmic civilizations, accounts of the past are not made through either myth or history exclusively. Rather, these categories are replaced by itihasa, which combines ‘purakalpa’ (past narrative) with words of advice regarding all aspects of life. Truth and not mere history is the concern of itihasa. Itihasa, together with the narrative texts known as the Puranas, combine history and myth, and their multiple perspectives make them more open than history. Truth is not dependent on history; rather, history is a manifestation of it. The dharmic relation between history and myth is thus not at all comparable to the Western relation between truth and fiction. Parables abound in dharmic scriptures, too, but these inspire by the lessons they teach and not by claims of being the exact records of historical events. Hindus participating in rituals in temples do, for the most part, follow a received and codified tradition, and a minority might believe in the narratives they celebrate as literally having happened. Most Hindus tend to view the historical events in their traditions in a fluid manner. History after all recurs in endless time cycles. However, Hindus recognize that history can be valuable to beginners on the spiritual journey (i.e., as a stage which they will, in time, supersede). The dharma practitioner who studies itihasa explicitly aspires to bring about a change within, emphasizing the virtues illustrated in the narratives and not the historical facts. Lord Rama and Lord Krishna are embodiments of bhavas (attitudes), and their historical significance is superseded by the values they convey. Sri Aurobindo explains the everpresent nature of the Indian narratives, which should not be seen as events in the past in physical space-time:

The Lila of the Gopis seems to be conceived as something which is always going on in a divine Gokul and which projected itself in an earthly Brindavan and can always be realized and its meaning made actual in the soul. 4

Yet Sri Aurobindo is convinced of the historicity of Krishna, while making clear that nothing is contingent on that historicity. Sri Aurobindo wrote on the historicity of Krishna and Jesus as follows:

The historicity of Krishna is of less spiritual importance and is not essential, but it has still a considerable value. It does not seem to me that there can be any reasonable doubt that Krishna the man was not a legend or a poetic invention but actually existed upon earth and played a part in the Indian past. Two facts emerge clearly, that he was regarded as an important spiritual figure, one whose spiritual illumination was recorded in one of the Upanishads, and that he was traditionally regarded as a divine man, one worshipped after his death as a deity; this is apart from the story in the Mahabharata and the Puranas. There is no reason to suppose that the connection of his name with the development of the Bhagavata religion, an important current in the stream of Indian spirituality, was founded on a mere legend or poetic invention. The Mahabharata is a poem and not history, but it is clearly a poem founded on a great historical event, traditionally preserved in memory. Some of the figures connected with it, Dhritar Parikshit, for instance, certainly existed and the story of the part played by Krishna as leader, warrior and statesman can be accepted as probable in itself and, to all appearance, founded on a tradition which can be given a historical value and has not the air of a myth or a sheer poetical invention. That is as much as can be positively said from the point of view of the theoretical reason as to the historic figure of them, but in my view there is much more than that in it and I have always regarded the incarnation as a fact and accepted the historicity of Krishna as I accept the historicity of Christ’ 5

Itihasa is also fundamentally pluralistic: there are usually a variety of versions. A remodelled account or a new version of a narrative does not nullify all others. There is no burning of old books to erase past versions. What gets rejected is simply ignored, possibly to be revived or revisited at a later time when it might again become contextually relevant. Hence, in India one finds ancient customs coexisting with those from later periods. An open past serves as a creative resource for future generations who might want to explore the roads not taken. The Western unfolding of history, on the other hand, does not have room for parallel streams, finding them threatening and hence believing it safer to display them in museums (i.e., not as living traditions but as dead ones). But collapsing all variations into a mono-history only produces a mono-culture. Such a lack of understanding and insight causes itihasa to get misconstrued as myth vis-à-vis some putative ‘reality’.6

The West demands that its myths be historicized so that they may be claimed as true. Indians do not carry the burden of history-centrism and so are under no pressure to present their myths as history.

There are multiple stakeholders who compete for their respective versions of history to prevail. Power is always at work in the construction of history. (History is written by the victors, as the popular adage goes.) More often than not, history is arbitrary in terms of what is included and what is not, what is emphasized, whose point of view is privileged, what values get superimposed, and so forth. In the West, a powerful apparatus and elaborate process have evolved to present history, and the transformation of Western myths into fact remains a major preoccupation of the Western humanities.7


The Western Gaze

There are no written records of the origin of the world, shrouded as it is in the haze of prehistory. Myths, however, recount what history cannot. Magda King, a contemporary thinker, writes:

The myth “hides”, puts in what never is in time, … gives a beginning to what has no beginning, and to what occurred “once upon a time” it gives a significance that is universal and contemporary. Myth uses fiction to convey truth. 8

Western scholars, unable to deal with the multiple renditions of itihasa, tend to categorize it all as myth, and myth alone. As noted earlier, their own myths are recounted as history. Indian spiritual texts are subject to interpretive methods which are entirely different from those used to study the tales of Jewish and Christian religions. For example, the West is studied using sociological methods and tools, whereas so-called primitive societies are studied primarily through anthropology and folklore; European and American social units are always described as communities, never tribes.

In both the religious and secular history of the West, major changes have generally involved violence. Every successive stage in evolution has viewed the previous one as threatening and therefore to be either completely consumed or violently eradicated. Hence, the modern era must be rid entirely of the previous medieval or primitive stages in order to establish itself and prevail. The result is an uneasy and inherently unstable synthesis.9

Western beliefs of superiority crystallized as a template of universal history; hence, the manifest destiny to lead and to ‘civilize’ or conquer others. No Indian jati (social group) sees its own past as the universal template through which all communities must pass. There is no Indian sense of manifest destiny to rule the world. There is no notion that the events and chronology of an Indian jati (Punjabi for instance) be the central drama and defining event for all the world’s communities. There has never been an Indian expansionism that would make the construction of history an important project the way it has been in the West.

The relationship between itihasa and history is far more complex and multilayered, and India’s traditional approach to change has never entailed the destruction or devaluation of past stages. All stages coexist in India and frequently intermingle.

Itihasa encompasses both history and myth. It is the repository of tales passed down from one generation to the next. The Indian epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, are outstanding examples of the genre and have been retold in hundreds of versions and variations. The very first ‘edition’ of the Mahabharata was a recording of an oral recitation by Vedavyasa, the guru and Vedic scribe of ancient times. The Indian storytelling tradition is truly interactive: the storyteller consults his audience about their preferences not only at the start but throughout the narration. An interlocutor speaking for the audience will specify an event, person or a moral or metaphysical topic around which the next round of stories should be woven. Wonder and wisdom cohabit happily with the past in a playful way. The retelling of what has once been heard many times before is never the same when repeated.

The precise story of Rama can never be reproduced, and each attempt involves a combination of reproduction (by supplier), re-narration (often interactive), and re-perception (by audience). Thus itihasa changes, evolves and adapts to circumstances as per the prevailing consensus.

British colonialists in India, however, translated itihasa as history so as to be able to fit India into their own account of world history in a subordinate position. The historian Ranajit Guha remarked that

in the West, state and historiography came to form the strategic alliance known as World-history … The control of the past is essential to that strategy…. More significantly, the story, as history, was dislodged from civil society and relocated in the state. 10

Indians gradually accepted being admitted into world history in this way, seeing it as a sign that they too had a past in the European sense. By becoming part of ‘world-history’, they hoped to make the transition from myth and fantasy to reason. Such confusion reveals this to be an act of epistemic violence, i.e., natives accepting and internalizing categories which are alien to their own traditions and which distort their cultures – just to mimic and impress the colonizers.



Notes / References :

  1. (The New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha: New Revised Standard Version, 2010).
  2. Ronald Inden wrote a book to illustrate that Indian history can be accurately discovered in reliable records. (Inden, Walters and Ali, Querying the Medieval: Texts and the History of Practices in South Asia, 2000)
  3. In contrast to the approach to Indian antiquity, the West has a well-established discipline of biblical archaeology in the academy, and in the popular imagination, history is propagated in such places as the History Channel on television. For decades, serious scholarship has been seeking physical evidence to match biblical references. In the West, this endeavour is highly respected, whereas in India comparable efforts tend to get dismissed as chauvinism.
  4. Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga, 1970: 425–27.
  5. Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga, 1970: 425–27.
  6. Raimundo Panikkar (1918–2010), a recognized authority on both Hindu traditions and Roman Catholic theology, provides a perspective on the relationship of time, history and culture different from that proposed in Judeo-Christian religions. The vision that a people has of its own history, argues Panikkar, suggests how their tradition understands their past and assimilates it into the present. But a people’s attitude to its history is determined less by written interpretations of that past than by their ways of life and how they relive or revisit it. India, for instance, has lived her memories of the past more through her epics than through the written records or documents of history. The lack of interest in literal historiography can be frustrating and upsetting to the Western mind. But the same Western mind, retorts Panikkar, fails to see that its own myths precisely are taken as history. (Panikkar 1979).
  7. An award-winning book, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong (Loewen 1995), gives numerous examples of outright fallacious history which is taught in US schools and accepted as true by the public, especially as it pertains to centuries of encounters with Native Americans and African–Americans.
  8. M. King 1964: 147
  9. An arguable exception would be the Western ‘stages’ of civilization, such as archaic, magical, primitive, traditional, medieval, modern, and so on. These may not even be accurate in understanding Europe, yet they are being universalized and applied to all other civilizations.India
    does not neatly fit into these stages; it always has had many of the qualities of all such stages. For instance, Auguste Comte’s Law of Three Stages of Knowledge states that knowledge in all branches necessarily passes through theological (animistic), philosophical (speculative) and scientific (‘positive’) stages. Each subsequent stage is superior, and old knowledge is always obsolete. He concludes that the West is ahead of, and superior to, all other civilizations. For more analysis, see the following article available on the Internet: ‘Word as Weapon: The Polemically Charged Use of Terminology in Euro-American Discourse on Hinduism‘ (Morales 2002)
  10. Guha 2002: 71-72).